Training: Embodiment. Joy. Outrageousness. Wisdom.

Running with the Mind of Meditation is a lovely book. Sakyong Mipham is the Tibetan leader of Shambhala as well as a marathoner. His book offers “lessons for training body and mind,” which he explores by comparing training the body to run with training the mind to meditate.

The comparisons were helpful to me. Just as it takes months to go from running just a few minutes or miles to running farther, it takes months to train the mind to meditate. We don’t just sit down and immediately get it. We have to learn to do it and practice it. “The bones and tendons of the mind,” writes Mipham, “are mindfulness and awareness.”

The author explains that meditation “is the act of familiarizing your mind with what you want it to do.” Anyone who has woken at 2 am and begun a countdown of worries knows the value in leading our mind, gently, toward what we want it to do and away from what it might do habitually, such as worry or overthink. 

Unless we train our minds, our minds will be as lax as the untrained body. When we are overcome with our stress and worries, “It doesn’t occur to us that our mind is out of shape. We put more stress on ourselves because we assume we should just be able to handle it all. We should not be surprised when we can’t, for we have not built the base of the mind.”

Mipham’s mental training helps him deal with pain during his first marathon. He knew, he writes, that he could not let the pain “steal” his mind. He couldn’t ignore it, either, so he had to pay attention to it without letting it “dominate” his mental space. “Instead I focused on my good fortune to be in good enough shape that I could run a marathon. I appreciated the brisk day and my running companions.” 

As we know from studies on what makes humans happy, feeling and expressing gratitude makes us happy. Appreciating what we have and savoring the moment makes us happy. Mipham had trained for pain so he could be aware of it and not overcome by it. Instead of obsessing about the pain, he delighted in his good fortune. 

Mipham structures the book on the four phases in the Shambala tradition of warriorship: tiger, lion, garuda, dragon. These four “represent the inner development of a courageous individual. The idea is to develop balance and integrity.” 

The tiger stage is building the base, learning to focus, practicing without overdoing it. To do this one must be gentle. We must “accept and appreciate who we are.” We must be merciful to our body. How many of us injure ourselves by not knowing who we are in the moment? Or we miss opportunities to develop ourselves because we do not push ourselves strongly enough? In this stage, we must be friendly to ourselves, bringing honesty as well as a sense of humor. 

The tiger moves with grace, power, and confidence, “the principle of embodiment.” The tiger is careful and thoughtful. 

“The next phase is the lion, which is associated with joy.” Having worked hard as a tiger, we can enjoy the “fitness and freedom” this brings. 

Next is the garuda, which is a “mythical eaglelike bird that has two arms as well as wings.” The key word for this phase is “outrageous,” as in awesome. This is the stage in which we challenge ourselves. It’s the stage in which we balance between “focused mindfulness and panoramic awareness” and in which we learn to move beyond hope and fear. “Hope and fear stem from two kinds of pain: the pain of not encountering what we want, and the pain of encountering what we don't want.”

Imagine that: hope and fear both arise from pain. Both, then, keep us tied to pain. We don’t want to be ruled by either hope or fear, pleasure or pain. Learning how to handle both pain and pleasure, Mipham says, will lead to harmony and happiness.  

Hope is “constantly wanting something.” Appreciating what we have and what we have accomplished is one way we break out of the cycle of hope and fear. We “must release ourselves from such small-mindedness by relaxing into an even bigger space.” This doesn’t not mean we do not have goals, even grand ones. It’s the release from hope and fear that allows us to dream big and achieve great things.

Reaching for goals and absorbing ourselves in our hobbies are, like expressing gratitude and savoring the moment, powerful ways to increase our happiness. When we are involved in a challenge, we may enter a flow state, one in which we lose track of time and self-consciousness. It’s a deeply liberating sensation and after such a challenge, we experience true relaxation. 

In the garuda phase, “we expand our mind to include others” and turn our contemplation to love and kindness. We hold a “deep wish for others to be happy.” I love how this serves to move us from our own hopes and fears. Once again, studies on happiness explain that our connection to others is one of the most important factors in our happiness.  When I am dragged into my own hopes and fears, my immersion into what I don’t have right now or whatever sadness or depression has taken hold of me, the best antidote is for me to simply stop focusing on that. I don’t try to fix it. I pay attention to other people instead. I may say love and kindness prayers for others, which I often do while out on a run. 

The final stage, dragon, represents wisdom and intelligence. On our runs, we may contemplate our lives, changes we wish to make. We connect to things that are deep, mysterious, and inexpressible. This stage is where we extend ourselves to doing well for others. Like Mipham, we may run for charity or host a peace run. 

In the dragon phase, we seek a deep purpose and recognize that “when we are brave enough to be in the present, we have the power to transform the world.” Mipham expresses that while he runs for “health as well as joy,” his deeper meaning has to do with his intention, which is to benefit others. “With a powerful mind, if we intend our run to be for the welfare of others, then it is.” 

Again looking at happiness studies, we know that one of the best ways to improve our happiness is to work for the happiness and well-being of others. Human beings were made to help each other, and we get biological rewards for doing so. Our blood pressure goes down, our immune functioning increases, and we may get a burst of endorphins that has been called the “helper’s high,” similar to a runner’s high. It’s powerful to associate helping others with wisdom. Working for the greater good is good for our health. 

Mipham is clearly in love with running. Running, he says, has allowed him to “connect with the inherent goodness and healthiness of humanity.” I am sure there are other sports that allow us to train our bodies and minds in this way. However, running gets us outside, in nature, and gives us a long stretch of time in which we repeat the same movement again and again, inviting us toward awareness of our body and our breathing. 

“Windhorse is the life force energy that naturally arises when we train on the path of tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon.” Mipham declares, “Runners intuitively know that through dedication and hard work, success can come about; if we, as humanity, dedicate ourselves to creating a better world, then it is completely doable. That is the energy of windhorse. The world as a whole is like one mind. If that giant mind begins to doubt itself and get depressed, our entire planet will be in jeopardy. However, if the collective world conscience develops an ethos of optimism and exertion, we really will have a chance to pull ourselves out of our predicament, because the human race will have windhorse.” 

I like very much what Mipham says about utilizing our intentions and runners being optimistic. When I share Nia with others, I know I am providing the opportunity for them to experience joy in moving their bodies. I know they come for stress release, for health, for community. When I run, on the other hand, it feels more selfish and solitary. I enjoy the sense of accomplishment I get through running. In addition, I share what I’ve learned from running, and what I learn from running helps me be a better Nia teacher. My mind while teaching Nia is radically different than my mind while running. Perhaps as I continue to run, I will move more deeply through those four phases and my running will have an even deeper effect on me and my relationship to the world. 

My husband questioned me when I first began running and was training for that 10K two years ago. Why was I working so hard? Wasn’t it time to chill out as we’re getting older? I explained I hadn’t challenged myself that way when I was in my teens and 20s. Now is my time to do that.

I ran cross-country one year in high school, but I didn’t know how to push myself. I didn’t have a good coach or team mates who were concerned for my progress. Without support and without knowing the joy of pushing toward my limits, I did not get far into the tiger stage. It’s possible I was offered support and didn’t know how to receive it. I certainly didn’t know how to ask for it (I didn’t even know I might need it).  I made progress, just not as much as I could have if I had I known how to train my mind to train my body. Now, as I am older, I can train with much more dedication. I want that experience of training. 

Running is my hobby. I set goals. I read books. I use what I learn in running to strengthen the rest of my life. I like having a hobby with a goal. So much of life is open-ended. I like a time-defined, measurable goal to balance the messier parts of life. 

I used to train in the martial arts. That’s where I met my husband, at the dojo. I eventually left my Aikido training to concentrate full time on being a Mama Warrior. I learned to put other beings’ needs before mine. I learned, slowly and terribly, to be more patient. I learned I could be quick-tempered, judgmental, unkind, and even harsh, so I learned to be a little less of those. I learned I am controlling, mostly out of fear, and I learned about millions of things that are out of my control and I have to accept that and move on. Being a Parent Warrior is one of the most intense and humbling trainings any of us can do. 

I’m still there. I’m still in training because as my children grow older, I have to become a different kind of parent. 

There are many types of trainings. Relationship training. Career training. In each of these trainings, we have to build a base, become stronger, employ mindfulness, experience joy (or why bother?). If we are diligent, and lucky, we can become wiser. 

Having trained in Aikido, Parenting, Teaching, and Marriage, I could say, okay, enough training. But it’s not enough. I am not tough enough yet. I’m not done with outrageousness. The process of transformation and learning turns me on.

I teach basic writing at Central New Mexico Community College. My students do not always have confidence. They don’t all know how to work hard. Some are overwhelmed with the material. Some are overwhelmed with their lives. I am their coach. I must model for them building a base, the Tiger phase. 

Mipham says he was taught that with gentleness, a person can accomplish all things. When we learn or write or run, we do it with relaxed awareness, with gentleness. Aggression is a dash. With gentleness, Mipham writes, we feel as if we can run forever. “With gentleness, we no longer struggle with ourselves. When we are not struggling with ourselves, we are doing our best.” Instead of being overly critical with ourselves, we can see where we need to improve and view that as an adventure. The aggressive mind has a hard time being present. 

I noticed that on my run Friday. I had a wonderful start, enjoying a steady pace through the bosque. Then I began to think about something over which I have no control. I imagined myself telling someone what she was doing wrong and what she should do instead. As I was thinking of this, my pace slowed and the run began to feel effortful. Mipham says, “We embody our worries.”

I chose to think about something more fun, running Day of the Tread in October (I hope with other Studio Sway-ites as Sway of the Tread), doing this run together, dressing up, having fun. The run is for charity, Casa Esperanza, and this feels important to me, too. It’s good to focus on a run that’s not a race and not about how well I perform, but about how well I function as a member of community. 

I’m not sure if my pace picked up then as I thought better thoughts, but I did become happier and less focused on whether the run felt hard. 

This is part of the Lion phase, avoiding a negative state of mind. Mipham calls running an “optimistic sport: fundamentally, we believe in the power of the body.” In this stage, “you should recognize the fact that your healthiness is innate.” Everything is temporary while “the natural state of the mind, basic goodness, is primordial and unchanging.” It is the same for our body. Our natural, inherent state is one of good health. 

If we mistreat our body, we move away from this natural state and we begin to feel ill at ease. It’s the same way for our minds. If we watch too much TV or spend too much time on the computer, our minds also may begin to feel ill. If we think negative thoughts, our minds will ache. We may begin to focus our awareness on the negative as it’s human nature to want to be aware of what’s wrong so we can fix it. There is a way to cultivate awareness of our basic goodness and innate health and still be aware of what needs our attention for healing and growth. 

The last two miles of yesterday’s run, I focused on form and breath. As I become tired on a run, my form erodes. I focus on releasing from my hips, letting the whole leg be mobile. I pay more attention to my gait and pace, making sure my step are small. At the beginning of the run, this comes more easily and naturally. By miles 7 and 8, I am pushing to run faster and with better form. I am remembering to breathe in through my nose, not my mouth. I am no longer thinking about family and friends or anything much besides the run.

Mipham writes, “By paying attention to how your mind and body feel, you are empowering both yourself and your running. Developing this respect for mind and body changes running from simple exercise to a journey of discovery and growth. Respecting how you feel during your run allows you to appreciate who you are in the very life you are leading.” 

In the Lion phase, “we contemplate feeling fortunate. …In feeling fortunate, a deep and profound appreciation develops in us.” As we practice this, it becomes a part of us, part of our character. We become someone who is fortunate, feels fortunate, and feels grateful. 

Running, or meditation, or any training, can increase our confidence. Confidence in Tibetan is known as ziji, which also can be translated as “brilliance” or “to shine.” This expresses how our confidence looks: we glow. “Both running and meditation bring out our radiance.”

We all have the potential to be physically and mentally strong. “The Shambhala teachings present goodness as our base and splendidness as our natural state of being.” Savor that for a moment.

I have confidence that the body heals. I must do the correct things to help support its ability to heal. While I am alive, though I am aging and healing more slowly, I am able to heal. I can get stronger. I will not become the stronger that younger Me might have become. I can become stronger than I am today. This optimism and this confidence is bound to my belief in the essential goodness of the human body. 

I can succumb to fear and worry — my achilles tendon hurts, for instance — or I can be aware of it and not overcome by the worry. On Friday’s run, when my achilles hurt, I thought of Mipham on his first marathon, and how he appreciated being out on the run with friends on a beautiful day. So I looked around me to breathe in the beauty. I adjusted my running form. I felt better.

This is not meditation, though I am training my mind. As lovely as Sakyong Mipham’s book is, I am not (yet) inspired to sit down to meditate. I am inspired to consider the ways I can be gentle with myself and with others. I feel tingly and alive with the ideas from the book. I feel optimistic about continuing to train.