My moments, sometimes minutes, of deep spiritual joy most often occur when I'm running or biking on a trail. I don't know exactly how it works, but during hard outdoor physical exercise, in any kind of weather and at any time of year, I often feel profound contentment, at oneness, in the now, flow, whatever you want to call it. Somehow, for me, the equation is: the beauty of nature + long physical exertion = happiness.
Pagan as it sounds, I think the spiritual is physical. It is no coincidence that many of the famous prophets and gurus experienced their deepest spiritual insights while wandering in the desert or sitting outside under a Bodhi tree. I can't help but wonder if they would have attained transcendence sooner if they had picked up the pace a little, say tried running at 80% of their maximum heart rate for a half hour or more. This is not to disparage in any way the incredible devotion or discipline shown by religious devotees, whether meditating, reciting mantras, or praying, rather just to suggest that heaven or nirvana may not be other-worldly, but just a few hard breaths away right here on earth.
I wonder if anyone has ever compared the brain pattern of a Tibetan monk in deep mediation to that of a trail runner experiencing the state called a "runner's high." I figure something similar and as profound happens during vigorous outdoor exercise. It's as close as an average TOJ like me will ever get to enlightenment, and that's good enough. I don't want to be spiritually greedy.
Conventional wisdom attributes the runner's high to the release of endorphins like sertonin and dopamine. There's an excellent and inspiring book by winning triathlete Christopher Bergland, entitled The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, which offers a fascinating discussion of the electro-chemistry of the brain during exercise. His father is a neuro-surgeon, and Bergland made it his own avocation to dig deep into the runner's high phenomenon. He says current neuroscience points to the endocannabinoid system, specifically, he writes, "anandamide, the bliss molecule." He recommends "using the knowledge of anandamide flooding your brain when you exercise as a prime motivating force to lace up your sneakers and break a sweat." (Note: I'll do a more in depth review another day because this is a worthy book.)
I have never understood why people dread exercise so they need "a prime motivating force" when it gives such pleasure and fulfillment. But Bergland lives in New York, thus is limited to jogs around Central Park and working out on a treadmill. In fact, he holds the Guiness World Record for treadmill running, an incredible 153.76 miles in twenty-four hours. That's a feat that ranks right up there not only with great athletic acheivements, but also the greatest feats of religious austerity, like a yogi lying on a bed of nails.
I have nothing against training indoors. Sometimes I lift weights inside or workout on an elliptical, but not often or for long. Those are just means to an end, to build stength and stamina for running uphill, preventing injury, or maintaining balance on rocky terrain. The same way a Bergland trains to win, a TOJ trains to be able to keep going out there.
But when I go to lace up my shoes, neurochemicals are the furthest thing from my mind. I'm thinking about the joy I'll feel in a few minutes when the cold air bites my cheeks or the snow flies before my eyes.