How is it that sport seems to have the power to general spiritual states? A look at the relation of sports and spirituality.

 by Steve Taylor 

The connection between sport and spirituality might seem hard to see at first. You don’t see much evidence of spirituality at a soccer match, with 22 men running around a field chasing a ball and another 50,000 men shouting and gesticulating at them; or when you see two men throwing punches at each other in a boxing ring, or horses being whipped by jockeys as they race around a track. But there is a pronounced - though usually hidden - psychic and spiritual aspect to sport, which the best sportsmen are familiar with, even though they may not use the word ‘spiritual’ to describe it.

In fact it’s possible to say that - depending on your definition of spirituality - the desire to experience spiritual well-being is one reason we play sports. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, sport is important because it’s one of the most readily available ways of generating the state of being he calls ‘flow’. This is the state we experience when our attention is completely absorbed in an activity, and our awareness of our surroundings even of ourselves fades away. It’s not the passive absorption of watching television or playing computer games, but the ‘active’ absorption we experience when we fully concentrate and make powerful mental efforts - when we perform challenging, stimulating, creative activities like learning a foreign language or a musical instrument, painting or playing sports. ‘Flow’ enables us to take control of our own consciousness, and step beyond the ‘psychic entropy’ which is our normal state, when worries, desires and other kinds of chaotic ‘thought chatter’ run through our minds. We experience an inner peace, and a sense of being more ‘energised’ or alive than usual.

A chess player told Csikszentmihalyi that when he plays the game, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, a feeling of complete control over my world.’ Similarly, a dancer told him that during her performances, ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to effect something of grace and beauty.’

Whether these states are genuinely ‘spiritual’ or not is debatable, since they don’t involve experiencing any transpersonal or transcendent reality. Perhaps we can think of them as a kind of ‘base level’ spirituality, the point when spiritual experience begins. ‘Flow’ corresponds to the state which the traditional eight-limbed path of yoga refers to as dharana - usually translated as concentration - which comes before the deeper spiritual states of dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union with the divine).

In the Zone

But sport can sometimes enable us to reach these higher levels too. Once a sportsperson is ‘locked into’ a state of flow, his or her absorption might intensify further, until it reaches a state which is similar to dhyana. At this point unusual things may happen.
Spiritual teachers tell us that psychic and paranormal abilities emerge naturally in higher states of consciousness, as a ‘side effect’ of spiritual progress, and sportspeople occasionally experience these.
They often speak of being ‘in the Zone’. These are moments when suddenly everything ‘clicks’ and they shift to a higher level of performance and become capable of astounding feats. Without even trying very hard, everything seems naturally and inevitably perfect. Time moves slower than normal - in fact this is often the main reason why the player is capable of such astounding feats, because he or she has more time to play with, more time to anticipate his opponents’ actions and to position himself.

The new age writer David Icke was once a professional soccer player - a goalkeeper - and regularly experienced ‘the Zone’. He recalls how once, when he was playing in an important match, somebody fired a shot from close range, which looked unstoppable:

"As the Barnet guy made contact everything went into slow motion for me. I moved across, watching the ball drifting slowly to my left and then I dived, lifting my right hand to turn it over the bar. All was like a slow-mo replay and everything was quiet, like some mystical dream, until my right hand made contact with the ball. Then everything zipped back into conscious time, I landed and bounced on the floor and the noise erupted, as if someone had turned off the mute button."

Experiences like these are usually temporary, but it seems that the best sportsmen are always ‘in the Zone’ to a degree, or at least have the ability to slip into it. According to his opponents, what made the Australian cricketer Don Bradman - who was by far the best batsman who ever lived, with an international average twice as high as most other players who are thought of as ‘great’ batsman - so superior to everybody else was the amazing amount of time he seemed to have to play his shots. Though he never committed himself until the last moment, he always had more than ample time to position himself and find the correct stroke, as if the fraction of a second it takes a ball to reach a batsman from the arm of a fast bowler contained more time for him than for others.

At this dhyana level, other types of strange phenomena can occur too.
Many distance runners, for example, have reported seeing glimpses of the inside of their own bodies while running (which is one of the paranormal abilities the ancient Yoga philosopher Patanjali describes in his Yoga Sutras). Short-distance runners, on the other hand, often experience a phenomenon called ‘tipping’, in which they feel that they are rising into the air and becoming extremely light as they run. More dramatically, an athlete might feel a sudden inrush of great strength and energy, as if they’ve made contact with a giant ‘energy reservoir’ inside them which is normally inaccessible. Russian weightlifter Yuro Vlasov describes a state of being he often experiences during competitions:

"At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly becomes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights have been turned on... At that moment you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of anything, that you have wings."

Vlasov seems to make contact with this new ‘source of power’ as a result of making powerful efforts of will, but this can also occur spontaneously in states of deep absorption. Advanced practitioners of martial arts such as Judo and Karate are traditionally expected to perform astounding feats - such as smashing bricks with their bare hands, or knocking over opponents with the lightest of touches, or perhaps without touching them at all. The prerequisite for performing these feats is to cultivate a state of intense absorption, which enables them to ‘tune in’ to a more subtle and powerful form of energy.
Of course, whether these ‘psychic’ experiences are genuinely spiritual or not is open to debate. Patanjali, whilst describing the amazing paranormal powers accessible through spiritual practice, states that these are dangerous distractions, and can easily lead us away from true spirituality. But sports can - if only rarely - take us beyond the psychic level, and give us a glimpse of samadhi, or a mystical state of union with the cosmos. Here, the climber Richard Byrd describes a mystical experience he had whilst exploring the Arctic Circle:

"The day was dying, the night being born - but with great peace. Here were the imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence; the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres, perhaps. It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily be a part of it.

"In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe."

The ‘Mechanics’ of Spiritual Experience

Why is it that sport has this seeming power to generate spiritual states?

Perhaps the best answer is to compare it to a more traditional method of inducing spiritual states, the practice of meditation. We can look at meditation as a method of intensifying - and purifying - what you could call our ‘consciousness-energy’. This is the energy of our being, our vitality or lifeforce. In our daily lives there is a constant outward flow of this energy. It’s used up by the ‘thought chatter’ that continually runs through our minds, by the efforts we make to absorb and process the massive amount of sensory information we’re bombarded with, and to perform the activities which our lives are filled with. As a result, there’s usually little of this energy left inside us.

When we meditate, all this changes. By sitting in a quiet room on your own and closing your eyes you have already ‘plugged’ three of the normal ways in which consciousness-energy drains away (processing information, interacting with other people and activity). And if your meditation is successful you plug the first and most significant ‘energy leak’: the thought activity that runs through your mind. As you concentrate on your mantra (if that is the kind of meditation you practice) this ‘thought chatter’ naturally fades away until - hopefully - it stops altogether, and you experience a sense of complete mental stillness and peace. And this means, of course, that there is a higher than normal level of consciousness-energy within you. You have retained it rather than letting it flow out of you. Or in terms of the Tantric concept of chakras, your consciousness-energy is no longer being monopolised by the lower chakras (which are associated with instincts, emotions, desires and mental activity); therefore it’s able to rise to the highest chakra, at the crown of the head. And all of this results in a spiritual state of being.

Something similar can happen when we play sports. The activity or game itself can have the same function as a mantra in meditation: it focuses our attention. We turn our attention off to everything outside it, and as a result the level of consciousness-energy that we give away drastically reduces. And if we focus our attention well, then our ‘thought chatter’ subsides too. As a result there is an intensification and purification of consciousness-energy inside us, which equates with states of dharana, dhyana and perhaps even samadhi.

Thus sport can be a kind of spontaneous spiritual practice. And for those who, for cultural or social reasons, don’t have the opportunity or the desire to follow an actual spiritual path, it’s probably very significant in this regard, since it’s a way of adding a spiritual dimension to their lives. But of course, even if we do follow a spiritual path, activities like sport should still be important to us. In the end the connection between sport and spirituality reminds us of what spiritual teachers (especially Tantric teachers) have always insisted: that instead of just being ‘spiritual’ for the half an hour or so that we sit down to meditate, we should try to integrate spirituality into every aspect of our lives. Even the most mundane aspects of our lives are potentially divine, and offer us the opportunity to taste spiritual well-being.

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Volume 11, No. 1, Issue 36 (Spring, 2002)