Running is a monastery. That’s what fitness philosopher George Sheehan called it. He didn’t say what kind it ought to be, leaving each runner to build it in the style that speaks loudest to him or her. For many committed runners that’s going to be the thing that’s farthest away. For Western runners seeking guidance to the next level, once we’ve listened to the hallow ring of every contradicting set of directions in every local dialect, the East calls in a tongue that doesn’t give us tinnitus. We don’t know what the words mean. All the better; this makes for the sweetest interpretations. “Be a better runner. Go East.” That’s the gist of it. I heard the voice over twenty-three thousand miles ago. Before running, I knew nothing of Zen. Then came the books, the video courses and documentaries, the guided meditations, and podcasts by the score.
Twenty-three thousand miles ago! Probably more. Or approximately two thousand fewer miles than are measured in the Earth’s equator. That’s twenty-one years of running. Twenty-one years of studying Zen. Twenty-one years of mashing up the two. So, what’s the good news? What profound truths have I grasped along the way? Let me tell you all about it. Better yet, I’ll let Bodhidharma, Buddhism’s first Chinese master, tell it; he does it better. Asked by the Emperor Wu to hold forth about the merits of the Zen stuff he’d been teaching, he answered that it was, “All Emptiness. Nothing Holy.” Talk about a nothingburger!
So what had I been thinking? China isn’t Kenya. Japan isn’t Ethiopia. Even the Copper Canyons (where the Tarahumara sometimes run 50 miles a day) are in the Western hemisphere. I know Zen monks walk a lot, but do they even run? I was just another Westerner looking for an Eastern hack, a shortcut to take my running to the next level (so that after reveling for a minute in the joy of my arrival, I might begin to pine for the next level beyond that).
Here’s how it usually goes when a Western runner gets the Zen itch. We Google a few articles (21 years ago, we found books and magazines at a bookstore) that insist on smooshing modern Western performance running and the ancient practice of Zen together in a box, never mind that they’re very different animals. “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should,” was Ian Malcom’s warning minutes before the mashup of old and new that was Jurassic Park went off the rails. Next, armed with a few pithy Zen or Taoist quotes, and the thought that we ought to be in the moment and more mindful (whatever those things mean) we set off, like modern Marco Polos, along the Silk Road. We ditch the sports watch, forego the streamed music, soften the inner voice telling us to pick it up. We try to rise earlier. Try to get into the right headspace. Try to take our breakfast lighter and dress ourselves more deliberately. We try to transform our pre-run ritual into the perfect tea ceremony. When we finally get around to running, we try with all speed to get into the zone. We do what most Westerners do when we mean to get more Zen about anything: we TRY. And there’s the rub. Any deep dive into Zen reveals that if there’s one thing that kills Zen where it stands, it’s trying. Zen is nothing if not natural. Without affectation. Without self-consciousness.
Once we Westerners learn that trying isn’t Zen, what’s the next thing we do? We try not to try. We can’t help ourselves. It gets worse. If we’re dead set on getting Zen, we try not to try not to try. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, a-Zen! With each new effortwe dig a bigger hole that, however deep, is never coming out in China. By the time we get hip to our futility, we’re exhausted. The way we Westerners go about Zen, it becomes just another—albeit, more exotic—way for us to get in our own way.
So, if trying is toxic to Zen, can there be no Zen in our running? Are we Westerners stuck on the cosmic treadmill of becoming, going round and round forever but never arriving? The news isn’t good. If we’re trying for Zen, we’ll find none. Period. But the news isn’t all bad either. Discouraged by the paradox of trying to be Zen, we move on and forget about Zen altogether. That’s the most Zen thing we can do. It’s often quoted, by Zen writers, that, “Our everyday mind is our Zen mind.” It follows then that our everyday run is our Zen run. But again, we must forget the Zen part. There are countless Zen phrases to make this point; some strike us Westerners as sacrilegious, blasphemous. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” is one. We do well to forget we ever heard the word. Zen is a kind of scrub brush that once it’s scrubbed the mind clean must be tossed in the waste basket; the practitioner who continues to cling to the brush is said to, “stink of Zen.” (As if we runners didn’t already worry enough about stinking.) Indeed, a Zen Buddhist’s attitude to his “holy books” is best summarized by the Western expression, “burn after reading.” Remember, nothing holy, not in the words, not in the teachings. It’s considered a dirty business that the natural life energy described by the word Zen should ever need to be translated into words, concepts or, especially, a method. The problem isn’t with the content of any one set of directions, Western or Eastern. The problem is with directions.
We are never more (that word we must forget) than when, caught off guard by a fast-breaking thunderstorm, we are running to the shelter of our home or car. Do words like composure or relaxation come to mind when describing such moments? Certainly not, and this underscores another misapprehension of Zen (ok, we’ll try to forget the word after this article). Rather than meeting every challenge in life with blissed-out composure, responding to life’s slings and arrows in the most automatic and appropriate way (right action) is the essence of Zen. Our bodies carry the code of right action; it kicks in every time our sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Here’s how it works in a thunderstorm. We’re running. We see lightning. We hear thunder. We feel the wind bite. We know our car is safe. We make a run for it. Minutes later we press unlock on our key fob. We hear the affirming click. Safe in our car, the tension drains from our body, and we are a laughing Buddha. East or West, home’s best.
Our GPS watch records that we ran a six-minute mile pace fleeing the storm. We haven’t run that fast in years; we were sure we were no longer capable of it. How’d we do it? We weren’t trying to hit any kind of time; we didn’t once look at our watch. We didn’t check our running form. We didn’t count our steps for cadence. And we didn’t think of Zen. “Superior work,” the Western ambassador of Zen, Alan Watts, tells us, “has the quality of an accident.” The pace we ran—and the lack of conscious effort required to do it—with the lightning flashing all around us is the way we’d like Zen to work for us, whenever we ask it to. Except we can’t ask it. Zen is the lightning that can’t be bottled.
The fewer metathoughts (thoughts about thoughts) we have, the more Zen we are. Fretting about how badly we’re relaxing and how we ought to do better in the future is Zen’s opposite. Fretting about fretting is worse still. Being grumpy over an uncomfortable stretch in a run is realistic, and natural. Rough spots come and go. Being even grumpier because we got grumpy in the first place is a burdensome overlay, a brain state that may persist even after our body has begun feeling better. Thinking consumes energy in the form of calories, something we need to fuel our running muscles. Negative self-talk is, literally, a brain drain; it’s nothing less than carrying on a hot argument while running. This is all bioenergetic, homeostatic ballast we should cast overboard. Summed up in running coach Matt Fitzgerald’s Western drawl, “The more you think about something while you do it, the less efficiently you do it.”
Western runners and Eastern Zen monastics have more in common than we at first realize. Our learning curves are not unalike. We are wisest at both the outset and, if we stay with it long enough, nearer the terminus of our careers. In the words of Zen Master Dogen, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.” The runner’s journey begins with his doing nothing more complicated than putting one foot in front of the other. Then comes all the trying, the years and decades of trying: training programs, performance diets, minimalist and maximalist footwear, biomechanical tweaks, you name it. Then, if he isn’t put off by all the trying, he returns, with a kind of Taoist resignation, to putting one foot in front of the other. Except that now there’s a difference. What Dogen didn’t say about enlightenment, Zen author D.T. Suzuki did: “It’s just like ordinary everyday experience but about two inches off the ground.” Does this elevated feeling translate to faster running? It might. But let’s be honest. It usually doesn’t. That’s not the point. As ultra-running popularizer and notoriously joyful runner Dean Karnazes points out in a 2021 Trail Runner Nation podcast, the best runner is not necessarily the fastest runner, but she is necessarily the happiest. The contentment is the two inches off the ground. But if we insist on calling it Zen,the bubble is burst, and we fall back to earth.
This isn’t to say that all the try sandwiched between the happy was wasted effort. If there was anything to be gained by it, best believe our body—ever on the lookout for the most efficient way—osmosed the lesson. “Once [the brain] learns something, it knows,” says Dr. Joe Uhan of Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon. Just as our body knows to breath, circulate blood and digest food without our conscious intervention, it figures how best to run while our conscious mind is off doing its thing and just letting us run. Once our muscle memory adopts a pattern it finds useful, further retention of it in our conscious memory isn’t just redundant but increases the probability that a destructive interference pattern will arise. This gives deeper meaning to a quote attributed to Ingrid Bergman: “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” So, the next time a master of anything claims to have forgotten more than you’ll ever know, consider that they may have just given away their most precious secret.