The other day, NPR interviewed me for an upcoming show on running and spirituality. At the end of our conversation, the producer asked a final question, “What do you get from running that you get from nothing else?” With a furry microphone the size of my head in my face, I found myself at a loss for thoughts. I get so many things from running; how can I pick just one? I spent a few moments filling time with “ummmm….” Unsure, I finally answered, “The chance to think…”
Yesterday, after a full day of thinking for work, thinking for extracurricular work, thinking for family stuff, thinking for vacation plans, and thinking for self-improvement, I suddenly felt a blast of mental exhaustion, changed into running clothes, grabbed my running cap, laced up my running shoes, and ran out the door. Kicking one foot behind the other and pumping my arms in reverse, I felt free. I let my body move robotically and thought of nothing. I realized, I am thinking of nothing. My mind felt emptied of thoughts by the energy of my body. I felt liberty, not as a noun, but as a verb.
The freedom to think of nothing—that is the best, most unique part of running, I talked to myself. So I passed a mile thinking of the bliss of nothing. It became a mantra for the miles: I am thinking of nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Like Annie Dillard journeying down the via negativa, in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” I became a pilgrim on the sidewalks of Washington D.C.
I am thinking of nothing, and this is the best most unique thing about running, I repeated to myself. I thought of nothing with focus and determination. After a full day of thinking, I could feel my body relax and brain networks recuperate on this nothing-run.
As my mind emptied into nothingness, I began to resist thinking. Not thinking felt heavenly. Thinking would interrupt this bliss, so let me continue to think of nothing.
The mantra became a command. Think of nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Against my will, a thought entered: the best most unique thing about running that I get from nothing else is active freedom—the freedom to think or not, coupled with freedom of the limbs. Running, translates freedom from a noun to a verb.
Running provides a unique freedom of the mind and body. Sometimes that freedom means thinking. Sometimes that freedom means not thinking. Sometimes that freedom manifests itself as nothingness. In all cases, that freedom gives the runner the choice to think and un-think, cyclically, and in turn with the rhythm of the limbs and the passage of the miles.
When the thought entered my mind against my will, I became immersed in that thought. My happiness expanded with this heightened awareness.
I ran freely from the via negativa to the via positiva, detouring as I please, and emerging from each path more enriched, fulfilled, and tranquil, both mentally and physically.
If I could answer the NPR question again, I would say, active freedom is the thing that I get from running and nothing else.