Can’t Meditate? Try Running

You probably know someone like me. I’m that guy who can’t stop tapping his fingers on the conference table. I’m the one clicking his pen in the cubicle next to you over and over and over, driving you crazy. I’m also the guy who gets up from his desk every 20 minutes, because he just can’t keep still.

I’ve always been that way. I can’t think sitting down. When I was young, my teachers had me stand at my desk. They weren’t being mean. Being able to move my body kept me focused on my homework. Now that I’m older, I have other ways to cope with my trouble concentrating. I don’t sit at a desk all day, and my work gives me variety to keep my flighty brain stimulated. There’s always music on in the background, and I brainstorm on a big whiteboard, standing up.

A friend of mine meditates every day, and it helps him a lot. Scientists agree; meditation has a lot of benefits. It regulates your mood, gives you more focus, and improves your immune system. So, I found a website to guide me, and I tried it. There are three simple rules: Observe the present moment as it is, focusing on your breath. Withhold judgements on your thoughts and emotions. Let those thoughts pass through your mind as you return to your breath.

I sat down in a dark, quiet room. I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. In and out. Most people suggest that beginners try it for only two or three minutes. I didn’t last one. Sitting still doesn’t keep my mind and body calm. It does the opposite. I worry: Did I leave the oven on? Did I respond to that email? I get an idea, and I dash to my computer to write. If I’m not moving, my brain races.

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About five years ago, I started running. Four marathons later, it’s become a passion. When I first started running, every mile was a long slog. It took all my focus to put one foot in front of the other. After I finished my first marathon, I had spent so much time on the trails that it became as natural as walking.

Since I didn’t have to think so hard about running, I thought, “Great! Now I’ll have time to think while I run.” I tried planning my writing or organizing my day, but I couldn’t hold onto my thoughts. My body kept calling for my attention: Feet and breath; In and out. Thoughts came and went. I just breathed. The more I ran, the less I was in my head, and the more I was simply aware of my body.

Running became my mindfulness meditation. It started as a way to stay in shape, something I had to do. Now, when I go for a run, time passes almost without notice. The miles fly by as I think only about my feet and my breath. Instead of feeling exhausted, I am refreshed and calm. I am ready for whatever my day brings me. Without knowing it, running guided me into meditation.

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I get the most out of meditative running when I’m angry or stressed. My stress is like a hamster running in a squeaky wheel. It doesn’t go anywhere or accomplish anything, and it calls for my attention all day. Running stops the wheel. All my negative feelings float across the river of my mind, drifting away until all I feel is my feet and my breath. When I get back, my anger and stress are gone. I can focus on solving my problems.

Running pushes my body until my racing brain can’t focus on anything but the next step and the next breath. It makes mindfulness meditation work for me.

Originally published March 20, 2017.

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