By Brett Wilkins Aug 11, 2015 in Sports
“The determination in your heroic effort will permeate your mind and heart, even after your success or failure is long forgotten,” -Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007)
These days, there is a lot of buzz around meditation and how it can improve a practitioner’s quality of life. As mindfulness and other meditation-based practices have gone mainstream throughout the Western world, the meditative arts have crossed over from the realm of spirituality into countless other areas, including sports and physical fitness.
But while the incorporation of meditation into the athlete’s training regimen may be a relatively recent phenomenon in Western culture, one Indian master was combining meditation with training to help people achieve their sports and spiritual objectives more than 50 years ago, and his teachings have been enthusiastically embraced by some of the world’s best and most famous athletes.
Born in 1931 in a small village in what is today Bangladesh, Sri Chinmoy immersed himself in spiritual practice from a very early age. At a time when most boys are discovering girls and entering the awkwardness of puberty, Chinmoy discovered his calling in life and at 12 years old began a 20-year spiritual journey of meditation and study.
In 1964, he was called to move to the United States after receiving a “message from within” instructing him to assist Westerners who were searching for spiritual fulfillment. His timing couldn’t be better. The 1960s saw a flourishing of spiritual exploration like never before, and for the first time the West happily embraced meditation.
Sri Chinmoy was invited to give lectures on spirituality and meditation in New York shortly after he arrived in 1964. At the core of his teachings on meditation, he emphasized focus on the spiritual heart rather than the mind.
By the 1970s, Chinmoy had gained many famous followers, many of them musicians including John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, and in the 1980’s Roberta Flack and Clarence Clemons.
But unlike some other gurus whose claims to fame revolved around how many famous musicians they attracted, Chinmoy built a reputation for encouraging physical fitness and melding meditation with athletic training to accelerate spiritual progress.
Through running in particular (he was a barefooted champion sprinter in his youth) Chinmoy helped himself and his followers make spiritual progress and enjoy peace of mind, all while learning to access an untapped source of power from deep within.
Again, his timing was prescient. The 1970s saw an explosion in running’s popularity in the United States, and Chinmoy encouraged the people who wanted to make extremely accelerated spiritual progress to try running ultra marathons, grueling endurance races that start at 26.2 miles (42.2 km) in length and go all the way up to hundreds, even thousands, of miles. In fact, the Self-Transcendence 3,100-mile (4,989 km) ultra-marathon, which is the world’s longest certified running race, was started by Chinmoy in 1997 out of a desire to give runners the opportunity to transcend the limits of their physical abilities. It took this year’s world record-setting winner, Ashprihanal Aalto from Finland, more than 40 days to finish!
“When the silence of your heart leads you, there is no mind-barrier that you cannot surmount.” -Sri Chinmoy
The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team was a pioneer in the sport of running, helping to popularize seven- and 10-day ultra-marathon races decades before he created the Self-Transcendence race.
In addition to distance running, he also advocated swimming (and even practiced weightlifting himself) as avenues toward spiritual enlightenment. As he once attracted famous musicians, he now drew some of the world’s top athletes, and was spiritual coach to 9-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, who appeared in Challenging Impossibility, a documentary chronicling Chinmoy’s weightlifting odyssey.
Lewis said Chinmoy’s teachings and demonstrations were so profound that he “almost feels like gravity stops.” What more could an athlete ask for?
As it did in the general American culture, meditation soon became popular at the highest levels of sport, as demonstrated by 11-time NBA champion coach Phil “Zen Master” Jackson and two-time NBA champ LeBron James, who was famously seen meditating during a time-out late in Game 7 of the 2015 NBA Finals.
By the 1990s, Chinmoy had established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost spiritual masters, eventually growing from a few small lectures in New York to have thousands of students in more than 60 countries. It must be noted that sports and physical fitness were but one facet of Chinmoy’s overall philosophy. He was also an accomplished musician, poet and playwright.
He authored books such as The Inner and the Outer Running, and his writing on sports have garnered high praise from elite athletes including Lewis and other Olympians such as long-jump gold medalist Tatyana Lebedeva, and Kenyan distance runners Paul Tergat and Tegla Loroupe.
He was also a successful artist and his artwork has been displayed in the Louvre, Victoria and Albert Museum and the United Nations headquarters in New York. But it was through his pioneering combination of spiritual and athletic endeavors that he made the biggest impact on the most people, and he will long be remembered for pushing the limits of physical and spiritual endurance.
For Sri Chinmoy, life really was a matter of mind over matter, or heart over matter.