What I Think About When I Think About Running
I love running, I love meditation. In this blog I’m exploring how the two fit together.
#5 Drunk Crazy Monkeys (mind wandering) + My Marathon Run
July 24, 2021 — I finished my marathon! All of the races up here in the north were canceled and so I ran my own. Overall it was great. Some piercing ankle and hip pains in the last stretch. I finished at a small beach sitting at the tip of the largest fresh water lake in the largest fresh water island in the world. It was a hot sunny day and I jumped in. Mollie picked me up and drove me home. What better?
In meditation as in running we are alone with our thoughts — the ones we willingly conjure and the ones that appear as if from nowhere, demanding our attention, often stealing it away for seconds, minutes or hours at a time.
One of my favourite descriptions of the phenomena is by psycho-oncologist Michael Speca, who along with Linda Carlson at the University of Calgary in Canada pioneered the application of mindfulness in cancer care. Ground breaking work. At the time, we were in a studio recording a mindfulness based cancer program together and I burst out laughing as Michael spoke.
You know many people have heard this phrase the monkey mind. The idea is that the untrained mind is very much like a monkey jumping from branch to branch. And I’ve heard it described as like a crazy monkey — not just even a normal monkey — a crazy monkey. And I’ve heard it said a drunk, crazy monkey. Yeah, so our mind is often so undisciplined and gets us in so much trouble.
I noticed a few things as I trained and logged my mind wandering.
- The first is that thoughts have momentum. For me, the more that emotion was embedded in my thinking — for example anger — the more I was liable to fall into complete distraction, and the harder it was for me to return my focus to the present moment. I just got carried away. Like being on a runaway train or being dragged away by a pack of wild horses.
- The second is related to the first. Once a strong emotion had expressed itself in my thinking — for example joy — the more likely I was to continue to experience that emotion in subsequent, unrelated thoughts — whether it was about work, a relationship or myself. It’s as if the emotion was being drawn from a deeper well and its articulation in my conscious mind almost beside the point.
This is a phenomena that I’ve termed the reincarnation of emotion. The idea here is that our emotions have presence and trajectory — rhythms and lives of their own — and infuse our conscious thinking with nuance and context often without our knowledge or consent. As one thought passes to give way to another, the emotional tenor of that thinking remains the same.
The practice of mindfulness is in great part the practice of bringing awareness to our patterns of thoughts and emotions. As the 13th century scholar and Sufi mystic Rumi writes in his poem in Guest House, “Welcome and entertain them all!”
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
A more modern but no less wise perspective comes from Norm Farb, a bright and generous psychologist at the University of Toronto who describes the practice of ‘thinking about thinking’ in more scientific terms including metacognition, metacognitive awareness, decentering and cognitive diffusion.
“That you are able to see thoughts playing out as opposed to ‘being the thought’ is a requisite for metacognitive awareness, a twin skill that supports emotional resilience — the other being equanimity or stress tolerance,” he says.
These two skills tend to go together, says Norm, because it’s hard to develop metacognitive awareness without having the right attitude.
“Learning to think skillfully about thinking and to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts is the recipe for insight — the moment where there is the opportunity to change a pre-existing pattern.”
Which brings me back to running, which I’m beginning to understand as a truly beautiful and rewarding form of ‘meditation’.
The moments of flow I experienced while running were exactly that — a combination of attitudes (non judgement and kindness) alongside the awareness of my body and mind working as one, travelling through time and space, one foot after the other.
The insights and benefits that running has offered up to me through my training continue to inform my life every day. These include discipline and time management; experiencing pain with dispassion; observing thoughts and emotions without being swept away by them. And learning to savour each moment, even the hard ones.
In the next and final post, I’ll wrap up with the help of Murakami and share a summary of my run training data, including meditation minutes and outcomes.