There are gentle mornings, like this one, slightly sore and stiff from yesterday’s run. Sipping coffee with the low hum of the computer while sun beams upon my cheek through the window. Slowly awakening body and mind make peace with the day. Quietly content to be a runner not running for a few hours, sitting and wondering about all the running my friends and I have done over the years, thinking about where it’s gotten us and where we are yet to go. All that sweat, determination, and ever-changing scenery. For the moment I am settled—glad for the appearance of stability, for the pause. Happy to be a runner at rest.
I don’t know how to train months on end for a big event, like a marathon, and keep entirely calm in the final days leading up to the big race. Even though I’ve been telling myself the goal this time around is to run hard and to appreciate whatever comes my way throughout the race, I can’t help but be nearly blown over by eager anticipation. Mostly it’s excitement, positive and rousing, but of course there’s also been nervousness and doubts popping up along the way. Long endurance events require even longer periods of hard training. Hours upon hours of focused movement certainly have interesting effects on the psyche. In my weaker moments I keep retreating back to the fact that, even with all the training under my belt, there’s no guarantee a race as long as a marathon will go well. Much can happen on race day and from such thoughts most of my uneasiness arises. Without long runs over the last several days to settle my mind, I’ve been flooded with all sorts of scattered energy. A better person might channel the nearly boundless energy into positive action and of course there’s plenty of work to be done around here. My life, on the other hand, has been little more than fits and starts lately. Single-minded attention is difficult when my body craves, more than anything else, to RUN!
So what of it?!?
Nothing. All this matters little in the end— all part of the nearly unavoidable consequence of being a runner who choses to challenge himself in long races on occasion. Life will go on in its extraordinary way with or without my participation and acknowledgment.
And also it is a matter of life and death! I cannot in good conscience devote so much of my life to running and training for marathons and not take it seriously. The man I am now is in great part due to what I’ve endured and learned through running, especially training and completing long, hard runs including three previous marathons. If I’m not going to go out and give it my all then I might as well stay home and watch television— something pathetic like QVC. And by giving it my all, I don’t mean striving obstinately to reach some sort of unrealistic time goal and getting injured along the way.
The all I want to give is my entire being. I want to manifest myself fully out there and completely engage with the course and the varied circumstances I’ll surely encounter over those 26.2 miles. There’ll be much to experience and numerous opportunities to awaken to something new, something deeper than I’ve realized before while running. I want to launch headlong into the course with trust in my training and abilities and with the courage to head joyfully into the unknown. Let it all be covered with a sweet coating of gratitude to all in my life who have helped make it possible to run this marathon. I am ready and glad for the opportunity to run!
I’m reminded of an old Zen koan (teaching story), case 46 from the Mumonkan. It goes like this:
Proceed On from the Top of the Pole
Sekiso Osho asked, “How can you proceed on further from the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Another eminent teacher of old said, “You, who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole, although you have entered the Way you are not yet genuine. Proceed on from the top of the pole, and you will show your whole body in the ten directions.”
Mumon’s Comment: If you go on further and turn your body about, no place is left where you are not the master. But even so, tell me, how will you go on further from the top of a hundred-foot pole? Eh?
He darkens the third eye of insight
And clings to the first mark on the scale.
Even though he may sacrifice his life,
He is only a blind man leading the blind.
Running a marathon can be a lot like stepping off the hundred-foot pole, I think. At least now in my running life I have not reached the point where marathoning fits easily into my comfort zone. There will surely be points where I do encounter previously unknown, or at least not well-known, aspects of my being. And there may be a point where I find myself standing on the edge of a great precipice, running further may bring me somewhere I’ve never really been before.
Let’s see what happens!
I run for joy— yes. I run for better health— of course. I run to challenge myself— certainly. I run to get a break from the monotony of life— absolutely. In the end, I keep running for reasons that aren’t easy to explain in everyday conversation.
Way beyond simple joy is a wild sense of being alive and the throbbing vitality that comes from a good, hard run. Physical exertion gets the heart pumping and blood flowing. Running out in the open air is much more elemental and satisfying on a basic level, at least for me, than anything that can be created in a gym. Muscles twitch, breath heaves, heart thumps, sweat drips and my entire being surges forward over the terrain— be it asphalt, or preferably, a constantly shifting and undulating trail. In the wilderness trees fly by and focus is required so as to not make a wrong step and end up flat on my face.
There’s something deeply satisfying about running hard enough to make the lungs burn and the muscles twinge with pain when moving past one’s comfort zone. Running in the red is not sustainable, but if I don’t push to the edge now and then I don’t feel like I’m trying. Intensity is something I crave in running on occasion. I believe runs shouldn’t always be too controlled or measured with conservative heart rates and paces. We’ve got to tear after it now and then to know where that edge is, taste it— lick the sweat, and then settle back into a more manageable groove. Smart runners know when to rip it up and when to go easy. I’m still learning to achieve balance in training.
Racing brings me to the edge of control every time if I give it my all, but I most like chasing after the abyss when running solo—solo, but not alone. It’s way more than just me when I’m out there running my face off! None of us truly runs alone, just as nobody lives in a vacuum. If we’re trying to be alone, then perhaps something is off-kilter leading us to feel or want to feel this way. Fellow runners, we’re covering the miles together! That’s why we have wonderful support available from running clubs, community races, and dailymile!
My running is about much more than pushing limits and seeking anything pleasurable. There’s a wisdom of running that is beyond good and bad. The most valuable runs show their worth not in any physical sensation, but in what they teach us about life on a deeper level. Every time I run, if I’m paying attention, I’m continually getting schooled in impermanence. Life is exemplified by change. Running is change accelerated and magnified.
Continually passing scenery is accompanied by gradually changing physical feedback, thoughts and emotions. Most runs, especially the longer efforts, feature temporary feelings ranging from elation to doubt and drudgery. It’s all there, spiraling around the simple movements of the run itself. Fortunately I learned long ago that chasing only joy is a shallow pursuit and one that would likely result in me giving up running.
Running and the endurance developed also teach us about suffering. Through marathoning I’ve learned oodles about my capacity to endure difficulty. Being able to run long encourages me to persevere in other avenues of life when I’d otherwise want to throw in the towel. I’ve reminded myself time and again that I can keep going farther than I once thought I could.
What I’m after in running more than anything else is an embrace, through focused movement, of life in its most primal, vigorous sense. Life’s obligations and responsibilities will not stop my inner wildman, not as long as I can head out the door and RUN! I’m coming to think running is and will continue to flesh out all these lofty ideals, perhaps for much of the rest of my life. Or at least I’d like running to go on as long as I am able, as long as my body holds up and allows me to get outside and put one foot in front of the other at some pace faster than walking.
For running to be a lasting practice over many years, I’m learning patience is a huge key— one I easily forget. Patience and endurance are inextricably linked. It’s much too easy to get caught up in the desire to be something other than what I am now, to be faster or able to run farther than I’m currently able. What is that?
It’s shit, that’s what! It’s the ego taking a dump on whatever good sense I ever had, taking me away from life in its present reality. When I too often run harder than currently prepared for, I wear down and end up injured. Instead I hope to embrace what I am in this moment with a patient welcoming of the shift running is gradually bringing about in my very being.
And so I am going to keep on running. Yes, I am going to keep on running!
Let’s run our faces off! WOOHOO!
Shortly after beginning running I would race to test my limits and see what I’m made of. Through racing over the last few years, especially in the tough ones, I’ve learned my limits are ever-changing and what I’m made of is dynamic, intangible, and somehow connected to the great beyond. Now I run and challenge myself through racing to continually check my limits and to remind myself of our capacity to suffer and deal effectively with hardship, which is much greater than I acknowledge in everyday life. I can run a marathon and probably longer, so what!? I can tolerate life’s ups and downs, even those that are much more serious than anything I’ve ever encountered through running. What’s the point in intentionally putting oneself in unnecessarily difficult situations? Well, I think I need reminding of life’s vastness and how it’s all about so much more than my never-ending desire to be comfortable. Screw excessive comfort and lethargy. Screw ’em both with a long, hard run!
One can’t start straight with perfection! To attain perfection, one must first of all be able not to understand many things. For if we understand things too quickly, we may perhaps fail to understand them well enough.
— From The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ever since I started to consider my place in the world and to think seriously about life on a deeper level, I’ve been drawn to spiritual practice and genuine, heartfelt expressions of faith. I was brought up in the Catholic tradition and, for a complex tangle of reasons—including personal shortcomings and real issues with Catholicism itself—I turned away. In college I began to examine philosophy and ways of thinking and living completely devoid of religious practice.
It wasn’t long before I was drawn to Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhist practice, for in it I found wisdom and a way of living based on an embrace of life in the here and now without the added weight of cloudy divine guidance. In practicing Buddhism, I came to know and trust there are no easy answers to be found anywhere for life’s big questions and the essence of life will likely always be shrouded in mystery on some level. In practicing and living, in grappling with the very serious, yet ultimately acceptable, presence of personal suffering, I came to trust in a deeper peace beyond anything superficial or selfish. In time I even began to see that my previous issues with Christianity were as much about my own immature expectations and understanding as they were about any genuine problems with the teaching itself. Out of a strong desire for reconciliation between my spiritual upbringing and a wish to understand the religion that surrounds me in this society, I began to explore Christianity again.
Through the help of patient and loving friends and Christian writers like Rob Bell and Thomas Merton who speak to my Buddhist-enhanced understanding, I began to see the depth of wisdom inherent in Christianity. It was in practicing Buddhism that I eventually realized how shut-off I had become to many Christian ways of thinking and in time reopen myself to those ideas. It hasn’t always been easy over the last few years to set aside my strong disgust with those I think are acting as the worst examples of Christian faith.
Groups that shout the loudest, often through bullhorns, and sicken me the most are hard to look beyond sometimes. It’s the repulsively fundamental groups that would rather beat us over the head for our sins in the hopes that we’ll repent instead of approach our inadequacies with loving-kindness that I’ve often been stuck on. Yet, in the end, I knew this corruption of faith was not the heart of Christianity.
I’ve been determined to seek and understand the loving heart of Christianity I sensed and hoped was there. An undeniable truth wells up from deep within me that says our world needs love and compassion far more than condemnation. A strong belief in the need to help others lovingly and peaceably has been my compass in guiding me through the often murky waters of faith for quite awhile. I know in my heart that I’ve gone astray when surrounded by people who think they are the keepers of the one true way and are in some way superior to outsiders. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find more loving, intelligent, supportive Christians than the abhorrent kind. For this I am grateful.
Along with a far-away friend, I began reading the Bible for myself about a year and a half ago. I was surprised and encouraged to see how readable it is, but at the same time I’ve been challenged and perplexed by much of what I’ve encountered, especially in various Old Testament books. I quickly realized how inadequate my understanding is of the early Judaism out of which these writings arose. For me, a sense of time and place is necessary in better understanding these books. I do hope to learn more about the culture, history, and even the language of these ancient people. Judaism’s ethos and its related teachings cannot be wholly separated and time-warped into today’s world without some modification.
Even though I can appreciate the idea of divine inspiration for the writers of these books, I cannot see these words as the completely infallible word of God. How could I accept what I pick up and read in the Bible as inerrant when I acknowledge how human hands have shaped and reshaped what is today’s Christian Bible? Translation and interpretation have been necessary components of keeping the Christian Bible relevant. A great deal of trust and faith in those Christians that have come before me is necessary if I am going to really appreciate the teachings of the Bible.
I see no problem in keeping all the faculties of my mind in play in making sense of God’s word as handed down—and molded—by generation after generation. I refuse to turn off my brain and just accept on some sort of blind faith that the Bible is God’s final and unequivocal word to be taken literally and without consideration, because, well, I do think God is still speaking to us. For me, written truth does not trump observable, real-world truth as revealed in nature or in everyday life itself.
Not long after taking up the semi-regular practice of Bible reading I began to realize that much of it did speak to me. A growing fondness for the Christian story began to develop and I was coming to see and understand Jesus like never before. Much of this is still in the works and I suppose that will always be the case as long as I am serious about the practice of Christianity. I also came to see that any sort of worthwhile Christian cannot exist in a vacuum. I wasn’t entirely in a vacuum as I had one very helpful far-away friend and a few others here and there who I could discuss such matters with, but I have not had a real-life, local community of Christians to share and worship with in a long time. So I understood the need for community, for church. I had taken up the reading of the Bible and even began to pray and attempt to explicitly commune with God on occasion, but I was lacking a person-to-person connection in my developing faith.
Despite my doubts and remaining confusion regarding Christianity, I started to look for a church I could handle. I hadn’t gone to any church regularly since I was a teenager and was obligated to do so by my parents. In my initial search online I found the UCC (United Church of Christ) and their local church, Peace United Church of Christ. In examining the UCC website I was immediately attracted to their emphasis on the positive and healing aspects of the Christian teaching, especially the good news of the love God has for everyone. The whole message was wrapped in a welcoming, open to anyone package. Their method of worship was supposedly guided by scripture, yet serious thinking and continual reexamination of faith was part of their practice. It all looked wonderful on the screen and so I decided to check the local church out in person.
Sarah and I visited Peace United for the first time at the end of January and were immediately welcomed and introduced to the church by warm, friendly people. Actually, even before walking in the door I was impressed by a sign hanging outside that read “Our faith is over 2000 years old, our thinking is not!” Yes, that’s the type of Christian approach I was hoping to find! The place felt right, as right as Christianity has felt for me in a building in a long time. The service was familiar to my Catholic background, yet not as bogged down with ritual. The hymns were traditional, beautifully backed by organ and choir, albeit difficult for a non-singer like myself to keep up with— yet I have fun trying to sing. We’ve attended services there a number of times since that first Sunday and each time I’ve been impressed with the pastor’s sermons and the relevance of his messages to this life, messages that are culled from the same Scriptures I am now grappling with. I’ve been continually encouraged by the warm, genuinely faithful people that I’ve encountered at the church and I can see myself looking to them for support.
My original idea in looking for a church had me visiting several, but after going to Peace United over the last few months, I no longer think it’s necessary. If I’ve found a church home on the first try, why keep looking? This could be it.
I still struggle with Christianity. I am not beyond doubt. I have difficulty with probably a lot of the same ideas countless other people have had, I don’t think I’m special. Yet it’s all quite confounding sometimes and nearly paralyzing. How do I know in my heart that an actual practice of what’s become Christianity is what God wants for me? How is God even speaking to me in my life now? I’m trying to listen, are my ears not working properly? Why can’t he give me a clear shout out like so many times in the stories of the Old Testament. I know that’s a bit selfish and perhaps immature to wish for, but…
Problem is, Christianity insists there is an all-knowing, all-seeing creative God behind everything. And yet we sit here as human beings separated from him by what seems like an impossibly large gulf at times. Our faith is supposed to bridge that gap, but is Christianity as it has come to me now what God really has in mind for us in living a realized life in this world? Seems to me we as human beings still have a lot of work to do in that regard, in making Christianity what it needs to be.
I am trying to open myself to God, often not really knowing how. In getting back to prayer, even prayers of petition which I’ve often struggled with, I’ve taken to asking God for understanding as it’s begun to make sense to me that I should use the voice I have to ask for help. Sure, an all-knowing God would know my heart’s desire, but who am I to expect him to do the work of reading my mind? Am I so lazy and self-centered that I can’t call out to him? I don’t want to be. I am asking you, dear God, for your help in clarifying my way forward.
I have no problem believing and trusting in a creative force/being that is at the source of all existence. When I look at the world and its tendency towards chaos and destruction I also see and am greatly encouraged by our capacity for love and the undeniable ability we have to awaken to truth on a deeper level. Our willingness to love each other despite all the ugliness that comes with being alive in this world is profound and incredibly awe-inspiring to me. Yet I struggle envisioning God through a human conceptual framework. Seems to me God has to be so much larger than anything my mind can even begin to comprehend or even as often described in the Bible. Sure, I understand the idea of being made in his image, but still, that’s just an image of his ineffable nature.
So God sent Jesus as the ultimate sacrificial expression of love to ultimately bring his misguided world of creative beings back into line with his true way. It’s all so heavy and complex, so layered and nuanced, so mysterious and mind-boggling. Yet the more I learn about the Christian story and the life of Jesus, the more intrigued and even grateful I become. It’s quite a story! I’ve never failed to be inspired by the life of Jesus. It’s what’s often come after Jesus and supposedly in his name that’s bothered me. When I remind myself that everything labeled as “Christian” isn’t necessarily connected to God then I am able go on with less hesitancy.
I am trying to learn how to have a real relationship with Jesus, how to model my life after his and in a way make his life my own. Yet, what character in the history of the world is as massive and has bigger sandals to fill than Jesus!? He’s the so-called Son of God for crying out loud! And yet I can see how we’re all sons of God. Hello, Jesus, I want to know you. Please help me to be like you too. Furthermore, I’m a pragmatist and feel that as long as I’m a human being I’ll be somewhat constrained by my humanness. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for the seemingly impossible, right?
All this thinking of God and what it means for me now to live a life in pursuit of his way does not have to be contrary to present reality. Good thing, because if what God was asking me for was contrary to life in a real sense then I’d have to ask, “What gives, God?” I mean, the God of the Bible asks for our deepest commitment, but as of yet he hasn’t asked me to strip naked and run down the street singing “Hallelujah”. Nor have I been called to lash out at sinners and demand their repentance. Picking up a bullhorn and blasting others or going clinically bonkers are not in the cards for me.
Ultimate reality remains in balance with ordinary, everyday life despite our feeling of dissatisfaction. Regardless my wish to know the mind of God and to understand the deepest truths of existence, life goes on as it is, just as it is— as ordinary and profound as ever before. Mundane and scared are two sides of the same unified reality.
I will continue to rake leaves and prepare food, the need to pay attention to everyday activity will not go away in this life. Despite our obligations there is freedom and comfort in knowing all is as it should be, momentarily balanced on the head of pin in this time and place on the way to something entirely new in the next. The hard work of taking care of our lives and each other goes on without an end in sight. There will always be more to do and yet we can be filled with the trust available to us from the great unknown. This is the tenuous and wondrous life of a human being!
Recently at Peace United the opportunity has come up to become a member of the church. I think in writing and thinking about all this today I have decided to become a member, although I will continue to think and pray on it for a couple more days. I am definitely pleased with all I’ve experienced at the church and I know that if I am going to deepen my Christian understanding and faith, I have to continue forward with the help of others in that faith. All the questions that beset me now will not be answered today, but in time with God’s grace and the love and support available to me at church and elsewhere, perhaps my way will be clarified. Maybe one day I will really know what it means to be a disciple of Christ.