Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sportsman's Transcendence

by s4144244

Transcendence is described as the ‘peak’ experience, an experience that immerses ecstatic feelings of unity and meaning of life. (Maslow citied in Curtin, p309) Tranquillity of self and connectedness to the world around evokes feelings of aliveness, reciprocity and a ‘notion of being-in-the-world.’ (Curtin p309, Porteous as citied in Ashley, p55) A notion so great one feels ‘beyond the reach of death’. (Hutch) Transcendence is a heightened awareness from the normal ‘waking state’, existing from excitement and adrenalin. (Coxhead p57, Curtin p309) It’s described as the ultimate ecstasy where ‘the flow of time,’ thoughts and emotions are suspended, an altered state of consciousness beyond the everyday and corporeal world. (Ashley, p55) Transcendence is “a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred”. (Csikszentmihalyi & Jackson citied in Hutch)

Rituals practised in order to able transcendence have existed throughout history of mankind and still exercised to this present day. Coxhead’s accounts of what he calls bliss experiences, show a variety of ways in which transcendence can be induced, wether that be intentional or not. What this essay will be looking at is transcendence via sport. The case studies looked at are of sport that is practised in indigenous and non-indigenous cultures around the world in order to see how the ritual of sporting activities brings on a transcendence experience and the importance it has on the participant’s lives and society.

In this essay the Tarahumara runners and Japanese Buddhist monks represent Indigenous sport in relation to transcendence. Parallel to them are surfers, parkour practitioners and general runners of non-indigenous sport.

The Tarahumara Indians are noted to be ‘the finest natural distance runners in the world’. They run as a way of life. Living in the merciless terrain of canyons in Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico, the Tarahumara are said to be able to run across fifty to eighty miles a day at race like pace. Long strides, without signs of fatigue, they complete there daily task through ritual. For Set races, such as the rarajipari, no formal training is needed, instead days prior to racing they smoke and drink. In Tarahumara culture, the running can be seen as a way to channel aggression, it is a social event that raises community spirits, some events celebrated as reciprocity to one another, or keeping away bad spirits. When white man came to the land they called them noble savages, realising they live in harmony to the world. However, Plymire interlocks the idea they are white man’s Indian, not free to live as before. Publicity and the tourism industry have put a price on their running. Can one put a price on transcendence? They began competing in the Olympics and organised American marathons but they didn’t do so well. The environment had changed. The course had changed. Their usual attire of breechcloth just over genetalia and old tire shoes were swapped for the modern day running gear. The reason for running was changed. Plymire retells accounts of when the Tarahumara were helping the whites for logging, in exchange for less than dollar per day’s work. (Plymire, 61) He reports the Tarahumara then were still great runners. Maybe because they didn’t know the value of the efforts and still saw it as a everyday ritual. “(They) did not seem about to become slaves to civilization”. (Plymire, 61) However, time has shown that white society has not helped preserve sovereignty of their culture. Statements have been made, that the Tarahumara lack time and discipline. This however, shows running for the Tarahumara Indians is a freedom, transcendence.

Japanese Buddhist Monks travel for one thousand days across the five peaks belonging to the Hiei Mountains toward enlightenment. Only dressed in a traditional white robe, a straw raincoat and sandals on their feet, they carry simply candles, a prayer book and a sack of vegetarian food. This running ritual stretches over forty-thousand kilometres of terrain and during the time of ritual they take on famines of food, water and sleep for up to nine days getting through them by chanting mantras. At some parts of the journey, they run for two-hundred days achieving a marathon length run everyday. One can only think of the transcendence they feel along the way. The last monk to have completed the journey said his trust was in god. A sense of being would be understandable as only forty-six monks are said to have completed the spiritual journey. The journey of heightened awareness, enlightenment, through fulfilment of Nirvana is a story of transcendence, used to bring back teachings to others.

The spiritual side of surfing evokes a surfer’s transcendent experience. Out on the ocean, they are alone with Mother Nature. They claim it to a ‘mysterious magic’. Feelings of unity and kinship with non human animals help cultivate self realisation. Surfing, is ‘riding on the pulse of nature’s energy. (Taylor, 936) Surfing transcendence is unity with the real world, an ‘escape from confusion onshore’. (Taylor) It is joining forces with the wave rather than a goal to conquer. It is meditative. Noise melts away, external thoughts are lost and mind is focused on riding the wave. Surfing in the tube accounts suggest time freezes. Surfing transforms consciousness and this transcendence awakens a great sense of self awareness. The waves can be a sense of fear because of the dangerous but banished by the reciprocated feeling of happiness and ecstasy. Surfer, Gerry Lopez, became known in the surfing world for his elegant style. Images of him sitting in lotus position connected to Zen principles of peace of mind, contentment of self and living in the pure moment. He promoted surfing as a collective identity and unity. Surfing culture itself promotes its sport as ritualistic and religious. Movies were being made that reminded surfers of the tranquillity on the waves and brought the community together. They excitement from surfing enticed people to want the image of surfing transcendence around them at all times, by decorating their house, cars and listening to surfing music. (Taylor) Surfing, in Taylor’s account and many others, evoke transcendental consciousness.

The word Parkour in French means ‘to travel through’. It is an extreme sport compiled by martial arts and dance. Practitioners, called the traceurs, ‘leap, spring, vault and drop’ over and from anything that intend to limit movement in urban society. (Geyh) Buildings, towers, railings, traffic all restrict the flowing movement of urban society by limiting movement space and place to the common city dweller. Daskalaki defines the city as an embodiment of power relationships and the material environment sets perception of self. He names them ‘socio-political structures’ that enforce ‘homogenisation, control and domination’. They build civic ethos of social interactions and create meanings of how people should relate to each other and reduce freedom of movement. (Daskalaki) The traceurs however, practice parkour to escape this confinement and seek transcendence. Said before, unity, freedom, reciprocity, ecstasy and sense of being define transcendence and all these aspects are found in Parkour. Parkour ‘remap’ or ‘re-embody’ urban space. In disciplinary resistance, traceurs use their bodies to swing and jump or even fly to overcome obstacles, breaking the lines of the city towards freedom. They engage and unite with the environment they inhabit to conjure a reciprocal relationship, meaning the once-were obstacles become a helping hand to possibilities. The goal of Parkour is finding the way, a conception of Taoist principle of ‘harmony within the universe’, the ‘flow within nature’. In an Urban Flow article, different traceurs claim feelings of ecstasy in the ability to over come obstacles, a sense of self and some claim the aloneness with the world which comes back to Curtin’s view of loss of time and place. There is a loss of external thought and the focus turns to ‘oneself, environment and the way’. The movement itself plays on grace and control, parkour as an art of movement, a flowing force. Parkour is an achievement of physical skills and a development of mental and spiritual well-being. (Urban Free Flow) To some, parkour is a way of life, just like any practised religion.

“It goes against all of the preset notions of what mankind is, a separate entity, man against nature, us against the world… to me, that’s what strikes me as important, no so much some ‘new art sport’, but more of a return to something that over the centuries we’ve lost. Something that fills that void. (citied: Daskalaki p62)

General running is ritualistic and contains feelings of transcendence. For general runners, transcendence is also available. Schultheis account of his transcendent runs was predominant when he was in nature. He ran beyond exhaustion. His rhythm and stride of body was on auto pilot and his mind became a ‘float’. His running felt like his feet were hardly touching the ground as he glided through the air. It was this feeling that kept him running. Was this his transcendence? Willett wrote an article on the ‘Running High’. Although she question wether it is true or not, she to claims her mind is in a different state of consciousness during a run. Schultheis describes his run as mind over body, mind in another dimension. The end of his runs he feel ecstatically away. He describes it as being away, totalling gone, looking into the sky. When he moved and importance of things shifted in his life, he lacked transcendent feeling while running. He moved towns and his environment had changed. He ran marathons with egotistic competitors who ran for different reasons. Running for him was escaping the material social constrictions of his society. Schultheis learned of the Tarahumara Indians that ran through their rugged homeland. He question what they have that he didn’t and comes to the understanding that the transcendence he wanted to renew was due to his connectedness to nature. “Running through landscape is a lot easer than running against it” (Schultheis,)

The sports practised in these cultures, indigenous or not activate peak and flow concepts of Csikszentmihalyi and Maslow into a transcendent experience. These accounts of all hold important transcendent discourses of unity, self awareness, loss of sense of time, feelings of ecstasy and transformation.

What contributes this experience are the aspects of modes in sport such as ritual, values, symbols and beliefs that make sport important in participant’s lives.

Birrel sees sport as a modern day ritual. Ritual, Driver explains, is the technique. It connects and transforms the practitioner to a state of transcendence. It is the activism to transcendence. “To view world spiritually is to view it as full of personal agency, this is what ritual does, takes reality to be enacted.. And is an enactment of reality.” Performing ritual is ‘actively inserting own actions, subjectivity and interactions” (Driver, 169) Driver explains rituals can be misleading. It isn’t a set of scripts that need to be followed. The ritual grows, as the person grows. (Driver, 187) Taylor describes it as the key to thoughts and feelings of understanding themselves and environment around. This is evident in each case study.

Sport also holds other values that contribute to ritual. Values of courage, gameness, composure and the sport bring dramatic encounter. In each extreme sport death is always at play. Courage is needed to over come it. Gameness is valued to keep on going, willingness to let go. Composure externalises thought and stress in dignity of respect to body. Dramatic encounter is important, wether that be running through harsh terrains, being with Mother Ocean or ability to over come urban milieu, it is the exposure of self and changes the normal to exquisite and special. (Birrel, 363)

Ritual links participant to social order. (Driver, 166) Puts them in place, which is why transcendence can have effect of sense-of-being. For surfers, they experience the sacredness of the ocean, and furthermore take back eco-friendly thoughts leading to environmental actions. This in turn deepens communal life. Parkour gives sense of connectedness those who practice and again, deepens the communal life. Beauregard shows this is evident in the Tarahumara culture when he quotes “'If running were removed from Tarahumara life, the total cultural imbalance resulting would be greater than if some sporting activity were dropped from our own complex culture'.

For all, it is social order to show we do not have power. It is a reminder “that we cannot control the world and that God is in the driver’s seat” but “ultimately the spiritual uncertainty of free will and fate emerge.” (Miller)Sports allow its agents to become free. Free from constrictions society place and reunites one to environment around them. This transformation is a renewal or reoriented self. (Driver, 178)

Sport is a consciousness transformation, physical healing, promoting spirituality and put forward environment ethos. Transcendence becomes euphoria, stimulation of body and mind, an endorphin to heighten senses. (Willett)Sport transcendence is an intimate connection between self and outer world. (Driver, 171) It is the experience of flow, bliss, loss-time and space continuum, a being in the moment, a self-transcendence. ‘The spiritual journey’s ultimate mystical destination is our realization and understanding that we are where we need to be, always part of the One, and always remembering the One.’ (Miller) Transcendence is important in all the athletes’ lives because it holds beliefs, values and symbols that create the transcendence and as the ultimate feeling it portrays the right way to life. (Taylor)


Ashley P, 2007 ‘Wilderness Spirituality’ Australian Geographer 38 1 pg 53-69

Beauregard A, Running Feet (term paper) http://www.lehigh.edu/~dmd1/art.html

Birrell 1981 ‘Sport as Ritual: Interpretations from Durkheim to Goffman” Special Forces, 60, 2, pg 354-376

Coxhead N, 1985, 'The Relevance of Bliss: A Contemporary Exploration of Mystical Experience', Houndslow, Middlesex, Wildwood House

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Daskalaki M, Stara A and Imas M, 2008, ‘The Parkour Organisation: inhabitation of corporate spaces” Culture and Organisation 14, 1, pg49-64

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Geyh, P 2006 ‘Urban Free Flow: A Poetics of Parkour’ A Journal of Media and Culture 9, 3

Hutch R, 2007, Speed Masters Throttle Up: Space, Time and the Sacred Journeys of Recreational Motorcyclists, International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, July, http://ijms.nova.edu/July2007/IJMS_Artcl.Hutch.html

Miller, Therese 2008 “Sport and spirituality: A Comparative perspective” The Sport Journal 11, 3 http://www.thesportjournal.org/article/sport-and-spirituality-comparative-perspective

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Schultheis R, 1996, 1984, Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for the Transcendence, New York City, NY, Breakaway Books.

Urban Free Flow – Article, ‘A Natural Perspective’ http://www.urbanfreeflow.com/2008/12/26/a-natural-perspective#more-1724

Willett S, ‘A Runner’s High’ http://www.lehigh.edu/~dmd1/sarah.html

Japanses Buddhist Monk Article, Sydney Monring Herald - http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/09/19/1063625225647.html

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