the healing power of running to music



I have music playing, nearly always. I have eclectic taste and listen broadly. But I’m often drawn to the beautiful, slow, sad songs that others might call depressing. I can wile away hours laying on the floor listening to music and doodle-journaling. Doing so was a hallmark of my teenage years. These days, I’m more likely to get to that immersive experience with music when it’s combined with prayer, with yoga, with writing, and in a round-about way, through running.

For years, I ran with music exclusively. And then when I got an iPhone, I gave it up. It’s been almost six years and there hasn’t been a single run since where I desire music instead of the birds and the other sounds of nature, of listening to my own breathing combined with all my often swirling thoughts. For the past couple months though, I find I’m often running to music. I’ll be three-quarters through a run and suddenly realize I’ve been singing a song in my head the entire time, repeating lines that I need in a moment.

And I often listen to music while in my car. Recently I was listening to a song that is among my favorites. Though it’s a sad song about someone who has passed, I had never related it to a particular person. I have been thinking often and missing my grandma these past couple months, thinking about her life and how I can grow into being more like her. That particular day in my car with a good half hour of driving ahead, I burst into tears as I listened and then was brought back to one particular phone conversation with her, a few months before her health went downhill.


It was dead week at UCD, early-December, and a couple weeks before I was to return home from Ireland. I was alone in the pomology lab classroom in the Ag Block, my study materials strewn across the long lab bench, and in the middle of filling the white board with a semester’s worth of horticulture knowledge. I had music playing in the background and though I can’t remember the song specifically, Taking Back Sunday was my study music of choice that term. The phone rang and I picked it up. It was my grandma. There was a little crackle in the reception, and I could tell we were talking from a distance. I imagined her sitting in her house, so far from where I was standing with my expo marker in hand. She asked how I was and whatever my response, almost immediately followed with, You don’t want to come home, do you?

Something in me gave a little at the question. I missed her, of course. She was one of the most formative individuals in my life, unselfish and living almost entirely for service to others. She is a lady I continually strive to be like. And she knew me well. I did not want to come home. Since my first run in Dublin, sans phone, GPS, map or any other form of technology to guide my way or inform others where I was located, I felt like I was finally at home and at peace, almost as if I had been there in some lifetime long ago. That’s a weird thing to think or say, I know, but maybe being in an old country with a lot of ancestral history has that effect. I ran a lot that term, around the winding streets near Belfield, and around the turf pitches and through the forested areas on campus, up to 10 miles some days. I ran often without technology, as it both scared and thrilled me to be completely untethered, to not have a single soul know where I was, to not know entirely myself where I was, but to be at the same time completely comfortable and at home in my new place. And I ran to the music of SPIN103.8’s Top 40 station, as the only portable music I had was the radio on my Irish phone.


I’ve wondered often these last few months, am I trying to run away from my eating disorder, from my trouble with food, my physical and controlling self? Or am I running toward something, God, the new self I’m creating, or something else? I never quite felt that any answer was right until one day I realized I’m running these days to discover who I am. Maybe I always have been. Running to music over the years, letting BarlowGirl’s Psalm 73 (My God’s Enough) drown out any thoughts of measuring up, or The Pussycat Dolls’ When I Grow Up, or Tiësto, Akon, Colton Dixon, The Digital Age, or lately, the simple words of Jonny Diaz, Breathe, Just Breathe repeat in my brain, has been exceptionally healing.

Music can be a powerful tool in moving us through a process, of centering our monkey-mind thoughts, of, like running, helping us figure out who we are. And through running, through writing, and through the healing power of music, I’m settling into acceptance that I can’t go back to that first special run in Dublin, or that day on the phone with my grandmother, or a time before I became a not-hungry starving girl who lost a lot of friends in the process. I’m at a point these days where I’m sifting through the individual dramas of the past and the insecurities of the present as they come to the surface one by one, as if pulling out people, places, memories from a magical toy box, and deciding which ones to hold on to and which ones to finally let go. That girl who was running away from herself to BarlowGirl is not the same girl today, even though the song still moves me and is a reminder of how far I’ve come. I don’t have to feel ashamed of that girl, what she went through, or now has become. And the happy memories—of walking through the forest as a child, listening to the quiet melody of the place, my grandma Neah’s hand holding mine, pointing out the beauty of the birds, or a long-distance phone conversation with her about finding the place that feels like my placethose are ones I can hold on to.

That day in the car, tears streaming down my face while listening to The Blizzards’ Postcards, I realized I was crying because my grandma, though no longer here, is still alive in me. And through the process of discovering who I am step by step in the forest with the only music being the sounds in my head or the birds or the creaking of the trees, or song by song as I live and breathe through each day, I am becoming more like her. And finally, I’ve becoming more of myself.


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