Lately I’ve been obsessing over sand mandalas. If you live in a big city or have visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, you may have even watched one as it was created. Mandalas are those really cool rosettes made of brightly colored sand that employ the use of various Buddhist imagery, created by monks in orange robes hunched over little sticks they rub together to create each tiny line. They’re hypnotically beautiful and reassuring to me, and I can’t get enough of them. I watch videos on YouTube when I’m stressed or if I can’t figure something out, or even if I can’t sleep.
Much like Cilantro discussed here yesterday, I’m going through a period of transition, changing cities, changing jobs, changing lifestyles and changing relationships all at once, and I’ve been struggling hard to find meaning when things that once shaped my identity have become unimportant. Like … existentialist crisis-level struggling. And as I do for all my problems, I turned to running to find answers.
Unfortunately this time running just seemed to exacerbate the crisis: I’m training for my 6th marathon. A BQ is still deep in the future, so why do this marathon now when I’d rather be running fast, short races? What does the marathon mean? Why do I even care about the BQ? Why do I keep running marathons? What’s the point, especially when I feel like all I do is run?
Enter the mandala.
If you’re only a little familiar with the concept of sand paintings, you may think that they symbolize the fleeting nature of life. It’s easy to imagine that you spend lots of time on this beautiful thing and then the sand blows away and poof, there goes all your hard work! It’s a lot like training for a big race for months only to have a bad day. But this is actually not the case. When Tibetan monks make mandalas, they’re not a symbol of ephemerality per se because the picture itself is not the goal. Rather, the goal is completing a process that’s designed to achieve a function.
Function? WTF are You Blathering On About?
Mandalas, rather than simply being beautiful drawings, are created to be containers for blessings and positivity. The monks pray as the sand is ground from stone, they pray in the space where the mandala is to be created, they pray as they mix colors into the sand, they pray as they meticulously chart out the lines of the drawing with rulers or painted strings. Only then do they start scraping their chak-pur funnels, working in teams to create a beautiful depiction of deities and symbols that can take them days or weeks to finish.
After the mandala is completed, there is another period of days, weeks or even longer during which more prayers and offerings are made. The idea is to fill this painstakingly laid sand with as much positive energy as possible, as well as the happiness and power and the good intentions of all the people who see it and marvel at its creation.
Only once this period of blessing has passed is the mandala ritually destroyed, whereupon the sand is gathered into a jar which is wrapped in silk, and then taken to the bank of a river to be poured away. The intention here is that the river will carry all that blessing and goodness out into the sea and to the shores of all the continents to be spread all around the world.
Okay … But What Does That Have to Do With Running?
A marathon, an ultra, a 10k … it’s just a race, right? Sure. It’s just a thing, like the mandala is a thing, and like all the goals we have are just things: it’s just a house, it’s just a job, it’s just a lifestyle, etcetera. But when you reflect on the potential positive outcomes of the processes that result in these things, you can begin to appreciate the process itself.
In my case, I’ve come to believe that it’s the process that truly matters. It’s the training. It’s the experience. The trail scars and sore legs and ruined socks and constant laundry and huge grocery bills and all the other little things that add up alongside your mileage to make a perfect race, these create a space in your life where you are focusing your intentions on positive outcomes. That’s the space we live in when we become healthier, more mindful and enjoy our lives more. But even more importantly, running gives us a vessel with which to send our intentions out into the world beyond ourselves as well. We can see running as meaningless, sure, but we can also see it as a space in our lives in which we can inspire other people to be more active or help out someone else on the trail or join a running group and offer our friendship to others, or even just run through a neighborhood that could use a few more nice people out on the street nodding hello to one another.
Whether it’s running or a job or laundry or anything you do, what seems meaningless is actually the practice of pursuing youe best self if you have the right approach. Your training is the sand. What are you sending down the river?
When I began to contemplate the mandala, not only did my life come back into focus as a series of processes, so did my running. Right now I’m training for my 6th marathon, which is part of the greater process of working toward a 3:40 BQ. It might take a lot more marathons to get there, and I may never even do it, but what matters is that I’m participating in a process with a function: making the world around me a better, happier place. I’m using running as my sand to send my positivity and happiness and blessings and prayers out to everyone around me. And yeah, that sounds cheesy, but screw it. I’d rather be cheesy than fatalistic.
How do you remind yourself to appreciate the process? How do you see your running as a way to create a better world around you?