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Let the Spirit Move You

Review: Running With the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham


Published May 23, 2012 at 7:47 a.m.


With the Taiko drummers on Battery Street, the bagpipers on Pine Street and the Bloody Mary drinkers at Leunig’s, this weekend’s Vermont City Marathon promises — as usual — myriad distractions from the actual act of running 26.2 miles. But it doesn’t have to be so. A new book from a spiritual leader with Vermont roots and nine marathons under his, um, maroon robes argues that runners should ignore all that monkey business and slow their minds down — way down.

In Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind, the Sakyong, Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche — or Sakyong Mipham, or just the Sakyong — explains how tapping into the present during physical activity can make us stronger, more radiant and resilient. “Running works with the periphery or the superficial level of thoughts, concerns and worries,” he writes. “Meditation not only deals with the periphery, it goes all the way down to the core.”

The author wasn’t necessarily born to run, but he was destined to be king — of the Shambhala empire that his father, Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founded in the West, beginning with a meditation retreat center in Barnet, Vt., called Karmê Chöling.

Though he’s now based in Boulder, Colo., the Sakyong regularly returns to the Green Mountains to train not just his mind but his body. In 2006, he ran the Vermont City Marathon in 3:24:11. (His personal record would come a few months later, a 3:05:11 in Chicago.)

So, yeah, the Sakyong knows a thing or two about running, as well as meditation. It makes sense that he would combine the two. I was intrigued to read the book, given that I’m a generally distracted person. I recall trying to follow The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Meditation while pregnant with my daughter and daydreaming about nursery décor instead.

The Sakyong reassures runners that they don’t need to master meditation from the get-go. Instead, following training principles similar to those of endurance events, they should work on building a base of simply coming back to the breath. “As we continuously and repeatedly reassociate the mind with the breathing, we are creating stability,” he writes. “In running and in meditation, the beginning can be the most challenging time.”

With a stable base, runner-meditators can move through the four Shambhala phases proposed by the Sakyong: tiger (ditching the music, working on posture); lion (staying in shape, handling more pain); garuda (setting an “outrageous” goal); and dragon (contemplating deep and powerful themes). As the Sakyong explains, these four “dignitaries” represent the inner development of courage in Shambhala warriorship. When you’ve got balance and integrity, he suggests, you will have lungta — or “the ability to bring about long life, good health, success and happiness.”

That sounded good to me, and so did the Sakyong’s favorite prerun breakfast of blueberry oat muffins. But removing my ear buds, my Skrillex mixes and carefully cultivated playlists? I wasn’t so sure. That is, until I went for a run while traveling in London recently, and left my Nano in the hotel room. I followed my breath and the sound of my footsteps on the cobblestones and suddenly felt pretty uplifted.

Though I’m decidedly still in the “tiger” phase of running meditation, I’m looking forward to “lion,” in hopes of really appreciating what the Sakyong calls “panoramic awareness” when I run. That’s when you “feel your internal environment — your rhythm, the pounding of your heart, your feet hitting the trail,” he writes. “At the same time, you tune in to your external environment — the sky, the air, the sounds of life.”

So, actually, those Taiko drummers fit right in with the Sakyong’s vision of meaningful meditation. And anyone who might suffer a little pain while running this weekend should consider that meditating enabled the Sakyong to run with a 4-and-a-half-inch blister in his first marathon, the Toronto Waterfront, in 2002. That kind of powerful focus, he says, can be useful in any activity more demanding than, say, lifting a Bloody Mary to one’s lips.

“Everyone knows that it’s healthy to have a level of ongoing physical fitness in life,” says the Sakyong. “What is not immediately apparent is that we also need to take care of our mental well-being. This naturally leads to less anxiety, less sickness and a more balanced life.”

With that in mind, I caught up with the Sakyong in advance of the Vermont City Marathon.

SEVEN DAYS: You write about being with the breath and being in the present — but really, how can a runner do this in a particularly difficult part of a marathon, such as running up Battery Street or hitting the wall on the bike path?

SAKYONG MIPHAM: There is a point in running where you come in contact with your own state of mind in a very immediate way. From the challenge of physical exertion and pain to working with ability — this is where meditation benefits the runner. We don’t panic, and we regard the question “Can I do this?” as healthy. Of course, we make sure that we aren’t hurting ourselves, either. And don’t let the bike path fool you. At that point, it doesn’t feel like a race — [it feels] like you could just ease up. But you have to stay strong and keep going.

SD: What are your other memories of running the Vermont City Marathon, beyond the unusually warm temperatures that you write about in the book?

SM: It’s not a flat race. People say that it’s an easy course, but when you hit Battery Street, you realize that’s just not true.

SD: What about running the marathon as a relay team — can that fit in with your outlook on running and meditation?

SM: Running can be a way that we connect with a greater world. We can work with others in a relay, we can have mindful conversations while running in groups or we can run for different social causes. Running meditation is an active way that we help ourselves and the world we live in. Therefore, depending on our motivation, a marathon can be a personal achievement or a way to benefit humanity itself.

SD: You write about being fully engaged on the treadmill — how is that possible?

SM: Try to make the workouts on the treadmill interesting so that you stay engaged, like inclines or light interval training. In general, I recommend doing shorter workouts on the treadmills and saving the longer runs for the trails.

SD: What about people who don’t like running at all?

SM: People naturally want to find meaning in their physical activities. Whether you go play tennis, go for walks in the morning or go to the gym during your lunch break, you can always apply the principles of mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is staying present with whatever is occurring, with a sense of appreciation and gentleness. You don’t have to have an adversarial relationship with your body.

"Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind" by Sakyong Mipham, Harmony Books, 208 pages. $25. Karmê Chöling Shambhala Meditation Center in Barnet will offer running programs in July and August; for info, visit karmecholing.org.