Running, Shakespeare and Zen

Shakespeare wrote several hundred sonnets, a kind of poem composed of three quatrains (four lines) and a couplet (two lines). One of his most famous and revered is Sonnet 73. It's a sad poem about mortality. No surprise, I usually remember it around my birthday, a date when we all realize time is going by and we get a reminder of our own mortality. Sonnet 73 starts with:

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon those bows that shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet bird sang.

He slips that first metaphor in like the master he was -- he's not talking about the fall season, but himself. He continues in the next two quatrains to compare himself to the onset of nightfall, then to a fading fire. With each new metaphor, you descend an emotional staircase with him, and with each step down, the mood becomes darker and starker -- we live and die and must separate from everything we love.

However, though the poem is beautifully written (so well the words have stuck with me for decades, ever since a nun made me memorize it in high schooI), maybe Bill sat too long hunkered over his desk, brooding too much on the Big Topics like life, love, and death. I wonder what his mood and writing would have been like if he had been a runner and got out a few times a week to pound the cobblestones under London's gloomy grey sky.

Many people who run continuously for more than 30 minutes have experienced the runner's high, a feeling of calm and well-being that is a pleasant side effect of aerobic exercise. It is a well-understood physical phenomenon that neurologists attribute it to the release of endorphins in the brain. When its there, you are very cognizant that you feel good, and the feeling can linger for hours after you finish a run.

If you want to read an interesting scientific explanation of the neuroscience of the runners high,, pick up a copy of Christoper Bergland's The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (a fine book that deserves a wider audience). In fact, the exercise-induced high is so predictable that John Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, believes that aerobic exercise can be considered an effective treatment for a range of mental and emotional disorders.

I get a runners high on many runs, sometimes more intensely than others. I've no doubt that this endorphin rush is addictive, and the reason Runner's World has so many subscribers and so many people of all sizes and shapes toe the starting line for races 10K and longer.

But every once in a while when I'm deep into a run, something very different occurs that is beyond a runners high. It has only happened a few times and is hard to describe in words, but suddenly you as a thinker goes away, and you are just running. There is no sense of time. The color of every bush, rock, and cloud is thrilling and vivid. There are breathing sounds and leg pains, but they don't belong to anybody. It's more than a high, it's an ecstatic absorption in the moment. It's short, intense, and very cool.

What I'm trying to describe is better said in an ancient story from Zen Buddhism. In the story, a man is dangling over a cliff, desperately clinging to a vine. Above him, two mice are chewing through the vine. Below, two tigers are circling, looking up, waiting for him to fall. As the man ponders his difficult situation, he looks right in front of him and sees a wild strawberry plant growing from a crack in the rocks. He reaches out, plucks the deep red fruit, and takes a bite. How sweet it tastes!

If I'd been around London in the early 1600's, this TOJ would have dropped by Shakespeare's place. I would have said, "Bill, put down the quill. You need to get off your butt and sweat a little. Let's go for a run. If we're lucky, maybe we'll find some strawberries."

The visit might have changed the entire course of English literature by taking the edge off all the drama and trauma in human events about which he obsessed so much. He might have stopped after the first quatrain of Sonnet 73 once he laced up his Sauconys and run along the Thames for a few miles because his melancholy would have vanished. The world's loss would have been his gain.

--This blog is dedicated to Tom Wayman, my favorite foreign poet

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