Sarah True sits astride her bike and smiles at the camera

Back in my early teen years, I decided that I was going to transform myself into the kind of person who meditated...

I can’t remember precisely what prompted this desire other than a general sense that meditators possessed depth and importance, both characteristics that my 9th grade self wanted to show. While there are certainly worse impulses that a teenager can have, I fully admit that the idea of being someone who meditated was more important that the practice itself.

            In order to transform myself into a high school Zen master, I got a big comfy cushion and a couple of books on meditation, including one from the O.G. of the U.S. practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn. Out of a confused and misguided aesthetic, I also dug out a 1970’s-era drab macrame plant holder that my mother made decades earlier, found a plant, and created a little quiet space in my bedroom. I read my books and started my daily meditation practice that ended only months later, long before my sad hanging plant withered and turned brown.

            Although a formal meditation practice eluded me in my teenage years, I frequently find myself drawing on the underlying principles when I’m out training for triathlon. Being an Ironman athlete means long solo hours with only my thoughts for company

"The movement of my arms while swimming, the sound of a bike in motion, the rhythmic sound of footsteps, and the pattern of my breathing often lull me into a meditative state."

            Between the repetition of movement and the lack of external distraction, such as music and the presence of a training partner, it’s easy to slide into a sense of awareness. While in motion, I try to pay attention to the fleeting images around me, whether as small as a flying insect or as large as a broad landscape view. Movement makes a space transitory, requiring a recognition rooted in the present.

            Likewise, I’ve learned to embrace the passing sensations of exercise and to acknowledge them without judgment. Over the course of a run, I may go through a massive range of physical feelings: from bounciness to leaden-legged fatigue to lung-burning exertion. These are physical cues that might tell me something bigger about my training or my body, but they’re most often ones that pass. These signals are noted, but mostly dispassionately; hyper analyzing each sensation would only add unnecessary stress and fails to acknowledge how our bodies can switch from feeling bad to good within minutes during exercise.

            The hardest challenge for my moving meditation is how to deal with the thoughts that pass into my mind. There are sessions where my brain feels like it’s a rabbit, bouncing around like a nervously. As a younger athlete, I would frequently engage too much with each thought, especially the negative or self-critical ones. Entering a vicious spiral, each thought would be examined and seen as a “truth” about myself, prompting a new round of negative thought patterns. It has taken countless miles, but I’m much better at seeing these thoughts as nothing more than a transient idea and not a truth. A bad session doesn’t make a bad athlete, feeling tired doesn’t make me weak, and falling short of a training goal doesn’t make me failure. Instead, I focus on staying engaged with productive thoughts rooted in the moment, avoid judging myself, and stay as focused on the present as possible.

            I’ve long accepted that I’ll never be a meditator in the way that my younger self imagined. There may never be a lotus position, incense, or a singing bowl in my future. While I don’t embody the construct that I had in my teenage mind, however, I am a person who meditates. It might not be traditional or look a certain way, but exercise for me is ongoing form of mindfulness. And contrary to what young Sarah realized, how I practice meditation is ultimately less important than the benefits of why I meditate.

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