Eastern Wisdom for Western Athletes
Writer / Dave Schroerlucke
“Fundamentally, the marksman aims at himself.”
In the West, where successful athletes are rewarded with multimillion-dollar contracts and glamorous lifestyles, competitive sport is seen as a predominantly secular activity.
Any reference to spirituality typically emerges only as an afterthought – the occasional genuflection in the end zone, pointing to the sky after a base hit, or giving all credit to God in the post-game interview (of the winning side of course).
In the East, on the other hand, sport itself is often transformed into a contemplative discipline with the aim of moral and spiritual development.
This article aims to introduce Western athletes to the possibility of viewing competitive sport as a form of spiritual practice and an apt arena for self-discovery.
An X-ray of the Soul
The idea of sport as a spiritual endeavor has not been completely lost on the West.
The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, is dedicated to the scientific study of human potential, and Michael Murphy, one of its co-founders, has spent a lifetime exploring the transformational potential of sport.
An avid golfer, Murphy has earned a bit of a cult following thanks to the popularity of his novel “Golf in the Kingdom,” a semi-fictional account of his encounter with
an enigmatic golf pro, Shivas Irons, who sees golf as a “microcosm of the world, a good stage for the drama of our self-discovery,” and as a “vehicle for training the higher capacities…the ultimate discipline for transcendence.”
According to Shivas, one can tell a great deal about a man’s spiritual development by watching him play golf: “A man’s style o’ play and his swing certainly reflect the state of his soul. It’s an X-ray of the soul, this game of golf.”
In a more empirical project, Murphy co-authored a book with Rhea White called “In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports,” in which they catalogued a wide range of extraordinary feats and experiences in sports, while drawing parallels with transcendent experiences reported by mystics and yogis.
A major aim of the project was to show that the mystical traditions of both East and West offer a framework for understanding the often profound and transformative nature of peak experiences in sports.
Losing Yourself in the Dance
Far from being reserved solely for psychonauts like Murphy, such a lofty view of sports is mirrored by the likes of legendary NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson. In his book “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson explains how he used Zen philosophical principles to build a personal and team ethos that helped his teams win an unprecedented 11 world championships.
Affectionately referred to as “the Zen master,” Jackson highlights the importance and beauty of transcending the egoic sense of self through competition: “What makes basketball so exhilarating is the joy of losing yourself completely in the dance, even if it’s just for one beautiful transcendent moment.”
Viewed through a spiritual lens, the anxiety of a pressure-filled situation or the agony of a difficult defeat can be a sign that some aspect of the ego still needs to be worked through. As Jackson puts it, “Losing is a lens through which you can see yourself more clearly and experience in the blood and the bones the transient nature of life.”
The Voice of Reason
Whoa! Slow down. We’re getting a little woo-woo here, don’t you think? What does transcendence even mean anyway? And how do we measure that?
Despite the popularity of books like “Golf in the Kingdom” and “Sacred Hoops,” the application of Eastern philosophy to sports has failed to gain any real traction in applied sport psychology, as a result of the field’s commitment to a positivist ethos that values quantitative empirical data as the litmus test and sole determinant of truth.
One problem is that the more mystical aspects of Eastern traditions, such as ego transcendence, do not easily lend themselves to measurable and teachable skills. Consequently, these ideas have not been well-received by empirically minded researchers and practitioners of applied sport psychology.
The paradoxical nature of Eastern philosophy also poses a problem for many Westerners. While paradoxical concepts such as “effortless effort” or “caring without caring” (“The Inner Game of Tennis,” Gallwey, 1974) exist comfortably in Eastern cultures, they do not tend to travel well in the hyper-logical West.
The Taming of the Woo
In an attempt to satisfy the Western scientific expectation of objectivity, Eastern ideas have been camouflaged under terms that are perceived as being less spiritually and culturally loaded, such as mindfulness and flow.
Several mindfulness-based approaches have been developed for the purpose of performance enhancement, the most notable being Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment, and Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement.
While these approaches have shown promise in enhancing athletic performance, they remain firmly situated within a Western skills-based paradigm, in which the mindfulness construct is presented without reference to its religious and cultural origins.
In its original cultural context, mindfulness was not merely a performance enhancement strategy, but rather a metaphysical worldview and approach to living whose broader goal is actually to suspend conscious evaluative processes and, ultimately, to transcend the ego.
Flow, the psychological concept most associated with the elusive experience of “the zone,” also includes the idea of transcending self-consciousness as one of its defining characteristics. Research on flow experiences in the sports context, however, tends to downplay the role of ego-transcendence in favor of more tangible features such as heightening of the senses and slowing of time.
For the most part, then, applied sport psychology has adopted a very pragmatic approach in which Eastern ideas and practices are often divorced from their metaphysical content and presented as just another tool in the sport psychologist’s toolbox.
The Call of the Woo
Shortly after the turn of the new millennium, a handful of brave scholars called for a re-examination of the role of spirituality in sport. Over the last decade, this call has been answered and spirituality is slowly becoming viewed as a worthy topic of study in sport psychology, as evidenced by increasing numbers of journal articles and book chapters appearing in reputable publications.
Because the early stages of research on any new topic tend to be exploratory and descriptive in nature, progress has been greatly facilitated by a growing acceptance of qualitative research methodologies in the field of sport psychology. My own doctoral dissertation is an example of the sort of qualitative study that just 20 years ago might have raised a few eyebrows.
Although this shift in the field toward the inclusion of more diverse perspectives and methodologies is encouraging, it remains to be seen whether the more mystical and transcendent aspects of Eastern philosophy can be effectively integrated into psychological training for sport and performance in the West.
As sport psychologists begin to consider the spiritual dimension of sport, they might find that sports offer a way to make sense of Eastern philosophical concepts that have generally appeared esoteric and unapproachable.
Conversely, by viewing sports and competition through the lens of spirituality, athletes might discover a new way of seeing themselves, whereby the spiritual athlete can serve as a model for a way of being in which “flesh helps soul no less than soul helps flesh” (Heard, 1937).
In the end, we just might open our collective minds to the possibility that there is ultimately no gap between the secular and the spiritual.
With you in the pursuit,