Finding Balance Through Awareness (Mindfulness) - A Runner's Journey

Updated: Aug 6

I love running races. Each distance (1 mile, 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon) is a unique experience and a challenging endeavor, but it’s always one foot in front of the other, balancing on the edge of ease and suffering. The goal, of course, is to move as quickly as possible through space, not over or under effort for the distance, or risk missing the mark. A relatively new runner myself, I can still appreciate the “art of racing” and staying in sync with body and mind all the way through the finish line. I’ve learned there is no room to linger in doubt, shame, or questioning – they are too heavy a load to carry. They can sabotage a race. Can this translate to other aspects of life?

Racing is both physically and mentally demanding. The physical challenge is real and we must prepare our bodies with the right training to have the strength and endurance to complete the distance. The mental aspect – that is, “the thinking mind” – is not always based in reality, and can become a self-destructive soundtrack, if not monitored very closely. In a race, it is critical to focus on the present moment experience and evaluate important questions in real time: How am I feeling right now? What does my body need? What is my current effort level? Can I sustain this pace for x number of miles? Do I need to slow down? Speed up? Stay the course? Take hydration? In this way, we are using our minds how nature intended – to analyze objective data, problem solve, and make important decisions to survive and thrive in the world; in this case, to run the best race!

So often, our minds veer off-track, and before we know it, we are catapulted into a storm of unhelpful thinking that is rarely a reflection of reality. Thoughts arise: “I’m feeling tired already. Did I sleep enough last night? Did I eat enough this morning? Why is this feeling so difficult?” Naturally, the body reacts: muscles tense up, breathing becomes shallow, legs feel heavy, and performance begins to decline. Thoughts become more dire: “Oh no, my legs are so tired! I started too fast! I didn’t fuel correctly! My goals are shot! I’ll be lucky if I even finish!” My personal favorites: “Why on earth am I doing this to myself? I’m way too old for this!” With thoughts going haywire, and body following suit, it’s nearly impossible to decipher the real from the unreal, because both are so integrally intertwined. About to give up now, by grace, you suddenly grab a hold of yourself and realize “OMG, I’m a stressed-out wreck right now!!!” Congratulations: and you have just arrived back to the present moment.

Being mindful is not about practicing meditation. It’s about being a frazzled mess, suddenly noticing it, and then returning back to the present moment. When we “wake up” in times of stress, it’s possible to investigate the present-moment experience – what’s real – and then choose a response based on important information that is gathered, versus blindly reacting to our inner narratives. What we observe may be uncomfortable (“I feel anxious right now”), and that’s perfectly fine! Thoughts of judgement about yourself or the situation can be recognized as more mind chatter and then return attention once again to the objective experience – the feeling of breath, body sensations, sights, and sounds. This way, the mind stays occupied analyzing real-time data and unhelpful thoughts begin to settle down.

Feeling more centered now, a runner can properly re-assess her running form, make pace adjustments, and plan for the next water stop. She might even discover new reserves of energy that just moments ago felt hopelessly depleted. She carries on with renewed perspective, faith, and a revised race plan that could possibly take her to new heights, even a personal record time, if she plays her cards right; that is, until the next time she gets caught up in extraneous thinking that takes her away from the present (“Oh, the fantasy of winning my age group!”) and then the whole process repeats itself over again, and again, and this is the practice.

Mindfulness is paying attention to life as we are living it. When we live in the present, the mind is naturally (and effortlessly) free of mental “noise” and negative thoughts. There is space and clarity to open up to new perspectives, helpful ideas, and a world of potential (in each moment) just waiting to be discovered simply by paying attention.

With presence and of body and mind now, the runner is moving in sync. She’s balanced and centered and knows exactly how to run. She’s aware of many important messages coming to her, both in the environment and in the body. She makes decisive choices to follow the course tangents, watch out for that slight dip in the road, maintain physical effort on the uphill, and let the downhill carry her. It all feels so natural. The journey continues and it’s no longer just a physical experience, or a mental challenge, but a love of running, of racing, of living.

The finish line approaches and her legs carry her faster than she ever thought possible at this stage of a race. She flies through the finish, eyes the clock, riding waves of joy and disbelief. Not just for the personal record she just achieved, but the realization that this was possible all along.

Mindfulness (awareness) is our natural state, but it does take practice to cultivate access to this way of being simply because it’s so easy to get caught up and lost in mind chatter! Like a runner commits to consistent physical training to meet the physical challenges of a race, we can also train our minds to stay in the present moment by engaging in regular formal meditation practices (i.e., “sitting on the cushion”).

The aim of formal meditation practices (sitting meditation, body scan, mindful movement, mindful walking) is not to stop thinking, but to be more aware of thinking so that our thoughts don’t control us. The practices can be rewarding and also difficult, and promise to be life-changing, if approached, first and foremost, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness towards ourselves and everything that “shows up” moment to moment. It also helps to be aware of any expectations you may have about the experience – how you think it should unfold – and consciously open up to any and all possibilities.

Committing to a regular group practice or participating in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course can help you jump start and maintain a regular meditation schedule. You can also practice alone, perhaps using a meditation app or recording, in a designated area in your home free from noise and distractions that is most conducive to engaging in this adventurous inner exploration.

You don’t need to make a huge lifestyle change and sit for 45 minutes or longer every day to engage in formal meditation, though this may be an eventuality. You can meditate (be aware) right where you are, with the intention to pay attention in this very moment. Start by observing one breath at a time. Observe for a few seconds, one minute, three minutes, fifteen, or more. You can even set an alarm to help you “mind” the time. When thoughts wander off to the past or the future, or stories or judgments about the present moment experience, simply notice where the mind went (The past? The future?) and begin again.

Here is a brief formal mindfulness meditation practice you can try. Read through it slowly, taking pauses, and experience each step fully for 10-15 seconds, or longer:

1. Sit comfortably upright and relaxed. Place both feet on the floor and hands on your legs, if that’s comfortable for you. Notice the places where your body is making contact with the chair and the ground… feel into these touch points… notice any sensations in these areas (pressure, tingling, feelings of warmth or coolness, etc.)… adjust your posture if needed with the intention to sit upright, relaxed, and alert...

2. Now rest attention on the breath… see if you can follow one full breath, from the beginning, through the middle, to the end… there is no need to change or adjust the breath in any way; just simply observe this breath moving in… and out of the body…

3. If you happen to notice the breath at the nose, observe any sensations there – coolness of the air, vibrations, air moving in through the nostrils… if observing the breath at the abdomen/ diaphragm, notice the gentle movement of the belly, in and out, stretching and relaxing, as you inhale and exhale... continue…

4. When thoughts come to mind about this experience, or the past or the future, and they will, that’s okay, and this is perfectly normal… you don’t have to follow these thoughts or judge yourself for having them… simply notice that your mind has wandered away and rest attention back on the breath… allow the breath to be an anchor to return to…

5. You may notice body sensations, or muscle tension (clenching of the jaw, tense shoulders or lower back, specific muscles engaged that don’t need to be, etc.) – first take note… then notice any thoughts or judgements… and gently and intentionally soften in these areas, if that feels right to you… now, return attention to breathing and the anchor of the breath...

6. You may observe emotions, or feelings that are pleasant or uncomfortable, or thoughts about yourself or this experience, and all of this is perfectly normal. The practice is to observe, acknowledge with kindness, and then gently return attention to awareness of the breath… there is no right or wrong and nothing for you to do or achieve in this moment… just be here.

7. Now, take a pause from reading this script and sit in this way for a few moments longer…close the eyes… begin again…

8. When you feel ready, open the eyes and take in a more purposeful breath... release. Notice how you feel - relaxed, groggy, calm, spacious? Congratulate yourself for having taken the time to experience this practice and nourish yourself in this way. Know that you can do this anytime to calm the mind and bring you back to the present moment.

If this experience was helpful or interesting to you, you might try sitting with a mindfulness meditation recording for a designated period of time and simply follow along. Whatever you decide, know that it’s possible “wake up” to life in any moment, whether running, sitting, or going about every-day life activities - one breath at a time, one foot in front of the other, ready to meet the moment and be your best self.

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