Is Your Running a Spiritual Practice?

“Run not to be fast, or to beat others, but to discover who you are and what you can become.”
Will Van Dyke 1998

I’m not sure what a spiritual practice is, but after running for over 50 years, it seems to me that my running has turned into a spiritual practice. It has turned into a kind of moving meditation that feeds my body, and my soul, each time I do it. As I began thinking about this I did a bit of research on spiritual practice to find out what it is. I found quite a few definitions, including this one–“Regular performance of an action or activity for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development.”

Recently my minister, Bret Lortie, did a sermon about Buddhism, and he said that a spiritual practice has three components.

1. It is an activity that one does over time that encourages beneficial habits.
2. It has a foundation built more on experience than on philosophy.
3. Acceptance of things as they are, that we cannot control or fully know.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that over the years my running has developed into a spiritual practice.

I certainly didn’t start running to develop a spiritual practice, but over time, it has evolved into one. There is within me a genetic disposition to run. I have no idea where it came from, but I have always enjoyed running, from running on the playground playing “boys chase the girls” (but hoping the girls would catch me), to running to get in shape for my high school basketball team, to finally running in my first cross country race as a high school senior, where I had much more success than I did at basketball. It is a gene I see in my grandson Jack and my daughter Gretchen. My son Garrett even says that Jack looks like me when he sees him running on the soccer field. I can’t see it, but I don’t often get a chance to see myself running either.

The arc of my running career has spanned over five decades and began modestly enough, but then changed as I trained more and began running races, first in New England, and then in the Chicago area. In New England I ran with the “big dogs,” and placed high up in many championship races, when I was running upwards of 80 miles every week. As I have aged, and am now in my 70s, I only run 20-25 miles a week, but I still enjoy running, although at a much slower pace, and fewer days a week than I did when I was younger.

So what makes running a spiritual practice? It is certainly something I do on a regular basis. Instead of running seven days a week as I did when I was younger, I now only run three days a week, but I do it outside, week in and week out, out no matter what the weather, although occasionally shifting the day of the week if the weather is particularly bad. Some days are a struggle just to get out the door, but I do, knowing that my body and mind will thank me when it’s over. Other days my body floats along effortlessly, and I feel at one with the universe. Who can deny that it doesn’t promote beneficial habits, and connect us with others on the same path? Running teaches perseverance and commitment. If you practice over time you can achieve goals that would seem inconceivable to you the novice runner, and in the process you learn about yourself.

There may be a philosophy to your running, but the experience of running is what matters. All the philosophy in the world cannot make you faster or fitter—it is in the doing and the training that you get better. It is engagement with the practice of running that matters most. It is the experience of running farther or faster than you thought possible. And in the process you discover who you are as you tap into your inner reserves and resources. If you are training for a marathon, you discover that yes you can run 26.2 miles. Or you may discover that you can run three miles without stopping, when months before you couldn’t run 100 meters without stopping.

Running certainly promotes an acceptance of things as they are. We must accept the weather for what it is when we go out to run (unless of course you run indoors on a treadmill, which I do not), our body and its limitations and our age with its own unique limitations and circumstances. Plus I believe running helps us process the pain and losses in our lives and learn to accept life, as it is, both the good and the not so good. To me there is something about the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and breathing in and breathing out that has a calming effect. Is it the endorphins? Who knows, but it is definitely a form of meditation—a moving meditation—that helps us cope with what is and the mystery that is this life.

I know that my running has become a spiritual practice—one that I cherish. Is it one of your spiritual practices too? If you are a runner, I bet it is, especially on Sunday, when many of you run together outside with other kindred spirits, instead of sitting inside on a church pew.

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