Like Foucault’s pendulum, the human mind is constantly pulled toward polarities of the extreme.
On one end is the Buddhist notion of aestheticism—the extreme forcing or pushing of our bodies and minds to be a certain way. Sort of like the 46-year-old me ignoring and denying the sharp and grinding pain in my right hip with every laborious running step I take.
Or, the other end is the pole of escapism—me using hedonistic pleasures as sandpaper to buff out the jagged edges that have started to be drawn into my well-established landscape. Or, that I have almost every hour of my day accounted for—a busy distraction to drown out the pain and grief that bark against the door like a dog wanting to come in from the rain.
See, I have been a “runner” since high school. Thirty years in the making. Effortless. The “Just do it” generation.
I started running through my neighborhood of horse trails which, during college, turned into the noisy, honking-infused, fast-paced pedestrian streets of Manhattan and its bucolic Central Park. When I returned home for grad school, the chaos transformed into the misty, sun-drenched beaches of southern California. I ran in several marathons when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, where I came to love running in the rain—a renewal and cleansing of more than just my running shoes.
I ran along the Adriatic as a new bride on my honeymoon, and toted my son around in the jogger with the wind and fresh, cool air sweeping his soft and rosy newborn skin, osmotically turning him into a runner someday.
I am a cheetah. Born under a water sign, yet most grounded touching land. Pounding earth, actually. Every step, I imprint. I cover space and time with each stride. Here. Now gone.
I run with a steady head and quick feet. I am light, lifted, eyes open wide, awake, scanning my environment for sudden movements.
Invincible. Unstoppable. Unbreakable. Untouchable.
August 27th, 2007. Age 34. My body shut down. My feet cemented. The black-out shades were drawn over my thoughts, my feelings, my soul. A grief so heavy, so physical, poured into every cell of my body like thick, sticky molasses—bitter and ever-hardening.
My sister was murdered. Running would not save me this time.
Running had always been the barometer for my life:
How sick am I? I can still run.
How sad am I? I can still run.
Will someone love me again? I can still run.
Will I make it through this day? I can still run.
I will never hear my sister’s voice again. I hate everything.
I lost all sense of time during that period, but there was a day when I laced up my running shoes again and went out. No defined path in my head, no queued playlist, this time. No striving for some good feeling. Just me, my breath, the solid earth beneath the treading, and the warm, penetrating sun on my depleted soul.
With the light, I gradually started to run through the darkness. I ran to honor my sister, to let go and grieve a failing marriage, and to cultivate the strength to raise myself and three traumatized boys on my own.
But now, my 46-year-old body cautiously closes the front door and heads out into unfamiliar and unwelcome territory. I am less the cheetah and more the gazelle waiting to be pounced by the cheetah that was once me.
I am trying to hold onto the runner in me as the blood drips from my blistered hands. I am clinging to that still undiscovered teen girl, that strong young woman, the hopeful new bride, that grieving yet resilient sister, and that protective young mother.
Slowly losing the grip despite my battling, is the tired and defeated middle-aged woman.
I can’t hold on any longer. I am tired. The exhilaration that once filled my pores with every pendulum swinging ascent and descent has been replaced with a throbbing headache that has taken up residence.
I have abandoned the most important relationship in my life.
Not once, but time and again. Over and over. I am the aggressor. I have ignored her, abused her, deprived her, ridiculed her, worn her down, and betrayed her. And yet, she shows up every day with an unconditional love for me.
I am tired of flipping the coin of pride and shame. I am in search of the middle way. A resting place between the polarities. A compassionate steadiness that does not rely on the momentum of extremist thinking.
In Buddhism there is something called the “Four Limitless Ones” which includes the practice of maitri, compassion, joy, and equilibrium, to build inner strength.
It is through the bodhicitta practice of maitri that I have started to let go of the aestheticism pole and slide slowly and carefully down to a grounding, protected from the peak winds that so often have swept me away.
Maitri, as Pema Chödrön explains, is a Sanskrit word that means “unconditional friendship with oneself.”
I implement this practice almost daily, as I stroll with my senior dog down a route that is inhabited by runners. And in that split moment where envy and resentment creep in, I recite my maitri. Even if I do not feel the compassion or warm feelings toward myself or these runners, I start with where I am. I start with whatever I can give in that moment; which is the essence of maitri.
May they/I/we be safe
May they/I /we be healthy
May they/I/we be happy
May they/I/we be at ease
May they/I/we be filled with loving-kindness
May they/I/we be peaceful