Athletics: The New Asceticism

Written by:
Michael D. May

The Connecting Point Within

I understand sport this way. It needs strategy; it needs suffering. *
- Rafael Nadal

How do I connect most personally with Ultimate Reality

Where do I connect most personally with Ultimate Reality

Human beings have been exploring this question of personal connection to The-All-That-Is since we first crawled out of the cave and lifted our gaze to ponder the stars and That-Which-Is-Beyond-The-Stars.

We seek the answer to this question of connection in sex. We seek the answer to this question in money. We seek the answer to this question in power. We seek the answer to this question in religion. We seek the answer to this question in relationships, in possessions, in entertainment, in travel, in consumption, in morality, in education, in social status, in business, in activity, in stuff, in bigger and better and more. Through each of these human-constructed vehicles we are destined to fail in our quest for connection with the Ultimate.

Hindu legend asserts that Brahma choose to hide transparency to the Infinite in the one place human beings would never consider looking for it: within themselves. **

The connection we seek is not found beyond the stars, nor is it located next door. The mystery of the greatest of human practices, the practice through which we personally connect with The Great Ontological Deep (GOD), is that we connect with That-Which-Is-Beyond-The-Starswithin!

Within my own most-personal, fragile, finite, contingent, physical body I connect with the Deep Place.

I connect within.

And here is the important clarification: within is within my physical body.

This vulnerable, dying physical vessel prone to weakness, weariness, disease, and exhaustion is the one and only place I personally can connect with the undying and unchanging Ultimate Reality of the Infinite.

There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep essential intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing It is mindfulness centered on the body. The Buddha


Thus it is that asceticism has been with us as a practice for a long time. Yet, asceticism has fallen out of favor in our comfort-obsessed materialistic culture or has simply been forgotten as a practice.

What is asceticism Asceticism simply represents those practices of physical stress and stretch and strain and deprivation by which I might move beyond the physical body to connect transparently with the Infinite. Fasting, sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, self-induced physical pain, abstinence from sex and other sensual pleasures, as well as countless other exercises of physical self-denial or torment might constitute examples of asceticism. At least this is the direction asceticism has taken over the centuries in the major depth-seeking traditions.

The word asceticism is derived from the Greek askesis, which means training or exercise. The original intent of askesis was training required for athletics. ****

In our time, while the health of the impotent depth-seeking traditions and institutions of humanity is very much in question, athletics is thriving in every corner of the planet. The Deep Place within is often obscured to practitioners of fundamentalism, literalism, rationalism, sentimentalism, and all of the other leftovers of traditional depth-seeking institutions who seek truth out there. Yet, this Deep Place is being accessed and revealed again and again on the athletic playing fields and tracks and courts and pools and gymnasiums of the world. Indeed, the deepest intent of asceticism, to access the Infinite by moving beyond the finite physical body, is regularly being discovered and explored in our time through personal athletics.

In the absence of effective contemporary depth-seeking institutions, perhaps the best place for each of us to begin a personal journey of connection is to walk around the block.

In a series of Blogs over the next months that will follow this initial reflection, we will explore athletics as the contemporary manifestation of asceticism, the vehicle for accessing depth connection through the body.

This fascinating subject is about the paradox of using ones body as the vehicle by which one is delivered to a deep timeless place beyond the body yet, paradoxically, within the body and within time.

When I was a kid, my now-famous swimming coach, James Doc Counsilman, who was not-so-famous at the time and certainly not to me nor his children and my friends, would tell us there were three stages to every workout: 1) Hurt 2) Pain 3) Agony.

I grew up understanding that unless I reached the 3rd stage, the workout was not over.

Doc understood something about transformation. He understood something about starting one place and going on a journey to arrive, or more correctly to be delivered to another place. He understood something about using the body to be delivered to a place beyond the body, a place where character, confidence, and courage are discovered. Master ascetics and athletes grasp this truth.

When I re-state Docs insight for myself today, with the benefit of several additional decades of life experience and reflection, it goes something like this: There are 3 stages to every journey into the core of Reality: 1) Hurt 2) Pain 3) Agony, and sometimes, but not always, and not guaranteed, a 4th Stage: Flow, Awe, Ecstasy and the Absolute Peace and Tranquility only present in the Deeps! It is this elusive Forth Stage that keeps us coming back. It is this elusive Forth Stage that is so intoxicating, so seductive, so absolutely transformational that once encountered, we never can fully escape its grasp.

Is this message proposing personal physical pain as a practice goal NO! This message is suggesting that our personal bodies hold the key and provide a special gateway into a life of depth. The experience one experiences in passing through this gateway is whatever it is. We must each notice and notate our own actual experience of this passage. Take the journey and pay attention.

Join me on this journey as we explore the one place, and the only place, we can connect with the Deep Place: within.

If you have no idea what this message is pointing to, go outside and walk around the block. Then walk around the block again, but faster. Then walk around again, faster. Then walk around again, faster yet. Soon you will be delivered to a new place no longer on your block or in the familiar setting of your external neighborhood.

This is the place we seek.

Come along.

*TIME Magazine, Time Inc., New York, NY, June 2, 2014, p. 38.

**Butterworth, Eric, Discover the Power Within You, Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1968, p Prologue.

*** Brach, Tara, Radical Acceptance, Bantam Books, New York, NY, 2003, p. 93.


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