Mind and Body at the Extreme

When body and mind join as one, performance is at a peak and the experience is almost spiritual. Noa Jones talks to high-performance athletes about the practiced of sport.
Thomas Hardy asked, "Why should a man's mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his body?"
Ask this of the climber whose fingers are barely wedged in a slim crevice halfway between safe ground and the vast sky. Or ask the long jumper who trains day-in and day-out so that she can hurl herself across inconceivable distances. Muscles and tendons, the mazes of circuits and veins are all engaged. But what about the mind? If it is not cooperating, it will entertain fear and doubt. It will get distracted, agonize about the competition or obsess about the stakes. It becomes the body's obstacle. To succeed, an athlete must negotiate a truce between the inexplicable two. The discordant bickering between body and mind must cease.

The answer to Hardy's question may be that, through these negotiations, the exploration of human existence is plucked from the playground of speculative, metaphysical discussion and heaved into the unavoidable physical arena we all inhabit simply by being granted this human form. Flesh speaks louder than textbooks and gurus. A sage can explain impermanence but there is no lesson like a bad bill of health. We can read descriptions of liberation but triumph over the twenty-sixth mile puts the sweet taste of freedom in our mouths. The body is our teacher-through lust, pain, decay, ecstasy, through its mysterious cycles and through its miraculous receptiveness to the will. In that sense it is also our servant, one who carries us until death.

Athletes choose sport as a path. For some it is a path to wealth, fame or the pectorals of Hercules. But even those with material goals often find that their sweat and tears can lead to deeper fulfillment (just how deep is a subject martial arts master and film star Jet Li is quick to debate). Regardless, it seems that only those who find inner fulfillment are able to stay committed enough to become champions.

Record-breaking rock climber Chris Sharma has tapped into a joy in his sport that displaces pain and suffering. He spends much of his time dangling from his fingertips on mountainsides. "Sometimes you'll grab an edge and it'll be cutting into your fingers," he says, "but in order to hang on you have to squeeze harder and grit your teeth. It hurts so bad-it bites your fingers and you bite it back. You take it to another level. Your mind leaves and you fully exist in that moment."

Within that moment athletes are often released into an expansiveness that seems above earthly concerns. "I like to think that surfing is leading to some greater place," says world-class surfer Rob Machado, who spends up to six hours, sometimes without food or water, out on the open sea riding swells the size of small houses. He describes the tremendous feeling of being one with the wave, communing with the elements and looking out for fellow surfers.

A sense of selflessness and oneness, sometimes called the "flow" or being "in the zone," is a common feature of the transcendent athletic experience. Team players rally as a single unit; pair skaters appear as a graceful four-legged creature; a kung fu master becomes his sword. For Rob Machado it is the ocean; for Chris Sharma it is rocks. Steep, sheer, awesome-some would even say unforgiving-rocks.

Sharma would not say unforgiving. "They are just there, existing whether it's hot or cold. They aren't worried about what's going on; they're doing their thing," he says. And he is doing his thing, which is scaling impossible heights without ropes (beyond the occasional safety ropes not used for hoisting). In 2001, he became the first to cross a long-standing climbing threshold with his historic ascent of a sheer limestone cliff in Ceuse, France. The climb was rated 5.15, the highest, and until then, never-reached measure on the Yosemite Decimal System, a generally accepted standard for rock climbing. The feat earned him the honor of naming the ascent. He chose "Realization."

Sharma's attitude is refreshing. He belongs to a minority of highly successful athletes who approach their profession without a lot of material goals. In fact, it is a key to his success-without the added pressures the sport is something he can enjoy, which in turn creates natural commitment. Even at the tender age of twenty-two he seems to have discovered on his own what golf coach Joseph Parent points to when he says, "Performance is the byproduct; waking up is the point."

Before waking up, before even stepping into the starting block or diving into the deep blue, though, there must be motivation. Having some material stakes and a little fear can be useful, so long as the athlete isn't crippled by them. "It's hard to have motivation without the idea of achievement," says Sharma. "Goals push you through barriers. But when you get to the top, it's about being present."

If in that particular present moment, a 40-foot wave is rushing in, or a 250-pound linebacker has you in his sights, or a stadium of 60,000 expectant fans is watching, athletes will also need skills, the kind that require hardcore training. The experience of doing something purely for the sake of doing it, without hope and fear, might not be quite enough to push an athlete. For a woman to leap 24 feet 8 inches (as Galina Chistyakova did in 1988) she needs white-hot motivation. But not to be crippled by the pressure, one must define the middle way, pushing skills only to the point where the challenge remains encouraging.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Susan Jackson, authors of the seminal Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances, call competition a "double-edged sword." Athletes thrive on the heightened challenge of competition but they also buckle under it. Studies show that bicyclists go faster if they are being closely tailed, but at the same time, fear of losing is one of the most common mental obstacles. Csikszentmihalyi and Jackson write, "When winning and outperforming others become paramount, the process of experiencing becomes lost and the road to flow more arduous."

"Of course some negative thoughts can get in, like worries about failure, but most of this has to do with how others might view me," says Chris Sharma. "When the motivation to climb is pure, when I'm climbing purely for the joy of the movement and connecting with nature, then the thoughts always seem to be positive."

When the skill meets the challenge and the intention leans toward process over result, sports start to become fun. And having fun is a big part of developing discipline. "You work for a month to climb something, then it's all over. The satisfaction doesn't even last that long," says Sharma. "There is no end to pushing for harder things. That's cool, but at the same time I try to totally enjoy the process, either succeeding or not succeeding. A climb is built up of hundreds of moves and it really comes down to doing the movement and being present with that."

Work and enjoyment seem to merge for Sharma in the act of climbing. "When you are analyzing the climb," he says, "you have to know where you are going, which hand goes where. There is a separation going on between your mind and body. But when you are pushing yourself hard you have to be intuitive; it's not in your head at all. That intuitive sensation helps me channel my energy and let go of all my crazy thoughts. The magical feeling happens when I'm free of the sense of 'I'."

Sports can feel like jazz when the mind and body are in agreement. "The ideal state of mind for action is confident, focused and in the flow, with body and mind synchronized in the present moment," says Joseph Parent, whose book Zen Golf focuses on the mind-body connection. "The challenge is to move from training in particular sets of movements to combining them into longer sets of movements and finally being liberated from self-consciousness about how to do each one."

Parent likens it to learning the piano: at first you must study the scales, then you practice a particular piece, and finally you move to a more intuitive approach: "The pianist then tunes in to the feeling or expressiveness that he or she can manifest through playing the piece rather than working on each note."

While Parent mainly coaches golfers, this model works for most sports. "In both competitive and free surfing you just go on autopilot," says Rob Machado. "You're not thinking, just reacting, feeding off the energy of the wave, flowing. With free surfing you'll get into a zone."

But how do you get to that point? How do you find the strength and focus to bite back the rock that bit you or leap that extra inch? An understanding of impermanence-at least the impermanence of pain-helps. Athletes have to condition their minds with practical meditation techniques: relaxation, visualization, centering. Olympic long jump hopeful Grace Upshaw has started taking yoga to complement her track practice at Stanford University and psychs herself up with music before competition. Whatever it takes to be focused and aware. "Anything that gets me believing in myself," she says.

"As an athlete, I have days when my body is tired and my mind is alert," says Upshaw. "On those days my mind may keep wanting to try more attempts at jumping or running or lifting in order to achieve a technical aspect of an activity. I have to be very careful that I am listening to my body so I don't demand more from it than it is able to give me. It can be frustrating, but as I'm maturing as an athlete, it's exciting to know that I have this awareness and I'm able to make decisions with this awareness."

The trick is not to turn the mind off entirely but to tune it to a low, steady level with a clear signal, like you would while chanting a seed syllable such as om. Jet Li likens this emptying of the mind-which all the athletes and coaches I spoke with referred to in some form or another-to having a spam filter on your computer. "All the junk stays out," Li says.

"When I'm competing, I try to have as clear a mind as possible so I can focus on the task at hand," says Upshaw. "If I'm worried about who my competition is, who is in the stands, even how far I want to jump, I can get distracted from the present moment and what needs to be done right then."

Joseph Parent encourages nonjudgmental awareness of the thought process by asking athletes to keep a score of their habits and thoughts. He adapted the technique from the age-old story of the monk who put a pebble into a bowl for every negative thought. If a golfer curses when he or she hits the ball, then a tick mark goes on the scorecard. It's important that the tick not be judged as a good thing or a bad thing, just a thing that happens. Parent says that by developing this awareness with each round the golfer experiences a remarkable reduction in frequency until the habit virtually disappears. "That is the basic thrust of how I teach-helping players move out of self-consciousness and the watcher."

Not having an inner critic overseeing their every move helps athletes open the door to the flow experience. With no negative chatter to distract it, the mind has a better chance of becoming deeply involved in a single activity. Csikszentmihalyi has spent his career addressing the state of flow and has published a series of books that explore how many experiences of total absorption have the same resulting euphoria, whether one is doing a physical activity, writing, playing chess or even programming computers. He reports that these flow states have a sense of timelessness and freedom that match descriptions of religious ecstasy.

Jet Li questions the value of such experiences. Having ascended to the professional peak of his sport, the film actor (Hero, The One, Shaolin Temple) and martial artist now looks back at his rigorous mind-body discipline with disaffection. Trained from a young age, he mastered kung fu and all eighteen arms of wushu (a catchall name for martial arts): saber, spear, sword, halberd, axe, battle-axe, hook, fork, whip, mace, hammer, talon, trident-halberd, cudgel, long-handled spear, short cudgel, stick and meteor hammer. He rose through every rank, gained international celebrity, and continually astounded competitors, coaches and audiences with his virtuosity. The man can fly.

So it is surprising when he says today that mind-body awareness means nothing. He says that at their highest ideal, martial arts are not devoid of sophisticated awareness and a certain "oneness." But he says he has never met a martial arts master who even came close to reaching this stratum and that even it is inherently flawed.

Li explains that there are three levels of mastering martial arts. The first is mastering the weapon, having it become part of your body. "You can control weapons like your arms," he says. The second level is when your heart becomes a weapon by "stopping the enemy with your heart before the fighting begins." When he says this, his hand motions as if he is clutching a rival's heart in his hand and his eyes blaze for a heart-stopping moment.

"At the third level," he says, "even the heart is no longer a weapon. No weapons and no heart, no will. The opponent becomes you." In this state of union, when the opponent strikes, he strikes himself. "It is above yin and yang. There is no reference point."

His tone suddenly changes, and he becomes dismissive again. "This is the idea, but I've never met anyone who reached that level," he says. "Maybe they are hiding in the mountains." He will acknowledge that the discipline required to become a martial arts master helped prepare him for the rigors of the Buddhist mind-training that now occupies his time almost fully, but only to the extent that he can sit for long periods of time without his legs cramping.

"At the Shaolin Temple, the first Zen temple, why did they start doing martial arts?" Li asks. "If you sit for so long, you need to move and stretch so that you can meditate more. It was for that reason, not the other way around."

"When you study martial arts you train really hard," he continues. "You can sit there for six hours. Maybe it makes Buddhist practice easier. Maybe it doesn't make a difference. It doesn't mean you are happy or that you understand the universe." He recognizes that martial artists meditate but says it is a different kind of meditation. "It is goal-oriented meditation. Wushu contains the concept of attack and defense. It is still dualistic. Where is emptiness in this? Where is your heart?"

Li has been a devoted practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism for the past several years, but says that his connection to Buddhism pre-dates his interest in martial arts. It even pre-dates his current birth, he says. It is karma, not kung fu, that brought him to this place.

Joseph Parent and others-like Bernie Flynn, who leads mountain biking retreats at KarmÍ-Chˆling retreat center in Vermont-don't agree. They think there are ways to put athletic training onto the spiritual path. Parent uses his Buddhist- and Shambhala-based training techniques with all of his clients "independent of their particular philosophical, political or religious orientation, because their passion is excellence in the sport they've chosen." But despite his book's title, Zen Golf, he doesn't refer to his techniques as "meditation," or use technical Buddhist terminology. "It is not presented as Buddhist," Parent says. "I am talking to them about mind-about how it works and how it runs the body."

But for what purpose do we want a body that runs? "Having physical discipline is good ground for developing other spiritual awareness," says Flynn. "I run a bookstore; what do I need to be a warrior for? But if I connect, if I am confident and energetic, I am much more effective when I handle the issue of making a living."

If fear of death, impending death or a brush with death are the quickest ways to send someone into spiritual pursuits, then pushing this impermanent vessel to its physical limit may come a close second. For an evolved athlete, sport is the path, not an end. "I don't really feel that climbing is a sport; it's a practice I do," says Chris Sharma. "Climbing is great, but it's great if I can take something from climbing and have it help out with the rest of my life."

When Walt Whitman sang the body electric he was chiming in with other naturalists who felt that the events and processes of the natural world provide the secrets of the soul. In his legendary poem, he wrote:

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal
The thin red jellies within you, the bones and the marrow in the bones the exquisite realization of health.
O! I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only but of the soul.

We humans all have these bodies that we live and, ultimately, die in. We are not like birds and dolphins or other creatures who seem merely to exist in these bodies and use them as instinct prescribes. We have the luxury (or curse) of choice. When we choose to neglect our bodies and our "thin red jellies" turn to Jell-O, our minds can go soft as well. Alertness, something that can be applied to all facets of life, can depend a great deal on how couched your potato is. Those consummate professionals of the mind, chess grandmasters, are known to seriously pursue physical sports as part of their overall training. Kasparov plays soccer; Karpov and Spassky play tennis; Petrossian and Korchnoi played table tennis. The Flow writers explain that "psychological well-being requires full involvement of the entire organism; without clear demands on attention, the mind begins to turn toward personal problems. When it seems that there is nothing to do, the mind becomes unfocused and we can start to feel depressed."

But Jet Li is not interested in such relative endeavors. "What does one want to get out of studying martial arts?" he asks. "If it is to beat people up, then forget it, just use the other methods. In the ancient times it would work, but now there are guns. So, why do you want this skill? To keep your life long? To believe you are something special?" In his eyes, his incredible physical skill is worthless unless he can share it or use it to explain his true passion, the dharma. He says, "The only way to be truly liberated is if you learn to care about others, to give love and compassion." ©
Mind and Body at the Extreme by Noa Jones, Shambhala Sun, September 2004.