Running with Books as a Spiritual Practice

I arrived out here in the California mountains last week and the very next morning I went for a trail run. As I was getting ready, I was debating whether I should listen to the book I was in the middle of reading with my ears. After all, said a judge-y voice, I was in the mountains, shouldn’t I just be paying attention to nature? Why was I looking for distraction, when I could listen to the wind in the trees and the dust beneath my feet? Did my reverence for the terrain fall short? Then another, gentler voice, chimed in. Just listen to your book. Who made up these rules anyway? Who says you can’t honour nature while engaged with literature?

View from the top of Castle Peak in California. One of my absolutely favourite funs!

I listen to books when I run. I love the feeling of a voice cozied into my ear, telling me a story or illuminating a topic I’m curious about.

I listened to my book. I ran a favourite trail, while Clint Smith (the author) recounted his journey to Senegal to visit a slave house, in his book, How the Word Gets Passed: Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. In the book, he visits a variety of places directly connected to slavery, including Angola prison and the Monticello Plantation (owned by Thomas Jefferson). As I was running and listening, I suddenly thought—this land I’m on may not be directly implicated in these stories I’m listening to, but I cannot disentangle my privilege at having access to this gorgeous swath of nature, from the fact that this whole country was built on slavery. Never mind that here in Truckee, California, there is also the story of the oppression of the Chinese population, brought here to build the railroad under brutal conditions.

I realized that, for me, running with a book is a way of connecting with other people, just as surely as running enables me to connect with nature. I fortify each of these connections, by bringing them together in what suddenly felt like a spiritual practice. Often when I’m listening to a book, like Clint Smith’s, I am overcome by emotion. Because I am running, I can allow my emotions to flow freely. I can allow the book to touch me more deeply, because I’m alone and even if I pass other people, the experience is so brief, that I don’t need to worry about my tears or my joy being disconcerting. My intellect is interacting with my felt sensations to create a new reading experience. I can interact with the book in a more embodied way.  

There’s another aspect I like about running with books. I feel freed from the burden of highlighting passages and learning the content properly. Instead, I am able to absorb the book at a more cellular, experiential level, which enables me to make connections between what I’m hearing and other ideas that are marinating in my system.

Here’s a few of my recent running books:

Bittersweet, by Susan Cain, about the ways in which light and dark in our hearts are inextricably intertwined.

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, by David Abram, that questions our habitual sense of perception.

The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life, by Loch Kelly, which is what it’s title describes.

Unbound: A Woman’s Guide to Power, by Kasia Urbaniak, which combines Urbaniak’s experiences as a dominatrix and Taoist nun.

Some have said that they don’t run as fast if they are listening to anything other than music. I don’t know if that’s the case for me. Some stories get me charged up and some probably slow me down. In the end, what matters to me is getting outside and moving my body. My goal is to run, simply to run. As an aside–reading may also be a goal, as Sam talked about in her recent post.

Last thing—I love running and I love books. So, putting the two together feels decadent and delicious, as if I have more time in the world to do the things I love.

4 thoughts on “Running with Books as a Spiritual Practice

  1. I don’t listen to anything while I am running, but those are two of my favourite things too! Also, I have stacks of books in my “to be read” pile and your posts keep giving me inspiration for others to add to the stack!

    1. That’s exactly why I started listening to books–I realized I could get to books that I might not otherwise find time for. So many books to read–I need a new recommendation for a running book … any suggestions?

      1. Right now I am reading Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz and it’s interesting because it was written in such a different time. I am most looking forward to reading Heather O’Neill’s new book next, When We Lost Our Heads. Her book The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is still one of my favourites. I also have Emma Staub’s This Time Tomorrow and Nina du Gramont’s The Christie Affair in my current stack.

      2. Thanks for all the recommendations. I just finished the Heather O’Neil book. I will say nothing and wait to hear what you think when you’ve read it and then we can “chat”!

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