Endurance sport: the temple of pain

by Raymond Parker on November 7, 2011

in Health, Training

“Up at 4 am, 7 days a week. My morning practice of meditation and contemplation, then my running, or swimming (I swim three days, run 4 days). Consistency is key. I can rely on myself to show up, and almost always to show up with enthusiasm. Full of spirit and happy to be running.” ~Christine McDougall

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Mahakala, Destroyer of Delusion

What makes someone ride a bike until they barf, or run until they get the runs?

Why have “ultra” sporting events become so popular, drawing thousands to Ironman competitions, triathlons, marathons, gran fondos, and randonnées?

People who claim agnosticism in theological matters devote themselves to the rigors of endurance sports like clergy to the cloth. The daily “observances” of some athletes resemble the lives of zealous monks.

Is the ascetic life of the endurance athlete a replacement for religion?

An industry of physiologists, psychologists and trainers has sprung up around the phenomenon.

There is often little to distinguish the lives of self-appointed “life coaches” from the traditional role of religious leaders, whose aim is to inspire integrity in the social sphere, prescribing practices through which the devotee might discover some kind of “deeper meaning” in their lives.

Christine McDougall, the author of the introductory quote, draws from a hash of New Age philosophies to write abstrusely on everything from global warming (Michael Crichton’s State of Fear is  “not only brilliant, it exposed the shadow side of the global climate change movement.”), to economics (“We live in a sufficient Universe.”).

Offering “Integrated Leadership” courses to business (“… want to become more aligned, congruent, empowered, resonant and authentic?”), the “positive deviant” surrounds herself with a cadre of integrity-watchers to keep her in line, should she wander off the path of rectitude.

Like the Course in Miracles and EST, which McDougall references, this kind of platitude-laden stuff inspires me to run an ultra-marathon in the opposite direction.

 “It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalists religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism.  Whenever we begin to evaluate, deciding that we should or should not do this or that, then we have already associated our practice or our knowledge with categories, one pitted against the other, and that is spiritual materialism, the false spirituality of our spiritual advisor.”  ~Chögyam Trungpa; Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

When asked by a mountaineer why he thought foreigners flocked to risk their lives on Himalayan peaks, a Nepalese Sherpa guessed “They have too much money.”

Many of the young Sherpas who might formerly have ended up in Thyangboche Monastery have passed up the Buddhist cloister for the lucrative career of dragging peak-baggers up Everest. Some of them no doubt maintain their faith, while guiding wealthy Westerners over the sullied breast of Qomolangma, Goddess Mother of Earth.

As a dilettante practitioner of meditation in the Buddhist tradition, I have used (perhaps misused) the ritual in the saddle, to transcend internal chatter that arises when the Tao seems too long.

Long-distance cycling, however, is not so much my road to quasi-religious experience as an antidote to boredom, and a committed Buddhist will tell you that boredom is the doorway to understanding.

Perhaps the discomforts faced on a mountain climb or bicycle odyssey may inspire insights rare in the luxury-bound modern world. The visceral challenge of human sinew versus elemental forces may rouse us from common torpor, but I’m not sure such experiences guarantee satori.

To paraphrase an old Zen kōan, Before enlightenment, ride your bike; after enlightenment, ride your bike.

Related posts: The Tao of doing | Zen and the art of slow cycling

{ 3 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

lee kenney November 7, 2011 at 8:37 am

The recognized response to meeting Buddah on the road is to kill him. Now if he was riding a bike, I’d check out his ride, admire his cadence, share itinerary; or at least wave.


Raymond Parker November 7, 2011 at 11:30 am

Yes, Lee, I quoted that kōan in my previous post.

But tell me, would you acknowledge him if he happened to be from the Shimano sect?


lee kenney November 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

send him to Camp Agnolo for some tuff luv!


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