by Vanessa Zuisei Goddard
The practice of running as meditation is not about running. Or rather, it’s not just about running. It’s really an exploration of the power of stillness and movement and the dynamic interplay between the two. It’s about learning to take the clarity and mindfulness of meditation into the various forms of movement that make up our lives.
My premise is simple. I believe it’s more fulfilling to live life awake than asleep. I also believe that anything we can do to help ourselves to be and stay awake is worth doing. Seated meditation is one of the most powerful and effective ways to cultivate that wakefulness. But unfortunately, it’s not enough.
I’ve practiced sitting very still, often for long hours, almost every day for the last 23 years. This has been a good and powerful practice. But I’ve also seen that with a little bit of effort and patience, anyone can learn to be still and calm while sitting alone in a dark, quiet room. The real challenge is to take the same degree of presence, concentration, and insight into everything that we do. That’s why I think of running as a doorway between movement and stillness, between doing and non-doing. It’s one way to learn how to move into stillness and back into activity while remaining both clear and awake. So, you could say that running meditation is a skill that requires that we become so intimate with both stillness and movement that the difference between them disappears. It’s like a top, spinning in perfect balance.
But why running specifically? Quite simply because it’s the form of movement that I know best. I began running seriously when I was 10 years old, and haven’t stopped since. Over the years, my reasons for doing it have changed as my priorities have shifted. I’ve run for exercise, comfort, escape, glory, and identity. Often I’ve loved it, but on occasion I’ve resented it to the point of loathing. I’ve been asleep to it and to my body, and suffered the consequences. I’ve felt the bliss of speed, of a strong, working body, and on occasion, of my self disappearing. Yet from the moment I first started doing meditation I saw the immense potential of running as a form of moving meditation. It’s simple enough that anyone with a pair of running shoes and relative good health can do it. (In my workshops, I’ve taught people of all abilities and ages—the oldest being almost 80 years old.) It helps to keep your mind fresh, your body healthy, your self embodied. Most importantly, it can very poignantly teach you about the very nature of that self.
As I studied this relationship between stillness and movement, I developed various tools to allow my running to become a more mindful practice. I used mantras, visualizations, and a series of practices whose purpose is to help me develop awareness of myself—not just as a physical being, but also an emotional and spiritual one. To me, that is an essential component of awakening: you gain access to the totality of your humanity, so you can benefit yourself and others.
There are many reasons to run, and many more not to. But the most important question really is, am I fully in my life? Am I present, aware, at ease? The world doesn’t need faster runners. Yet it desperately needs people who are clear and awake. And although running alone won’t necessarily transform you into a clearer person, it is an excellent place to start—or continue—your path.
Vanessa Zuisei Goddard is a Dharma Holder and senior lay student in the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism and the Director of Operations of Dharma Communications, Zen Mountain Monastery’s educational and outreach arm. Zuisei has been running for more than 30 years and exploring the relationship between running and meditation for the last 20. She is offering the retreat, Moving Into Stillness: Running as Meditation, May 19–21, 2017.