Being on vacation this week with no specific plans or agenda has given me the chance to reconnect with three activities that always help rebuild my sanity and restore my soul: running, writing and meditation. All three are habitual acts which, when practice, help me crawl out of my head and back into my body. While running this afternoon I was struck by the common thread between them. The practice of each puts me into a direct, inescapable experience of time.
When running, there are no short cuts. You set a goal (either time or distance), you start running and, whether you reach the goal or shop short, the entire time you are running there is nothing else happening. There are no distractions. There is no escape from the fact of what you are doing. When you are running, your body is doing only that. Your mind may be thinking thoughts. You may not be thinking about running but some part of your mind is always aware that you are running. There is an autonomy that takes over the body when you are running. Running does not require careful thought or specific planning beyond the simple, consistent mantra to keep going. The thing I like about running is that direct contact with time. Twenty minutes is not an abstract thing. When running, you feel every part of twenty minutes. There is a focus that comes from no where else. When running, you are doing those twenty minutes and those twenty minutes are doing you.
Writing is the same way. The only way to get words on a screen is to put them there. You cannot simply wait for them to appear. You have to put them there. There is always a first word. Then a second. Then a third. Usually, the words quickly group themselves into sentences. When you are writing well, you aren’t concious of reaching for specific words. You build the page by sentences – one after one, like laying bricks side by side on a wall. In writing, there is no escape. You can”t cheat. You have to hold the seat and do the time and stack the sentences together until they make something that did not exist before. Again, like running, writing requires its own focus. You cannot write while thinking of anything else. You can’t write and do the dishes. You can’t write and pay the bills. When you are writing there is an order and a logic to your life. You are writing and you are only writing and when you are finished writing you are doing something else.
Running puts me into the mindset for writing. When running, I always get the next idea or the next sentence or some other clear, specific gift to help the words get on the screen.
Mediation is much harder. If you really want to be placed in direct experience of time, you should sit on a cushion and do nothing but sit. You realize quickly that the mind is a wild creature, an untamed monkey, constantly trying to escape the present moment and rush forward to some unseen moment that does not yet exist. It is a painful thing. It is unpleasant and frightening. It feels maddening and you are always a bit relieved when it is over. And yet, when you practice meditation and cultivate the habit of sitting with no gaining idea, you find you are able to settle down into the moment. In those few seconds, your body and mind are the same. They share the same purpose. They are relaxed and calm. They belong with you, and you belong with them. This is called mindfullness.
And then moment is gone and your mind is rushing ahead again, careening away from your seat with manic speed and abandon. Why is your mind so desperate to escape? What is it that has your mind so frightened? And even as your mind rushes away and you feel the loss of those few perfect moments, you recognize the distinction between how it felt when you were sitting and mindful and when you are were sitting and grasping, desperate for the ending bell to ring. And that recognition, while tinged with frustration and loss, is also a realization that we are delusional most of our waking lives. That we live and breathe and move inside of time but constantly struggle to place ourselves outside of time. We are always wasting these few fragile moments that belong with us to reach for things that do not yet exist. We are psychotic and time-sick and vow never to sit in meditation again because the experience is so disturbing and unsettling. But then we stand and are grateful because we have once again learned to see how moments connect – how the present becomes the past and also becomes the future. And how neither the past nor future have ever really existed. Only the present. Only this place. Only the place where I am now and the place where you are and so on.
I am writing about three kinds of transcendence. Often difficult. Often uncomfortable, yet somehow, each brings me back into myself. I have a tendency to climb up into my head and stay there like a cat caught in a tree. It is good to know I can always find my way down if I am willing to be uncomfortable and feel the passing of time. The experience of discomfort is always worth it. It always places me safely back on solid ground.