The Zen of Running

On Monday, we finally got our first taste of a “normal” summer day in Central Illinois. It’s been cool and rainy for most of the summer, but Monday it was hot and humid, the heat index registering triple digits. Stepping outside felt like stepping into a sauna.

And because I’m training for a 1/2 marathon, I had to run. Five miles at a slow pace, a recovery run, no big deal. Except the weather. And so I waited and watched and did my best to time my departure so I was out the front door as late as possible while still getting home before dark. I run on country roads, and even though dusk is my favorite time of day to run, I’d rather not find myself smeared into the grill of someone’s pickup truck.

And so, a couple minutes after 8, I set out, water bottle in hand, headphones in, listening to NPR’s “On the Media” podcast. Within a quarter of a mile I was drenched in sweat, but because it was a recovery run and I was running at a slower-than-normal pace, I wasn’t strained. In fact I was quite relaxed. And after 2 miles, I realized that I had no idea what was being said on the podcast, because I had lost myself in the run.

So, I took out my earbuds and gave myself over to the moment. In these moments, I have a breath prayer – a mantra – that I slip into that fits in the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement, in the spaces between my breathing. I notice the feel of my muscles flexing, the acute sense of droplets of sweat running down my legs. I hear the tree frogs calling to each other, the cicadas chirping, I notice the fireflies rising up out of the ditches to my left and right. That night, I noticed the sky turning alternating shades of orange, pink, blue and purple as the sunlight bounced and reflected off the cloud formations. I smelled the corn and the soybeans and the earthiness of the cows grazing right up against the fence as I ran by in the darkening twilight.

And in that moment there was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that I’m alive and I’m living in this moment. My body isn’t perfect, my run isn’t as strong as I wish, my problems haven’t gone away and I’m still mulling over the jerk thing someone said on Sunday, but in that moment, the demons in my head – the ones that keep me awake at night telling me I’m not good enough, that I’m missing out on something, that I’m screwing life up – were silent and I was simply there and I was grateful and, right then, that was enough.

I contemplated running longer than the 5 miles the training plan called for, because I didn’t want the moment to end, but by then it was dark, and I was starting to get nervous that a car would come up over a hill and take me out. So, I turned into my subdivision and finished my run, then sat out on my deck while I waited for the sweat to stop, savoring this unexpected gift on a hot, Monday evening in late July.

And while this moment of transcendence or clarity or connectedness – whatever you choose to call it – came on a run, it’s not exclusive to running. Sometimes, this feeling comes in the kitchen when I lose myself to a recipe and good ingredients. And sometimes it comes when I gather in the safety of my most intimate friends and I am able to step outside the moment, observe my life and recognize it as a gift. And sometimes it comes in a more formal, religious type setting – in the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine and the reverb of a gothic cathedral.

So this isn’t an argument for running per se, but rather it’s an encouragement to take the earbuds out and notice that life is a gift, the universe is good and God is whispering your name, inviting you to taste and see that everything is good. Cook, run, get together with friends, have a deep, spiritual conversation, go to church, hike in the woods, do whatever it takes to live in this moment because this moment is the only one you have. And in this moment you are being invited to pay attention, to live deeply, and to be fully alive.

What’s in Your Wake?

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I have a friend, Tim, whose brother is a professional golfer. And so, a couple weeks ago, I went with my Dad, Tim and his wife to the John Deere Classic to walk the course and follow his brother around the course. It was a gorgeous couple of days. On Thursday and Friday the weather was nearly perfect, the crowds following the threesome we were following were small, the course was in perfect condition due to all the rain we’ve had and we had a great time walking the course, talking (quietly) and enjoying the time together.

But my very favorite part of the experience was watching Tim support, love, and cheer on his brother. I told a larger group of friends after the event that Tim has this amazing quality that when he’s for you, he’s really, really for you. And it was so much fun to watch Tim be for his brother. When his brother would struggle a bit, Tim would position himself on the ropes to make sure he said an encouraging word, when his brother would save par with a long putt or make birdie, Tim would be the first to erupt in applause. Tim has watched his brother play dozens of rounds of golf over the years, all over the world, but he was so in-the-moment that day, giving himself fully to supporting his brother.brothers

I too have been the recipient of Tim’s affection. I’ve sat in his shop in the dead of winter (both real and metaphorically winter) late at night drinking whisky with Tim & my friend Kevin, as they’ve reminded me of my calling, reminded me that despite the darkness, they are for me. Here’s the thing: I almost always walk away from my time with Tim feeling better about myself. I feel loved. I feel supported.

Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I wonder sometimes about how I make people feel. I wonder especially about my family. When I’ve come home, and it’s been a long day, and I’m tired of talking and I have no patience and I yell at them for being loud (yep, I get the irony), I wonder what they feel. When I move through my task list, getting stuff done, I wonder how I make people feel. When I channel my inner-Cliff Clavin and show off with what I know, I wonder how I make people feel.

There’s a book by Henry Cloud called Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality that for years has provided me with one of my favorite metaphors regarding leadership. In it, Cloud talks about our wake. He describes how when a boat moves through the water, you can tell a lot about the boat by its wake – you can tell its speed, direction, and drag – and the wake doesn’t lie. And then Cloud asks us to consider, “What does [my] wake look like?”

“Are a lot of people out there water-skiing on the wake, smiling, having a great time for our having ‘moved through their lives’? Or are they out there bobbing for air, bleeding, and left wounded as shark bait? In other words, would they say that their experience with us has left them better off for our having ‘moved through their lives,’ or would they say that it has left them worse off? Did they consider it a blessing that they were associated with you, or a curse? What is the nature of the wake? Are they smiling or reeling?”

Tim’s brother – the professional golfer – his life is better off because of the way Tim “moves through his life.” My life, and the lives of many of us who are loved by Tim, are enriched; we feel more confident, we feel supported, we feel loved because Tim moves through our life.

But what about you? What about me? Who is in my wake and what is it that they feel? Of course, life is hard and sometimes we have to, because of our job or our role as a parent, do hard things that hurt people. But by and large, who is in our wake and what do they feel? The truth is, we probably can’t answer this for ourselves, but maybe, when we build up a little courage, we might ask someone we trust – someone who will be extremely gentle with us – about our wake. And then, when we see ourselves for who we truly are, we can begin to change.

 

Intersection

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Several years ago, I was led into a regular practice of silence, solitude and meditation. I’m not very good at it – the monkey mind wins most days – but I continue to try. And as I’ve attempted to lead myself and even help others along the same pathway, one of the analogies that I find helpful is that of sitting in a theater.

Imagine your life as a stage:  Daily you’re on the stage, going about your life.  You go to work, you navigate relationships, you exercise, you watch a little television, you play with your kids, you have a beer with a friend. Silence/solitude/meditation is the practice of stepping off the stage for just awhile and sitting up in the balcony observing your life. It’s taking the time to be an observer of your life and not just a participant. And when you get the perspective from the balcony, you will often see things that you might have missed when you were busy on the stage, busy playing your various roles.

For me, when I sit in the balcony for awhile, one of the things that happens is that I start to make connections. I notice how a conversation with one person overlapped a conversation with someone else. I notice how an experience impacted another experience. I notice how one relationship changed the dynamic of another. I notice how my posture or reaction in one set of circumstances set me up for success/failure in another. I don’t judge myself in these moments; I just notice. And when I notice, patterns and intersections start to appear.

Let me make this more concrete.

Monday, I had early morning coffee with a friend and we talked about a bunch of ideas. Then, a couple hours later, she sent me an email with a link to a webpage that she was confident that I would like. And when I went to the webpage, I fell in love with a website (which, ironically has happened twice this week … weird). And watching a video on the website recalled a conversation that I had with a friend, running the streets of Laguna Beach together a couple weeks ago and another conversation with a friend in LA a couple days later. And then I had a conversation with another friend – who has started to make it a habit to stop by my office early in the mornings when he knows I’m the only one in the building – and I was telling him about these things and he affirmed this idea that I have, which led to an email yesterday to someone about this idea and another affirmation in his response to my email, and, well…who knows where this idea of mine will go, but the point is, there’s an intersection, and I think that’s an invitation to lean into that place.

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Sitting in the balcony gave me the space to notice the intersection of these ideas, conversations, thoughts and inspirations. I’m trying these days to pay particular attention to places in my life where there is intersection. I want to really notice the ideas that keep coming up, the relationships that keep colliding, the conversations that keep coming back around to the same themes, the opportunities that present themselves, and the recurring feelings I feel in different situations.

I’m convinced the universe, or God, or the Spirit, or whatever you feel most comfortable calling it, is inviting us into new ways of living, new ways of being. There are new ideas to be put into the world, there are new ways of saying old things that need to be said again. As C.S. Lewis says in the Chronicles of Narnia, “further up, further in.” That to me describes the journey – always further up, always further in.

But I’ll only notice them when I take the time to sit quietly in the balcony, observe my life for a bit and pay attention to the intersections.

So, may you find time today to sit in the balcony and observe your life. And may you see the intersections, the places where things seem to be lining up, where the universe seems to be inviting you into something. And may you have the courage, the wisdom and the strength to dive into the intersections.