I managed to hit the road again this morning and totaled another 10K at an average pace of 9:45 per mile. It was very overcast this morning, and the humidity was high, but I didn’t feel it since the temperature was a comfortable 63 degrees.
I wish I could say more about what I noticed along the route, but the fact is that I don’t normally notice a whole lot when I run. More than any other activity, running for me is a very meditative act, for lack of a better term. The result of that is that after a mile or two, my mind tends to get whisked away to a zone where any sense of being either falls away or becomes irrelevant, so I tend not to have much of a recollection of anything, nor have much of a sense of time having passed, afterwards.
I’m generally not, in most any sense of the term, an even remotely religious person, so it’s a phenomenon that’s difficult for me to explain or really even grasp, for that matter. Any attempt by me to sit down and meditate is pretty much doomed to failure, and I’m not someone who feels any need whatsoever to make up some grand sense of purpose to the universe. For some reason though, the repetitive tasks involved in running, where you start out by focusing intently on establishing and maintaining rhythms and patterns of breathing, heel strikes, arm swings, posture, etc. often ends up, for me at least, in losing any sensation of “self” for a little while.
The closest thing I’ve found to explaining something like this is in descriptions of the Japanese Zen Buddhist meditation practices of Zazen. Any attempt by me to explain this stuff is bound to be way too over-simplified and probably completely missing the point in some ways, but here goes my best stab at it anyway, despite my obviously not knowing what the hell I’m talking about. Zen, as far as I can gather, is very practice-oriented rather than belief or faith-oriented.
The practice of meditation as Zazen is done consistently, over and over again, at regular intervals. In the act of meditation, one at first intensely concentrates on what one is doing — particularly breathing from the body’s center of gravity, counting to establish a breathing rhythm, position, posture, etc. There’s an obvious overlap here between this practice and what you do in endurance sports, despite the fact that one is generally supposed to be sitting while meditating. Eventually, while meditating this way, a person is supposed to be able to no longer think about sitting, but “really” sit, or be one with the act of sitting. At that point, any sense of “self” as independent from the act or anything else pretty much falls away. It’s probably the same general thing Yeats had in mind at the end of “Among School Children:”
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Anyway, that seems to happen for me quite a bit while running. It also goes along way toward explaining why I do that as a form of exercise, rather than something else, and why I’ve been able to consistently stick with it and do it for long periods of time, as opposed to anything else. I can’t help but wonder how common or uncommon that is. Whether or not this constitutes some especially weird path to enlightenment, I don’t know.
By the way, there’s an interesting interview with a psychologist about this sort of thing floating about the Internets.