How to Achieve Athletic Peak Performance and "Flow"
The path of physical exercise, in conjunction with a focused coordination between the mind and breath, can indeed help athletes reach a type of mundane samadhi. This type of peak experience, which athletes sometimes encounter, goes by a variety of names: "flow", "the white spot" or "white moment", "the zone", "being centered", "living in real time", "riding the wave", or "being in the groove". In this state, an athlete's performance seems supernormal because they experience a quiet mental realm of perfect serenity and calm wherein their conscious thought seems suspended, their concentration is heightened to an extreme, time appears as if it's standing still, and they feel as if they're fully alive, connected with all things, and fully living in the present.
Unfortunately, this condition is not the state of spiritual samadhi referred to in cultivation. Rather, we can only say that it is a type of mundane samadhi, a type of kung-fu which occurs when the body is really healthy and your chi, hormones and blood circulations become "full". That's the state of FLOW. Although the experience seems quite profound with heightened awareness when compared to everyday experience, it is actually just an ordinary state of peace and quiet which is still within the realm of the mundane. Hence it is not the samadhi of Tao, and it is not a mark of progress on your cultivation towards the Tao either.
As an example, suppose you become absorbed in some kind of sports activity requiring coordinated movement and concentration. If your blood, chi and breath become coordinated through this activity, then it's possible to encounter this type of "peak experience" or "state of flow". But this state of concentration doesn't qualify as spiritual practice because it's lacking prajna wisdom. Unlike samadhi, athletes don't know how to repeat this experience at will, nor do they know how to bring this state into, and integrate it with their ordinary lives. Doing so requires that you go further to cultivate the genuine samadhi, such as the four dhyana, which in turn requires you to cultivate the prajna wisdom of emptiness. It is usually that breating methods form the basis of such achievements. Nevertheless, some athletes who parallel the path of cultivation in their practice will gain some small shadow insight into these higher realms, and will be able to improve their performance along the way. It is primarily due to their breathing and chi circulation.
People often point to the Sufi dervish dances as an example of physical practice which can lead to samadhi, but these also fall into this category of the mundane "flow" experience. They entail whipping the body into a supersensible state through movement. For instance, if you keep driving the body through spinning, the turning will itself generate a state of joy and produce the sensation of forgetting the body and the self. Through this type of effort, we can say that the quiet aspect of life is moved, which in turn generates the feelings of joy and bliss. But this isn't samadhi. If you do such exercises to an appropriate level you can get healthy; going overboard, you may harm yourself. Hence we have the Taoist injunction to cultivate the body through movement, and cultivate the mind through stillness. In this way you'll maintain both mental and physical health.
Practicing Tai chi, Akido and the other martial arts, or even classical yoga, also fall into the category of movement exercises which can at most lead to mundane samadhi; despite what people may say, no physical practice can take you to Tao. Physical exercises are good for your health and help you perfect your concentration and regulate your chi, but physical movement alone, or even physical exercise combined with concentration, cannot possibly take you into genuine spiritual samadhi. They can only help you transform the body on a coarse level by softening your muscles, ligaments, fascia, and other body tissues. Nonetheless this is a very worthwhile goal because transforming the physical nature, to even a small degree, clears the way for even further progress in your cultivation practice. Hence deep tissue massage, visceral manipulation, chiropractic adjustments and so forth often achieve quite useful results on the cultivation path.
Traditionally, there are four progressive steps one follows when you wish to cultivate the Tao by starting on the road of physical practice.
First you (1) undertake martial arts practice, from which your muscles and tendons will become soft and supple.
Then you (2) undertake chi-gong (qi-gong) practice, which focuses on breathing exercises such as anapana or pranayama.
Then you (3) undertake Tao-gong practices, which encompass the Taoist internal exercises which cultivate the body's chi channels. This is properly called nei-gong practices, or internal alchemy. This is the beginning of real spiritual gong-fu (kung-fu).
Finally, (4) you enter Zen practice if you really wish to become enlightened. Today chi-gong practices are quite popular, but they're the lowest form of materialistic cultivation that only deals with sensations of wind. If you don't reach the point in these practices where the breath subsides and you end up cultivating the mind, they are only a coarse means to help engender health and longevity.
Anyway, this is the traditional four step progress of entering the Tao through the route of physical exercise. Unfortunately, most athletes don't know it. Their conception of the highest target is a Gold Medal in the Olympics, or a constant state of "flow," but these are trivial compared to the results of spiritual cultivation.
Most athletes simply restrict themselves to the lower task of cultivating their chi if they take any steps along these lines. They start by learning how to centralize and coordinate their chi, next they learn how to extend the influence to affect others and the environment, and then they learn how to get in touch with the source of their chi, which they can do when the breathing stops. However, this is still mundane practice unless the practitioner can match this state with the internal practice of looking within.
When martial artists or others can match the cessation of external breathing with internal contemplation, and thereby reach the state called "hsi", "shakti" or kundalini initiation, they start on the genuine route to Tao. This is blending the route of mundane achievement into the route of transcendental achievements.
Thus physical exercise is only a means to help purify the physical body and prepare it for cultivation, but it cannot take you into samadhi. For instance, Hatha yoga by itself, without the supplementary activities of breath and mind coordination, will never produce dhyana. To attain samadhi by cultivating the physical form, you need to first build a healthy body by working on breathing exercises and internal practices, such as are found in the schools of Taoism, yoga and esoteric Buddhism.
Those who think too much, who use the mind too much, or who lack physical activity should definitely engage in some sort of physical exercise as part of their cultivation path. This is why the first Zen patriarch of China, Bodhidharma, introduced various stretching and kung-fu exercises to the monks at Shaolin temple. I particularly recommend a form of joint exercise that take sonly 10- minute sper day called "Z-Health" (R-Phase and I-Phase). But the ultimate path of cultivation is not through the body, but through the wisdom of mind-only, as in found in Zen. The body is only a form, and if you seek the Tao through form, you are treading a mistaken path.
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