While I was sitting this morning, eyes half shut, I noticed the wall in front of me seemed to faintly crumple and unfurl like a flag slowly moving in the wind, the colors shifting and morphing, while fleeting images of people, animals, and monsters appeared and disappeared in the old textured paint. How tenuous our grip on what we call reality is! To think that we willfully hurtle along ribbons of asphalt in shaking contraptions of metal and plastic at speeds of 65-70 miles per hour or more, or race hard on foot down narrow, rocky mountain trails. People who say they don’t believe in making decisions based on faith have never seriously considered the question. It takes faith just to point at a chair, call it a chair, and sit in it.
They were in sesshin, an intensive multi-day Zen practice session, and I was very disappointed. My wife and I had stopped in Santa Fe on our way home from vacation, where I had hoped to sit with others early one morning at the renowned Upaya Zen Center (a photo of their beautiful meditation hall is on the left). But they were already several days into a sesshin according to the schedule on the bulletin board outside, and I rather doubted visitors would be allowed to drop in. I was about to leave when a very nice young woman welcomed me, heard my request, and quickly ushered me inside.
She whispered that while I wouldn’t be able to sit in the main meditation hall where the sesshin participats were sitting, we could sit in the sun room, a room next to the main hall. We found a couple of empty spots, quickly bowed to our mats, and settled on our cushions.
The nourishing richness of that stillness and silence! I have participated in sesshins and know that the first days are usually filled with snuffling, coughing, sighing, and much squirming on the mats. Over the course of several days, or a week or more, the entire room or hall begins to calm down, go still, and deepen. First, physical activity slows and grows into stillness, then the nervous, almost audible humming energy of mental activity slips away. That’s the point they had already reached in this sesshin – a world so vast and gloriously, peacefully empty, yet containing everything. I felt completely unbound, as if I were floating. And it was not created or manufactured – wherever we are, whatever might be going on with us, it is already there, within and without.
At first I felt like a boorish party-crasher: relative to what I sensed all around me, my body felt wracked with spasms and my breath sounded like loud hiccups. But after some ten minutes or so, my body and mind expanded into that silence, and my breath became one with everyone else’s. I know of few more powerful, nurturing experiences than a shared silence that enormous. When the bell rang, I was very sorry to leave.
But of course, leaving the meditation hall is what we have to do, and back out into the messy, noisy, restless world we go. It was the same with running during my vacation in the dry, cooler temperatures and spectacular scenery of Colorado – and then back to dodging cars in my roasting, humid neighborhood. But that same boundless personal freedom – the kind of palpable peace we can realize during an intenstive Zen practice period, and the serenity and solitude we can find running trails in the mountains – is actually accessible anywhere we go. “Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness,” Dogen wrote. “It is a matter for every day.”
For me, that’s the reason for running and sitting – no matter who you are or where you are, no matter what is going on with you, the most awesome peace and serenity are always right here. Sure, it may be hidden under many crusty old layers of noise, anxiety, misunderstanding, anger, and that nagging vague dissatisfaction with your lot in life, but it’s there all the same. Running and sitting are two of the most helpful ways I know to uncover it. And then there’s the real trick: not having to uncover it again and again. Still working on that one – the failed work of a lifetime, a happy failure that begins anew each day, each breath.
From Thoreau’s Journal II
the crows betrayed to me a large hawk
they buffeted him, cawing
it rose and wheeled
a noble planetary motion
while the crows sat still and silent
and confessed their lord
– April 6, 1856
(from my somewhat irregular poetry blog Short Surprise Life. Poetry is an extension of my Zen practice – another way, like running, to practice being here, now.)
I always feel runner’s envy when I see those panoramic shots in magazines of runners floating along pristine trails high in the Rockies or some other spectacular wilderness location. It’s hardly realistic to expect the same visual magnificence from my routine neighborhood runs – but looking at “runner porn” can make those runs feel a bit average. Which is the reason I recently decided to take along a camera phone on a route I have been running weekly for years: to perhaps capture something of what made me fall in love with running nearly 40 years ago, and rediscover the beauty of my own urban back yard.
I wasn’t crazy about taking the phone – it required a somewhat bulky plastic holder I had to strap on my arm, and I generally don’t like running with any extra gear at all outside of a watch (and not always even that). Even strapping a water bottle to my hand on longer runs in the summer is something I do reluctantly. But I velcroed the camera holder on my arm and took off from my front yard, just 4.5 miles round trip.
And I’m glad I did. Having the camera encouraged me to slow down a bit and experience the route with new eyes. As a happy result, I saw everything more deeply. Breaking stride long enough to record four or five images from a lovely early morning’s run seems, in retrospect, a small price to pay for awakening my vision again. I won’t take a camera for most runs, but it was certainly worth taking it for this one. You may not have albino peacocks who pose obligingly for you, but I would be willing to bet that somewhere within just 3-4 miles of your front step, there are wonders waiting.
When sunlight first creeps in and reveals the high rock walls streaked with color like gigantic shards of painted Indian pottery, and the wind-sculpted rock formations towering overhead, you know you are in a special place. I fell in love with Palo Duro Canyon the first time I ran in it, a 50K several years ago – followed by another 50K the following year, and capped by a 50-miler the year after that.
But it wasn’t just the incredible scenery that drew me back. The people who ran the Palo Duro trail races genuinely love the canyon and the people who run it. The legendary, larger-than-life Red Spicer, race director for many years until he passed away, stood grinning ear-to-ear in jeans and a cowboy hat at the spot where the 50K and 50 mile courses split, shaking the hand of every runner who passed by and wishing every one good luck. And there were the “Dos Locos Senoritas” who ran one of the aid stations, their cheerful laughter echoing off the canyon walls. You were lured in by the scenery, and you came back for the people.
After more years than I care to think about, I’ll be going back to the canyon this October for my first race in four years: the 20K, one loop of that marvelous canyon floor. My body seems to be craving more work at the moment – a sort of personal Indian summer, I guess – and I’m happy to oblige for as long as it lasts.
I hope to run a few more trail half marathons in other extraordinary locations after Palo Duro, but for now, all focus is on getting back to the canyon. One of my other favorite memories is lying on the hood of my car near the start of my first Palo Duro 50K, watching bits and pieces of the cosmos streak by overhead in a sky rich with stars. Before, during, and after the race, there is no other corner of the universe quite like it. I’m looking forward to going one more time.
In a recent New Yorker cartoon, Gretel says to Hansel as they stand outside a gingerbread house: “Let’s see if there’s another witch’s cottage with a better candy selection.” I have fit people in running shoes that swaddled their feet as naturally as a second skin – only to see them limp out of the store as they limped in, all because we were out of the purple and grey. Choice is the opposite of freedom. It is the enslaver, the procrastinator, the paralyzer. When we simply work with what’s in front of us, we can finally declare independence from our global marketing overlords, and our minds and lives can run free. Three of the most liberating words in the English language are “This will do.”
Three friends are embarking on big adventures by foot this weekend. The college-age sons of our long-time neighbors are taking time out from school and job searching to hike from Seattle to Mexico on the fabled Pacific Crest Trail. They’re Eagle Scouts and have been preparing for this at the level of the Apollo moon landings. You can follow their adventures from now until November on their blog, “Always Wandering.” And friend Karen Bonnett, six days after marrying friend Nattu Natraj, will toe the formidable starting line of the Western States Endurance Run – 100 grueling miles of high-altitude mountain trail running, one of the world’s toughest ultramarathons. As the ancient Zen master Dogen wrote, “Although mountains belong to the nation, mountains belong to the people who love them.” May you carry the mountains as treasures, walk with them as friends, and rest at trail’s end in peace and safety.
Postscript: The guys are off on their 2650-mile odyssey south, and Karen walked tall with the mountains, finishing in less than 30 hours.