The Runner: A Study in Being

This is the first post in a series entitled “The Runner.” I will be releasing a new post in the series each week, reflecting on a different aspect of running or reflection to which running can lead us.

Why running? A couple months ago, I began running. Although I had run before, of course, I had never done so regularly. As the act of running grew to become part of my routine, despite inevitable ebb and flow, I was surprised and moved by all that this seemingly simple pursuit can do, not just for the body but for the mind and soul too. This series is written not only for people who run. It is not even only for people who exercise. It is just for people. Running reveals deep truths about the human person, truths that can be shared and experienced by runners and non-runners alike.

With this in mind, I’d like to move into the subject of my first post, which I have titled, “A Study in Being.” To me, this “being” is the profoundest truth of all in running, but it can easily be lost and buried beneath other well-meant intentions. Sometimes, while running, we focus only on the “doing.” This makes sense if you think about it. In this very post, I have referred at least once to running as an “act.” Thus it consists of us acting in a certain way; acting perhaps with a certain object in mind; responding to our world in an active rather than passive way. Going for a run is something that we can do or not do. No one could deny that running is an active thing to do; we label ourselves as “active” when we do it. But, I think it can be more than this. Running can also be a way of being.

When I run, I run on my own, without a companion in the form of another person or of music. So much of our lives we spend flitting from one thought to the next. We scroll through fragments on a screen; we listen to and watch many things; we feel ourselves torn from one direction to the next through an endless barrage of distractions; we fool ourselves that we are multitasking efficiently, when really we are only dividing our attention and self into small, separate pieces. The irony is that the things intended to connect us to our world, to keep us in the loop with a sort of “hyper-connectivity,” result instead in a disconnect. We exist immersed in the shifting fabric of reality, and yet we are outside of it.

Running offers us a unique opportunity, one that is certainly not limited to or accessible by the runner alone, but that I think unfolds as a beautiful gift to the runner. It is the gift of being. The gift is one we can claim at any time, in any circumstance, in the midst of any activity or “doing.” And yet I think that the experience of running can open us up to this gift, a gift we often fail to see or to recognize as good or necessary.

Sometimes while running, my mind would wander to its usual worries or to the string of things to do for that day. This was a choice I could and did make, one that came easily, as my mind was not otherwise occupied. However, as I ran further, my legs began to ache, my chest tightened, my breathing became more laborious. My thoughts were increasingly shifting from those little things, those endless and familiar fragments, to a desire to manage the pain, to reach my destination, to take one step after another, and then the next one after that.

In such a moment, I could channel my thoughts back to their previous bent, or I could listen to this voice, this steady rhythm of step after step after step. One step more and then the step after that. In turning my focus in this way, I suddenly found myself being. I was only in the moment and only in those steps and only in those immediate surroundings. And so instead of thinking of what I was doing, would do and had done, instead of splintering myself in pieces, my whole self resounded and rejoiced in each step.

When we enter fully into the present moment like this, we suddenly find ourselves in communion with the rest of creation, even in the smallest of ways, rather than being trapped or confined in our own individual sphere. To help achieve this kind of fullness of presence, we can look around and hone in on the details of what we see. We can give value to the little things around us, no matter where we are, and by doing this, value extends to all creation and invokes the divine presence within each created thing.

For example, as I ran, I tried to ground myself in the place exactly where I was. I looked at the green, light-stroked plants creeping over the neighbourhood fence, and at the winding cracks in the sidewalk beneath me; I listened to the rustling branches and the ocean-like roar of the cars as they went down the road; I felt the cool, refreshing breeze and breathed in the damp, rejuvenating air. The key is not only in seeing, hearing, touching and smelling. We do all of these things all the time, automatically, and our senses are frequently overburdened with information. No, what makes this experience a profound one of being is the looking, listening, feeling and breathing. There is a distinction between the two sets of terms. While the former implies thoughtless acts, the latter implies and indeed requires both thought and choice.

Running is not the only way we can give ourselves fully to the present moment, not by any stretch. But when we take those times of solitude, when we rest from the business, the pressure of doing, the noise of worldly voices, and our own clamouring thoughts, we discover new truth and new beauty. Being is no longer subjugated to doing, but takes its exalted and intended position, becoming a way of living in the world, possible no matter what the external circumstances may be.