My iPhone buzzes as much today as it did a few years ago, but for more boring reasons. Old-man apps are shuffling into storage space once reserved for Star Wars games. If you hear my phone beep, there’s a chance I’ve got a missile lock on a TIE fighter, but it’s more likely an alarm waking me from a nap, or scolding me for forgetting to take my pills.
The current inventory of apps on my phone shows my age, and that’s fine by me. Learning to accept and appreciate getting older has been a part of my spiritual practice.
Coming to terms with the reality of aging plays heavily in the story of the Buddha. The first senior citizen Siddhartha Gautama ever saw made such an impression on him that the old feller is often referred to as one of the Heavenly Messengers of Buddhism.
But it was the second Heavenly Messenger that the Buddha-to-be encountered – a sick man – that’s really been top of mind this week. My phone, buried somewhere under a mound of snot rags and cough-drop wrappers, just dinged to remind me it’s been five days since I’ve logged a run.
The severity of the flu that’s laid me out this week is similar to what I experienced five years ago when training for my first marathon. What’s changed between then and now is the way I see illness, and as a result, my level of suffering.
I was halfway through a 20-week running program in preparation for the 2011 Niagara Falls International Marathon when I was sucker-punched by a superbug, leaving me bedridden for four or five days. Two or three of those were spent trapped in fever dreams, the really annoying kind where you feel compelled to carry out an arbitrary task over and over, like reciting multiplication tables in your head, in French no less.
The mental math got grimmer once my fever broke and I started tallying how many training miles I’d missed because of the flu. I recall my weekend long run was among the casualties, so it was probably in the ballpark of 25 miles.
A quick glance at my phone tells me I’ve lost 52 training miles this week: four eight-mile runs, and today’s aborted 20-miler. It’s more than twice what I lost in 2011, but a total that doesn’t cause a fraction of the concern I felt back then.
Part of the reason is experience. Five years ago, I didn’t know how severe the consequences of missing a week of training would be. They’re slight, it turns out. Losing a week, even two, of training tends not to make much of a dent in a runner’s overall fitness level.
The larger source of stress back then came from seeing sickness as something out of the norm, a sign things weren’t the way they should be.
What I appreciate about the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s encounter with the Heavenly Messengers is that it goes way beyond pointing out that old age, sickness and death are inevitable (to which many might reply: “duh”). It’s helped me better understand how all are part of a normal life, not deviations from it.
That may not read like much of a eureka moment, but that seemingly subtle shift in perspective has helped cultivate a greater sense of ease.
When I dismissed sickness as a disruption from the way things should be, I was setting myself up for failure.
The default mode I dreamt up for myself as a runner was pain-free, injury free, optimistic, capable, well-rested and fast. If even one of those was out of whack, which was most of the time, I felt kind of ripped off.
The Buddha’s observation that illness is a part of normal life has offered me broader encouragement to resist turning imagined ideals into steadfast expectations.
It’ll surely be worth applying as I hit the trails tomorrow after nearly a week off my feet.