Quakers, Sport, and Being in the Zone

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It is surprising to me that so few Friends do sports. For me, doing a sport and going to Quaker meeting are of the same intention and compulsion. If I don’t do something physical for a few days, my body hurts. If I don’t center regularly into meditation, either in a group or by myself, I feel out of sorts. For me, Quaker meeting and sports are both essential parts of an authentic life.

Photo by Mary Klein (2006). Bird over tropical lake.Just as many Friends say, “There is that of God in everyone,” many athletes find something holy in their sport of choice. In the extreme, they make their sport their religion.

My goal has always been to integrate sport and spirit within the context of the Religious Society of Friends. On a personal level, this has not been difficult. Where I get confused is in considering why there are virtually no references to sport within Quaker culture. It’s as though anything that includes a competitive component is anathema to Friends.

I know of Friends who enjoy running as a sport and find spirit within that experience. They might sign up for a race and try to improve on their personal best time. However, they seem reluctant to admit that they might also be trying to “beat” the runners ahead of them. It’s my perception that Friends shy away from participating in vigorous sport and especially from competitive sport. It’s my belief that the stereotype of a “cooperative” Friend should not preclude Friends from sincere engagement in competitive activities.

In my own recent experience playing tennis as a senior, I’ve felt some ambivalence during competitive play as a Quaker. When my (male) partners in mixed doubles complain to me that I lack the “killer instinct,” and that I am too “gentle” when it’s time for aggressive play, I do my best to step up my game. I try to let go of my conditioning as a nice girl, as a kind woman, as a practicing Friend, and then I sometimes have the experience of winning points and matches. But later I feel guilty for “that attitude” of aggression.

I remind myself that although I hold the desire to win, I don’t desire winning at all costs. For example, recently in mixed doubles, the woman on the opposing team was recovering from a yearlong absence from the court due to cancer. She had just returned to the court, eagerly, into the fray. We played twice that week. The first time, my partner and I prevailed against her and her (skillful) partner. The second time, I said to myself, consciously: She really wants to win; she has been through so much; she deserves to win. Sure enough, my level of play went down, hers went up, and her team prevailed. I wonder if this is an example of a Friendly spirit-led version of sport, a Friendly version of competitive sport.

Underlying this social dimension of religion and sport is a deeper spiritual dimension. Friends who have well-toned habits in worship and in sport might become aware of a transcendent quality that is similar in both. Athletes call this, “being in the Zone,” “having a Zen moment,” or “going with the Flow.”

For me, even though I might not have recognized it at the time, this has shown up as a well-executed flip turn in a swimming pool, a delicate drop shot on a squash court, a fly ball over first base to drive in the winning run, a floating high while jumping off the wake while water skiing, a twist around moguls on the ski slope, a spinning crosscourt forehand on the tennis court, or jogging slowly in the woods.

Some Friends may be familiar with this sensation. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, D.T. Suzuki speaks of the state of “purposeless tension” present when an archer “ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye . . .” Similarly, according to a popular quotation from Billy Jean King, “Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.”

Just as in a gathered meeting, this deep spiritual dimension of perfect harmony can reveal itself among a team of athletes as well as in an individual. Learning to row with synchronicity among a shell of eight rowers, as a middle-aged woman, has been one of the highlights of my sporting life. In his 2013 book, The Boys in the Boat, author Daniel James Brown describes the University of Washington boat coming up from behind to win the gold in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin: “As they flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity . . . they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades.” (p. 24)

This is not an everyday experience, even among highly trained athletes. It certainly doesn’t happen each time an individual or a team takes to the field. However, when an athlete is “in the Zone,” it’s as though they can do no wrong. Everything that goes into the activity clicks; it feels easy for the athlete and appears effortless to the onlooker.

Further, being in the Zone can help a person move through pain. In The Wisdom of Compassion, by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan (2012), Chan describes techniques of mindfulness that helped him lower his physical and psychological distress while trekking at high altitudes in the Himalayas, loaded with a fifty-pound pack. He brought his full attention onto each step he took and visualized leaving as shallow an imprint of his feet on wet sand as possible. This simple technique centered him. “The snatches of euphoria that came from being ‘in the Zone’ lessened the physical and psychological discomfort of trekking long distances in high altitudes.” (p. 161)

For me, being in the Zone feels similar to the feeling I have when I am deeply centered in worship: I feel an absence of time passing and a capacity for not being flustered. The more centered I get on the tennis court, the more I am able to shut out distractions, let my training and instincts flow, and play with grace.

I certainly don’t expect to be in the Zone every time I play a sport – and I wouldn’t want to be. It would be too intense and exhausting over time. However, I do believe that being in the Zone is a phenomenon that it is accessible to Friends. As neuroscientists study the brains of experienced meditators and athletes, the links between the athletic and the spiritual will become more understandable.

In the meantime, I would encourage Friends to incorporate more sporting activity in Friendly gatherings. Let’s begin a dialogue on the links between spirit and sport, on the links between Meeting for Worship and being in the Zone. ~~~

Joy Conrad-Rice is a member of Vernon Monthly Meeting in interior British Columbia, and a dual citizen of the USA and Canada. She worships frequently with South Seattle Meeting and Salmon Bay Worship Group in Washington State, where she was once a member of University Meeting in Seattle (NPYM). She thinks of herself as a global Friend.