Tapas (tapas, Sanskrit: तपस्) means deep meditation, [or an] effort to achieve
- Wikipedia article on tapasya
Running for me has always been about managing suffering. When I first started there were cramps that had to be dealt with and cardiovascular conditioning that needed to be done. To me, the way to accomplish these things was simple: run slowly. My suffering could be reduced by running so slow that I might as well have been walking.
That was 18 years ago. I’m happy to say at this ripe age of 36, I have been able to improve my distance and my speed steadily – until the rapid, quantum leap in mileage that brought me up to 18 miles within 2 months. That quantum leap occurred at the same time as my flirtation with meditation began.
Meditation had never even crossed my mind as something I could do until I heard Howard Stern espousing the benefits of a specific type of meditation called Transcendental Meditation, a tradition originally taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – best known as the guru shared by John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Transcendental Meditation (a proper, trademarked noun) demystified the practice to me. I learned that incredible benefits could be derived from sitting in any position, closing my eyes, and concentrating on my mantra. After a while, I grew curious about the ancient styles of meditation.
To me, the Hindu tradition seemed much more hardcore than the Buddhists. I began to experiment with chants, creating 20 minute loops of a chorus chanting “OM.” I was amazed how the chant took me on a 20-minute journey to relaxation, and when I “woke up” I was bathed in a sense of well-being.
Instinctively I began to sit cross-legged on the floor whenever I chanted. At first I barely made it through the 20-minute cycle. Soon my reading began to catch up with my practice and I learned about tapas.
Suffering through physical hardships makes the mind pure.
So sitting in position and feeling discomfort was part of the deal. The inspiration of serving a noble goal made it bearable, and the feeling I got when I stopped was enviable. My meditation fed my reading and my reading fed my meditation. I came to read an ancient parable about a man who performed his tapasya by running back and forth through town for the whole day. Hmmm.
And so the idea was born that I had been performing tapasya for 18 years without knowing it. I now had the mental tolerance and confidence I needed to run farther.
Each time I reached a new personal best on my jogging trail, I felt closer and closer to the edge of space. My mortality, once a source of cold sweats and terror, seemed natural and I wasn’t scared to die right then and there.
The way back home is where the physical suffering usually begins. There is a certain heavy weight, called “hitting the wall” that had thus far won every fight with me. No matter how gung-ho I was about finishing, no matter the pep talks I gave myself, if the conditions were right I could be stopped in my tracks involuntarily.
My mental fortitude never rose up like a monster to defeat “the wall.” Instead, I just stopped thinking about it. It was effortless. I thought about tapas and the ethos of tolerating pain, and I started concentrating on the music in my headphones instead.
That’s how I got to 18 miles, my all-time personal best. I know many people are unable to run or jog, but there are other, very simple ways to clear your mind through physical suffering:
- Doing any exercise to your breaking point
- Standing on one leg for as long as possible
Raising an arm for as long as possible
I wish you luck in your pursuit of nirvana.