Practicing Meditation in Sport

I’ve been one of many people to describe doing sports as being meditative, especially my favourite discipline of cycling. This is not to say that all sports are meditative. But I can think of a few reasons why certain sports are. I don’t know if an experienced meditator would agree with me on this but I feel there’s a lot of overlap between practicing meditation, participating in certain sports and transferring the benefits of these activities across to life in general.

***

While my beliefs on how and why this works change frequently, my current manifesto for sport meditation may go something like this:

  • Meditation or mindfulness attempts to open up awareness rather than focusing on thoughts
  • Being aware of pain and discomfort while doing sport without trying to rationalise or consciously fight it is a bit like meditation
  • This practice enables me to withstand pain and discomfort with greater calmness, control and composure
  • This increased tolerance – and profound patience under duress – extends to other aspects of my life
  • The prospect of dealing with an intellectually demanding task, a scary problem or a challenge I would instinctively shy away from becomes much less daunting when drawing on this meditative mindset
  • If I can tolerate physical pain then I can tolerate mental pain too
  • The trick is to be aware of the pain and accept it

I first became aware of this concept when reading a Star Wars novel in my early teens. It was a story about Obi-Wan Kenobi and his trials as a young Jedi. I remember the opening passages of young Obi in a particularly tricky scenario where he is injured and must overcome some kind of  dramatic peril. The first person narrative recalls the teachings of his master on the subject of pain. It went something like this:

“Pain is just your body giving you a message. Don’t fight the pain. Listen to what it is trying to tell you. Acknowledge it.”

Or something similar

While I don’t subscribe to the science fiction theory of medichlorians being the source of The Force and the Jedi Order, this approach to pain stuck with me. I even tried it out now and then. It wasn’t until a decade or so later that I realised that this has a lot in common with eastern philosophies and mindfulness meditation.

There are several reasons why I believe enable certain sports can generate a profoundly meditative effect.

  • You are focussed completely in the moment
  • Your focus is entirely internal. Your awareness is extended to as many peripheries of your body as possible as you attempt to interpret sensations and active muscles through sheer will
  • You acknowledge and even learn to love pain. In a way
  • The physiological impact of sport, changes to metabolism and the release of neurotransmitters, improve wellbeing and mood

It’s important to point out that not all sports lend themselves to this state of consciousness. Team sports or any activity where there is direct competition against other people would be more at risk to external distractions. Personally I would also find other “skill” based sports aren’t as suited as using a piece of equipment or controlling an object outside of my body would likely draw my attention outside my body.

My favourite disciplines are power lifting and cycling which both encourage all of these aspects of meditation. While both require equipment the use of the equipment is fairly simplistic after even a little practice. Performance is determined primarily by exerting your will to control your body. The outcome is forcing muscles to push harder when they don’t want to or trying gasp in more air after a sustained effort. This is not to say that tennis, football, golf, archery or any other sport that requires equipment or other people is not in any way meditative ever.

Perhaps there is a spectrum, with pure stationary meditation at one end, followed almost immediately by yoga. Simple, “internally focused” or “body control” sports are slightly further away and externally focussed or team sports a little bit further away again. At the far end of the spectrum perhaps we would find chess – an activity requiring no self awareness or physical exertion and composed primarily of conscious and rational thinking. Unless perhaps you are a grand master who plays by intuition alone – but this is not a state easily achieved by non experts. It makes sense to consider not what the sport is, but how you play the sport at a personal level on a given day.

Whether the tactics of a sport are decided on instinct or intuition rather than conscious strategising could perhaps impact the level of meditative state you can get to. Maybe for the grand master, chess is played with the heart not the head, an analogy that could refer to the “lack of focus on thought” that is the goal of meditation and could neatly rejoin one end of my new spectrum with the other. A footballer that “listens to their gut instinct” or perhaps even feels that they have been touched by God could perhaps have achieved some kind of state of enlightenment from tapping into their many years of experience and getting into the flow a bit like meditation.

I’m not sure how this meditative approach would compare to other types of focus or motivation. Focusing on some kind of goal or an external motivator could also put you in a very different state of mind. Maybe: I want to prove someone wrong, I want to be the best, I want to look ripped or just wanting it to be over and desiring the end could have very un-meditative effects. I’ve attempted to increase my exertion in the face of significant levels of pain using each of these goals. In general in life I find that wanting to impress others is a big driver for many of my behaviours that require a lot of effort. Especially if I’m in-front of other people.

While strength of will maybe be able to overcome pain, the desire to do so must be strong. Alternatively, acceptance of pain may enable a far greater level of endurance. The top professional athletes of any discipline presumably have incredibly high forces of motivation. Do they draw on these when forcing themselves onwards in the most excruciating minutes of competition? Do they feed off a desire to beat others? Does this conflict with an “acceptance” of pain rather than a repression of pain? Would it ever be possible to study such a state of consciousness? Maybe meditation is a better description for some people while training, where as professional athletes adopt an entirely different mind set.

From my experiences of both meditation and sport, I think there is some overlap. But maybe I’m just doing it wrong.