I have always cherished and savored the endless hours of physical training in martial arts and long distance running. In many ways I view this time as alchemical in nature: heat, pain, sweat, blood, tears, joy and sadness all coalescing into physical expression.
Ayurveda and Yoga refer to this as the transformative fire of tapas, a type of alchemical expression of heat manifested and stoked by the dedication and passionate commitment of our pursuits; a type of creative incubation that allows the individual to transform and manifest new expressions of the soul.
This is how I view the pursuit of physical training: an incendiary pathway to personal growth and self-expression.
One of the most common questions I hear from friends and readers alike, however, is, “how do you find the time to train so much?” This is typically followed by the statement “I wish I could do that but I don’t have enough time.”
Yet, such individuals commonly spend large amounts of time on other activities such as watching television, smoking and playing video games. They do have the time, in fact, but they choose to spend it on other pursuits. They view physical activity as a type of sacrifice, which they are unwilling to pursue regardless of the benefits. I all too clearly remember the end stages of my father’s life as circulatory complications resulted in encroaching necrosis in the lower limbs. His physicians would explain that if he would just walk more and explore physical therapy, he would be able to avoid limb amputation. He refused to make this relatively small sacrifice and, over time, lost both of his legs.
The words of Sri Aurobindo, which I read in my youth, have always stuck with me:
This, in short, is the demand made on us, that we should turn our whole life into a conscious sacrifice. Every moment and every movement of our being is to be resolved into a continuous and a devoted self-giving to the Eternal. All our actions, not less the smallest and most ordinary and trifling than the greatest and most uncommon and noble, must be performed as consecrated acts. Our individualized nature must live in the single consciousness of an inner and outer movement dedicated to Something that is beyond us and greater than our ego.
These words always echoed in my mind as I studied martial arts or competed in cross country running events in my youth, germinating deep inside my mind and body forming a deep reservoir of inspirational fire fueling all my activities esoteric and mundane; life become an embodied sacrifice.
My physical training became a powerful metaphor for the expression of life on all levels as well as a sanctuary for spiritual succor. Over time, the alchemical fire of physical training began to reveal deeper and deeper layers of my life, as well as deeper levels of the physical praxis proper. This is discussed by Miyamoto Musashi in his classic text Book of Five Rings:
A master achieves the Way by being devoted to the art, while the art itself reveals its true identity to a warrior only when the ‘spirit of the thing itself’ feels comfortable with the warrior as a vehicle for its own expression. If you wish to learn my Way of strategy you must do sufficient research and study. Doing sufficient research means that you must devote yourself as much as possible to the study of these ideas — to the degree with which you feel that you will have accomplished that which you wanted to accomplish. The level of commitment that you give to it will indicate to it what to reveal of itself to you.
This idea is pregnant with meaning for an individual’s life as well as his or her interaction with the world. Most individuals are in a constant search for meaning; for a “secret” which is obtained that will make all sadness clear like clouds in the sky. Yet this is an illusion and this illusion seeps deep into the mind-space of the masses searching for a unique identity in a world that only appreciates homogeneity.
I look back on all the years of physical training — some within martial arts lineages, some alone on a mountain trail — and realized that my self-expression was incubated in the heat of the physical pursuit. A sword is formed by heat and adversity not comfort and safety; and my lifetime of physical pursuits became the crucible of my constant and never ending maturation. How could I NOT make time for this?
The more we dedicate to anything with focus and commitment, the more “secrets” are revealed; the silent voice of the respective pursuit starts to speak if we listen with the heat of our praxis. For many, the heat incubated within the pursuit of physical activity can be channeled into life at large, allowing one to hear inspiration calling within all activities mundane or “magical.”
Time and the timing of life all cross pollinate in our pursuits of physical experience preventing sloth and complacency from dulling our growth and personal evolution as individuals and as members of the world at large. This idea is puissantly expressed once again in The Book of Five Rings:
Remember timing. Do not forget harmony with the Universe and self. Remember that continuous study is essential for approaching perfection in a chosen art. Although some people may appear to be ‘there’ they must continually deal with change — based on the rise and fall of timing and rhythm. However, through devotion to the Way of your art you can remove yourself from the general mass of people and be able to concentrate more effectively on your chosen Way. It is also essential to remember the need to function in society, good or bad, and that in order for your Way to be successful, you must interact with society. If you wish to control others you must first control yourself.”
My physical pursuits of martial arts and running have made me a better writer and a better friend, not just a better fighter or runner. The “heat” of the physical experience has refined my vision of the entire landscape of the world allowing me to see much deeper and vaster than the shallow view of “the general mass of people.”
I am often humored at groups within the esoteric subculture who claim to embrace a body-centric view of gnostic spirituality yet possess pale, flaccid, lifeless bodies, and suffer from endless maladies such as insomnia and digestive issues on a day to day basis. How can they reach the depths of the soul when they can’t even live comfortable in their body or nervous system?
In the valiant pursuit of physical fitness, the individual can experience the precious ephemeral quality of life as deep within the flesh resides our ultimate destination: death. This is the basis for all martial arts study. The building up of the body is essentially the deconstruction of the ego! Yukio Mishima succinctly expressed this:
The body carries quite sufficient persuasion to destroy the comic aura that surrounds an excessive self-awareness; for though a fine body may be tragic, there is in it no trace of the comic. The thing that ultimately saves the flesh from being ridiculous is the element of death that resides in the healthy, vigorous body; it is this, I realized, that sustains the dignity of the flesh……Nevertheless, wherever one sought after the ultimate sensation, the moment of victory was always an insipid sensation. Ultimately, the opponent — the ‘reality that stares back at one’ — is death.
This is of course echoed in “Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai”:
The Way of the Samurai is found in death…If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.
Every morning and every evening when I train, slipping on a boxing glove, bruising a knuckle, or lacing up a running shoe, I remind myself that this is my ultimate sacrifice. One day I will no longer have the breath to run or the energy to punch; one day I will no longer have the energy to live.
Often at the end of a fight or a long run, I remember waking up and finding my father dead in his hospice bed at home. I remember seeing his body without legs, without breath, without a whisper of life. I remember helping the funeral home wrap his body and carry it to the death hearse. How can I not make time to lose my breath in a fight with a martial arts brother, or feel the beautiful pain in my legs after a mountain run?
My physical training allows me to engage with this dialogue with death on a daily basis, and consequently my passion for life courses and flows strongly through all of life’s activities! Every day becomes precious and the systole and diastole of my heart is never taken for granted. This flows into the words I write, words shared with friends, and the final blessings dispensed upon a hospice bed. How could I not have time for this sacrifice? Deep within the flesh, the heat of the pursuit has revealed the voice of death and the Elan Vital of life!
Within the pursuit of physical refinement lay many sacrifices: sweat, time, blood, tears, ultimately the sacrifice of our lives. However with patience and dedication, the simple act of physical expression can reveal the priceless: the sacrament of life.