Ultra-marathoner Harita Davies, a member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, made history today by becoming the first ever Kiwi woman to attempt and finish the longest certified footrace in history, the gruelling multi-day 3,100 mile Sri Chinmoy Ultra Race, described by the New York Times as “The Mount Everest of Ultramarathons.”
Harita ran over two marathons every day for 52 days straight, circling around a half-mile city block in a New York suburb during the heat, humidity and occasional thunderstorms of this New York summer. She finished on Wednesday, August 9th after starting her epic journey back in early June. Only one other New Zealander has ever attempted this feat.
This year ten intrepid runners and one race walker began this epic journey, an ultra which only a few actually finish. To cover the distance of 3100 miles (4988.9km), the runners need to average 95.9km per day – that’s more than two marathons a day for 52 days straight, running between 6am and midnight.
42 year old Harita Davies is the first New Zealand women to ever attempt such a distance, finishing in 4th place overall and becoming a New Zealand record holder.
She came to running through Sri Chinmoy, her Indian spiritual teacher who brought his particular form of spirituality from India to America in 1964. Sri Chinmoy’s principles of meditation and self-transcendence are practiced by his 7000 plus students around the world, with running being a unique part of their spiritual training. Sri Chinmoy saw physical fitness, particularly running, to be a perfect way to go beyond the mind’s limitations, to challenge ‘impossibility’, and to develop the necessary qualities of discipline, determination, will-power and perseverance which are essential for the spiritual journey towards happiness. She comments:
“ Just to keep going is an incredible lesson for the rest of life, and not being deterred by obstacles. They make you stronger and really help you develop faith, confidence, patience, and perseverance, qualities that are so essential in our living.
“During the race I was much more aware of my inner reality than I am in my regular life, and of the importance of my state of consciousness. The race was a tremendous opportunity to pray or to meditate and to be closer to my heart, to feelings of gratitude and happiness – everything else just fell away and my running became centre stage in my life, teaching me something fundamental about life itself. The outer running and the inner running towards simplicity and happiness are inseparable.”
Welcome to the 21st Annual Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race and one of the most remarkable races in history! Called ‘The Mount Everest of Ultramarathons’ by The New York Times, this is the longest certified footrace in the world and the 2017 event has just kicked off in New York with the first ever woman Kiwi contender.
Athletes are able to test themselves in a format unlike any other ultra-marathon event. They must average 59.6 miles per day, for 52 straight days, in order to reach 3100 miles. They must run these miles between 6am and midnight each day. The surface is concrete sidewalks around a playground, ball fields, and the confines of a vocational high school, and all in a city neighborhood setting. The physical and psychological demands are prodigious, if not overwhelming. Thus, participation is limited to invited athletes who have a history of multi-day running experience and elite endurance abilities.
Day 1: New Faces, New Beginnings
Ten runners started the 21st running of the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race this morning at precisely 6:00 am. The concrete sidewalk course has been used the previous 20 years as a test of extreme endurance, stamina, and running ability beyond any normal realm. Founded by spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, the .5488 of a mile course (883.2079 meters) has been the playground for ultra elites who have tested themselves by trying to run nearly 60 miles every day for 52 days. Five time finisher and 2013 winner Vasu Duzhiy from Russia led the way through the early going, but carefully avoided the heat of a sunny Father’s Day until sundown. At the end of the 18-hour day, Mr Duzhiy totalled 75.18 miles(120.99 km) to lead veteran Austrian Smarana Puntigam by five laps. Nirbhasa Magee of Ireland ran strongly in the evening to reach 71.34 miles. Kaneenika Janakova, the Slovakian champion led the ladies with 69.7 miles, just two ticks ahead of Austrian Nidhruvi Zimmermann. Surprise first-timer women Harita Davies ( New Zealand) and Yolanda Holder also did well with 68.05 and 60.36 miles, respectively.
One of the really wonderful features of our spiritual path is the focus on physical wellbeing, especially running. I’m truly grateful that here in Auckland we have so many wild and remote places – rough and edgy mountains, indigenous forests, lovely stretches of coastline – that offer peace and solace and a refuge to the spirit. Cradled in this spirit of place, these landscapes and seas and skies, how can we not feel gratitude on some morning run when we venture down a wilderness of beach that stretches out to a far horizon.
This week has been ‘aspiration week’ in our centre in Auckland, an invitation to each of our members to set and reach new goals, enjoy open nights and new activities and generally rekindle our aspiration. This morning two of us met up at 5:15 am and drove through a wet and rainy pre-dawn gloom to a large area of forest on our west coast – a tract of pines and native forest inhabited by deer, the odd wild boar and lots of small wild life. We ran along the blackness of roads, the sound of the sea in our ears and light rain on our faces, then as darkness receded ventured into the forest, on to the narrow game trails that wind for miles through these hills. We felt like indigenous man, exulting in an almost primeval sense of well-being, all the artifice of civilization gone, jubilant in the simplicity of life itself and the joy of being.
I like these hours wandering in a garden of ridges and valleys and effortless beauty, hearing the water in the streambed below and the language of the forest all around. In the early light the air is filled with teeming embryonic life, millions of tiny spores drizzling from the green fronds of the mamaku and the waist high thickets of ferns – I breathe them in joyfully.
We need whatever it is these sanctuaries provide. Untamed nature can be a harsh learning place but also a great schoolroom of self-knowledge – and here where the wilderness of nature and the wild places of the mind intersect, we are often undone. Life and death experiences, moments of fear, a day or two lost and alone and far from help – such things that our modern world so carefully shields us from are treasures that never leave our memory, moulding us without gentleness or pity. Our ‘self’ is pared away and we are opened up to the capriciousness of life and death, only a moment of chance apart, and to the primal fears and trapdoors that open in the wild places of our minds. Nature is a repository of many potential experiences that ground us and make us better, more complete – and here, as in meditation, all our sensibilities converge toward new insight and discernment. Cut off from all this, we become less human, less civilized.
This ‘aspiration week’ Guru’s writings have provided a wealth of illumining insights into the benefits of running. One recurring theme is the principal of holistics – the inter-relationship between mind, body, spirit. The runner can enhance his or her physical achievements by tapping into an inner power source, while the meditator can achieve a greater proficiency and stillness by first establishing a foundation of well-being, and of clarity in the mind, which running confers. In “Endless Energy”, a compilation of his remarks about sport, Guru comments:
“When it is a matter of running, all the members of the family – the body, vital, mind and heart – have to work together. It is like a family party. The head of the family has invited all of the family members to come and eat. Through running, the soul wants to offer a feast to all its children. What running is doing is keeping the body, vital, mind and heart fit so that the soul can get complete happiness. The soul is happy when it sees that all it’s children have come to enjoy the feast…….”
“The body’s capacity and the soul’s capacity, the body’s speed and the soul’s speed go together. The outer running reminds us of something higher and deeper – the soul – which is running along Eternity’s Road. Running and physical fitness help us both in our inner life of aspiration and in our outer life of activity.”
Here is another unusual insight: “Running has its own inner value. While you run, each breath that you take is connected with a higher reality. While you are jogging, if you are in a good consciousness your breath is being blessed by a higher inner breath… each breath will connect you with a higher, deeper inner reality.” (ibid)
Guru encourages his students to run every day, in so doing maintaining the body-temple as a perfect vehicle for the inner journey. Running cultivates aspiration, dynamism, physical excellence, clarity of mind, happiness, will power and determination – exactly the qualities needed for the inner running toward the goal of God realization. In one charming analogy he comments:
“Unless you touch something everyday it does not shine. Often I have told people to touch the furniture in their homes everyday. As soon as you touch something it gets new life… If you have good health, if you touch your health everyday it gets new life. By giving attention to something you give new life to it.”
And finally: “How I wish all human beings would run faster than the fastest, with unimaginable speed towards Eternity’s ever-transcending Goal. Once we reach the highest transcendental Height with our fastest speed and consciously begin serving our Supreme Pilot at every moment, at that time we can and we shall create an absolutely new creation. At that time there will be only one reality, one song: the song of self-transcendence.” (ibid)
It’s 2am and I’m in an all-hours gym, hurtling through some hi-intensity workout sessions on rowing machines, leg curls, a squeaky cross trainer. No one else here, everyone’s abed. The gym manager’s favorite music is on a repeat loop in the background and I’m hearing “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” for the tenth time, a James Taylor recording awash with memories.
Why does physical exertion always make us feel so good? On the TV screen a rerun of the recent marvelous attempt to run under the 2 hour marathon mark — Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese are trying to become the first human beings to do the seemingly impossible. The attempt, known as Breaking2, has drawn plenty of attention since Nike announced it back in December, and since then we’ve heard all about the course (a Formula One track in Monza, Italy), the shoes (custom-made Nike specials) and the strategy on how the attempt should play out. Six lead runners and pace makers are in a V-formation in front of the hopefuls and charging away into a 4:35 first mile that I could never have kept up with, never ever. It’s beautiful to watch, the thrill of their grace and speed and power, the fastest humans on the planet, their energy flooding my body with inspiration. I’m flying on the treadmill, a 4:35 mile in my parallel universe..
Years ago, sports lover and spiritual master Sri Chinmoy said the 2 hour barrier would be broken, and not too far in the future. Of the four qualities he said were needed, only one relied upon physical training. The others were about the mind and spiritual heart, receptivity to grace, gratitude, access to the power of the inner life which can flood the body with power – realities often spoken of by lead marathon contender Kipchoge. Carl Lewis, nine times an Olympic gold medallist, is there on the screen, talking us through some of his insights. He’s excited – he knows that this is hugely significant, history’s in the making, the marathon is all about humanity transcending itself. He talks about the marathon as metaphor, it’s relevance to every human being: we all have our barriers and limitations, but if we dare to try they can tumble, everything is possible, we are all extraordinary!
Sri Chinmoy agrees. In a conversation with marathoner Gary Fanelli he comments: ‘Try to feel that through your success in running, humanity is taking one step forward in its march towards its ever-transcending goal. When you increase your capacities, automatically you establish a glowing hope and a soaring promise for your fellow runners all over the world.’
‘Capacity is of paramount importance. But along with capacity, if one can invoke a higher consciousness, then one is likely to do very well. Again, we have to know that an increase in capacity comes quite often not only from regular training but also from the descent of Grace, which is part and parcel of a higher consciousness’.
‘To me, the body is the temple, and inside the temple is the shrine. If there is no temple, then there can be no shrine. The shrine is our soul, our inner life, our inner hunger for truth, for delight, for beauty, for perfection. The body and the soul must go together, like the inner life and the outer life which must go together. When it is a matter of self-transcendence, we have to depend on our inner purity, inner love, vastness and oneness with the rest of the world. We try to develop universal goodwill.’
‘In sports we need energy, strength and dynamism. When we meditate, we make our mind calm and quiet. If inside us there is peace, then we will derive tremendous strength from our inner life. That is to say, if I have a peaceful moment, even for one second, that peace will come to me as solid strength in my sports, whether I am running or jumping or throwing. That strength is almost indomitable strength, whereas if we are restless, we do not have strength like that.’
Man has always been a runner, a biped-miracle capable of running hundreds of kilometers in a single day and seemingly inexhaustible and limitless in potential. The Greek legend Yiannis Kouros ran 303 kilometers in 24 hours and 473 kms in 48 hours and was capable of running 200 kms daily for 10 straight days. Auckland’s own Sandra Barwick still holds multi-day records – including running 883.6 km on a track in six days; 1000 km on the road in seven days, and 1000 miles in twelve and a half days. Less known as a running nation, India last year attempted to change the perception about running in that country by organizing the ‘Great India Run’, the first multi-city ultra marathon, with 12 elite marathoners traversing through six states and covering a distance of 1480 kms from Delhi to Mumbai in 18 days.
For thousands of years, cultures all over the world have used running as part of their cultural and spiritual expression. A new documentary by the Indian director Sanjay Rawal is set to explore these themes, with its film crew spending time with the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the famed running monks of Japan and the Kalahari bushmen in Botswana, as well as spending many days filming at last year’s 3100 Mile Race in New York city. Editing of the film has already started and in the last month, a Kickstarter project has already raised over $50,000 of its $75,000 goal, to enable the film makers to complete the film by August.
Documentary director Rawal comments: “We wanted to learn about the deepest spiritual traditions of exceptional indigenous runners from around the world. We wondered if we could, first of all, find runners that actually embodied the ancient esoteric approach to running and then earn their trust. And so we hunted on the run with the bushmen of Botswana and filmed their ancestral way of hunting. We ran with champion Navajo runners versed by their elders in the spiritual traditions of running. And we embedded with the Japanese Marathon Monks to document their epic 1,000 day running journey where at one time the stakes were literally life or death. Once a generation they pick an athlete to run for 1000 days over 7 years, in 100 day chunks – up to 56 miles per day over mountain trails!
“Then we came across the most elusive, elite multi-day race in the world, the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, which takes place in Queens, New York City each summer and demands at least 59 miles a day for 52 straight days. While the participants of that race are for the most part Western, the event was founded by the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.
In a sense, the race requires runners to tap into an ancient energy found in the most remote cultures of the world. We build the arc of the entire film around this race and bounce between remote, expedition-worthy locations to draw parallels between the approaches to running. We’re eagerly looking forward to this new documentary – ‘3100: Run and Become’ – which promises to be the definitive exploration of why ultra-runners do what they do”.
Among other extraordinary running adventures: The Big Five marathon, Limpopo province, South Africa. Seemingly a traditional overland marathon – if not for the regular, freely roaming presence of the “big five” of African game: elephants, rhinos, leopards, buffalo and lions! The Man versus Horse marathon in Wales, inspired by a claim that runners could keep pace with horses. Horses proved the victors in every race until 2004, when a man named Huw Lobb won and took home a purse of £25,000, which had grown unclaimed every year since the race’s inception.
Then there is the ‘Man carrying Wife’ 250 meter dash, originating in Finland and featuring three separate obstacles, one of which involves wading through a water course at least a meter deep with your spouse over your shoulders. The prize for winning? – the woman’s weight in beer! In the world championships, she sits on one end of a seesaw until the amount of beer evens it out.
And on Saturday, May 7 in 2017, Nike sponsored an attempt by three elite marathoners – nurtured over a year of planning – to break the seemingly unassailable two-hour barrier for the marathon.
Durba Lee, Kin Allan, Susan Marshall, Hridayinee Williams, Harita Davies
Kim Allan and Susan Marshall
This month, Kiwis Susan Marshall (408 miles) and Kim Allan (364 miles) came first and second in another challenging race, the just concluded Sri Chinmoy-inspired six day race in New York, a one mile loop around a flat, scenic trail in a pleasant park setting. Local Auckland runner 59 year old Durba Lee also competed, defying the usual constraints of age to cover over 243 miles. These races by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team feature an international field of runners who come to test their endurance, skill with pacing, and ability to recover from the stress of constantly moving. The competitors run with minimal sleep, all the while trying to accumulate as many miles as possible.
But why this love of distance, pain and great effort? For many, running is part of a spiritual quest, a journey of self-discovery. Russian athlete Jayasalini, the first female Russian finisher of the world’s longest race, the Sri Chinmoy 3100 Mile Race, comments: “This race is all about how things that seem impossible actually can be very possible…for me the answer is to have that deep inner connection with my soul, with my inner being, at every moment of my life, as strong as I had during the race. There, the conditions are so extreme, that every moment is a sincere prayer, every moment is a sincere cry, and every moment I felt my soul expressing itself in and through me. Now I feel the real objective, the real goal for me is to to be able to feel this during every moment of my whole life.”
Watch Jayasalini interesting online interview:
Sri Chinmoy, the late spiritual master, athlete and founder of the international Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, encouraged fitness and sport as a wonderful lifestyle positive in an increasingly sedentary world, a path to self knowledge, a helpful spiritual discipline and a window into our limitless potential. He writes: “When you come to a particular standard, you have to say, ‘Is there anything more I can do?’. Then do it. The determination in your heroic effort will permeate your mind and heart even after your success or failure is long forgotten.”
Further inspiration: www.srichinmoyraces.org
As a 14-year-old boy competing in the 800m event at national secondary schools level, and despite being one of the fastest boys there, Vajin missed out on a spot in the final by 0.02 of a second through a tactical misjudgement and becoming boxed in on the final lap. Subsequently – a decision he made as a performance-based athlete (as most are) – he gave up running. Today he is one of the most celebrated ultramarathon runners in New Zealand who is also recognised on the international circuit. So… how and why did that happen?
On Thursday 12th January 2017, Vajin Armstrong spoke about his meteoric running career at the Auckland Sri Chinmoy Centre, and the people who were lucky enough to attend this landmark talk came away with more than just an inspiration for running – he gave, more specifically, an inspiration for life.
Meeting Vajin was a surprise as a lot of really good athletes I have met have been hyped up and buzzing with a surplus of energy – this guy was calm, happy and focused, with a sort of inner intensity in the air around him. Make no mistake, he is definitely highly motivated, but in a deceptively unassuming sort of way. This became more and more apparent as he spoke and shared some of his inner experiences, which gave rise to the subsequent choices he made about his life.
In his late teens – about 4 years after giving up running forever – Vajin was walking in a beautiful park in Christchurch very early one morning and had a life-changing spiritual experience that was such a powerful revelation that it formed the basis of his spiritual aspiration. As a result of this, he became a seeker and not long afterwards joined the Sri Chinmoy Centre, from which he was inspired to take up running again as part of his spiritual life. And he found he was really good at it.
At this time he also took up a plant-based diet, so as to facilitate his meditation practice, which helped to hone his spiritual focus, which he used in his running. As he manouevred his way through training programmes and races, he found that he enjoyed running more and more, given that Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy is one of self-transcendence: rather than trying to beat the world, his goal now was to compete against himself. He said that when the going got tough there were a couple of things he did at those gruelling times: (1) he used his meditation to focus on the ‘now’ – after all, he only had the present to work with, so he allowed thoughts of what happened yesterday/what was going to happen tomorrow, etc, to drop away so he was just focusing on what he was doing now ; and (2) he told himself, ‘You have chosen to be here and do this so are therefore presumably enjoying it’ and he would do what he called ‘change up his consciousness’ (like, telling his mind that this was fun, breathe out all pain, etc) and in this way he found enjoyment in what he was doing.
With his new-found focus he enjoyed running so much that he found that his old distance of 800m was over too soon, and he started finding joy in longer distances. Soon the 10km, half-marathon, marathon distances fell away and he began running longer distances. There is a 47mile race in New York that Sri Chinmoy founded, and he entered it one day, and enjoyed it so much that there was no looking back! Longer races were quite often off-road, so he took up trail running and found he loved running along tracks in the bush where he felt at one with nature. It was about this time that he entered the Kepler Challenge for the first time. This is a mountainous 60km track that usually takes 3 or 4 days to tramp. In the race he was cruising along having a good time (his goal was to become familiar with the track for future challenges) and just happened to pass everyone – he was in the lead with about 5km to go, and then went for it and won! Interestingly, he said that that was the hardest part – previously he had just been enjoying the run but when he passed the leader (which he hadn’t expected) he found himself worrying about where the people behind him were, etc, and his mind noticed the pain, the distance and all of the minutiae that saps your energy during a run. So he had to forcibly bring his meditation practice to the fore, not worry about anything, and just run.
That was just the beginning. His use of meditation to facilitate his running developed further during the Big River 50 mile race in the USA when he found himself in the lead, and to distract his mind from painful minutiae again, he decided to focus on a spiritual quality instead, and starting chanting ‘gratitude’. He flew through the rest of the race and was the first non-American ever to win that race. Since then he says there are three main qualities he focuses on:
Vajin and good friend Granatan at the Lotus Heart Restaurant
Gratitude – there are many things to be grateful for: that you can run; not being injured (the times you are injured make you grateful for the times you are not!); grateful for all of the support he receives; and just grateful to be alive. (He said he was also grateful that he gets to eat at the exclusive vegetarian restaurant, The Lotus-Heart in Christchurch, every day!)
Love – this is very empowering. At a gruelling time, if you tell yourself that you love what you are doing rather than focusing on how much you are hurting at the time, you get much stronger and it gives more power to your performance.
Acceptance – this is from Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy: ‘Our philosophy is the acceptance of life for the transformation of life…’ Vajin says that the acceptance of yourself and your life, and what is happening in your life, in a nutshell, and is very liberating. It is also saying that whatever happens, happens, and whatever that is is fine because there is a higher reason for everything.
He went further to explain that running is not a selfish thing that you are doing for yourself – it is an experience to be shared and in that way is expanded. If you share your experience of training and racing with all of your dear ones, you expand the experience for them as well as yourself. For instance, the international meditation community of Sri Chinmoy Centres around the world is very much a global family of seekers – and the Swiss Centre members all got behind Vajin when he ran the Swiss Alpine Marathon in 2016 (78km of trail running in the Swiss Alps) – and were ecstatic when he won it!
What struck me as being remarkable is that Vajin is not merely doing meditation as something to calm down and provide ‘warm fuzzies’ – to him it is an active, dynamic and practical tool that is an integral part of his lifestyle, happiness, and truly part of who he is. And the way he has utilised and revealed the results of his own meditation and understandings in his life and sport has definitely been effective!
His talk was breathtaking and I felt honoured to be there to witness it. To quote the woman who was sitting behind me (who – by her physique – was definitely a keen runner), and who breathed after Vajin’s closing words: “That was awesome.”
Indian sports date back to the Vedic era. Horse riding, wrestling, swordsmanship, archery and physical excellence were an integral part of the kshatriya caste’s training. Skill in weaponry was one of the 13 branches of learning which every educated kshatriya male was expected to study, and the warriors with prowess often had special privileges as well – in one of these, the kshatriya was allowed to carry off a woman for his bride, and the other consisted of a competition for a bride in which the chief event was an archery contest. Arjuna and Rama are depicted in the Mahabharata and Ramayana as having won their consorts in such tournaments.
Interestingly, the Sri Aurobindo ashram near Pondicherry in south India famously promoted sports and physical excellence as an essential part of spiritual discipline, and yoga, track and field, soccer and other sports were part of the daily activities of the ashramites and their path of integral yoga. Sri Chinmoy, one of its most prominent members, took this culture of sports and meditation, physical wellbeing and spiritual discipline to the West in 1964 and eventually founded a worldwide organisation that would organise over 800 races every year, revive ultra distance events, and found the longest footrace in history, the now annual 3,100 mile ultra marathon! Aucklander Dharbasana Lynn is the only New Zealander to ever compete in and finish this most gruelling of races, finishing in 2010 in 51 days.
Sri Chinmoy was an avid sportsman from his youth and throughout his life. In the spiritual community where he grew up, he excelled in soccer and volleyball, and was the top-ranked sprinter. During his late teens he was also a decathlon champion.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he was an active long-distance runner, completing many marathons, ultra-marathons and shorter races. For many years he played tennis almost every day, and frequently competed in track-and-field events in Masters Games, including the World Masters Games in Puerto Rico in 1983, and the World Veterans Games in Miyazaki, Japan in 1993. He took up weight-lifting in the mid-1980s and over the years set several records in the calf-raise and one-arm lift.
Sri Chinmoy believed that a balanced lifestyle fosters harmony and inner peace. His integral approach to life encouraged physical fitness and sports as a vehicle for personal transformation.
“There are countless people on earth who do not believe in the inner strength or inner life. They feel that the outer life is everything. I do not agree with them,” he says. “There is an inner life; there is spirit, and my ability to lift heavy weights proves that it can work in matter as well. I am doing these lifts with the physical body, but the power is coming from an inner source, from my prayer and meditation.”
Inspired by his example, several of his students have attempted to stretch their own personal limits – setting new world records in various fields, running multi-day races, swimming the English channel and climbing some of the world’s highest mountains. Sri Chinmoy met, encouraged and honored many sporting legends, including the great Jesse Owens who in the summer Olympics in 1936 in Berlin won international fame with four gold medals in the 100 and 200 metres, the long jump and 4×100 metre relay. The most successful athlete at the games, Owens was credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler’s belief in Aryan supremacy.
Sri Chinmoy was also an avid tennis player himself and played with Leander Paes and another Indian champion Ramesh Krishnan in New York city. Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in 2007, would have been saddened by the recent passing of another sporting great, the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali whom he met on several occasions and shared a long friendship with. A photo of the two men together was placed on the front page of TheNew York Times the morning after Ali’s passing.
Sri Chinmoy, who led the twice-weekly peace meditation at the United Nations for 37 years, told the world’s beloved athlete Ali, “You are changing the face and fate of mankind. Your very name encourages and inspires. As soon as people hear ‘Muhammad Ali,’ they are inspired. They get tremendous joy. They get such dynamism to be brave and face ignorance…Your heart of oneness with all humanity makes you the greatest.”
From memory it was the famous Czech runner Emil Zátopek – best known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics – who memorably said: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.”
Among all the sports there are – and I’ve certainly tried so many – I have come to believe that running is the very best in numerous ways, at least the most beneficial in life training, the one that confers the maximum results in self-discovery, the one that most stretches our capacities then opens a doorway to a further beyond. It is a kind of metaphor for life itself, the outer running and the challenges from mind and body a proving ground for the development of a resolute spirit, for self-belief and determination, for courage in tackling great challenges. Running confronts us with our limitations, then teaches us how to transcend them and to explore and grow beyond.
There is a deep spiritual aspect to running as well, one often referred to by the great Indian meditation master Sri Chinmoy. Unique among spiritual teachers in his focus on physical perfection, he saw all of life as a quest for happiness, leaving behind suffering, limitations, and ignorance in a striving towards self-discovery, the blossoming of our many undiscovered capacities, the great enlightenment as to our true nature. He saw running as akin to a family picnic where body, mind, heart and soul – the members of our ‘family’ – all get joy from running.
And it’s so true! Out on my Sunday long run in the Waitakere Ranges, or up at 6,000 feet on the Kepler in Fiordland, there is this wonderful exultation at the gift of life, gratitude for the panoramic beauty of the earth and the joy of well-being, the body and mind’s pleasure in adventure and freedom, the unburdening physical remoteness from the usual things of life.
For many runners their sport prepares them well for life, illumining them about their strengths and frailties and teaching them how to dare, to find courage and self-belief. The great ultra runner Scott Jurek comments: “I run because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminds me that I can overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties was life”.
And runner Patrick Overton adds: “When you come to the edge of all the light you know, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things will happen: there will be something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”
Sri Chinmoy astonished the world with his contribution to running, especially in reviving ultra distance races and pioneering the unimaginable with his now annual 3100 mile race, longest certified race ever. Why promote so long and arduous a race? To show the world the unlimitedness of the body and the mind when harnessed to the power of the spirit, the power of imagination, courage, daring and self-belief. “There are no limits to our capacity if we only dare to try and have faith” he writes. Commenting further he adds:
“Life and sports cannot be separated :they are one. As a matter of fact, life itself is a game. This game can be played extremely well, provided the player develops consciously or unconsciously the capacity to invoke the transcendental energy which is always manifested in action.
“The body’s capacity and the soul’s capacity, the body’s speed and the soul’s speed, go together. The outer running reminds us of something higher and deeper – the soul – which is running along Eternity’s road. Running and physical fitness help us both in our inner life of aspiration and in our outer life of activity.”
( from ‘Endless Energy: Writings on running by Sri Chinmoy’. Available only through www.meditationauckland.co.nz See the contact/inquiry form)
I am a fan of the All Blacks rugby team, as many proud Kiwis are, and this has been a lifetime commitment. As far back as I can remember, my family would be gathered around, keenly watching every pass, every scrum and line-out, and every now and then we would roar at the TV. This interest in rugby – or for that matter, most sports as I avidly follow cricket as well – has not abated but rather intensified over the years as the All Blacks have become one of the top rugby teams in the world. As a young adult I would always watch live coverage of international games, even if they were in the middle of the night, and if the All Blacks lost, I would be inconsolable, my whole week ruined. In any case, I was a little over-the-top about sporting fixtures.
Now I can hear you asking… “Um, excuse me – is this really about meditation?” Well, yes, actually. To get to the point: when meditation entered into my life over twenty years ago it was because I was stressed, wanted a change in my life and was looking for something. And yes, I can enthusiastically claim – and I speak from experience when saying so – that meditation does indeed improve the quality of your life by bringing peace into your being and attracting happiness, and all of that. Which is fantastic – I have never stopped. But one unforeseen long-range subtle effect of meditation that I have observed is that it has invoked a slightly different perspective in me towards sport. From being an overly-involved spectator, yelling advice and/or abuse at the game from my couch (or sideline if I happened to actually be there) and being emotionally dependent on the outcome, I have noticed a certain level of objectivity insinuate itself into my psyche.
This didn’t happen overnight but over a few years, and now I watch games with a more inner intense joy and thrill at the skill of the game, and with an appreciation of the sportsmanship. This has made me less concerned about the outcome (I mean, of course I always want the All Blacks to win!) but more aware of the pleasure of the game itself and how it is played. Which has also increased my enjoyment of sport in general! And I consider this to be a bonus that has been so far overlooked as an advertised outcome of meditation!
Running. Done properly it is good for your health and spirituality. No matter how uncomfortable it is at the time, a good run that increases your heart rate and gives you a proper workout gets rid of negative energies and clears your mind, heart and emotions.
I know a lot of runners. That might seem obvious given that I am a member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team which organises marathons, ultra-marathons, race series and the worldwide Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run, but what I mean is that just about all the people I know have, at some point or other, run. It’s affordable, doesn’t take a lot of equipment – a good pair of shoes will do – and people are natural at it.
When you’re in your heart and don’t let your thoughts get too much of a hold on you, you can run for miles, even if your fitness isn’t entirely what it could be. It is a case of mind over matter – I have witnessed leading athletes with finely sculpted bodies and well-developed physical stamina crumble and quit mid-race from a badly-tuned mind-set. Which is where self-transcendence comes in: this highly individualised concept means that people set their own criteria to compete against, and endurance events provide a handy arena for it.
Since 1997 the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team has been organising 24-hour races in New Zealand that are open to anyone who wishes to have a go. The 2014 race was held at Mt Smart track on the weekend of 27th and 28th September: thirty-five intrepid entrants hit the track at 9am on Saturday in a race that did not stop until 10am* the following day.
(*New Zealand changed to Daylight Saving during the night.) A very famous member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team flew in from Christchurch to help out – Vajin Armstrong [Pic 2], an ultramarathon world record holder and one of New Zealand’s top trail runners. This time he was on the ‘other side’ of the race as one of the event officials.
So what happens in a race like this? There are several categories: the 6-hour, the 12‑hour and the 24-hour races, as well as a teams’ event which starts at 9pm where teams run a relay for 12 hours (each team individually decides whether to change runner every hour, two hours, three hours or four. The shorter the turnaround times, the faster the team, in general.) You get to run on an officially measured, 400m special-surface track and you change direction every four hours so you don’t develop RSI or get seasick from continuously moving around in the same circle. You get officially counted and timed, cheered on and encouraged, a massage if you like, and there is a medical team in the form of St John Ambulance onsite the whole time. Food and drink are supplied – as much as you want – for 24 hours, and at the end of the race everyone gets a medallion, a certificate and a commemorative t-shirt.
The food the runners are nourished with is entirely vegetarian, as the whole worldwide Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team is totally vegetarian. The runners have a 24‑hour buffet table with carbs for energy and good clean protein for endurance. A food tent with a small kitchen in it is set up trackside. The food is made right there and the buffet table is replenished continually. The runners graze the whole time, but at mealtimes the food magically disappears and the cooks galvanise into instant action.
A runner’s tummy is a sensitive thing and when you are on the run, food needs to be able to be speedily digested and in small quantities. So saying, the buffet table is plied with such vittles as potato chips, cut-up fruit, small triangles of mousetraps (cheese and marmite grilled on toast), lollies and chocolate (for instant energy boosts), and very well-blended soups, mashed potato* either by itself or with well-blended mushroom gravy, blended fruit and custard, porridge and small amounts of meals. The hot food is prepared to a careful consistency and served in half-cup portions so that the runners can grab them as they zoom by, quaff the food and discard the cups (which are biodegradable and collected up by our Team.) During the night when it gets cold, fats become popular and butter, olive oil or coconut oil are added to the food. Salt is also added in the form of Himalayan rock salt, soy sauce or liquid aminos. Miso soup with seaweed becomes extremely popular at night when the electrolytes need replenishing. Water, electrolyte drinks, cola and hot drinks are supplied for the entire race as well. (*For runners, everything has to be very well-blended and liquid, to the extent that it is easily pourable – and even the mashed potatoes, which also have liquid aminos added to them, are runny.)
The counters and other officials are another matter entirely – they require constant nourishment to stay focused and warm. It is amazing how much energy brain-power uses up, but for the counters, additionally, they are seated and appreciate fewer carbs (I mean, one doesn’t wish to be plumper than one is just at present – does one?) and more protein. They were plied with celery sticks filled with hummus, pizza (The Blue Bird supplied 10 pizzas for the occasion, ranging from vegan and gluten-free to vegetarian), samosas as well as soups, meals and mousetraps that were also served to the runners. Flagging counters were slipped chunks of chocolate, and coffee was on-tap; it was necessary to be on high alert the whole time as each runner came around after only 400 metres.
The records that are broken during these races prove that this food works as great fuel. In just this year’s race, Mick Thwaites from Brisbane broke the race record (which was 224km from 1997) by running 234km in 24 hours.
Wayne Botha (originally from South Africa but now residing in Auckland) holds the 24-hour barefoot record of 220km that he set in our race last year. He tried to break that record, but rain during the night softened the soles of his feet, reducing him to a walk, and he covered 203km instead (which, I have to say, is no mean feat!) Val Muskett from Hampden, Otago, ran a new women’s world record of nearly 111km for her age category (60-64 years old) in the 12-hour race, and the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team’s own Niribili File set a national women’s record of 125km in her age category (65-69 years old) in the 24-hour race.
But the main objective of this event is self-transcendence. To come and set your own benchmark and then better it next time. This benchmark does not necessarily have to be a mileage but can be a personal goal, like, for instance, to endure and to be happy. This merely provides an opportunity to go out and really do it.
Two times Kepler Challenge winner Vajin Armstrong , a member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team and the person whose running shoes you’ll probably only glimpse receding way off into the distance, was guest enchanter at a recent evening about running, meditation and nutrition in Auckland’s CBD this month. Eighty people filled the marathon team’s HQ and listened to an inspirational talk on fitness breakthroughs, the role of meditation in tapping into the positive energies of the mind, and the importance of nutrition in optimizing our athletic potential.
A long time vegetarian, Vajin’s last topic inspired a flurry of questions and unearthed a rich lode of remarkable facts about the body’s mechanisms when under the stress of a 100 mile mountain race or a six hour dash through Fiordland National Park. Remarkably, many top trail runners globally are on the same dietary regime and have shared their information on the superfoods, dietary secrets and hi-octane sports nutrition in a number of recent publications about ultra races.
Vajin also spoke of the longest certified race in the world, the Sri Chinmoy inspired 3100 mile epic that is held in New York’s high-humidity sweltering summer every year – athletes cover over 90kms a day for some fifty four days consecutively! Gasps of incredulity – but Vajin very nicely elaborated on the infinite potential of the human body when harnessed to the power of the mind and the spiritual forces accessed through meditation, quoting Sri Chinmoy’s remark that “we are all truly unlimited if we only dare to try and have faith.”
A remarkable highlight of the evening was a short film entitled “Challenging Impossibility”. An award winning documentary from the Cannes Film Festival, the 30 minute film charted the astonishing weight lifting career of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. Olympic great Carl Lewis and legendary body-builders including 5 x Mr Universe Bill Pearl, Frank Zane and Hugo Girard all spoke of their friendship with Sri Chinmoy and the mind-body connection in reaching our highest potential.
Next up for Vajin – defending his Keplar Challenge title from the 400 mountain runners who will contest the 25th running of the 60km race on December 1st, 2012.
If you haven’t visited this beautiful part of New Zealand, toss your gear into a pack and head south – you can walk it in two glorious days!
Ah this cold winter. Peering outside into a dreary grey dawn, at sagging clouds and wet glistening roads and footpaths with their banks of sodden leaves; and to the east the apricot blush of sky above the harbor, its serpent tides tugging at the roots, the kelp beds. Warm bed calling me back. Force yourself out the door. Coddled head to toe out I go. On Grafton Bridge, a group of overweight women thunder past me as though I’m standing still – bare arms, bare legs, tough girls unperturbed by winter. These plumes of misty breath, breath of my life, marrying me with the sky. James K. Baxter, that immensely great poet, brooding and drunken lived here, saw this tide of people scurrying to work each dawn as I do. And there, a poem of his still up on a café wall:
“Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.”
The dark sky droops like a soggy canopy, each step is a triumph of will – if I can reach Remuera village without stopping I’ll be satisfied. Under my breath singing my today’s favorite song – ma eseche, ma eseche, ‘Mother you have come…..’, my invocatory mantra. I like the aloneness of running, its simplicity, splashing across the waterlogged parklands in my muddy shoes, chilled feet leaving my signature tracks in the muddy grass like the spoor of a night animal, talking my foolishness to God. Ma eseche…yes you have come, we are cradled by God.
At my morning shrine Guru’s words spiral off the page of a book….“Spirit is creative, conscious existence. What is matter? It is anything but lifeless, mechanical substance. Matter is vibrant energy which deliberately hides within itself life and consciousness.”
It is remarkable that spiritual masters – and here, Guru himself – ‘see’ into the fundamental nature of reality and the discoveries of quantum physics, that ‘vibrant energy’ and consciousness are the ground of all being and the very matrix of the universe. Everything material emerges from the infinite unmanifest, the sub-strata of potentiality, and consciousness itself manifests the worlds of our external and internal experiences. These insights imply a mind-created, dreaming universe and were self-evident even to the sages and yogis of past millennia.
Guru often spoke as well of the cosmic energy pervading everything, its accessibility to the receptive athlete, and that if there is a tug-of-war between strength and power, power will always win, ‘for the source of power is infinitely greater than the physical strength that any human being can have.’ Reading of these revelations, remembering them while running today, I was wondering howto take the quantum leap, how to run a sub 3:30 marathon in August, fill my being with the vibrant energy of the cosmos. Is it too late to reactivate this superannuated body and race away to a stunning age category victory? If I dream this, then perhaps, perhaps….
Kanala is here from Austria, a whirlwind sprint around the country, four centres and cities, five sitar concerts in a clutch of days. We take him out to Auckland’s west coast forests in the early hours for an amble in the 60 miles of plantations. This sweet clean air, the sea sighing all around us in the sound chambers of forest, the unburdening calm of a high sky and these undefiled hours. The lovely freedom of wanting nothing else. Wet spear grass, the dusty pollen of the yellow flowering ragwort, ocean combers breaking, echoing up in the tall canopies of pines, sometimes a silent urgent hand pointing up ahead – there! – the flick-flicker of a white rump darting away silent through the trees, a hind and fawn. I am thinking of the shape of my life, of things sensed in the seas proximity, the unbreakable perimeters of my nature, a sense of despondency that I have not ventured more. The trail recedes away but will not take me any closer to an understanding of these things.
Consider this evening’s gifts, the fading light above the rim of earth and the streets filling with my human family, seen but never to be known, though I would like to single out a stranger or two, saying “can we talk for a while?” Stare out the window, complain of the weather, of the wind bludgeoning the manicured pampered trees along Karangahape Road.
In his book ‘Endless Energy’ Guru writes: “Unless you touch something every day, it does not shine. Often I have told people to touch the furniture in their homes every day. As soon as you touch something it gets new life. If you are aware of something, immediately it shines and gets a new luminosity. If you have good health, if you touch your health every day, it gets new life.”
So I go out, Thursday’s trot around a block or two, my feet pattering and rhythmic on the sidewalks, seeing all the familiar desperate things, eateries steaming up, the pubs with their lonely cargo and I remember Roethke’s poem, his line ‘agony of crucifixion on barstools’. Yes it does seem like that. Three miles then home.
I like to run early when the dawn comes, the slow gray light flushing up into the black canopy, a city slumbering and quiet. This is the hour of the songsters, the thrushes and blackbirds – and sparrows have the streets, squabble over scraps. In the human world only a few homeless ones are about, stirring in their damp blankets and newspapers. Hunched on a park bench, sometimes they curse me – I am too privileged, too remote to be accepted.
I don’t need an alarm to awaken – one of our disciples, unfailingly on time, visits the centre early and I hear the little sounds of movement, the subtle shift of energy in the darkness. The building squeaks and creaks, awakens like a sentient being.
She comes to the Centre every morning around 3:30 am, the holy hour, for her early three hours of meditation. She is quiet as a falling feather but the old wooden floorboards and creaking joists betray her, shift and sigh as she passes my room. In her hour long walking meditations, her slow circling shuffle around the great room, she claps her hands together just once when thoughts come, a novel rebuke to her mind. Lately she has found a tiny brass bell shaped like the corolla of a golden flower, and rings it to alert herself when her mind trails sleepily away. I hear it from far away, ting-a-ling-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling. I like lying awake in the early morning’s silence, feeling the sincerity and the quest for God impressed in to the darkness, and from time to time the tinkling of the penitential bell like a call to remembrance and prayer.
I remember in the 80’s there was a TV series, all about the Shaolin monks, called Kung Fu. The enlightened master tested his disciples’ progress by having them walk across a rolled out length of rice paper – when enlightened, supposedly their footfalls would leave no trace. Our walking is a register of our consciousness: some have little awareness and walk into the meditation room like elephants, ponderous, the whole room trembling. But at night she walks past my door like a wraith, silent as a shadow, leaving little imprint on the rice paper. Only far away in the other room I hear her thoughts, the clap of hands or lately the muted ting-a-ling rebuke of the tiny brass bell.
We held a public race today in the drizzle – 150 people come. After prize-giving they dawdle and talk, eat porridge under the tent, enjoy the camaraderie that running elicits. You can talk to any stranger – ‘how was your time today?’ The winners so uplifting to watch, shining with rain as they pass, the girl glissade-smooth, almost floating, the boy all muscular concentrated power. Effort and transcendence have made them happy, they smile, their hearts shine. Guru likens running to a family picnic – body, vital, mind, heart, soul all fed and satisfied – and to the perennial journey, the ultra-marathon back to God. I am the marathon Guru, he said. We gather to watch the children’s 1.5 km event, the way they flew down the hill at top speed, all enthusiasm and unrestrained joy, a sprint, the gauntlet of parents and adults all huge smiles.
Last night in the Centre we were talking about the need to be a disciple at every moment, and that consciousness is our main manifestation – standing in the street, buying an apple, sitting on a bus, be a disciple. This week one of our girls, simply walking down a road, had been asked by a discerning stranger, ‘Are you with the Sri Chinmoy Centre?’ So today at the race we are all smiles, we are smiling at everyone and practicing our karma yoga.
I have been good, run every day. In my morning book Guru asks me…..“Why is it that in you the inner cry has increased, whereas others are still fast asleep? It is because God has inspired you. It is not that you just come out of your house and decide to run. No, something within you, an inner urge, inspires you to go out and run. And who has given you that inner urge if not our Beloved Supreme?” (ibid)
I profess to being truly grateful for the enduring gift of fitness and the grace of inspiration in my inconsequential life. Sinews, bones, muscles still work – I have been granted an extension. Although now in my sixties, some days I feel as though I’m twenty years old, I could run forever along the promenade above the Hauraki Gulf, lope out along the headland and watch the ocean-going yachts battering through the chop and big green swells of open seas, or head west with a knapsack and run the empty mountain roads that rollercoaster through forests of overarching ferns, tall kanuka, white blossoming clematis, the earth’s incense, breathing the pungent and fragrant spices of the soil.
My running reflects my nature a lot, I like the same circuits which I revisit, the streets and mountain trails, riversides and parklands, secure in these familiar places. My wider life is circumscribed like this, the perimeters quite narrow and defined, the repetition of days that welcome familiar things. There are the other circuits we travel as well, revisiting the great stations of human life – loneliness, anxiety, remorse, hope, desire and anger. We see them in each other, but do not talk of them, accepting the old covenant of silence.
Don’t we each have too in our lives a personal standard or feeling by which we measure our living and our satisfaction? Perhaps it is the standards and expectations of our souls. For me running is a barometer of all this, the litmus test of my risings or fallings…it keeps me at a certain level, ensures that I maintain this personal standard. In the complex landscape of a busy and multi-faceted life, running is a constant, like eating, sleeping, meditating, an essential ingredient underpinning the physical and spiritual, and without this the other things might weaken or falter.
Running too is a happiness of sorts, a celebration of life and that aspect of life which is movement and dynamism and will – and running confers life as well. Running is the battle against ignorance – it challenges the reluctant mind, the bed-loving body, the gravitational descent into age and infirmity and ordinariness – and masters them. Running, although in the physical, exercises the soul’s further-reaching will.
Guru reminds us: “If you want to run fast, faster, fastest, then you have to simplify your outer life, your life of confusion, your life of desire, your life of anxiety and worry. At the same time, you have to intensify your inner life, your life of aspiration, your life of dedication and illumination……..Your own higher self is the goal that your lower self has been searching for.” (ibid)
With practice, running can also be meditation. Some days when I’m failing miserably at my shrine, I head out for big open spaces, sing songs or chant or talk to God. And coming back over Grafton Bridge today I see one of Baxter’s poem, ‘To our Lady of Perpetual Help’, in that loyal café window – the last few lines tingle in my mind like this lovely sunrise:
This article first appeared in ‘Indianz Outlook’, June 2010
An Indian spiritual teacher who set about lifting up the world one person at a time has been applauded by stellar bodybuilders including five-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl at a silver jubilee event in New York City. Sri Chinmoy moved an astounding array of objects including cars, planes, animals and people during his weightlifting career.
During trips to New Zealand Sri Chinmoy often showed the relevance of meditation and mind control to sport and inspired many fellow weightlifters. He counted Commonwealth Games champion Precious McKenzie among his friends. More than 8000 people were lifted by Sri Chinmoy on a special overhead apparatus as a symbolic lifting of those who have uplifted and inspired humanity in various ways. These included Prime Minister David Lange, All Blacks legend Colin Meads and world masters marathon champions John Campbell and Jack Foster. In December 2002 Sri Chinmoy lifted 1,000 lambs and 100 cows on farms in the central North Island, much to the delight of national media.
Sri Chinmoy began weightlifting on 26 June 1985 at age 54 with a modest 40 pound (18.14 kg) one-arm dumbbell lift. After intense training and incremental success, he was able to repeat the move with a dumbbell twice his own bodyweight by August the next year. His increasing efforts eventually culminated in his heaviest one-arm lift of 7,063 ¾ pounds (3,204 kg). He continued to set weightlifting records even into his 70’s, particularly for the wrist curl and calf raise.
Sri Chinmoy had a powerful message he wanted to promote through his weightlifting. This message was about the limitless potential of human beings, and the myth that age must always lead to reduced activity. Sri Chinmoy was eager to give all the credit for his achievements to God’s Grace, often stating that a higher power was using his physical body to perform these lifts.
“From my weightlifting, there will be many people who will be inspired to enter into the spiritual life” said Sri Chinmoy, indicating that his main purpose for lifting was to increase humanity’s faith in the Divine. He also spoke about matter and spirit as two realities that had to be united here in the material world.
On 26 June 2010 the Sri Chinmoy Centre held an event in New York to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Sri Chinmoy’s weightlifting journey which some New Zealand athletes attended. The guest list included Master of Ceremonies Bill Pearl, and Canadian Hugo Girard who was judged North America’s Strongest Man two years in a row. Both have met and been lifted by Sri Chinmoy. The celebrations included the premiere of Challenging Impossibility, which chronicles Sri Chinmoy’s gravity-defying feats of strength and includes candid interviews with weightlifting pros.