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Women’s Athletics as an Embodied Transformative Practice
This paper is submitted by Laura Bakes
As an Honors Thesis In partial fulfillment of the requirements For the Master of Arts in Religious Studies
Date ___April 20, 2009____
----------------------------------------------------------------------------Faculty Signature Date
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Department of Religious Studies Naropa University Boulder, Colorado
Bakes - 2 Title: Women’s Athletics as an Embodied Transformative Practice Laura Bakes Master of Arts, Religious Studies April 20, 2009 Jeremy Lowry, Faculty Mentor
Table of Contents
Abstract Introduction Biology of Play Biology, Bliss and Flow Embodied Consciousness Play as Sacred The Phenomenon of Flow Flow State Occurrences and Transformative Practice The Mind-Body Benefits of Athletics Feminist Implications Critiques of Women’s Athletics New Identities and Embodied Joy Future Implications Conclusion Personal Reflection Bibliography
3 4 8 9 13 18 21 24 27 33 39 42 54 56 57 59
Bakes - 3
Title: Women’s Athletics as an Embodied Transformative Practice Laura Bakes Master of Arts, Religious Studies April 15, 2009 Jeremy Lowry, Faculty Mentor
The term, flow, was originally coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1990s. In his book, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, he explained the phenomenon as a distortion of time, a merging of action and awareness, a loss of the sense of self (or self-consciousness-less) and absorption. The experience of flow is a complex interweaving of biological, chemical, and meaning-making processes. The union of mind and body during the state of flow allows the athlete to re-discover human grace. This state is a natural (organic) human experience that does not require religious ideology. Athletics, viewed through these perspectives, is an integral, transformative practice. Sport can also represent a holistic means for individual and feminist self-determination. The experience of flow and the ability to re-shape the body through athletics can introduce women to a unique type of non-sexualized, positive experience within their bodies.
Bakes - 4 Introduction Popular culture displays images of heroes and superstars for the general public to revere. The athlete is usually included in the constellation of superlative humans. Although our society frequently worships fame, veneration of the human form at peak performance is more than hero worship. Truly
great athletes, like saints or mystics, often appear to be in touch with a sublime alter-existence. The body of an athlete is the site of the esoteric and transformative phenomena of what Csikszentmihalyi termed “flow” state occurrences. The phenomenon of flow is often described as a disruption of time.1 A flow state is an altered state of consciousness that popular sports media have termed “the zone.”2 An athlete who is “in the zone” performs at peak levels on a body-mind-spirit level. Flow state occurrences and the inner lives of athletes have only been examined on an academic level for about thirty years, but they appear to be nearly universal for all athletes. Flow could be viewed as a secular mystical experience that is accessible to all who participate in athletics. States of flow represent an embodied experience that need not be framed in religious ideology. transcend the material world; they enter a truly human state of grace. The asceticism and dedication practiced by religious mystics is reminiscent of the diligent training of athletes. In fact, the original Greek meaning of ascetic (αδκηδις or askesis) is “athletic training”.3 The previous comparison is a reasonable one given that both the mystic and the athlete Athletes do not
maintain self-discipline, rigorous physical practice and often engage in visualization exercises. According to recent literature, athletes may also experience extraordinary states of consciousness.4
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990), 66. 2 Gary Mack with David Casstevens, Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence (New York, et. al.: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 172. 3 The Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary Ed. James Morwood and John Taylor (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 53 and 425. 4 Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 444.
Bakes - 5 When one refers to an athlete as mystical, the reaction is typically skeptical. Ken Wilbur, for example, applies a Cartesian model to the discussion when he states that “education exercises one’s “mind” - athletics exercises one’s “body.”5 Flow, in this view, is categorized as a lower level experience of an altered state. The current acceptable forms of mystical practices judge sport as being too trivial for one to achieve any form of transcendence. However, sport enables a different type of transcendence: athletes constantly push past their own perceived psycho-physical barriers. More importantly, athletes transcend their inhibitions and boundaries as a whole body. Their experiences are embodied and wholly located within the material world. Nonetheless, flow states introduce the athlete to a new perspective on the human condition. The grace that a religious mystic strives to achieve is located within the inner world of an athlete. While a Buddhist may see the material world as one of suffering, the athlete sees the same world as a place to succeed, exceed and, poignantly, to play. As an athlete, I have been able to re-awaken my sense of awe within my body. Nevertheless, I am challenged on an academic level to find a scholarly method to present my unique perspective on flow state occurrences. I have deliberately mixed methods and strategies to achieve a multi-faceted portrayal of the nature of flow. In the field of religious studies, helping students to validate the role of their bodies can help to provide more humanist perspectives which, in turn, can reflect a positive shift for women. I have deliberately chosen to weave scientific methodology in my research of the mystical state experienced by athletes commonly called “flow.” I propose that athletes naturally include their bodies as part of the phenomenon of flow state occurrences. Specifically, I view these flow experiences as embodied and inseparable from our corporeal experiences. As Michael Murphy so aptly states, successful training is the harmony of countless psychological and physical systems. Athletics “establishes new kinds of ordered functioning, yet allow
Ken Wilbur, The Spectrum of Consciousness (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 238.
Bakes - 6 spontaneous action… (It) takes our old repertoires apart and reassembles them with new power and beauty.”6 Athletics has a mystical side and it is a transformative practice. Michael Murphy, a key figure in the study of human potential, describes transformative practice as a “complex coherent set of strategies that produces positive changes in a person.”7 More often than not, the transformative practice of sport is rooted in a life-long commitment to sport. Athletes not only create themselves physically, but as they pass through threshold after threshold of psychological doors, they become extraordinary. Athletics, like meditation and other forms of transformative practices, is a unique path to positive personal change. Unlike meditation or prayer, athletics does not carry the ideological baggage or some of the patriarchal norms that most religious practices contain. One important change to the world of athletics is the relatively recent inclusion of women. Our society now includes women’s divisions in most sports. The mandated inclusion of girls and women in sport has impacted high school sports, college athletics, and even adult recreation sport leagues. Title IX of the of the Education Amendment of 1972 outlawed sexual discrimination in the nation’s education system and eventually led to equal opportunities for girls and women in high school and collegiate athletics. Because sport now includes women, it offers them a rare space of freedom and support that was previously unavailable. Athletics allows us, as women, to express and explore the human capacity for play in our bodies. The body, in sport, is the locus of the divine power of human beings. Flow state occurrences and the creative possibility of sport for the individual are unique to each participant. For women, these types of peak experiences can open a door to a new appreciation of their bodies, their power and their worth. More importantly, through athletics women have the opportunity to experience the new perspective through the altered state of consciousness that typifies states of flow. This altered state is one in which the athlete experiences a loss of self-consciousness. In a world of image and
Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 7. 7 Ibid. 589
Bakes - 7 insecurity, this experience can be liberating. The inner experience of flow can thereby re-introduce a woman to her subjective self. Women’s divisions in sport and the support of Title IX have allowed women to experiences themselves in the sacred spaces that were traditionally the exclusive domain of men. The importance of women regaining a positive relationship with their bodies cannot be stressed enough. Much has been written about the poor self-image of young women and the pressure on them to achieve an unhealthy, low weight.8,9 The human body, in general, is in need of an advocate. According to many religious traditions, human souls are plagued or imprisoned by their physical bodies. Western education, for example, has traditionally focused primarily on intellectual development. The human body is relegated to a space of neglect (if not outright disgrace). Nevertheless, it is impossible for a human to be without a body. We experience the world through our corporeal form. Our hands, eyes, and brain explore and attempt to make sense of our inner and outer worlds. I propose that we do have a choice, even in the face of cultural norms. By challenging the negative assumptions about the body, we can reunite with a fundamental portion of our own identities. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD, describes the joy of embracing our bodies thusly: “The cultural power of the body is its beauty, but power in the body is rare, for most have chased it away with their torture of or embarrassment by the flesh. It is in this light that the wildish woman can inquire into the numinosity of her own body and understand it not as a dumbbell that we are sentenced to carry for life, not as a beast of burden, pampered or otherwise, who carries us around for life, but a series of doors and dreams and poems through which we can learn and know all manner of things.”10
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (Toronto: Random House of Canada, Limited, 1997). http://loveyourbody.nowfoundation.org/ NOW sponsors a Love Your Body Day annually to combat the harmful social stereotypes that cause low self esteem in young women. 10 Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD, Women Who Run With the Wolves (New York: Ballantine Books,1992), 208.
Bakes - 8 Power in the body, as described by Pinkola Estes evokes the visceral image of the athlete. In a recent interview, Denver Public School high school basketball coach Paula Herrmann remarked on the benefits of sport for young women and touched on this very subject. As she said, “A fit body exhibits a posture of confidence and strength.”11 Our bodies are both our experience site and our expression or performance of athletic talent.
Biology of Play Play, as described by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1962), is a natural activity for human beings. Huizinga believes that all mammals are hardwired to play. For example, play is non-rational and performed by animals and children as well as athletes. If it were a specifically human activity, then it would require complex cognitive skills.12 Play, then, may be a part of our genetic makeup. While play can be a mirthful and frivolous activity, humans can experience play as a serious endeavor. In fact, we frequently treat play with reverence and awe, as if it were sacred. We treat Wrigley Field or Madison Square Garden with the same respect shown a cathedral.13 According to Huizinga, play might well represent a human sacred talent. The human body in performance represents the human being “par excellence.”14 The biology of flow states is an extension of Huizinga’s theories. The flow state is associated
with the effects of endorphins and anandamide. Both are neuro-transmitters associated with feelings of pleasure and well being. The euphoria and bliss that many athletes feel is similar to the pleasure that
children experience when playing. Play and the corresponding pleasure we experience are like icing on the cake when considering the benefits of physical activity.
Paula Herrmann, Interview Nov 08 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1962), 3. 13 Ibid. 10 14 Ibid. 7
Bakes - 9 Many adults in our society, unfortunately, do not participate in physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 25 percent of adults in the United States reported engaging in “no leisure-time physical activity” in 2002.15 Sport gives us a reason to play again. We regain our connection to our bodies through physical play. Carole Rayburn aptly states that we experience our world through our bodies. Consciousness translates into “I can” rather than “I think that…”16 Athletics can reintroduce us to our dynamic selves. Michael Murphy and George Leonard (1995) have written that humans, when engaged in athletics “experience the beginnings of a familiar exultation along with a touch of fear, a momentary catch in the breath. It is a feeling of vertiginous anticipation and delicious dread akin to the first awareness of sexual arousal. Running, we can no longer deny our animal nature. At the same time, we are uniquely human, for no other animal runs the way we do.”17
Biology, Bliss, and Flow Our inner world is affected by our complex and biochemical system. The brain is more than just an organic motherboard or an electrical circuit. Chemicals are fundamentally involved in neural
processes and the effect of bio-chemicals on our cognition can be extraordinary. The discovery of endorphins in the 1970’s opened many new doors in both pain and pleasure research. Happiness and pleasure are commonly associated with an external source: food, other people, or the satisfaction of a desire. However, the influence of bio-chemicals point to the fact that our pleasure might be selfcontained and possibly self-created. What has been learned about endorphins supports this theory.
US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Source: The Burden of Chronic Diseases and Their Risk Factors: National and State Perspectives 2004 http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/burdenbook2004/pdf/burden_book2004.pdf Accessed 03/09/2009 16 Carole A. Rayburn, “The Body In Religious Experience” Handbook of Religious Experiences ed. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1995), 476. 17 Michael Murphy and George Leonard, The Life We Are Given: A Long-Term Program For Realizing The Potential of Body, Mind, Heart and Soul (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 120.
Bakes - 10 Initially, the discovery of endorphins (short for: endogenous opiates) seemed to explain the phenomenon that athletes often experienced during training or in competition – that of the runner’s high. This research, however, yielded wider results than just the “runner’s high.” We now know that during times of physical stress or in response to pain, endorphins are released into the spinal cord and brain.18 Much like the artificial or man-made opiates used in pain management, endorphins can block pain receptors in the brain and provide relief. In fact, addiction to man-made opiates is explained through the existence of natural receptors on our neural cells that correspond to our organic pain management system. Similar to man-made opiates, endorphins produce euphoric pleasure when pain is not present.19 Recent work in pain management has shown that the trigger for the release of endorphins is not a simple or instinctive response to the sensation of pain. The placebo effect is also part of the bio-chemical release that eventually results in pain cessation.20 The “placebo effect” refers to instances when patients believe a substance, an external analgesic, for example, has relieved their pain – when, in fact, a harmless substitute and not the analgesic was administered.21 Isn’t the placebo effect an example of a delusion? The answer to this question is, surprisingly, “no.” The patients’ pain levels do, in fact, recede. The reason for the positive effect on pain cessation lies in the interconnected nature of our bodies and minds. When someone believes that a run will feel good, it often does. Likewise, when others believe prayer will help them feel better, it might. A serious injury can trigger the release of massive amounts of endogenous opiates – this is defined as a state of “shock.”22 This release of chemicals in turn produces a state of calm and lessens
'Plasma Beta-Endorphin Immunoreactivity-Response to Resistance Exercise.' Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 11(6), pp. 499-502, December 1993. 19 Ibid. 20 Ramjee, Anil. "Mind-body medicine--concepts and controversies: mind-body medicine looks at the psychophysiology of thought and belief. " CME: Your SA Journal of CPD. 26.1 (Jan 2008): 22(5). Academic OneFile. Gale. Denver Public Library. 30 May 2008. 21 Ibid. 22 'Plasma Beta-Endorphin Immunoreactivity-Response to Resistance Exercise.' Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 11(6), pp. 499-502, December 1993.
Bakes - 11 pain. When one is not injured and these endorphins are released, the same inner calm and optimism can lead to improved performance. Does this mean that these experiences are “only in one’s head?” To believe so would be a strange commentary on what defines our head. The question relies heavily on the belief that the mind is separate from the body. Our mind is mediated by our brain and central nervous system that we know are physical. The runner’s endorphin response becomes habituated by the repeated pairing of the physical act of running with a pre-conceived notion about its benefits. In fact, the habituated endorphin response applies to many peak experiences as well. A physical posture or activity becomes associated with the belief that it will help in some way. This physical habit then becomes linked to the experience of calm. Most people are not even aware that they have the ability to soothe themselves through biochemistry. Endorphins are not the entirety of the biological experience. Dopamine and serotonin are also part of this complex “reward system.” A newly discovered (1992) neuro-transmitter called “anandamide” is also believed to be part of nature’s euphoric cocktail known as flow states or the “runner’s high.” Drs. Raphael Mechoulam, William Anthony Divane, and Lumir Ondrej Hanus originally named this neurotransmitter the “bliss molecule.” Eventually, they named it anandamide, after the Sanskrit word for bliss, ananda.23 The effects of neuro-transmitters like endorphins or anandamide can induce feelings of
serenity and euphoria. Endorphins and anandamide are produced during prolonged physical exertion. This chemical
combination produces an emotional state of well-being and well as pleasure. In common vernacular, this has come to be known as the “runner’s high.” The experience is one of more than pleasure; it is an altered state of consciousness – analogous to the experience of a mystic. The exertion that the athlete
puts her body through is like the sensory deprivation of a shaman. Shamans and athletes can put themselves in these altered states at will, even though the experience appears to be spontaneous and
David J. Brown, Mavericks of Medicine, Interview with Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. Accessed Jan 9 2009. http://www.smart-publications.com/articles/MOM-mechoulam.php Copyright © 2005-2006 - Smart Publications.
Bakes - 12 unexpected.24 For the Shaman, the experience can produce a vision. For the athlete, the experience allows a true and unified expression of human excellence in the physical world. If all the conditions are in favor, the athlete is crowned with laurels and even experiences a biochemical “high.” The chemicals involved are an essential part of a seemingly “metaphysical” state or event. All higher human experience involves the body acting in union with the mind, so polypeptides and amino acids are givens. The athlete is a beautiful, woven tapestry of thought, muscles, chemicals, and synaptic charges. The non-dual experience of flow is similar to the union of thought and matter; information and potential are actualized within and through the entire body. Basic biology tells us that chemicals are part of our physical make-up. Our endocrine system releases chemicals into our bloodstream because we trigger the desire for them. The amount of effort that an athlete puts into training or competition translates directly into powerful and frequent biochemical rewards. The presence of pleasure chemicals in our body when we excel is only icing the on the cake.
The flow state occurrence, however, is also more than just endorphins or other pleasure-causing chemical. An athlete feels pleasure when he or she has accomplished a goal or performed well. In certain cases when endorphin receptors are blocked, many athletes still feel euphoria after a great match even when the chemicals aren’t present.25 In the final analysis, athletes play because they love the game.
States of flow demonstrate that an athlete’s state of grace is cultivated through a union of the body and mind. Human excellence is pleasurable for a one main reason; it is the good life. The body is the direct locale of the non-dual experience of the athlete. The power and beauty of an athlete actualize as an embodied reality. The runner’s high or the zone is more than mere pleasure. According to Dr. Jesse
Pittsley, president of the American Society for Exercise Physiologists, this experience is described as
Rob Schulteis, Bone Games: One Man’s Search for the Ultimate Athletic High (New York: Random House, 1989) 69, 70, 71, 108. 25 Heather Hatfield, “Runner’s High: Is It for Real?” October 17, 2006. http://www.medicinenet.com (accessed November 5, 2007).
Bakes - 13 “euphoria, a feeling of being invincible, a reduced state of discomfort or pain, and even a loss in the sense of time…”26
Embodied Consciousness The inner experience of the athlete, however, is more than chemical and it is more than a cognitive process. The essence of human experience is a non-dual union of the body, mind, and spirit. In the case of neurochemistry, endogenous opiates affect our physical brain in ways that we interpret as noncognitive or emotional. The effects of chemically induced states can often disrupt our attempts to affix meaning to our world. When we experience our extraordinary selves on an inner and subjective level, it seems to be “supernatural.” However, these altered states of consciousness are in no way separable from the physical brain and body. Biochemistry, our brain, and all of our experiences are tied directly to our bodies. Our consciousness is an embodied process, rather than a separate function of our human person. Definitions of consciousness are ambiguous and often contradictory. Religion, philosophy, and science have attempted to pinpoint the nature of humankind’s experiences of reality. Recently,
neuroscientists have begun to re-examine the phenomenon of consciousness. As their research begins to welcome esoteric experiences, the detractors of science become nervous. This nervousness often stems from the biased view that religious beliefs should be held apart from scientific scrutiny.27 Another popular critique of scientific involvement in consciousness studies is that science will reduce humanity to biology, thereby erasing the possibility of religious phenomena.28 If all human experiences are biological, as I believe they are, then even the magical ones are part of our personal, embodied mystery. Our bodies
Heather Hatfield, “Runner’s High: Is It for Real?” October 17, 2006. http://www.medicinenet.com (accessed November 5, 2007). 27 Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: a Personal View of the Search for God, ed. Ann Druyan (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), xi. 28 Marcea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Meridian Books, 1963), xiii.
Bakes - 14 are the event-site of our lives. The mundane world of physiology becomes divine through the athlete
who can show us the extraordinary potential of humanity. A new perspective on the value of our bodies could become a much needed counter to the old Cartesian model that we have outgrown. By valuing consciousness as an embodied activity, we can also find a positive way to re-connect with our holistic nature. The ancient Greek aphorism admonishes, “Know Thyself.” “Experience Thyself,” we might add. In the 1970s, neuroscientists popularized the theory that the human brain exists as two, nearly separate hemispheres, with each side mediating specific neural functions. Today, most neuroscientists have amended this view of brain function.29 Further research (such as split-brain research) has shown that new neural pathways can be adapted and even created between the two hemispheres when communication is disrupted. Split-brain studies have been performed on people with damaged right or left hemispheres and epilepsy patients whose corpus callosum (the connection between the right and left hemisphere) has been severed as a treatment option. Data from this research illustrates that there is a definite
communication breakdown within the split brain (as shown through odd and inaccurate answers to questions and illogical responses to stimuli), but that the neural functions do not cease.30 These quirks are hard to detect, however, because the brain tries to make meaning of data even when it lacks illuminating information from disconnected neural networks. When we make meaning of our world, however, it is usually considered to be an unconscious reaction to familiar stimuli. In the case of split-brain research, the strange cognitive results do not seem strange at all to the patient. When the patient is asked he or she arrived at an erroneous conclusion, the patient believes the answers to be correct – in a non-cognitive or a priori sense.31 The “meaning-making” neural networks (or rather, their functions) represent our ongoing perception of whole-consciousness.
Michael S. Gazzaniga, “Spheres of Influence: Split-Brain Patients – Whose Two Hemispheres Are Separated Surgically – Provide Fascinating Clues To How A Unitary Sense of Consciousness Emerges From The Furious Activity of Billions of Brains Cells” Scientific American Mind, June/July 2008, 32 – 39. 30 Ibid. 31 Ibid.
Bakes - 15 This process of cognitive judgment creates our “me-ness” and sense of self. We habitually make meaning of our world, regardless of the accuracy of the information. A neuron’s ability to communicate proves to be more than a simple transfer of electrical charges to the nearest cell. Some theorists have posited that the evolutionary relationship between the reptilian cerebellum and the modern human cerebrum represents a new model for understanding how the brain functions.32 Athletic inner experiences are part of the reptilian or primal cerebellum that responds positively to repetitive rhythm and movement. More complex human cognition (found in the cerebrum) amplifies the excitement of new challenges and competition. In this cerebellum/cerebrum theory, our complex meaning-making networks are part of the intricate dance between the non-rational and cognitive parts of the brain. The discovery of longitudinal dendritic cells within the deep middle areas of the brain led to other theories on the interrelationship of neural cells as central to our understanding of consciousness. Many theories recognize both systems analysis and adaptive function as more important than anatomical models. For example, newer theories about neural networks describe cognition as a form of systems theory on a biological, chemical, and electronic level. It is incredible to imagine. The brain is made up of billions of neural cells. These cells communicate with each other but not proximally. They form complex neural networks to facilitate certain tasks. If the neural network is disturbed or portions of it destroyed (by a stroke, for example), new networks are formed. These adaptations might use neural cells that normally perform other tasks and can suddenly switch functions.33 In some cases, damaged neural cells can grow and new neural cells can generate. Neurogenesis (or the creation of new neural cells) was considered impossible twenty years ago, but it has been shown to occur in some circumstances.
Christopher Bergland, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 82. 33 Neuroimaging: A Window to the Neurological Foundations of Leaning and Behavior in Children, ed. Rumsey and Lyon (Baltimore, London, Sydney and Toronto: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, 1996), 6.
Bakes - 16 According to many neural network theories, consciousness is “created” by multiple networks. Thoughts arise much like the processes of these networks: As one finishes, another begins. There is no central control over these processes and they often appear random. Networks communicate with each other, depend on others for data, and can perform tasks in concert with others. Consider a your response to the doorbell. First you must hear it. Then you must recognize the sound as the doorbell (not the phone or the smoke alarm). Next, you must correlate that sound with the probability that someone is at the door. You must also deduce that you will have to answer the door. This whole process requires both quantitative and qualitative cognition. Discerning the doorbell among many other sounds in the room and recognizing it as familiar represents a quantitative analysis of experience. In order to move from sensation to action, you must expect that someone outside the door pressed the button. In truth, you cannot know this for sure, but you imagine that this is the case. This is qualitative reasoning. In the model I have proposed, each process is a separate function of one or more neural networks. How silly we feel when we pick up the phone after hearing the doorbell. I have certainly done this! This theory would claim that this odd occurrence was actually due to the intrusion of an unrelated network. Neuroscientists are not in universal agreement about the phenomenon of consciousness. However, the neural network theory referenced above is in line with my theories of an embodied meaning-making process. While we feel we have a transcendent “self,” the neural network theory reminds us that our perceptions of reality are often quirky and even wrong. We are our brain as much as our brain is an integral part of our body. Religion and philosophy often view our species as transcending biology – our bodies are seen as vehicles for a perfect soul or Buddha-nature. I posit that we are the vehicle and every beatific experience is holistically human.
Bakes - 17 Emile Durkheim, among other social scientists, proposed that studies of human behavior should be removed from the field of biology.34 He believed that our social systems are evidence that humans have an existence beyond their own bodies and thus beyond mere biology.35 Lionel Tiger contradicts Durkheim’s biased views and advocates that biology is integral to the study of human beings and human behavior. Tiger goes so far as to claim that the social sciences currently exhibit “allergies to
reductionism” and a “suspicion of genes.”36 Biology, however, need not be a straightjacket: It can open a new perspective on embodied experience. The powerful effect of athletic training upon the body is a constant counter to the idea of biological determinism. In the past, sex difference was explained by using sweeping generalizations based upon biology. Feminine and masculine behavior, intelligence, and
physical potential became increasingly gendered. We know now that sexual identity is less of a biological fact and more of a socialized role. Traditionally, biological determinism represents a type of fatalism. Our genetic code could be misinterpreted as a prison, a blueprint that we cannot stray from. In contrast, the female athlete not only creates her body as she trains, she also challenges the sexist view that her body is weak. What I propose through my examination of the female athlete is a self-creative biology. Athletes shape their bodies and realize their potential. Athletic training represents more than building muscle or achieving success. For women, the physical and mental changes associated with athletic training can challenge the accepted feminine aesthetic. The female athlete creates an outward “image” and also redefines her inward identity through a subjective type of transformation.
Lionel Tiger, "The Human Nature Project: Why Is Social Science Segregated From Biology As Though Humans Aren't Part Of Nature? We Need A Movement Exploring Our Inner Nature With All Its Mystery. Our Genes Are A Crucial Part Of That Story. " Skeptical Inquirer. 32.3 (May-June 2008): 30(5). Academic OneFile. Gale. Denver Public Library. 9 May 2008. 35 Daniel Pals, Eight Theories of Religion (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 86. 36 Lionel Tiger, "The Human Nature Project: Why Is Social Science Segregated From Biology As Though Humans Aren't Part Of Nature? We Need A Movement Exploring Our Inner Nature With All Its Mystery. Our Genes Are A Crucial Part Of That Story. " Skeptical Inquirer. 32.3 (May-June 2008): 30(5). Academic OneFile. Gale. Denver Public Library. 9 May 2008.
Bakes - 18 Athletic superiority and talent have been traditionally categorized as masculine. The female athlete embodies a multitude of challenges to the terms “athlete” and “masculine.” She represents a shift in the view that male power is superior. The female athlete also exposes the sham of the ideal “athletic body.” Compare a gymnast, a basketball player, and a body builder. The female athlete exists as a
constant iconoclast and reshapes what is considered to be “feminine” before it becomes stale. Dr. Jack Wilmore, a kinesiologist, has said that what our society considers to be male superiority in the areas of strength or endurance may be nothing more than the result of cultural restrictions on women.37 In other words, the difference may not be biological at all, but social and political. Athletic potential (such as strength, speed or agility) among men and women is actually quite similar. For example, forty-two-year-old Pamela Reed won the Ultramarathon (135 miles) in 2002 – outperforming both men and women.38 In addition, female equestrians often outperform men at national, international, and even Olympic levels of competition.39 The physically inferior are not women, but those who do not develop the body’s potential. Women have been socialized to accept physical weakness and inferior roles in comparison to men for centuries.40 Until recently, women have been punished for strength and rewarded for weakness. By participating in sports and pushing themselves to improve physical performance athletically, female athletes challenge the idea that women are biologically inferior.
Play as Sacred
Women and Sports in the United States ed. Jean O’Reilly and Susan K. Cahn (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007), 112. 38 Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 2008), 58. 39 Ibid. 60 40 Women and Sports in the United States ed. Jean O’Reilly and Susan K. Cahn (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007), 112.
Bakes - 19 The sacred nature of play can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Our classical literature includes tales
of questing, the Olympic Games, and the deeds of heroes. The gods themselves contested against each other. Even humans, occasionally, had the chance to best a god in competition (although it was illadvised). Athletic competition in Greece may have been one of the first methods of conflict resolution and, therefore, exhibits an honorable ethos.41 Fair play, good sportsmanship, and grace under pressure represent virtues. Sport creates its own sacred ground and forbidden areas.42 Athletics are expected to be fair and honorable, regardless of social realities. Because the outcome of any competition is never guaranteed, there is the assumption of an equal “playing field.” Athletes are expected to play by the rules, no matter their social class. Ancient Greek runners who were guilty of a false start, for example, were flogged before the spectators. Free men allowed themselves to be humiliated in this manner because they believed the floggings were fair punishments.43 Training and competition can be important and even serious moments for athletes. Play, for the athlete, also represents the immediately observable realization of true potential. To be an athlete, one must actually prove oneself through deeds. Identity isn’t just tied to the body through the senses: It is directly related to action. A boxer’s skill is only potential until he enters the ring. Embodied play represents an athlete’s essence. “What, then, you are by your very nature is your essence.”44 The word “play” as used here is more than just an interlude in our daily lives. Play is not, for example, solely an excuse to release harmful desires, to expend excess energy, a desire to dominate and compete, or a training exercise for war or hunting.45 When it becomes an integral and transformative practice, as it is for the athlete, it amplifies our lives. We can experience this as the individual athlete, as
Deborah Steiner, The Crown of Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 12. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1962), 10. 43 Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 18. 44 Aristotle, “Metaphysics”, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 786. 45 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1962), 1.
Bakes - 20 the team member, and on a societal level. John Huizinga, who is a scholar of the relationship between play and culture, assigns play a special physical place that is recognizable: “All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course … (A)ll are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an art apart.”46 “This sacred playspace is treated as ‘hallowed ground’ with its own special set of rules and prohibitions. Sport establishes its own form of order. It engages the player on both an individual and group level. There is a profound aesthetic quality to sport –similar to that of human grace.”47 Play also has no real meaning or logical function. It its own reward and its meaning is to be found in its doing. Play, as experienced in flow states, can bring about a euphoria that is similar to the ecstatic experiences of mystics. Athletes, however, train for the joy of the game. An autotelic48 activity is described by Csikszentmihalyi as a self-contained performance: It is an end in itself. The autotelic self (engaged in athletics) achieves flow in the process and ordeal of sport, not in its results. Csikszenmihalyi further explains that competition is enjoyable when it is a means to improve one’s game, but competing is not the entire purpose.49 The word antagonism comes from the Greek word, “agon.” Unlike the word antagonism, agon does not carry a negative connotation. Agon is a contest or a competition and it
expects engagement. Competition is less about the outcome than one might think. The struggle is the true purpose and its own end. Athletes often lose, but this does not deter them from continuing to play. The game itself is more important than the final score. The enjoyment of play and the euphoria of its associated peak experiences are integral to the lifelong devotion of the athlete. Moreover, the inner experience of sport becomes a powerful tool for
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1962), 10. Ibid. 1 48 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 67. 49 Ibid. 50
Bakes - 21 women to ascend into a sacred version of themselves. Self-stylization (or creating a fit body) and selfimprovement are also a major part of the transformative side of sport. Women athletes can experience the power, beauty, and joy of their bodies in self-created and non-sexualized ways. Women who play sports re-create themselves as subjects in their own worlds instead of as objects occupying someone else’s. In this case, not only is play sacred but the body of the female athlete participates in a new, sacred, and human reality.
The Phenomenon of Flow The phenomenon of flow is described differently by each person. As with most mystical
experiences, anecdotal stories are an important way to convey inner experiences. I have experienced flow as a slowing of time, a loss of self-consciousness, and a state of heightened awareness. My experiences of flow did not happen as a rare side effect of training: I actively cultivated them with physical and mental training practices. My game play improved exponentially as I learned to actualize my own potential. I destroyed my perceived barriers and constantly created new challenges for myself. I also built an agile and fast body that paralleled my growing confidence. My initial stumbles into flow state occurrences happened a few times as a teenager, but these esoteric experiences became more pronounced and frequent in college and beyond. I still experience this state today, even though my participation in sports is far less competitive. I can recall one moment in particular when I experienced flow on the soccer field. I was in the center forward position, running at full speed to receive a pass from the right midfielder. The soccer ball was at my feet and I had just beaten the offside trap. At that point, only the goalkeeper stood between me and the goal. Everyone seemed to slow down and I was aware of everything: the breathing of the defender chasing me, the look on the goalkeeper’s face - she tensed slightly, with her left foot moved forward and planted. Time was slow, my inner and outer world were one, my movements fluid. I did
Bakes - 22 not think: My foot seemed to take the shot without my interference. The shot was a perfect chip right
over the head of the advancing keeper and right under the bar. Everything rushed back at that moment: sound, time and my sense of self. It was euphoric. That was the first time a chip shot had ever worked for me in a game. I was in awe of myself. All of the memories that I have like this one are vivid reminders that “mind over matter” is impossible. Mind is matter. I had trained to the point that my “I” disappeared and my true holistic being could settle into itself. Looking back on it, I could say that I
recognized an opportune moment and capitalized on it. This, too, was part of my training and years of playing experience. I may have scored that goal, but it was not due to the mundane conscious mind we normally associate with action or will. I was a fully embodied, heroic version of myself. It felt as if I had no limits. Other athletes have described similar moments: Billie Jean King, tennis player: “(I)t’s like I am out there by myself … I appreciate what my opponent is doing, but in a detached, abstract way, like an observer in the next room. I see her moving to her left or right, but it’s almost as though there weren’t any real opponent, as though I didn’t know – and certainly didn’t care – whom (sic) I was playing against.” Yuri Vlasov, weightlifter: “At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort…while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly becomes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precious moment in
Michael Murphy and Rhea A. White, The Psychic Side of Sports (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978), 116.
Bakes - 23 life than this, the white moment, and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again.”51 NFL player David Meggyesey (linebacker for the Cardinals) refers to his experience as “a kind of trance where I could sense the movements of the running backs a split second before they happened.”52 “The zone,” Meggyesey says, “is the essence of athletics…and those moments of going beyond yourself are the underlying allure of sports.”53 Japanese baseball players even record similar instances of flow state occurrences and even have their own word for it: “Mushin.” Loosely translated, it means “no mind.”54 The preceding accounts suggest that the practice of athletics is more than just an entertainment for the body. Sport can transform us into our extraordinary selves. From my perspective, this can be an incredibly beneficial experience for girls and women. Women can experience their own unique
subjectivity, not through ideologies (be they philosophical, political or religious) but through play. As discussed earlier, endorphins and other “pleasure” chemicals are naturally released during and after physical exertion. While flow state occurrences can be cultivated for certain athletic goals, flow is also a biological experience that does not require a meaning. programmed to play.55 In this sense, humans may be genetically
This hypothesis about the nature of play (more specifically, athletics) is
significant because it counters the idea that sport is a gender-specific behavior. If men and women translate their experiences differently, then it is a reflection of culture, not biology. Sport, nevertheless,
Michael Murphy and Rhea A. White, The Psychic Side of Sports (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978), 127. Ibid. 137 53 Gary Mack with David Casstevens, Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence (New York, et. al.: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 170. 54 Ibid. 55 Lionel Tiger, "The Human Nature Project: Why Is Social Science Segregated From Biology As Though Humans Aren't Part Of Nature? We Need A Movement Exploring Our Inner Nature With All Its Mystery. Our Genes Are A Crucial Part Of That Story." Skeptical Inquirer. 32.3 (May-June 2008): 30(5). Academic OneFile. Gale. Denver Public Library. 9 May 2008.
Bakes - 24 cannot be an exclusively masculine enterprise if both men and women are hardwired to play, hunt, and run. One can see the innate nature of play in all youngsters: running, jumping, competing, and chasing one another. Women’s athletics provide a healthy alternative to sedentary lifestyles. Women’s bodies have
the potential to become fun and playful again, inspiring us to achievement and glory. In sport we also find our confidence as well as a supportive, female-centered social group. Unfortunately, women have historically not been allowed full access to athletics. The passage of Title IX into law has helped immensely, but social stigmas still exist, which keep many women from participating.
Flow State Occurrences and Transformative Practice In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi described the phenomenon of flow as including a number of altered states: a distortion of time, a merging of action and awareness, a loss of the sense of self, and absorption.56 His research is based upon his interviews with people throughout the 1970s. His research subjects, who varied in occupation and activities of choice, often described these states as if they were caught in a flow of water that seemed to pass through them. It is important to note that these people described themselves as being in complete control of the activity producing this state. Part of the experience, in fact, was the person’s belief that he or she had control over the entire situation. The experience of flow is not a loss of control, but an experience of extreme focus.57 This is in direct contrast to Abraham Maslow’s views on peak experiences. Maslow saw these experiences as rare side-effects of certain practices.58 The main difference is that Maslow seems to describe an event or epiphenomenon that points to an experience with a transcendental reality.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 52. 57 Ibid. 31 58 Ibid. 250 n. 49 Csikszentmihalyi directly counters Maslow’s view
Bakes - 25 Csikzentmihalyi describes flow as a state that can be invited through the cultivation of certain practices. However, Csikzentmihalyi also sees these states as total absorption in the present moment and does not tie the experience to anything beyond the individual person. I support Csikszentmihalyi’s belief that we are able to cultivate flow state occurrences and that these states are a uniquely individual experience. While one could generalize that most athletes
experience these altered, euphoric states, each athlete experiences flow differently.59 It is neither rare nor accidental that these states begin to occur as one becomes a better athlete.60 The difference in
Csikzentmihalyi’s views and Malsow’s might be that Csikszentmihalyi is describing a state while Maslow describes an event. However, their differences could also be relative to the timing of their respective research and writing. Maslow’s views were printed in 1972, so he was not privy to one of the first scientific studies of flow done by kinesiologist, Kenneth Ravizza, PhD., in 1977. Ravizza’s study was one of the first to examine the subjective experiences of athletes, rather than taking a completely objective perspective on the topic.61 Ravizza not only focused exclusively on athletes, but he also allowed the
athletes to speak for themselves. Subsequent research became more athlete-focused and embraced flow as an established field of research. Michael Murphy is a more recent theorist on flow state occurrences. He uses the term “the zone” which became a popular synonym for the inner experience of athletes in the 1990s. “Many sportspeople,” Murphy said, “have described ‘the zone,’ as a condition beyond their normal functioning…As they try to describe such experience, athletes sometimes begin to use metaphors similar to those used in religious
Janet A. Young and Michael D. Pain, “The Zone: Evidence of a Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports” Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology. Volume 1, Issue 3. (Accessed 01/03/2009). Source: http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol1Iss3/Empirical_Zone.htm. 60 Ibid. 61 Ibid.
Bakes - 26 writing. Listening to such accounts, I have come to believe that athletic feats can mirror contemplative graces.”62 Maslow’s views, in comparison with Murphy’s, leave room to address flow state occurrences in a similar manner. Maslow writes, “Mystic and transcendent experiences may now be considered to lie well within the realm of nature.”63 Abraham Maslow’s statement is critical when we consider the case of the athlete. The body-mind-spirit reality is essential to experiencing flow. Csikszentmihalyi states that “there almost has to be a physical ritual to achieve flow.”64 Flow must, therefore, relate poignantly to the athlete’s body and inner world. Maslow explains human potential as “a higher and transcendent nature, and this is part of his essence, i.e., his biological nature as a member of a species which has evolved.”65 A common critique of taking a biological approach to understanding or describing the human experience is that it is reductive and essentialist. However, philosophers and spiritual seekers are often the source of criticism. In truth, it would be unlikely for a biologist to claim that human existence, even at the cellular level, is simplistic. Nor would the idea of biology as fate be entertained by a geneticist. Genetics are best seen as a blueprint that can be fluid or flexible. The human genome project,66 for example, has disrupted older theories that focused on one or two genes as the cause of physical or behavioral traits. The research actually exposes that thousands of genes behave in an interconnected, system-like fashion and that these systems can perform multiple functions.67 Clearly, biology and genetics are not simple subjects. In fact, discussion of the human
experience might even be easier if the complexities of the biological sciences are overlooked.
Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 444. 63 Abraham Maslow, Religious Values and Peak Experiences (The Viking Press: New York, 1972), 45. 64 "The secret of peak performance: learn how to go with the flow. " Men's Health. 11.n11 (Nov 1996): 58(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Denver Public Library. 19 Aug. 2008. 65 Abraham Maslow, Religious Values and Peak Experiences (The Viking Press: New York, 1972), xvi. 66 The Human Genome Project “Insights Learned From the Human DNA Sequence” The Oak Ridge National Library, http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/home.shtml (Accessed 03/23/2009). The Human Genome Project is a 13-year projected coordinated by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. While the project has been completed, the analysis of data continues. 67 Ibid.
Bakes - 27 Unfortunately, misinformation about our biology helps to perpetuate the Cartesian duality of material and spiritual; physical and mental. In contrast, a perspective that includes biology demonstrates that there is both a simple beauty and a complex mystery to our physical existence. Human experience, no matter how one looks at it, involves the body in exceedingly complex ways. Even the demographics by which we account for ourselves on a socio-political level are almost always embedded in our physical traits: skin color, gender, and size or shape.68 As Maslow, Murphy and Csikzsentmihalyi demonstrate, the human body is extraordinary and, at the same time, essential. The human body is our existence and our experience. Flow experiences, therefore, cannot escape our sensible bodies.
The Mind-Body-Spirit Benefits of Athletics Our “me-ness” is traditionally constructed as a function of the mind - separate from the body, while a holistic orientation serves to show that all aspects of our person are embodied and interconnected. Our perceptions are part of the brain’s mystery that scientists are still unraveling. Fifty years ago, Western culture taught that personhood could be separated into different pieces. The physician who sought to heal our bodies was not typically concerned with our inner lives. Meanwhile, the psychologist who evaluated our mental state usually did not care about a patient’s diet or exercise. But that is changing. Currently, science is becoming more aware of the interrelationship of our whole being. Still, mental health and physical health are dealt with separately by all but a small number of holistic practitioners. Athletes have the luxury of a full existence and an awareness of such. They are holistic beings who understand themselves as physical, mental, and spiritual creatures. The awareness of our whole nature can be a healthy paradigm shift for young women. For example, when I was a teenager, I was occasionally aggravated by acne or worried about my body image. My anxieties about my physical
Carole A. Rayburn, “The Body in Religious Experience” Handbook of Religious Experience ed. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1995), 476 – 477.
Bakes - 28 appearance melted away when I remembered that I was fast, agile, and strong. Female athletes can step outside of cultural dictates and take pride in talent and the beauty of sport. Young women are often exposed to societal images projecting an ideal of beauty that that fails to take into account the unique physicality of each individual. body image can result. one’s whole person. When the ideal is unattainable, a negative
A poor self-image can become internalized to become negative thoughts about
A healthy self-image could re-create the body as a source of pleasure and our best
sensory tool with which to truly know the world. Our society has forgotten that even adults need to play. Sports, dancing, and even laughter are embodied experiences of joy that can help each of us to achieve a positive body image. On the flip side, pain is also part of our human experience. Psychology of religion scholar, Carole A. Rayburn, states that “a loss or disruption of a body part or function harms the sense of wholeness or body-integrity of the individual.”69 Yet, we say that our hand hurts when really our person hurts and the location of that hurt is in the hand. It is troublesome that we speak of our own physical pain as only affecting one piece of ourselves. True, it makes it easier to ignore pain. Nevertheless, it also denies the larger effect that pain has on our whole person. The discomfort of athletics can often represent an invitation to move through suffering and fear into a new version of ourselves. The body can be a site of transformative power when we accept pain and work through it. Our recognition of the holistic nature of our being is helpful in healing and in the field of pain management. Physical therapy, for example, can provide an avenue of reconnection for the person who has felt a loss of what Rayburn called our “whole-person integrity” after an injury or even surgery. Physical therapy forces one to stop focusing on work, school, or other responsibilities and become reacquainted with one’s whole self, body first.
Carole A. Rayburn,“The Body in Religious Experience” Handbook of Religious Experience ed. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1995), 476.
Bakes - 29 I have had numerous ankle injuries, including two severe fractures. The pain, the loss of
movement, and the removal from the sport I loved were sources of depression and self-doubt. Physical therapy gave me a safe and supportive space to re-examine my relationship with my body and reconstruct a positive one. This is not a one-time occurrence for many athletes, like myself, who constantly face our shadows and strive to renew our whole person. Injuries, immobility due to major surgery, and even disabilities are heavy-handed reminders that we are our bodies. When the integrity of one’s body is threatened or damaged, the deep emotional response is one of loss and helplessness. Again, this is an invitation to move through the shadows of fear and suffering. Athletes do not become exceptional through unnatural or extraordinary means. Rather, they strengthen our common human abilities: running, jumping, throwing, etc. Michael Murphy poignantly states that “athletes remind us that we contain extraordinary capacities.”70 Athletes struggle against the habitual self in order to discover their true capacities. However, the body is not a tool or a vehicle: It is the site of action, thought, and emotion. Athletes are whole human whose training includes not only their physical selves, but their mental and even spiritual sides to which visualization and altered states of consciousness belong. The myth of the brainless brute was disproved long ago. Elite athletes attain their high level of success through mental focus as well as physical talent. It is important to emphasize that physical and mental training are not separate, but naturally inter-connected. Visualization practices are the norm for college athletes and professionals. The ability to use imagery to sharpen one’s athletic skills represents the power of self-creation on more than a physical plane. One can change the way one thinks and perceives oneself through visualizations of ideal performance and perfect play. Like other
visualization practices used in Eastern meditation, expertise requires discipline and commitment. From
Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 415.
Bakes - 30 the Buddhist perspective, Vajra master Reginald Ray states that “you can’t just meditate for a few days and expect to live in the Buddha-nature. It takes a lifetime of practice to develop.”71 When athletes integrate visualization practices into their physical training methods, then the chances of experiencing the zone increase. Similar to Eastern meditative practices or mystical
experiences, athletic discipline and commitment find reward in the state of flow. The trigger for these peak experiences is long-term practice and training. Philosophy scholar, Ben-Ami Scharfstein, PhD., has written that “mystical training, when long and complicated, has the nature of psychophysical drama. It is slow, setbacks interrupt it, and during its progress mind and body injure and aid one another.”72 Athletic training is similar. Luckily, athletic training also includes fun, fellowship and even euphoric states from time to time. Athletes are fortunate to be able to play along our chosen path as often as we practice selfdiscipline. Health benefits or glory might appear to be the primary motivators for athletes, but fun is also an integral reason to participate. The benefits of athletic activity include, but are not limited to, improved circulation, decreased blood pressure, greater bone mass, a strengthened immune system, decrease in day to day depressive disorders, and improved resistance to cancer.73 Relaxation, play, and greater self-confidence are a few of the mental and emotional benefits of sport. When considering the evident and holistic benefits of sport, it is, in my estimation, quite deplorable that women have only recently been included. I believe that it is important to note here that heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States today.74 A paradigm shift that values women athletes might prompt an increase in physical activity that could contribute to healthier lifestyles among American women. Along with transcending inner barriers, female athletes could be saving their own lives and inspiring others to change sedentary habits.
“The Power of Solitude” An Interview with Reggie Ray, Desert Call: Contemplative Christianity and a Vital Culture, The Faces of Renewal, Fall 2005, Vol. 5, No. 3 Fall 2005 ©Spiritual Life Institute, Inc., 21. 72 Ben-Ami Sharfstein, Mystical Experience (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), 112. 73 Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 423-429 74 US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Leading Causes of Death in Females, United States 2004” Content Source: CDC Office of Women’s Health, Last modified September 10, 2007. (Accessed on 03/31/2009). http://www.cdc.gov/women/lcod.htm.
Bakes - 31 While elite athletes garner most of the attention in media and mainstream culture (especially, elite male athletes), the benefits to even a novice are profound. Improvements to one’s health are almost immediate. Plus the social aspects and the enjoyable elements of play are welcome additions to our lives. My Saturday soccer league, for example, is a place to play, laugh, joke, and compete with women in a supportive environment. We trade stories about our partners, complain about work and tell raunchy jokes while we enjoy a physical day in the sun. Women are able to express less constrained versions of themselves on the playing field. While some levels of sport are more competitive than others, there is always a bit of fun to be had. All athletes can set attainable goals and achieve them. Skills and endurance can be improved at any age. The benefits are not just for women my age. Older athletes have been increasing in number since the 1970s. Ninety-five-year-old Herb Kirk, for example, ran 800 meters in 6.03 minutes.75 While this does not appear to be a speedy time, it certainly was an achievement for a man his age. Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi’s work stressed that a flow state is attainable partly through the balance of challenge and skill. Even a beginner can attain the esoteric experience of self-actualization and euphoria. It is just a matter of setting those goals. Csikszentmihalyi states that life’s challenges must continue to become more complex in order to captivate and motivate us toward transformation. He writes that “the happy savage is a myth.”76 He
believes that human happiness requires challenges, feedback, and a sense of competence. Simplicity and familiarity just will not do for most of us. Each time that one faces a challenge (Czikszentmihalyi claims we often create these for ourselves) one is forced back upon oneself. This is his version of differentiation. Once we have learned a new skill and adapted to the challenge, we then become more complex versions of ourselves through integration at a larger, social level.
Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 418 76 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 228.
Bakes - 32 For an athlete this constitutes the balance between individual skill, experience and style and how one might translate these into a team environment. Even more solitary sports, such as golf or tennis, find integration in competition and engagement with others. Competition has gained an unfortunate and unfairly negative reputation. The critique leveled against sport is that competition is a masculine enterprise that is defined by a zero-sum (loser or winner) mentality. To evaluate this view, it is imperative to note that athletes are not entirely focused on winning. Many fifth-graders continue playing basketball after their first losing season and the Chicago Cubs look forward to every losing season as much as they do the winning ones. The practice of sport includes ultimate humility. As athletes, we continue to compete in the face of hopeless odds, the promise of injury and even embarrassment. Rene Denfeld writes about losing in the sport of women’s boxing: “Crucial to good sportsmanship is not only learning how to compete but also how to lose. In boxing, the spectator may feel embarrassed for the losing fighter, but those inside the fight game are remarkably at ease about loss. They find little shame in it – disappointment, but not shame. Losing can be a brutal character builder, but boys have gained from it while girls have not.”77 Title IX (of the Education Amendments of 1972) and the inclusion of women in sports have begun to extend these important experiences to women. Many athletes, like myself, have had losing seasons and painful injuries, but we keep coming back for more. The love of sport defies failure and even pain. The rhythm and beauty of the game is often viewed as sacred by the athlete. Athletes exhibit a life-long commitment to their sport that is comparable to the devotion of a supplicant to the divine. Athletes are caught in the stream of life when they play.
Rene Denfeld, Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall: A Closer Look At Women, Violence and Aggression (New York: Warner Books, 1997), 143.
Bakes - 33 One could read my theories as a humanist venture that reduces life to a meaningless and material existence. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might agree that humanism does reject the supernatural, but he
would certainly not find it as a reason to fret. As he writes, “Just because life has no meaning, that does not mean that it can’t be extraordinary.”78 Meaning is constantly applied by humans to what may be a “meaningless” world. Our human doubts do not nullify the existence of a valid inner purpose. That we even attempt to make meaning of our world reveals our agendas and needs. According to
Csikszentmihalyi, the process of meaning-making establishes inner harmony. We perceive the world as less chaotic and threatening when we create order within. We resist inner entropy by ordering our actions and our lives to expand our experience of harmony.79 Basically, humans choose their own adventures. Flow state occurrences, then, are cultivated by many athletes as our chosen adventure. Through
experiencing our inner harmony and self-soothing chemical experiences, we gain the bravery and optimism to confidently meet life.
Feminist Implications The experience of flow and the long-term transformative practice of athletics are body-centered. Flow, however is not just for the elites of our society. It is open to all, men and women. While the experience of flow is not gender exclusive, it is personal and esoteric. Therefore, one could say that the inner experiences of athletes can be described with gendered terms by each individual. The sum total of our personal experience defines our gender in narrow ways and the roles we perceive as assigned to women can become a barrier to the female athlete. Like all other barriers, athletes can manage to break through cultural barriers to the next level. The use of Title IX to advance gender equality in school sports is a revolutionary example. By establishing separate women’s divisions in sport, safe spaces now exist for women to begin to sort through the old identities that no longer fit them.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 215. 79 Ibid. 216.
Bakes - 34 In The Future of the Body (1992), Michael Murphy briefly pays tribute to female athletes. He purports that women have extended the transformative enterprise.80 I believe that this is a pale statement on the remarkable strides that women have made in and through athletics. Young women in our society are participating in athletics in greater numbers than ever before. Title IX outlawed gender discrimination in multiple areas, including sports. Non-compliance, for example, is considered a violation of civil rights legislation.81 Title IX has not only opened doors and provided funding for girls and women’s athletics, it has helped to make female athletes more acceptable. A television ad campaign spearheaded by Nike in the spring of 1996 was a vivid sign that real change had begun. The visual images were of girls playing, jumping, and running. The voice-over included young women speaking the following words: “If you let me play / I will like myself more / I will have more selfconfidence / I will suffer less depression / I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer / I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me / I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to / I will learn what it means to be strong / If you let me play”82 This ad did not feature a product. None of the girls in the ad wore Nike t-shirts or shoes. According to Janet Champ, chief copywriter on this campaign, “We weren’t selling a damn thing. Just the truth.”83 Our society has begun to see the rise of female athletes as media icons. While I cannot speak for all female athletes, this one commercial gave me a boost that I had yet to receive from my society or social group. I remember the 30 to 40 second Nike spot and I trust that I was not the only soccer player in my league with a lump in my throat at the end. A large corporation with a very small number of women
Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 416. 81 Title IX.info, The National Women’s Law Center 2009, http://www.titleix.info/10-Key-Areas-of-TitleIX/Athletics.aspx (accessed 03/23/2009). 82 Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin, Built to Win: the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 29. 83 Jean M. Grow and Joyce M. Wolburg, “Selling the Truth: How Nike’s Advertising to Women Claimed a Contested Reality” Advertising & Society Review July 2002.
Bakes - 35 in upper management positions and sweatshops in third world countries said to many female athletes in 1996 what they had been waiting their entire lives to hear, “We see you. You are valuable.” It may be that becoming a “demographic market” put female athletes on the map in this society. There are, nevertheless, some positive points to that reality. Young women are now participating in sports that were once considered to be too masculine. They are receiving college scholarships and recognition for their abilities. Most important, many girls and young women who participate in sports become confident women who know that they are competent, talented and valuable. When the Education Amendment was signed into law in 1972, Title IX actually encompassed ten main areas: access to higher education, career education, employment, math and science, technology, standardized testing, athletics, learning environment, education for pregnant and parenting students, and sexual harassment. Athletics was never the main focus of this law even though we have seen the greatest societal impact in sports. Women athletes challenged the status quo at high schools and at universities. Without this law, physical education classes might still be segregated by gender and opportunities to play organized sports would also be severely limited for women. According Donna Lopiano, the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, only one in 27 girls were varsity athletes in 1972. 84 Today, the number of young women participating in varsity sports is one in 2.5.85 College scholarships for young women totaled under $100,000 in 1972. Today, the annual amount of scholarships awarded to women is 421 million dollars. Lopiano’s research, however, was not all positive. Men still receive 127 million dollars more than girls in scholarships today.86 The transformation women achieve through sport is becoming more acceptable in our society. As the physical image of the female athlete changes, one hopes that societal attitudes will follow suit. Due to the impact of media images, this may not be an easy task. One reason is that the image of a female athlete
Donna Lopiano “Sport: As Important for Our Daughters as Our Sons”. June 23, 2008. Chautauqua Institute, Chautauqua, NY. © 2008 FORA.tv. 85 Ibid. 86 Ibid.
Bakes - 36 is a shock to traditional patriarchal models. Leslie Heywood posits that a woman’s athletic body is not a blank image that androcentric society can write meaning upon. “The athletic body when coded as athletic, redeems female sexuality and makes it visible as an assertion of female presence.”87 The female athlete physically resists some patriarchal narratives. More importantly, the morphology of the female athlete’s transformation is not just physical; the inner subjectivity she grasps through the experience of flow births a new confidence. The visual image of the female athlete is not the expected portrait of femininity. She is not passive, weak or submissive. Her body is a visual performance of success, strength, talent and potential. Athletic abilities were once thought to be exclusively male attributes. Women who challenge traditional gender roles (as athletes do) are often considered masculine or butch. Mainstream culture did not welcome women’s entrance into sports and found it difficult to separate athletic superiority from the image of the male body (as the ultimate definer of masculine).88 Leslie Heywood states: “We don’t have to reject our bodies because today ‘girl’ doesn’t mean weak little wuss, ‘woman’ doesn’t mean doormat, giving up all your time and dreams for other people. We have muscles now and ostensibly what those muscles stand for: power, self-determination, presence, a place in the world.”89 When Michael Murphy writes that women are extending the transformative enterprise of sport, then, I am compelled to remark that our project is not a continuation: It is a new, uniquely female endeavor. It must be so, precisely because we were absent from sport for so long. Merely by playing, women challenge the androcentric culture that has historically considered athletics to be “masculine” territory. Women may play the same sports as men, but the transformation that women experience represents a new type of subjective experience for them. Women are discovering a deeper level to their
Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin, Built to Win: the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 82-83 88 Leslie Heywood, “All-American Girls, Jock Chic, Body Image and Sports” Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity, ed. Ophira Edut (Seattle: Seal Press, 1998), 202-203. 89 Ibid. 205 Quotations mine.
Bakes - 37 nature (a union of body and mind) that male athletes have always known. If female power is natural, the essence of women “lies buried under centuries of sexist dogma.”90 Women are coming to know their free bodies through power and euphoria. However, because of the association that traditional society has made between “athlete” and “masculine,” women still face sexist stereotypes. The female athlete is considered masculine and, often, there is an underlying suspicion that she must be a lesbian. Lesbians and female athletes represent deviant types of women within patriarchal society. Both challenge the superiority (even the necessity) of men. Annamarie Jagose writes “the lesbian body is the focal point of counter hegemony.”91 The female athlete’s body also counters the hegemony of patriarchy. The socially constructed theory that upholds negative stereotypes about both lesbians and athletes is as follows: Lesbians are masculine and female athletes are masculine, therefore female athletes must be lesbians.92 These stereotypes represent a double jeopardy against women. The inherent lesbiphobia of our culture attempts to label all powerful or
threatening women as “phallic” or deviant; both the lesbian and the female athlete are threats to male power. Images of strong, muscular women also challenge the traditional social constructions of gender. Masculinity is inherently associated with the male body, for example, but when a woman is a better athlete than a man, do we need to re-examine the terms “masculine” and “feminine?” When feminine is strong and powerful, does this usurp a traditional male role? Maybe the word “athlete” needs to be reexamined. Elite runner and sports author, Christopher Bergland, feels that the question should focus not on the definitions of masculine or feminine, rather on our “cultural values.”93 The athlete represents strength, power, agility, endurance, speed, and skill. Muscles, sinews and bone are not gendered, per se.
Women and Sports in the United States ed. Jean O’Reilly and Susan K. Cahn (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007), 112. 91 Annamarie Jagose, Lesbian Utopics (New York, London: Routledge, 1994), 29. 92 Karen Peper, “Female Athlete = Lesbian: A Myth Constructed From Gendex Role Expectations and Lesbiphobia” Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer (New York and London: New York University Press, 1994), 194. Peper also references the studies done by Dianne Christine Jones (1979) and Sharon Ruth Guthrie (1982) in which public opinion data shows a high level of lesbiphobia directed at female athletes (especially in team sports) and female P.E. instructors. 207 (Notes). 93 Christopher Bergland, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 145.
Bakes - 38 Do biceps act any differently in a female arm than they would in a male arm? Of course not! Again, sport and athletic talent represent innate human behavior and biology; regardless of gender. The negative stereotypes applied to female athletes are misinterpretations of the term “athlete”. It just so happens that these misinterpretations serve traditional male interests: To valorize the male and subjugate the female. The doubly damaging stereotypes about lesbians expose how deeply threatened male-centered culture is by female power (some women in our society even hold these stereotypes to be true). It is a mistake to assume that lesbians are man-like and/or want to be men. However, because the lesbian chooses a role outside of the norm, she is perceived as a threat to the status quo. Since both the female athlete and the lesbian represent this threat, they are stigmatized in much the same way. Psychologist Karen Peper believes that lesbiphobia still survives due to the public perception that there exists a high number of lesbians in many sports today. Compared to the accepted Kinsey view that one in ten persons is exclusively homosexual, Peper’s numbers show just over 30 percent among female athletes.94 Her theory is that women’s sports are a supportive atmosphere for girls and women who do not fit into acceptable social roles (regardless of the reason). While I think female athletes and lesbians experience similar struggles against patriarchy and unfair stereotypes, I am not sure that a causal link can be made. Camaraderie and acceptance are positive benefits of team sports. However, I think that Karen Peper’s numbers might parallel another benefit of sport - personal embodied subjectivity. If the lesbian body is her event site and the athlete’s body represents the same, then the similarity may be their desire to freely explore the embodied self. Sports can give each woman these experiences outside of the watchful and judgmental eye of patriarchy. In addition, sport does not force narrow, sexualized identities upon women. Talent is talent and it can be expressed in innumerable ways.
Karen Peper, “Female Athlete = Lesbian: A Myth Constructed From Gendex Role Expectations and Lesbiphobia” Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer (New York and London: New York University Press, 1994), 204.
Bakes - 39 If the lesbian’s body can be considered a counter to heterosexual hegemony,95 can the female athlete represent the same? I believe so. As we begin to witness female athletes like Venus Williams and Sheryl Swoopes become American icons, we may also witness a crucial change in our society’s view of gender. According to Karen Peper, the silence surrounding lesbiphobia only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes. She feels that “both unapologetic athletic participation and positive lesbian role models help to encourage other women to step outside of social roles.”96 Whether Peper’s hypothesis will ever be accepted is unknown at this time, however, the benefits of athletics and social acceptance are acknowledged. The images of female athletes are prominent on television and in magazines. On a parallel front, lesbian images are also breaking into mainstream culture. Our society is currently in the beginning stages of what I view as a paradigm shift in mainstream culture and a new type of feminism. Because white, middle class women now have a great deal of independent buying power, they have begun to create a new demographic to which advertisers must adapt. some of this demographic is lesbian. Many of these women are athletes and
Critiques of Women’s Athletics Radical feminists, like Mary Daly and Susan Griffin, view athletics as part of a larger androcentric project. According to these feminist scholars, women are naturally cooperative and
relational.97 These radical theories advocate that women’s athletics only imitate male interests when they imitate competitive and aggressive behavior. This fairly narrow view of female behavior might be the reason that Generation X female athletes avoid the term “feminism.” In fact, a large number of present-
Annamarie Jagose, Lesbian Utopics (New York, London: Routledge, 1994), 29. Karen Peper, “Female Athlete = Lesbian: A Myth Constructed From Gendex Role Expectations and Lesbiphobia” Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer (New York and London: New York University Press, 1994), 205-206. 97 Cynthia Kaufman, Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003), 167.
Bakes - 40 day female athletes, when asked, do not self-identify as feminists.98 There are many reasons given for this. Rene Denfeld, in her book, The New Victorians (1996), theorizes that most Generation X women do not easily identify with traditional ideas of feminism. Denfeld purports that Second Wave feminists
made the definition of “feminism” too austere and rigid for the generations that followed them. Leslie Heywood believes that Generation X women (the daughters of “Baby Boomers”) are privileged to the point that we have forgotten the political ends of feminism. In other words, the work was done by the previous generation - all that the new generations have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Nevertheless, Heywood sees hope for new feminisms through women’s athletics. Female athletes are challenging gender stereotypes, societal ideas about feminine beauty, and what it means to be strong. Female power now has a bodily expression - not just an economic or political one. Heywood considers the benefits of media coverage to be a form of “stealth feminism.”99 In spite of the obvious health benefits of sport, there are some specific health criticisms of women’s athletics. female athletes. Sports psychologists have researched the phenomenon of the “triad” among some
The triad consists of three very damaging health disorders: bone mass loss from
overtraining, amenorrhea (cessation of menstruation), and eating disorders.100 Leslie Heywood considers the triad to be evidence of the fact that old stereotypes still plague female athletes. She says that some women push themselves toward injury and burnout in order to prove that they are worthy.101 In other words, the causes for the triad are rooted in the unfortunate reality that many women are still working twice as hard as their male counterparts to gain equal consideration. These extreme behaviors can be offset, however, by supportive and informed coaching methods. All-male coaching staffs were the norm during the 1980s and early 1990s. My generation may represent the first to produce healthy female role
Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin, Built to Win: the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 41. 99 Ibid. 51 100 “Athletes embrace size, rejecting stereotypes” The New York Times, February 8, 2007, Jere Longman, contributions by Adam Himmelsbach http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/08/sports/ncaabasketball/08weight.html (Accessed 03/31/2009). 101 Leslie Heywood, Pretty Good for a Girl (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore: The Free Press, 1998), 217-218.
Bakes - 41 models and women coaches for young girls. This may translate into new, female-centered coaching methods that can assist young women in avoiding the triad. Tina Thompson, a professional basketball player and veteran of the Women’s National Basketball Association, says that “a lot of us had to identify with male athletes growing up. Now these little girls have us…”102 In response to the growth in media attention for female athletes, some critics fear that women are being subjected to a new aesthetic ideal: The athletic body type. The assumption made here is that all athletes are thin and attractive like professional tennis player Anna Kournikova or professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reese. While gymnastics and figure skating have rigid aesthetic ideals that uphold a more traditional and “straight-looking” norm, many other sports do not fit so easily into such traditional feminine labels as “cute” or “sexy”, for example. Tennis professionals Venus Williams and Serena Williams garner more sponsorships and international attention than Anna Kournikova, who has been a fashion model and a centerfold. The talented Williams sisters have never posed nude, yet remain highly popular. This might be because they consistently win. In addition, Venus and Serena Williams represent new images of female strength and power.103 Some of the historically great women’s tennis players, like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, did not suit the traditional or heterosexual feminine aesthetic ideals of the 1970s or 1980s. Nevertheless, their names are immortal. These women are capable and fit athletes, regardless of their sexuality or public perceptions of their “femininity”. I believe that the bodies of female athletes are no longer signifiers of archaic male fantasies. A woman’s outward appearance is gradually becoming less important than her raw talent and strength. Female athletes are beginning to change the societal view of what constitutes “attractive.” Another important point is that the media is not showing the whole story. Less than ten percent of women’s sporting events are ever aired. The images of female athletes are seldom rugby players or
Glenn Liebman, Women’s Sports Shorts:1001 Slam-Dunk One-Liners by and About Women In Sports (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2002), 189. 103 “Athletes embrace size, rejecting stereotypes” The New York Times, February 8, 2007, Jere Longman, contributions by Adam Himmelsbach http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/08/sports/ncaabasketball/08weight.html (Accessed 03/31/2009).
Bakes - 42 boxers, for example. The reality is that female athletes come in all shapes and sizes. The media’s portrayal of women’s athletics is still skewed toward less “masculine” sports. Tennis and gymnastics are acceptable, but team sports and boxing are not. More equitable sports coverage would definitely expose the public to the wide range of female athletes already playing at high levels. More diverse images of successful athletic women could represent attainable and healthy ideals for young women.
New Identities and Embodied Joy In researching and writing about the embodied experience of athletics, the social constructs of gender cannot be brushed aside. Sport can provide a special space for women to explore their potential and possibly redeem their bodies along the way. Female athletes can create new identities through the experience of separate women’s divisions. For my generation, women’s divisions in sport seem like a mundane aspect of everyday life. However, the inclusion of women in athletics is a shamefully recent development. Some feminists and athletic scholars, like McDonagh and Pappano (2008), decry the existence of separate divisions as the perpetuation of a separate but not equal reality for women in sport.104 Pappano believes that women are ready to compete with and against men. I would agree. I have played co-ed sports and found the mixture of women and men on the field healthy and fun. However, there is also a unique quality that a women’s league exhibits. We women build a sacred space on the field together. We are comrades and sisters; we are comfortable and open with one another. Women’s team sports provide a safe space for the multitude of women who are uncomfortable with patriarchal expectations. Carole A. Rayburn writes that, “If women from girlhood have been treated as though they are inferior, they will transfer this poor self image to other areas.”105 Basically, this
Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports (Oxford and
London: Oxford University Press, 2008), 58. Carole A. Rayburn, “The Body In Religious Experience” Handbook of Religious Experiences ed. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1995), 492.
Bakes - 43 suggests girls are frequently taught to strive for less by a society that often does not value them fully. Low self-esteem frequently manifests as a lack of participation and, eventually, as a less active lifestyle. Fortunately, Title IX supports an organized, female-centered alternative to low participation in sport or men’s athletics. The ability to opt out of uncomfortable patriarchal stereotypes is still valuable for women. While integration is a possibility, I worry that the impetus is for women to integrate into men’s sports. Separate divisions for women in sport represent a protected and stress-free place for young
women to act out new identities. The transformative practice of sport is an integral practice. It encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions. The whole human is involved and, as women, we benefit on a holistic level. The ordeal of training begins, however, on the physical plane. Most athletes begin competitive training in their preteen years. There usually comes a point when young people are introduced to the more serious side of sport: Dedication and commitment. Through the choice to set goals and achieve them, athletes begin the journey toward manifesting their true potential. In youth leagues, girls are usually expected to participate in team practices a few times a week and in games on the weekend. Training sessions can be boring or fun, depending upon the coach. Even in youth leagues, practices can be both physically and mentally challenging. Endurance and conditioning are lacking at the beginning of the season. My memories of the first few practices of the season (even as an adult) were of brutal running and sprinting exercises. For young players, the physical challenges are intertwined with learning new skills. The mental challenges can be frustrating and ego-crushing. I remember learning how to “head” the ball; it took a long time before I was brave enough to open my eyes. Each expansion of my bravery led to new levels of self-confidence. As a young girl, these experiences of physical exertion, euphoria, and pride introduced me to the exceptional person that I could become. As this version of myself began to take shape, I saw myself as a subject and not as another’s object. The ordeals that high school varsity sports and college athletics presented for me felt almost heroic in nature. Pain and failure were constant companions, but so were ecstasy and glory. More often
Bakes - 44 than not, athletes lose and suffer injury. These less positive aspects represent the dark nights of an athlete’s soul. Nevertheless, athletes learn to overcome and endure. An injury can cause depression and frustration for anyone. In addition, athletes feel the effects of an injury on multiple levels. Beyond the physical pain is the fear that one’s potential has been damaged. “Will I be able to come back from this?” is the usual doubt. The second concern is around the time taken away from a beloved sport. Sports Psychologist Kay Porter discussed the loss of endorphin-triggering activity as an athlete ages. Studies
show that a decrease in activity leads to less frequent experiences of our endogenous pleasure chemicals (endorphins). The physiological side-effects of this lack of endorphins mimic the effects of depression, with insomnia and crying, for example.106 Whether one becomes injured or has gradually reduced their
activity due to age, the lack of endorphins seems to pose a challenge for most athletes. Interestingly, many meditation experts also must adapt to physical changes. Reginald Ray has commented: “Now that I am finally really realizing the tremendous benefit of retreat, I am approaching a time when I won’t be able to do it physically. This realization is not a little heart breaking.”107 Women face more than just the trial of re-defining our aging or injured selves. Part of our cultural gender baggage includes the often inflexible feminine images of modern psychoanalysis. We frequently feel that re-defining ourselves must first be an act of deconstructing the roles traditionally assigned by patriarchy. Female athletes are not, for example, a parallel to male athletes. Jung’s contrasexual portrait of women as the polar desire of men (and vice-versa) has held women to a male-centered existence. Conversely, recent feminist writers like Susan Rowland have re-examined Carl Jung’s views of the anima anew. Rowland asserts that Jung’s archetypes (even the anima) did not require that the “other” be “another body or gender.”108 The formation of gender in relation to the “other” is found within society. Gender is performed through a cultural lens that focuses the male gaze upon the female body.
Kay Porter, The Mental Athlete (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics: 2003), 36. “The Power of Solitude” An Interview with Reggie Ray, Desert Call: Contemplative Christianity and a Vital Culture, The Faces of Renewal, Fall 2005, Vol. 5, No. 3 Fall 2005 ©Spiritual Life Institute, Inc., 21. 108 Susan Rowland, “Imaginal Bodies and Feminine Spirits: Performing Gender in Jungian Theory and Atwood’s Creative Power of the Unconsciousness” Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality ed. Avril Horner and Angela Keane (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 247.
Bakes - 45 “The formless archetype supplies creative energy: the resulting image is also shaped by the subject’s bodily and social integration into a culture.”109 Although Carl Jung is guilty of misogynist and sexist language, his examination of the subjectivity of the feminine provides feminism with a way into his theories.110 By teasing out his cultural limitations, the amorphous archetypes of the “other” as well as the ineffability of the female unconsciousness can become useful when examining female athletes. Rowland believes that feminist reexaminations of Jung are “a strategic attempt to enable women to articulate gender identity by cracking open the binary structure that keeps culture masculine.”111 In Jungian terms, the lifelong transformative practice of athletics is similar to the journey of the hero. Women still have many patriarchal dragons to slay. In a Jungian feminist analysis, it would look a little more like the transformation of Kore. This archetype of the mother/daughter motif is most
recognizable in the myth of Demeter and Persephone. While most are familiar with the two separate figures, the feminine power was once two facets of a singular mother version of the divine feminine: The matriarchate.112 Kore (as manifested in Persephone) must descend into the dark underworld. The ordeals of training and games bring female athletes close to their fears. When women confront these fears and even injuries, they also take a trip into a dark shadow world. Like Persephone, athletes are reborn through their perseverance and improvement. Even so,
athletics is more than hard work, sacrifice, and risk – athletics is playful and fun. While athletes make a lifelong commitment to sport and touch a mysterious reality within, they participate because they love to play.
Susan Rowland, Jung: A Feminist Revision (Malden, MA, Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press, 2002), 73. Ibid. 67 111 Ibid. 116 112 K. Elias, “Through (With) the Looking Glass: A Reflection”. Jung: the e-Journal of the Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies 2.8b (2006):16 pp. http://www.thejungiansociety.org/Jung%20Society/e-journal/Volume-2/Elias2006b.html. (Accessed January 8, 2009).
Bakes - 46 Images of the divine feminine have had a too value-laden an effect within feminist thought. As in the case of the female athlete, controversy frequently centers upon what society typically portrays as feminine. Jung’s feminine archetype has, in a sense, been reborn through the renewed interest in the Goddess. One critique of the popularity of Goddess worship and the desire to return to pre-patriarchal times is that it represents a “reversed sexist myth.”113 There are, however, positive results of the renewed interest in these feminine ideals. Theories of a Goddess-oriented past serve to counter male-centered monotheism, sacralize women’s bodies, valorize the earth, and they suggest the possibility of female supremacy.114 Advocates of matriarchy or female supremacy have been criticized for being unrealistic or even arrogant. Yet, one has only to watch women participants in the Olympics who truly are pre-eminent. Is it wrong to be faster, to jump higher and to run farther? It seems that the answer is contingent on gender. Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin agree and posit that this imbalance is a form of lesbiphobia. Specifically, they write that “the cultural (il)logic of homophobia dictates that if she is one-up on a boy she’s got to be a dyke.”115 According to Heywood and Dworkin, female power is still perceived as threat by our male-centered society and powerful women are considered a threat. Theories that strive to illuminate the normalcy of a Goddess-centered past help to also normalize the idea that human women have the capacity for greatness. One of the oldest mythic representations of the divine feminine is the image of the Triple Goddess. The Maiden (as one of the three divine persons) is a general representation of the rebirth of Kore in Jungian thought and applies directly to female athletes. “The Maiden conveys an image of
independence and self-sufficiency … She may be the warrior or the Amazon. She is also the child: the
Rosemary Radford Ruether, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: a Western Religious History (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2005), 36-37. 114 Susan Rowland, Jung: A Feminist Revision (Malden, MA, Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press, 2002), 47. 115 Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin, Built to Win: the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 122.
Bakes - 47 young, the innocent, the playful one. She reminds us that we are never too old to frolic and to play.”116 The Maiden also reminds women that we are subordinate to no one and that our power is positive. The athlete, for example, is reborn every time she pushes past a preconceived limit, heals from injury and conquers her deepest fears of failure. Through this process, as expressed by Csikszentmihalyi, she becomes more complex.117 All along the way, she is discovering her own subjectivity through play and through pain. The female athlete knows that her hairstyle or how she looks in a dress cannot express who she truly is; she performs that on the field, the court or the pitch. She is a subject through athletics because the ordeal and the ecstasy of the game are not static - her experience of herself is dynamic, active, and unpredictable. Flow represents a state that lacks self-conscious awareness. The same self-
consciousness that can give the male gaze its power is turned inward to enrich itself. Male psychoanalysts like Carl Jung and Jacques Lacan have depicted the feminine unconscious as amorphous, slippery and difficult to describe. Lacan felt it was beyond anima and was unique enough to be incapable of union with the male psyche.118 However, this view of the female psyche was based upon his perception of men’s inability to sexualize non-cooperative females. When a woman’s body becomes her own, androcentric culture is unsure what to make of her. I believe that this non-participation with male expectation is the beginning of the paradigm shift. The next step is a new type of female selfdefinition that cannot be denied or contained by patriarchy. As feminist writer Luce Irigaray has
remarked in The Sex Which Is Not One (1985), self-creation requires separation as part of its sustenance. Women’s athletic divisions provide a uniquely nurturing space outside of our pervasive malecentered society. In other words, women’s sports are a neglected area in mainstream culture and this inattention can be useful. The sports section of most local papers report high school scores on only a few girls’ sporting events. Rarely do girls’ games draw a large crowd at the high school level. There are few
Antiga, “The Goddess in Me” The Divine Mosaic: Women’s Images of the Sacred Other ed. Theresa King (Saint Paul, MN: Yes International Publishers, 1994), 175. 117 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 240. 118 Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 121.
Bakes - 48 pep rallies for girls’ volleyball games and the big homecoming game is unlikely to be a girls’ basketball game. There is not much change when you move up to college sports or even into professional sports. The WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association) was the first professional women’s soccer league in the nation. The organization folded in 2003 due to lack of ticket sales.119 WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) games are rarely televised during prime hours and their ticket sales seldom reflect sold out games. Many female athletes, like myself, find this to be a disappointing sign that women are still far behind the men in publicity and popularity. Although I agree that the lack of media attention and popularity are obstacles to the success of female athletes (as well as a detriment to their young fans), not being watched could be a blessing in disguise. In a Foucauldian sense, this might be an escape from the authoritative normalizing of those who choose to refer pejoratively of women, for example, labeling them “masculine”, “unfeminine” or “lesbian.” Female athletes who are not watched worry less that the sport they play is too masculine or if their peers might question their sexuality. There are only women on the field; the glory and camaraderie is theirs alone. The male gaze and patriarchal language, according to Luce Iragaray, sexualizes the female and makes her into an object. Within what Irigaray identifies as “phallocentric society,” women are passive, blank slates that men can write upon. Women’s experiences are not their own; they exists only to reflect male fantasies back to men.120 However, when women can create their own spaces outside of this objectifying force, they begin to discover an inner subjectivity through the body-beauty and joy of sport. The body becomes an asexual site for play. The release from the constant self-conscious participation in patriarchy helps women to define themselves. Female athletes are free to experience the timeless, ecstatic experience of holistic non-dualism through flow.
The Women’s Professional Soccer League (a hopeful rebirth birth of the WUSA) formed in 2007. Luce Irigaray, “The Sex Which Is Not One” The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory ed. Anthony Elliott (Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 267.
Bakes - 49 This is a new perspective on Irigaray’s views of feminine jouissance (a French term which loosely means “ecstasy” or “euphoria”). Her view originally purported that women (and only women) can experience a uniquely feminine form of non-phallic sexual “euphoria.” Female athletes in a state of flow experience the non-dual, pleasurable reality of their own being. Unlike their religious counterparts, athletes do not need nor are constrained by ideologies, religious or otherwise. Similar to Irigaray’s view, female athletes are free to define themselves through their individual and esoteric natures. The flow state that they experience is and embodied joy that is uniquely human. Johan Huizinga, who has studied play and its role in culture, states that there exists no word in French for “fun”.121 I am compelled to re-examine Irigaray’s seemingly rigid sexual association with the term “jouissance.” This French term has often been equated with “euphoria.” If the female subconscious is slippery (as in Jung’s and Lacan’s views), then so might be feminine jouissance. Jacques Lacan stretches the idea of women’s euphoria to a type of meta-sexual pleasure. Luce Irigaray centers it in the woman’s body, but removes the necessity of the phallus. In fact, the body pleasure that athletes
experience in flow state occurrences fits the loose category of “jouissance”. Women can remove the negative or guilty stigma from embodied joy and treat it as organically sacred. Wilma Randolph, an Olympic runner, once described this feeling: “When I was running, I had a sense of freedom, of freedom of the mind…When I ran, I felt like a butterfly.”122 Athletes are not solely performers or a winners; they become whole humans, alive with the game, who actualize their potential beyond all perceived boundaries. Luce Irigaray suggests in The Sex Which Is Not One (1985) that tactical strikes may be a necessary endeavor for women who wish to escape the bounds of patriarchy. By “strike,” she means a large-scale, non-participation with the status quo. She further explains that, for women, the purpose of a tactical separation is to:
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1962), 3. Jennifer DeSena and Carmine DeSena, Girl Power: Women on Winning (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing,2001), 41.
Bakes - 50 “…keep themselves apart from men long enough, to learn to defend their desires especially through speech, to discover the love of other women while sheltered from men’s imperious choices, which put them in the position of rival commodities, to forge for themselves a social status that compels recognition, to earn a living in order to escape from the condition of prostitute…”123 Women’s athletics open a sacred space for new types of dialogue as well. Most of the soccer tournaments that I have participated in are strictly for women’s teams. These women-centered events do not exclude men; men are welcome as supporters. Women’s division tournaments, however, create a
space specifically to honor and celebrate female athletes. These tournaments celebrate comradeship, competition, and women’s bodies at their peak level of performance. Each tournament is usually marked with an opening ceremony or, at the very least, a “meet and greet” the evening before competition begins. Women’s sports have created their own “traditions” and are not confined to a junior role in comparison with men. These weekend tournaments are marked with festive beer and food tents, music, and the up to the minute postings of our wins and losses. Many women’s soccer tournaments include feminine specific gear for sale: better fitting sport bras, a wider assortment of women’s cleat styles, smaller-sized, and more flattering jersey styles. These products are rare finds at typical sporting goods shops, even in most urban areas. Due to this fact, a few of my teams have held ad hoc votes to buy new uniforms at these events. Would a men’s team initiate a similar dialogue over jerseys? It is not likely, since men’s jerseys are a common find. A good tournament will also provide free t-shirts that advertise the event. It is a source of pride to come home from an event like the Friendship Cup in Las Vegas with a shirt that says you did more than just watch.
Luce Irigaray, “The Sex Which Is Not One” The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory ed. Anthony Elliott (Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 269.
Bakes - 51 For the past few years, Broomfield, Colorado has hosted a women’s soccer tournament called the Blast Cup. Through this tournament, players help to raise money for charities in the area. Prizes and championship cups are usually donated to keep costs low. A tournament is not an easy event to set up or to run. These are long, hot weekends during the summer and the participants often deal with injuries and scheduling conflicts. The successes of so many women’s leagues and, especially, regional and national tournaments, expose the power of women to cooperate and compete at grassroots levels. At the end of the day, one can find bitter rivals sharing drinks at the bar. The atmosphere of an athletic tournament is unlike a weekend recreation league game. We follow the wins and losses of our rivals, we have morning and pregame rituals to prepare us for the day, and we share meals throughout the day. We rejoice in every win and console each other in loss. We
shake the hand of strangers who have just won a hard-fought game, too. During these events, we celebrate each other, regardless of the final score. As a college athlete, I have played in many tournaments. I would have to admit, however, that those collegiate tournaments were not “women’s events” in the same way the Friendship Cup and the Blast Cup were. My college level tournaments were funded and organized by my college’s athletic department and the NCAA (National College Athletics Association). These college organizations had predominantly male leadership in the 1990s. My coaching staff and most of the referees were men. During my early twenties, I did not care how the tournament was set up or if I could find new femalecentered products. I was honored to play for my university and focused only on the games. Nevertheless, I must confess that I was ignorant of the benefits of grassroots, women-run and women-sponsored athletic events. One of the wonderful aspects of growing and maturing in women’s sports is the realization of true female agency. We do not have to wait for men to organize events for us. If we are willing to raise the money and work hard, we can organize events that specifically cater to female athletes. We create
Bakes - 52 temporary female-centered communities and celebrate together our strength, agility, speed, and skill. It is rare to find men who are interested in watching us play, but this is not a hindrance. In fact, it allows us to relax and enjoy each other’s company without the intrusion or judgment of men. This means that we can raise a glass to a great goal, discuss strategy, and even complain about husbands or girlfriends in an atmosphere of complete acceptance. While the preceding is not exactly in line with Luce Irigaray’s call for a creation of non-phallic language, less elite forms female-centered dialogue can and do occur within these separate spaces. When women are able to explore and appreciate their own subjectivity, these discourses reflect intersubjectivity. Female athletes can value their own unique talents and find dynamic ways to express their bodies’ voices. The discovery of one’s unique inner rhythm is a necessary development in a woman’s maturity as an athlete. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi writes that differentiation is not the goal or the end of our self-actualization. We consistently individuate and integrate.124 One’s uniqueness becomes part of the next engagement (the next discourse) and then is re-incorporated back into an increasingly multifaceted identity. Unique and creative identities are also created in the flow state occurrence. Scholars of psychology and religion, like Ralph W. Hood, Jr., state that men and women describe mystical experiences differently.125 This is not because the phenomenon manifests itself differently based upon biology. These differences are in meaning-making and explanation and they reflect the effects of socialization. Our society still contains damaging objectifying and sexualizing stereotypes. The
existence of gendered stereotypes means that the ability to comfortably accept oneself as a subject can be a difficult process for women. The andro-centric nature of American society still situates women in a
sub-class. Women are objectified through language and images found in popular culture, religion, and family relationships. Abraham Maslow wrote that one of the marks of peak experiences is that
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 240. 125 Carole A. Rayburn, “The Body In Religious Experience” Handbook of Religious Experiences. ed. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1995), 490.
Bakes - 53 individuals begin to gain an awareness of themselves as less of an object and more of a person through peak experiences.126 For a woman, this can mean that her relation to the world can thus be changed from the inside out. Female subjectivity in sport becomes a transformative type of self-creation. Athletics itself represents a shift to the social paradigm that once created weak, submissive “good girls.” Women find a new way of living through the strength, courage, and competition that athletics helps to foster.127 Theories that female athletes should be self-depreciating and concerned with team relationships reflect the archaic patriarchal model. When women are pressured to deny their competency, power, and earned glory, they are kept in a secondary role to their male counterparts. I believe that female athletes threaten a traditionally established masculine sphere. A female athlete who takes her rightful place on the Olympic podium or holds a tournament cup represents a rejection of the support role that her gender has been historically relegated to pursue.128 By refusing to step aside, the women we call “superstars” have already begun to change the definition of “athlete.” This social change also represents a change in the way we as a society see women. As women create bodies of strength, power, and agility, the tie between sexuality and the female body begins to unravel. Women become subjects whose physiques can no longer be defined by men. Women are now building muscles and these muscles exhibit a less submissive outward posture than traditionally assigned to women. Strong, muscular women invite the possibility of mirroring men in a way that breaks down the barrier of the “other.”129 Do these changes represent a change in our male-centered society? Certainly. However, the origin for this shift can be found in women. New definitions of female strength work because they are female-created and defined by the holders of female bodies. The woman in this situation is no long the object of desire, but a dynamic being. M. Ann Hall, a scholar in the fields of women’s
Abraham Maslow, Religious Values and Peak Experiences (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), 59-68. Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin, Built to Win: the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 116. 128 Ibid. 117-118 129 Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin, Built to Win: the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 121.
Bakes - 54 studies and sport, referred to this creative process as “the reshaping of feminism into individualism, selfgrowth and the commodification of everyday life, with an increasing focus on the body and women’s physicality.”130 Women need the type positive physical existence that relies on their own creative ability rather than a careful reading of male expectations.
Future Implications My generation (Generation X) was the first to experience the real benefits of the changes in public law and policy that have legitimized women’s athletics. The number of women’s college soccer teams grew from 80 in 1982 to almost 450, nationwide, by 1997.131 Despite the successes brought about by Title IX, lower income and minority girls are often left out of organized sports and lead sedentary lives. Equipment costs money, as do the requisite physical exams; participation in sports limits a
student’s ability to work a part time job and athletics still requires some parental support, for example, rides to games. Donna Lopiano makes the point that if half of our society’s young women are playing sports, then it is most likely the lower income half that are completely sedentary.132 I was lucky. My mom could afford cleats and shin guards. She would not pay for soccer camp, but she helped me learn to budget and save my money so that I could pay for it myself. My working class mom drove me to games and our school had an activities bus that took me home after practice. What about the girls whose families made less money than mine? Lower income girls are frequently at a disadvantage even if the door is open to them.
Ibid. Alisa Solomon, “Sneakers” Whatever It Takes: Women on Women’s Sport ed. Jolie Sanchez and Joby Wynans (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 295. 132 Donna Lopiano “Sport: As Important for Our Daughters as Our Sons”. June 23, 2008. Chautauqua Institute, Chautauqua, NY. © 2008 FORA.tv.
Bakes - 55 Another dangerous behavior that I should mention here is steroid use among female athletes. The stereotype that steroids are a male problem is a myth that our society must begin to confront. Olympic track star Marion Jones’ fall from grace is a serious warning. Marion Jones was sentenced to six months in prison in 2008 by a Federal court.133 She lied to Federal investigators about using performanceenhancing drugs and has now been stripped of her gold medals. The court sent a clear message that even an Olympic gold medalist has to pay the criminal consequences for doping and for lying to Federal investigators. That is the good news. The bad news is that Marion Jones’ steroid use, in the words of Federal Judge Kenneth Karas, “affects the integrity of athletic competition.”134 Coaches and mentors now have an example of poor sportsmanship, cheating, doping, and the very real and criminal consequences of such behaviors to show young women. One can only hope that the case of Marion Jones will deter young women from the dangerous and dishonest consequences of steroid use. Lastly, the issue of gender equality is still a contested area in athletics. Pappano and
MacDonagh’s work, Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports (2008), pushes the issue of integration with male athletes. Are women’s athletic divisions evidence of gender segregation or is the extant gender division still valuable? Personally, I believe that we, as women, still need sacred, femalecentered athletic spaces. Women’s athletics, while growing, is not yet mature. More important, our society has yet to exhibit the gender equality that would parallel full integration. In addition, the bond that female athletes and lesbians share, as teammates and as rebel women, could be damaged by integrating too soon. Alisa Solomon, in her essay Sneakers, responds to the idea of even popularizing women’s athletics: “My jock-heart cries, don’t let them make sports normal, unthreatening, as hetero as ballet. Not until they’ve run some windsprints in my shoes.”135 Debate continues on this topic.
“Jones begins 6-month federal prison sentence” Associated Press. Updated March 8, 2008, 12:30 PM ET. http://sports.espn.go.com/oly/trackandfield/news/story?id=3282477. Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press (Accessed 03/31/2009). 134 Ibid. 135 Alisa Solomon, “Sneakers”. Whatever It Takes: Women on Women’s Sport. ed. Jolie Sanchez and Joby Wynans. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 251.
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Conclusion Flow state occurrences are extraordinary phenomena. Flow, however, is not a rare occurrence. It is a fact of human biology and many athletes record these experiences. The phenomenon resembles the ecstasy and the time stoppage described by religious mystics, yogis and meditation experts. Like a mystical experience, the peak experiences of athletes correspond with a regimen of self-discipline and training. Athletics is also a life-long transformative practice that involves complex levels of
differentiation and integration. Its beneficial effects manifest on a holistic level: mind, body, and spirit. Flow is a cultivated and ongoing self-creative project for female athletes. Women, through athletics, can grasp their subjective nature and experience the liberation of their higher selves. In examining the question of gendered and embodied experiences, my research suggests that while gender is not a biological prison, it can be one of the many societal barriers that face women athletes. Women have been excluded from the sport for far too long. Flow and the transformative
practice of athletics reconnect women with the sacred and playful nature of their bodies. Ideas of tactical separation for women, like those of Luce Irigaray, provide a new perspective on women’s athletic divisions. These female-centered arenas represent a sacred feminine space on a uniquely humanist stage. With the support of Title IX, these spaces and the unique and socially deviant women who occupy them challenge the narrow and damaging gender roles that patriarchy has historically assigned to women. There is no road map for the future of women’s athletics in our cultural, historical, and religious landscapes; women are free to decide which roads to travel.
Bakes - 57 Personal Reflection I have been an athlete my entire life. I have tried multiple sports: gymnastics, basketball, tennis and soccer. From the age of 10, however, soccer became my love and my life. The acceptance of my NCAA athletic scholarship at the age of eighteen signaled my entrance into the elite world of athletics. Why am I writing about flow state occurrences from the perspective of Religious Studies? There are a few answers to this question. As my academic studies of mystical and non-dual experiences progressed, my experiences with flow began to resonate as similar. The unique experiences of athletes represent a type of secular and western mysticism that is often relegated to a lesser status than the “accepted” types of mystical states – the irony of this humorous. To my disappointment, the majority of my religious studies coursework has yet to show any reverence for the inner lives of athletes. The influence of Eastern religions on our society has been both a benefit and a hindrance to studying the phenomena that occur in athletes. The acceptance of Tao and martial arts as transformative practices with embodied experiences has assisted the discipline of Religious Studies to accept less orthodox forms of mysticism. However, sport is criticized as too frivolous to be subtle, as overly focused on the body and material concerns, and, finally, as having no “higher” purpose. In response to the above, I would counter that human play can, in fact, be profound and even quite serious an endeavor. In addition, we are not imprisoned in our bodies - we are our bodies. As another point, the exploration and enhancement of individual human potential is a noble purpose. Athletics can foster health, well-being, and bliss. Ultimately, the denigration of secular types of mystical experiences reflects the negative stereotype that the disciplines of religious studies and theology still hold toward the secular world. Specifically, this stereotype assumes that the secular life is empty, materialistic, or is incompatible with sublime experiences. I wish to help dispel this notion by demonstrating the mystical nature of many
Bakes - 58 “non-religious” experiences. The inner experience of the athlete is transforming, human and valid - even when the athlete does not hold a religious ideology. Choosing not to categorize a truly sublime
phenomenon within accepted religious parameters is a freedom already held by many non-believers. In the case of female athletes, they can interpret their experiences as human, embodied, and free from external definition or constraint. Further, female athletes, like myself, are able to re-define
themselves in the arena of sport with a unique creativity. This opens new doors for women to value themselves within a society that often fails to value them fully. Athletics is a transformative path of selfliberation and self-improvement. Liberation a-theology, experienced through flow, can assist us as
women in re-gaining our playgrounds and enjoying life in our bodies again. Flow state occurrences re-introduce women to the joy, the beauty and power of their own bodies. Through athletics women can style their bodies to express strength, agility and competence. Women are no longer hemmed in by the fantasies of men. Finally, through recognizing the sacred nature of our human potential, women can find a release from the still extant remnants of patriarchal religion and society. The confidence, talent, and power, when written on a woman’s body and in her own handwriting cannot be denied or reduced. Flow state occurrences remind women that they can realize their human potential for miracles.
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US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Source: The Burden of Chronic Diseases and Their Risk Factors: National and State Perspectives 2004 http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/burdenbook2004/pdf/burden_book2004.pdf Accessed 03/09/2009
Title IX.info, The National Women’s Law Center 2009, http://www.titleix.info/10-Key-Areas-of-TitleIX/Athletics.aspx (accessed 03/23/2009)
National Association for Girls and Women in Sport (NAGWS) at 703-476-3450 (nagws.org)
National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators at 910-793-8244 (nacwaa.org).
Speeches Donna Lopiano “Sport: As Important for Our Daughters as Our Sons”. June 23, 2008. Chautauqua Institute, Chautauqua, NY. © 2008 FORA.tv
Interviews Leslie Heywood – Email exchanges (July 2008) Jeffrey Kripal – Phone interview, research direction (June 2008) Paul Herrmann – In person and email (November, 2008)
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