Runner discovers new source of endorphins — prayer

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Though I’ve been running for many years and can’t imagine my life without the physical and mental release it provides, I often feel resistant when my feet first hit the pavement. For the first couple of blocks, my breath feels labored, my muscles stiff.

If it’s early in the morning, I ask myself what insanity drove me to leave the cocoon of my comforter. Going out of the gate some days, my standard four- to five-mile course seems like Mount Everest.

Then, a few minutes into the run, my legs loosen up. Breathing comes easily and my brain starts to empty of churning thoughts. I listen to the sound of my steps and start to enjoy the mundane sights that dot the streets along my path. By the end of the run, I feel a rare freedom. Suddenly, if temporarily, anything is possible.

Sitting in synagogue on a Shabbat morning earlier this month, it hit me. Praying, at least for me, is a lot like running.

At first, I feel a bit stiff. I hear the words without really hearing, say them without really saying. At times I’ll recite an entire prayer without stopping to consider what, exactly, is coming out of my mouth.

Then at some point, a line will jump out at me. An incantation will comfort me. Sometimes I’ll have just a few moments of illumination, sometimes many. I’ll often leave a service feeling renewed and unencumbered, confident that life is unfolding just the way it should.

In her “Torah Thoughts” column earlier this month, Rabbi Amy Eilberg wrote, “I don’t understand how prayer works, though I know that it does.”

I agree, though such mysteries are challenging for an overly analytical sort like me. I like to know exactly why I feel what I feel and why I do what I do.

With running, there’s the whole endorphin thing. Physical exertion, scientists say, causes the brain to release chemicals that act as analgesics. In layman’s terms, that means exercising makes you feel the way President Clinton might have felt many years ago, if only he’d inhaled.

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure saying the Sh’ma doesn’t release any feel-good chemicals. If it did, the whole world would be Jewish.

I think something much subtler happens when one prays. I don’t have my theory fleshed out quite yet, but I think has to do with community, rhythm and repetition. There is solace in knowing that prayers recited for generations are ours for the taking in the year 2000.

While I’ve long prayed on major holidays, praying regularly (several times a month or more) is new for me. That is, in part, because I’ve always grappled with the concept of God.

I finally get that God is neither the rabbi of my youth nor Charlton Heston. But who and what is this holy one to whom I offer my most personal supplications?

Perhaps, as Kabbalah suggests, the force of God makes itself known whenever humans conduct their lives with compassion and integrity. Or maybe, quite simply, something godlike exists in each of us and we become keenly aware of that each time we find strength when we think we have none left.

Who’s to say? It’s possible, as I thought as a child, that God really is a bearded man on a throne in the sky — or, as I preferred to think in my hippie college days, a woman in pink silk with hair that smells like incense.

But the more I pray, the more I realize I don’t have to know exactly what God is to be able to derive joy and reassurance from the notion that something mighty and benevolent impacts my life in ways I may never understand.

“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue,” the poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote. Rather than expecting Judaism to give me all the answers, I’m beginning to see it’s presenting me with some pretty important questions.