Slow down the storyline, not necessarily your pace!

Many running coaches, including me, preach the gospel of “Speed builds endurance, endurance builds speed.”  In other words, as you build your endurance with long, conversational pace runs, you will likely be able to go faster in your shorter runs.  And if you include speed work in your training, your LSD (long, slow distance) runs will become easier.  It may seem counterintuitive at first, but slowing down may actually speed you up. On the flip side of that coin, speeding up can slow you down.

 I am a full-on child of the 1980’s, so thoughts about speed and time always bring me back to an episode of the PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The original series, created by all-around brilliant and amazing science guy Carl Sagan (he really deserves his own holiday for blowing the minds of a generation), launched in 1980 and cultivated an intense curiosity about the universe in at least one 12-year-old kid.  One episode in particular (Episode 8: “Journeys in Space and Time”) has stayed with me for all these years, in which Sagan explains how traveling at the speed of light would slow down time for the traveler, meaning that no matter their physical destination, they would show up in the “future”.  In other words, time would slow down for them, but not for the rest of the universe, resulting in a form of “time travel” to the future. 

I’m no scientist, so what I’m about to write has no basis whatsoever in fact, but that’s not going to stop me from pretending it does.  My thought process goes this way:  If traveling at the speed of light slows down time a lot, shouldn’t traveling slower than the speed of light slow down time at least a little bit?  This would help explain how running helps slow down the aging process, right?  I run, therefore I age slower than others, even if it’s extremely subtle and barely noticeable.  Is that how physics works?  I’ve always been more interested in metaphysics.

Many runners know what I’m talking about.  Running fast (relatively) can slow things down.  It can give the runner a different perspective on post-run life.  Part of that simply has to do with making time for ourselves to engage in physical activity.  Part of it has to do with the naturally heightened awareness of body and mind that comes from the act of running itself – the repetitive motion, focus on the breathing and bodily sensations, and need to stay in the present moment that welcome mindfulness even when we may not be aiming for it.  And when we bring meditation to our running, we can develop that awareness even more fully - we can begin to examine our feelings, thoughts, and impulses in more depth.  We can better understand their foundation and change the way we respond to them, or at least offer ourselves the choice to change or not, rather than being driven by impulse and habit.

Deep awareness of the process out of which our feelings turn into consciousness is a major step on the path to enlightenment, at least in terms of the Buddhist teachings.  And because Buddhism is way more analytical and detail-oriented than many self-help “mindfulness” gurus would lead you to believe, Buddhists have a handy-dandy list that explains how this process leads us to the illusion of and attachment to a fixed “self”, and from there to the cycle of dissatisfaction from which we struggle to extricate ourselves.  This list is known as the five skandhas (that means “heaps” in Sanskrit, but you will not be quizzed), and here they are:

1.  Form.  This is our direct experience of the outside world – what I like to call “stuff that happens”.  Of course, our limited senses immediately validate for us the separation of self and other.  Put another way, this is the first filter between direct experience and reality – it’s like yellow-colored lenses that tell us the sky is green and that red is orange.  What we think of as an objective point of view is already skewed by the limits of our sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

2.  Feeling.  Next, we take that experience and rush to judgment about it.  We immediately attach a “feeling” to our experience and decide whether it is one we like (positive), one we don’t like (negative), or one we don’t really care about either way (neutral).  You can start to see a story forming around the “stuff that happens”.

3.  Impulse.  We further solidify the illusion of self and other by placing a false perspective around our experience, embracing that which solidifies the sense of self, avoiding that which threatens it, or ignoring what does neither.  This is where the simple “feeling” from the last step turns into an “attitude” toward the experience, and we start the process of consciously labeling it as good, bad, or indifferent.  Our storyline develops further as we begin to contextualize our experience based on previous experiences.

4.  Mental formations.  Now we’re really getting into the nitty-gritty of putting together our story!  We start to attach labels, opinions, prejudices, thoughts, ideas, interpretations, rationalizations, to our experience.  We are really on a roll here as far as separating ourselves from genuine understanding, which leads us to…

5.  Consciousness.  Here’s where we put the finishing touches on our current chapter, put down our pen, close the book, and put it on the shelf, where it becomes part of our identity.  The story we have just written wraps back around to flavor every future experience, in an endless cycle. 

This process takes place every second, as long as we are alive and sensing the outside world.  For a runner, it may go something like this:

 1.  Out for a run, I step off the sidewalk a little too hard and have a momentary twinge of pain in my left knee.

2.  I don’t like that feeling.

3.  I DON’T LIKE THAT FEELING AT ALL!  It hurts and it kind of reminds me of the sensation I had last year before I was laid up for a month.

4.  DAMN THIS KNEE PAIN! WHY DOES THIS ALWAYS HAPPEN TO ME? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? I MUST BE GETTING OLD AND PROBABLY WON’T BE ABLE TO RUN FOR MUCH LONGER.  I SEE A KNEE REPLACEMENT IN MY FUTURE AND MIGHT AS WELL HANG UP MY RUNNING SHOES TODAY.  I SHOULDN’T HAVE EVEN RUN TODAY – WHAT AN IDIOT!  FML!

5.   I USED TO BE A RUNNER, BUT NO LONGER. NOW I AM A GUY WHO USED TO RUN AND I NEED TO RETHINK MY ENTIRE LIFE.  I QUESTION MY VALUES, MY OWN DRIVE IS DEAD.  GUESS I’LL JUST SIT ON THE COUCH AND WATCH JUDGE JUDY – THAT’S WHO I AM NOW.

Maybe it’s easy to see the value in slowing down this process, in creating some slight gaps between skandhas, where we have an opportunity to put things into perspective and make more informed and compassionate decisions about what’s next.  This is where mindfulness comes in.  When we spend time in meditation, whether on a cushion or on the run, noticing our minds, our thoughts, and our feelings as they arise, we can bring our attention to more and more subtle moments within the process of thinking and feeling.  We can train ourselves to slow down the progression of the five skandhas and break free from the storyline before it carries us away.

I experienced this myself while on a month-long Zen retreat that was part of my graduate school education.  My fellow retreatants and I would spend two of our twelve hours a day of meditation outside, sitting in the New Mexico summer sun, where we would sweat and grumble and attract flies that would buzz around and sometimes land on us.  In the first days of the retreat, when a fly landed on my arm or hand or face, I would simply brush it away, reacting instantaneously to the storyline, simple as it may be, that “flies are bad.” 

After a few weeks of daily meditation, though, the process of the skandhas began to slow down and gaps began to present themselves in the storyline about flies.  I became more curious about my relationship to the flies that were landing on me and what would happen if I left them alone.  (I suppose personal hygiene wasn’t on my mind – I only showered three times that month.)  Soon I’d feel a fly land on my arm and before the skandhas could do their thing I would simply notice it walking up my arm and flying off, no harm done.  Once, a fly even landed on my face, crawled up my nostril, back out, and flew off, while I sat there observing and not reacting!

Just as much as sitting meditation can help train the mind to slow down and allow for gaps in the story-making process, so can running mindfully.  Shifting our focus while running from whatever pops into our minds to a specific object of meditation – breathing, cadence, posture – and bringing that focus back again and again while we run, teaches us to slow down the process and not react in habitual ways.  And of course runners know that training at something is what makes us better at it – so train in mindfulness on the run and you will become more mindful minute by minute throughout the day.  You can create gaps in the storyline that leads to suffering and bring more joy to the world!  Namaste.