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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,
'The world is watching" 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 themselves.
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 explain them.
"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 interconnectedness.
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 exhilarating."
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 reasons.
For both amateurs and professionals, peak moments are associated mostly with best efforts, when everything they do amazingly seems to come together.
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 worry.
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 sacred.
"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 observing others.
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 singing.
The prevalence of peak experiences remind us that nothing, potentially, is untouched by the sacred.
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