A few years ago, when I was training for my first marathon, I went for a run around the reservoir in Central Park. I had been steadily increasing my speed and endurance for months, and I felt great that day, as if I was flying around the cinder loop in the heart of New York City. As I was nearing the end of my run, I spotted a runner a ways in front of me, a tall, super-athletic looking woman, the type of serious runner who looks like she could be a professional athlete. She was fit, she was fast, and I decided I was going to put everything I had left in to passing her before I quit for the day. I reached down into myself for the a last reserve of energy and pushed into a high sprint, legs kicking furiously, the balls of my feet barely brushing the ground. I gained on her, slowly, but surely, then drew next to her, then past. I felt I had proven something to myself by catching and passing an athlete who looked like the paragon of running, and glanced over at her just before I left the loop to collapse in victory. She was easily running a six-minute mile, without a sign of strain or stress on her face, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. And she was at least 7 months pregnant. I had thrown my best effort into that sprint, and I’d barely passed a pregnant woman.
One of the best books on Buddhism I’ve read recently is What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. It doesn’t say anything particularly new or profoundly complex, but Khyentse does a great job of putting the essential tenets of Buddhism in simple, elegant terms, while holding a very hard line when it comes to doctrine in order to challenge the fuzzy, comfortable ideas that many Westerners have about Buddhism.
All of these various [negative] emotions and their consequences come from misunderstanding, and this misunderstanding comes from one source, which is the root of all ignorance — clinging to the self. We assume that each of us is a self, that there is an entity called “me.” The self is just another misunderstanding, however . . . At the moment that Siddhartha found no self, he also found no inherently existing evil — only ignorance. Specifically, he contemplated the ignorance of creating a label of “self,” pasting it on a totally baseless assembled phenomenon, imputing its importance, and agonizing to protect it. This ignorance, he found, leads directly to suffering and pain. Ignorance is simply not knowing the facts, having the facts wrong, or having incomplete knowledge . . . Anything we do that emerges from this ignorance that is speculative. When we act with no understanding or incomplete understanding, there is no ground for confidence, [and suffering arises].
One of the things running has taught me is that it is impossible to judge anyone else. That sweating, slow moving guy you just blew past might be on mile 20 of a 30 mile training run for an ultramarathon; the woman who whipped past you like you were standing still might just be doing an 200 meter sprint. When you head out to do a loop in Prospect Park or Central Park, there are always dozens, if not hundreds, of other runners, and you never know where any of them are coming from or going to. Have they been running for 15 years, or did they just start last week? Recovering from a knee surgery, tapering before an Ironman, suffering from a head-cold, training for the Olympics, starting mile one or mile 23? As Khyentse says “When we act with no understanding or incomplete understanding, there is no ground for confidence.” Unless you know every factor behind another’s running – so that you have that complete understanding – you cannot evaluate them, either for better or worse. And since you can never know every factor, you can never evaluate anyone.
Just as importantly, once one realizes it is impossible to judge others, it becomes impossible to judge oneself, as there is no longer a basis for comparison. At first, it was easy to let ego become intertwined with my running, in terms both positive and negative. I would train and work and try, yet I was still fatter or slower than many of the other runners lining up to start the race with me. Conversely, I’d pass some seemingly in-shape jock panting up Harlem Hill and feel like I was an amazing athlete. Both these evaluations – the self-defeating depression and the self-aggrandizing confidence – were not rooted in any inherently existent reality but in a perception based on ignorance, ignorance of the facts behind the phenomena, and an ignorant assumption that the phenomena has some sort of objective, external existence: that I was “slow” or “fast,” that the runners I observed were either “slow” or “fast.” We were each running at a given pace, that was all.
Once I stopped judging others positively or negatively, there was no basis to judge myself against them. Being in New York, where there are so many other runners and the races are so well attended, made this realization even more obvious. In any race of 3,000 people, I will be slower than many of them, faster than many others. I will never be even close to being the fastest person in any race I run, since nearly every race attracts a number of world-class athletes, and I will never be the slowest, as each race also has a number of walkers. I’ve run in a marathon with Dena Kastor, who finished in just over 2 hours, as well as Al Roker, who finished in over 6. I finished behind 30,000 other runners, meaning I was beaten by the population of a small mid-western city, but I also finished ahead of 33,000 others. What I did do was run a race that I was proud of, with a finish that I felt good about.
Now that I’m hoping to run an ultramarathon, I have an entirely new set of examples to help me set aside any sense of ego. On one hand, I was exceptionally proud of running 42 miles this week, and if you ask most of my friends, they think that is an inhumanly impressive accomplishment . . . but then Anton Krupicka runs 142 miles most weeks. That doesn’t diminish what I did, merely put it in perspective. I am proud of what I have done in terms of who I am; when I run, it is against my past and against my future, not another person or what they’ve done. I am proud of a 42 mile week because I’ve pushed myself, not because it is objectively impressive. I run for myself and against myself, to learn what I am capable of and then to push that limit a bit further – because that limit is also not an objective reality, merely a perception as well. . .