Japan has one of the most extraordinary running cultures on the planet, unlike anything I’ve ever come across. Thousands of professional runners compete for corporate teams in some of the most competitive races in the world. The 135-mile Ekiden Relay Race is the nation’s premier sporting event. The legendary ‘Marathon Monks’ run a thousand marathons in a thousand days in their quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Meet Stephen Curry: Basketball Wizard
Stephen Curry – point-guard for the Golden State Warriors – is one of the most adored and spectacularly skilled basketball players on the planet today. His ball-handling, passing, and three-point shooting capacities are well-nigh otherworldly: routinely leaving spectators (in the stands as well as players on opposing teams) with their jaws dropped. How does he do it?
Curry’s training regimen includes all variety of high-tech drills, for instance: wearing goggles that generate a series of flashing lights, as he performs ball-handling drills; working with two (or more) balls at the same time; and moving through a circuit that flashes instructions that he must respond to instantaneously. All this is to train his reflexes, perceptual acuity, and decision-making abilities to super-human levels – and there’s little doubt that it has worked!
But Steph Curry’s training has another – less glamorous but equally important – side to it. This is the quiet side, the spacious side, the side that cultivates the capacity to relax deeply. It includes weekly sessions in a flotation tank – which allows Curry’s body (his spine and other joints, in particular) as well as his mind to decompress, to float in dark silence, in a space devoid of the distractions of external sense perceptions: Just the salt-water (at precisely body temperature) and the sound of his breath. It also includes instructions like the one given to him by one of his assistant coaches: to “think of nothing” as he sits on the court-side team bench during his rest periods; to allow his mind to relax completely, internally spacious and thought-free.
And so it is this combination of physically intense training — along with periods of deep relaxation and mental-emotional quietude — that has unleashed the brilliance that we now appreciate, from Steph Curry on a basketball court.
Moments Of Mindfulness, Flowing Into A Stream Of Concentration
We could describe what we see in Steph Curry’s performance – or that of any other elite athlete – in terms of mindfulness, concentration and open awareness.
Mindfulness – as the English translation of the Pali word sati – means pretty much what it sounds like: to keep something in mind, or to remember something. When we keep something in mind, with alertness and a commitment to coming back to it again and again, we are exercising mindfulness. In Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness is typically structured around the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness:
- mindfulness of the body
- mindfulness of feelings or sensations
- mindfulness of mind (or states of consciousness)
- mindfulness of dhammās (mind objects)
An important subset of the mindfulness of body is the mindfulness of breath – and following the breath through its complete cycle can be an excellent starting-point for developing mindfulness.
An elite athlete tends to possess highly developed mindfulness of the body and physical sensation, as well as of the breath. And such moments of mindfulness – with dedicated training – then become a stream of effortless concentration, when he or she is in the heat of competition.
The Continuity Of Open Awareness
And what makes the concentration “effortless”? It is the space of open awareness within which the athletic activity unfolds. This kind of spaciousness is activated via the more introspective aspects of ones training regimen: the flotation tank (to use Steph Curry’s example), or sitting quietly in meditation, or engaging in the beautiful practice of walking meditation – training a smooth coordination of breath and movement.
As our steps (right, left) and our breath (inhale, exhale) permeate each other more and more deeply – they become like pearls on the string of open awareness. The spacious vibrancy of awareness is the (timeless and transpersonal) continuity that generates the spontaneously-perfect shape, structure and power of our movements: the shooting of a basketball; the running of a marathon; or a quiet walk through our spring garden, to enjoy the scent and beauty of newly blossomed flowers.