“May the Great Mystery make sunrise in your heart.”
Native Souix Blessing
As we approach the start of a new year, it’s time to get right to the point.
But what exactly is the point?
It seems that maybe we’ve lost track, or maybe we've forgotten. We’re up to our neck in journal articles, presentations and analysis. We’ve discussed our concerns about health and the body until we’re blue in the face. But after all the biomechanics and biochemistry, after all the medical interventions and procedures, the exercises, vitamins and supplements, what are we left with? What is the ultimate point of this whole enterprise?
Some might suggest that the objective is to improve our times, to win a medal, to become photogenic or prevent some dread disease. Maybe if we get on the cover of a magazine, we’ll be there. Maybe a yellow jersey or a scholarship will do the trick. Maybe the adulation of our peers. Maybe a world record or a trophy spouse.
But no. These things are all beside the point. Even if we do achieve them, they fail to bring us lasting satisfaction. Our bodies get strong, our performance improves and our friends are impressed, but all this fades away and we’re still left wondering, “What’s the point?”
Spiritual teachers through the ages have given us a good answer to this question. No matter the culture or tradition, they all say pretty much the same thing. That is, the ultimate point of our practice is to experience the Beautiful Adventure of life in all its richness and wonder, to develop a deep and intimate relationship with the totality of the world.
At first glance, this may well seem obvious, but the art is long and the challenges are immense. Living the Beautiful Adventure requires a high level of dedication, commitment, discipline and courage. The Beautiful Adventure is rich beyond our imagination but it also exposes us to ambiguity, doubt and insecurity. It’s a package deal that offers both dangers and rewards.
Curiously and tragically, many of us fail to live the Beautiful Adventure. We miss out in several typical ways. The most obvious is garden-variety mindlessness and “sleep living.” As we grow older, we learn how to automate bigger and bigger chunks of our behavior. At first it’s just the morning routine, the getting to work and doing our jobs. But once we master that, we begin to automate entire days, weeks and seasons of action. After a couple of decades, we get most of our life dialed in and all that’s left is to watch TV and check our mutual funds. And suddenly, our entire existence seems shallow, gray and meaningless. No beauty, no risk, no adventure.
We also miss out with our ever-popular forms of attachment, addiction and aversion; to substances, people, ideologies and opinions. The Buddha warned us about all of this some 2,500 years ago, but we never seem to learn. Frightened by the exposure and challenge of living that comes with the Beautiful Riddle of life and death, we grasp for any sort of security we can, hoping to avoid the ambiguity and mystery that comes with it.
Similarly, many of us–especially in the world of health and fitness–fall into the well of isolated self-interest. The world, we believe, is simply too big, complex and unreliable to deal with. Social systems and entire economies teeter of the verge of collapse; even the biosphere itself is in danger. It's just too threatening. Better to stick with isolation and individual welfare; work hard, train hard, get your personal life all set up and try to keep your head down. We may even succeed in this effort, but our success goes nowhere; it merely leaves us stranded on an isolated health island, disconnected from the wider, wilder world.
So what is the path to experiencing the Beautiful Adventure? It starts, of course, with attention. The art lies in getting back to the point of engagement with life, over and over again. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by trivia, amusement or the threat of loss: stay on point and live the Beautiful Exposure as completely as you can. Meditation is a classic path of course, but any form of authentic engagement with the world also works; anything that makes us naked before life has this same potential. It’s the exposure that brings our lives into focus.
Many paths lead in this direction. Both science and spirituality take us deeper into the Beautiful Adventure; both tell a story of an immensely rich, unfolding and mysterious cosmos. Both make us small. Science puts us squarely in the center of Big Space, Big Time and Big History. Spirituality puts us in contact with an entire universe of human passion and wonder. Rumi: “Inside the needle’s eye, a turning night of stars.” William Blake: “…infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Darwin speaks for both when he wrote “There is grandeur in this view of life.”
Yes, a healthy body is important in our quest, but it is not the only path. Many people who are injured, diseased or out of shape find their own way to embrace the Beautiful Adventure. In fact, an obsessive and compulsive attachment to health and fitness may well lead us away from experiencing the full wonder of life. For many, the preoccupation with health is actually a form of defense, motivated by fear. By building an expectation of immortality and eternal youth, it actually takes us away from exposure and engagement.
The more creative path is to go directly towards the reality of life and death, straight into the heart of the human predicament. Remember, death and loss are on your agenda. No matter how powerful your body becomes, stress and suffering are inevitable parts of your Beautiful Adventure. The key is to embrace the risk and insecurity. Play a bigger game. Open your heart to the beauty of the adventure. Live the Beautiful Riddle. Live the Beautiful Exposure.
Develop your health so you can give it away.
This is the point.
Here’s to a happy and prosperous 2014!