In the Spirit Zone: The Spiritual Side of Sports
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. There is, however, a pronounced 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 energized or alive than usual.
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 an athlete 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 opponent’s actions and to position himself.
The new age writer David Icke was once a professional soccer player – a goalkeeper – who 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.
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). Shortdistance 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 rush of great strength and energy, as if they’ve made contact with a giant “energy reservoir” inside them which is normally inaccessible.
The “Mechanics” of Spiritual Experience
Why is it that sport has this seeming power to generate awakening experiences? Perhaps the best answer is to compare it to a more traditional method of inducing spiritual states -– the practice of meditation. 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 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.
Steve Taylor is the author of Waking From Sleep: Why Awakening Experiences Occur and How to Make them Permanent (Hay House), described by Eckhart Tolle as “One of the best books on spiritual awakening I have come across. An important contribution to the global shift in consciousness.” He is also a university lecturer and researcher in psychology. www.stevenmtaylor.com.v