Sunday, August 23, 2009

Meditation as an alternative to 'extreme' sports competitions and drugs

I have two close acquaintances who are passionately committed to what are often described as ‘extreme’ sports. One competes in several 100 mile ultra marathons each year. When not actually competing, training for these events is an irrevocable life priority. The other’s commitment is to the equestrian equivalent of the ultra marathon, 100 and 50 mile horseback races over arduous terrain.

Each has their tales of physical privation, endured and surmounted, to share with compatriots and friends. During one race, the marathoner, towards the end of an event, lost the sight of one eye, but pressed on. When he became completely blind, he pressed his ‘crew’ of friends to help him continue to the finish line. Their better judgement prevailed, however, and he was persuaded to stop at about mile 90. The endurance racer began to suffer internal bleeding toward the end of one event. Only after finishing the race did she allow friends to rush her to a nearby emergency room for resuscitation. Neither she, nor attending veterinarians would ever allow a horse to compete with an injury, but she is much less forgiving of her own body.

What these sports have in common with avocations such as rock climbing, extreme motorcycle racing and, perhaps any athletic event, intensely practiced, is partly the sense of camaraderie among practitioners, but especially the focused mental “high,” excluding all else from one’s mental and physical being, they produce. Downsides of such activities include the physical risk they entail - one can be permanently injured or die - and the fact that old age is their enemy - most ultrasportspersons are forced to abandon their passion by their 60th birthday at the latest. (Though my endurance racing acquaintance is, with total focus steely determination, continuing to complete at age.


Drugs, of course, represent another path towards attaining the mental high that ultra marathons, equestrian endurance racing and other intensely practiced sports produce. The upside of drugs, especially in the brief pre-addictive period, is that no discipline is required to achieve the desired result. But the downside of drug use, of course, far outweighs these transient benefits. In a short period of time, they are addictive (though addiction can be an attribute of ultra sports as well) and are destructive to both body and mind.

Since a principal goal of ultra-sports, and drugs is a mental state of focus and exhilaration (the spiritually inclined might say ‘enlightenment’). It seems reasonable to ask whether or not such a mental state is attainable through mental activity alone. If possible, this would have the advantage of limited downside physical risk and might offer the advantage of greater insulation from the physical ravages of old age. Practitioners of meditation believe this is possible. Tibetan meditative practice, with which I have been struggling, seems to be a promising option. It embraces traditions spanning more than two millennia.

I have experimented periodically with meditative practices for many years. My religious affiliation is with the Society of Friends (the Quakers). ‘Listening’ for the ‘Still Small Voice’) of God, is central to Quaker practice. An an undergraduate, I studied the Spiritual Exercises of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola. Inspired by my friend and collaborator, Donella Meadows, I experimented with Zen meditation and related practices. For one entire year, between marriages, I wrote six haiku every day,which was a remarkable way to become more vividly aware of seasonal cycles and natural things.

About eighteen months ago I decided to make a fairly serious commitment to TIbetan meditative practice, using the Dalai Llama’s small volume, How to Practice: The Guide to a Meaningful Life (Atria Books, 2003) as my guide. I begin most days, in the early morning hours studying this book and striving, with very limited success, so far, to follow its precepts. It is my companion when I travel.

The practice, as I have come to understand it, begins with ‘morality,’ the avoidance of non virtues such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive talk, harsh speech, senseless chatter, covetousness, harmful intend and wrong views. The essence of Tibetan Buddhist morality is a belief that an innate desire to avoid pain and achieve happiness is something all sentient beings have in common. Its central message is “Help others. If that is not possible, do no harm.”

Morality provides the foundation for ‘concentrated meditation,’ a discipline that is intended to produce ‘calm abiding of the mind,’ leading, with sufficient practice, to a state described as the ‘mind of clear light,’ ‘enlightenment’ or ‘Nirvana.’

Meditative practice, seriously undertaken, does indeed appear able to produce somewhat similar mental states to drugs and extreme sports, along with more lasting benefits. However in this writings, The Dalai Lama urges would-be practitioners not to underestimate its rigors. The Lord Buddha lived for six years as an ascetic before attaining enlightenment and Tibetan Buddhists believe he was a reincarnation of a individual who had already attained enlightenment in many previous lives. The Dalai Lama, who has devoted a lifetime to meditative practice describes his own attainments with characteristic modesty. He also recounts the the account of another proficient meditator, who having experienced clear light of the mind, described the path he had followed to attainment as more rigorous than the tortures he had endured at the hands of Chinese Communist jailers during years of imprisonment.

In other words, serious meditative practice may, indeed, be an alternative to drugs and extreme sports, but it probably is not an option for the indolent, the impatient or the faint hearted.

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Blogger Patricio said...

"Since a principal goal of ultra-sports, and drugs is a mental state of focus and exhilaration." - I would be careful about making generalizations there. The "high" is apparent, but not always the goal. There are plenty of people that are manic athletes (see Tia Leoni's character in "Spanglish"). Meditation combined with elite athletics can contribute to an incredible lifestyle. In fact, there are lots of similarities between traditional meditation practices and traditional endurance sports training. Focus on breath, training of the mind, and seeing the truth are all things that improve one's athletic, as well as spiritual life.

But for the record, chasing a high, in any form, is never a good thing.

5:21 PM  

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