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I’ve been a runner on and off for the last fifteen years. Last year I (slowly) ran the New York City Marathon.  Today is national running day, and as a Buddhist Meditator I thought it would be appropriate to tackle the question “Is running meditation?” here at beliefnet.   Folks who run will often say running is their meditation, or that running is zen, and I think it’s worth examining these statements in light of what we know to be the benefits of a regular practice of sitting meditation. Since I have run hundreds if not thousands of miles, and I meditate daily, I feel that I can speak about this from a position of experience rather than speculation on this most holy of days, national running day.

National Running Day2.jpg


I’m
going to over-generalize and say there are two things that are
referered to as meditation, only one of which is truly meditation.
There’s a kind of “clear your head and bliss out” meditation- which is
really a relaxation technique. Then there’s meditation with the purpose
of revealing the truth of interconnectedness and compassion.  Blissing
out and feeling good is not the same thing as removing crusty ego
structures in pursuit of greater compassion.  The kind of meditation
espoused by Buddha (and really, the only thing he said you gotta do)
is  the “sit down, shut up, and pay attention without getting stuck in
your thoughts” kind. 

Sometimes after sitting, I do have kind
of a chill, mellow feeling; but sometimes some pretty fearsome stuff
comes up that does not leave me feeling at all blissed-out.  I have no
expectation of one or the other, and merely try to be present with
whatever comes up and to not follow too many distracting thoughts
before returning to my breath.  If I were sitting to bliss out, relax,
or make myself feel chilled out, that would not only be a different
kind of meditation it would also not do much to make me a more
compassionate and “interdependent aware” person.  Nothing wrong with
that, but it’s not what true contemplative practice is about, and
should be thought of more as a relexation technique.

As a
runner, I frequently get extremely chilled out by a run.  I used to
think that this blissed out feeling you get after a good 30 or 40
minute run was meditation, but then I started meditating. The chilled
out feeling from running is actually a chemical response your body and
brain has to repetitive motion. An AWESOME feeling to be sure, but not
the same as meditation.

Another thing that happens during a long
run (or even a good long walk) is that I tend to start thinking about
problems or creative ideas I have, and sometimes I will get an amazing
revelation or sense of clarity about something that I did not have
before the run.  It’s almost like the repetitive motion allows your
brain to bubble up ideas that otherwise get buried underneath all the
noise. This is also awesome, and this is what a lot of runners or
walkers refer to when they say “running is their meditation”. Again,
you can certainly sit on your cushion with the goal of coming up with
solutions to problems or creative ideas, but this is better referred to
as concentration, or directed thought – it is not meditation.

Now
that I have experienced several years of what actual meditation is, as
well as having experienced nearly fifteen years of running (the first
12 of which I thought “running is MY meditation”) I can compare the
two. Running can give you great clarity and it can leave you feeling
chilled out and refreshed, but neither of these are really the core
benefit of a regular practice of sitting meditation. The profound
difference in my life and how I relate to people around me as a result
of true contemplative practice is radically different than the states
of clarity or bliss that I experience when running.  I love that I get
to experience both, but my conclusion is this: Running is not
meditiation, but I couldn’t imagine giving up either.

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