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.



Adam Culp (Crazy Floridian) said...

Awesome post! We endurance athletes need constant reminding of this as we endure the pains. It transcends simple pain during the events, and very much encompasses getting us out of the door to even train at all.

jonathan starlight said...

thanks for the kind words! great to see another reader of the blog.