I was contacted by Marilyn Spiller aka the loving spirit and writer behind Waking Up the Ghost blog to do a joint post of sorts in which we explore a common experience we’ve both have had (and continue to have) – that of communion with God while doing something physically active. I was honoured to do so. Marilyn not only pens wonderful and thoughtful posts, she also posts at an almost prolific pace. She has also been a guest several time on Since Right Now‘s recovery podcasts and certainly brings a new light and energy to the show.
Marilyn’s outlook on recovery is refreshing and honest and isn’t based on any one particular method, but is certainly faith-based. And that is something I can very much identify with. She is also wickedly funny and tells a good tale.
One of her posts that I could immediately connect with was God, New Hiking Boots and the Appalachian Trail. Whereas I am a runner, Marilyn is a hiker, and we immediately found common ground to tread on (no pun intended) in our discussion on faith, recovery and physical action.
Here’s our conversation:
Marilyn: Tell me about when you started running. Was it something you did before you got sober or did you take it up as a means of distracting yourself from the booze? Does running serve as a good addiction? What do you think about as you run?
I never ran. Ever. Some of the bloggers I followed were runners and I think the idea slowly germinated until I woke up one day and decided to try it. And got hooked on it. I don’t use running as a distraction, but I certainly do use it as a way to strengthen the mind-body-spirit connection that I feel strongly about. As a friend told me recently, the body is the only part of us that lives in the present. Breath follows body and mind follows breath. So in many ways it’s a moving meditation for me. Although I listen to music or podcasts while I run, I still find myself staying present and focused on the moment.
Running gives me that space to move and be in contact with my own body and to test myself. It feeds into my spirituality and helps to ease any tension or stress I might be having. It can bring me energy when I am waning and also opens me up to pushing myself out of my comfort zone – something I can carry with me in other parts of my life.
Paul: When you are alone and doing something like hiking or biking, do you feel a closer connection to God? If so, how does it present itself to you – is it like a big epiphany, or is it something you see in yourself or around you that sparks that connection?
Nothing I do anymore seems as BIG as it did when I was drinking. I am a quieter and more thoughtful person in general. In fact I rarely listen to anything when I hike: it seems disrespectful somehow or even dangerous, so I have only my thoughts and my footfalls. I do feel closest to God when I am on a mountaintop, or on a rigorous hike. It usually comes upon me when I don’t expect it; I’ll be tramping along putting one foot in front of the other and suddenly I realize God is in the underbrush… It usually makes me cry.
I have been grappling lately (till my grappler gets sore) with the notion that my connection to God should not always be in the silent splendor of a solitary hike. After all God was still there when I was at my worst and He is there in the madding crowd or a blighted landscape. I am trying to open my eyes to the presence of God in the hurly-burly, but movement and solitude still seem to spark my biggest God moments.
Marilyn: You’ve written about being competitive. Do you run races? How does the mind-body-spirit connection happen when you are trying to beat another runner’s time? What preparations do you make for a big race?
It’s funny that we use the term “race” and yet, outside of the top, elite runners, no one is racing anyone else except themselves! When I run in a race (from 5K to full marathons), I am only concentrating on where I am, to beat my last result. It’s all about improving one’s self, testing one’s self. And sometimes we fall flat. Even the top racers have bad days.
In that regard, it’s a metaphor for recovery and life itself. I can only worry about where I am, and not worry about the others around me. Like in recovery, I only do it for myself. Not for accolades or recognition. And I have to realize it will take time to reach deeper, to improve, to get fit. My spirituality life is the same – a process of getting more in tune with myself and with God and His will for me.
Paul: You mention God being in the crowd and the thick of life, not just in the quiet moments. How do you stay open to His presence when the mind is going a million miles a second? How does your physical exercise bring you to a place where you are more aware of Him? And how do you get out the door on days where you would rather just hibernate and avoid things?
I don’t stay open to His presence all the time. That’s the source of my puzzlement. I think it is most difficult to be spiritual in life’s “normal” moments: a traffic jam, tying a shoelace in preparation for a hike, in line at the grocery store. It is easy when we see excruciating beauty to be thankful, and when we see squalor or illness to ask for God’s help, but the mundane, normal moments are where I seek to find solace and spirituality.
God knows, I’m no Mother Theresa. I am not serene. I’m brand new at sobriety and surrender to a higher power. But I think physicality narrows thought in a good way; it comes down to placing the foot safely, not turning an ankle, getting the best personal time, being in the moment, and that is a good place for contemplation. As you say, it is like a meditation or a mantra and I can muster that on the simplest stroll around the block.
I have no tips for getting out the door. More times than not I talk myself out of hard work and exercise. I can only say this – I have never been sorry I went for a hike (except maybe that time on Camelback Mountain in July when it was like 111 degrees), and it remains my sure thing for communing with God.
Marilyn: You wrote one of my favourite posts about having an epiphany on a park bench. Could you have had that experience any place else? Was the fact you were alone, peddling a bicycle a factor? What did you learn from the experience?
That experience was the second time that I have had an epiphany on a park bench while riding my bike. The first time it happened was when I broke down in a wonderful moment of self-forgiveness. There seems to be something about riding my bike late at night (coming home from work) where I seem to be most in tune within me. Even more so than running. Biking is where my mind truly does wander as I am not so focused on the mechanics of my running or any aches and pains I may have. And in those mental wanderings I often find myself touching a part of me that is only often accessed through meditation.
What I have learned from these pedal-powered moments of clarity is that what we seek truly is from within. Everything I seek externally, which I am quite guilty of, is all inside. For me, God is not “out there” on some mountaintop, nor is He in me like a stone in box. But I am Him and He is me because He created me from Him as Him. God is love therefore I am love, and yet I am not God, but of Him. It’s in this that I see more and more that I waste(d) valuable time looking everywhere else for what I already have. Drinking for sure was the ultimate in seeking elsewhere.
Paul: I like what you said about finding God in the mundane. Do you feel that connecting with Him in the hikes helps to connect with him in those traffic jams you mentioned? Does taking time out to get out the door to hike or exercise help in your daily surrender to your Higher Power, and if so, how?
I once hiked from a lodge in the Scottish Highlands, twelve miles to a neighbouring village, without water, ID or money. I left my friends having breakfast, told them to meet me in some quaint village with “Ness” as a suffix, and just started walking. It’s the perfect parable for my life at the time: hung over and haphazard and tempting fate…
These days I would never go off into the wilderness without the proper supplies. I feel more vulnerable and more prepared at the same time. Now that my eyes are clear and I am seeking a daily renewal with a Higher Power, I look for it. It doesn’t hit me like a stray tree anymore, and because of that I am more open to the revelations in the everyday. I still don’t feel at peace in a traffic jam and if you ride up behind me too close to my bumper, I will behave in a most unenlightened way… middle fingers will be involved. But the training and the seeking and the remembering from those glorious walks, seem to be working day to day.
Marilyn: I’m fascinated by discipline. What kind of training do you have to do to prepare for a race, and can you liken it to the discipline and self-analysis you have used to quit drinking? What about the finish line – how do feel when you cross the line and can your self-satisfaction be compared to your recovery? The symbolism is almost poetic.
Preparing for a race involves a sort of long- term dedication and things that need to be done on a regular basis. I am constantly putting the leg work in (pun intended) and keeping my eye on the goal (getting to the finish line). Some days are a bit harder and other days I rest. The way I see it correlating to recovery, is that I too have to put some leg work in my recovery. Some days I have to get to a meeting, or pick up the phone or show up to talk to a friend in recovery. Some days I might struggle a bit more and may need to either pick up the pace or slow things down. In the same way I need to pick up on my body’s cues, I need to pick up on my spiritual and mental cues.
Daily discipline of prayer and meditation is a big piece of my recovery. I don’t keep me sober – God does. I just need to take the actions as indicated. Recovery, like training, isn’t static. It is fluid and changing. What served me then may not serve me now.
As for the finish line, I certainly have a great deal of satisfaction when I cross the finish line. All my preparation and work comes to an end, in some way. In recovery, of course, there is no finish line. The journey is the destination. There are many small victories though, that give me that same sense of completion or satisfaction. I will have days where I limp along and other days where I am holding up high and pumping away effortlessly. But I am constantly moving forward, and that is exactly how I feel about recovery – I need to continue moving forward always.
Paul: Is there an end-game in your pursuit of God in your hikes and in day-to-day life? Once the boots come off and you’re sitting down resting, what goes through your mind? Is the mind-body-spirit connection one that in continuous for you or do you see that finish line for yourself? How do you see your recovery in the light of those long walks you take?
I am a work in progress. I don’t see that changing any time soon. Is anyone ever “fixed” when it comes to recovery or spirituality? I just keep plugging along, one day at a time. The process of movement, moving forward, is a topic that interests me. As I’ve said, I spent so many years defying life to BRING IT ON. I got it in spades, and now I want to be more contemplative and even wary as I move forward…
The hiking and running and biking analogy is such a good one for all aspects of recovery:
Prepare: Put an ID in the pocket – take a backpack with water, a snake bite kit and a phone – be open to new adventures, but cautious and ready;
Starting Line: Get out the door, revel in community, enjoy the process;
Manage the Climb: Be ready for the long haul and trained to make it to the top of the steep hills – anticipate the hardships;
Finish Line: There will always be another challenge, always a faster runner – there is no real finish. But. sometimes the best part about a day’s hike, run or bike ride is that it’s over…
Marilyn: Any final words of wisdom? A friend of mine likens the recovery support system to the legs of a stool – the more legs, the stronger the support. Would you recommend running or biking as one of the legs of the stool?
I do agree that the more tools at our disposal, the greater the strength of our recovery. I firmly believe that moving one’s body in any way, whether it be yoga, walking, pilates, etc. feeds into the mind-body-spirit connection. When I run or bike, I am giving my mind a space it wouldn’t have while sitting, and I am also getting a deeper kind of bond with my body and spirit. There is something to be said about getting active and feeling good about it. And of course, the more that we feel good about ourselves in a kind and healthy way, our recovery strengthens too. I know so many folks in recovery who do yoga, but also I know a lot of runners. I think many of us really do see exercise as one component in recovery. And it can only be experienced to understand it. So get out there!
Marilyn: Thanks Paul. It was great getting to know you better.
Paul: Thank YOU Marilyn – it’s been an absolute pleasure having this virtual discussion with you! Thank you for inviting me to do this.