Wednesday, February 24, 2010

a Buddhist moment

it never ceases to amaze me how much of endurance sports falls upon Buddhist principles. i am not Buddhist, nor am i even particularly religious, but i am spiritual enough to have taken the time to learn something about the underpinnings of faith and the cognizance of things intangible beyond the ken of human comprehension. and based on what i have observed and learned, i find that so many of the tools used by endurance athletes to cope with the challenges of their sports are eerily similar to concepts inherent in Buddhism.

i think this is coincidental, but not entirely accidental.

part of this is that endurance sports forces athletes to face the reality of their situation--a workout is a workout, a race is a race, a challenge is a challenge, and no amount of hesitation, procrastination, indecision, waffling, whining, complaining, bellyaching, denials, delusions, deceptions, half-truths, falsehoods, omissions, lies, or outright bullshit will change the simple fact that is the truth of every athlete's (and for that matter, every person's) reality: only you can finish your race.

to some extent finishing a race is something that can addressed through the exercise of common-sense principles: diligence, dedication, discipline, commitment, confidence, effort, humility, thought, all things in training and preparation that go a long way towards improving and maximizing your performance towards the finish line.

but the events of race day go to a greater extent beyond just the race. in some part--perhaps the greater part--they go to something that calls for more than just the mere exercise of common sense. rather, they call for uncommon sense. and this is where Buddhism seeps in.

you see, much of endurance sports forces athletes to confront the reality of their condition; that they deal with the inconvenience, the discomfort, the pain, the suffering that comes from the physical, mental, and spiritual toll taken by their journey over distance. and Buddhism, if nothing else, is about addressing suffering. in nature and in response.

take a case in point:

i once had a coach who would frequently join us in training. he was one of those coaches who could actually do what he asked his athletes to do, and often could do it better. on one memorable training session he'd elected to join us on a bike ride in the hills, and had selected a particularly (in his word, deliciously) long and steep and winding series of hills in the rural areas of Southern California on what would prove to be one of the hottest days of the year.

at some midway point in the ride, after an interminable agonizing stretch of climbing hill after hill after hill after hill after hill after inglorious excruciating demoralizing gut-wrenching back-breaking leg-exploding soul-crushing spirit-sucking hill, i found myself struggling to keep up, and could not muster the energy to make the requisite turnover on the pedals. my legs were searing, my body was numb, my heart was dead, and my consciousness was descending into a well of broiling darkness drowned in a morass of overheated sweat. i was, in short, in hell. after turning a corner and seeing the hill still rising without any end in sight, i broke and caved in to the pain and stopped, a dejected figure on the side of the road doubled over on his bike beneath the baking glare of a brutal sun.

my coach had been riding behind me, corralling all the stragglers under his care. as he caught up, i waved weakly and looked up from my position, leaned forward feebly on the frame, and said "coach, i don't think i can make it." catching my breath, i added "this sucks."

at this point, he looked at me, with a gaze that can only be described as a serene mixture of equal parts pity, sympathy, understanding, concern, disappointment, frustration, disgust, and supreme and utter contempt, and replied with 8 of the most profound--and most uniquely Buddhist--words i've ever heard in endurance sports:

"dude, the state of the world is suffering."

and with that, he rode off, leaving me to whimper in the silence by myself.

what my coach meant was that we can't control the conditions around us. they are what they are. the road is the road, the climb is the climb, the hill is the hill. there's nothing we can do to avoid it. and there's nothing we can do to control it.

i can assure you that he was not Buddhist, nor religious, nor even by any measure spiritual. but what he said came to a basic truth constantly stressed at the core of Buddhist philosophy: the state of the world is suffering. and despite your hopes, your wishes, your desires, your dreams, it will not change. the world is the world. it is what it is. you cannot avoid it. and you cannot control it.

which gets to what i think my coach also meant, and which also is a basic truth at the core of Buddhist philosophy: as much as we cannot control things around us, we can control ourselves. which means that the issue is not that there is suffering; but rather that the issue is what is our response to it.

my coach had left it unsaid, but had very much left it for me to ponder: yeah, the road sucks. yeah, the climb sucks. yeah, the hill sucks. yeah, life sucks. that's not a question; that's a given. it's not going to change; only you can.

in which case, that makes the real question what are you going to do about it? how are you going to change? how are you going to respond? are you going to act in a way that sends you back down the hill, or in a way which gets you over the hill? are you going to act in a way which contributes to the suffering we see in this world, or in a way which reduces the suffering we see in this world?

because only you can take yourself on the road. only you can make the climb. only you can get over the hill...and only you can make life better.

not the afterlife. not the next life. but this life.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

it builds character

there are certain moments in life when we're confronted by the realities of the challenges that lie before us, and whatever illusions, delusions, fantasies, or lies we've used to maintain our complacency, indolence, or inaction are dispelled by the face of truth.

you see it often in endurance sports. at some point, whether in the midst of the training cycle or the culmination of race day, whether when in the prelude or apex or epilogue of a workout or an event, every endurance athlete comes to a dawning realization of the sheer scale and magnitude of the awesome visage of the challenge that they are undertaking.

different people respond to this in different ways. there's trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety, nervousness, fear. sometimes guised beneath light humor and bravado, sometimes shrouded in pensive sobriety and solemnity. regardless, everyone invariably starts to consider their options, and the options always come down to the same: quit and go home, or stay and continue.

which option people choose depends on the reasoning they follow and the justifications they find. this is when the thinking begins. some deny it, some suppress it, some accept it, some embrace it. but they all do it.

and they do so in a range of behaviors, covering the spectrum from self-pity and depression and despair to resignation and determination and excitement and joy, all with a veneer of varying degrees of drama.

a friend of mine had one of the most memorable responses. lined up at 6am in the transition area at an Ironman in the midst of a freak storm forecast for wind and rain and cold, with perfect timing that hit the exact moment of silent sobriety among the competitors, he shrugged and said: eh, it builds character.

as a group, the athletes in the area roared in laughter.

thing is, we all knew he was right.

because you see, challenges are challenges for a reason. they are not pleasant, they are not easy, they are not fun. discomfort is certain, pain is definite, suffering is guaranteed, and all most assuredly in surplus.

those who choose to stay and continue in the face of such prospects must go outside their own comfort zone. if they are to endure, they must change and adapt to their conditions; if they are to overcome them, they must grow and mature in relation to their circumstances.

which means being forced past illusions, delusions, fantasies, and lies. which means being forced beyond complacency, indolence, and inaction. which means dispelling all of them to come closer to some realization of life's greater truths.

like this one:

we are more than what we are. we are more than what we sense. we are more than what we could ever believe.

and we know this because we proceed. one step at a time. one breath at a time. one thought at a time. every moment of every day of every year of every life that is the race that is the journey that is the wonder in the time through the eternity of the creation that is god's eye.

that sees itself within us.

we are more.

and to realize so, we have to do more than be or sense or believe. we have to stay and, above all, we have to continue.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

the risk calculus

i've been teaching (yes, me, *teaching*...i know, but that's another story for another time) some elements about the nature of risk and how humans deal with it. there's quite an extensive literature on this, particularly in the social sciences, since it addresses the subject of how human beings perceive danger and how they then choose to act in response; things that sometimes seem illogical or rational from one perspective sometimes don't seem so when view another way, and what may be deemed acceptable risk to one person may not be so to another.

why i'm talking about this here, on a blog primarily devoted to endurance sports and the life lessons that come from them, is something that will become evident--just stay with me.

i've presented a more simplified nature of risk, using conceptual fundamentals i learned from various fields to give a basic introduction of how to think about risk. for lack of a better-sounding (i.e., catchy) name, i'll use the same term a law school professor once gave to me: "the risk calculus" (it actually has little or nothing to do with calculus, but rather indicates more the process of calculation that goes on in each individual person's mind when facing a given problem...of course, why my professor didn't just use the term "the risk calculation" is also a story for another day).

the risk calculus at the most basic level can be expressed as a rough equation:
I is defined as risk
u is defined as the probability of an harmful event occurring
R is the magnitude of the damage caused by that harmful event
what social scientists draw from this is that there are some events whose magnitude of damage is so great (e.g., death or extinction) that no minute level of probability will be tolerated, and that people will be averse to engage in these kinds of activities. similarly, there are some things that even though the probability of the harmful event occurring is high, the magnitude of damage is so low that people are willing to engage in the activity anyway.

but what social scientists also take from this is that this equation, while presenting an objective mathematical representation of risk concepts, still involves variables that are dependent on subjective perceptions of reality. you see, different people have different perceptions of just what probability is too high or too low, and likewise have different perceptions of just what magnitude of damage is too great or too insignificant to worry about.

and this is why even though we describe the risk calculus with a common formula, the application of that formula varies by individual. which is why some people refuse to take ocean swims because of a fear of fatal shark attacks even though the probability of that event is statistically very low, and some people regularly ride bicycles in rush hour traffic even though the probability of a crash with a car is statistically non-trivial.

it's also the reason why some athletes appear to be so reckless, so thoughtless, so fearless in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, while others just simply crumble. because some athletes, when confronted by something that ordinary people consider to have a high magnitude of damage and/or a high probability of occurring, just don't perceive such a something in the same way. in short, they just don't follow the same risk calculus as everyone else, and proceed without any trepidation to impede their reflexes, their motivation, their attention, or even their overall mental condition. they, in effect, are able to maintain a greater peace of mind.

i found something that i think demonstrates this, and in a way more clear and more specific to athletes than anything i've encountered elsewhere (including the social sciences):
the article asserts that some athletes seem to have an edge over other competitors, and that the difference between these achievers over their peers isn't so much their conditioning, training, background, or genetics, but instead their minds. in particular, it points out several things about these elite athletes' state of mind: they tend to avoid self-pity, they tend to possess positive outlooks, they tend to recognize the nature of risk, and they tend to be able to adapt in the face of whatever harms or probabilities may occur in the course of a race. they are, in other words, able to maintain a greater peace of mind.

which goes back to what i'm thinking...the reason they have such peace of mind is because of how they perceive risk and engage the risk calculus: they are confronted with the same variables as everyone else, but their minds perceive the nature of those conditions differently.

and that--more than anything else, more than the conditioning, training, background, or genetics--seems to be enough to make the difference.

it's the mind. performance is in the mind.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


there's been some news items lately that caught my eye. they relate to the relief operations in Haiti, but i find them interesting in other ways. i'll provide the series of links that have been occupying my thoughts recently:
what strikes me about these news items is what they indicate regarding the nature of survival.

typically, as alluded by some of the articles, the estimated survival time for a human being deprived of food or water (water being the greater delimiting factor) is 3-5 days. this is a rough value, and the time may be shorter or longer depending on a person's overall health, the level of exertion or stress they are experiencing, and the conditions they are under (e.g., high perspiration with elevated hearts rates while exposed to high heat and dry climate can significantly reduce the time, often to less than 48 hours).

but it's apparent--as exemplified by some of the stories from Haiti--that such estimates are just that: estimates. guesses. efforts to value things like human life...efforts that invariably are not always right. because for some reason(s), for some cause(s), for some way(s), some people exceed all notions of what is considered possible. elderly, infants, injured, individuals who we would consider less capable of withstanding conditions which we would consider insurmountable accomplish things that we would consider impossible. instead of 3-5 days, they made it 10, 11, 14, and if you continue to listen to more news reports, even 18 days after the earthquake, trapped beneath rubble with no food or water or even light or access to the outside air.

by all measures of probability, there were not supposed to be alive. but yet...they. simply. did. not. die.

on one level, this points out to me that rescue efforts are in some ways an efficiency-based policy. that is, the operations to find and retrieve victims trapped in the rubble are not purely about saving lives. because if they were, they would be cognizant of the possibility of some victims still being alive, no matter how improbable. instead, rescue operations are suspended after 10-11 days with the reasoning that the chances of finding survivors after then are low, even though some victims clearly manage to make it beyond then. this suggests that the operations aren't suspended because the chances of survival are low, but that rather the chances or too low to justify the expenditure of rescue costs.

on another level, this points out to me the resilience of the human being. resilience of the body. resilience of the spirit. that when faced with the horror of pain and suffering and the reality of death, people are still capable of living. that in situations when we think--either because we have been programmed by society or because we are just ignorant--that human life cannot endure, we find that it can...that things we think incredible are revealed as credible, that things we think unbelievable are shown to be believable, that things we think impossible are proven very much possible.

which gets to one of the messages i've learned from endurance sports: that no matter what we think we are, no matter what we think we can do, no matter what we think we have the potential to do, we are more.

we. are. more.


which leaves me with a troubling ethical question, and one that confronts every policy, especially ones like a rescue operation meant to find and retrieve survivors:

a rescue operations may cost money, and after awhile those costs do rise...but just what is the value of life?

what is the value of more?