Finding Meaning in the Process

Runner MandalaLately 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.

A sand mandala is ceremonially destroyed from the outside in before all the sand is gathered into a jar.

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?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. Holy shit! Even though I’m training for Akron, I have so many days that I’m like “what the heck am I doing this for- why do I want to go run 26.2 miles” I feel some days like I’m chasing a high and I should be doing crafts with my kids or finding my purpose b/c I’m 42 years old and it’s not like my running is changing the world. I’ll get through my race and run Boston 2017 and I can say that I am no longer doing marathons and will stick to shorter races. I haven’t yet figured out how running will fit in b/c for the last few years it’s all I’ve known to describe who I am. Great post and cilantro’s post was eye openings well. I’m sure the pieces will all fit in for me eventually-

    1. The beautiful thing about my little philosophy here is that it doesn’t matter if you run another marathon or not or if you even run at all, as long as you’re pursuing goodness. Running is just one way to do that, and there are infinite other possibilities!

    1. It really keeps me going! I’m not good at patience or waiting and right now when everything in my life is requiring patience, this reminds me that the process is infinitely more important than the outcome.

      Also the process takes a lot more time than the outcome of most things, so if we don’t enjoy the process we’re really screwing ourselves out of a lot of happiness.

  2. I love this – and Cilantro’s post. I’ve been having many of these same feelings lately. My job is just that, a job, it’s not a passion. Running is, but sometimes I feel silly that it is. I just haven’t been able to make sense of it. Yet….

    1. And I think that’s okay too! Sometimes we re-evaluate and that won’t happen immediately! And I don’t think it’s silly at all to identify as a runner (you’re at the right place). =)

    2. I know what you mean. How can running be the most important part of my life when I’m a X:XX marathoner? Isn’t that silly?

      I say no! It’s not silly for something great and positive to be at the center of your self, as long as you recognize it can’t be the only thing, you need other stuff to contrast with it. Think of these like the contrasting colored outlines in the mandala. You can’t have a beautiful image without some contrast. I think that’s why a lot of artists who make work out of their art soon find that once you turn something into a job it often ceases to be quite as fun as when you did it for its own sake.

  3. I love love love this post so much – and that mandala is beyond epic. Did you make it? It’s seriously amazing and inspiring me to think more about and live in the process instead of thinking to the end. It’s not just about running too – I want to make sure I’m remembering what it’s like to be a new faculty member and what it took to get here. Sometimes I find myself getting bogged down in the stress, pressure, and to-do list, and forget that it is so amazing to be here.

    1. I DID make it! I got some craft sand ($4), attached a plastic straw to a funnel and used a little spoon to tap the sand out of my straw. It was a really good exercise in using art to ground myself, and it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I drew my own design to trace with sand but you could print one easily.

      I’m going to let it be on my coffee table for a few days while I contemplate all the good things running brings to my life and the lives of the people around me and when I’m done I’ll brush it into a pile, gather it into a jar and pour it into the Cuyahoga River so it can carry my happiness out to all of you!

      Again, I know it’s all very cheesy, but that’s okay!

  4. I had never heard of a sand mandala before but I’m so glad I know what it is now! For me, running with my friends and remembering that I’m fortunate to be healthy and active help me remember to enjoy the process. It’s actually harder for me to remember with my day job– I’m a biomedical researcher so sometimes I’ll spend weeks/months working on an experiment and it turns out that my hypothesis was wrong so I need to start over.
    Good luck with all your transitions and enjoying the process as much as you can!

  5. We actually have a walking labyrinth at one of the seminaries in town — and it’s right by one of the main parks. I have a habit of walking it before big races. The high school coach who started this tradition has runners do an easy run to the labyrinth, then you walk it to the middle reflecting on all the hard work you put in through the training cycle. As you walk back out, you envision that perfect race, setting your mantras and visualizing the different race aspects. Then you fly back, tempo-ish, soaring on the winds and wings created by your mental focus. (Want to see it? Visit this Google map and turn on the Satellite option:,+1044+Alta+Vista+Rd,+Louisville,+KY+40205/@38.238149,-85.68522,16z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x886973554d1009ad:0xa221c7aec77a40e6).