A Zen teacher and avid runner on her Buddhist approach to movement and meditation
Why, exactly, do runners run? “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest,” the acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami, who is also an elite marathon runner, wrote in his 2009 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.”
This year, going out for a jog has taken on new meaning. Requiring little equipment or overhead, running has provided immense support for many coping with the physical and mental toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Still, it’s important to be safe while doing so.) But as Murakami pointed out, for some, running can be much more than a way to stay healthy.
In her new book, Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion (Shambhala; August 11, 2020), Vanessa Zuisei Goddard offers an approach to running based on her background in Zen Buddhism. A lay teacher and former resident at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, for nearly twenty years (14 of which were spent as an ordained monastic), Goddard shares her motivation for “still running” by opening the book with a passage from the Pali canon’s Udana Sutta. “For one who clings, motion exists; but for one who clings not, there is no motion . . . . Where neither arising nor passing away is, there is neither this world nor a world beyond, nor a state between. This, verily, is the end of suffering.” In a tradition best known for the literal stillness of its seated zazen meditation, Goddard, a runner for more than 35 years, elucidates the importance of spiritual stillness—the internal experience where craving ends—and explains how it can be cultivated through movement.
Tricycle spoke with Goddard about how running became an extension of her Buddhist practice and how her technique differs from other approaches to exercise and movement. (A glimpse of Goddard’s instructions excerpted from her book immediately follows the interview.)
What is “still running?” “Still running,” at its most basic, is a moving form of zazen meditation. I have always felt that, as incredibly powerful as seated zazen is, it’s not enough. The transition between stillness and movement—meditation and activity—doesn’t happen automatically; you need to cultivate it. Running is an excellent way of doing that because you’re using your whole being, both your body and your mind. And if you can bring the same kind of focus, presence, and awareness [that you bring to seated meditation] to running, there’s no reason you can’t do the same with other activities—working, cleaning, washing dishes, being with your child, and so forth.
The book emerged out of body-centered retreats you led at Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM), where participants studied running as a form of spiritual practice. Can you tell me more about those? Those retreats naturally unfurled out of my training at the monastery. One form of Zen training is body practice, which John Daido Loori [ZMM’s founder and first abbot] always referred to as the study of self through the body.
T’ai chi, yoga, and qi gong are some traditional forms of doing that in a spiritual context, but because what I love to do is running, at a certain point I started to wonder, How do I do this in zazen? So I developed a personal practice.
Then I thought, Can I teach this to other people? I started with one or two of our ninety-day intensives with maybe 15 people or so to experiment. The basic idea was: How to think about running as a spiritual practice and as a form of self-study.
As the retreats developed, were the participants experienced runners or were they beginners? I had a whole range: I’ve had people who have never done anything like this but were curious and people who have done quite a bit of running but wanted to delve into the spiritual or meditation component. The oldest participant was over 80 years old. She just walked.
We don’t do very long runs. There are many very good running and training programs out there, so I don’t pretend to be that at all. I’m trying to get people to make that connection between body and mind. All I call for is for people to get in their bodies—to actually be there as you are running, to be aware of what you are doing—because even a lot of athletes are not very embodied, if at all. I think one of the main reasons we get injured is because we don’t pay attention and we over-train…