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Running as a Spiritual Practice

Running as a Spiritual Practice July 22, 2021

I’ve recently taken up running at the ripe old age of 61.  I used to run long-distance when I was young – averaging 30 miles per week from when I was 15 to 30.  I stopped because I was worried about the effects it would have when I was older.  Now I’m older.

I was motivated to run again partly because the pandemic has taken a toll on my body; I’ve gained some weight, and I’m just not moving as much as I used to.  Plus I read an article on how cannabis helps older runners with pain and mobility.  I can legally use cannabis.  So I decided to try running again.  Running is a practice, like meditation or yoga.  It has physical and mental benefits.  It has spiritual benefits.

I regard running as a spiritual practice.  It’s not about trying to achieve enlightenment or trying to become self-realized or manifest abundance or whatever.  I say running is spiritual because it requires self-discipline.  The ancient word for this was askesis.  Running is an ascetic practice.  Self-discipline is closely linked with the ethical virtue of self-control, the key to all the other virtues.  As a naturalist, I think of spirituality as ethical self-improvement – work on becoming an ethically better person.

Since I’ve always loved running, the self-discipline aspect isn’t about forcing myself to run.  I want to run.  The self-discipline aspect comes from the other side: starting running at 61 means I need to be very careful not to run too much.  I need to start with short distances, run slowly, and pay close attention to pain.  Back in the day, I could run through the pain.  I didn’t worry about injuries.  Now I need to worry a lot about them.  So it takes discipline to not run too much.  It takes discipline for me to stop.  I want to push myself, to challenge myself.  I want to go farther and faster.  But I need to constrain those desires, to subordinate them to a more abstract ethical goal.

I was also inspired to run by reading about new methods for runners, that is, new ways of doing running itself.  Mainly, the newer ways of thinking about doing running, especially for older people, involve the run-walk method.  You alternate walking and running.  You do a longer walk (maybe half a mile) to warm up.  Then you run a little.  I started with trying to run the distance between two telephone poles on a local street (probably about two tenths of a mile).  If you feel any pain, you stop, you stretch, and you walk until the pain stops.  The walk-run method aims to reduce your chances of injury.

The walk-run method also involves lots of stretching and exercises to build the core strength needed for running.  For me, this means stretching my back and doing exercises especially to build my abdominal muscles.  Weak abdominals mean lower back pain while running.  It’s hard for me to do stretches – I think it’s a waste of time, and I’d rather get moving.  So it takes self-discipline to do the needed stretches, and to do them at least twice a day.  Another feature of the walk-run method involves taking adequate recovery days.  This means at least one recovery day between running days.  On recovery days, you just walk and do stretches.  So this requires the virtue of patience.

When I was younger, I used to regularly get the “runner’s high” while running long distances (3 to 6 miles).  The runner’s high itself seems like a spiritually exalted state, an altered state of consciousness, and one that feels intrinsically valuable.  It’s a flow state, a state of pure motion.  It seems similar to the kinds of states that people aim for in meditation – a kind of egoless bliss.  Time slows to a halt, you get a taste of eternity.

A lot of interesting science has been done on the runner’s high and it’s relation to what it means to be human.  Modern humans (homo sapiens) are long-distance runners.  We are among the best long-distance runners on the earth.  Doing long-distance running is relatively unique to modern humans.  Other great apes can’t run very far at all.  And it does not look like Neanderthals were good distance runners (examination of their skeletons shows their skeletal structures were not adapted for distance running).  But almost every feature of homo sapiens is finely tuned for endurance running.

We are endurance runners – that’s what we are.  Birds fly, fish swim, humans run.  On this view, it’s endurance running, not thinking or talking or reasoning, that is most distinctively human.  Even our “higher” cognitive powers, like reasoning and abstract thinking, may have evolved as adaptations for running. It’s thought (though it’s not certain) that early humans did persistence hunting: we ran down our prey until they were exhausted, or died from over-heating.  Cognitive skills like spatial reasoning may also be adaptations for persistence hunting.  And logical and mathematical reasoning emerged from those spatial reasoning abilities.  Reasoning is often said to be “discursive”, and the word “discursive” comes from the Latin currere, the word for the act of running.  To reason is to run through the abstract logical space of thought.

Spirituality is often associated with self-realization – with “waking up” or purifying your consciousness in some way.  If it’s true that humans evolved to be endurance runners, then when you run distance, you are most fully realizing your human being.  You are a fully actualized human animal.  Running, and the runner’s high, are states of great spiritual realization.  When you run, you’re awake.

 

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