My 71st birthday is looming, on bad days an ominous dark cloud heralding decline and ushering in those rather anxious and thoughtful reflections that often accompany ageing. Anxiety at the knowledge of certain mortality, remorse at the many unlived days and neglected opportunities, prayers for a quick demise out on a soccer field or a painless departure during dreamless sleep. The good days bring a growing urgency to value and more fully use the remaining years of living – or what my late father humorously called ‘cramming for finals’, the last sprint towards the finish line in the effort to make up for previously wasted time. A sense too of gratitude at having survived for so long.
Although age only measures the years of the body, I listen for sounds and signs of my mortality like a nervous tenant lying awake, peering into the darkness, listening for the sounds of an intruder. Seated at my shrine this morning, I weigh up my life like an anxious book keeper, the credits and debits, gains and losses, trying to make sense of it, the baggage of feeling, desires, hurts, triumphs and follies, the whole patchwork quilt of existence.
Convention equates age with the physical body and the chronology of clock-measured years, yet we neglect the other truer criteria. On a friend’s past birthday Sri Chinmoy commented that the celebrant’s body was 45 years old, then went on to describe the age of his vital, his mind, his heart and finally his soul – the last being ‘birthless and deathless’. Against which of these aspects of our humanity should we describe our real age?
The sense of urgency that ageing brings tells us – more meditation please, with more intensity; more adventures, while still able to backpack over a mountain, tackle distances; more courage in saying ‘yes’ to life instead of the customary ‘no’; and being inspired by holiness, not giving up on happiness and the God-quest, revisiting all the endless undone things. Remembering Michaelangelo’s words: ‘The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it’. And in our failing to challenge ourselves and discard the treacheries of comfort, another’s admonition comes – ‘A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for…’ Yes, to still dare, to sail the uncharted seas and not shrink from the great journeys and the secret tasks of our hearts.
One of the challenges of our chronological, calendar birthdays is to avoid making a pact with ageing, instead to reflect on the youthfulness of heart, mind and soul and even to launch an all-out crusade to upgrade one’s biological age. We may be 30 years of age, yet a decade sitting in front of a computer can confer the biological age of a 50 year old – or 80 years old and running marathons and scaling mountains.
Running and exercise are among the great antidotes to ageing, despite the protests of the comfort-loving body and its ever-reliable accomplice, the mind. Running especially is a kind of metaphor for life itself, the outer running and the challenges from mind and body a proving ground for the development of a resolute spirit, for self-belief and determination, for courage in tackling great challenges. Running confronts us with our limitations, then teaches us how to transcend them and to explore and go beyond. For many runners their sport prepares them well for greater things, illumining them about their strengths and frailties and teaching them how to dare, to find determination and self-belief. The great ultra-runner
Scott Jurek comments: “I run because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminds me that I can overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties is life”.
And Emil Zátopek – best known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics – memorably said: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.”
In his book ‘Endless Energy’ Sri Chinmoy writes: “Unless you touch something every day, it does not shine. Often I have told people to touch the furniture in their homes every day. As soon as you touch something it gets new life. If you are aware of something, immediately it shines and gets a new luminosity. If you have good health, if you touch your health every day, it gets new life.”
“The body’s capacity and the soul’s capacity, the body’s speed and the soul’s speed, go together. The outer running reminds us of something higher and deeper – the soul – which is running along Eternity’s road. Running and physical fitness help us both in our inner life of aspiration and in our outer life of activity.”
I remember years ago in the Australian outback watching the great flocks of dawn birds, thousands of them, wheeling and turning high up against the huge canvas of blue as though rejoicing at the rising sun and the gift of the new day. It was a spectacular aerial ballet, rehearsed over millions of years, their wings and plumage showing pink, then silver, then green as they banked and soared in exultation. The joy of running seems our own version of that euphoric flight, a celebration of life and that aspect of life which is movement and dynamism and freedom.
Don’t we each have too in our lives a personal standard or feeling by which we measure our living and our satisfaction? For me running is a barometer of all this, the litmus test of my risings or fallings…it keeps me at a certain level, ensures that I maintain this personal standard. In the complex landscape of a busy and multi-faceted life, running is a constant, like eating, sleeping, meditating, an essential ingredient underpinning the physical and spiritual, and without this the other things might weaken or falter. Running is often centre-stage in the battle against our ignorance – it challenges the reluctant mind, the bed-loving body, the gravitational descent into age and infirmity and ordinariness – and masters them. Running, although in the physical, exercises the soul’s further-reaching will.
I like to run early when the dawn comes, the changing apricots and pink pageantry of the sunrise sky, the city slumbering and quiet. This is the hour of the songsters, the thrushes and blackbirds – and sparrows rule the streets, squabble over scraps. In the human world only a few homeless ones are about, stirring in their damp blankets and newspaper cladding. Hunched on a park bench, sometimes they curse me – I am too privileged, too remote to be accepted.
Sri Chinmoy, running pioneer and inspirational athlete himself, has the last word: “When it is a matter of running, all the members of the family – the body, vital, mind and heart – have to work together. It is like a family party. The head of the family has invited all of the family members to come and eat. Through running, the soul wants to offer a feast to all its children. What running is doing is keeping the body, vital, mind and heart fit so that the soul can get complete happiness. The soul is happy when it sees that all it’s children have come to enjoy the feast…….” (ibid)