#3809 - Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - Editor: Jerry
The Nonduality Highlights -
The strong link between sports and religion
Peak experiences can happen on mountain peaks, while shooting down
slopes and jumping off hillsides
By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun, February 13, 2010
Austria's Thomas Morgenstern flies high during ski-jumping practice in
Whistler this week: Athletes can slip into the same states of consciousness that
have been associated with artists and mystics.
'The world is watching"
the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the ads declare. And "watch" is the
More than three billion people are expected to stare at TVs and look at
newspapers and websites to track a host of skiers, lugers, jumpers, bobsledders,
biathletes and hockey players.
As spectators, we'll study the international athletes' strength and speed,
analyse their strategies and tally up their gold, silver and bronze medals. As
watchers, however, we'll be on the outside.
What will be going on inside these Olympic athletes?
Their internal feelings will be much harder to name, even to the athletes
End-of-competition media interviews are often remarkable for the lack of
insight offered into people involved in sports, filled as they are with cliches
about pride and teamwork.
Sacred series of events
The most spectators are likely to hear from an athlete is that winning sure
is an "amazing" feeling.
Which is not exactly Ralph Waldo Emerson.
What else could be going on in the hearts and minds of these high-flying
athletes, which most of them can't articulate?
It's become common in secular society in the past decade for observers,
like me, to highlight the strong link between sports and religion.
That connection is even more pronounced with the Olympics, which originated
in ancient Greece as a decidedly sacred series of events.
Still, the argument connecting sports to a civil religion has been largely
based on external similarities.
Thinkers note that sports, like religion, has ritual, builds community,
provides purpose, has codes of ethics and requires faith (in one's favourite
team or the potential for victory).
"Sports resemble narrative art, myth and religious ritual," writes Andrew
Cooper in Playing in the Zone.
"That is, they require that one give oneself over to a story in which the
elements of human experience are distilled, displayed and integrated into a
pattern of meaning that stirs the heart and quickens the soul."
But what happens in sports at an even more intimate and individual level?
What is the inner link between sports and spirituality?
Such things are rarely talked about in the wild world of sports, largely
because most athletes aren't nimble enough with the language to convey the
nuances of what they're feeling.
I would suggest, nevertheless, that many athletes do have "spiritual"
moments while in the throes of competition.
They are called "peak experiences." Made famous by groundbreaking
psychologist Abraham Maslow, peak experiences of oneness and unity have in the
past been associated mostly with quietly praying, chanting or meditating.
For Olympic and other athletes, however, peak experiences can happen
literally on mountain peaks, while shooting down slopes, jumping off hillsides
or catapulting on icy bobsleigh runs.
Former professional athlete David Meggyesy says peak experiences are common
among high-performance competitors, even though they typically lack the words to
"Often described as being 'in the zone' or 'out of his head,'" athletes can
often slip in to the same exact non-dual states of consciousness that have more
typically been associated with artists and mystics -states of utter
self-transcendence and unobstructed creative or performative flow," writes
Meggyesy, author of the award-winning book, Out of Their League.
A couple of decades before Meggyesy began writing, Maslow (1908-1970) was
characterizing peak experiences as feelings of ecstasy and
Wonder and awe
"Peak experiences are sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being,
possibly the awareness of an 'ultimate truth' and the unity of all things,"
Maslow wrote in books such as Religion, Values and Peak Experiences.
A peak experience, Maslow said, fills the individual with wonder and awe.
Maslow said peak experiences are "rare, mystical, exciting, deeply moving, and
Maslow recognized most peak experiences are fleeting, and do not
automatically lead to a person becoming more mature.
Still, in certain cases, the American psychologist believed peak
experiences could help some individuals become "more loving and more accepting,
and so more spontaneous and honest and innocent."
Although Maslow did not study athletes, some psychologists since his time
have more seriously looked at peak experiences among those who play everything
from baseball to snooker.
The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, edited by Kirk J. Schneider et al,
briefly describes studies of both elite and everyday athletes. It concludes all
athletes are capable of peak moments.
But not all athletic performances lead to ecstasy, for what are obvious
For both amateurs and professionals, peak moments are associated mostly
with best efforts, when everything they do amazingly seems to come
When athletes, professional and amateur, do really well, The Handbook of
Humanistic Psychology reports that they, paradoxically, feel they both transcend
themselves and experience their individuality more profoundly.
When athletes' performances are average, however, they tell researchers the
most they feel is just straightforward "enjoyment."
And when athletes do poorly, they report experiencing frustration and
However, studies of peak experiences suggest why, when some athletes say
they feel "amazing" after a win, that they might be talking about something more
than simple ego glorification and financial reward.
The athletes' sense of "amazement," of awe and wonder, may have just as
much to do with how they may have had a sudden peak episode.
Even though sports, like most spheres of life, can be crass, cruel and
craven, the prevalence of peak experiences among athletes makes it clear it is
not possible to draw a sharp line between the so-called profane and
"An athlete can find as much virtue, luminosity and self-transcendence
through sports as a monk can find through any spiritual tradition," says
Meggyesy, an unusually thoughtful former linebacker in the National Football
League, who has been inspired by the American philosopher, Ken Wilber.
"Whether acknowledged or not, nearly every athlete has had his or her own
sense of being 'in the zone' at one time or another -the effortless collapse of
player, opponent, audience and game, until all that remains is the erotic scent
of freshly cut grass, the weight of the warm sun pressing against your skin and
the slow-motion frenzy of a cosmos at play."
This year, for those who "watch" the Winter Olympics or any other sport,
from NHL hockey to June's World Cup of soccer, it will be worth being aware that
spectators, alas, can usually obtain only a tiny taste of a peak experience from
We have a better chance of scaling peak spiritual heights when we ourselves
take part in an athletic game, exercise or physical discipline.
The old-fashioned way
And for those who don't think of themselves as athletes, there are other
activities that offer the chance to "get into the flow," including art, music,
sex, work, writing, childbirth, hiking, community service, nature appreciation,
doing a project, teaching or reading.
Going further, lest we get carried away with uncovering spiritual moments
mainly in "secular" pursuits, it's also worth remembering, along with Maslow,
that peak experiences remain readily available the old-fashioned way.
They are accessible through meditation, prayer, liturgy, dream work, study
of scriptures, pilgrimage, yoga, poetry, silence, contemplation and communal
The prevalence of peak experiences remind us that nothing, potentially, is
untouched by the sacred.
Read Douglas Todd at
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