Parallels between Distance Running and the Course
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
When I was younger, I was a competitive distance runner. I’m very grateful now for that time of my life, because I’ve since discovered that the basic principles I learned in my athletic training apply directly to the mind training of the Course. Here, then, are ten things I learned from distance running that have helped me immensely in my journey with the Course.
1. An untrained person can accomplish nothing.
There’s simply no way around it: If you want to be a successful distance runner, you must train on a regular basis. You must do the work to get the results. This is true of virtually any endeavor, but we tend to think the spiritual path is somehow an exception to this universal rule. The author of the Course, however, thinks otherwise. He tells us unequivocally that “this is a course in mind training” (T-1.VII.4:1) and that “an untrained mind can accomplish nothing” (W-In.1:3).The only way we will achieve the goal of the Course is to do the mind training it gives us.
2. Have a structured but flexible plan.
A distance runner needs a structured practice regimen to ensure that training is done on a regular, consistent basis. Yet this regimen must also be adaptable to changing circumstances and the runner’s unique personal needs. It is no different for the Course student. The Course gives us a highly structured training program in the Workbook, telling us that “structure…is necessary for [us] at this time” (W-pI.95.6:1). Yet that structure is flexible. For instance, the author of the Course acknowledges that sometimes a practice period “is impossible at the appointed time” (W-pI.rIII.In.2:2), and he gives us clear instructions for what to do when that is the case. The entire program of the Course is designed to fit into everyday human life. “This course is always practical” (M-16.4:1).
3. Set goals, both long term and short term.
A distance runner is always setting goals, both to increase motivation and to ensure that training is geared toward the specific goal desired. Some are long-term goals: perhaps the goal of winning a particular race that is years away. Others are short-term goals: goals for the year, the season, the month, the week, and even each day’s workout. The Course also stresses the importance of setting goals. It says that “a clear-cut, positive goal, set at the outset” (T-17.VI.3:1) is essential for success. It also encourages us to set both long-term and short-term goals. It wants us to hold the long-term intention of saving the world and awakening to Heaven. However, its means to this overarching goal is for us to set short-term goals along the way: spending a year with the Workbook, having a happy day, or just giving the next hour to the Holy Spirit.
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Repetition is at the heart of the distance runner’s program. Training is a process of practicing the skills of distance running over and over and over again, until they are so thoroughly ingrained that they become second nature. The Course’s training, too, is rooted in repetition. It has us repeat its lessons again and again. It encourages repetition by telling us things like “there is no limit on the number of short practice periods that would be beneficial today” (W-pI.42.7:1). Its goal, too, is for us to practice so frequently that the Course’s ideas become second nature to us; it seeks “to make them habits now, so [we] will have them ready for whatever need” (T-30.In.1:8).
5. Variety is the spice of practice.
Though repetition is at the heart of the distance runner’s program, it is not the repetition of one thing alone. Running well in competition involves a variety of abilities—endurance, strength, speed, racing tactics, and much more. Therefore, a runner needs a variety of different kinds of workouts to develop these various abilities. The Course, too, gives us variety as well as repetition. The author of the Course wants us to develop a “problem-solving repertoire” (W-pI.194.6:2) that we can apply very specifically to the different situations of our lives. Therefore, Course practice is not simply repeating two or three basic ideas or just “giving things over to the Holy Spirit,” but instead is marked by a wide variety of ideas and practices. This variety in training helps us to develop the skills we need to handle the varied problems we face in our lives.
6. Hold a fixed determination to succeed.
To succeed in distance running, you really have to want it. It is a challenging discipline, and when times are tough there can be a real temptation to give up. To get through such times, there is simply no substitute for sheer willpower and determination to reach the goal. Willpower and determination are also critical components of success in the Course’s mind training. The Course’s program is a challenging one that “requires willingness to question every value that you hold” (T-24.In.2:1). It is tough for us at times, and it’s very tempting at those times to give up. When the going gets tough, the Course calls upon our desire to see us through; it encourages us to dismiss all thoughts that distract us from our goal and “replace them with [our] determination to succeed” (W-pI.rII.In.4:3).
7. Bring an attitude of gentle firmness to your training.
The well-known dictum “no pain no gain” is not really true. Of course, training does stretch the runner into areas of discomfort and distress at times, but most gain comes without pain. The firm discipline necessary for success must be combined with a gentle mindset; pushing yourself to practice through guilt and self-recrimination is a recipe for breakdown and burnout. So too for the Course student. The Course’s mind training does stretch us into periods of discomfort; there are even phases that are usually perceived as painful (see M-4.I(A).3:1-2). But “no pain no gain” is even less appropriate to the Course than to distance running. Gentle firmness—an attitude that combines a firm determination to practice with a gentle, noncondemning attitude toward practice lapses—is absolutely crucial to success. Such an attitude transforms the discipline of practice from drudgery to joy.
8. Success in challenging situations depends upon your training foundation.
The quantity and quality of a runner’s daily training, more than anything else, determines success in the ultimate challenge: the race. With a firm training foundation, the race will likely go well; without it, the race will likely be a disaster. In my own Course work, I have found a similar pattern. With a firm foundation of Course practice, life’s challenging situations are much more likely to go well; without it, such challenging situations are much more likely to go awry. As the Course says, if you make it a habit to turn to God often during the day, “you can be confident that wisdom will be given you when you need it” (M-29.5:8).
9. Progress is generally slow; it comes gradually with consistent effort overtime.
As a general rule, improvement in distance running is gradual, especially for experienced runners. Regular training overtime leads to slow, steady progress. Dramatic breakthroughs can and do happen sometimes, but they are exceptions to the general rule. The author of the Course, too, expects that progress in the Course’s mind training will generally be slow. Breakthroughs do happen but instant enlightenment, while possible in theory, is extremely unlikely in practice. “By far the majority are given a slowly evolving training program” (M-9.1:7), and so we need not despair if we do not wake from the dream overnight. Our job is simply to be consistent with our practice; if we do this, we will make steady if not spectacular progress.
10. Life is a marathon, not a sprint; success comes to those who endure.
This last point is similar to the previous one, but refers more to a general mindset. The distance runner’s mindset says, “I’m in this for the long haul.” For many distance runners, this becomes a philosophy of life. They are not “sprinters” impatient for quick results, but “marathoners” who are determined to endure to the end. I’m convinced that Course students would do well to adopt the mindset of the distance runner. Let us be on the Course’s path for the long haul. Let us tread steadily the Course’s path of salvation, and trust that “every step we take brings us a little nearer” (W-pI.rV.In.5:2). Let us not stop until we reach the “finish line” of Heaven.