Celebrating Global Running Day? Do it mindfully and you can change the world!

All the joy the world contains

Has come through wishing happiness for others.

All the misery the world contains

Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.

               ~Shantideva, 8th Century Buddhist Monk

The above verse is among my favorite teachings from Buddhist texts, because to me it summarizes the foundation of the religion itself, the lesson behind the Dalai Lama’s most popular quote, “My religion is kindness.”

One of the reasons I love this verse so much is that it highlights how personal intention manifests in the world. I realize that’s quite a generalization, but I also believe that each of us knows in our hearts that chasing after selfish endeavors almost always leads us farther from happiness, and doing good things for other people is one way to experience genuine joy.  Each moment of our existence is another opportunity to direct our intention one way or the other. When we are directed toward pleasure for ourselves, the long-term consequence is that we cut off genuine connection with the rest of the universe. We find happiness more and more difficult to attain, because true happiness comes from connecting, from our desire to enjoy communion with other individuals, with nature, with existence as a whole. When we disconnect ourselves from everything else, we become alienated from that which gives us life and love.

The solution to that suffering, as offered in the above verse by Shantideva, comes in “wishing happiness for others.” When our intention is to bring peace, ease, kindness, and gentleness to everyone else, we sow the seeds of happiness within ourselves. Think of the smiles of children and how contagious they are. Think of how it feels to witness others at their happiest moments. When we open ourselves to those experiences, we cultivate those seeds of happiness. We provide them with the water and sunlight that allows them to bloom.  In other words, we reap what we sow.

Somehow, cultivating the seeds of compassion has not become easier for us simple-minded human beings over the 13 centuries since Shantideva spontaneously (legend has it) recited his verse and then floated up into the ether. Thankfully, the advice he gave his fellow monks on how to let go of anger and focus on love, holds true to this day. The central element of Shantideva’s advice on how to practice the Six Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism – generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom – is mindfulness:

If, with mindfulness’ rope,

The elephant of mind is tethered all around,

Our fears will come to nothing,

Every virtue drop into our hands.

Think about everything that distracts us from being generous, disciplined, patient, and so on.  We are wired to be easily distracted – early humans never knew when a saber-toothed tiger was going to leap out and eat them, and our bodies and minds have developed a lot more slowly than our technology (there’s an app for that now). Shantideva compared the mind to an elephant – a five-ton beast that will f*** you up if you don’t figure out how to tame it. But tame the beast of mind and, in the words of Pema Chodron, “By gently returning to the present, gradually all our fears will come to nothing, every virtue drop into our hands. When mind calms down, everything seems workable.” Those distractions no longer wreak havoc with our basic goodness, and we are able to focus on what’s important – feelings of loving-kindness toward everyone.

What does any of this have to do with running? I’m glad you asked! Of course you knew I’d get here eventually. As many runners already understand, our sport is one that can support mindfulness organically. We run, we focus on our breath, we notice a thought or feeling, we come back to our focus on the breath, we look out for traffic or poison ivy, we come back to the breath, we feel a twinge of pain, we shift our focus to our form, we subtly change our form to ease the twinge, we come back to the breath…you get the picture.  When we run, we have the ability to nurture the potential for mindful attention that already exists within us. And the more we run with the intention of nurturing that mindfulness, the more natural it becomes. 

Pema Chodron says it (and so many other things) best: “This point is essential: mindfulness tethers the mind to the present. Initially this takes effort, but this effort is applied with a very light touch. It’s like brushing your teeth: you brush, you get distracted, and you just naturally come back. No big deal.” And when distractions are no big deal, are “workable”, we are no longer controlled by the stories we make up about them, no longer attached to thoughts about the past or future, we can be fully present. The saber-tooth tiger sits back on his branch, and we can focus our intentions back on love and compassion toward others. 

Most mindful running programs focus on how to make ourselves better runners. And there’s nothing wrong with that – becoming more efficient at running means we are becoming more fit, healthier, even more sane. With Dharma Running, I am simply asking runners to take their practiced mindfulness to the next level – to go from better runners to better people. And one way to do that, and to change the world for better, is by “wishing happiness for others.” 

What better time to test this out, to put mindfulness to work for the benefit of all beings, than Global Running Day, Wednesday, June 5? One way to do that is to make the object of our mindful meditation, rather than the breath, thoughts of love toward ourselves and others.  One of my favorite meditations, that I teach in Dharma Running workshops, is known as metta practice.  Metta is the Pali word for loving-kindness, or “friendliness”, which may be a better word to describe the open-to-others feeling associated with the practice. 

(Tired of reading? Watch/listen to the following guided meditation here.)

Typically, metta practice is done while sitting in meditation. While there are many versions of the meditation, the way I teach it begins with calming the mind and beginning to focus on the intention of wishing happiness for everyone in the world. Once the mind is calm, the meditator chooses someone who they find it easy to love unconditionally – a parent, child, pet, sometimes even herself. Not a lot of time is spent on choosing – simply the first loved one who pops into your mind will do.  I usually use the inbreath as a time to really bring that person to mind, and on the outbreath I think to myself, “May this person be happy,” while I also imagine love emanating from myself toward them. Many times I imagine loving feelings as bright light expanding from my heart center toward my loved one.

The practice continues this way for a few minutes, with attention growing to the bodily sensation of loving-kindness toward your chosen loved one. Really sense what it feels like to wish happiness for another – how and where does that feeling manifest in your body? Is it a warmth in your heart, a gentle sadness behind your eyes, or maybe a kind and protective feeling in your gut? Just notice what it really feels like to wish happiness for another.

Next our attention moves from that loved one to someone we might call “neutral” – this could be anyone you don’t naturally feel loving instincts toward, but for whom it should be easy to allow those feelings to arise. Maybe a cashier or someone else in the service industry who has helped you today. Maybe a teacher, coworker, someone you simply noticed in passing. Bring your wishes for happiness to this person as you visualize them before you. Again, really try to notice the felt sensation of your loving-kindness as you imagine it spreading to them.

After a few minutes of wishing happiness for your “neutral” person, we move on to someone with whom we may have difficulties – again this could be a coworker, a parent (or in-law!), or even someone who simply makes you cringe when you think of them – politicians are often an easy target. Our attention shifts to this person, and we make an effort to wish them happiness. Remember, you are simply desiring genuine happiness for this person – you don’t have to get too deeply into what that means, or you may find yourself easily distracted. Just continue to think “May they be happy,” while you visualize them before you. If this proves to be too challenging, it’s also ok to skip to the next step, but I challenge everyone to make an effort!

From this “difficult” person, we shift our attention outward, sometimes bringing all of the people we have imagined so far together in our mind’s eye, wishing happiness for all of them together. Slowly we expand the circle to include others – the people sitting next to us, other loved ones and neutral people, strangers outside the meditation hall, drivers passing by, people and animals across the city, country, world. We slowly expand our circle of loving-kindness to include the entire world and all beings on it. We then sit with this feeling for some time, wishing happiness for the world and for ourselves. We visualize peace, love, joy, ease, and simply sit with that sensation for a few more minutes. This is the whole of metta practice.

So how to bring this to our running??? It’s complicated enough to practice this on a meditation cushion or chair, much less while on the run, dodging branches, roots, pedestrians, cars, etc.  How do we maintain the concentration it takes to visualize these different people, wishing them all happiness, and doing it with each outbreath? I’ve thought about this quite a bit while running, and have tried to practice it in a similar way, but it doesn’t translate 100%. My breathing becomes too rapid, my footstrikes take away from the focus on the breath, and it’s difficult to visualize anyone in front of me while I’m on the run! So here’s what I suggest as a starting point for “metta running”:

Before heading out, maybe as part of your pre-run stretching routine, or simply for a moment or two before you start to run, close your eyes for a moment and focus in on your intention for this particular run. If you are in a good place mentally and emotionally to think about the happiness of others, great! If you notice that you are distracted or upset or simply don’t want to try this time, then think about something else – you’ll have other opportunities! If you have done the practice while sitting still once or twice or more, you will start to find it easier to tune into the intention of generating happiness, so don’t beat yourself up. 

Just before you start to run, bring to mind that person for whom you find it so easy to wish for happiness. Take a few deep breaths as you visualize them and repeat to yourself “May they be happy” with each outbreath. Give yourself anywhere from 3-10 breaths or more to really bring that person to mind.

Now, as you begin to run, continue to feel that sense of loving-kindness or friendliness emanate from you. I like to visualize the feeling as something that radiates downward from my feet as I breathe out, sending loving thoughts through the earth to my loved one. As the typical distractions of running occur, I gently bring my attention back to the feeling of love, of friendship, of sharing. And I run with this loved on in mind for several minutes, always bringing my attention back to “May they be happy.” 

See how this feels for a quarter mile.  Can you maintain that feeling for another half mile? A whole mile??? Can you almost feel the warmth spread from your heart, to your feet, into the earth and all around?  For as long as you can, continue to run mindfully this way. 

Maybe that’s all you do today. Maybe you save the “neutral” and “difficult” people for your next run, or for longer runs somewhere down the road. That’s ok – you’re “starting where you are” as Pema Chodron would say. But as your run ends, see how long you can maintain those wishes for happiness for others. See if you can continue to feel the sensation of friendliness as you return to interacting with others. See if you can touch back in to that feeling at times when you might start to feel impatient or frustrated with someone (grocery store lines and traffic are always good places for this practice)! And don’t forget to turn those feelings back on yourself – you deserve happiness too!

For Wednesday, Global Running Day, I hope some of you will take up the challenge of running to make the world a better place by focusing on the happiness of others. Trust me – you will feel a difference all day long. And if you take this practice beyond June 5 – you will find the world becoming a better place, simply because you have shifted your perspective.