The Law of Cause & Effect

I didn’t used to run this happy (or “smiley,” as my cohort of runners like to say).  Not that I ever slogged through my runs . . . well, I did at first, back when running was to lose weight and was primarily done on a treadmill in a windowless basement, but that doesn’t really count.  I wasn’t a “runner” back then, and ever since I began to hesitantly take on the title after my first 5K, I’ve primarily run because I enjoyed it.  I’ve never been a big negative-split-PR-heart-rate-zone type of guy, and my goal in almost every race has been just to have a good time (okay, I’ve had a few PR goals in mind here an there).  Still, there has been a decided increase in the amount of joy in my running recently, something that I had noticed before becoming a part of the RunSmiley collective, but that I’ve become even more aware of in the last few weeks while blogging along side my fellow runners.

So I’ve been pondering: why?  Why has running been so joyous now, at this moment? In fact, my life in general has been joyous, despite an actual increase in various stresses and worries, and I attribute much of that joy to an overflow from my runs, a transference of my mindset during running to my working and home life.  Why? I consider this not merely an idle wondering but a question of great import, because if there has been an increase my joy, there must be a cause, and if there is a cause, it is something I can consciously work toward cultivating.

That is one of the things running teaches you: there is a cause, things happen for a reason.  You don’t just suddenly get faster or have the ability to run further or the capacity to run in hot weather.  If you want to run faster, you need to start working at running faster; if you want to run further, you need to work at running further; if you want to be able to run in hot weather, you need to start running in hot weather.  If you’re knee gives out or you develop Achilles tendonitis, it isn’t just bad luck; something in your running form or distance or effort caused it.  You might not even have been consciously working at speed or distance, and one is almost never aware of pushing too hard or running poorly.  Conscious or not, however, whether you are getting better at something or becoming injured, there is a reason.


This is pretty much what is expressed by the Buddhist idea of karma: everything happens for a reason.  Karma is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in Buddhism, and I myself struggled with it for a long time.  In fact, I gave up practicing for years after September 11th, primarily because I couldn’t reconcile the concept of karma with all that death and suffering; any theology that said those people had died because of things they had done in their life or past lives – that they had deserved it – repulsed me.  Karma, however is much simpler than that, and much less judgmental: every event has a cause, every event is preceded by events that have lead up to it.  Nothing Is independent or complete by itself.  This does not mean that events are pre-planned, nor does it mean they are fated, though at some point the end result does become inevitable: once the branch is cut, it will fall to the ground, once a person makes up their mind it may be impossible to dissuade them.

Karma means that everything that happens to us had events that precede it, and so every event is the culmination of a multitude of choices; had different choices been made, events would have transpired differently.  The real theological implication for karma, however, is not on the past, but on our present and our future, as our every action has consequences; actions we perform now become the preceding events for future occurrences.  Since we are largely ignorant, either through lack of consciousness or mere mortal limitations, those consequences are often unintended or unpredictable.  This is the entire point of seeking wisdom and enlightenment: a Buddha is free from karma, for with perfect wisdom she knows the consequences and outcomes of her every action and can act in a manner that can only help and never lead to harm.  So often when we act, even with the best of intentions, the results are less than ideal: our attempt at helping a friend makes things worse, an increase in running leads not to faster 10K times but injury.  We lack the wisdom to know what action is truly needed to reach our desired outcome.  This ties back into my questions of acceptance versus settling; an enlightened being would always know what effort was right: when to say a kind word and when to stay silent, when to lend a hand and when to stay detached, when to do a 12 mile run in the heat and when to stay inside.


Speaking of unintentional, I wasn’t planning on writing a long sermon on karma.  The point is: my joy must have a cause, and if I can understand its cause, I can attempt, in my imperfect, unenlightened manner, to continue or increase that joy.   I’ve been meditating on this during many of my runs recently.  Last Wednesday, I went for a 5.5 mile run at noon, in 94 degree, 45 percent humidity weather, and I loved every step of it.  Why?  Because I focused on the experience, the here and now, and allowed myself to see the heat as heat, the shade as shade.  A famous zen konan read, “When you are sweeping the floor, sweep the floor.”  When you are running in heat, run in heat.

So one of the causes of my joy is living in the moment, experiencing the experience for what it is, not for what I wish it were.  The other day, I quoted the serenity prayer and reworked it as a runners prayer.  While looking up the prayer, however, I discovered there is a second verse: “Living one day at a time; 
Enjoying one moment at a time; 
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; 
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life 
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.”  This idea of living in the moment, as seeing the world as it is, not as one wishes it were, is startlingly Buddhist.  It also echoes the ideas that Jen wrote about on her post a few days ago, “Savoring the Moment.”  If there is a central ethos to RunSmiley, “Savoring the Moment” is probably it.

But why am I able to do that?  What preceding events have lead up to my now being able to take joy in what should, by all accounts, be a miserable 55 minutes of discomfort?  Thinking “I’m going to enjoy a run the heat” is one thing; doing it is another.  Not that I’ve achieved enlightenment or anything (far from it – just ask my partner!), but I don’t think I was at a point to do that a few years ago.  What’s changed for me now?  After a few weeks of pondering this set of cause and effect, here’s what I’ve come up with:

1) Practice.  There is a reason why the act of regular meditation is called “practice,” and its because that’s the only way to get good at it.  You don’t just sit down and meditate. Like running, meditation is appears easy but is far from it; doing nothing, thinking nothing, letting go, does not come naturally to our minds.  I lost my Buddhist practice for a long  while, as when we moved to Brooklyn a year and a half ago the dharma center that I attended was suddenly a very long trip away.  Combined with the business of teaching and raising kids, I just let my practice fall to the wayside.  Currently, I try to mediate every day during my morning commute, especially between 59th street and 155th street, but primarily I’ve turned my runs in to my meditation.  I focus on my breathing, focus on my form, focus on the act of this run here.  That practice makes it easier to take this sort of mindset into the rest of my life, which is, of course, the entire point of meditating: not to have 15 minutes of calm while cross-legged on a mat, but to carry that calm and mindfulness into “real” life.

2) Necessity.  I have been very unhappy with teaching recently, and that, of course, is a significant part of my daily experience.  And as much as I obviously love returning home to M, Nat, and Angelica, I can’t exactly say it’s terribly “relaxing” most of the time. Since I haven’t had the time to sit to meditate, I have needed my running time to be meditative and calming.  I’ve actively focused on not allowing it to be a place where I fixate on worries or make plans or think about school or listen to music.   Necessity leads to practice, which leads to joy.

3) Giving up my time goal for the 2010 NYC Marathon.  I ran my first marathon in 2008, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, as well as the hardest thing I have ever done.  Every step from mile 22 on was a painful struggle; I ran the last 2.1 miles on pure will-power alone.  I crossed the finish line half-dead, but immensely proud of my achievement.  The experience fundamentally changed how I look at myself and what I think of as possible, and the fact that I did it in 4 hours and 10 seconds gave me an obvious goal for next year: break 4 hours (at this point, I’m sure my partner would like to me point out that she did, in fact, break 4 hours).  Two months later, Nat came home, and neither of us ran at all for the next year.  We both had automatic entry for the 2009 marathon, but since we hadn’t run at all, we both deferred entry to 2010.  I continued to not run, and only forced myself to start training regularly at pretty much the last possible minute before last years race: 4 weeks to establish a base of 25 miles a week, then 16 weeks to ramp up for the marathon.  Between work and raising a one-year old, however, training was a bit spotty: I only did two 20 mile runs, and although I hit most of the long runs, I missed about one run every week.

By the time November 7th rolled around, I didn’t have any illusions that I would finish in under 4 hours, or even close to 4 hours.  In fact, I didn’t have any goal other than to finish the race and enjoy the experience.  I started out slow, at about a 4:45 pace, but when I got to the half-way point I felt so fantastic that I decided to speed up.  And I continued to feel great, so I continued to go faster; from mile 18 to the finish, I ran each successive mile faster than the one before.  Not only does going faster at the end of a race feel great, but you get the psychological boost of passing people – lots of people.  Just as everyone else was slowing or taking walk breaks, I was going faster, and easily passed hundreds of other runners in those last miles.  My muscles were sore, yes, but it wasn’t pain: they felt like they were singing to me, reveling in the effort.  I hit 59th street at the south end of the park at a dead sprint, and crossed the finish line at 4:22, a huge grin plastered across my face, and enough energy left that I felt like skipping through the shuffling hordes of the silver-blanket clad walking wounded.  The fact that I’d finished almost a half-hour slower than last time didn’t bother me in the slightest.

My second marathon was nothing like the first: it was also one of the greatest experiences of my life, but this time I didn’t use the phrase “hardest thing I’ve ever done,” to describe it.  If fact, I resisted the urge to use the description “easy,” because that sounded arrogant, but it was true.  I had so much fun, had gotten so much joy out of the run, that I wouldn’t have traded my 4:22 finish for a 3:55, or even a BQ.  That was the day I decided I wanted to run an ultramarathon, and the first time I really ran “smiley.”

4) Vibrams.  I don’t think any one item of clothing has ever brought so much joy to my life.  Forget the whole zero-drop-builds-stronger-natural-feet-toe-splay whatever arguments: wearing Vibrams is just fun.  When I first started wearing them, I was startled at how much texture I could feel when walking on different surfaces.  No, its not being barefoot, which is even more exhilarating, but I live in New York, and Vibrams reminded me how much I used to love being barefoot: its sensual, pleasurable, and just fun.  Now I walk over grates and manhole covers just to feel them underfoot, I seek out rough patches of concrete, step on rocks, balance on the edge of curbs just on my toes, and just because its fun.  Walking, lives simplest, most common activity, can be fun;  a single step can be a source of joy.

5) Nat.  It might be a be a cliché, but having a kid really does remind you how to find joy in simple activities.  Nat has reminded me how much fun it is to play in the dirt with a stick, and to throw rocks into puddles.  Last weekend, we spent an hour splashing in a huge puddle that formed in Ft. Green Park, hitting the surface with sticks, lobbing broken bricks into the deepest parts to make a “big boom,” squishing muck between our toes, rubbing mud across our arms.   Dried mud feels great on your skin!  I climbed a tree just because I thought Nat would get a kick out of it, and he made me climb it over and over and over again, and I was reminded how great climbing a tree in your bare feet is.  Nat has reminded me to stare at clouds and passing airplanes, to kick at clumps of dandelions, to spend 45 minutes walking the six blocks to the dog-run.  Its living in the moment, its embracing the experience for what it is and loving it, its doing things that are fun because they are fun.

I think too often our society takes this idea of adults embracing play and makes it overly self-conscious and forced: this isn’t a Sark “Eat Mangos Naked” poster.  It also isn’t the ironic play that much of my hipster generation has embraced.  Irony is cowardice, because it refuses to commit to honest joy.  Irony says “Look, I’m having fun playing Ms. Pac-Man, but if you think I’m lame I can always retreat behind my irony — just kidding!”  “Look, I’m growing a moustache, and if you like it that’s great, but if you don’t I’m just being ironic.”  There is nothing ironic about the way I splash in puddles right now, even when Nat is not around: I like splashing in puddles, I just enjoy it.  Last week, I jumped in a puddle on the way to work, because it made me happy and made me laugh out-loud.  Friday, I took of my Vibrams and walked barefoot through the park on the way to school, just to feel the dewy grass on my toes. At one extreme, when toddlers are throwing tantrums and wanting things “now now now” and not sharing, they are perfect metaphors for Buddhist suffering and the preta-mindset; at their other extreme, they are models of enlightenment, of living in the moment and embracing simplicity.


So where does this long, rambling inquiry into joy leave us?  That my joy comes not from seeking it out, but in finding in what I have, in where I am.  That joy is simple.  Not that this is terribly profound, but perhaps that’s the point.  That there is no need to seek joy, because joy is already here; sometimes it is easier to see than others, and sometimes it takes a toddler to point it out to you.  That the best way to enjoy a run is to go out with one goal in mind: to run.  That’s what I’ve been trying to do, and unsurprisingly, with a goal that simple, every run is a success.


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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