Right now, I’ve been unhappy with teaching. I don’t know if it’s an early mid-life crisis or an existential crisis, but lately I’ve been feeling less and less satisfied with my job; not dissatisfied as in bored, but as in filled with despair. Teaching what journalists like to classify as “at-risk youth” can sometimes feel like emptying the ocean with a spoon, that there is an endless capacity to put in effort and emotion and time and dedication and yet no matter how much of yourself you pour into it you still come up far short. In the last year and half, as I’ve made room in my life for Nat, I also feel like I’ve been letting my teaching slip, and that after 9 years I’m not nearly as good of a teacher today as I was three or four years ago. I’m feeling burned out, and even more so because I’m not sure if being less dedicated has actually had any negative effect on my students – the only thing more disheartening than thinking I might be giving less than my all is the thought that trying harder and caring more isn’t so much a virtue as a waste of effort.
This is all merely preamble to another post on why I am so devoted to running right now. In some ways it is an escape: from the stress of teaching, of being a father, partner, son, and whatever roles and responsibilities that weigh on me at times. It’s therapy and meditation, an empty place where the mind can rest on tranquility and emptiness. I’ve written many times about running as a variation on Buddhist meditation, and I’ve never felt that to be more true than right now. Yet anyone who practices mindfulness meditation knows the fleeting nature of moments of pure emptiness, of the void, how the mind, out of its lifetimes of habit, by nature seeks out thoughts and worries to work over, like an old Catholic woman running rosary beads through her fingers.
Today I did a short run home after work, just 3.5 miles from High Street, and as usual it was exactly what I needed. There was a cold drizzle falling when I left my school, but by the time I climbed up from the subway in Brooklyn it was merely a high-overcast; still chilly and windy, but not wet. I ran fast and left my school-related worries behind, but like an untrained horse, the mind strives to toss off the reigns of mindfulness and seek out its own well-worn course, returning again and again to those shards of anxiety that have worked their way beneath my skin. The danger during meditation is that one is so accustomed to thought, so habituated to following a worry or fear or desire towards its conclusion, that one can chase a thought down the path of consciousness quite a while before one even becomes aware of it. Today I ran, I reached a place of levelness and peace . . . and then the memory of a specific student would arise in my mind’s eye and before I knew it I was playing an argument over and over in a loop in my mind, levelness and peace gone before I even had a chance to tell myself to stop. Then a conscious effort to set it aside, to return to my breath, my feet, the broken sidewalk in front of me, letting the evenness of the run wash thought aside . . . and then another frustration begging a mental fantasy of rebuttal holding out the promise of catharsis yet actually delivering only increasing frustration and unharnessed emotion.
At one point in the run, my mind wandered into composing an e-mail to two of my former students whom I am particularly close to – my daughters, as I call them – some overly-wrought, dramatic epistle telling them I was giving up, that I couldn’t teach any more, and before I knew it I had worked myself to the point of tears: the furthest possible place from the meditative state I was seeking. So I ran harder, pushed myself into a sprint, held it as long as I could, leg muscles screaming and lungs burning, and eventually my body drowned out my mind. It might be crude, but there is a reason that mendicants and monastics have always found self-flagellation to be an efficient aid in meditation: it’s hard to think when you are having a hard time breathing. I eased back into an easier pace, and for the rest of the run I was fine.
I think another reason I like running right now is because it’s a discrete, self-contained effort: you know when its going to end. If it’s a casual run, I know I’m doing 3 miles, 6 miles, 12 miles, that there is a certain distance or time left, or a definite destination. If it’s a race, there is an even more obvious end-point: the finish line. In the rest of life there are no set distances, no lap-splits, no finish line (at least, not one that most of us are eager to reach). When things get frustrating or hard at work, when balancing teaching and parenting and life seems overwhelming, there is no simple reprieve on the horizon. In a race, on the other-hand, the goal is clear from the outset, and there comes a point when you pass the last mile marker, then you can hear the sound of the finish, the cheering and clapping of the waiting crowds. That’s when, as tired as you are, you push even harder, as you know there is no need to hold back, no need to keep a reserve of energy, because you can just pour your heart and soul into this one last effort before resting. There is no point to running, it serves no purpose, and yet you throw yourself into it wholly and without reservation.
In one way, then, racing is an escape from the unbroken race that is life. On a deeper lever, however, it is not so much an escape from life as it is training for life. Before you run a 5K, you run a mile; before you run a marathon, you spend weeks on shorter runs, building up your speed and endurance. When you set out to run 26 miles, it seems impossible, just as the sweeping vistas of the next five, fifteen, or thirty years, when taken in all at once, are daunting. Running lets you tackle one, small, nicely delineated obstacle at a time; it lets you practice pouring your heart and soul into an activity that would be worthless, save for the fact that you have chosen to give it value.
“The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami