Coaching for Warriors

“The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.”
— Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

In my graduate program at Naropa University, we did things a little bit differently.  I mean, the school was founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama, with help from the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and others, so what else would you expect?  We bowed to each other at the start of each class, we often sat on cushions instead of at desks for lectures, and we had an on-campus shrine room so we could meditate in our free time.  Don't get me wrong, Naropa holds its students to high academic standards, but the challenge to think outside the box is just as strong.

One of my favorite Naropa practices is the "Warrior Exam".  In addition to written final exams, some classes held exams "warrior style", with the teacher and student facing each other on cushions in the center of the classroom, all other students looking on.  For my M.Div. degree we participated in a Warrior Exam to which the entire community was invited.  Nerve-wracking stuff, to be sure, but there is an underlying wisdom and compassion to this practice.

The teacher in this setting can be an intimidating presence.  Many of my professors were also teachers in various Buddhist lineages who had been studying and practicing for decades longer than I had.  And of course self-doubt can creep in easily when you're eye to eye with someone who clearly knows more about the subject than you do.  But the goal of the teacher in this type of exam is not to trip you up, not to show what you don't know, but to compassionately help you tap into your inherent wisdom for the answers.

The basis for this practice is an understanding of "Buddha Nature", or the notion that each being holds within the seed of enlightenment, the capacity to wake up.  In the Shambhala lineage founded by Trungpa Rinpoche, this is also known as "basic goodness".  It is simply the nature of things - that any one of us can cultivate within ourselves the wisdom to become a Buddha; that in spite of the suffering we may experience all around, the potential for mindfulness, compassion, and joy is always there.

I don't mean to oversimplify this rather complex and sometimes controversial (especially in Western thought) idea, that some Naropa students spend an entire semester studying in depth.  If you want to know more about it, there are plenty of books by more scholarly folks than myself for you to read (click here to see some of them).  I wanted to write about the Warrior Exam and Buddha Nature because it is the foundation of the Dharma Running collaborative coaching philosophy.

Everything you need to be a great runner lies within you.  In fact, deep down you already know that or you wouldn't be looking for a running coach - you would just give up and maybe learn how to swim or something!  But instead you keep waking up early, lacing up those running shoes, heading out the door, and putting one foot in front of the other because of your own inherent wisdom, a faith in your own abilities.  Sure, you may find yourself hitting the snooze button from time to time, or holding back when you're sick or just plain exhausted, but that's wisdom too - if you are listening to your body, you know what's right for you.  You'll get back out there the next day!

My goal as a running coach is threefold:  First, I want to help my clients see what they already know, to bring out those natural abilities and create a plan to keep them in the foreground.  Second, I want to provide guidance on any adjustments that can be made to enhance those natural running skills.  We will look at training, nutrition, sleep, and other habits that can serve to either augment or diminish your inherent ability to run well.  Finally, we add mindfulness practices to the formula, making it easier (and more enjoyable) to stick with the plan (or to be ok with changing it up when the need arises), and providing you with the tools to hold yourself accountable.  Of course, I stick around to help you stay accountable, but again, what you need is already there. 

Each of us can be a running warrior.  We have what we need.  Training and practice are the tools to cultivate the seeds of our body's inherent wisdom, and to awaken the runner within.  Don't give up!

Where Does Mindfulness Begin?

Do a Google image search for “mindful running” (actually, I did it for you here) and you will be greeted by picture after picture of peaceful, happy folks trotting through beautiful scenery.  They jog up pristine mountain trails, plod through gorgeous redrock canyons, and scurry along sunlit beaches.  Sometimes they are alone, sometimes surrounded by other running models, and sometimes they even have their grinning dogs with them. 

None of this has anything to do with mindfulness.

Sure, these images paint a pretty nice picture of the peace and joy that mindfulness can bring over time to those with the luxury of deepening their practice to such a great extent.  And it can certainly garner click-throughs to websites that may offer something more substantial (maybe it even brought you to Dharma Running!), but there is an unconscious message in these images that I believe can be very damaging to the mindful running movement and to anyone who is interested in running and living more mindfully:  That you need peace and joy to find peace and joy. 

That all makes for nice marketing, but it is far from the truth.  In my experience, and in what I have heard and read from some of the most awakened teachers I know, a mindful life doesn’t require a run through the woods any more than it requires a shaved head, robes, and incense.  Sure, those things can certainly be excellent tools on your path to deeper awareness of yourself and the world, but to believe they are necessities actually misses the point of mindfulness altogether.

The real place where mindfulness is best practiced, the beginning of genuine awareness, is almost always on the edge of discomfort.  As someone who studied and practiced Buddhist meditation in the shadow of the pine-forested Rocky Mountains, I can attest to this first-hand.  It wasn’t until I moved back to Philadelphia after more than a decade away that the rubber hit the road, that I realized mindfulness means nothing if you can’t use it in the real world.  Who really needs mindfulness when you can watch beams of light shine through the aspens, or hear the birds singing joyfully, or feel and smell the fresh breeze that cools your sweaty brow as you zoom down the single-track?  I’ll tell you who – almost nobody!  Mindfulness is practically built in to situations like that!

No, when you really need mindfulness is when you are trying your damnedest to send your kids off to school so you can get in a lousy run before you need to leave for work.  You need mindfulness when it seems like you need to stop at every traffic light, or when you have almost been hit by three sidewalk cyclists in your first quarter mile.  You need mindfulness when it’s 85 and thick with humidity, and your legs do not seem to want to obey your brain.  You need mindfulness when 75 runners just passed you at the start of your race and you are trying not to feel like you’re faltering with each step forward. 

I mean, you don’t really need mindfulness in those moments, but it sure can help you be a better runner.  Just like you don’t need mindfulness when you’re feeling frustrated in the self-checkout line at the grocery store, or when you picked the wrong toll lane, or when you’re trying to get your kids off to school…but mindfulness can certainly give you the tools to handle those situations with more grace and happiness, less rage and frustration.

Mindfulness starts within, no matter what the brochure tells you.  And yes, it is sometimes easier to cultivate mindfulness on the trails or the beach, or from your mountain retreat center.  But most of us do not have that luxury – we want to begin our practice here and now.  We don’t need to put it off until we have the time or the space or the right frame of mind.  Cultivating mindfulness is about developing the right frame of mind, and there is no place or time to begin like here and now.  Take a breath, notice what comes up, and come back to your breath again.  Put one foot in front of the other, watch how the sunlight makes the dirty asphalt glimmer, listen to the beautiful sound of someone’s car alarm, feel the sweat start to pool in uncomfortable places, smell the…well, you get the picture.