Breathe in.

I’ve been climbing this hill — more like a mountain, actually — for ten minutes now. My legs and lungs are burning and I find my mind drifting to the moment when I’ll crest. Only a few more seconds and I can relax. But wait, my goal for today’s run is to stay in the present. Refocus. Forget about the top of that hill, where I’ll be soon. Back to this minute.

Breathe out. Be here now.

Recently I’ve been practicing mindful running, or as Sakyong Mipham would put it, Running with the Mind of Meditation. A friend recently sent me this book, and I think it has the power to alter my running dramatically.

Sakyong Mipham is the leader of Shambhala, a community of meditation retreat centers. As well as being a spiritual leader and Tibetan lama, he is an experienced marathoner. This book is the result of his effort to blend the two, as he believes that spiritual well-being is enhanced by physical activity. The Sakyong talks about how both meditation and running are opportunities to engage our minds, to be fully present in our lives. He warns, however, that if we participate in these activities half-heartedly, simply trying to keep ourselves distracted, we’ve lost out on a valuable lesson. Practicing mindful running has the result of changing running from “simple exercise to a journey of discovery and growth”.

Reading this, I realize how emotionally absent I tend to be on many of my runs. On my long runs, I’m counting the hours and miles until I’m finished, and during interval workouts, I’m just trying to ignore the pain. Lunchtime runs are spent focusing on work issues, and many a time I’ve finished a run feeling like I’ve just spent the past hour with several of my most challenging students. Where is the peace and joy in that? Something tells me that I’m not really getting the most out of my runs if I finish feeling just as stressed as when I began.

The Sakyong says that by staying present in the here-and-now, we are able to leave our daily stressors behind. During our run, we should focus on our run, not the millions of other things going on in other areas of our lives. The most basic way to accomplish this is to focus on one’s breathing. He calls this following the breath. Sounds simple — just take your mind away from its current thought or worry and pay attention to your breathing instead.

Easy enough. I take off down the trail, determined to empty my mind of all concerns. I make it for a couple of minutes. Maybe. It might have been only thirty seconds before my thoughts drifted off to such random topics as what I’d have for dinner, how I needed to transplant those perennials, and the topic of my next blog. Enough! Back to the breath. I breathe in and out. What’s that twinge in my Achilles? Focus — the breath. Wait — how’s my pace? Didn’t I run this stretch of trail faster last week? FOCUS — it’s the breath, stupid. The thoughts just keep coming and I start to recognize just how busy my brain is with superficial concerns and how easy it is to allow myself to chase each of these fleeting thoughts.

Eventually I finish my run. This mindful running stuff is trickier than it appears. Over the next few weeks I make several more attempts, and am pleased to find myself making progress. The Sakyong emphasizes the importance of not evaluating oneself, not focusing on improvement but simply on where one is in the moment. Still, the practice does get easier, and even though I’m still only able to stay fully present for a few minutes at a time, something is changing. The experience of running is different, and I finish feeling both relaxed and refreshed. There just might be something to this mindfulness thing.

Check out another one of Anne’s posts about running in a dress!