CALIFORNIA IS FOR RUNNERS
IN CONVERSATION WITH HAKIM TAFARI
Can you give us a short bio?
My name is Hakim Tafari, born and raised in a small town called Ipswich, approximately an hour and a half outside of London. Having an opportunity to live in America from a very early age, I decided to embark and change my life in 1992, spending the first months in Brooklyn NYC, then moving to Austin Tx in late 92, this where my life took a very interesting turn./
In late 95 I was introduced to the “Vegetarian lifestyle”, along with things like Yoga and Kung Fu, Herbs and vegetarian/vegan foods. In late 95 I not only tore my meniscus but I also get veryz sick and my diet was a strong result of why I was so sick. After many bouts with doctors and medications, I stumbled on a free acupuncture session on the back of a magazine which eventually would be the deciding factor in my life change and dietary changes. After the one session with this acupuncturist, I changed my life, I stopped eating meat, decided to adopt a lifestyle that promoted life and not death. I decided to pick up Yoga as a form of rehab for my knee as well as light Kung fu and Qi gong, study medicinal herbs and studied vegan cuisine to rebuild a frame which was once 260 pounds overweight, to losing a 100 pounds and becoming a lean mean vegan machine.
I have studied and taught Eastern bodywork in particular Shiatsu and Thai Yoga massage since 1999, learning from some of the greatest teachers in the field of eastern bodywork I have been fortunate to soak in some of this time-honored knowledge. I have studied the martial arts since 96, starting off with Southern style Praying mantis Kung fu, then after a major knee injury turning to the internal martial arts, after studying and doing a lot of research I decided to start studying Tai Chi Chuan, from 98 until present I have studied, taught, researched and spent many of hours practicing the art, in this time I spiritually embarked on Taoism which went hand in and with this mystic art of Tai Chi, for many years I delved very deep in to the life, philosophy and mystic art of Tai chi, Wu Ji, and Qi Gong.
Buddhism has led me to understand the human and psyche in not only the aspects of life and everyday householder practices but also in the field of sports science and sports psychology and researching how an athlete can take his training and discipline to another level with using the techniques of mindfulness, breathing, self-realization and use it not only for bettering his/herself but also using as a vehicle to help others and teaching the tenants of goodness and karma within.
Personally, I have studied Taoism and now have been a practitioner of Zen Buddhism as well as studying the transmissions of the Mahayana tradition. Currently, I am working with Dr. Michael Spino, author of the book “Beyond Jogging, the interspaces of running” to bring certain mindfulness techniques to the run community as well as working on a documentary and later on working on a book that will explore a little bit of everything, from running, mindfulness, veganism and spirituality.
Hopefully, this gives you a little insight in the life of me, Hakim Tafari.
Why is California for runners? Having only lived there for 5 or so years, how would you say California has contributed to the runner you are today? How is it distinct from everywhere else you've run?
Running in California, especially in LA, has given me a sense of freedom, a sense of purpose. I feel like I've really developed my own sense of being through running in LA. You have to have a certain sense of strength, power and committment and not be afraid to explore. I think that is one of the great things about running in LA as opposed to anywhere else—like running in Orlando or Austin or Omaha, or Guadalajara. Everywhere has a different running experience but for LA has taught me how to become a strong runner and has contributed to my mindfulness and awareness of the present moment each time my foot hits the pavement. I mean, you can get that anywhere you run but I think there's something unique about the culture of LA... there are so many different things happening, whether it be street vendors, transients on the street sleeping, crazy roadwork going on, running past major fashion boutiques. LA is really distinct in that form and fashion. Also, let's not forget that LA is one of the healthiest cities as far as people being health-conscious and doing healthy activities, so you're always seeing people running around here and I think that's a great catalyst for why so many people run not only in LA but in California.
The cornerstone of the Satisfy ethos is The High, that feeling we chase during a long run wherein the repetitive movements of the body are operating so seamlessly that our physical awareness melts away and allows us to reach a higher state of consciousness—a kind of mechanical intoxication. What comes together for you during a run that allows you to achieve this state? Does the nature of this state change for you when cycling or meditating?
To answer this question, I think it's important to acknowledge that there are different facets of how and why people run. Some people run for weight loss, some people run for that runner's high, some people run because they're trying to escape something or they're trying to achieve something. So for me, running is ultimately a meditation. It is a way for me to go into a spiritual vortex.
Running reminds me a lot of Zen Buddhism. In Zen Buddhist meditation, there is a balance between hard and soft but the intensity is definitely there. Even in the silence, even in the quietness. Similarly, I feel there is a certain intensity within running but the meditation is still there. The components of the Four Noble Truths are still there, the components of the Eightfold Path are still there when you run. Having compassion for yourself, having to lament on what are you doing, where are you going, having the choice of just being in that present moment in time where you think of nothing but the air, the breath, the feelings around you—this is intoxicating in and of itself because it is leading to more oxygen output, which is causing more bloodflow, which is causing a cyclic reaction within the body which in turn is attuned to your endorphins, the serotonin levels in your body, the chemical breakdown, the cell breakdown, and it uplifts the body. There's something mystic about that. Wherever you are on a long run, when there's no one around you, when you are encompassing that open space... there is something powerful about that. When you are able to lock in, just like a plug, there is a certain divine frequency and energy that is going on. In my life, going through what I've gone through, whether it be chasing a goal, chasing some aspirations, trying to leave some thing or some negative energy or toxic situation that I've been in, the power of that run and that breath has the ability to reset, wipe out, reevaluate, and move with such a powerful kinetic energy that that itself is The High.
To paint it in the way I'm painting it is kind of hard but there is such a high spiritual component to that, that when you do finish that run or even during that run, that essence or that chi is moving at such a rapid rate that it's hard for the naked eye to detect. It's not about the highs we get from smoking a spliff or taking some type of mind altering substance, it's so different from that because your body is being charged up. You're working physically; there's a kinetic motion that's happening and that kinetic motion is moving to the mind and the mind and the body and spirit become connected all in one.
If running is like Zen Buddhism, then cycling is like Thai Buddhism. I feel like cycling is very at your own pace: you can go fast, you can go slow, you can go medium. You're really going in tune with not only where your mind is at but where your heart is at. You are able to look at your life and actions in somewhat of a slow motion and can dictate how you look at it, the way you maneuver through yourself, the way you maneuver through certain spaces. Cycling just puts me in a different head space. Yes, I am mindful of the roads, of where I'm where I'm riding, of my habitat. But I'm also meditating in a different space and zone this way. More so than when I'm running.
And it's the same thing with meditating. When you're sitting on a mat in complete silence, the state of the meditation becomes different. The state of your body becomes different. You are not overworking it or overpowering it. I have my incense and my sage and so forth around me and it creates a different type of ambience. I'm not moving. I'm able to sit in the heart of suffering and darkness or light, or the impermanence of what I'm feeling in that moment of time.
So I feel that there are different degrees of spiritual practice you are attaining when you are running, when you are cycling and when you are in complete silence on the mat. And it's almost reminiscent of the three stages of water in how we see it: solid, liquid, and gaseous. There is a potential state, there is a kinetic state, and there is a state that is naked to the eye to detect—that is reminiscent of cycling, running and meditating.
The story of your spiritual trajectory is incredible—could you tell us about how it all started, how it brought you to teaching at Spirit Rock and where it's brought you today? Could you also briefly highlight the significance of Spirit Rock for those who may not know?
I was born and raised Christian in the Church of England. I was an altar boy until I was 16. And then I rebelled and converted to the Sunni Islamic faith. From there, my trajectory has been all over the place. I've subscribed to the Nation of Islam, the Five-Percent, Rastafari, I got initiated into the Holy House a beautiful form of Daoism and studied it many many years. I've also subscribed and still subscribe to Buddhism. I have been a lay-practioner within the Zen Buddhism field, the Kwan Um School of Zen, which is a Korean-based Zen school practice of the Mahayana tradition. Now I am a practitioner of the Theravada, which is also known as insight meditation, where the primary practice is Vipassanā.
In the US, Spirit Rock is in the top echelon of meditation schools, partially due to its founder Jack Kornfield as well as figures such as Tara Brach. There have been so many great teachers from Spirit Rock who have been able to bring the transmission of Buddhism from Thailand and bring it to the masses in the US. I know a few teachers who have taught there, especially black body teachers. I went with a very good friend of mine, colleage and mentor, Joanna Hardy who is one of the most prolific Dharma teachers, who is a black body Dharma teacher within a very white-washed Dharma society. She brought me in as a movement teacher to teach Qi gong and tai chi. It was an incredible feat for me, being that it takes many years and hurdles to teach at such a prestigious place, so I had to acknowledge that and name it. There have been so many people who have come out of this place, taught in this place, and have shaped and formed Dharama as we know it throughout the world, so it was an honor to teach there and hopefully I will get to again once COVID is over and do a retreat with another fabulous teacher named Eugene Cash.
Speaking of rocks, during our phone conversation, we connected over the impact hitting "rock bottom" had on our lives. There's something very empowering about being able to accept it and claw your way up and out. Do you think it shapes the way you pursue things in your life today? Do you think you could draw a parallel between that reinvigorating moment when you realize you can "only move up from here" and chasing The High in the activities that bring you peace and joy?
Hitting "rock bottom" has had a profound effect on my life. You hear that cliché: "It made me the person that I am today." I think that is very true. If I didn't go through being able to pack up and go across the world to a different country and adapt and connect to a different society and way of life, it would be hard for me to move as much as I have moved. I've moved to different countries and to different states but I had to go through that in order to become somewhat of an expert. It's the same with my studies and my religious and spiritual practices. The same thing can be said of life. Losing things of such high value, having to really humble yourself when you have nothing, when you don't have many people to rely on, when you have unmet expectations — it weighs heavily on the psyche. You can move two ways: you can either stay in that rock bottom, or you can fix yourself and think about the ways you are moving and try to curate and create a way of getting back up.
Being a creative myself, I had to think of creative ways I could claw my way back up to a certain self, style, and widsom to ensure that I would not be making the same mistakes I made before and not try to rewire something that is not fixable. Instead of rewiring something that is not fixable, train to create new wires and experiment with them so you can get some type of productivity and energy. I had to not only reinvigorate my life but find out what my purpose was and I had to change my mission statements and my whole psyche. With that, learning how to breathe. Learning how to not only hold space, but to take space and sit in that space with confidence. Learning how to manifest confidence, strength, and learning how to sit and really hold that space within the heart of compassion.
Those were the things that were creative and key for me in clawing my way back up. How that drives me now is that you never want to experience those depths and those lows again but you try to attain higher heights, higher achievements, higher goals. Because now that you've seen what type of fruit the tree creates, you are trying to see and taste other fruits on that tree you've never experienced before. The experience of the unexperienced is blissful and beautiful and complex in its reality. That has been the major driving force for me in learning how to navigate and move through certain spaces and learn how to not fall back into that space I was in a long time ago. That has developed and moved and transformed the way my mind and mode of thinking is now.
I don't even feel like I'm "chasing" The High. To me, "chasing" implies something that you might not get. I don't feel I have to chase. I feel that what I'm getting to is going to happen if I'm putting in the right actions, the right thoughts, the right speech, and the right connections in their rightful place. But that can only come through time when you learn and go through certain journeys.
You run, you cycle, you practice kung fu, you are a religious and spiritual teacher, and are vegan. What is like for you navigating all these seemingly disparate and separate communities? You pull it off with such an intersectional ease that comes across as very organic.
Running, cycling, veganism, being a black body Buddhist, being a creative within the culture, being an innovator: navigating all these spaces and in turn trying to empower my ecosystem and community around me is something that because of my skin, my DNA, my ancestry and the ancestors who have paved the way for me, I feel is very powerful. It is important to me that I move myself and navigate through these spaces with a high spiritual sense guided by my heart and mind. This informs my running, my food practices, my cycling, my organizational activities.
Running is about holding that space and taking that space and creating that space—just like meditation, just like cycling, just like cooking food.
Kung fu has made me what I am today in terms of being grounded and using the aforementioned tools to enhance my practices. I am not a superstar athlete by any means of the imagination. I do it just for fun but I do it for the necessity of the mind body and spirit. Being able to share it with athletes, professionals, and creatives is such an empowering thing.
What's next for you?
Hopefully writing a book—books. More speaking engagements, would love to do a TED talk. Being a culture maven and spreading the word of mindfulness, of the meditation practice, spiritual practice, Buddhism, the Noble Truths, and the black experience, and bringing that intersection together along with music and art and bring a new sense of renaissance to the culture.