Mindfulness in Sport and Exercise

All athletes have experienced a meditative state worthy of a Buddha. Sometimes athletic activities pull you into a natural state of mindfulness. Sport becomes a form of meditation when you engage it with your full attention. Understanding mindfulness and mindfulness meditation can help to bring you closer to the experience of sport. This phenomenon can be called sportsamadhi (recall that samadhi is the Sanskrit term for “meditative concentration”). This type of focused and absorbed concentration is likely familiar to anyone who has slid down a snow-covered mountain at high speed, pushed the pain barrier on a long-distance run, felt at one with their kayak as it shot a set of rapids, or ripped a huge wave on a surfboard. The talking mind becomes quiet and fully absorbed in the action of the moment. You are not lost in thoughts about the past, worries, or planning for the future. You are not telling stories about the activity or anything else. You are present. There is a steady living presence in the fullness of the moment. This is the state of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be thrilling even if the activity is rather ordinary.

Non-gravity sports such as road running, road biking, and swimming offer a ready opportunity to full body awareness. Instead of a gravity-induced absorption, the immersion in the present moment includes the entire body. Take running, for instance, where you can experience a moment-to-moment connection with your total body experience, even when this experience includes pain and discomfort. The challenge is to stay with the experience at the level of sensation. That is, experiencing it as a pattern of gross and pointed sensations instead of labeling it “pain.” However, the mind has a tendency to move you out of the moment of experiencing sensation and perception and to start evaluating and judging the experience. Ultimately, you start to tell stories about the experience: “I can't take this anymore.” When you can be mindful of the present, the artificial distinctions between mind and body disappear and yield to an awareness of being.

Get on a surfboard to attain enlightenment! Jaimal Yogis suggests surfing as a spiritual path in his poignant and deep memoire, Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea. He quotes Suzuki Roshi: “Waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water and water apart from waves is a delusion.”

Mindfulness and sport-samadhi can also impact how you deal with exertion and the limits of your body. If you are running uphill and are engaged in a future-oriented conversation, you will be more apt to give up and not push through the pain and discomfort of that exertion. This future-oriented story may be mindless chatter, or it can also be focused on the activity itself. For instance, if you look up the hill and think, “my god, that's a long way up, I'll never be able to stomach that,” it is very different than staying with the experience of embodiment at that moment. The running, when it becomes an experience lived in the moment, is a succession of moments. And as intense as they may be, because attention is focused on now instead of moments from now, the crush of the future is relieved.

You will get a lot more out of yourself by staying in the moment and feeling the sensations rather than thinking about them. This is not the same as brute gutting through the experience of what might be called pain. While exercising, you should listen to your body to extract any vital information out of the sensations and perceptions you are having. Pay attention, so you can know the difference between sensations that can be pushed through and those that should be respected.

Sport, like life, can be joyful, and some of this joy comes from the quality of attention you bring to the sport, in addition to the activity being fun.

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