Sunday, July 27, 2008

Le Tour: Suffering

It's a word that's constantly on the lips of every rider interviewed, every coach and trainer, every commentator on the television coverage. Suffering. It's hard to imagine how much suffering those men incur for twenty-one days on their high-tech machines, riding often over one hundred miles a day, and up mountainsides, day after day, any one of which would challenge the strength of most powerful of men on a single day. They must have been grateful, yesterday, to reach the finish line on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The Spanish rider who won the race, Carlos Sastre, credited a former team manager for having "taught me to suffer."

All of which led me to wonder what the Buddha might have to say about the Tour de France. He didn't own a bicycle, of course--though I enjoy the image of the Buddha on a bike. He walked. He walked great distances, accompanied by his closest disciples, I suppose with many stops along the way to teach what he had learned. Walking such distances may have caused discomfort--the occasional blister, surely, and sore muscles in the legs--but nothing like the suffering incurred by choice in competitive sports events like the tour.

We suffer enough in our daily lives. Is it "right effort" to incur more suffering by choice? Or is it mere human vanity? No doubt but that it's a discipline requiring incredible focus and concentration--perhaps even an extreme form of meditation, and certainly an extreme test of the stuff we human beings are made of. The slightest weakness is laid bare, the slightest vulnerability exploited by the competition. There's no room for self-pity, no room for distraction, no room for excuses.

The Buddha himself completed a marathon of a kind, in the course of those years of ascetic wandering, when he was reputed to have survived on nothing but a grain of rice a day. (An irreverent aside: I've often wondered how that grain was prepared. He can't have eat it uncooked, can he?) His conclusion was that this form of self-inflicted torture was unnecessary to achieve the goal of happiness. It was not necessary, he discovered, to intensify the suffering in order to find the way to end it. On the contrary, suffering is intensified by what we add to it to satisfy our ego-driven needs.

Egos abound, of course, in an event like the Tour de France. It's a daily battle to win--to win the sprint, to win the stage, to win the daily awarded jerseys: white for the best young rider, green for the best sprinter, polka-dotted for the best climber, and the famous yellow for the overall Tour leader. The competition is intense, and it's easy to get hooked on it--as I have been, this year, for the umpteenth time. Team strategy and individual performance are intertwined in plots and patterns that get more complex by the day. Wild surprises and bitter disappointments alternate to compel attention and wrench the emotional response.

Hardly a Middle Way, then. Strangely, though, it's Buddhist values like concentration and persistence--and of course equanimity in the face of suffering--that pay off in the Tour as in any other challenge that life offers. Depending on how you look at it, it's all a teaching.


thailandchani said...

I can't reconcile extreme competition with the Middle Way at all. On the other hand, some people seem to need a bit of competition for self-motivation. Like everything else, it depends on intent. Whether it is to have a good time with friends or annihilation of a perceived "opponent" has everything to do with it.

WH said...

Yeah, I have a hard time reconciling the effort of suffering (on the bike, or under weights in my case) with the Middle Way. But for me, and maybe for some cyclists, there is a meditative quality to pushing through limits.

The "suffering" on Sastre's face as he annihilated L'Alpe d'Huez was classic, but I think he "found himself" on that climb in a way few athletes ever can. It may not be the Middle Way, but it plumbs the depths of a man's soul.

That's why I love sport.


heartinsanfrancisco said...

It's all a teaching. We choose the ways in which we learn, but learn we all do, sooner or later.

Athletes enter a zen state in which their focus is so intense that everything else disappears, but it is also possible to find that place walking among Redwoods or riding waves. I don't believe that extreme suffering, physical or emotional, is a necessary component of insight, but it seems to facilitate it for many people.

Testing ones limits helps to develop confidence in ones ability to accomplish goals, and has more to do with competing against oneself than others. Those who are strong in spirit are better able to help others, if they choose to use their power in that way.