Musings on Bicycling and Buddhism

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.)

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