living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Suelo

Ultramarathon Running as Spiritual Practice

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tony-anton-krupicka-twin-peaksThere is a nearly naked man who runs up mountains. He does it for a living. Those who meet him in the high country often remark that encountering him was much like meeting Jesus. A nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, mountain running, fast, Jesus. His name is Anton Krupicka. He’s a self-trained, top-tier, ultra-marathon athlete, who lives in Boulder Colorado (as such people tend to do). Not too long ago I heard him comment on the idea of human limitation. As one who does a lot of thinking about limits, runs on a much more modest scale, and who also enjoys mountain based adventure, I’ve found myself coming back to his words often. You can hear it from his own mouth here, but what he said was this:

I’m not sure if anything is possible in life or in running, but I think that… I actually think that there are limits. But I don’t think that nearly anyone actually reaches their personal limit, be it physically or mentally, when it comes to endurance sport in the mountains. It’s mentally, that’s how we push ourselves is through our mind, and our bodies are so much stronger than we ever give ourselves credit for.*

It’s from words like this that we can understand the way that endurance running becomes “spiritual” for so many. If spirituality is thought of as essentially self-transcendence, then what Anton is on about here is an example of just that; the “self” that is transcended is the self-limited-self. (Doing this in the mountains doesn’t hurt much either, I’d add). As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve had Krupicka in conversation with Benedictine monk, Sebastian Moore. Moore extends and amplifies Krupicka’s thoughts on limits beyond physical endurance, but the same dynamics are in play. He also gives a provocative answer to the question of why, as Anton suggests, we never reach our personal limit. He says,

…we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.… We stay very near the known and the familiar. Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let This Mind Be in You, 127.)

Moore’s modest suggestion is that we never reach the limits of life because the limit is not simply “as fast or as far as one can physically run,” nor is it “the happiest we can possibly be,” or “the maximum pain threshold.” His insight is simple and radically reframing. The reason we never reach our limit is that our limit is death. One’s personal limit is therefore “running one’s self to death.” Understandably, then, we construct a “safer” world in which to live. We create our own self-limited-self.

Not only do most of us not run ultra-marathons, most of us don’t venture into the mountains at all… there’s bears and such out there, you know. And for that same reason most of us never experience the truly religious quality of 3,000 feet of open air between us and a turquoise alpine lake below (not to mention having a grizzly roar at you on its hind legs from 25 yards). But forget mountains for a moment. The same is true for life in general. As Ernest Becker so wonderfully made clear, society itself is, in part, the corporate construction of the self-limited-self. It gives us a limited set of roles to play, and a basic monitory system with which (if we work hard, etc) we can purchase security and leisure (Insurance policies, cars with air-bags, security systems, vacations, weekends, health-club memberships, and so on). Our fear of death, our terror of our own limits, creates an ego-organized-self and a communal system. In contrast to these self-protective dynamics we have these crazy people like Krupicka who radically chase after their own limits by embracing the risk of the chase.

I think also of Daniel Suelo who, as Mark Sundeen recounts in his biography, renounced the use of money after realizing that “Money perpetuated the fantasy of immortal earthly life, the illusion that we could determine the future.” (The Man Who Quit Money, 224.) These figures really are “crazy” in a sense. In their own way, they reject the “normal” self-limiting scheme that society creates for us. Their insanity reminds us that earthly safety is an illusion, and that the ‘happiness’ realized in the quest for it is a lie. In doing so, they reject the fear that drives the system by embracing the object of fear: the limits of life. Freed of its horror, the limits of life become something to be played with rather than attacked or repressed. That’s the radical paradox of all this. By embracing that from which our “normal” quest for happiness flees, the fullness of life is allowed to emerge. Just as Moore said, “To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death.”

This was a new insight for me… that the fullness of life might be thought of as a life freed to live all the way to the limit of life, death. It can be said another way: the fullness of life is possible only in freedom from all the infinite number of ways that we fear death. Sit for a moment and reflect on the innumerable ways that your own life is shaped by an attempt to stave off death. Really think about it; ponder the ways that each of those decisions limits you and separates you from “the dream of yourself” and from others. Now, picture nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, Jesus running amongst the peaks. He’s not someone else. He is you.

P.S. Don’t miss this recent mountain running film featuring Anton and produced by Joel Wolpert. *Incidentally, Radiolab recently had a delightful (as always) short on the relation of our minds to pain in runners.

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“The Really Poor” & The Man Who Quit Money

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“The surest asceticism is the bitter insecurity and labor and nonentity of the really poor. To be utterly dependent on other people. To be ignored and despised and forgotten. To know little of respectability or comfort. To take orders and work hard for little or no money: it is a hard school, and one which most pious people do their best to avoid.” Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 250.The Man Who Quit Money

This quote by Thomas Merton is the perfect encapsulation of a marvelous book that came out last year called “The Man Who Quit Money” In it, the story is told of Daniel Suelo whose life leads him to give up completely on the security of financial means. He does in fact become utterly dependent on other people. His efforts to share his own insights are ignored and ineffective. His God is deconstructed and lost. And yet, the quite compelling claim is that, in this, he finds salvation. In his own vulnerability and failure, an image of the good life emerges. It’s crazy, but it works. Why?

From the perspective of Ernest Becker’s work, the vulnerability described here gets the “really poor” further down the road of spirituality than the rest of us in that it removes so many of the things the rest of us take to be the source of our security and esteem. The reality of death (both on the level of meaning and biology) is not so easily denied for the “really poor.” For the “really poor” the attempt to be our own maker, the causa sui project, is systematically subverted.

Yet, it’s not mere destitution that is salvific, it’s the way such vulnerability removes our false securities and therefore opens up the possibility for true faith. In clinging to our false securities we never encounter the transcendent security that alone holds the power to enliven any and all things.

This can be seen in the following way. Naturally, we desire self-esteem (significance), security (freedom from the threat of ‘death’ in the broad and narrow senses), and control (the power to achieve esteem and security). The causa sui project seeks to fix these desires in either our own self or, when this fails, in some social or metaphysical power more durable than our individual self. The problem arises from the fact that we desire more than temporary and relative security and esteem. The unlimited drive of human self-transcendence leads inescapably to the desire for unlimited esteem and unlimited security. The sticking point lies in the simple fact that nothing in all created reality possesses the power to give us such esteem and security. “…[T]he skull will grin in at the banquet”, as William James said.

And yet, we try. The engine of the capitalist enterprise is fueled on our efforts, and the doctors of persuasion give their lives to inflaming the illusion. In the realm of politics, the the fear of insecurity and the promise of its removal are the basic carrot and stick used to goad us along. Even religion turns God and prayer into a technology that, properly manipulated, will secure one’s place in a heaven beyond and remove from life boredom, financial woes, and relational strife.

To become “really poor” flies in the face of this logic. To be “really poor” is to enter the insecurity, the lack of esteem. The terrifying claim is this: the only way our unconditional security and esteem can be laid hold of is by the release of all efforts to secure them, even, and perhaps especially, religiously. Much as Paul Tillich once said, only then is it possible for the God beyond God to appear as that transcendent security and source of unconditional esteem. Everything must thusly die in order to live. Daniel Suelo gives us a beautiful image of this movement. His life shows how, once freed from the causa sui project, everything can be returned to us as pure gift rather than possession, money, shelter, food, friends, lovers, nation, even God, even our very self. The only condition is that never again can anything be possessed. We must remain forever, “really poor” in whatever circumstances life brings. Only then will we be free. Only then will we be rich beyond understanding.

Written by Alex

September 12, 2013 at 10:09 am