When I run, my mind runs. A typical outing involves planning, analyzing, speculating, sometimes ruminating, and even regretting. Some of it is fun…getting excited for an upcoming “girls night” with friends or wondering about our (hopefully) future trip to Germany, for instance. Some of it is rather mundane…reviewing the current fridge/pantry/garden contents and what I get to eat when upon my return (I mean, that’s one of the great things about running, right? Eating!). Other times it’s just filler…more rarely now, but frequently in my more competitive days, I would simply count, starting at any number and going until I felt like starting again at another number, or even the same one as before.
So as I run and my mind runs, I wonder what I am accomplishing. I always feel better after a run for the physical exercise I am getting, but perhaps the mental exercise I am also getting is not as reliably rewarding. Sometimes my thinking is helpful, such as when I might be rehearsing how to approach a challenging interaction or figuring out what steps I might take to reach a particular goal. Much more frequently, however, after those many minutes and many strides have gone by, I end up right back where I started, the driveway, the car, the trailhead, physically and mentally. Though I feel accomplished for having done the run and the exertion has put me in a better mood, I wonder how much progress I am truly making. Are these thoughts and my running mind actually mindless? If so, I ask myself, does mindless equal meaningless? How then can I switch this experience from mindless to mindful? Meaningless to meaningful?
I have recently begun a very beginner mindfulness practice. I know folks who practice daily sitting meditation for many minutes, hours even. While I admire those folks, I do not aspire to be those folks. Currently, my mindfulness is quite minimal, but I do find it easiest to practice while in motion – running or biking. This is probably because during those times, I really don’t have anything else that I can actually do. There are no other excuses, real or imagined, and I cannot abandon this activity for another until I have returned from my run and unlaced my shoes or finished my ride and clipped out of my pedals.
So I notice things. I notice my breathing, my anchor. My breathing…what I always come back to when practicing whether sitting, driving, running, or even working. I notice my arms swinging. I notice the feel of my clothing. I notice the feel of the air in my skin. I notice where my hair is falling on my face. Then I notice I am thinking. Oh, this is what thinking is like right now. And then I notice my breath. I notice the weight of my body. I notice the feel of my feet in my socks, my socks in my shoes, my shoes on the rocks, dirt, roots, damp earth. I notice the smell as we pass fresh hay or even rotting road kill. I notice the weight and temperature of the air as we pass near a cool stream or down towards a pond at the bottom of a slope. I listen to water rushing, to crickets, to birds, the metronome of panting from MPP, or the snapping of the branches of downed trees as he catapults himself over the river and through the woods, see-sawing like a rocking horse. Instead of being lost in thought, elsewhere, I am in the present. Aware. And then my mind skips to something, a quick flicker like an old movie reel, I notice that, too, and return to my breath.
See, I am still not the best mindful running, but it has been a really logical introduction for me. Sitting meditation is a struggle when I am alone. But, running, biking, and even driving, are activities that I am going to do anyway and to be able to practice mindfulness during these times, well, I feel like I am killing two birds with one stone. What all of this helps me to recognize is not just what it is to be present and how it feels to be present but also how different this is from worrying, analyzing, regretting, and essentially just getting caught up in thought. The idea is that when my mind starts running, whether or not my body is also running, I can notice. Once I notice, I can bring myself back to my breath, back to the present.
Eventually, I will set these patterns, these pathways, tracks, and trails in my brain, and maybe I won’t have to be so deliberate about coming back to my breath. I will live greater and greater amounts of my runs and my life in the present. One can hope! It’s been a process and probably a slower one for me than for others, but I think of ways to be mindful and I practice mindfulness in some way, usually small, every day.