You wouldn’t automatically associate running with meditation. But for some, it is just that.
Recently, we heard about a South African athlete who has written a book about a fascinating concept: meditational running. In fact, this intellectual literally reinvented his life by learning to see running as a transformative experience.
This concept was too interesting not to delve into, so of course, we interviewed him.
Please note that this interview is a little deeper than our normal pieces. So pace yourself accordingly.
Hello, Dr. Naicker. We are so appreciative that you have taken the time to speak with us today. First of all, tell us about how you found your love for running.
Prior to running, I saw myself as an organic intellectual. I enjoyed writing, and working very hard at producing knowledge in our pursuit of a better society. During this process, I relieved my stress through habits I formed when I grew up as a working class kid in one of South Africa’s townships. My socialization into beer drinking and alcohol as a young man was a result of the very few options open to working class youth in my country. Of course, alcohol was one of the easiest stress relievers, but one of the most destructive in terms of health. In addition, I experienced conflict with many around me and encountered much frustration.
In short, I found that life was a cycle of work, meaningless conflict and that the most dominant factor in my life was conflict. During a visit to a doctor, I was advised that I did not have a lifestyle, but rather a death style. When I left the consulting room, I realized that a better and more meaningful life was in my hands. The choice was to continue self- destruction or recreate myself and appreciate the wonders of this universe each second. I thought “this is what the universe deserves from me, some respect and total appreciation to be alive.” After all, we live in such a magical universe for a very short period of time.
So this is where it all started?
Yes. Little did I realize that I would later run several half marathons as well as the New York, London and Oslo Marathons as a consequence of that decision. Neither did I realize that I was about to embark on the most productive journey of my life. What this revealed to me is that every individual has the potential to live a very meaningful life IF there is a realization that we are very fortunate to spend time in this magical cosmos. It is indeed a wonderful opportunity that should not be wasted.
How did running begin to change your attitude toward life?
I started running and ran my first half-marathon in the next year. Running, together with my spiritual advancement, replaced beer and tension. I developed an understanding and insight into life which imposed a different framework of thinking. It was an awareness that I was fuelled by desire, attachment, greed, hatred, and anger. I realized that in today’s technological society, the peace we seek is overwhelmed by distractions- and that life becomes an illusion. During this period, I found myself more to be productive, healthier and more enthusiastic about life than I had ever been.
How can running be helpful for anxiety and why is it a transformational meditational experience?
Growing up as a working class kid in South Africa and enjoying social mobility led to many anxious moments in my life. Through writing my book, I learned that memory influences your instincts, thoughts, behaviours, perception and actions. I concluded that for me to be less anxious I needed to withdraw into silence for considerable period of times.
This is where running comes into play.
While running, it occurred to me that it is not exercise alone that can reduce anxiety. With about 84,000 thoughts flowing through one’s mind on a daily basis, there is something more than running that is necessary. And that is a deeper understanding of spirituality and memory. This resulted in another journey being added to running.
There is no point in reading about spirituality if one does not practice it. So whenever I ran, I practiced silencing the mind and observing my thoughts rather than getting emotionally involved with those thoughts. My greatest realization from this journey has been that our challenge as human beings is to tame the mind.
My circumstances are not unique. There are millions of people like me, as well as other people with different sets of complexities. We all have to learn to be content with dealing with approximately 84, 000 thoughts a day. We all have to deal with a memory that we don’t truly understand but shapes our responses each second.
I realized that these thoughts create anxiety. That, thoughts that one gets emotionally involved with, result in certain moods. But with running, we can clear the mind. A 20 minute exercise routine helped me to break my thought patterns, but the challenge was to sustain that in everyday life.
So to sustain this, you take what you have learned through meditative running and apply it to daily life?
Yes. To experience that peace in everyday life, one has to constantly be aware of what one thinks. Literature on the spiritual dimensions of the mind suggests that the mind is a bundle of habits and desires. It reproduces on a daily basis instincts-responses and reactions to the external world.
Running became a meditational experience for me because I learned to constantly be aware of my thoughts. I always trained alone, and 90% of that journey was being focused on the mind. The goal was to observe these thoughts and not get emotionally involved. As a result, I learned that peace lies below the chatter of the mind.
You talk about the free zone. What is the free zone? And how can runners use this to take the mental state achieved from running into daily life?
The free zone is that period of silence and calmness that exists in the mind after about 20 minutes of running (at least that’s the time period for me). All the preceding thoughts, anger, fear, or whatever is troubling me disappears. It is a period of bliss. This comes from focusing on silence and clearing the mind of as much chatter as possible.
Attempting to take this mental state into daily life is a process, not an event. It takes practice. My view is that the mind becomes calmer-and that this may take a lifetime. Through taking the free zone into daily life, my personal struggles have eased considerably. I am a happier person. Granted, there is still much work to do. But my sense is that the mind is the most powerful organ in the body, and if one can use it effectively, it can change your life.
So how does this relate to the concept of monkey mind? (In other words, when your mind chatters to no end.)
As we know, the mind is like a monkey. It jumps all over the place- and there are thoughts that surface that are difficult to understand. There is no point in trying to understand many of these thoughts. It is also important not to be too concerned with some of your responses that surprise you. What IS important is to be constantly aware of the mind-working toward not get emotionally involved with thoughts. This can happen through simply observing thoughts.
In order to experience the free zone and to translate this peace into everyday life, I developed a mantra that I use when thoughts that I do not prefer surface. I use this when I am running in order to not get emotionally involved with my thoughts. I also use it in my everyday life. When I get up in the morning, during the day and when I go to bed. This helps me to reduce the chatter and be more silent.
So why is silence important?
The more silent one is, the easier it is to be mindful. For example, it is easier for me now to see the peace in the air, to witness silence, and to observe what I see around me. I can be in the moment, and I am in the moment for large periods of my life. It is fantastic. I can get up in the morning and tweet “Another beautiful day in this magical universe.” That I could never do 10 years ago. However, as I earlier said, all of this is a process and not an event. It takes time. We have to be constantly aware of what we think.
So how can our readers change a typical “run” into a meditational run?
You have to first be aware that a meditational run has an intentional focus on the mind. We must make it a point during the process to be constantly aware of our thoughts. Moment by moment you have to watch the mind. Simply observe thoughts as they surface. No analyses, no reflection and no discussion in the mind, just observe the thoughts.
Please note that this involves practice, discipline and persistence. The Beatles never became great without effort. The same applies to very successful athletes and making a run meditational. Start by practicing observation of the thoughts. It will be difficult at first to reduce the chatter. Just remember that the mind is a bundle of desires and habits. Never quit. When it seems senseless, keep trying. After some time, you will begin to notice a difference.
In concluding this interview, is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes. Exercise in any form is crucial for our mental and physical health. Further, I think that knowledge precedes action. Both self- knowledge and reading widely are an essential part of the growth process. Knowledge about the self is crucial in our pursuit of peace.
I also want readers to be aware that the ego creates most of our challenges in life. Often, the ego lives in an illusionary world. It constructs one’s world, which in reality is a false shell. One way of beating the ego is to be silent through taming the mind. Through this, I have learned that most conflict and unhappiness arises from the ego itself. For example, my initial challenges with people and the conflicts I encountered were a result of my ego. Now I know that there is much more to the world than winning an argument or contesting what someone says. Being aware of this is life changing. There is less conflict both internally and externally.
About: Dr. Sigamoney Naicker is a South African runner who works in the area of education. He was appointed Honorary Professor of Education and holds a doctoral degree in the same subject. Dr. Naicker believes that self- knowledge and knowledge of the mind, both physically and spiritually, are essential in moving toward a state of mindfulness. In his book, he regards the spiritual understanding of the mind and physical fitness as essential ingredients in our quest for peace in the 21st century.
To learn more about his Dr. Naicker’s book, Long-Distance Running: Calming the Mind and Creating Conditions for Happiness, click here.