Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why barefoot running? Part III: Spiritual aspects

Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:5)

We will recover our sense of the sacred only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves and our role in the universe.  (Thomas Berry)

We have the most fun when we are the most dirty.  (Caity McCardell,

For me, engaging with these outward manifestations of barefooting was the first step. One of the primary aspects of walking and running barefoot are the sensations. We have millions of nerve endings on the bottoms of our feet and part of the benefit of barefooting is that we become aware of all these sensations. At the beginning, it can be quite mind-blowing. Later on, it can be somewhat annoying (like when I am feeling impatient and want to run faster but my feet are loudly telling me that no, they cannot do that!) As I glance at the pile of shoes I know I will never wear again, I am led to ponder the ethical implications of this choice.

However, recently my exploration of barefooting and living a minimal life has begun to show its spiritual significance. On some level, this didn’t totally surprise me because running has always been a spiritual experience for me and, more generally, my whole life is a spiritual journey. But it has come in small experiences here and there with subtle meanings slowly unfolding. I cannot say that I am clear at the moment about the purpose of this movement towards minimalism, although it makes sense in my life for purely practical reasons. However, it is the deeper, spiritual significance that I find most compelling, though it seems that this is being revealed to me in the doing of things, not necessarily as the primary motivator.

Going barefoot started out as an idea of being more “natural” and exploring what was really “necessary”. What I am discovering is that it is teaching me what it means to be a human animal. It is showing me that all the earth is holy ground—here and here and even here. It is teaching me to be mindful of my “footprint” on the earth much more literally than is usually meant by that phrase. And from it, I am receiving nourishment and a more daily sense of my place in the universe.

I recently read an article about using walking in nature as a tool in spiritual direction. The author shared an exercise that comes from the Franciscan tradition which she found in the book Christian Meditation and Inner Healing by Dwight Judy. As I was reading, I was particularly taken by this instruction: “Consider how nature speaks to you about your spiritual journey.” Within the next few days, I was running barefoot along on one of my favorite local paths—a dirt (well, sand) road that runs by the Zambezi river. I’d reached the halfway point and had turned back toward home and was probably 2/3 of the way finished with the run when I thought, “what is this run telling me about my spiritual journey?” I realized that all my attention was on the ground in front of me—and not very far in front. In fact, I was so focused on this that I really saw nothing but the piece of ground roughly ten feet out. It took a bit of an effort to raise my head and look around but as I did that, I became aware that I do this all the time, not just while running. I look down at the ground and essentially withdraw into myself. Just picking up my head and looking around felt like sweeping the cobwebs out of my brain. I immediately became present to my surroundings and it was as if my whole universe opened up and became much bigger. I realized that this powerfully paralleled the way I have been living my life—with all my attention on what’s in front of me, what’s next, what should my next step be? And very little awareness of where I am now, what is here, what’s around me, of the universe in which I live and breathe and have my being.

I honestly don’t think I could have come to that awareness directly, that it had to come to me as an analogy while running. And because I was running barefoot and hyper-aware of my sensate feelings, it was quite a profound awareness for me, not simply to lift my head and look around, but to experience in so doing that it became easier for me to run. My feet and legs relaxed more and it became easier to feel and respond to the terrain below my feet, even without staring at the ground to be sure I didn’t step on something. Such a perfect analogy because I was staring at the ground out of fear of making a misstep just as I was constantly thinking about what’s next out of fear of making a misstep.

For me, taking off my shoes is not a response to a command that God says this is “holy ground” but rather my own statement that the place on which I am standing is holy ground—wherever I am. For I consider the whole earth holy. And it is a practice that reminds me that I am an animal, an earthly creature, part of God’s creation. As I run in my bare feet, I see a dog over there, “I am just like that dog, running along!” I see cows moseying along. “I am like those cows foraging for their food.” I see a lizard enjoying the heat of the hot asphalt, “ah yes, Mr. Lizard, I, too, am soaking up the warmth of the sun.”

Learning to run barefoot has forced me to slow down. I tried to do it without slowing down, but I kept getting devastating blisters and sore calves. Now that I have decided to focus my training on learning to run completely barefoot (that is, to be able to run barefoot all the time, on all terrain, and use shoes only when needed for protection from the elements), I am running very slowly. Based on the success of some other barefoot/minimalist running friends, I decided to start using a heartrate monitor (which I have never done before) and follow Phil Maffetone’s advice to build my aerobic base. Similar to Arthur Lydiard’s LSD method, Maffetone recommends running at a rate which is, for me (based on my age and fitness), no higher than 136 bpm. At this heartrate I can breathe through my nose or hold an entire conversation as I run along. Currently, it has me running between 10:30 and 11:45 minutes per mile. The heartrate monitor keeps me honest, which means slow, which also means that I am fully able to listen to the feedback I am receiving from my feet. And it is a very different experience to run this slowly. I think I did run like this when I was a teenager, but I certainly haven’t done so in the last six or seven years since I revived my running habit this time around. I don’t need to be so focused. I can look around. I have much more of a sense of “being here” wherever I am rather than running past the scenery.

I can get very wrapped up in my thoughts about work—am I doing what I am meant to do? Am I doing it well enough? Will we receive the funding we need? Am I meeting expectations? Am I making a difference? But then I’m running down the road, looking around, and I see a hawk just floating in the air. I doubt he (or she) is fretting over whether he is fulfilling his calling. He spots a mouse or a lizard or some other delicious morsel, swoops down to grab it and either succeeds and feels satisfied or doesn’t and moves back up to keep looking. And I am running barefoot and right now there is nothing else to be doing.

And I begin to recover my sense of the sacred.

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