by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: When I began running, naturally I found myself applying the principles of meditation to my exercise. For me, this seems natural because running is a training of the body, and meditation is a training of the mind. Ideally, we do not have to decide which is better. Both are natural parts of who we are. When we relate to both these parts, they naturally synchronize and become who we are as a whole. This brings the feeling of embodiment. When we relate to our mind and body and allow them to harmonize, we feel more alive and strong.
Even though mind and body are natural, we have to relate with them both on a daily basis. If we train only the body and ignore the mind, the body is getting in shape while the mind is being neglected. We are not relating with mental stress and worry. Conversely, if we focus only on the mind, then the body is neglected, and we feel the ill effects of our stagnant physical demeanor.
Nowadays, the benefits of training the body are understood. These have always been easy to document, because we can see them. In the West, we are also beginning to see the benefits of meditation, as neuroscientific research is revealing how it shifts our brain waves, reducing stress, worry, anxiety, depression and fear — and increasing our feelings of calm and happiness. Those benefits highlight certain key elements in meditation that are as simple and obvious for the mind as flexibility and strength training are for the body. Once we see this simplicity, we can apply meditative techniques to any activity. Here are a few tips from my new book, “Running with the Mind of Meditation.”
The first technique is mindfulness. We simply bring our mind to whatever activity we are doing and observe it in a nonjudgmental way. In running, we can be mindful of our breathing, the landing of our feet and the swinging of our arms. Simply coming back to what we are doing is very healthy. The parameters of mindfulness are “not too tight, not too loose.” We should avoid being either too rigid or so relaxed in how we work with mind and body. As we run, it is revitalizing and refreshing for the mind when we recognize for just a moment that we are running, that we are present and breathing. In that moment we are not absorbed in worry about the future or regret about the past. Running provides a way of fresh and immediate technique for realigning our life to what is happening now.
On a practical level, when we are mindful, we are in touch with how we feel physically. Therefore, we can tell if we are overdoing it. Being present with where we are gives us energy and vitality. Mindfulness shows how powerful our mind is when it decides to relate with our body. In that moment, we are thoroughly here.
The next technique is appreciation that brings joy. While running, it is important to allow ourselves to appreciate what we are doing — and enjoy it. When we forget to appreciate our workout, a precious opportunity is lost. Thoughts are powerful. As with the body, the effects of how you are treating the mind are felt immediately. Appreciation brings perspective to the mind. It creates mental flexibility and a healthy self-identity. We can use it as a gateway to experiencing the internal happiness that is always available, no matter what is going on in our lives. If we can cultivate the discipline to appreciate and relax, we will be able to enjoy any activity.
So rather than worry while we’re running, we can take a few moments to enjoy it and realize the healthy benefits of what we’re doing. We can appreciate the opportunity to exercise. The ability to appreciate is a sign that our mind is relaxing and expanding its field of comprehension.
Appreciation has the power to reinforce the benefits of any physical activity because it brings a joyful feeling.
The next technique is challenge. Another aspect of building mind-body synchronicity is seeing the benefits of challenging ourselves. Within every run or meditation session, there will always be challenges. Rather than see them as problematic, we can regard them as new frontiers for growth and strength. We learn to focus on the positive, while seeing where and how we can improve. In running, this works whether we are challenging ourselves physically to run a little farther or faster, or challenging ourselves mentally to remain more present.
In meditation, the challenge is to be brave, not always trying to escape boredom or discomfort, but staying and relaxing with how things are. We try not to let a challenging moment panic us. When we stay with that moment of indecision, appreciating the challenge, the mind builds strength and depth. Once we can stay with what’s happening, life becomes twice as interesting, so we’re likely to keep doing it.
Challenge is a natural part of life. It allows us to expand beyond our attachment to comfort and step fearlessly into new experiences. Without appreciating challenge, our meditation or workout becomes routine, and we sink into a rut. We can tell when this happens because the joy evaporates. Challenge adds a bit of daring and outrageousness.
The next technique is purpose. Whether we are meditating or running, having purpose is essential because it gives the mind a way to orient itself. Likewise, without purpose, the body has no reason to exert itself. In meditation, this is the notion of intelligence. In running — and in exercise altogether — it is the notion of energy. Without purpose, our body lacks energy and our mind starts to wander.
In meditation and running, our underlying purpose is to maintain our wellbeing. We are not trying to harm ourselves, but rather to engage in beneficial activity. Our specific purpose can vary day-to-day, depending on what piques our curiosity. For example, our purpose could be to keep each moment fresh, or to stay tuned in to our surroundings.
With purpose, we keep our activities interesting. There is a playful element. Without it, they lose their appeal. Having purpose is essential to mind-body synchronicity, which aligns us with where we are. It is a deep source of power that can sustain us through a lifetime of activities.
The next technique is worthiness. The integration of running and meditation results in a feeling of worthiness. When mind and body come together, we feel good because we are thoroughly engaged. Great vitality and power occur: we feel worthy to be who we are, where we are and doing what we are doing. We have connected with our innate core of goodness and strength. Unless we do this, we always feel that we are pretending, or that we would rather be somewhere else — which ultimately cannot happen because in reality, we can only be where we are. By connecting with our own worthiness, we connect with the worthiness of all humanity. I believe that connecting with this worthiness — both individually and collectively — is critical for creating a good human future on this planet.
Running and meditating are basic human activities. Movement is beneficial for the body, and stillness is beneficial for the mind. Being mindful, appreciating who and where we are, rising to the challenge, connecting with purpose, and feeling worthy — that is how we stay optimistic and engaged. We use running with the mind of meditation to extend our natural goodness and strength. This benefits other people and helps the world.