Saturday, November 26, 2011

Weekend Reading: Zen and the Art of Running

In Zen and the Art of Running, Larry Shapiro uses basic principles from Zen Buddhism shows how runners can use them to their advantage. He starts out with the Buddhist idea of attachments—how attaching negative emotions to bad weather, running in the city, and darkness can create problems. Then, he explains how to change these attachments and improve motivation using the Buddhist idea of mindfulness.

Shapiro's method for explaining Zen principles relies heavily on stories to illustrate his points—some real and some hypothetical. I particularly enjoyed his explanation being mindful of one's reasons for running and using this mindfulness to avoid family tension. Spending so much time away from the family to pursue a hobby can create conflicts with family members, and his explanation helped me sort out some of my own reasons for running.

I tried some of the advice Shapiro gives on meditation and meditative running and found them to be a pleasant and different way to experience something I already do for hours a week. I enjoyed trying some meditative running on a treadmill after our first snowfall left our sidewalks icy and snow-covered. Shapiro pointed out that for some, meditative running may be easier than sitting and trying to meditate in a quiet room. For this runner, that was definitely the case. I'm someone who usually has a lot of thoughts flying through my head and entering a state of relative quietness significantly lowered my stress level. The time on the treadmill also went by quickly and was a great alternative to watching TV, and I found it to be a pleasant and relaxing experience.

While I enjoyed most of Zen and the Art of Running, I could have done without Shapiro’s chapter on training the Zen way. Perhaps newer runners who are clueless on how to train can find some benefit, but Shapiro would have done better pointing runners to other resources on training than coming up with some of his own terms and training ideas. Or, he could have talked about training programs that were out there and explained to runners how to use the Buddhist principle of the middle way to evaluate and modify these programs.

When I first began Zen and the Art of Running, I couldn’t decide how I felt about Shapiro’s tone. It was different than any other running book I’d read—very conversational. It seemed like I was listening to Shapiro give a lecture on Buddhism and running, which makes sense as he’s a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin. After reading a couple chapters I came to appreciate the tone, although at times the stories he included seemed too fabricated.

As far as the Zen Buddhism, it was very surface level but also easy to understand. An appendix offered more information for the interested reader. This book was not about Zen Buddhism but got me interested in learning more. Much of Zen philosophy is more a system of thinking and experiencing the world, not religious doctrine. In fact, a Lutheran professor who, after spending some time in India, told me he believed there were Buddhist Christians.

Overall I enjoyed Zen and the Art of Running. Some of the advice was particularly timely as winter approaches with its slower paces, miles of stationary indoor running, and shorter daylight hours. I'd recommend Zen and the Art of Running to anyone who struggles with motivation, wants to experience their running in a different way, or would like to understand more about why running is important to them.

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