The following interview is reprinted with the kind permission of the IndiaNZ Outlook newspaper.
In June, 2012 the United Nations General Assembly, acknowledging a worldwide concern at rising levels of stress and declining mental health, dedicated every March 20th as the International Day of Happiness, an occasion now celebrated throughout the world in a global effort to promote a happier human society.
Remedies and happiness formulae are remarkably diverse and range from material ambitions to the quaint Chinese proverb: “If you want happiness for an hour – take a nap. If you want happiness for a day – go fishing. If you want happiness for a month – get married. If you want happiness for a year – inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime – help someone else.”
Contributing writer Jogyata Dallas interviews recently interviewed top Kiwi trail runner and super-fit ultramarathoner Vajin Armstrong, whose happiness formula is a mix of meditation and mountain trails, inner calm and the soothing beauty of landscape. Vajin is the owner of Gandharva Loka, a store selling unusual musical instruments from all over the world.
Viewpoint: So what is happiness to you – you seem to have a very simple life?
Vajin: Well, I’m very blessed to live a life close to the gifts I have been given. Happiness for most of us is usually very dependent on external things like health, job satisfaction, the other people in our lives, income and so forth, and these are all valid. But a large part of my life is simply doing what I love the most, which is running. I travel to some of the most beautiful places on the planet and compete against some of the nicest people you can imagine. Yes, a very simple life.
VP: You seem to have almost a reverence for nature…..
Vajin: Well, we’ve all become urban creatures surrounded by cars and concrete, disconnected from nature – the only soil or greenery we touch are our pot plants. Getting out into landscape is hugely therapeutic. Its our original home, Mother Earth, and hiking high up on a mountain or walking an empty beach puts our little life into a larger perspective, diminishes the importance of it all and humbles us. Nature reminds us of our frailty, the brevity of life, the existential truths. It’s soothing and healing and makes us sane. To be happy you have to have somewhere to go where you can be unburdened and feel God.
VP: You’re a meditator too, how does that connect with running?
Vajin: I learnt meditation years ago from the Indian teacher Sri Chinmoy. For me the practice of meditation and the practice of running are completely interrelated. Through running I develop concentration, discipline and determination while from meditation I get peace, stillness and tranquility. It’s always important to have some balance between the outer aspects of our lives and taking the time to develop and connect with the deeper inner parts of our being. While running, especially in long events, I do try and use the skills I have developed from meditation to make my mind still and calm and to be present in the moment. Very often when we are attempting to do something really challenging it is our own mind that can become our worst enemy. Our doubts, worries and insecurities can all attempt to hold us back. Having that ability to quieten the mind and focus on the task at hand is an invaluable skill.
VP: So you would sympathize with Dean Karnazes quote – “ If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra”.
Vajin: Absolutely! At a certain point the physical body gets exhausted and that’s where the mental and spiritual dimensions kick in – we’re finite, but we can connect to the infinite and become almost limitless. Sri Chinmoy spoke a lot about sports and meditation and inspired countless athletes. He talked about the cosmic springs of energy, and how when you can connect with these through meditation your energies are boundless. The human in us can only do so much, but then the heart and spirit take over – ultrarunning is one of the doorways to explore this incredible frontier. In my own life I always feel so happy when I go beyond my perceived limitations. Transcending our limitations in any field always gives us joy!
VP: You’ve certainly kept pushing out your limits and you’re currently ranked pretty high as a trail runner!
Vajin: I’ve won the Kepler Challenge three times which is New Zealand’s premier mountain race. It is 60km over some of the world’s most beautiful terrain down in Fiordland. It normally takes hikers four days to walk it, my best time is 4hr 55mins. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to race all around the world and have placed on the podium in numerous events in America, Australia, Europe and Asia. But the competing is not my primary motivation, I just love the joy of wellbeing it gives me. The world’s trail runners are inspirational as well, they’re like high performance rally cars, speed, endurance, hugely positive energy, and pioneers in the frontiers of the mind/body connection. And they understand that their running is a metaphor of their life, the obstacles they face and the qualities needed to overcome them are relevant to everything in our wider living. The great runner Scott Jurek once said: “I run because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminds me that I can overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties was life.”
VP: Among the different forms of exercise you have tried, what is so
special about running?
Vajin: I like Sri Chinmoy’s remark where he compared running to a family picnic – all the family members, the body, mind, heart and soul are all getting satisfaction and joy. When you’re really fit and healthy you feel a sense of exultant, positive wellbeing like a great current of happiness. When I run I feel the most alive, the most free and the most connected to the world around me. And there’s the self-discovery – beyond the very extremes of fatigue and distress we can find a great calm and power that we never dreamed was there: sources of strength never discovered at all because we never dared to push on past the obstructions.
VP: Whats in the calendar this year for you?
Vajin: This year I will be travelling to Bright, in Australia’s Victorian alps, for a major race in April called the Buffalo Stampede (75km with 4500m of climbing). This will be followed by a trip to the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands in May for one of the world’s premier trail races, Transvulcania (76km with more than 4000m of climbing).
VP: What are some of the highlights of your running career..?
Vajin: Well, the opportunities I have to travel and meet inspiring people from around the world, as well as the chance to try and inspire people to follow their own dreams and aspirations. We all have the capacity to do wonderful and amazing things, sometimes we just need some encouragement and support to enable this to happen. It gives me such satisfaction to feel each day that I am working towards my goals and then during the event itself the experience of giving yourself completely to the task at hand is very fulfilling. And being out in nature helps to reconnect me with a deeper and more ancient part of my being. When we are surrounded by nature’s beauty it is much easier to be present to the beauty, the joy and the thrill of being alive. It helps remind me that we are all just one small part of a far greater and deeper reality. I really feel a deep gratitude. Sometimes I sit up on a mountain pass and imagine this is my last day on earth – what is left to me, what is of value now? Then all of your attainments and all of your possessions fall away, and the last and only measure of your progress is how happy, how peaceful you are. The inner attainments alone survive this questioning. This is the same experience that you feel when you begin to practice meditation, the leaving behind of all the cares and worries of the outer world, and the connecting with the deeper and more real part of your nature.
VP: What diet do you follow and advocate for high level fitness, and would you
encourage others to explore nature running as an antidote to city life?
Vajin: I’ve been a vegetarian for my entire adult life and I have found that a plant based diet is really conducive to both my running and my life in general. A lot of the top runners are vegetarian or vegan. And yes, I’ll always encourage others to explore fitness in any form, and especially the many positives of getting out into nature. In New Zealand you can look out any window and see the silhouette of close by hills – we’re super-blessed here. Start walking, find a trail, challenge yourself. But no cell-phones, no toys, leave all that behind, leave your mind behind, just be happy and present and quiet out there in the garden of nature.