I began running in 1968, at the ripe old age of 26. I was living in Southern California and was in poor physical condition, having recently recovered after being paralyzed from the chest down for 2½ years (a tumor was compressing my spinal cord). I was meditating regularly, but a spiritual counselor suggested that I might not be getting enough exercise. I prayed for guidance on what kind of exercise I should do.
The next day at work, my supervisor walked up and pressed a book in my hands, saying, “You’ve got to read this! I’ve been on this program for six months, and it’s done wonders for me.” It was Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s first book, Aerobics.
Fleeting moments of happiness
Running delivered rich rewards. As the weeks passed, I found a new world opening within, the world of the fit and healthy body. On my best runs, my mind would become still, my heart would open, and I would feel bliss. Those fleeting moments of happiness seemed like openings to a greater Self. But it would be years before I could understand how to establish that connection with any regularity.
In 1976 I moved to Ananda Village, and illness eventually forced me to stop running. During the “layoff,” I focused on opening my heart. Swami Kriyananda had advised me to chant, and for five years I chanted every day for at least an hour and a half. When I came back to running in 1988, I was more in touch with my feelings.
The five tools of happiness
Having read Swami Kriyananda’s book, Education for Life, I also knew that we have five “tools” through which we can experience happiness: body, feeling, will, mind, and soul. Kriyananda describes how children pass through six-year stages as they grow up, during which each “tool” in succession becomes the primary developmental focus.
Why did nature choose this particular sequence? Kriyananda explains how each tool prepares the child for the one that follows. Thus, feeling comes before will power, because feeling is the faculty that enables us to tell right from wrong. Before we can use our will power appropriately, with sensitive consideration for others, we need to develop our ability to feel their realities. Happiness increases as we learn to use the five “tools” expansively.
A happy feeling in the heart
The center of feeling is the heart and in sports training, the heart is basic. It’s the instrument through which the body “talks” to us, telling us how much training it can handle on a given day. And it’s also the instrument through which God gives us His loving guidance.
Over time I learned that there was a running pace at which my heart’s intuitive messages were easier to hear. I thought of it as the “harmony zone,” and it was accompanied by an actual “happy feeling” in the heart. As I explored the harmony zone, I discovered that I could deepen the experience by deliberately cultivating positive attitudes.
One “heart method” that worked well was to send good thoughts silently to the people I encountered on the trail. Or I might take a phrase that held heartfelt associations for me and repeat it silently. If I couldn’t find anything to “wrap my heart around,” I discovered that I could absorb myself in the movement, sounds, and rhythmic footfall of the run, which would, in time, soothe and cheer my heart and make it easier to commune with God.
The protective power of love
One day, I was running in the hills at a relaxed pace when a young woman passed me. I turned toward her and smiled, but she ran silently by, her head down and her face set in a grim mask of triumph. Fifteen minutes later, I felt her negative energy again when she passed by going the other way.
A famous athlete whose book I had read stated that you shouldn’t let your competitors “steal your energy.” So I began generating an impermeable wall of indifference. But it was so dry! I realized that the only way to rise above her energy was to pour positive feelings through my heart.
I began to pray for her. At first, I was grinding out the words mechanically, but with fierce energy: “Bless her! Bless her! Give her health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy!” Before long, the meaning of the words took hold and a flow of love began to fill my heart. There was such power in that love that I no longer felt any need to defend myself.
The body’s most powerful organ
Scientists at the HeartMath Research Center in Boulder Creek, California have found that the heart generates the most powerful vibrations in the body: it sends out electrical signals roughly 60 times as strong those emitted by the brain. The heart’s powerful messages — positive or negative — are carried continually and instantly to the brain.
In studying the effects of positive feelings such as love, compassion, and kindness on the body and brain, HeartMath researchers have confirmed how important it is to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” They have made some amazing discoveries:
- Positive feelings synchronize the entire body by bringing brain waves, heart rhythms, breathing, and blood-pressure oscillations into a unified, harmonious rhythm.
- Positive, expansive feelings such as love, appreciation, and compassion promote relaxation and synchronization of the nervous system. They quiet the “arousal” (sympathetic) branch of the nervous system and activate the “relaxation” (parasympathetic) side.
- Positive feelings quiet the mind, generate a sense of “self-security, peace and love,” and increase the frequency of feelings of “connectedness to God.”
- Deliberately focusing attention in the heart while cultivating feelings of love, compassion, etc., leads to clearer thinking, calmer emotions, improved physical performance and health, and more frequent spiritual experiences.
- Negative emotions such as anger, fear, and hatred result in an erratic heartbeat – the heart speeds up and slows down chaotically, like the random, jerky motion of a car that’s running out of gas.
- Positive emotions such as love, compassion, and appreciation, on the other hand, make the heart beat with a steady, consistent, harmonious rhythm.
- During positive emotions, the heart’s power output jumps by over 500 percent above the levels attained during negative emotions, or simple relaxation.
Feeling and reason work together
At one point, I conducted a little experiment. For several months, I tried relying entirely on intuitive feeling to guide my training. But in the end, I had to concede that the experiment was a failure.
At first, I wondered if my intuition simply wasn’t developed enough to serve as a reliable guide. But I eventually understood that intuition needs to be balanced by common sense.
There’s now solid evidence that feeling and reason work together, and that one without the other isn’t trustworthy. Contrary to a longstanding prejudice of our western culture, which assumes that reason is the superior faculty, researchers are now finding that reason is compromised unless it’s balanced with the feelings of the heart.
It’s been found, for example, that when people’s brains are damaged in the areas where feeling is localized, they lose their ability to make sound decisions. Conversely, our everyday experience confirms that we make terrible decisions when we let our emotions run out of control.
My experiences as a runner confirmed these findings. During the experiment where I relied on the heart alone, my decisions were too often prejudiced by emotion; my feelings weren’t sufficiently detached to be trusted.
My feelings were more reliable when I weighed them against my common sense and experience – when I asked: “Is this feeling truly calm and dispassionate? Or am I only telling myself what I want to hear? Am I actually listening to a higher guidance, or am I tuned to some lower, personal frequency?” Cool, objective reason helped me decide.
Centered in an axis of energy
My sense of the right training was more often correct when I held myself in a state of “reasonable feeling.” This came from focusing at the spiritual eye while I ran (a main technique of Yogananda’s path), which had a harmonizing effect on my emotions, and in calming and focusing my mind.
During my deepest experiences as a runner, there was a sense of the centers of reason and feeling being activated simultaneously. It helped to imagine that I was centered in an axis of energy between the spiritual eye and the heart, my attention strongly focused the spiritual eye and my heart energized with expansive feelings.
The interplay of these two centers was deeply enjoyable. It was as if heart and mind were released into a higher place where God and I could run together.
“You should run with joy!”
I once overheard Swami Kriyananda comment about joggers who slog along in a dispirited fashion: “When people run, they should run with joy!” Thirty years of training have taught me that there’s little joy in attitudes that shrink awareness onto the “little dot” of the ego-self, and that the heart is happiest when it is free to expand.