Today I returned to my favorite cross-country ski trail – Peru Creek in Keystone, Colorado. While my trip on this trail last year was a serene and spiritual experience, this year was very different. Now I’m training for a Spartan Race, so today was all about pushing myself as hard as I could, for as long as I could (I ended up skiing for 3 hours, 2 of which were uphill).
Signing up for a Spartan Race is the culmination of several years of trying to whip myself into shape after having three kids (two of whom I had at the same time, gaining 65 pounds in the process). In particular, over the past year I have gotten into what I guess can only be described as ‘extreme exercise’ – circuit training work-outs that consist of cycling through one excruciatingly painful exercise after another, keeping my heart pumping throughout while I work different muscle groups. These work-outs are so intense that even though I usually only exercise three times a week, I can eat whatever I want and am now in the best shape of my life.
To keep up this positive momentum, I decided to sign up for a Spartan Sprint. The Spartan Sprint is one of a multitude of obstacle course races that have sprouted up recently (other well-known ones include the Tough Mudder, Tough Guy, and my personal favorite, the “You Will Die Death Race”). As the names imply, the promotional materials for these races tend to be testosterone-laden affairs, filled with photos of guys who look like this:
The inspirational message I get in my ‘Work out of the Day’ email from Spartan Race continues the egocentric vibe:
Because you are committed. Because you are hungry not to just show up and get through a Spartan Race, but you are hungry to show up and dominate the clock with a peak performance. Spartan Race is here to help you achieve your fitness goals.
Every time I read that message all I can think is “No, actually, I’m just hungry”.
Anyway, while there is definitely a part of me that buys into this egocentric and competitive mentality (it’s kind of fun when I can do more straight-leg push-ups than anyone else in the room) there is a whole other aspect of extreme exercise that fascinates me from a spiritual perspective. Because to me this form of exercise is essentially an ascetic experience. It is all about getting to a point where your will is stronger than your body – where you deny your body’s desire for rest, where you transcend your physical pain.
Asceticism is a core component of spiritual practice in both Eastern and Western faith traditions. It can take many forms and serve different spiritual purposes, but always involves some form of bodily deprivation – fasting, wearing ‘hair shirts’, self-flagellation, or enduring extreme physical effort (see Exodus 17:9-12 where Moses has to hold his hands up for an extended period of time or, as my friend Anna pointed out, the Hajj). The Islamic practice of fasting during Ramadan, or Jewish fasting during Yom Kippur or the Christian practice of ‘giving up something for Lent’ are all examples of self-deprivation as part of spiritual practice. While often these ascetic practices are tied to calls for atonement for past sins, I have always been intrigued by asceticism as a mystical effort to shed one’s materialistic shell in order to spiritually connect to the Divine. Ghandi is probably the one of the best-known practitioners of this form of asceticism, but there have been a multitude of Christian mystics (particularly in the Middle Ages) who were similar. These mystics were all seeking ‘Catharsis’ – the shedding of one’s physical reality so that one’s soul can directly connect to the transcendent (Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God covers this subject, as does William James’ The Varieties of Religions Experience). As William James notes in his lecture on Saintliness:
..the writer describes his experiences of communion with the Divine as consisting “merely in the TEMPORARY OBLITERATION OF THE CONVENTIONALITIES which usually cover my life”.
Well, it seems like pushing yourself to run as fast as you can for three miles while trying to overcome a range of extreme obstacles such as sprinting up a mountain while carrying a twenty pound bucket of sand or crawling through a pit of rocky mud would be effective mechanisms to ‘obliterate conventionalities’. Indeed, this page about becoming a Spartan Coach makes an explicit connection Spartan Racing, spiritual health, and mastering one’s impulses.
However, there is one major difference between this new form of asceticism and religious mysticism: the mystic seeks Catharsis in order to connect directly to the Divine, to the Transcendent, to Ultimate Truth. As Evelyn Underhill puts it in her book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness:
I understand (mysticism) to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order.
In contrast, the extreme athlete seems more focused on connecting to a more transcendent version of his or herself. For example, the Spartan Race tagline promises a form of revelation:
Spartan Race: You’ll know at the finish line.
You’ll know what? That the answer to the universe is 43?
No – what they are talking about is you’ll know your own potential – you will have transcended your own past limits. Given that I still tend to think of myself as the short, uncoordinated and slightly chubby kid who always got picked last to join the team in gym class, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, I am impressed by the broader humanistic values espoused by Spartan Race: team-work, helping others (I noticed that a group of Spartan Racers helped clean up in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy), standing up for your beliefs, etc.
So – I guess the question is: does it really matter if you are transcending yourself in order to connect to the Divine (and thus becoming a better person) or just transcending yourself (and thus becoming a better person)? Perhaps I’ll know at the Finish Line…