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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 practice 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.”


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