Thursday, 16 January 2014

Running with Buddha

When I was in my early twenties I used to teach maths to African-Caribbean children at a Saturday morning supplementary school - the Mandela Free School (it was originally called the Winnie Mandela Free School but that’s another story). The school was a grassroots effort to address some of the failings that the education system had in educating young black children, failings that seem to continue to this day.  

As a teacher I discovered young children learn best if you give them the information in more than one sensory experience. They learn about fractions far better if they can physically cut up the cake. Lego was a brilliant tool when I was trying to teach them abstract concepts in physics. The technical term for this is “multi-sensory learning”.

I bring this up because I’m finding that I’m now re-discovering this truth about learning - not with children but about myself. 

Running is that extra sensory information.

There are abstract philosophical concepts that I’m either only now beginning to grasp or getting a deeper understanding of because of my marathon running and training. It seems that every time I learn something new about about marathon running I discover parallels with philosophical teachings about life.

Take the concept of of the “Middle Way” in Buddhism. At it’s most basic it is about avoiding extremes - plotting a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. According to Buddha this was the path of wisdom bringing you to enlightenment.

Not being a Buddhist myself I think I understood the idea in theory but it didn’t chime with my reality. I always thought my greatest achievements were achieved through extremes. Pushing myself to my limits. 

For me the “Middle Way” was wonderful if you wanted to have a “nice, calm, serene life”, but not great if you wanted to be the very best you could be.

That was before I started running marathons.

Achieving your best in the marathon is all about moderation.

When you are racing it is about not going out too fast nor going off to slowly at the start.

In training it’s realising that any fool can train themselves into the ground but you have to train with moderation. Not adding too many miles in a week but not doing too few. The best marathon runners even recognise they can’t even concentrate too much on running and need to add cross training into the schedule (I currently try and swim or do yoga at least once a week).

The “Big Push” might be great in a sprint but then you come crashing down. Extremes might seem to work as you cram for an exam but short-term memory does not make you wise in the long run.

Marathon running is life. Time and again it is the physical embodiment of my thinking. It puts the flesh on my abstract philosophical thinking and enriches it.

The ultimate paradox of marathon running, and life, is when you see someone achieving the impossible and seemingly pushing themselves to the extreme they usually got their through moderation.

The new year - 2014 - is just over two weeks old and I’ve just started my training for the Boston Marathon in April. I have a feeling there will be a few more philosophical insights I’ll be learning as I grind out the miles over the coming months - but always in moderation of course! 

(The picture today is of people being the best they can be through moderation at the Cannes Semi-Marathon)

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