Waking to the Brief Flashings of Awakening

In June 2016, I was in a terrible accident on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, also known as the River of No Return. I fell from a raft and was so badly injured I was told I should never run again. I didn’t listen. I knew a little about brokenness. After my father died, I’d used my body to heal my mind, running long distances through the wilderness. Now I would have to use my mind to heal my body. During my long recovery, my friend Natalie gave me copy of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by the late Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. I’d had surgery and was unable to walk for months. I felt as though I’d been dismantled, unmoored from my usual ways of moving through the world, like a stranger in my own skin. “It’s a classic, but you might not understand it,” Natalie warned me. I didn’t take it personally. Zen, by definition, is beyond definition, sometimes even description. As soon as I started reading, though, I understood everything. Not with my brain but in my body. I understood Zen Mind because I understood running. I’d always been a runner. I ran through the woods when I was a girl, making up stories in my head. In my twenties, I ran through the sadness of breakups; in my thirties, I ran to write, and to find my feet beneath me in the deranged Tilt-a-whirl of new motherhood. I ran through the grief-fog of my father’s death and the anxiety that nearly paralyzed me. I won ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles), and once I ran so hard I broke my own bone. Running threaded through my whole life, but it was still only part of my life. In between the exhilarating highs were all the regular moments — gorgeous, ordinary moments, gorgeous often because they were so ordinary: wooden pins dangling on a clothesline, the morning sun slanting across a chipped picket fence, my eight-year-old meticulously buttering her toast, ravens circling above a bald summit. Suzuki Roshi described these bursts of understanding, these momentary awakenings, as “flashings in the vast phenomenal world.” They’re happening all around us, all the time — while we’re eating an ice cream cone or riding our bike or sitting broken beside a river — but we’re usually too distracted to notice. We don’t have to be religious or spiritual or know how to meditate to experience these moments. We just have to pay attention and live wholeheartedly with what Suzuki Roshi called the “full quality of our being.” When we do, we see the world and ourselves with sudden, brilliant clarity: we are part of everything, and everything is part of us. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind became my companion through my long recovery. It was disguised as a manual on meditation, but I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a set of secret instructions on how to live. “Each one of us must make his own true way, and when we do that, that way will express the universal way,” Suzuki Roshi wrote. It didn’t matter if it was skydiving or capoeira, writing, running, or Zen. “When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything.” The accident had upended everything and made me a beginner all over again. It was unclear if my body or my marriage would come through intact, or if I would ever run again. If I did, I would never run the same as I once had, just as I would never be the same. But even then, part of me understood that this was a good thing, maybe the very best thing. Falling from the boat felt like a hard stop, a boulder rolled into the middle of a long tunnel, impassable. It was only after I healed that I saw my injury for what it was — a beginning wrapped around countless other beginnings. It was the start of something deeper, a spiritual practice, my own kind of wild Zen, an experiment in how to live and how to wake up to the brief flashings. They were so beautiful they took your breath away. Written By Katie Arnold *   *   * Screenshot Katie Arnold is an award-winning journalist, longtime contributor to Outside Magazine, and author of the acclaimed 2019 memoir Running Home. A Zen practitioner and champion ultrarunner, Katie teaches writing and running retreats exploring the link between movement and creativity, wilderness and stillness. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN The Magazine, Runner’s World, and Elle, among others. Her new book, Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World: Zen and the Art of Running Free(Parallax Press, April 16, 2024), is a spiritual guide, a classic adventure tale, and a philosophical quest into the ultramarathon of life. Much more than a guide to how to run, Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World is an exploration of how to be. Learn more at katiearnold.net.

Waking to the Brief Flashings of Awakening

In June 2016, I was in a terrible accident on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, also known as the River of No Return. I fell from a raft and was so badly injured I was told I should never run again.

I didn’t listen.

I knew a little about brokenness. After my father died, I’d used my body to heal my mind, running long distances through the wilderness. Now I would have to use my mind to heal my body.

During my long recovery, my friend Natalie gave me copy of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by the late Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. I’d had surgery and was unable to walk for months. I felt as though I’d been dismantled, unmoored from my usual ways of moving through the world, like a stranger in my own skin.

“It’s a classic, but you might not understand it,” Natalie warned me. I didn’t take it personally. Zen, by definition, is beyond definition, sometimes even description. As soon as I started reading, though, I understood everything. Not with my brain but in my body. I understood Zen Mind because I understood running.

I’d always been a runner. I ran through the woods when I was a girl, making up stories in my head. In my twenties, I ran through the sadness of breakups; in my thirties, I ran to write, and to find my feet beneath me in the deranged Tilt-a-whirl of new motherhood. I ran through the grief-fog of my father’s death and the anxiety that nearly paralyzed me. I won ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles), and once I ran so hard I broke my own bone.

Running threaded through my whole life, but it was still only part of my life. In between the exhilarating highs were all the regular moments — gorgeous, ordinary moments, gorgeous often because they were so ordinary: wooden pins dangling on a clothesline, the morning sun slanting across a chipped picket fence, my eight-year-old meticulously buttering her toast, ravens circling above a bald summit.

Suzuki Roshi described these bursts of understanding, these momentary awakenings, as “flashings in the vast phenomenal world.” They’re happening all around us, all the time — while we’re eating an ice cream cone or riding our bike or sitting broken beside a river — but we’re usually too distracted to notice. We don’t have to be religious or spiritual or know how to meditate to experience these moments. We just have to pay attention and live wholeheartedly with what Suzuki Roshi called the “full quality of our being.” When we do, we see the world and ourselves with sudden, brilliant clarity: we are part of everything, and everything is part of us.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind became my companion through my long recovery. It was disguised as a manual on meditation, but I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a set of secret instructions on how to live. “Each one of us must make his own true way, and when we do that, that way will express the universal way,” Suzuki Roshi wrote.

It didn’t matter if it was skydiving or capoeira, writing, running, or Zen. “When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything.”

The accident had upended everything and made me a beginner all over again. It was unclear if my body or my marriage would come through intact, or if I would ever run again. If I did, I would never run the same as I once had, just as I would never be the same.

But even then, part of me understood that this was a good thing, maybe the very best thing.

Falling from the boat felt like a hard stop, a boulder rolled into the middle of a long tunnel, impassable. It was only after I healed that I saw my injury for what it was — a beginning wrapped around countless other beginnings. It was the start of something deeper, a spiritual practice, my own kind of wild Zen, an experiment in how to live and how to wake up to the brief flashings. They were so beautiful they took your breath away.

Written By Katie Arnold

*   *   *

Screenshot

Katie Arnold is an award-winning journalist, longtime contributor to Outside Magazine, and author of the acclaimed 2019 memoir Running Home. A Zen practitioner and champion ultrarunner, Katie teaches writing and running retreats exploring the link between movement and creativity, wilderness and stillness. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN The Magazine, Runner’s World, and Elle, among others. Her new book, Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World: Zen and the Art of Running Free(Parallax Press, April 16, 2024), is a spiritual guide, a classic adventure tale, and a philosophical quest into the ultramarathon of life. Much more than a guide to how to run, Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World is an exploration of how to be. Learn more at katiearnold.net.