Student: I’m reaching for the light, please help me.
Teacher: Forget about the light. Give me the reaching.
Two years ago, October 9, 2011, I crossed the finish line in Chicago and completed my first marathon. At the time, I considered it a transformative event. Before then, I was just a runner. Now I was someone special – a marathoner.
But what did the act of finishing actually do for me? Was I one person 10 yards before the finish line in Chicago, and then magically someone else when I crossed it 5 seconds later? Of course not. Crossing the finish line was simply the demonstration of what I’d become – someone capable of running a marathon. Back when I’d started marathon training, my physical and mental limits were far short of 26.2 miles. All the growth needed to reach that distance had occurred before the race.
So here’s a question for you. What’s more important? Setting a goal and achieving it, or the improvement gained from trying for the goal – whether you reach it or not?
Western culture, where I was raised, seems to argue for the achievement. The hero slays the dragon. Our team wins the game. The runner beats the four-minute mile. Training is a given, an accepted necessity, but glory goes to the achievers. Came in second? Too bad. Can you point me to the winner?
The Buddhist koan that begins this post argues a different perspective. It’s from an article by Buddhist teacher John Tarrant in the latest issue of Shambhala Sun magazine. (Read an online excerpt here)
Tarrant posits that the improvement itself is most important. Sure, we can set goals: lose X pounds, spend more time with family, run a marathon – and then work toward them. Achievements are good things, as they are evidence of our improvement. But real transformation takes place when we can set aside the goals and focus on improvement for its own sake. The following comment on the treeleaf zendo forum sheds a little more light, as it were, on the koan:
We are all about self-improvement and moving forward too. It is simply that we see each step as itself a total arrival, …
I think this is a useful perspective to have as a runner. I will probably never run a 4-minute mile, or a 2:30 marathon. And at some point I will no longer be able to set new PRs. When that happens, what’s the point of continuing to run? How do goals fit into that situation?
Set aside the goals. Run for the sake of running.
No matter how fast or how far we can run, we can always become better runners. We can improve our stride, our footwork, our mechanics. We can enjoy the act of running more, and appreciate what it does for us. We can encourage others to start running, or help them achieve their goals. Or we can just run. Growth will come.
And what if we reach for a goal, and come up short? Does that makes as a failure? No. We’ve done the reaching. That was good enough for the teacher.