I watched quite a compelling film yesterday evening; “TT: Closer to the Edge”. You can watch the trailer here but I can just explain the gist of it to you.
It’s a documentary film which follows some of the competitors in the Isle of Man TT races. The TT races are a series of five motorbike races which take place every year around the winding and narrow roads of the Isle of Man at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. A lot of the riders are injured every year and there have been a lot of deaths over the history of the races.
So why do they do it? Well, obviously, it’s thrilling to take your life in your hands. And of course it takes a certain type of personality to decide to dedicate their lives to the sport. But as I was watching, it dawned on me that the attraction these people have to the sport is not just for thrills. No doubt they are ‘adrenaline junkies’ but it goes much deeper than that.
There is certainly, to my mind, an equivalent here to the practice of yoga. On some level the riders are approaching Patanjali’s definition of Yoga.
Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind
Let me put it another way, thanks to a translation by TKV Desikachar; “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain focus in that direction without any distractions”.
Whether or not the riders would use that type of terminology is irrelevant. There is a level at which all thought is absent.
In the film “Senna” (about one of the greatest formula 1 racing drivers of all time) Ayrton Senna relates an experience he had in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988, in which he had built up an enormous lead over his closest rival, “That day I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving it… conscious, and I was in a different dimension. The circuit for me was a tunnel, which I was just going, going, going and I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding”.
Many sports require such an effort (whether it’s true sheer physical exertion or total concentration) that these experiences can spontaneously come about. The cyclist Sean Kelly comes to my mind, in particular his famous 1985 time trial in the nissan classic. And also snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan’s record-breaking maximum break in just over 5 minutes at the 1997 world championships.
My experience as a musician has given me glimpses of this level of absorption too. One can sometimes completely forget one’s-self and be momentarily caught-up in the in the act of creating something. Many artists, including painters, musicians, authors, playwrights and dancers are compelled to continue with the pursuit of their art in the hope that they can tap into this level of total concentration. It is the process of creating the art, rather than beholding the finished product, that drives the greatest artists.
So what is this state of consciousness?
It could be described as the seventh limb of yoga. Dhyana. That is ‘the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous’. The reason some of us are compelled to seek out these experiences over and over is that they are fleeting. If we could abide in total absorption that would be the blissful state of Samadhi. Through the creation of art or through focussing our minds via sport we are only ever going to get one step below the pinnacle of human consciousness.
The ultimate goal of Yoga practice is a continuous state of Samadhi. If we don’t know what we’re looking for that then how can we achieve it? The riders of the TT races may think that they are thrill seekers but I believe that, actually, they are truth seekers. They are, perhaps unwittingly, tapping into something of the truth about the nature of consciousness and temporarily stopping all conscious thought. They are willing, it seems, to put their lives on the line to do it.