Self-transcendence simply means seeking to try and better yourself. Sport gives us an opportunity - whatever our current standard - to transcend our previous physical achievements.
One of my earliest experiences of self-transcendence was competing in a four mile village fun run aged 7. It seemed a great adventure to run four miles, which in those days seemed to go on forever.
I remember that during the run, I stopped outside my house because my number was flapping in my face, so my Dad pinned it on the back. I paid dearly for this delay, getting pipped on the line by another under-7, finishing in second place.
The next year, I didn’t stop to rearrange my race number and won the coveted Menston under 7 boys prize, with corresponding bar of Yorkie chocolate. The joy of self-transcendence was great, even if I couldn’t walk for several days after. Four miles was a long way when you’re seven. It is probably banned for health and safety reasons these days, but I was glad to be able to do it.
There were no athletic talent spotters at Menston fun-run though, and my initial break through moment never materialised into anything more substantial. It wasn’t until several years later, I reluctantly took up running again; specifically, cross-country for my school. It wasn’t with any noble aim of individual self-transcendence; it was more that running seemed less bad than having to play rugby with lads who weighed twice as much as me. After a few years of underwhelming enthusiasm, lack of training and thinking of other things, my running career ended with a personal worst of finishing last in a race. I took this as a cue to slink away, blame poor athletic genes on my parents, and do something else more interesting for a 16-year-old teenager.
It wasn’t until joining Sri Chinmoy’s path, aged 22, I thought again of running. On joining the path, I was most interested in the possibility of spiritual self-transcendence through meditation. But Sri Chinmoy encouraged running as part of an integral spiritual path, so I gave it a go. This mainly involved running further and further each day, getting up to 13 mile training runs. There was a sense of achievement in re-finding running, and unlike earlier years, the running gave me more joy as I was running with a different motivation.
An injury curtailed further running, but at the age of 27, I took up cycling - something I had done and off throughout my life, though without any particular focus. In the first season of racing, I entered a few time trials - races where you compete against the clock, trying to cover a set distance (e.g. 25 miles) as quick as you can. Time trials are a great opportunity to practise self-transcendence. It is not just about keeping physically fit, but also getting together all the different aspects of performance - equipment, mental state, focus and enthusiasm.
To my surprise, I did better than expected. My first 25 mile time trial was 1.00.25 - not a bad average speed for a first time. However, the really encouraging thing was how I was able to reduce this personal best for 25 miles over the next year. Each race I entered, I seemed to take one minute off from this personal best time. By, the end of 2005, I had reduced my PB to 52.54 for 25 miles, which at one time had seemed an impossibility. There was a real sense of self-transcendence and it was very encouraging.
“Self-transcendence-joy unmistakably knows no equal.”
- Sri Chinmoy
With this kind of progress - getting a minute quicker with each race - I thought there was no limit to my cycling career, but alas, this golden period of ‘easily’ reducing times came to a temporary end. Rather than going quicker, I posted a few slower times, a potent reminder that self-transcendence requires patience and perseverance. It also reminds you that there is more to self-transcendence than going quicker. I now wanted to try and learn to get joy from the performance, whatever the outcome. This was a different type of self-transcendence; improving the inner attitude and dealing with disappointment as a way to help achieve satisfaction.
After a few years of setting no personal bests, I was finally able to go faster and reduced my PB to below the magic 30 mph barrier - 49.34 (2011). I was also able to set a 30mph 50 mile time trial of 1.39.30 (2014). This year, aged 39, I reduced my 25 mile pb to 49.11.
However, my overwhelming goal in cycling was to try and win the national hill climb championship. Hills are my speciality because I am quite light. For quite a few years (2005-2012), I came close - I regularly finished in the top 10 and top five, but never quite managed to make the final improvement to get on the podium and top place.
In 2013, after nine years of trying, I felt this was the best chance to finally achieve the goal of winning a national championship. Rather than leave things to chance and hope for the best, I sought to make training and preparation as careful and focused as I could. I also read Sport and Meditation by Sri Chinmoy to garner any spiritual tips for physical self-transcendence. One thing that struck me was Sri Chinmoy’s advice to be in a happy frame of mind. If you enjoy what you do, you gain an added strength.
I tried to improve my physical preparations, and at the same time, tried to be more receptive to the inner strength. I hoped that the intangible inner motivation and inner grace could be the difference in this world of marginal gains.
The inner and outer preparations paid off, and on a cold, wet, windy day I finally finished first. It was great to win, after finishing 4th and 5th on so many occasions.
In recent years, younger riders have got faster and it has been harder to maintain the dominance of the hill climb season. Despite making great efforts at continued self-transcendence, you can’t always remain the fastest in the country. But that doesn’t bring self-transcendence to an end. The next year, defending the title, I finished 4th, but still felt that in the race I had experienced a form of self-transcendence - pulling out a good performance, doing the best I can. They say finishing 4th is the worst, but I disagree. Getting joy, no matter what the result, feels like a type of progress. (See article: reflections on 4th place)
This year, I tried in different direction. Rather than short ‘punchy’ hill climbs which require fast twitch muscle fibres, I tried my first 12 hour time trial. Despite back pain, I finished 2nd in the national 12 hour championship with 284 miles. The hardest point of the race was at two hours, but I was really committed to finishing the 12 hours - whatever the distance. This helped to relax and get in a flow; for the middle part of the race, I got into a good rhythm. When you think about cycling continuously for 12 hours it seems really difficult, but it was great to be able to do it and find the experience different to what you imagine it would be like.
Next year I hit 40, which moves me into something called a ‘veteran category’. An excuse to go slower. or opportunities for different kinds of transcendence - trying to maintain the form and effort, despite advancing physical years. Sri Chinmoy took up weightlifting in his mid 50s, so there is still plenty of time to do something worthwhile.