There are some books that are beautiful and transformative. With gentle kindness, they invite us to embrace ourselves. They call on us to accept change. They allow us to free ourselves. Vanessa Zuisei’s ‘Still Running’ is one of those books. When I read this last month, I had no idea that this book would take me on a journey. It’s after I read ‘Still Running’ that I realized just how mindlessly I do even things that I loved. I have been religiously running ever since a doctor told me 10 years ago never to run again. But I became so consumed by the notion of proving that doctor wrong that I had forgotten why I was running still.
I was working out because I wanted to be fitter, healthier, faster, better. All noble notions. But as I read the book, I realized that those are not the goals I want to pursue at this stage. They are great goals, but as with goals, you can become too obsessed with reaching a certain weight/level and forget how the practice of running or any exercise can bring joy, peace, harmony, love, and a certain stillness in our lives.
Meditation is useless unless we apply it in our lives. There’s no point in being a great person who is still for 1 hour if you get up and spend the remaining 23 hours mindlessly. That’s what ‘Still Running’ is. How to be mindful in our everyday life. I was lucky to have Zuisei, who is a Zen teacher, agree to answer a few questions for this post.
At the beginning, you ask your readers: Why do you run? None of the usual answers seem to work: for fitness, to stay in shape, to escape. So, why do we run? Or what is the intent with which we can approach the practice of running or any other exercise?
I wouldn’t want to tell people why they should run. There are no shoulds. The whole point of asking about intent is to understand what makes us tick. As I say in my book, when we know what drives us, we’re more likely to do what we said we wanted to do.
And when we don’t, we’re more likely to know why. Maybe we don’t really want what we say we want. That’s perfectly fine. You can adjust and move on without guilt.
I write a lot about happiness on this blog. Many of my friends who write to me confess their difficulties in staying still with the discomfort of our lives. During these times, especially, when nothing seems to be in control, how do we stay present, Vanessa? How or what is happiness?
I think the challenge may be with the way we understand happiness. We’re not always going to feel good or be comfortable. But within those circumstances, can we be content? Can we be at ease? One way to think about this is to think about cultivating resilience: the ability to withstand discomfort and to bounce back from difficulties. If we want to have ease in our lives, this is paramount.
There is an 8th century Indian teacher called Shantideva who said, “You can cover the world with leather, or you can put leather sandals on your feet.” Covering the world with leather is trying to control our environment to make it fit our idea of happiness. Putting leather sandals on our feet is building resilience so we can be with things as they are. And the primary way of doing this is to work with our minds. We look honestly at what we’re doing and reflect on whether it’s actually meeting our needs.
Zazen demands patience, doesn’t it? Yet, that’s something we seem to have only in limited supply. How can we continue with the practice, whether it’s Zazen or any other meditation practice, when it seems too difficult?
Zazen doesn’t demand anything, really. It’s about being with ourselves completely: impatient, restless, focused, calm—whatever. To do it over time does require patience, but so does anything worth doing.
So how do we practice it when it’s difficult? One moment at a time (which is the only way we can do it anyway).
“I want to meditate, but I can’t stop my thoughts,” is the most common refrain from those who wish to meditate.
Think of them as clouds in the sky—if you don’t hold onto them, they float away. Often we think of meditation as this very tight, narrow activity: “I’m going to sit down and not move and focus on my breath until my thoughts stop.” The reality is the opposite: try sitting or lying down, standing or walking while you simply watch your thoughts go by.
Don’t push them away, don’t hold onto them. Just let them be. If you can do that, even for a moment, that’s acceptance.
You write in ‘Still Running’ and elsewhere on the Internet, that sitting still in meditation is not enough. We need to pair it with understanding and action. There are beautiful examples in your book – the joy of biting into a fruit or watching a bird fly. What’s “action” in your understanding?
In Buddhism, “right action” is tied to ethical conduct. Simply said, it’s about doing good and not causing harm. So, as we’re going about our lives, how do we act in a way that makes sense for everyone and not just ourselves? When I’m not sure how to act, I ask myself, “Will this action create more suffering or will it alleviate it?” I don’t always see clearly or act in the way that makes the most sense, but I keep trying.
How do we forgive ourselves, Zuisei? How do we deal with those demons called anger, hatred, guilt, and regrets? How do we forgive others?
We first have to be willing to shine a light on our shadows so we can see clearly what’s lurking in the corners. Then we slowly work to make space for what we’d rather not see or feel. We work on being kind to ourselves because what we all want, ultimately, is to be happy.
When we act in a way that seems contrary to that, it’s because we’re not clear. That’s why practice is ongoing. You don’t do this just once. You keep looking and feeling and living moment by moment. Then, the more space we have for ourselves, the more space we’ll have for others. But it has to start right here, right where we are, exactly as we are.
I have been, of late, worried that my life “isn’t enough.” That whatever I am doing is “not enough.” Many of my readers think the same. We feel panicky that this life is slipping out and we are going to wake up with the awful stench of death hanging over our heads. This idea: we are not enough. We are not enough in our loving, in our work, in our writing, and in our running. How do we embrace ourselves with our judgement?
This is a very common feeling. I think we’ve all felt it at some point. I guess the question I would ask is, enough for what?
In my book I write a lot about letting each activity fill a moment of experience. When you’re running, just run fully. When you write, just write. Let it fill all of your attention so there’s nothing else. Leave no room for judgment or comparison, which will simply suck your energy.
One of my teachers used to say “Combust your life.” Another way of saying that is, “Live without room for regret.” Finally, consider revising your view of death. It’s simply change. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s not a fault in the system. It’s an integral part of life. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “To be or not to be, that is not the question. The moment of dying is not really a moment of cessation but a moment of continuation. If a dying person has this kind of insight, she will have no fear.”
Anything else you can say to bring a semblance of peace to our troubled souls during these times?
That’s a tall order. Maybe the Dalai Lama says it best. He said, “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.”
Kindness is the most powerful balm for anger, despair, hopelessness and the like. We can all practice being kind in small and large ways.
Imagine what this world would be like if we did this even 10% of the time.
Vanessa Zuisei Goddard is a writer and lay Zen teacher based in New York City. Her first book, Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion, was released by Shambhala Publications in August of this year. She can be found at vanessazuiseigoddard.org.