Running, spiritual experience, and the origins of man

lung gompa running (scaled)Long distance running and spirituality have always shared a deep connection.  The Buddhist marathon monks of Mount Hiei and the Lung Gompa runners of Tibet are perhaps the most famous examples of formalised schools of spiritual training in which running forms a central element.  Tribes of the American southwest, most notably the Hopi and Navajo, also traditionally placed an emphasis on ultrarunning, as a test of physical strength and means to connect with spirit.

Speak to any marathoner or ultrarunner today, and chances are you’re dealing with somebody for whom the material aspects of life are just the outer shell of a deeper experience.  Some distance runners wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Others need a beer or two before they’re willing to let their guard down and talk openly about what truly matters to them.  But no matter how you look at it, there are very few true materialist endurance athletes out there.  After all, long distance running doesn’t pay; it doesn’t even make sense from the health perspective when you can get all the benefits at a fraction of the time, distance and effort.

So what, really, is this link between distance running and spirituality?  What does it mean that running is somehow spiritual?  Well, for a start, any time you begin to focus on your body, the mindless, inane, everyday chatter of your mind begins to subside.  You begin to glimpse and even tangibly feel a greater sense of space and being.  Just as in running, many of the most famous and effective meditations in Eastern traditions (from Buddhist Tummo to Chi-Gong and Kriya yoga) also involve combinations of deep breathing techniques while focussing the attention on and inside the body.

As the mind – and, with it, the ego’s need to comment on everything – withdraws into the background, we enter ‘the zone,’ becoming one with our body.  This isn’t some mystical realm reserved for the elite few; almost everyone who runs regularly has experienced it to some degree.  Yes, it is relatively easy to achieve, but the zone is actually the same basecamp from where Eastern meditations aim at the summits of enlightenment.  It likewise forms the springboard of spiritual experience while running.  It is just a matter of time.

Many ancient cultural traditions aim to push the body beyond its ‘normal’ limits, in order to experience something beyond the physical body or reach the spirit world.  On their vision quests, American Indians would effectively starve themselves until gaining access to information beyond the five bodily senses.  When combined with the rigours of a sweat lodge, this could be particularly powerful.  In similar vein, just think of the famous story of Jesus and his fast of forty days, complete with visions of temptation and ‘the devil.’  In other traditions, many African tribes still perform all-night ceremonies in which they dance themselves into a trance and reconnect with the spirit world.  The Mayans, also, were well known for more grizzly methods which involved shamans and priestesses inflicting excruciating physical pain on themselves in order to receive a sign from the gods.

tribal dance (scaled)

Leaving the body:

In the case of running as well, it is just a matter of time before consciousness begins to disconnect from the physical body and its five senses.  True, it may take a long time, given that humankind has evolved into one of the world’s great endurance athletes.  But eventually there will come a point of exhaustion after which body and mind separate.

There are famous stories which exemplify this.  We are all familiar with the account of how a Greek messenger ran the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the miraculous victory of the Greek army over the Persian invaders.  Less well known is an even greater feat of running, which made that first marathon run possible.  Prior to the battle of Marathon, the overwhelming Persian force looked surely set to defeat Athens.  In a last-ditch effort, the Athenians decided to call on the support of their traditional enemy, Sparta, and sent a messenger by the name of Pheidippides with a request for help.  This was no walk in the park: Sparta is more than 150 miles from Athens – equivalent to running the distance of six back-to-back marathons.  After arriving in Sparta the next day, Pheidippides had to return directly to Athens bearing bad news: the Spartans were celebrating a religious festival to the god Apollo, and wouldn’t be able to engage in battle until the next full moon.  As if the journey to Sparta hadn’t been exhausting enough in itself, the return trip must have been even more gruelling.  And yet, given the urgency of the situation, Pheidippides must have been even more driven.  The story goes that as he was running back through the mountains above the city of Tegea, he had a vision of the god Pan.  Although today we think of Pan as a harmless nymph playing on a set of pipes, he was also sacred to warriors for his ability to induce panic in the hearts of his enemies.  In his vision, Pan addressed Pheidippides directly and offered his support, if only the Athenians would invoke his name.  When Pheidippides returned to Athens and told the generals about his experience, the Greek army gained courage to tackle the aggressors head-on at Marathon, and the rest, as they say, ‘is history.’

In today’s more materialist world, we prefer to talk about ‘hallucinations’ instead of ‘visions.’  Of course, these two words belie very different attitudes regarding the validity of the experience, but regardless of the mind-set, such altered states of consciousness regularly feature in ultrarunning.  One race has even adopted the name ‘Hallucination 100 Mile.’  Perhaps the most ferocious ultra of all, the Badwater Ultramarathon bills itself as the ‘most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.’  Covering 135 miles at the height of summer, the course works its way across Death Valley and eventually finishes at the summit of Mount Whitney, (2500m./8300ft above sea level).  A few years ago, Andrew Mojica of the University of Texas conducted a survey of the runners to investigate the frequency of hallucinations.  It turns out that about a third of the men and women questioned experienced visual, auditory and/or tactile hallucinations, the duration of which ranged from a few seconds to several minutes, and in one case a whole hour.  Although this might seem to be a shockingly high proportion, it seems to tally with the less scientific impression that out-of-the-ordinary states of consciousness are not at all out of the ordinary during such feats of endurance.

surreal running shadow (scaled)Hallucinations or visions can be the precursor to more extreme, more objective – and therefore less questionable – events, in which the runner’s consciousness actually leaves their physical body.  Scott Jurek, Michael Arnstein and other elite athletes talk about this almost as a matter of routine.  In deciding whether or not to pull a runner out of a race, Dr. Bob Lind (medical practitioner for the Western States 100) said: ‘You look into their eyes and see if the soul is separating from the body.’

The following account, told by a marathon runner in Berlin, very clearly describes what happened to him: ‘I was at about the eighteen-mile marker when I looked beside me and saw myself running.  At first I thought it was someone who was my build and wearing the same shoes, but then I realized it was me!  Even stranger was that my running “partner” was drenched in sweat, breathing hard, and in obvious discomfort… while I felt amazingly fresh and energized…’ (William Buhlman, Secrets of the Soul, p. 55)

If these stories of visions and out-of-body experience seem fantastical to us, it is because we are so attached to our physical bodies.  In complacent, everyday life it is all too easy to remain exclusively glued to our five senses and the body – our body – through which we experience the outside, physical world.  But when the body is pushed to breaking point and beyond, just that happens: the body breaks, and, with it, our attachment to it.  We stop clinging to the body as a vehicle for consciousness, and so consciousness continues on alone, without a physical anchor.

As life has become increasingly comfortable over the last 150 years or so, it has also become increasingly materialistic.  Living unchallenged inside our comfort zone, provided for by technology, modern medicine and the welfare state, is it any wonder?  Of course, life has not always been so easily taken for granted.  The further back we look into our history, the more we had to provide for ourselves, the more we had to depend on the goodwill of the fates and the whims of nature.  Further back still, the very first homo sapiens faced a daily challenge for existence.

Persistence hunting:

On the plains of Africa, our prehistoric ancestors relied on bringing down large game animals in order to survive.  Although we as a species have existed for about two million years, archaeology has been able to produce evidence of hunting tools for only a tiny fraction of that time (over the last two hundred thousand years).  Over the remaining period, the only weapon that man possessed was his legs.

Cave painting showing what appears to be a persistence hunt. Note the running figures, the lack of weapons and the way the prey seems to have collapsed.
Cave painting showing what appears to be a persistence hunt. Note the running figures, the lack of weapons and the way the prey seems to have collapsed.

Persistence hunting is the practice of chasing prey until it drops or dies from exhaustion.  As much as running on two legs is slower, it is also biomechanically more efficient, conserving more energy than running on four legs.  Which means that if you can keep your prey in your sights for long enough, you’ll catch up with it sooner or later.  It is just a matter of time.  Especially in the heat of Africa, humans also had another biological advantage: sweating.  Whereas most other animals can regulate body temperature only through their tongue by panting, we possess sweat glands all over our body.

So how long do you need to catch, say, an antelope?  Well, if an antelope isn’t too dissimilar in speed and endurance to a horse, it’s worth looking at the history of 100 mile ultramarathons.  Some of the more famous races held today such as the Western States 100 originally took place as horse races, until people on foot began to beat their four-legged competitors.  At this distance, the victor – man or animal – tends to depend on the fitness of the man.  A trained marathoner should be able to defeat a horse, whereas a horse is more likely to win against a less able runner.  Two million years ago, when our very lives depended on it, we were probably all competent marathoners.  So, in pinning down the approximate duration required for a persistence hunt, the maximum time would have been limited to about 12 hours – the length of daylight available.  Depending on factors like heat (working in our favour) and whether we were pursuing an injured animal, it seems that marathon distance or even less might have been enough.

There is no question that a long, hard persistence hunt drives the human body close to or beyond that breaking point where the act of running attains a deeply spiritual dimension.  Just as Pheidippedes was running for his nation’s life when he experienced his vision of the god Pan, so too each one of us would have been driven to similar limits on the plains of Africa, running for the life of our species.  It seems only fitting that in fulfilling the instinct to survive, in sacrificing the life of another creature, persistence hunting should also touch the core of our spirituality.

In closing, the following video from David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals illustrates a persistence hunt by the San bushmen of South Africa, perhaps the only people left on the planet who still rely on our original means of survival.  Even if the video incidentally shows the encroachment of modern civilisation into their culture (eg. modern clothes, plastic water bottle, tattered trainers), the essence of the hunt, the essence of human survival, the essence of life and death itself remain deeply moving.

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