During the school year, I relied on running to melt knots in my thinking about research or teaching challenges. It’s only now, during summer break as I focus on research and my move to Michigan, that running’s only purpose is to run and fill my mind with nothing but the run. For an academic prone to overthinking, that’s harder than it sounds.

I’ve been reading a page or two here and there of Dainin Katagiri’s Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Everyday Life, a soulful book on Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is a Zen meditation style that calls on the practitioner to sit, setting aside thought and ego in order to simply feel and be and see things as they really are rather than experiencing our own projections of what they are “supposed” to be. The end is to be at peace and to reduce suffering. Click here for a thorough explanation.

The Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has sessions every first and third Saturday at 10 a.m., and I sat zazen there for the first time in a long, long while last weekend.

The first 10 minutes were challenging. My mind raced with things I planned to do, such as writing projects and chores and arrangements for the move. Then I remembered to gently remind myself that the purpose of zazen is to sit and be present, not to ponder the past or focus on the future. I visualized a pebble dropping into a pool of water in the creek where I grew up in Kansas in an exercise I learned at the first Vipassana group I’d sat with at Ecumenical Christian Ministries at the University of Kansas some 20 years ago.

With my mind still and my attention on following my breath, feeling the fullness of my lungs and abdomen on inhaling and the emptiness on exhaling, aches and pains in my back and spine showed up. “Where did those come from?” I thought, followed by me reminding myself, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is to notice them, bless them, and release them.”

It is remarkable how following the breath reveals stresses we’ve been ignoring because we’ve been so busy. More remarkable is the way letting yourself just grow full and empty with your breaths can melt away those pains.

The routine at AAUF is to chat a little bit while waiting for everyone who’s coming to show up, listen to a Zen reading relating to Vipassana and/or loving-kindness and peace, sit zazen for 20 minutes, do walking mindfulness meditation, then sit zazen another 20 minutes, followed by a second reading. By the end of the second zazen session, I had no idea where the time went. I knew only that I felt tremendously restored and asked myself once more why I hadn’t been sitting zazen more often.

With that in mind, I thought I would try Vipassana running tonight.

The idea is to let the run be just a run: no using it as a way of working out research or teaching problems, no planning for the rest of the week, no pondering finances or cooking or other mundane matters.

The purpose of the run is to run, notice the world and the wind and the heat and the landscape, and to follow the breath. It’s OK to get caught up in the beauty of the world momentarily; such reveries are the poetry that makes life wonderful.

But attention must return to the breath (in, fullness; out, emptiness), strides (foot rising, foot falling, foot striking, foot rising, foot falling, foot striking), and aches and pains. It’s OK to set a timer on the stopwatch, but I found myself running past the 12-minute countdown timer I had set. It just felt better to run until I felt I needed to rest, then walk awhile mindfully, then resume running.

Getting started was easy; for the first few minutes it was “rise, fall; empty, full; lift, land.” Project outlines and organizational matters darted into my head and bounced around until I remembered:

“The purpose of the run is to run.”

I noticed the moon, waxing full, over the Old Rotation, Auburn’s historic experimental ag research station, where innovations in cotton, corn, and field pea crop rotation were discovered early in the last century. The sweet scent of magnolias would not be ignored.

Again: “The purpose of the run is to run.” Step. Step. In. Out. Full. Empty. Heat up. Cool down.

A familiar pattern emerged: The distractions were thick for the first 10 minutes, followed by focus and the occasional mechanical self-inventory:

  • “Does my foot hurt because I landed on it wrong, or because it’s been hurting all this time and this is the first time I’ve been mindful enough to notice the pain?”
  • “Is my lower back sore because I’m running with bad posture, or because it’s injured?”
  • “Am I gasping because I didn’t inhale as deeply as I should have, or because I’m about to have an allergy attack?”

And then: “Mmmm. Magnolias.” “Oh! That moon!” “Oooooh, that breeze.”

I don’t know, come to think of it, whether mindfulness was easier to maintain during running meditation than sitting meditation. Was I just more pleasantly distracted? Is it OK to be mindful of the world we move through as well as the body we occupy while in running meditation? Is being aware of both simply a way of being at one with the world?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know I feel restored. At peace.