Friday, June 14, 2013

Running and the art of meditation

Years ago, I used to run. Not marathons, or even very long distances. I pretty much stuck to running 1 mile each time. And I never ran in a race. This was 30 years ago. I was young and full of spit. And I was also running at the time in high altitude. So while not great, I felt pretty good that I could run a mile in less than 9 minutes at 7,000 feet.

And oh yeah, I smoked at the time too. (Sometimes I ran while under the influence of certain, um, chemicals - and in hiking boots)

But my ankles started to get cranky with me, so I stopped running and switched to swimming. Running is so much easier though because you don't need a special place to run. To swim, however, you need a pool.

"Hey Rich, what's this got to do with Buddhism?"

Um, maybe nothing at all. Maybe everything.

Fully worn out is this body,
a nest of disease, and fragile.
This foul mass breaks up,
for death is the end of life.

There you go, does that cheer you up?

Last December, I broke a bone in my foot, a small stress fracture. I did it while walking on a treadmill. Went to a foot doctor who fitted me with new orthotics. Told me I'd be able to run again.

So I was all geeked up and feeling like, wow, I can run again, maybe I'll even train for a marathon!

Then I had a heart attack in March. But that was not going to deter me, particularly when the docs said there was no blockage in my heart to worry about.

I've been training for my first 5K, which is this Sunday, since late April. I'm not quite running the entire distance yet, so my time is between 40-41 minutes. But I'm feeling pretty good about it. I'm finding that I don't mind running so much, and I've learned to pace myself without pressure to run too fast.

I've heard of people who use running like meditation, or they meditate while they run, or they get all Zen while they're running, or whatever. I don't do any of that. I just run, try to pay attention to what my body is doing, the rhythm of my movement, the flow of my breath, even with all types of crazy shit going on inside my monkey mind. To me that's meditation: being aware. For a long time I used to think the goal of Buddhism and meditation was to turn off the mind's internal babble. But now I realize I don't need to try and turn it off; rather, the more I pay attention to it, the more it turns off on its own.

Thinking, at least for me, leads to self-absorption, and that hinders compassion. It's hard to be compassionate when you're obsessed with your self, what people think about you, how you think they perceive you or think about you: It's all a mass of mental knots that stress you out.

"Hey Rich, what's the photo with your post got to do with any of this?"

So glad you asked!

While on a run, I was loping along the east side of Diversey Harbor here in Chicago when I see this raccoon up ahead. As I get closer, the raccoon isn't moving. Dead? No, it raises its head to look at me, but still doesn't move. I jog by, see it splayed out in the grass. It's injured.

I stop about 20 feet beyond it, look at it, see that it's very stressed. We are quite close to Lake Shore Drive; my guess is the raccoon was attempting to cross the drive, got hit, managed to drag itself this far. It's hind legs weren't working.

Without thinking, I just started talking to the raccoon. And I was pretty blunt. Heck, the raccoon was probably going to die, its injuries mortal in nature, so I said that to the raccoon. I think it agreed with my assessment. I called animal control because I didn't want anyone else messing with the animal. People can be assholes. The guy at animal control took my information and said he would call someone from the wildlife division. I told the raccoon; maybe they could help you, I said.

The raccoon started to drag itself across the sidewalk toward the harbor. It was going to deliberately throw itself into the harbor. Was I about to witness a raccoon suicide?

You know the end is near, don't you, I said to it. It's alright, we all have to go someday. Wish I could help you.

I spoke quietly, gently. It dragged itself a little more, then paused at the edge of the cement wall. That's when I took the photo. It paused for a moment, heaving from the exertion, then pulled itself over and plunged into the harbor.

I peered over the edge, saw it paddle with its front legs, the rear legs still useless. I bet that cold water feels good, but if you take off, the wildlife people won't find you and fix you.

It looked up at me as it paddled along the edge. Screw the wildlife people, I don't need them, it said.

Oh, wait, it didn't say anything. Raccoons can't talk. It just looked up at me and swam away.

I have no idea what happened to that raccoon. My presumption is the injuries were fatal. I just hope that in its last moments, my presence brought it a little comfort, reduced its stress just a tad as it faced the end. Because, you know, when I die, I hope someone will be there with me too.

And now when I run by that spot on my loop, I put my palms together and bow my head in respect for the raccoon who gave me a lesson on both life and death.