Physical ordeals and bodily suffering

Why do we human still to seek arduous and potentially dangerous “adventures”? Why do we connect physical exertion and the fatigue and pain from that with “spiritual” understanding?

I’ve got multiple threads running through my head. Since watching the movie, The Way, and then reading some books about the whole concept of “pilgrimage” it’s been in my head of what is the point of something like that. By coincidence I’m rereading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air as well as rereading Reza Aslan’s Zealot and all these things seem to connect together, in a pattern of human ordeal as entry into altered state, a different mental state that ordinary life provides.

Climbing Everest is certainly about as dangerous and difficult and unpleasant as one can imagine. Since the “thrill” of being the first to achieve some difficult goal is long since gone (the “because it’s there” motivation of the first climbers) then why do people keep flocking to a mountain that so many have already done.

Is it just adrenaline junkie thrill? Is it just bragging rights to others who can’t/won’t do such a thing? Or is it even purely just overcoming a difficult and dangerous challenge to provide some “meaning” and/or sense of accomplishment to our lives than ordinary activities don’t provide?

The concept of suffering, self-inflicted, is an old one. People seem to seek this state through many activities. Much of what is going on is denial of physical comfort in seeking the arduous activity whatever it may be. From most of recorded history, even with ordinary life was much harsher than it is today (at least for most of us), people have chosen suffering (out into the wilderness, ascetic lifestyle, physically demanding “recreation”). While it does seem to be only a small fraction of people who do this, nonetheless it also seems to be both timeless and frequent.

I’ve done a few “hard” (but nothing like these really big challenges) things. I have done a century bike ride, I’ve done a Tin Man triathlon, I’ve done long backpacks, even gone camping in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. Again only the 10% of human ordeal, not the 1% or 0.1% other people do. But I think the point is the same. And as age makes some of those youthful activities impossible for me I still continue to look for some age-appropriate “risks” to try.

So I can’t really answer for others, but I can try to answer for myself and generalize to other peoples’ motivation. As a youth I was never very physically fit nor particularly adept at physical challenges. It wasn’t until I rowed crew in college that I ever tried anything very hard, esp. an activity that had the no-pain,-no-gain element. But once I found that while I could never do the wild and dangerous things other more physically capable people did there was still the possibility I could do something out of my ordinary, pushing beyond what I thought I could do. Sure it was partly just recreation, something different to do. And sure there was some element of feeling superior to all the couch potatoes who never tried even these low level challenges. But there was something more.

While doing backpacking trips I discovered a couple of things, about myself at least. First, the first couple of days were “easy”, just working from stored reserves. But after a few days the event began to wear me down. Usually the fourth day out was fairly unpleasant and I questioned why I was even doing this. But then, the transition occurred. Usually after a tired and unpleasant day I would awake the next day, fully invigorated and now very much in a different frame of mind. I always used to believe it was just my body (and mind) adjusting to the significantly different circumstances (tired, some pain, lack of “civilization”) and once adjusted then the event took on a completely different feeling, that invigorated sense of having conquered the physical challenge. Second, I really found I perceived the world and myself differently. I’ve often driven (or easy hikes) through beautiful outdoor country, but the ease of doing that doesn’t create that same sense of connection that doing on foot and through exertion accomplishes. My day-to-day working life and ordinary life mindset evaporated as the physical strain accumulated.

And in a few of my activities I have faced some minor physical danger (like bad storms far from the trailhead on several backpacks). While easily survivable (unlike a real ordeal like Everest) nonetheless there was a real threat. My first backpacking trip, stupidly, was in the middle of a hurricane. I had no idea that a hurricane could so significantly affect weather all the way north in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But it did. Returning from the soggy overnight and crossing tiny streams that were now ragging torrents provided a nice dose of danger. And making it back down provided a nice bit of “thrill of victory”. In the Canadian Rockies after several days of difficult storms or on the Washington state portion of the PCT, again in dangerous storms, I felt I’d done something that my ordinary state of mind would see as foolhardy, but more importantly beyond my limited physical capability.

So when I consider these things, esp. now looking to go beyond exercise for weight loss and actually get in shape to do something “hard” I ask why I want to do it. And the best I can think is not the “thrill of victory” or claims of superiority, but really seeking that altered state that such difficult activities produce. Some people accomplish this with drugs or religious zeal or other risky activities, but I think the physical aspect (again fatigue, discomfort and pain) plays a major role. Obviously not only our bodies, but also our minds, adapt to the difficulty of strenuous activity; clearly our biochemistry changes (sometimes in much the same ways as drugs produce). And that gets us out of everyday state of mind and opens new possibilities.

I’ve never had great self revelations or spiritual experience through any of this nor do I particularly seek it. But I do think I (and I extrapolate to all these other people) do seek getting “outside” our normal experience. We spend most of our lives in day-to-day humdrum and it’s not just thrill or danger or pride that drives us to escape that, even if only briefly and even if only fairly safely.

One benefit of the privileged existence many of us in the western world have is both free time (not having to constantly struggle just to survive) and some financial resources to take on a completely optional physical activity. And I don’t believe we do this just to connect to our more primitive evolutionary instincts of when survival was a much more difficult thing, or to introduce danger back in our lives that was ordinary for our ancestors but largely gone from modern western life. I think we did evolution the ability to have reserves of both strength and will to face challenges and so we create optional activities to experience that inner strength. Any time you go beyond what you thought you could do there is some real sense of “living”, in some cases such the sheer joy (despite the pain) of what the human body can do.

I remember the first time I even heard the term “century” (the bike ride). I was riding my clunker bike just a short distance into the coastal foothills near Palo Alto. I met a guy, on a good bike and with normal biker attire, who was briefly resting and said he was doing a “century”. What was that, I wondered and asked. He briefly explained it was a one-day 100 mile ride. As I was exhausted from my short five mile ride I couldn’t imagine such a thing, but somehow the seed was planted – could I do that. It was years of riding and training before I finally did and even though the last 10 miles of my first century was anything than a pleasant ride I did have some amazing sense of accomplishment, not just that I pushed my body over 100 miles of Marin County hills, but that I had set out to accomplish a seemingly (for me) impossible goal, do the preliminary things (better bike, more skill at riding, and training) to do such a thing.

But a pilgrimage goes a step further, not just a focus on the physical event, but a focus on inner state. To find, through accomplishing that difficult challenge (the absolute level is irrelevant, it’s going beyond your level that matters), the altered state of mind that allows one to see one’s own life differently, to step outside the mundane and experience the unusual. I’m sure this can all be explained by neurotransmitters in the pleasure centers of the brain and the self-drugging effect of endorphins, but the mental state is completely real and also a rare state.

Those folks who climb Everest are amazing, the ordeal they endure, the iron will they have to have to finally reach a summit. And they all say it’s not the view from the summit or even the bragging rights of such an accomplishment, but the simple satisfaction, despite the pain and suffering, of pushing ourselves beyond the limits we thought we had. Until you try and succeed or fail you really don’t know what you can do. And those biochemical changes triggered by the exertion are not something you can experience otherwise. Hard physical ordeals and their effect on state of mind may not really be different than drugs or religious experience, but I much prefer the physical events. You can improve your health without doing a triathlon or century or 800km walk, but seeking those more difficult activities, whatever level you can achieve, is a unique part of actually enjoying the gift of life.



About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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