extreme sports, shamanism, and the danger of boredom

I’m rereading a favorite old book of mine called, “Bone Games” right now, about extreme sports and shamanism.  The author had one of those supernatural experiences that climbers sometimes get when their life is hanging by a thread.  He was able, after a fall, to down climb a stretch of ice covered rock flakes in Colorado, something most expert climbers wouldn’t be able to do in a state of even perfect health.  As he writes regarding his perfect presence during the ordeal, “I was the very best version of myself that I could possibly be”, and the rest of the book catalogs his academic anthropological quest to understand people who seem endowed with supernatural powers, some of them at will.

If you overlay the Christian faith on the subject, you come up with lots of conclusions or speculations about demon possession, and those of us who’ve encountered demon possession firsthand know the reality of supernatural capacities that attend those so possessed.  However, I’m not convinced that’s all there is to it.

After all, Jesus was alone in the wilderness for 40 days, fasting no less, when he encountered the forces of darkness.  In other words, his body was involved in his spiritual formation, along with his spirit.  Only after that did he begin his ministry.  Moses had 40 days in the mountains with God, alone.  Let’s not forget about Paul’s word that he “buffets his body and makes it his slave” in I Corinthians 9, all for the purpose of displaying the power of God.

I’m only pondering here, but my suspicion is that cultural softness and physical softness lead, invariably to spiritual softness.  On the other hand, my first response to my own thought is, “Of course not,”  because the Bible tells us in II Cor. 4:16 that “though our outer man is decaying our inner man is being renewed day by day.”  I know old saints who can barely walk, whose face and faith are joy filled and confident.

On the other hand, there must be something to the relationship between body and spirit, because we crave comfort.  As a culture one might even argue that we’ve become so addicted to comforts that we’re digging ourselves a hole of debt, in part because of our refusal to live simply.  I wonder if “comfort addiction” has spiritual as well as financial consequences.  The premise of “bone games”, in part anyway, is that they are best suited to live well who are living near the edges, at least some of the time.  Drop the shamanist labels, and the fear of demon possession, and just look at it this way:   If Paul prayed that we would prosper, body, soul, and spirit, wouldn’t it be wise to think about what means?  I know that I’m a better version of myself after a day that includes some exercise and eating right, than after a day of sleeping too long, surfing the internet, and eating potato chips.

Not only am I better, but I’m slowly discovering that I’m wholly better, soul, and spirit are better when I’ve lived in direct contact with the earth, faced a challenge or two, and finished my shower on cold.  I don’t want to make too much of it, but I don’t want to make too little of it either.  I certainly recognize that each of us have limitations and afflictions, but it’s also true that we can choose to either live in contact with the earth – cold water, bike rides, smelling flowers, gardening, nights under the stars – or we can live behind the curtain, watching TV and staying indoors.

What do you think?  What’s the relationship between challenging our body’s desires for comfort and ease, and being spiritually healthy?

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • jeb

    Richard, i think you are right to conclude that there is an unseparable connection between body and spirit. Though as you point out via Paul’s quote about the outer man wasting away while the inner man being renewed that one cannot make the leap to say ‘my body is healthy thus so is my spirit’. I think you would have to conclude that being healthy as both body and spirit (ie. the whole person) has to do with being fully human- that is that we are creatures that bear the image of God. The tension lies in that as creatures were are corruptible (ie. bodily decay) but as image bearers we are volitional selves choosing the good. The latter involves a discipline that is in contrast to being a slave to sin or even bodily desires. If we give up our will to choose the good in order that we might be comfortable we are no longer being who we are created as but rather addicts to our physical senses and feelings. Being whole and healthy, even disciplined of course does not mean that we are never comfortable. Some days sleeping in can be the good choice. But it is the willful choice based on what is good rather than the compulsive addiction to avoid discomfort that makes it so.
    i don’t know if i have fleshed this idea out well enough, but there you go.
    i do think you are right to ponder if this ‘softness’ isn’t what leads us to fail to make the effot to live simply and to feel we have the right to have others or institutions provide for our care and felt needs.

  • ian

    Not sure if I entirely understand you, but the times I’ve felt most alive is when I’ve been expanding my mind. Sometimes it’s through rock climbing or mountaineering or riding a motorcycle taxi around Kampala. Sometimes it’s as simple as cooking really good food from scratch or homebrewing delicious wine from foraged fruit. These also tend to be the times I’ve learned the most about myself, both spiritually and physically.

  • Douglas Ray

    The idea that physical and spiritual are linked is essential to Christianity, the dis-belief in this idea has been well developed as Gnosticism and has been condemned by Christians as heresy since Paul wrote Corinthians.

    The stories of the bible are by and large stories of challenge, discomfort, hardship, danger, and adventure. I’d go so far as to say that the bible seems to tell us that following God will have all of those elements. Abraham, David, Melchizadek, Jonathan, Paul, Peter, Jesus himself, all faced great hardship as part of following after God; I’m not sure where any student of the bible could come up with the idea that following God could ever be a life of safety or comfort. It does seem like a lot of American Church Culture has gone down that road however.

    That said, it think it’s important to keep a perspective on adventure and challenge that is holistic. I’ve climbed mountains in storms, been hit by rockfall 20 miles from the nearest road, been half-way around the world and back to preach the Gospel, lived in a van for three years, and gotten up four times in a night caring for a broken family’s children. All of these were adventures, all had challenge and risk. Life needs to have difficulty in physical, relational, and other realms lest it be incomplete.

    Anybody want an adventure? Try following Jesus.

    Warning: Death and resurrection included

  • sp

    I love it. If you haven’t, read Wild at Heart — it does a great job of unpacking this in a good way.

  • Ryan Thomas

    I realize I’m a little late to the dance with this comment, but here it goes…

    I get nervous when we begin divide our being in various parts: body, soul, spirit, mind, etc. We are beings who cannot being divided and still exist in wholeness. If we take the Creation narrative seriously, Genesis 2:7 doesn’t allow us to make such divisions. God didn’t create a body in which he placed a soul, like a shell in which a hermit crab lives. Rather he “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a soul.” This does not allow for a formula that says man is the conglomeration of physical and spiritual attributes; rather man is a soul, a living being, a complete mystery. The dust didn’t house the soul, it became a soul.

    I realize that when Jesus gives the greatest commandment in Mark 12 he says that we must love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” yet I don’t read this as saying mankind is fragmented. These are ways in which we love God, and we must love God with all of them.

    We must escape the dualism of body vs. soul. When we are engaging our bodies we are feeding our souls; when we engage our souls, our bodies are being fed. Humans are not particles glued together, we are a cohesive, mysterious whole.

  • http://lessermystery@yhoo.com elysia

    Enjoyed the article. I’ve stumbled into quite a number of articles lately that cast a light of suspicion on those of us who feel simple living is healthy living. To me, it makes so much sense that it should go without saying. But maybe it shouldn’t go without saying. I’ve had a belly full of Shamanism lately. Magic is all fine and well, but its common sense that wins the day for me. Through my own experience it’s the little practical steps taken on a day to day basis that add up, over time, in timely fashion, to the grandly esoteric. But there are plenty of really rewarding rewards just in the tangible results of these efforts.


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