Saturday, July 14, 2007

racing as religion

i should begin by saying that i don't consider myself particularly religious. i'm about as pagan a heathen unbelieving infidel as you're likely to ever meet, and there have just been too many things that have happened in my life that have caused me to question the nature of organized religion as any presence in my life.

but i don't disparage people who are religious either. i'm not one of those who make it a mission in life to deride the beliefs and character of others who choose to engage matters of spirituality. that just seems mean to me, and worse, arrogant because it involves an attitude that humans know everything about everything--when we really don't (and given the way the universe works, maybe we never will).

i can see why people continue to hold to religion. given the chaos and brutality that permeates so much of this world, given the magnitude and horror of so many problems in it, and given the venality and baseness of so much of forces behind them, it's entirely understandable why people turn to religion as a response to the evils of our lives.

i won't say that people are looking to religion for love. to me, that's just saccharine, and it's a superficial veneer disguising deeper truths. i think that people look to religion as a way of dealing with the world around them; in whatever form may succor them: for solace, for strength, for inspiration, for insight, for contemplation, or simply for the ability to accept things as they are. it's not just about resolution or answers.

our world (the human one) operates through a paradigm of body and the mind, which assumes that all burdens can be eased through application of the body under guidance of the mind. but this is a life out of balance, because very often we encounter things that resist--and sometimes overwhelm--the capacities of either or both. sometimes there is no resolution, sometimes there are no answers. to a worldview of body and mind, the reality of such a scenario can be difficult to confront; at times, it can be psychologically cataclysmic. it's in such times that we realize how much can be found in a life of the spirit; not so much for resolution and answers, but for the endurance to continue...even when there seems no reason to do so.

the question, though, becomes on just how people are supposed go about finding spirituality. it's not clear, and there are no references or guides. and it's not exactly the kind of subject you explore through trial-and-error. moreover, there's no physical manifestation with which to interact for help (that's by definition: things that are spiritual are spirits, as in no physical presence, get it? ha ha). with these conditions, it's clearly something promising a lot of work and a lot of time and an awful lot of uncertainties.

i suspect that this is the point human nature takes over and organized religion comes into its own. organized religion is the corporeal to the spiritual, and hence gives people something to identify and interact with--in short, it makes spirituality easy to find. in addition, it gives them whatever they seek with all the immediacy that is to be expected in a mortal world driven by cravings of the body and desires of the mind. the result is less work, less time, and lot more certainty...all things human nature tends to gravitate towards, and all things that help people to make the life of the spirit as real as the all-too-real world of the body or the mind.

it's a fair enough trade for most. all that's usually required is a measure of piety in public, sufficient alms and vespers on the record, and periodic (and tolerably) brief visits to a place of worship with salutations to the appropriate officials. some go farther than this, and extend the regimentation to dress code, speech code, behavior code, eating code, and acquaintance code. a few demand even more. but for the most part, the level of exchange is very reasonable for the blessings of the spiritual life.

incidentally, i think that's why we see churches, temples, mosques, pagodas, gardens, altars, shrines, and the vast array of paraphernalia in so many degrees of grandeur: it shows what the faithful believed was the reasonable exchange for their devotion, and in so doing indicates the value they placed upon the spiritual. it wasn't trivial.

personally, however, none of this really appeals much to me. the formalities, the regimentation, the public just doesn't really appeal to me. it's for several reasons:
  • i've seen--and personally experienced--how organized religion very often is less a vehicle to spirituality and much more a tool of demagoguery. because too often, organized religion devolves into a single (or a few) individual(s) claiming that only they know the wishes of the divine, with those wishes ranging from benign (charity, reflection, etc.) to sinister (donations to fund gold-plated mansions, violence against unbelievers, etc.) to horrific (apocalyptic self-destruction, mass genocide, etc.).
  • organized religious settings tend to be less about the spirit and much more about the mundane: socializing ("hanging out with the joneses"), gossiping ("talking about the joneses"), competition ("keeping up with the joneses"), conformity ("keeping in line with the joneses"). in which case, spirituality and faith becomes mere lip service, and a ruse to cover personal agendas and community tensions.
  • spirituality, at its core, is a deeply personal thing, with the individual ultimately having to make whatever connections they are seeking with the divine. whether alone or with others, it always reduces to what the individual finds. this is the substance of meaning found in faith...otherwise it's a meaningless pursuit accompanied by empty gestures.
for all these reasons, i find myself turning away from organized religion. of course, this leaves me with the many other great unwashed masses foundering in the pagan darkness, seeking a life of the spirit among the legions of the heathens. me, the great infidel.

but for me, this is where training--and racing--comes into play. faced with the work and time and uncertainties of finding spirituality in life (because i am one of those for whom a world of body and mind is just simply not enough), my nature isn't to turn to organized religion, but instead to sport.

i know, it's odd, incongruous, even oxymoronic; a life of the spirit doesn't exactly seem to conjoin with a life of sweat, strain, exercise, and exhaustion. but to me it does, and this is why:
  • while there may be demagogues in sport (with their usual assertions of self-glorifying claims and promises), they tend to be constrained and marginalized, since sport is still predominately driven by criteria of action and performance. unlike religion, where someone can always claim that they have the only true conduit with God and hence absolve themselves of any skepticism or doubts, sports demands constant question and accountability--given the nature of racing, sooner or later your strengths and weaknesses will be exposed, and the truth will come out, and you be shown to be either genuine or fake. in sport, that which is found true is retained; that which is found false is discarded.
  • there is little room for trivialities in sport, meaning little energy or time for the pressures of socializing, gossiping, competition, or conformity. in sport, the desire for performance strips out the distractions that so often make religion mere lip service to faith. in sport, either you are training or racing, or you're not; if you are, then anything else is a diversion from the main objective (performance), if you're not, then you are pursuing agendas antithetical to the goal. that which aids in achieving the objective is observed, that which does not is ignored.
  • for all the association arising with the competitors and crowds, sport is ultimately, definitively, fundamentally a personal thing. athletes are responsible for their own performance; they have the talent and they do the training, or they don't and they didn't. athletes are motivated to compete for their own reasons; the only thing holding them to sport is themselves. athletes don't find their sport in meetings, buildings, or talismans; they find their sport after intensive (sometimes painful) work extended over long (often solitary) hours, with nothing awaiting them but the uncertainty of race day (sometimes good, sometimes triumphant, sometimes bad, sometimes tragic). but it makes their sport--and their lives--that much more meaningful.
i don't claim to be a star athlete. i don't pretend to be elite. i don't even consider myself particularly any good. as the title of this blog states, i'm just an ordinary (some say less than ordinary) man. but i still compete, i still participate, and i still try, because i find within sport the things that in organized religion i do not: the spirit, in a way that balances the body and the mind.

some of you may know what i'm talking about. sport, when done well, is a transcendent experience. at its highest levels, it even becomes majestic. for all levels, when undertaken with concentration and passion and purpose and discipline and dedication and diligence, it is always sublime. sometimes, in very special moments, it is supremely beatific.

it's hard to describe.

all i can say is, there are moments that come in training and in racing, regardless of the seasons, whether in the gathering morning or evening sun, when the light falls to a glow and the world settles into silence and the air becomes as soft as the caress of whispers, and the universe becomes only the sight and sound and sensation of my limbs pacing steadily upon the earth: hands coursing water, legs cycling through air, feet striding land, and the sky as my witness...

and it is then that my heart enters a time underlying the movements of my body and leads my mind upon a path that follows the deepest rhythms of existence murmuring the greatest truths of this creation as profound as the visage of eternity. there is solitude, there is silence, and there is the sacred and the divine. and then there is nothing, save the soul and serenity and the spirit and God.

and it is then that i begin to find a way to peace, begin to find a direction to understanding, and begin to find a conversation with a God that i may never truly know.

i pray that the holy runs with me.

1 comment:

Trihardist said...

I think the holy does run with us in racing. And I would add that the image of racing as spiritual quest is an enduring one, at least in the religion I grew up with.

I agree with most of your points about organized religion, and would add that one of the most frustrating aspects (particularly of the Christian church) is that it's supposed to be all about community. It's supposed to be like a big family. In the company of the faithful, there should be a reconstruction of the primal union between man and man and between man and God. Instead, we end up with fortresses dedicated to reassuring the initiated that what they believe is right, because so many others believe it.

Anyway, that's what I think. When it comes right down to it, I'd rather be doing a long brick on Sunday than trying to find a church where I can spiritually grow.