Running In The Stream

It’s been awhile since I rapped at ya, and I’ve been meditating for longer periods of time, which usually results in blog post ideas popping into my head (not to mention knee problems).  So here I am with today’s topic: What is this karma thing Buddhists like to talk about, and what does it have to do with my running???

The foundation of my meditation practice, and really the first practice I learned (and where I start teaching), is called shamatha, which is Sanskrit for “calm abiding”.  This is a practice of settling the body and mind in order to get a birds-eye view of our thoughts, feelings, emotions as they arise into our consciousness.  When we are new to meditation, this is when we usually notice just how chaotic and crazy our minds are, and often when we give up, simply because the notion of sitting peacefully with our minds makes about as much sense as trying to play real-life Frogger on a six lane highway.

If our thoughts don’t manage to squash us right out of the gate, we have an opportunity to focus on our breath, on our bodily sensations without judgment, and let them settle into the background, where we can get a better glimpse of just how constant the stream of consciousness really is.  Thoughts never stop generating, and they never stop trying to bubble to the surface, where we typically latch on and go for a ride.  The more we meditate, however, the less power those thoughts have over us.

Usually when I sit in meditation, my thoughts and feelings settle into the background, almost as if they were bubbling up from a well in the back of my head.  But the other day I imagined them in a different way – as objects floating past in a slow-moving stream as I sat watching. And I had a choice as they floated by, to pull them out of the stream, look at them, learn a little bit about them and where they came from, and put them back in the flowing water, or to cling to them and be dragged downstream.

We all know the feeling, right?  Trying to concentrate on something when BOOM! – in a split second we’ve latched onto a feeling that turns into a thought that turns into a storyline, and before we know it we’re floating out to sea.  Have you ever asked yourself what that’s all about?  Why does it happen?  Buddhist teachers would say it has to do with karma, and they’d also tell you it’s the point of this blog post (if they would ever answer my calls!).

Westerners tend to think of karma as a commandment to do good things, because if we do bad things, then bad things will happen to us in return.  This is an oversimplification of the “law of karma” from a Buddhist point of view, and oversimplifying it for a Western audience has led to a broad misunderstanding about the concept.

Karma, which is Sanskrit for “action”, really only refers to the law of cause and effect – the simple fact that every action has an effect.  Every action I take has consequences for myself and others.  Every action you take has consequences for me, for you, for everyone else. Every action we take collectively has consequences for each of us and every other being in the universe. (For a good, yet really bad example of this, feel free to watch the Ashton Kutcher movie Butterfly Effect – cinema at its finest!)

The “good karma/bad karma” thing has some legitimacy, of course. It’s always better to act out of compassion instead of anger, out of wisdom instead of ignorance, out of a sense of togetherness instead of a sense of separateness.  But in Buddhism, a nontheistic religion, there is no godlike authority keeping track of our karmic bank account in order to determine whether we go to the hot place or the cool place – the consequences of our actions are mostly determined by our own minds. We want to act from a Dharma-centric, rather than ego-centric, state of mind, because each action that is not ego-based brings us one step closer to enlightenment. And by doing good in the world, helping others, standing up against injustice and so on, we are bringing the whole world closer to enlightenment.

Even though karma has a lot to do with reincarnation and what Buddhists believe when it comes to the various realms into which we can be reborn, I’m not going to get into that here.  You can Google some pretty good stuff on this (or let me Google it for you), or better yet, find a teacher who gets it better than I do. 

What I really want to talk about here is what karma means to us in terms of our own states of mind, our own happiness, and our own part in bringing happiness and peace to others.  Because every action we take leaves a trace, or karmic seed, with us that will ripen somewhere down the line – maybe in the next moment, maybe in the next year, maybe in the next lifetime.  So the choices we make are a big deal – our initial choice to take action, be it positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful, and the choice we make when the karmic seeds planted now germinate and poke through the dirt of our consciousness – whether to act on the fruition of those seeds in a positive or negative manner, thus planting new seeds that will later come to fruition, and so on and so on and so on.

I was going to include an example of how this works here, but I think you can probably see it in your own life if you spend a few minutes thinking about it.  Think about your habitual responses to certain situations and emotions – do you struggle with anger, insecurity, jealousy?  Close your eyes for a minute and think about a recent situation that brought up some of these feelings and a conditioned response for you.  Back to the notion of the stream of thoughts and feelings: What is it that made you respond the way you did in this particular situation?  I bet if you think back, you can remember reacting the same way many other times, seemingly out of your own control.  Maybe you even noticed then, or remember now, the feeling that arose in your body when your response was provoked.  When that feeling arose, did you cling to it and find yourself tossed into the rapids, or did you manage to look at it mindfully and place it back in the stream?

Letting go of habitual patterns is easier said than done, and that’s the fault of karmic conditioning.  Every time you cling to what bubbled up to the surface, you are that much more likely to respond in the same way next time, even when it may cause you suffering.  Think about addicts, who know full well the pain caused by their addictions, but who can’t keep themselves from taking another hit, from acting out. It’s nearly impossible after awhile to not fall into the trap of planting new karmic seeds that only serve to further entrench that conditioned response.

But there’s hope!  Mindfulness is the key to catching ourselves before we cling or grasp.  It’s mindfulness that allows us a split second of pause before we reach into the stream. As we train ourselves in mindfulness (by meditating and running mindfully), we get better at leaving space around our thoughts so that we can observe them without judgment before responding to them.  With that gap in the process, we can make an informed choice about our reactions, based on the wisdom of knowing what will happen if we act out of a negative view, and the compassion toward ourselves and others that allows us a positive, helpful response. 

And finally we bring it back to running!  Most of us have experienced high and low points throughout our running careers – the days when we jump out of bed before the alarm goes off to enjoy a nice cool morning run on well-rested legs, and the days when we hit the snooze button 27 times, finally get up and decide we don’t have time to run because we have to get the kids ready for school and even 3 cups of coffee is not enough to energize us and wasn’t it stupid to think we could train for a half marathon while our children still lived with us and someone should have stopped me but nobody really cares, do they? 

We’ve all been there.  Times when a flash flood of negative self-talk carries us farther and farther away from the motivation we need to stay on track in our training.  This is just one area in everyone’s running life where mindfulness can make a difference.  When we practice mindfulness, we create the space for the initial trash-talk to sit without a response. The reality is, we know ourselves better than our negative thoughts do. We know that the first step out the door (or off the couch, or out of bed) is the most difficult, and we know that taking that step makes each consecutive step easier. Each action plants seeds that either make it easier to get out of bed or easier to roll over and go back to sleep.  Mindfulness allows us to look our negative thoughts in the face and tell them to talk to the hand, to use my best Valley Girl analogy.  We see them, we put them back in their place, and they float off downstream.  Each time we do that, we make it easier to take that first step, and keep our training on track. 

We can apply the same principle while we run, but we need to be aware that rising thoughts and feelings serve a helpful purpose, sometimes.  We’ve been wired by evolution to always be processing what comes up in our consciousness, lest we follow a mastodon off a cliff or step on a saber-tooth tiger’s tail.  But one thing I’ve noticed that mindfulness brings to my running is a better ability to know the difference between something I can run through and something that should give me pause and make me end my run.  And the more I’ve incorporated mindfulness of bodily sensations into my runs, the more subtle levels of feeling I notice, and the sooner I can make adjustments to my form, pace, etc., that help prevent injury and make me a better runner.

Next time negative karmic tendencies start to surface in your river of thought, see if you can bring mindful space to the experience.  Give them a moment to bubble up, notice them with kindness in your heart and no judgment, and let them continue downstream.  Don’t worry, there will be more.  But each time you let them go, you become stronger in the face of them, and better able to keep yourself running.  Namaste!