The Zen of Running, and 10 Ways to Make It Work for You

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Running is my zazen. It’s my meditation, my peaceful routine, my inner sanctum.

In Zen Buddhism, zazen (which literally means “seated meditation”) is the central focus of the practice. Depending on the school of Zen, zazen is used to concentrate on koans or to just sit and be present, experiencing things in the moment.

Of course, I’m not a Zen Buddhist, and I don’t do much actual sitting meditation (sometimes, but not often), but I do use running as my form of meditation, of trying to be present.

I actually use running for two purposes:

  1. Concentration. During this time, I try to focus on my breathing, on my feet as they strike the ground, on how my body feels, on the sights and sounds and smells of nature around me, and on my thoughts as they occur. I try not to think about the past and the future, but try to remain in the moment. This is difficult, and requires a lot of concentration and energy.
  2. Contemplation. This is actually much easier — I just use running as a quiet time, to think about my life, about my writing (including this very post, which was composed in my head while I was running), about what is important to me.

Both forms of meditation are actually very relaxing, very meaningful to me, and they are the main reasons I love to go running. It’s a way for me to stay centered, to lose the stress of the world around me, and to just be present.

I recommend it to everyone, especially if you’re looking for a way to find peace and focus in your life. Now, you don’t actually have to run — you could walk, or cycle, or swim, or row, or whatever — the key is to find solitude and a time every day to practice your own personal zazen.

How to Make the Zen of Running Work for You
If you’re interested in finding the Zen of Running (or any other form of exercise), here are some tips:

  1. Concentration. In the beginning, it’s important that you practice concentration. It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. Try to do it for as long as you can, bringing yourself back to the moment every time you find yourself pulling away. Monitor your thoughts, and when you find a thought that is not of this moment (thinking about something you have to do later, for example), don’t try to stop the thought. Just be aware of it, acknowledge it, and allow it to leave gently. Then return to the moment.
  2. Breathing. A good place to start, when you’re practicing concentration, is breathing. This is true of traditional zazen, of course, but it’s also very true of running or other exercise, because breathing is an important part of exercise. By concentrating on your breathing, you can monitor how hard you’re exercising, and adjust your running up or down accordingly. I like to ensure that I’m not breathing too hard.
  3. Bursts. Again, concentration is difficult in the beginning. It can be hard to concentrate for very long. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Try practicing concentration in small bursts at first, of just 10 seconds at a time. Let yourself rest in between, and then concentrate some more for another 10 seconds, and repeat. Later, you can stretch this to 20 or 30 seconds, or even a minute or two with practice.
  4. Time every day. This isn’t mandatory, but I suggest finding some time every day to practice this form of meditation. Does that mean you should run every day? Not necessarily — you could run and bike and walk on alternate days, for example. Or you could do what I’ve done, and slowly build yourself up to where you can run just about every day, alternating hard days with really easy days (of only a slow mile or so). Making it a can’t-miss appointment at the same time every day is a good idea.
  5. Contemplation. When you tire of trying to concentrate, allow yourself to contemplate. Think about your day, about your life in general, about what’s important to you, about your goals, about the people in your life. This kind of contemplation should be a part of every person’s life.
  6. Intervals. I like to alternate between concentration and contemplation. One workout I did just yesterday was hill intervals. I run a very hilly route, and while I usually take it easy going up the hills, yesterday I decided to run it hard up the hills and take it easy on the way down. And I decided to concentrate on the moment as I ran up the hills, and then allow myself to contemplate as I took it easy down the hills. It was a great workout! Bonus: as I ran down the hills, I had a great view of the ocean and the sunset in the bay below the hills where I live. It was awesome!
  7. Stress. If you find yourself stressed during the day (and who among us doesn’t?), it can be very therapeutic to run at the end of the day, in the early evening before it gets dark. Again, focus on concentration and contemplation, alternating the two, and you will notice the stress melting away. Exercise is naturally a wonderful stress reliever (it’s the main reason I took up running), but combined with these two methods, it is one of the best I’ve ever used.
  8. Ideas. Contemplation time is also a terrific time to come up with ideas. I use it to come up with ideas for posts on this blog, or ideas for fiction I want to write, or projects I want to do, or things I want to do with Eva and the kids. The key is writing the ideas down when I get home, as I am reluctant to carry my Moleskine notebook with me on my runs.
  9. Journal. On that note, I think it’s also useful to keep a journal and record some of the thoughts you have during contemplation, and some notes about your concentration times. During contemplation, if you review your day and think about what’s important in life, you’ll often have thoughts that you want to remember later. A journal is a great way to get those thoughts on record and make the most of your contemplation.
  10. Be in the moment. Once you get good at concentration (and I can’t claim to be that good yet), you can focus on more than just your breathing. While breathing is a good way to start, there are other things going on in the moment that you can concentrate on. A useful method is to open your mind up to your environment, both outside of yourself and within yourself. Be aware of what’s around you, of the sights and sounds, and be aware of your breathing, the aches and pains of your muscles and joints, your muscles as they work during your run, your feet as they hit the ground, the wind as it hits your skin, your hair rustling in that wind, your thoughts as  you run. Being in the moment is a very powerful thing to learn, and while it’s not easy to learn it all at once, with practice you will get better and better at it.