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Zen And An Athlete’s Heart

Zen and an Athlete’s Heart

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”– Confucius (551 – 479 BCE)

 This wise advice — to be wholehearted in all of our endeavors — feels as relevant today as it must have been 2,600 years ago, when the Chinese sage Confucius first uttered it. Most likely, it was the Chinese word xīn which here has been translated as “heart.” And while this word at times is used to refer to the physical heart, it also – and much more frequently – designates the entirety of one’s “inner life.”

Confucius’s principles had a basis in common Chinese tradition and belief during the Tang Dynasty. Zen was strongly influenced by Confucius and developed as a distinguished school of Chinese Buddhism. Zen emphasizes Zazen practice (disciplined sitting meditation) in order to gain insight into Buddha-nature, and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others.

The Heart of the Matter

It’s easy to assume that running and other endurance activities always lead to a wide range of health benefits, but our overall health is also influenced by how we lead our lives, both at home and at work. We’re all familiar with how much stress can arise due to competing demands on our time and attention. The time we spend in training can help counteract these tensions by putting them in perspective and making them manageable. For some this might actually mean downsizing and restructuring their training.

Even the most beneficial activity can become “too much of a good thing.” There’s often a fine line between a healthy, productive enthusiasm for an activity that we love and a compulsion or addiction that ends up being mentally, emotionally or physically damaging. By definition, if something has become an “obsession” (“an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind”), it has already begun to incline one toward unhealthy activity. In addition to other factors, it’s the lack of choice that makes obsessions, compulsions, and addictions so debilitating.

 Current medical research shows how the mental habits of exercise addiction can lead to a phenomena known as “athlete’s heart,” the official medical term referring to both the natural and pathological enlargement of the heart of someone who engages in strenuous exercise over a long period of time. Hardcore athletes as well as those who take up sports seeking better health, weight loss and longevity may be unwittingly placing themselves at greater risk of heart conditions including inflammation, calcification, arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation and flutter, tachycardia, hypertrophy, and coronary artery disease. So while an increase in the size and strength of the heart muscle is, in a sense, a natural response to the circumstances (viz. intense cardiovascular exercise), it can also lead to problems down the road.

The good news is that “athlete’s heart” is not the inevitable consequence of training hard. Intensity and rest modifications, effective medicines, and safe supplements are all proven treatments that protect the heart. The information-rich fields of Emotional Physiology and Neurocardiology are also beginning to offer valuable contributions to the conversation. 

 A Heart Fortified Within Itself

In the ancient Chinese worldview, heart and mind were one and the same. So while xīn is often translated as “heart,” it can also be translated as “mind” – or as the combination: “heart-mind.” Its larger sense includes mood, center, core, breath, life, soul and spirit. It straddles the dichotomy between emotion and cognition: It’s an organ of both thought and feeling. So when Confucius says to “go with all your heart,” he’s almost certainly referring to something much more all-encompassing than our physical heart – although the physical heart is also included in the mix. 

Understanding the physiological effects of positive emotions such as caring, compassion or appreciation for someone or something can actually go a long way in helping people reduce their risky training behaviors. In effect, these heart-brain interactions cohere and soften the heart which, by processing the good feelings, circulates positive information throughout the entire body. All this adds up to a heightened sensitivity to what works for us, the basic self-awareness so important to optimal health, performance and enjoyment.

For distance runners and other endurance athletes, the notion of “going with all one’s heart” can, of course, mean being committed, courageous, dedicated and inspired to compete at the highest level one is able to. It might also refer to how a run through a beautiful park or along a serene mountain trail can bring us “back to center” – can help us decompress after a stressful day, and return to a state of relaxed balance, in touch once again with the core of our being.

 But for endurance athletes in particular, having a “big heart” is oftentimes much more than a metaphor. Intensive training tends quite literally to increase the size of the physical heart, as Dr. John Mandrola – a cardiac electrophysiologist (specializing in heart rhythm disorders) here points out:

 “Our hearts adapt to the increased demands of intense training by growing larger, contracting stronger, and more robustly responding to adrenaline. At the same time, skeletal muscles learn to extract more nutrients from the increased flow of blood. This is called fitness.”

The Heart-Brain Connection

 Modern science is increasingly confirming the claims of Confucius and many other ancient Chinese sages that a deep connection exists between the (spiritual and physical) heart, the mind and the brain. The work of Gregg Braden provides one inspiring example.

In How The Heart-Brain Connection Works, Mr. Braden introduces his research by pointing out that both the heart and the brain emit electrical and magnetic fields. The heart’s electrical field is 100 times stronger than the brain’s electrical field. And the heart’s magnetic field is a whopping 5,000 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field!

And why is this relevant? Because engaging with our heart is much more powerful – in terms of the capacity to actually affect the electromagnetic structure of the body and world – than is thinking with the brain alone. Coherent heart-based emotions — such as appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness, care and compassion – can actually change the alive “space” of the environment, including the molecules and atoms of the physical body. And this, Mr. Braden suggests, is a scientific explanation of many so-called healing “miracles.”

Such research validates the importance of nurturing positive heart-centered emotions as a way of supporting the health and wellbeing of our physical body, including our physical heart. This is true whether we are a runner, or a swimmer, or a cyclist – or any other athlete devoted to maintaining a healthy body and joyful mind for years and decades to come.

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