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Zen And The Art Of The Running Mind

When I had the opportunity to run with Vanessa “Zuisei” Goddard, a long-time Zen Buddhist monk, I sensed the possibility between vigorous movement and quiet seated meditation.

Goddard, 43, can stay just as present on her zafu as she does darting through the Catskills or streets of Brooklyn, her thoughts as varied as clouds.

At first it seems totally counter-intuitive, but as Goddard explained, “if I can get out of my own way while running, I can do it in other parts of my life. This is when meditation is functioning in everything I do -- when I’m working, when I’m listening to someone, when I’m writing a lecture.”

I followed her during a Brooklyn workshop where I mimicked her form: slightly tucked chin, swinging arms, and a forward lean at the ankles instead of the waist. With this controlled form of falling, I found lightness in hilly Fort Greene Park. My inhales and exhales sustained me, coordinated with a two-word mantra uncovered that day through guided meditation. At first, I tried my standby of “let” on the inhale and “go” on the exhale. But this phrase should be so personal, Goddard suggested, we could shorten it to one syllable if we needed to dig deep, like in mile 25 of the New York City Marathon. Also, it should be a secret. I nursed and owned my new mantra with each stride. As we passed stoop sales and the Barclays Center, I noted Goddard’s quiet feet and sinuous legs.

Similar to meditation, a runner’s brain can ride the spectrum of emotion -- boredom, bliss, and discomfort -- interspersed with moments of surprise. Once during a workout, she said she felt her body disappear into the landscape.

“That feeling of losing perimeter has happened in seated practice,” she said. “But it was the first time I felt it through running. It was a dark evening. I had a flashlight, but I didn’t turn it on. The usual ways of measuring points of reference were not there. The line between me and everything else was softer, blurrier. The feeling didn’t last long. It was a blip, but I felt a great sense of well being.”

Goddard, a native of Mexico, has run since her youth. Her tendency was to over exercise.

“I do very much correlate my lack of injuries to meditation, for providing an increased awareness of my body and my energy level,” she said. “Also, I am not training for anything. I’m not pushing. I really do run as meditation. And I do it because I love it. If I don’t feel like running, I don’t. It took me 20 years to find that kind of ease.”

“The traditional form of zazen is seated,” she said. “It’s very difficult for most of us to make the transition from the stillness of meditation into everyday life. You can be very peaceful with quite a bit of insight and then step into your life and find it’s a mess. In my own practice, I ask myself, ‘Can I maintain the same degree of awareness in running as I do when I’m completely still?’ I’ve gradually taken stillness into movement like a dancer. A good dancer isn’t thinking about what she’s doing. She’s just dancing.”

Goddard shares her ideas through various trainings at the

Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn and at the Zen Mountain Monastery, near Woodstock. In the 1990s, Goddard first visited Zen Mountain. A University of Penn graduate with a major in creative writing and minor in psychology, she gravitated toward zazen, an “awake” open-eye style of meditation that helped her observe habits and patterns. Within months, she was a resident. Her studies led to her becoming a monk, a title she held for nearly two decades.

Recently, she asked to be released from her vows because she wanted more time with her wife, her partner of 16 years. Today, they live together in a home near the monastery. As a dharma holder and senior lay student, Goddard mostly maintains her monastic schedule by meditating several hours a day and working in the outreach and educational department. Between retreats and trainings, she runs four miles most days of the week, whether she’s upstate or visiting Brooklyn.

She also writes about running. Several chapters into a book, she employs the same focus established through zazen. To hear an interview with Goddard, who describes spiritual intention and the wonder of indoor plumbing, click here. To attend one of her workshops in Brooklyn, click here, or find her next retreat at the Zen Mountain Monastery, click here.

--Illustration: Sharon Watts, for more of her work, click here.

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