In Trying Times A Runner’s Case For Mindfulness

I’m sitting here on a Thursday night and I am not doing well. Not doing well at all. This is not a cry for help. You do not need to be alarmed. It’s just where I am. As we all navigate this new normal we are all going to have moments like the one I am having right now.

Four days ago was my last day of work when, in ones and twos, regulars spun through the revolving door and skittered like tumbleweeds through the near empty restaurant up to my bar. “We wanted to get in one last time,” was the usual refrain. A final act of normalcy at the end of a week that had long stopped feeling normal.

God what I would give for even a part of my old routine right now.

The irony of this moment is that I suddenly have far more time to devote to building some sort of consistency with my running. I would have given anything for that last year as I bounced around from injury to injury. Now, feeling more like myself and relatively healthy, my schedule has opened to run and to workout (at home at least) as often as I want.

I am finding that is hard to do when the rug has been pulled out from under me. There is no model for where we are. Where last week we were living now many of us have switched to survival mode. I certainly have. With that comes anxiety and worry and there are plenty of demons to focus my worry on. My debt, my bills, my rent, my concern that the industry I work in may be decimated, and my worry for my parents. I can kick those worries around all day if I wish and my running will simply be me running around in a miserable circle of my own fears and anxieties.

There is a blessing in that years of running have helped me cultivate tools to try to handle this. Running has enriched my life in any number of ways but I am perhaps most grateful for how, in my chase for PRs and BQs, I have built transferable skills I can apply to other areas of my life, areas where those skills have been sorely needed. With the fallout from coronavirus, those tools are being put to use.

In my response to these trying times, the foundation I’m laying down brick by brick will be built on mindfulness and meditation.

One of my favorite mental health advocates, Mark Freeman, describes mindfulness in his book You Are Not a Rock: A Step-by-Step Guide to Better Mental Health (For Humans), as “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment – non-judgmentally.” Non-judgment here is vital, as he notes it is judgment that “sets off the chain reaction of anxiety, fear, and compulsions with which we so often find ourselves struggling.”

In the quest to be more mindful, meditation has helped me locate an anchor that keeps me in the moment: the breath. One of my favorite mediations on the Breathe app is called Lion Mind. In the meditation, we are told that we can be of one of two minds: the dog mind, which chases every intrusive thought like a dog chases a bone, or the lion mind, which focuses on what needs to be focused on. By simply bringing the attention back to the breath, that anchor that is always with us, we can stop chasing those intrusive, judgmental thoughts (coronavirus will ruin the economy and I’ll never recover, my legs are screaming in pain and there’s no way I can finish these last miles) and focus on what must be done right now (I can apply for unemployment, I can put one foot in front of the other until I make it to the stop sign).

What can you do right now to cultivate mindfulness and learn to meditate? Maybe the simplest thing you can do is simply sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing for one minute. You can do this anywhere. Don’t worry when your mind wanders—it will—just bring your attention back to your breath. If you want to get more advanced, I recommend the Calm and/or Breathe apps. I have used Breathe most often in the two years I have practiced meditating. Something I will caution, is that meditation is not what some people bill it to be: a practice that will get rid of the anxiety and fear in your head. As Freeman notes, “Don’t bring [meditation] into your life only to take from it. If you’re selfish with meditation, you will have an unhappy relationship with it.” Instead, treat it as a way to build the skills to accept the things in your head while remaining focused on the present.

Being focused on the present, on the things I can control, is maybe the most vital skill I can employ right now. I cannot control the virus, but I can wash my hands and sanitize heavily-used surfaces. I cannot control what the economy will look like next week or what Congress will come up with as a relief package, but I can file for the assistance available to me and build skills that I can use in the jobs that will be waiting when this eventually blows over. I can run. I can focus on a sport that has brought me comfort and joy through good times and bad over the last decade. We’re going to get through this. Together, one stride at a time, we’re going to get through this.

Happy running.

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