Dan Friedman and Jay Michaelson
Jay:Roger Joslin is preparing for the priesthood at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Although Running the Spiritual Path is, in typical publishing- business reductiveness, described as a "step-by-step program," it is in fact a collection of memoirs, practices, and observations based on many years of running in a contemplative frame of mind. Peppered with advice and suggestions for running meditation, the book "gets it" - it opens with "It is possible to begin a meditation run simply by stepping onto the pavement and putting one foot in front of the other... One can simply step into the run and see what unfolds." This is Joslin's first practice: running as witnessing. For me, and, here, for Joslin, the time of my run is like the 4'33" in John Cage's piece; it's a frame for whatever is going to be noticed within. Cage's 4'33" was about designating some time in which to listen to sound. My twenty miles functions in a similar way.
Dan: As will soon be clear to our readers, I don't agree with you about the virtues of Joslin's book. It is quite noticeable that you and I both feel the need to explain our own running experiences in some depth before we talk about the book. I think this is because Joslin sets himself up so powerfully as the ideal to emulate that we feel the need to set up and establish our credentials for suggesting viable alternatives. In a book about an escape to the spirit, the authorial ego seems excessively present. I don't understand, for example, why Joslin includes so many of his running diary entries. While he perhaps intends to express his path to transcendence through meditation on the mundane, these excerpts veer between the patronizing "I looked at [the approaching runners] appraised the extent of their pain, and offered them God's relief" and the prejudiced - where he wonders whether the Spanish-speaking baseball team he sees in New York's Central Park are all wearing Jeter shirts because they were on the discount rack.
I began reading Joslin's book with an open mind because I have found, despite myself, that running can be spiritual. But I found Running the Spiritual Path to be an insufferable book - the absolute worst book on running and/or spirituality and/or the Divine Being that I have ever read. In fact, I can't think of a book whose utter lack of worth doesn't even rely on dubious production values, bad proofreading, or egregious grammatical errors. For that reason alone I was determined to finish it.
There are three main things that I disliked about the book. The first was its narrow prescription of what constituted spirituality in sport. Unlike completing Running the Spiritual Path, completing any exhausting event can be a deeply spiritual experience. There are a number of ways in which our exhaustion open us up to the life that surrounds us but Joslin seems to predicate all these ways on one or another prayer exercise. This is woefully misguided and narrow-minded. Far from guiding us to the "prayerful dimension of the sport" Joslin exhorts us to turn running into prayer. He not only suggests that "For many people it may be useful to sit quietly in meditation before a run." but adds that if "you stretch before a run, treat each stretching position as a prayer posture" and goes on to fully subsume running into his prayer practice - "It is not that I engage in verbal prayer when I run (although, on occasion, I might)… It is, quite literally, that running has become prayer." Joslin is not a spiritual mentor but a home improvement salesman. He's the Tim Allen of the soul, explaining how to turn your dilapidated old running practice into shiny new prayer.
This leads me onto the second thing I found intensely annoying about the book. The non-denominational title is reflected in the bibliography but not at all in the tone of what is a highly Christian book. For, as well as reducing spiritual running to a subset of prayer, and all of his earnest citation of Buddhist, Jewish and 'interfaith' texts Joslin is a Christian who has grown up surrounded by Christianity and this is what the book preaches as spiritual self-help. Although it is not deliberate there is nevertheless a smug mendacity in implying that his book is an open or diversely valid text. Reading Joslin bearing witness to his practice of running I recognize nothing that I liked about my own training or my spiritual life.
Joslin pays lip-service to the concept that there might be something that he can learn from other faiths, and so he goes out with his preconceived ideas to find wise-sayings about running from other faiths. In his desperation to cite something interfaith (put a check in the Jewish box the way his yoga allows him to put a check in the Buddhist box) and also somehow relevant to running, he cites the visitor to Dov Baer of Mezritch who said that he went to watch, not the Rabbi at prayer, but the Rabbi tying his shoes. For Joslin, this becomes a parable not of the importance of ones bearing even in the smallest details, but rather about the importance of tying running shoes. Of course as soon as he heads off down the trail Joslin forgets all those other faiths and is again filled with his own ego, wondering when he "would receive one of St Teresa's 'small favors'" as a reward for being such a good contemplative runner.
Jay: I'll let you get to your third objection to the book in a minute, but I think you're being unfair to Joslin's own spiritual path. Of course he is Christian-centric; that is his primary frame of reference. It's very rare that you find anyone who doesn't have some base practice - true religious cosmopolitans tend to be shallow religious practitioners. For example, I try to approach Buddhist text and practices on their own terms, but I am also fully cognizant of my Jewish "roots" and biases. Same with Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Coleman Barks' translations of Rumi - we always have our "boxes." Transcending them does not mean pretending they don't exist.
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