The runner's high and spiritual awakening

I recently read a scholarly paper that referenced Arne Dietrich’s 2003 “Functional Neuroanatomy of Altered States of Consciousness: The Transient Hypofrontality Hypothesis,” and I realized what a terrible blog post it would make.  There are literally four or five words in the title alone that I would need to look up in a dictionary before getting any further!  But there IS something that stood out to me among the (very few) notions I could actually understand from the article:

 “[A] capacity for running also apparently contributed to the emergence of spiritual experiences, a by-product of the capacity of long-distance running to alter consciousness.  This is recognized in the “runner's high," which has features typical of mystical experiences, including: positive emotions such as happiness, joy and elation; a sense of inner peacefulness and harmony; a sense of timelessness and cosmic unity; and a connection of oneself with nature and the Universe.”

 In layperson’s terms, Dietrich is basically stating that if we run long enough, and push our bodies to (and through) our known limits, we can actually alter our current experience and how our brains perceive the world around us.

 Of course, for me, this concept incited numerous questions and possibilities in itself:

Could running be a vehicle for entry into the mystical realms?  Are runners the shamans and witch doctors of a new age?  Am I taking crazy pills or having some kind of flashback? (Probably, but I digress…)

These are the questions that have kept me awake at night. And it’s these types of questions for which I hope to provide some insight, for others seeking to find deeper meaning in their running, as I continue to do.  

 Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying put myself out there as some kind of awakened mystic – if you asked my wife and kids, they’d confirm for you that I’m just as ignorant and unenlightened as the next dude who just happens to own a pair of running shoes.  With that said, I have been fortunate enough over the years to have been able to  study actual enlightened individuals and their teachings; I’ve also been fortunate enough to be able to run  multiple marathons and ultras… So I’m going to continue in that fortuitous vein and ramble on about this notion of enlightenment and the runners high for those who choose to read.  So bear with me…

 I consider myself very lucky to have had more than one experience that has altered the way I view the world in a way that makes me a more compassionate and understanding — and less intolerant — person.  One of those experiences in particular stands out to me as a seismic shift in my worldview. The experience is one that changed the course of my trajectory and brought me to where I am today.  Recently looking back on that experience, I realized that my state of mind was almost identical to its state at the end of an extra long run, when I am physically spent and spiritually open to the universe.  It’s a unique state of mind where I feel a dropping away of all the layers of crap that have built up around my soul, where I can see things as they really are, without the filters of my experience and preconceived ideas.One of the first times I had this feeling was in my 20s:

 It was back in the mid-90s. I was a young, but very clean-cut hippie working for the Utah Rivers Council, a small conservation group working to protect — you guessed it — the rivers of Utah.  We had tasked ourselves with stopping unnecessary dam construction to keep the pristine waterways of the Beehive State wild and free, and we had been very successful in an extremely construction-friendly environment.  Not only had we been instrumental in passing the “Utah Clean Water Act of 1998”, but we had also just won a huge victory for taxpayers and nature lovers, by stopping the proposed construction of a dam in along the Diamond Fork Creek – a beautiful canyon that was home to a scenic and popular hot springs.

 Our work to stop the project, which would have cost Salt Lake City taxpayers millions to divert water to central Utah ranchers to water alfalfa for their cattle, was long and hard, but we were elated by our success.  The proposed dam was scrapped, and less expensive and environmentally destructive alternatives were being looked at to keep the ranchers and their cattle happy and well-fed.  As part of the public education process about alternatives to the dam, I was invited to attend a tour of Diamond Fork Canyon with the water district and the ranchers we had opposed for so long.  This is where it gets fun (for me,not you. I already know what happens but you still have to read this…).

 It was a late summer day when the tour was to take place.  I drove alone from Salt Lake City to Spanish Fork, about an hour away, to meet up with my rancher “friends” and start the tour.  Over the course of the hour, I thought about what it would be like to spend my day with a bunch of Utah ranchers who probably disliked me as much as I did them, for the type of work I did.  I thought about how alone I’d feel with these folks in their cowboy hats and boots, how out of place I would be following their massive pickups up the canyon in my Subaru wagon.  I spent most of the hour-long drive separating myself in my mind from these guys, thinking about the ways I was different from them.  I built up such an image of the division in my mind, that by the time I reached the meeting point, I had decided to skip the meeting entirely, and I drove right past.

 I resolutely decided that instead of spending my day with a bunch of “jerks” who hated me, with whom I had absolutely nothing in common, I would drive right up the canyon, hike to the hot springs, and enjoy myself.  I’d brought along a lunch and some light reading (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, of course), and felt like I’d earned a nice warm soak in the hot springs. I parked my car, grabbed my rucksack, and started up the trail to the springs.

 It was a beautiful day; it was about 10 AM when I started the 20 minute hike to the hot springs.  I remember passing a small group of people on my way in, but when I got to the springs, nobody else was around.  The hot springs themselves were beautiful – several roughly formed pools ringed by rocks that kept the naturally heated water in place and at different temperatures.  The creek flowed by gently next to the pools. Upstream about 20 yards, it tumbled over a small falls about eight feet high that you could actually sit behind and watch the wide ribbon of water fall through the air.  I took out my book, waded into one of the hot pools, and immediately relaxed. 

 I still remember the next two hours as one of the most peaceful times I’ve ever experienced.  The sky was blue, the trees were still green despite the changing seasons, the air was just crisp enough to make everything stand out, and I simply melted into the water.  I felt no guilt over skipping out on the tour (but to be fair, my work ethic has always been a little questionable). I enjoyed myself sitting in the various pools, listening to the creek, cooling off in the waterfall, and just letting a meditative bliss wash over me.  I spent a little time reading, a little time eating my lunch, a little time sleeping, and after awhile decided it was time to head back down the canyon and return to Salt Lake.

 And of course…this is where things became interesting for me.  As I neared the mouth of the canyon, I looked over at the opposite bank of the creek and saw a mid-sized group of guys with a group of mid-sized pickup trucks — it was the tour I’d skipped and the ranchers I’d so despised and demonized in my mind.  At first, I didn’t notice anything special about the group. I remember seeing them sitting on the beds of their trucks, on the bank of the creek, talking to each other and eating their lunch.  I wanted to categorize the image I saw under “enemy” in my mind, but something wouldn’t allow me to do that. 

 Something about my state of mind in that moment would not let me hate.  I couldn’t dredge up a feeling of dislike for the people I was looking at.  All at once, any enmity I felt toward this group of individuals, toward anyone for that matter, dissolved.  It was replaced by something warm, a feeling of understanding, of connection.  I imagined these men waking up in the morning, kissing their wives and children, grabbing those lunches they were now chowing down on, and heading out the door to go on this tour.  I could see inside them as a group of humans– inside to the very center of their beings.  And what I saw shocked me – it was no different from what I experienced in my own heart and soul.  I suddenly realized that nothing separated me from the cattle ranchers; nothing made their experience of life, their worldview, any less valid than mine.  I realized that my motivation and theirs were identical. We were all striving for happiness and fulfillment in the ways we’d learned through nature and nurture, and that to any of us, beyond even the group of ranchers and extending to everyone else on Earth, that desire for happiness and fulfillment was our greatest motivator.  What I experienced was a sudden awakening, satori in Zen terms. It was a sense of unity and interconnection with all beings and an understanding that altered my own worldview. 

 William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, set forth four defining qualities of mystical experiences:

 1.      Ineffability. According to James the mystical experience "defies expression, that no adequate report of its content can be given in words".

2.      Noetic quality. Mystics stress that their experiences give them "insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect." James referred to this as the "noetic" (or intellectual) "quality" of the mystical.

3.      Transiency. James notes that most mystical experiences have a short occurrence, but their effect persists.

4.      Passivity. According to James, mystics come to their peak experience not as active seekers, but as passive recipients.

 I’m not sure that I considered my glimpse of what I now believe to be an ultimate truth that day to be a mystical experience, but I know that it fits the bill according to James.  Even though I’ve written about it here, I know that the words I have used do not come close to encapsulating the effect that the moment had on me.  Striking me from out of the blue, my experience was certainly passive, and while I can’t quite touch the experience now, it changed me permanently.  I consider it a gift from the hot springs.

 My brief glimpse was more than 20 years ago, and I have had few similar mystical moments in the time since then; the closest I have come to the same ineffable feeling has been during and after extremely long runs.  The focus on breathing, the repetitive nature of placing one foot in front of the other for hours on end, the wearing down of body and mind, and the fact that all of this is often done in the great outdoors, bring me into a similar state of vulnerability and openness to my experience, without the usual filters. 

 I most recently entered this state around mile 38 of the JFK 50 Miler, somewhere along the Potomac River.  I’d been running for more than 7 hours and was nearly asleep on my feet.  Literally.  I was having a hard time keeping my right eye open in particular, but I told myself to push through to the next aid station, which wasn’t very far ahead. I kept up hope for a second (or third, or maybe tenth by that point) wind.  I reached that aid station, chugged a couple of flat sodas, and continued on, somehow still running at a decent pace.  Surprising myself more than anyone (my first words across the finish line were “Holy Shit!”), I run-walked the final 12 miles and finished the damn thing! 

 The euphoria and openness to experience that followed reminded me a lot of that hot springs experience.  Everywhere I turned I saw beauty, connection, love.  I stayed at the finish line and cheered on my fellow runners as they came into view.  I felt a deep kinship with them, the spectators, the volunteers, the cops blocking off the road.  I looked up at the sky and in my mind’s eye, if not in reality, I saw beams of light streaming from the heavens.  Everything around me was perfect, just as it was. 

 It took me back to that place of realizing that, at our core, we are all just doing the best we can to get by in life. To meet our goals for our current season in our lives, whatever that may be. For me, in that moment, getting by meant running 50 miles. For someone else, the goal might be a half marathon, or a 5k. For the cops blocking off the road for the race, the goal was to keep runners safe and traffic moving. Then, of course, there are those individuals where their only goal is simply to get up in the morning and make it through the day. We are still all connected. That revelation of connectedness was my runners high.

 Running pushes us. It exhausts our resources and helps us realize that the strength for one more step comes not only from within, but also from pulling from every person and resource we’ve ever encountered in life. And when the steps keep coming, regardless of our preconceived notions of limits and the world around us, perhaps THAT is what we call our runners high. It’s realizing that we are greater than we realize, but there is always something going on that is greater than us… and that something demands brokenness and vulnerability, as well as openness and understanding and compassion, for ourselves and the world around us. It’s the kind of brokenness and vulnerability that connects us in a powerful way to nature and the universe around us, in a way that is not often encountered in every day life.