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I'm Meditating (I'm Just Not Sitting Down)

An ode to those who can't sit still

Running and meditation have similar benefits, except that when you run you can eat more pizza. (Brendan Leonard)

An ode to those who can't sit still

I tried.

For a while, it seemed like everyone was talking about how meditation changed their lives—friends, acquaintances, podcast interviewees and interviewers, authors, even the baristas at the coffee shops I went to.

Someone told me about the Headspace app, so I downloaded it. It seemed like the most dummy-proof way to start meditating—plug in some headphones, listen to some stuff, sit still for a while, change your life. I figured it only took 10 to 15 minutes a day—how hard would that be?

It ended up being pretty hard, actually. I listened to the first episode while lying in bed, and fell asleep before it was over. Andy, the Headspace guy, has a really soothing voice. Really soothing, like he could put people under at the dentist’s office with no anesthesia. I’m pretty sure falling asleep wasn’t the point, though I slept really well that night. But I figured I missed something, so I listened to it a second time just in case. It was great. It went really well. I felt relaxed, my head felt clear, and I finished the session. I meditated, without stopping, and I was kind of proud of myself for completing the session (probably an early warning sign that I was not approaching the whole thing the right way).

The next night, I did the second episode. It was great, too. Then, I don’t know what happened. I didn’t make myself listen to the third episode, and then a week went by. I tried again a few weeks later, only to lack the discipline to get through an entire session without my brain flitting off and thinking about something else. Eventually, I deleted the app from my phone, so it wouldn’t shame me every time I saw it. I figured, you know, maybe meditation just wasn’t for me.

But here’s something: I go on these long runs. I don’t love running, but I love to eat food, so I run. And on these runs, which are sometimes an hour, two hours, four hours, or even eight hours, I don’t have headphones in my ears. I don’t talk to anyone besides the occasional “hello” to fellow trail users, I don’t listen to music to make the time pass more quickly, and I don’t listen to podcasts. I just run, in relative silence, and my thoughts go wherever they need to go. I create grand plans that will never be acted upon, think about people I haven’t thought about in years, resolve to eat better and sleep more, dream up book ideas and films, remember dialogue from movies I haven’t seen in a decade or more, hear lyrics from rap songs I’ve been listening to for 20 years, and occasionally, have a thought I think is so good that I pull out my phone (which is in airplane mode) and type a few words into the Notes app.

So, am I…basically meditating while running?

Have you ever noticed all the great ideas you have when you’re either:

  1. In the shower
  2. Driving somewhere
  3. Walking
  4. Running
  5. Riding a bicycle
  6. Getting “bored”?

This is not a coincidence. Leo Widrich looked into this phenomenon in a blog post titled “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity.” Widrich writes: “If you are in a relaxed state of mind, easy to distract and full of dopamine, your brain is most likely to give you your best, most creative ideas.”

Of course, generating good ideas isn’t usually the goal of meditation, but changing (or at least adjusting) your state of mind usually is. I suck at relaxing: I don’t like baths or hot tubs, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke weed, and as previously mentioned, am terrible at meditating. Like almost everyone nowadays, I have 40-some ways that people can contact me, spend a lot of time looking at glowing screens, receive dozens of emails and texts per day, and am generally bombarded with media messages. So, how do I find stillness? I literally run away from all the noise. For a few minutes, or a few hours. And that, I would argue, is my meditation (even if it’s not in Yogapedia’s definition of “moving meditation.”)

If you compare the mental benefits of meditation and walking, you’d find a lot of similarities in the effects they have on your brain. Both meditation and walking:

  • Improve cognitive function
  • Increase creativity
  • Help with mental and physical fatigue
  • Lower risk of developing depression/help with depression,
  • Release endorphins (in similar amounts, according to one study)
  • Increase blood flow to the brain

Of course there are other benefits to meditation that exercise can’t compete with, and vice versa. One is not objectively “better” than the other for someone. So I had to ask myself, what am I looking for? Right now, stillness—something to get me away from the fire hose of data and noise and into my head for a while, and running does that. So I’m putting sitting meditation on the list for Future Me to take another shot at, and for now, I’m going to stick with my personal “moving meditation” practice, because it still provides at least one benefit that meditating does not: an increased amount of justified eating of pizza.

Filed To: Running / Walking / Science / Apps / Mindfulness
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