I was a born power walker. With long legs and an East Coast sense of urgency, walking fast came naturally. It was my exercise of choice, preferred mode of transportation, and an early foray into meditation.
The year I moved to Boston, I must have logged 1000 miles walking around what I came to know as the Charles River treadmill. The wind in my hair, the chop of the water, the intersection of Boston and Cambridge, and the energy of the other people – walking was exhilarating. Yet something was missing. I longed to run.
I ran in high school but never well. On the track team, there were two options: long, slow distance or short, fast sprints. I had neither the lithe physique that lends itself to mile after mile nor the thick muscular set that could set the school record for the 100-yard dash. The category in which I would have excelled – slow, short distance – did not exist.
Since my inglorious high school track days, I gave running a try once or twice but it never stuck. I always started off way too fast and burned out before I’d gotten far. This was discouraging and physically painful and inevitably cut short any long-term change.
My memory of running was one of discomfort and inadequacy. I couldn’t run fast or far so I wondered ‘why bother?’ Yet, as runners passed me on my daily walks, I yearned to follow them…to break free of what had become a predictable stride and risk falling, failing, or simply looking stupid.
About 2 years ago (during my second year of not drinking), I decided to give running another chance. At first, I could barely run a mile, and that was on a treadmill, notoriously easier than pounding the pavement.
It was the middle of July and Boston was sweltering (in retrospect, starting to run at that time of year seems analogous to quitting drinking right before the December holidays, but you have to start somewhere, right?). When I tried running around my beloved Charles River loop, I was dripping with sweat and wheezing like an asthmatic before reaching the Arthur Fiedler head, not more than half a mile out. Once I couldn’t run any further, I stopped to walk and catch my breath. After a few minutes, I began to run again and tried to make it to the next milestone.
This went on for months. Run, walk, run, walk, run, walk. In time, I could run to more distant milestones before needing to stop and walk – the boathouse, then the softball fields, then the Museum of Science.
Sometimes I got cocky or elated and ran so fast so I had to stop after just a few minutes. Other times my legs felt so wooden and heavy, I walked more than I ran. Occasionally, running felt effortless, poignant, and meaningful.
Running this time around was different than previous attempts. Whereas in the past I was acutely aware of being the slowest, this time I focused on the fact that I was running at all. I developed a curiosity about the experience, what emotions it brought up and how I felt before, during, and after a run. I realized that slowing down allowed me to go further, continuously, and to gradually work up to a faster pace and longer distance. By focusing inward, I began to view each step as a choice.
This is how running prepared me for meditation. Choosing to do something that is inherently uncomfortable and at the same time challenging and rewarding is intriguing. Practicing such discipline, even when it isn’t convenient, particularly good, or fun requires staying in the moment.
Much like I choose to put one foot in front of the other while running, in meditation I choose to focus on one breath and then another. The pleasure of hitting my stride and feeling like I could go forever is very similar to how I feel when meditating (at least sometimes).
I’m still a very (read: VERY) slow runner. For every 300 runners who pass me along the Charles, I might pass 1 person, but he’s usually tying his shoelaces…or he’s a statue. The first mile is almost always uncomfortable. But once it’s behind me, something shifts and some space opens up. My breathing settles down, my legs remember what they’re supposed to do, and I loosen up physically and mentally.
The running journey, like the meditation journey, continues to be a choice – one step (and breath) at a time.