Sunday, 26 August 2012

Sport and the Sacred

I am a rower. To me sport is something meaningful both personally and spiritually.When you sit in a boat with eight other guys, you put your faith in the boat - quite blindly- that it will float (famously rowing boats have sunk even during the Boat Race)  and also in your team mates. In the cox that he will stear you safely (especially because he's the only one facing the front of the boat and can see where you are going!) and in the three or seven other guys: you put your faith, and trust in them that they will perform to the best of their ability, you believe in them, you believe in the team. Similalry, they trust you to be as good as you can be. And finally, you trust yourself to be the best you can be. Its about putting aside the self, the ego, in favour of others.

Being a ‘sport’ or ‘good sport’ means you are willing to play. Willing to play means you are involved or alive to the situation in which you exist, and that is the essence of life. If there is anything that is truly close to a spiritual process, in the normal course of life, that is sports: One Hindu Swami said, “In kicking a ball or playing a game, you are much closer to the Divine than you will ever be in prayer." You can pray without involvement, but you cannot play sports without involvement, and involvement is the essence of life.

The fundamental of any sport or game takes care of this; that is, if you want to play a game, you must have the fire of wanting to win but also the balance to see that if you lose, it is okay with you. You never play a game to lose, you always play a game to win, but if you lose, that’s OK with you as well. If you maintain this fundamental with every aspect of life, you are a sport. And all that the world expects from you is, that you are a sport. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever kind of situation you are in, you are still a sport.

To many the idea of Sport and Spirituality, Sport and the Sacred would be oxymoron, how on earth would watching Wakefield Trinity get thrashed by Castleford be spiritual? Let along Sacred.

Yet, sport, or physical activity is often included in many Eastern religious practices, such as Yoga. The ancient Greeks saw the human body as an equilateral triangle, with Mind, Body and Spirit all in a perfect balance. They saw the body as being the vessel for the soul, and to have a healthy body you needed a healthy soul and to have a healthy soul you needed a healthy body. The ancient Greeks had the notion, too, of ‘Arete’ a concept of grace and beauty in strength achieving excellence; a notion of fulfilment and excellence or fulfilment through excellence – being the best you could possibly be. It was commonly believed that the mind, body, and soul each had to be developed and prepared for a man to live a life of arete. This led to the thought that athletics had to be present in order to obtain arete. They did not need to consume one's life, merely exercise the body into the right condition for arete, just like the mind and soul would be exercised by other means

The writers of the Bible also understood this, hence why Jesus said to worship God with our whole self (mind soul and body), to love ourselves (including in that, of course, the body) and St Paul urges his readers to treat their bodies as temples – as being holy vessels.

But what is it that motivates professional and amateur sportspersons? Is it just about improving fitness or having a diversion from work, or could sport significantly contribute to their personal and social well-being? I believe the passion and commitment of so many to sport, whether as participants or spectators, bears the hallmarks of a vibrant spirituality. It is, for them, a chosen way to be in their world and connect with others. Consider, too, St Paul uses sporting imagery to compare the Christian life to competing in a marathon, requiring the hard discipline of on-going training

For some, sport can’t qualify as spiritual due to its association with a win-at-all-costs mentality and sexist, racist and drunken behaviour. Sport is tarnished, too, by excessive commercialisation and the idolization of our sporting heroes. Without minimizing these realities, the popularity and passion of involvement still testifies to a desire worthy of serious reflection by the church.

Spirituality concerns our relation with spirit; both that intangible dimension within all living things and the transcendent Spirit which upholds our entire cosmos, and that moves us out toward self-transcendence, to make connections with others and larger realities beyond ourselves.

Perhaps participants in a sport seemingly require a challenge or opponent to better understand themselves and their relative strengths and limitations. Through rivalry and conflict a sense of power can be tested, hopefully teaching relinquishment of control, perseverance against difficult odds, appropriate toughness to address a situation and to achieve ones best. Further, through a team sport we learn the value of discipline, of how to say “No” to self for the sake of a shared goal, and healthy interdependence upon team-mates. For me, these suggest sport has significant elements of an interesting spirituality.

Depending on your definition of spirituality - the desire to experience spiritual well-being is one reason we play sports. According to one well-known sports psychologist, sport is important because it’s one of the most readily available ways of generating the state of being he calls ‘flow’. Sportspeople usually call this ‘The Zone’. These are moments when suddenly everything ‘clicks’ and they shift to a higher level of performance and become capable of astounding feats.

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 playing 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.

The sacredness of sport is when individuals rise above themselves, strive for excellence, rise above their human weaknesses and limitations and reach a state of abandon that is usually only known at the peak of a spiritual experience.

It's that feeling of being completely at one with whatever you're doing, and producing a seemingly effortless performance, of being lost in that moment - and it can be a deeply spiritual moment of serenity, joy and transcendence. Of course, it can happen when we lose ourselves in anything from creative writing to hanging out the washing - but it's a particular feature of sport. In this holistic, transcendental mode of being we are able to fully realise our potential.

As Pope Pius XII pointed out: “Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a person courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor… Sport is an occupation of the whole person.” Sport, irrespective of levels of achievement, requires that we play - that is, throw ourselves fully in to the task, whatever that task nay be, mind, body, and soul. 

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