I am a runner.
Several years ago I trained for a half marathon with Team in Training, and at our first group run we were given a schedule that included weekly long runs, culminating with a 10 mile training run to prepare us for the 13.1 mile race. I had given birth a couple months prior and could hardly imagine what miraculous changes would need to occur for me to be able to run ten continuous miles.
Our coach assured us that we would be fine as long as we stuck to the schedule. Coach Stan taught us to substantially slow our pace for the long runs (for me that meant going from kind of slow to really slow). What mattered was logging the miles and getting time on our feet.
That phrase, “time on your feet,” saved me. I was able to quiet the nagging voice in my head saying,
You’re too slow.
You’re too big.
You’re not a real runner.
I silenced it with the gentle reassurance of Coach Stan’s voice:
It’s time on your feet. That’s your goal – time on your feet.
By simply putting one foot in front of the other, I was doing my job. I didn’t need to look like a runner or be fast or win anything. All I needed to do was get time on my feet and log the miles.
That experience taught me that our bodies are capable of more than we give them credit for, and it also revealed the complicated relationship our minds have with our bodies. Prior to training, my mind told my body it couldn’t run 8 or 10 or 13 miles. But as I followed the schedule, my moving feet taught my doubting mind it was wrong.
“Time on your feet” is a lot like practicing mindfulness and centering prayer.
Other times, however, my mind is squirrelly, popping here and there and everywhere. I spend more time chasing my wayward thoughts than actually resting in silence. In those moments it’s easy to get discouraged. My critical inner voice tells me I’m not doing it right so I should just stop. But then I hear those words, “It’s time on your feet.”
No matter how fast or slow I’m running, no matter how focus or scattered my mind, it’s about showing up and training your body to do something new. From a neuroscience perspective, this makes sense.
Our brains change based on our experiences, how we focus our attention, and what we habitually do with our bodies.
In other words, when we change habits of attention or body, we create new neural connections. Every time we repeat those patterns we strengthen new connections. This is why bad habits are hard to break, but it also provides a neural pathway for creating new, healthy patterns of attention and behavior.
This month I had a goal of practicing mindfulness skills and centering prayer for at least five minutes each day. I chose a small goal in order to maximize the potential for success. Even when hard or discouraging, I wanted to keep at it in order to strengthen those new neural pathways.
A few months ago as I was preparing for this experiment I attempted an extended mindfulness activity in my exuberance. I looked up a famous meditation teacher on YouTube, and all was going fine as his gentle voice directed me to notice my breath and my body. Next he began directing my attention to the left side of my body, then my left foot, then my left big toe. Something about focusing on the left big toe just did me in. I sat up and said, “Oh no, I can’t do this.” Upon later reflection, I think this may have been a bit like trying to run a 10k when you haven’t even gotten to 4 miles in your training schedule.
Since that time I’ve been trying to listen to my failures as well as my successes.
Every time I pull myself out of bed in the morning, put myself in my chair, close my eyes and begin breathing I am strengthening those calming, centering neural pathways. And the more I do it, the more I believe I can do it and the easier it is to actually do it.
If you have never practiced quieting prayer or mindful meditation let me encourage you to begin today with just five minutes. And when those critical, judging, discouraging, anxious, mean-spirited thoughts begin, remind yourself that all you have to do is show up for these five minutes.
The rest will come in time.
You’re just putting time on your feet.