Sunday, September 20, 2009

Marathon Sunday: Running Meditation

In light of my new status as a benched runner, and all the time I have to contemplate this new reality, this week's Marathon Sunday is more about the internal strength and stamina than it is about the actual physical race.

Every once in a while there is discussion in my meditation group about whether or not running can be considered a form of meditation. While the popular practice of putting on your ipod and 'zoning out' is NOT meditation, I believe taking to the road without distractions and focusing on the breath and the present moment certainly is. I argue this point every time, and point out that I will actually get EVEN MORE (!) meditation time in per day if I am allowed to run it! My teacher smiles, points to the cushion, and says 'park it'. Well...okaaaay, but still...lookit this:

The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei

The Japanese Tendai Priests practice in monasteries located in the forests of Mt. Hiei. The mountain is considered holy, and many go in pilgrimage because it is said to "offer the seeker every type of religious experience--sacred scholarship, grand ritual, austere meditation, heartfelt repentance, heroic asceticism, mystical flight, miraculous cures, ceaseless devotion, divine joy, and nature worship-while promising enlightenment in this very body." It also is the home of one of the most difficult endurance challenges in the world; kaihogyo training.

A monk who enters this path is known as a gyoja; "a spiritual athlete who practices gyo with a mind set of the Path of Buddha." He is given 7 years to complete his training, during which, if for any reason he cannot complete any aspect, he is honor bound to kill himself by hanging or disembowelment. The training schedule looks like this:

Years 1-3: 40km (roughly equal to a 26.2 marathon) a day for 100 consecutive days.

Years 4-5: 40km a day for 100 consecutive days - performed twice

Year 6: 60km (roughly equal to 37.5 miles) a day for 100 consecutive days.

Year 7: 84km (roughly equal to 52.2 miles) a day for 100 consecutive days,
&40km a day for 100 consecutive days.

On the 700th day, the monks must complete a 9 day meditation without food, water, rest or sleep.

During training, the monks must still participate in all mediation, prayers and duties around the temple. They regularly visit other temples and give blessings, and often will leave the mountain and walk through nearby Kyoto to bless those who cannot travel to them.

At the end of all of this, the gyoja is considered to be a kaihogyo, and has attained great enlightenment. Since 1885, only 46 monks have finished successfully!

There is a short documentary about the kaihogyo here. Check it out, and remember it the next time you feel like a daily 3-5 miler is just 'too hard'!

The Lung-gom-pa Runners of Tibet

Even more running monks! The Lung-gom-pa monks of old Tibet were known to run 200 miles at a clip, and could go for 48 hours without stopping. Lung-gom-pa (wind meditation) training was said to help the monks develop incredible nimbleness and endurance.

(from an article by H Schmid) '"The Way of the White Clouds" by Lama Anagarika Govinda explains that the word Lung, pronounced rlun, signifies the state of air as well as vital energy or psychic force. Gom means meditation, contemplation, concentration of mind and soul upon a certain subject. It has to do with the emptying of one’s mind of all subject-object relationships. This means that a lung-gom-pa runner is not a man who has the ability to fly through air, but one who can control his energy, re-channel and concentrate it in a new direction.'

So the monks agree, there is some hardcore mind training going on during a run!

So finally, I leave you with these opportunities for some Marathon Meditation:

The Great Tibetan Marathon

Adventure Marathons have been hosting full and half marathons in amazing locations for several years now. Read the list of requirements for a course to be called an 'Adventure Marathon', and you will know fear:

The course must follow the classical marathon distance of 42.195 m. Various surfaces must occur on the course, and the route cannot appear homogeneous. The surface can consist of asphalt, rock, gravel, sand, earth, ice, water, stairs, fallen branches and trunks etc. Abrupt ascents must be part of the course. As a minimum there must occur 5-10% ascents spread over 5 to 10 km, unless the marathon is taking place in high altitude. At least one of the following extreme elements must appear on the course: high altitude (more than 2,000 meters), steep, extended ascents, sand dunes, cold/frost or heat (more than 30 degrees Celsius) The course must be difficult to such an extent that the runners will be finishing 25-75% later than at an average marathon. No more than 10% of the runners are supposed to use less than 3h15min. The average time must be higher than 4h30min.

Sounds like fun! I know I'm going to get bored with only doing NYC races pretty soon. I've started looking at traveling to other states, but when I think big, I think of these.

The Great Tibetan Marathon is manned by the local monks, starts and ends at a monastery and is run at altitude on the Tibetan Plateau of Northern India. Check out the course description!

What a great way to see the world! The other Marathon that caught my eye was The Big Five Marathon. You run through Entabeni Game reserve with nothing but a handful of park rangers in jeeps and helicopters to separate you from The Big Five: Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lions and Leopards! I'm sure the possibility of being dinner adds a whole other layer to the idea of running meditation and being completely in the moment!

Look out for the lions!

So that's it! I have a lot of running mediation to look forward to in the future, but for now, I'm trying to be as patient as possible in waiting for this injury to heal. So until then, I'll be parked on the cushion and mentally preparing for the rigors of Marathon meditation at NYC 2010 and beyond!


  1. I took an 8 week starter course in Tai chi, and was shocked at how physically taxing it was. It doesn't look like it would be, but it's like carrying two heavy bags of groceries with your arms extended, while walking up a flight of stairs as slowly as you can and dodging a herd of people walking down. And it's a form of meditation.

    There's been a lot of research done on brain activity while exercising, and the verdict seems to be your brain is at its best when you're exercising.

    All of which supports physical activity as meditation, if done with concentration and purpose.

  2. I totally want to try Tai Chi! I read a book recently called Chi Running that totally changed the way I thought about my running form. It teaches you to use the principles of Tai Chi to reduce the amount of perceived effort and prevent injury.