Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Meditating and running go hand in hand, says Sakyong Mipham. Exercise can be a support for meditation, and meditation can be a support for exercise.
I began to run simply as a way to get some exercise. Soon enough, however, I found myself applying certain principles I have learned in a lifetime of meditating.
To me, the relationship between meditation and running is natural, for one is a training of the mind and one is a training of the body. In the ancient world, it was understood that people are happier when their minds are flexible and their bodies are strong. In the modern world, we are faced with conditions that challenge this mental and physical balance.
To handle the load, we need to attend to our well-being. Because the mind and the body are intimately connected, relieving the stress of the body through exercise has an immediate effect on the mind: the mind is no longer dealing with the discomfort of the body. If the body is relaxed and flexible, that is one less thing for the mind to think about. Physical exercise thus provides some mental relief. Conversely, training the mind helps us be focused in our physical activity.
Thus, to lead a balanced life, we need to engage and be active, and to deepen and rest. When we are on the go—running, talking, working—the mind is engaged in a sympathetic nervous system process. If we don’t balance the sympathetic with the parasympathetic nervous system process, in which we deepen and rest, we eventually become wired, edgy, and emotionally sensitive. Long periods of overstimulation—too much activity—begin to affect our organs and blood flow. Mentally we may become dull or jaded. Most important, we are not able to have deeper, more contemplative thoughts. Keeping our body still and relaxing the mind while staying focused, as we do in meditation, is tremendously beneficial. But because we aren’t accustomed to such a contemplative state, it may make us feel uncomfortable. We have difficulty changing our habits.
Exercise can be a support for meditation, and meditation can be a support for exercise. Running is a natural form of exercise, for it is simply an extension of walking. When we run, we strengthen our heart, remove stagnant air, revitalize our nervous system, and increase our aerobic capacity. It helps us develop a positive attitude. It creates exertion and stamina and gives us a way to deal with pain. It helps us relax. For many of us, it offers a feeling of freedom. Likewise, meditation is a natural exercise of the mind— an opportunity to strengthen, reinvigorate, and cleanse. Through meditation we can connect with that long-forgotten goodness we all have. It is very powerful to feel that sense of goodness: having confidence and bravery in our innermost being.
Just as in running, in meditation we leave behind our daily concerns—the daydreaming, stress, and planning. We become very present. We enter into the now. By doing that, our mind builds strength. Our nervous system begins to relax. We develop appreciation and awareness. Our intelligence and memory become sharper. We are able to see the world from multiple perspectives. We are no longer imprisoned by emotional highs and lows. Love, compassion, and other positive qualities become more easily accessible. Just like running, when we finish meditating, we feel refreshed, and much for the same reason: meditation is a natural, healthy activity.
Developing a relationship with the breath is a key to meditation— and to running. If we develop a relationship with our breathing, we do not have to struggle with it as much. Intuitively, runners know this—we are essentially developing a relationship with the most elemental aspects of being alive. In meditation, placing our attention on the breathing takes the mind from daydreaming, worrying, thinking, and fantasizing. It gives our mind something healthy to do.
In running and in meditation, one of the biggest obstacles is laziness. One kind of laziness is basic slothfulness, in which we are unable to extract ourselves from the television or couch. In this case, just a little bit of exercise can send a message to the body that it is time to move forward. Even putting on workout clothes and beginning to stretch helps bring us out of our sloth. By the same token, sitting down to follow the breath for even five minutes has the power to move us out of laziness.
Although the process of meditating is different from running, the tools are the same: we need to be determined and exert ourselves. Obviously we will have challenges throughout our journey, but discipline, perspective, and perseverance lead to big rewards.
People sometimes say, “Running is my meditation.” Even though I know what they mean, in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation. That’s why they have different names. It would be just as inaccurate to say, “Meditation is my exercise.” I have known some advanced meditators who have been able to bring their meditative mind—that strength and relaxation—into their body with its channels, nervous system, and muscles. They become strong, radiant, and resilient. In Tibet there is even a type of practice called heat meditation, in which yogis who are able to use their mind to control their body heat meditate in subzero conditions for months, wearing only a cotton shawl. However, it is unlikely that they would be able to run a marathon.
Likewise, it is unlikely that we are going to attain enlightenment by running, even though some have tried. It is not a matter of choosing what is better—exercising the mind or exercising the body. Rather, these activities go hand in hand. We need to exercise both our body and our mind. The nature of the body is form and substance. The nature of the mind is consciousness. Because the body and mind are different by nature, what benefits them is different in nature as well. The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness. When we give our mind and body what benefits them, we experience a natural harmony and balance. With this unified approach, we are happy, healthy, and wise.
Like many who run, I run for health as well as joy. There is a deeper meaning, which has to do with my intention. I believe that with pure intention, you can bring almost any activity onto your spiritual path. My intention in running is to benefit others. Thus running is a continuation of my spiritual journey. With a powerful mind, if we intend our run to be for the welfare of others, then it is. Conversely, if we turn our meditation into a completely selfish pursuit, that is exactly what it will be. In either activity it is our own intention that determines whether the result is ordinary or extraordinary.
Ideally, our daily routine will include both exercise and meditation. Mind training can help us be undistracted during physical activity. At the same time, it allows us to develop the skill of being gentle and firm with ourselves. For meditators — or anyone pursuing knowledge — exercise helps keep the body from becoming a nuisance. When we’re not feeling pain or discomfort, our intellectual work takes less effort. Ultimately, both the mind and the body are something we should cherish. The body is the magical horse, and the mind is the magical jewel.