“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” – Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr
Today I headed out at lunch to do speed work: 3×800/400, plus the .6 miles to and from the track. I made it through the first 800 meters, but it was immediately obvious I wasn’t up to it today. My legs were slow and tired; actually, my entire body was tired. Even when kicking along at a 6:45 mile, I felt like I was about to fall asleep whenever my eyes closed. Add the fact that it was nearly 90 degrees out, and I decided to abandon the track after the second 800 meters and instead just have an easy run around some of the side-streets near my school. I eventually ran just under four miles, sweating like crazy and haunting any narrow strip of shade with near desperation. The pure masochist in me did insist on running up the hundred foot elevation gain of the stair-case connecting Jerome and Anderson Avenues, but most of the run was done at a speed just above a plodding ten-minute mile pace.
It took me three miles before I could even find any joy at all, and then it was a conscious act of meditation; realizing I was suffering through a run, I made myself focus on the experience, the sensations of movement and effort. Highlighted like that, the sensation became its own strange pleasure: the ache in my calves and quads, the bright burn of sun on my skin, the slight pressure of a bead of sweat traveling down the back of my neck. There was not much to cling to, but that little was enough to save something from the run. Awareness, by itself, attention to the moment, can be joy.
Today’s abandoned speed-work has reawakened a question that has been stirring about in my mind recently as I write about joy and acceptance and Buddhist running: what is the boundary between acceptance and settling? This focuses on one of the aspects of Buddhism that I have always wrestled with, as a philosophy that is founded on a fundamental disbelief in any inherent or tangible reality lends itself to a touch of nihilism. I have written on numerous occasions about how running and Buddhism help me find joy when my life is filled with frustration, and that much of that joy comes from the freedom of acceptance, that there is nothing inherently “good” or ”bad” about phenomena, and that it our attitude towards them, our clinging to various concepts and preconceptions, that cause them to be perceived as “good” or “bad.”
Was abandoning today’s speed work an act of accepting my current state and ability, or was it a sign of weakness, of not staying firm in the face of adversity and challenge? The other day, running allowed me to accept the terrible day I was having with my students – but at what point should I stop accepting terrible days and seek something that makes me happier? When does calm acceptance become settling for a miserable existence which could, in fact, be changed? When does Buddhist patience merely become an exercise in masochism and self-flagellation, or worse, compliance with injustice and cruelty? Should I calmly accept the misery and suffering I find in the world, or refuse to accept it and actively work against it? Since I have chosen to teach in urban public schools, obviously I believe in the possibility of change, as well as the responsibility to be a part of that change. So I can’t merely believe in acceptance. And yet I must, as if I cannot accept my students and my multitudinous, daily failures, I would drown in disappointment and frustration. Reprimands will not bring the waves into line. Anger will not alter the winds. Sadness will not bring back the Gulf Stream, and so I accept them, but how to accept the present and work to change it simultaneously?
That is the question I am struggling with as I work through this aesthetic of joy. What is the line between joy and work? Joy and effort? Joy and challenge? One cannot merely follow what is easy or brings pleasure, as joy is much more complicated than simply the path of least-resistance. Finishing my first marathon was the hardest thing I have ever accomplished, and the last four miles were painful and nearly impossible, but finishing that race was one of the single most joyous occasions of my life, and one of my greatest accomplishments to date. Waking up at 4 am to run to work is not easy, but it brings me joy. My 13 year relationship with my partner has not always been easy, but it brings me joy. Raising my two children is not easy, but it brings me joy.
Was abandoning the effort of speed-work today accepting my limitations and seeking joy, or had I persisted, would the satisfaction of triumphing over adversity been joyous? Or would persistence have been merely foolish? After all, most running injuries are through over-use, not listening to one’s body. If I run for joy, will I allow myself to shirk from new challenges, from going further or farther than may be comfortable? What can I accept? What can I not, what should I not accept? When is effort misery and when it is joy, when should that misery be combated and when can joy be found in that very misery itself? Is that ache in my calves the sign of a race well run, or that I should take the next few days easy? Is this discomfort? Pain? Can I keep running, or should I stop? One more hill, one more lap, one more mile.
And this is why I run: I ask these questions of my running, of my life, and I attempt to answer them every time I head out for a three mile loop or an 18 mile journey. The only way to know what one is capable of is to run; the only way to know what is too much or when one is capable of more is to have experience with one’s body running. Wisdom can only be gained through experience, through failure, through trying again. There is no other way to find the answer other than running; there is no other answer than running itself. The answer to the question of life is to live.
“Grant me the patience to accept the runs I cannot finish; the strength to finish he runs I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”