Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Running with Tolle

As it turns out, my long runs most weekends now involve running from Conquerall Bank to Peace Park and back. I’m not making it up. “Conquer all” Bank to Peace Park. If that’s not a message from the universe, I don’t know what it.

This past weekend, I didn’t start my long run until I’d already put in a few hours cleaning the house and cooking for the freezer. The sun was low in the sky and a cold wind was sweeping in from the north as I hit the road, not entirely convinced a run was a good idea but determined to squeeze in a longish one before starting a new work week.

To be frank, the first part of my usual route is a bit dull. I run from our house into the small town of Bridgewater where I cross the “old bridge” and take stairs to a path that runs along the river’s edge behind the shopping centre. Things improve when the path joins up with a lovely old trail (formerly a rail line) through the pine forest beyond. I could follow that trail all the way to Lunenburg 15km away if I wanted to but I don’t. Instead, I take a right at the first road intersecting the path and follow it back to the old highway. From there, it’s a congenial half mile run along the river to the entrance of Peace Park.

Peace Park is the gravy (or the cream, if you prefer) of my weekend runs. This time of year, I often have it entirely to myself aside from the occasional dog walker. It's located on Miller’s Head, a small pine-covered point of land jutting into the Lahave River. The loop through the park isn’t long (3 or 4 kilometres at most) but I savour every inch of it. I love the sense of isolation, the rolling paths, the stunning river views, and the comfortable feel of soft pine needles underfoot. (I took the photo above while running there late last fall.)

One of the things I like most about doing long runs on my own is having time for reflection. For example, this past weekend, I was thinking about Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. I started reading it last year and have been slowly making my way through it ever since.

Tolle’s basic teaching is that most of us have lost touch with our true selves, our “Being” as he calls it. We’re so caught up in our thoughts, have handed so much control over to our minds (our “egos”), that we no longer experience our lives in the "Now". Instead, we think constantly about the past and the future and mistakenly believe that our memories, hopes and aspirations are who we are. In fact, he says, we are something far more essential - spiritual presences powerfully connected to everything else in the universe.

I find Tolle’s ideas both compelling and comforting. Compelling because I'd like to believe there's something more to each of us than the sum total of our memories and aspirations – that we have some ineffable essence that enables us to put fear, hurt and anger behind us so we can reach out to others in hope and love. Comforting because it means pain and anger don't have to define us - that it's possible to find peace and joy simply by accepting "what is" and savouring our lives in the moment.

It’s hard not to get caught up in our thoughts, of course, but Tolle has an exercise for that – and it’s one I recognize from my yoga classes. He suggests that we “watch” our thoughts and emotions as they pass through our minds and recognize that the “watcher” - that calm, peaceful presence who witnesses them - is the most essential part of who we are.  Acknowledging our true selves in this way, he says, diminishes the power our thoughts and feelings have over us because we understand they are merely something we experience and that we can choose to let them go and savour the quiet joy that comes with being genuinely present in our lives.

So, for example, during my long run this weekend I had two choices. I could spend my time mentally rehashing the drama and turmoil that had resulted from various personal and professional interactions over the past week, or I could just

feel the crunch of the snow beneath my feet,
savour the scent of pines,
feel the sting of cold air on my forehead, and
let myself “be”
in the moment,
in the Now.

I can’t honestly say I was able to do that for the whole run, but reminding myself to watch – simply watch – the thoughts and feelings that came into my mind from time to time – without judging them or letting myself be caught up in them – gave me momentary glimpses into the quiet joy Tolle writes about.

By the time I’d made the return trip to our little house in Conquer-all Bank, the long run in a beautiful place combined with Tolle’s spiritual exercises had worked their magic. Though physically cold and tired, I felt much more relaxed, at peace and better prepared to face the challenges of the week ahead. Given how good it felt, I think maybe Tolle and I will be running together again soon.

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