Musings on Bicycling and Buddhism

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Scariest Thing You'll Ever Face: Yourself

File Under: Breaking the Limits

I'm giving up on giving up. I've decided. I've had it with fear, doubt, and disillusionment. These things were cool when I was watched Reality Bites, long before I went to college and started living on my own, long before life got hard. (Life was never exactly easy, but this is before it got difficult as a direct effect of my own actions, or actions in this lifetime (if you're into that sort of thing).) Back then identifying with the disillusionment was enough, there really didn't need to be anything on the other end of those emotions. I was the disillusionment.

I've got a counter-force brace on my right arm, supporting my busted elbow (micro-tears in the tendon) from my Tough Mudder. I've got bone bruises on my patellas (aka knee caps), abrasions, strained tendons in my knees, ankles and feet that keep swelling up at the most inopportune moments. I've got bruises everywhere. (And a nasty burn on my arm from baking a cake.) And a smile on my face.

Why would this make me smile? I'm not a masochist. I'm also already signed up for a Rebel Race in 2 weeks and another Tough Mudder in May. No, I don't think I'm insane either.

Battered by Sandy

I imagine those much more intensely effected by this hurricane than I may feel something like this:

Everything hurts in here, it hurts in my heart. Everything is gone. And I'm so angry at this situation, and it keeps coming out at everyone else. Am I angry at myself? Or the world? This whole situation sucks.

Just don't give up, as soon as we give up the growing stops. The healing stops.

There's a story of a man, Devadatta, in the Lotus Sutra and elsewhere. So the story goes, this man - a relative of Siddhartha, an exemplary practitioner, gave way to jealousy, scheming and greed. Convinced the king to kill his father and usurp the throne. Tried to kill the Buddha and take over the community. But all of this grew out of his giving up his own internal struggle, really.

It hurts so much, but keep going. I keep throwing myself headlong into these challenges because I want to try, I want to challenge myself in a big way not to give up. Look my doubts square in the face, and win.

Outside In

One reason I did the Tough Mudder was because I was sick of looking at my life from the outside in, judging my success in any endeavor by someone else, or what I thought someone else thought of me. Even by this age and amount of living I know better, yet the propensity arises from time to time, and lately more than I'd like.

I here endeavor to be completely honest with myself, even if I don't like what I see. Even if I'm stuck doing things that I don't want to do. It's the only way forward. The Mudder was mine, and mine alone. I certainly wasn't alone at all in the doing of it, before or after - but the confrontation of the self was mine.

That Devadatta fellow I mentioned before - he was all about external appearances, all about being in charge of everything for his own glory. There was none of the introspection, the struggle to find that sometime-ephemeral sense of having a unique mission in life that requires so much work. I don't want to be that person.

Doubt, self-deprecation, self-begrudging come from the same place as arrogance. They come from a place where our outsides determine the innermost truth of our heart. It is place that has no respect for the inherent worth of each individual, because from this perspective the individual only has worth in regards to the outside.

There is no inner growth here.

Dangerous Buzz Words

"The faith that can change destiny cannot be carried out easily. Must not doubt. The fundamental cause lies in my own determination and faith.

"I have a mission. Without a mission, a Bodhisattva of the Earth has no reason to exist. Human beings must never forget their mission. Since this is the case, my only choice is to courageously carry out powerful, unyielding, indomitable faith."  Oct 10, 195? Daisaku Ikeda, A Youthful Diary

Faith is a dangerous word, full of all sorts of connotations. But here I use it to mean faith in ourselves; in our own unique capacity; faith in oneself to know that, e.g. I can grow more, be more - being just who I am. (In case you were wondering: Bodhisattvas of the Earth are those who answered the Buddha's call to stick around after his death to continue to lead others to enlightenment on into the future, especially when the eras become rife with strife.)

In training for an event you have a goal - e.g., I will run 12 miles of mud and obstacles and finish successfully. I will ride my bicycle 100 miles in one day. In life - scary big-picture moment here - we have a mission. No one tells you what it is; it's yours alone - yet so intricately connected to everything. Sort of a determining your own destiny thing. But it's also a lot more exhausting than riding hundreds of miles or running tens of miles to discover it. And also, just as exhilarating - probably more so.

Through challenge we grow. We get a chance to seek the profound inside our lives during this existence  We get a chance to write our own definitions, not be told who and what we are from the outside. We get to each discover what our mission is, and for each it is different.

But it means we have to make a choice to do this, a choice for self-determination.

Mudder as Life

I cannot look to another to know my purpose. The mud covered people running next to me, helping to catapult and pull me up and over obstacles, just as I aid them - they cannot tell me either, although we run and struggle together. I would not assign an arbitrary value to any one of them based on their muddiness  because I am just as muddy. But underneath that mud, the person inside is shining. That person is fighting with everything they've got, surmounting obstacles with the help of others and helping others. That person is fighting their own internal battles just as much, even if I cannot see from here.

Each one of us is running this thing for some reason, some internal drive. Some mission we've made for ourselves. This run isn't a competition, it's a challenge. You've got to have some deep personal reason to run it, or you won't finish.

Part of my goal was to do to every obstacle, not to skip any. In a Mudder you can skip an obstacle if you need to - although most don't, but in life the only way out is through.

I'm running through my proverbial mud.


Dream bigger than what you think is possible, only then will your life begin to approach what you're truly capable of, is a paraphrase from the person I identify as my mentor in life. Well, right now my sense of mission is murky, and I've got dreams that should very well be impossible. But just because I don't have the answer now, and maybe am not yet capable of what I imagine, doesn't mean I can't ever, or won't ever.

The future is farther than the horizon, what is possible is more than what we can see right now. When we give up on giving up, give up on defining ourselves by our current external limitations, the possibilities open wide, and the only limit is our own vision.

You might have noticed by now, inside our innermost beings, there are no limitations.

Herein is an existence that does not require the outside to exude joy. Never giving up means it doesn't matter how muddy my outsides get, I am not defeated, I am not destroyed - no matter how bad the getting goes.

And that's where this smile comes from.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mental Grit and the Dragon King's Daughter

File Under: Breaking the Limits 
This is a long one.

It's been a little while since I've posted anything here. Life has seen a loss, a birth*, and a wedding. I've been writing for a larger project and also training. I pushed myself to be able to run 10 miles without stopping in a very short two-week period.

"Why?," do you ask? Because I made a promise to myself.

Back in July I was supposed to participate in a Tough Mudder with my intrepid cousin, whom I call Watson. Circumstances came to pass that meant that I could not go to that one, she finished and became an inspiring example. However, I was able to participate in the TriState Tough Mudder this past weekend in New Jersey.

That's why I drove myself to be able to run 10 miles.

That's me in the middle back with knee bent.

Mental Grit

If you look at Tough Mudder's marketing and their website it's very "tough guy" looking. Their logo is the silhouette of a man running through fire. The event is marketed as: "Probably the toughest event on the planet." In the Frequently Asked Questions they mention that about 25% of participants are women.

So why do it? Is this some machismo thing?

There's a lot more to this than meets the eye. The Mudder pledge includes a number of significant things that make it different that other events of this kind.

To paraphrase The Pledge, at the start participants pledge that they understand this is a challenge, not a race; camaraderie comes before course time; not to whine; help fellow Mudders complete the course; and to overcome all fears.

From the outset it's about working together rather than competing against each other. Many of the obstacles cannot be completed alone. This is something I came to understand very well as I ran this as an individual. I certainly had some wonderful friends who came as spectators and cheered me on. Every turn of the course that had me lay eyes on them again was like the sun coming out behind clouds. It would put extra power in my stride for the coming mile.

This was grueling: Mud for 12 miles; hills of mud, pits of mud. Smoke and fire. Small crawl-through spaces, filled with mud and muddy water. Barbed wire. A freezing bath of ice water, cold enough that as you plunged in you're passing through a layer of ice. Jumping off a high platform into muddy water, sliding down a chute that begins at the vertical and you can't see the way out. Tunnels in the dark, in the mud. Bog up to your shoulders. Walls, climbs.... I think you get the point.

And electricity. They introduced five new obstacles at our event and one of them really pushed me beyond what I thought I could handle. This involved crawling along in muddy water on your stomach (much like under the barbed wire), except it was not barbed wire above you, but live wires carrying 10,000 volts of electric current.

Take a moment to pull out your science book from grade school, consult an electrician, or xkcd. Wet, muddy you plus crawling through some wet, muddy goo means you're even more conductive and delicious for an electric current to use to ground itself than the infamous "Electroshock Therapy" that comes at the end of the course.

To put it simply, I was shocked more times than I can count. And it hurt. It felt like a stab and a punch at the same time. A quick series of shocks followed by one powerful hit almost made me black out. But I kept moving.

I challenged each obstacle head on. I did not skip anything. Even when my arms failed and I fell into the cold water below and had to swim I did not give up. People I have never met and may never see again helped me. They gave me leg ups over walls, pulled me up mountains of mud. Caught me when I fell. Pushed when I slipped. At each obstacle I stayed to help those who had helped me and those coming up behind. By the end my right arm gave out completely.

You run, you slip. Sometimes you fall. You climb you jump, you're covered in mud. It tries to take your shoes. You help people up. You continue. By mile 9, I felt it well and true but I did not stop. Many people were suffering from severe muscle cramping, especially in the calves. I didn't, but I am very grateful for all those bananas they gave us.

I finished.

So much of this is not just physical strength and athletic ability. They call it mental grit, and I understand what that means now. I didn't think I had it in me to do anything like this. But my mind, even when fear wanted to consume me - was true. I never gave up on my promise to myself and I've come out of this with a renewed perspective and fresh focus.

I feel more awake, not just to my daily external reality, but to my internal one.

The Dragon King's Daughter

Running the Mudder wasn't for me so much proving that as a woman I can do the same course as all these burly men. It wasn't to prove something because I work in a male-dominated industry. It was about pushing my limits to see what lies beyond, to dare to dream outside my daily circumstances.

This kind of challenge, this kind of dream does not necessitate a trial by fearsome and difficult physical trials. So often our daily lives hand us challenges so great that we do not believe we can surmount them. And sometimes we pretend that they're not there, or try to blame others for them. We fear them and try to avoid them. And this can go unchecked for years.

But remember,

I do not whine, kids whine. I overcome all fears.

There's me and there's this obstacle, the internal dialogue goes. The only way out is through - trying to go around gets us nowhere. Me - just as I am - has to be enough.

Or to quote Yoda: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

In the Lotus Sutra the enlightenment of the Dragon King's daughter is just such a case of: me - just as I am - has to be enough. The story goes, this young girl, as just the half-dragon half-human that she is - is able to manifest enlightenment.

This is a big deal.

Up until this point historically, in no sutra was the possibility of anyone female ever attaining enlightenment even a remote pipe dream. The best you could do in this lifetime was be pristine, austere, and pray to be born a man in a future existence, then maybe after enough lifetimes you could achieve enlightenment as a man. It required a complete forfeiture of the self.

Yet she manifests enlightenment, just as she is.

This story is pointed to as the place that marks the doctrinal possibility for the enlightenment of women. Something previously completely denied. It also is pointed at to show that we do not change the core of who and what we are when we reveal the Buddha-capacity already inherently endowed within each life. We manifest our Buddhahood as we are. Even dragon-girl princesses from the bottom of the sea.

Or to take it out of storyland...

That means that my awkward, muddy self is a lot more than meets the eye. This means that whatever your outsides, your circumstances, your struggles, your gender, your anything - that the capacity to awaken to and manifest the best version of you, of your life, is untarnished. We are each completely endowed with this capacity, even if it exists in a latent state.

By facing challenges head on - whether they come in the form of excessive credit card debt, strenuous relationships with your family, or a giant mud pit with fire and smoke - we reveal our internal worth. It is by advancing further today than yesterday.

Underlying Humanism

And the teamwork comes into play too. We take on our own challenges and help others do the same. As trying as the Mudder is, it is a humanistic experience because through the shared struggle and helping one another advance and overcome these physical obstacles we validate and demonstrate the worth of each person, regardless of their level of fitness. I overheard many a pep talk amongst friends and team members on the course. These teams were not just supporting over physical barriers but also internals ones, they were cultivating the internal strength, the mental grit of their comrades.

When we help others take on their challenges we can create this humanism in our daily lives.

Where does mental grit come from?

Tough Mudder is a test of this mental grit. A series of obstacles that test your inner strength and resolve as much as that out on the outside. In a conversation with my partner in crime, the Bandit Man, I attested some of my own mental strength to previous disciplines in my life. As a young person I was a ballet dancer, ran in the track team, and rode as a competitive equestrian. I did martial arts in college. I've been playing taiko for years, with this past year's training being some of the most rigorous I have ever done. I am a cyclist who rides no matter what time of year it is, and here in New England the winter can be a monster.

But more so than perhaps any of these things, and it was the Bandit Man that brought this up, perhaps it was my Buddhist practice. And Buddhist practice is the continual self reflection and improvement of the self, paired to the commitment to helping others do the same.

There is a passage in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra that reads, "In all of the ten directions/ the Buddha alone is without fear." And that has how I have been striving to live this year.

Face my fears head on. Do the thing I am most afraid of, because it is probably what I need the most to grow.

Mud Again

This coming May will mean another Tough Mudder, but this time as a team.

*I'm a crazy "aunt" now! My dear cousin had her first baby girl! (Different cousin than mentioned earlier.)

Creative Commons License
Tour de What You Will by Jessie Calkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License