The Zone: we all know it. We’ve all been there before. It’s the holy grail of running experience, and the reason that some people hit the road in the first place. But how much time do you actually spend there, in that elusive place of weightlessness, timelessness, pure effortlessness and Flow? Whatever figure comes to mind, the answer is surely “not enough”.
Most of us stumble into the Zone by accident. After running for a while, we simply find ourselves there. Then, like a surfer riding a wave, all we can do is hope that Mother Nature will smile on us and let us hitch a good, long ride. But at the end of the day, we are at the mercy of factors beyond our control, even though those very same factors originate within our own bodies.
We are at the mercy of our endorphins.
We are at the mercy of our own state of mind.
There will always be good days and bad. But neither our mind nor our endorphins lie totally beyond control. It is just a matter of accessing the right tools. Some people say that, through running, they reach a meditative state of mind. In fact, this is precisely what the Zone is. But you don’t have to wait for the constellations to magically align in order for this to happen. By consciously applying meditation techniques while running, it becomes possible to enter the Zone almost at will.
Running itself then becomes a form of meditation.
And that same meditation then feeds back into our running, making it both more enjoyable as well as more efficient, improving performance.
So what exactly is taking place inside us while we’re in the Zone? What distinguishes it from average, everyday consciousness? If you can, try and remember what it felt like last time you were there. It’s probably not so hard to re-taste the flavour even while you read this. Going one step further, though, and actually analysing what was going on is often next to impossible. Then again, this is in the nature of the beast.
The Zone, the Flow, is all about your consciousness maintaining presence in the present. There’s no time to dwell on how far you’ve run so far, or suffer over how many miles still lie ahead, because you are flowing with time itself. (Alternatively, if there are thoughts, you don’t attach to them as usual. They just pass before your mind like clouds slipping through the sky.) Time seems to stand still because when you are flowing as one with it, carried along together on the same current, you stop moving relative to it. There are no longer any external reference points with which to gauge any change. You just continue along in parallel, in tandem, “at the still point of the turning world,” as T.S. Eliot described it. There is no resistance, no friction, whether in the mind or in the body. Doesn’t this feel like the Zone? You lose perception of time, and because you are now, because you too live and die with each new moment, continually born and reborn in an unending cycle, there is little if anything remaining to bring back with you to everyday consciousness when the wave does actually break.
Many meditation techniques strive to cultivate precisely this: a sense of awareness of and in the present moment. When I apply them myself in my own running, they immediately induce a state of mind conducive to merging with the Zone / Flow. Interestingly, these techniques also focus on the body – the theory traditionally being that it is the mind which has a tendency to wander into reverie of the past and anticipation of the future, while the body itself knows only the present moment.
The fact that, while running, we are physically active as opposed to sitting motionless in a traditional meditative posture definitely changes the way we experience these techniques. Sometimes, especially when the body is feeling tired or heavy, or when we are challenging our stamina, it can be hard to focus. First, without practice and discipline, the constant movement and changing external environment with each footstep can be a distraction. Second, the last thing the mind (and, with it, the ego) wants to do is concentrate on anything, when it’s more interested in escaping the discomfort of lactic acid build-up or low blood sugar. Perhaps this is one reason why, in those spiritual lineages which revolve around running (such as the Tibetan Lung Gompa), the training of meditational running began only after years of traditional sitting meditation. Yet, if we push on and do focus the mind while running, it can bring the quickest relief to physical discomfort, as well as fatigue in general. From here, the Zone becomes accessible and, with it, the effects of running meditation converge with those of sitting meditation.
Here is a selection of meditation techniques, all which can be applied while running. Try them out for yourself! I’d also encourage you to try them while sitting as well to, in order to get a better sense of the original meditation. This will also build a more solid foundation in controlling your mind, thereby increasing the effectiveness of these techniques while running.
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1. Zazen: this is the fundamental meditation of the Zen tradition and consists of maintaining awareness on the breath. The original technique involves observing the breath without interfering with it, without exerting conscious control over the depth or tempo of the breath. Obviously, in contrast to normal, passive breathing (which tends to be quite shallow and irregular), running involves a strong, deep, rhythmic breathing pattern, and so this original element of the meditation is lost. In its place, though, awareness of such a repetitive, cyclic pattern of breathing can itself induce a meditative state of mind, similar to the effect of repeating a mantra…
Besides this, the meditation is very easy. You gently focus your awareness on the breath until your mind begins to wander. When you catch yourself in your thoughts, you simply acknowledge whatever you were thinking about and return to awareness of the breath. In the beginning, this can happen quite frequently, if not almost incessantly… In order to strengthen your focus and prevent daydreaming, it can help to use a crutch. This is done by not just following the breath, but counting it as well. There are many possibilities of how to go about doing this, but perhaps the most effective is to count each time you exhale. A good method is to follow the breath, counting each exhale from 1 to 10, and then from 10 back to 1, repeating this cycle over and over again. It would go something like this: inhale, exhale (“1”), inhale, exhale (“2”), inhale, exhale (“3”) and so forth, all the way to inhale, exhale (“10”), then inhale, exhale (“10”), inhale, exhale (“9”), inhale, exhale (“8”) all the way back to inhale, exhale (“1”), from where the cycle would repeat. To begin with, the mere act of counting will hold your attention, but before long the mind will get bored and begin to wander anyway… With practice, though, your ego will begin to give you less resistance, simply accepting your awareness on the breath without conjuring up thoughts to distract you! As a result, you will grow closer to being present in the present, beginning to approach the state of mind characterising the Zone. In fact, this is another way of describing your state of consciousness while in the Flow: acceptance of and trust in the present moment, without need to analyse or control it. It just is. You just are.
Once you can remain relatively easily focussed while counting the breath, it’s worth trying out the purer form of this meditation, without counting. You just follow the sensation of breath, whether it’s the rising and falling of your belly while breathing, whether it’s the flow of air through the nostrils. Over and over. Over and over… It can become quite hypnotic. When effort is no longer required to follow the breath and it simply begins to happen by itself, you have entered the Zone. You have become the breath, as Zen Buddhists say.
2. So Hum mantra meditation (pronounced So “H-ah-m”): while running, this is similar to Zazen except that, instead of counting the breath, you use a mantra as a focus. While inhaling, you imagine or feel the resonance of the sound ‘So’ filling your body, and while exhaling you imagine or feel ‘Hum’ doing the same. Don’t limit the sensation of the mantra to just the throat or the head, but allow it to fill your whole being. Besides this, the process is the same as with Zazen. When the mind begins to wander, you just acknowledge the wayward thought and gently redirect your focus back to the mantra.
The So Hum mantra is one of the most basic and widespread Sanskrit mantras. It translates as ‘I am that,’ with the word ‘that’ in this context meaning ‘God’ or the totality of the whole universe. In short, it basically means ‘I am one with all.’ More important, though, than the meaning of this or any mantra is the resonance it creates in the body. So Hum is also known as the natural mantra of the breath, and if you apply it – whether during a run or a meditation sitting – it doesn’t take much imagination to feel that each inhalation naturally wants to create a sound similar to ‘So’, while each exhale naturally moulds itself into something similar to ‘Hum.’
If you feel uncomfortable applying a Sanskrit mantra, you can substitute the English mantra I am, which creates a similar resonance in the body.
3. Vipassana and awareness of movement: Vipassana, in its most distilled form, is the meditation of letting go and maintaining pure awareness. Pure and simple. However, without any specific focus whatsoever, it is extremely easy for the mind to wander all over the place. For this reason, Vipassana is traditionally taught only after mastering breath or mantra meditation – in other words, after a concrete focus is no longer necessary. But if you can maintain pure, open, distilled awareness while running, it creates a wonderful feeling of letting go and weightlessness: a feeling of opening up, inner expansion and merging as one into the world around you. You don’t just become one with the breath, you become one with everything.
The next best thing is to try and maintain awareness of movement. Your focus is simply to feel your body moving: your legs and arms swinging, your belly rising and falling, the spring of each footstep. Rather than focussing on any specific body part, try and feel the totality of movement in your whole body. This helps the mind to stay open, preventing it from contracting in on itself and narrowing down to just one focal point. As much as a single object of awareness (like the breath or a mantra) can help you to focus, it also tends to exclude everything around it. The fullest experience of life, though, comes by opening ourselves up and accepting everything inside and around us – even the things we find uncomfortable, whether physically or emotionally…
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The meditations listed so far act primarily on the mind and our state of consciousness. In addition to this, though, there are also meditations which directly affect the endocrine system. Yes, we can use them to influence the way our body secretes hormones: the same endorphins which help us to enter the Zone!
Meditations such as these involve holding awareness on energetic points inside the body which exert influence over certain glands. When the mind wanders, as it inevitably will, just return your focus to the given area and continue. Here are three suggestions. Try them out and see what they do for you!
- Hold your attention in the centre of the core of your body, just below the navel (belly button). This is the Dan Tien, as it is called in the martial arts and Taoist philosophy. It is the centre of physical power. In winter I often choose this point to focus on, and concentrate on heating up my body from the inside out. The Tibetan meditation on inner fire (Tummo) likewise centres awareness on this point. This is no coincidence – it works! While running using this meditation, the eyes naturally focus on the ground about 5 metres (yards) ahead of you. This also helps to prevent landing on sharp objects!
- Hold your attention in an open gaze ahead of you, while maintaining awareness on the Third Eye (between or slightly above and between your eyebrows). You should feel as if you’re actually viewing the world not from your two physical eyes, but from this single, central point. Ideally, your gaze is aimed directly ahead of you, neither up nor down, staring ahead into infinity. The feeling in the eyes is similar to when you slip into an open-eyed daydream – that is, one of opening up – except here you are maintaining awareness, not losing it! Given that your eyes are gazing into infinity and aren’t paying attention to the ground directly underfoot, you should attempt this only when sure that you won’t step on anything sharp! For safety’s sake, I use it only while running on a track.
- Hold your attention on the point at the very top on your head (Crown Chakra). Just keep it there and see what happens…
Even if you haven’t tried meditating in any form yet, I’m willing to bet that, through barefoot running, you’re already coming a little closer to it. The direct, undiluted, unadulterated sensation of ground underneath the soles of your feet naturally holds your awareness more strongly in the present moment compared to shoes, which dull down and anaesthetise your consciousness. Every barefoot contact with the earth/Earth is a reminder that you are here and now, whether it’s on asphalt, grass or naked soil.
Finally, let’s not forget that the end goal of all meditational techniques is to teach us how to live, to take us to a point where we don’t need formal meditation any more as a crutch. We can just be. It is then that all of life becomes a meditation, and meditation has become life. In the same way, we will be able to just run. No more need to run away from our problems, no more need to run towards any goals.
Until then, I hope that learning to meditate while running will open up some new perspectives for you. I’m convinced it will deepen both your running and, in the longer term, your experience of life itself.