Beyond the Centaur

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On July 4 1962 60,000 rowing enthusiasts lined the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia to observe the strong, smooth strokes of the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Sculling Champion Vyacheslav Ivanov. He was the picture of effortless motion as he easily defeated the American Champion Seymour Cromwell. His sculling was seamless blend between the fluid movements of his body and his fragile wooden shell. He had reached a superior performance of mind, body, and spirit. There was flow to his sculling on this particular day and his consciousness was in a high state of sensitivity and awareness. InNo Boundary, Ken Wilber writes that “a Centaur is a legendary animal, half human and half animal, so it well represents a perfect union and harmony of mental and physical.”1

It also represents the flow state that few athletes reach unless they have undergone heightened training of the mind and body. It involves both are clear, sensitive inner self combined with a highly evolved exterior harmony and awareness of nature.

In the 1980s I was able to secure a tape of Ivanov in training and his sculling was pure ballet as he moved effortlessly from stroke to stroke. His wrists were flat at the release, elbows moved in and out of the finsh position fluidly, blades were kept close to the water surface, entry was quick and neat, and the shell ran level and continuously from stroke to stroke. It was a wonderful state of continuous water ballet. His movements were so refined and subtle.

To gain a better understanding of how Ivanov reached this effortless flow, we can use an excellent standard for evaluating consciousness – Ken Wilber’s wonderful book,The Spectrum of Consciousness2. In his book Wilber clearly outlines the the four levels of consciousness. This has been an extrememely helpful guide in my coaching ever since I discovered the book in the early 1980‘s, especially for observing, listening, and understanding the athlete’s mental development. Consciousness, as Wilber outlines is a process of development and the starting point is being aware that our inner self is not congruent with our outer disposition; with careful self attention we can observe and monitor this division in ourselves. So, the first stage requires harmony between the inner (shadow) and the outer mind (persona), and this is the Persona level. This possible split in our person must be known and addressed by the coach and the athlete before they can hope to move on the next level. Once the mind becomes a consistent total entity with no split between the inner and outer minds, then the next stage in Wilber’s spectrum is the division is between the body and the mind or Ego level. This division in the organism is a great impediment to effective training of the athlete. What can help development in both of these levels is meditation and the technique simulation exercises. I found that improving your communication skills also helps. It is also helpful if the coach encourages his athletes to treat every individual with respect no matter what their station in life.

The athlete is working on his inner peaceful side during the development of these first two levels. The qualities of gentleness, empathy, curiousity, creativity, non judgement, mindfulness, responsibility, and a genuine humility are all promoted and utilized to bring the inner mind and outer mind, and the total mind and body together. The athlete encounters a conflict between his sport and outside interests. He hasn’t totally accepted that he is an athlete with all of the responibilties that are involved. When the body and the mind eventually become one this is the Centaur level, the third stage. The combination of mind and body is the essential framework for the efficient movement of accomplished athletes, a wonderful congruency of mental clarity with a finely tuned body which can be achieved in effective training. In racing the athlete attempts to go this third rung of consciousness and it is where flow occurs.  Ivanov displayed this quality in racing in Philadelphia. Ivanov had moved beyond the primary level to a higher consciousness where the complete organism of the body and mind is integrated with the environment, the shell, oars, and water. This is the level of the Centaur. The finely tuned organism of mind, body, and spirit envelopes the immediate external environment and becomes an intimate part of it. For the moment on that day, he had mastered all three of the four levels of Wilber’s consciousness.

Flow is smooth bodywork and blade work with no extra movements, smooth uninterrupted movement. This level of Athleticism encompasses both the subtle production and conservation of energy. You need the flow of the mind, the body, the blades, and the shell. The harmonious integration of these four components creates smooth, seamless, movements. The action is fluid with a high degree of economy of motion. Finally, this effortless action is characterized by its simplicity, accuracy and rhythm…

The complete training regimen with its simple focus of improving each individual’s athleticism attempts to eliminate the dualities of the first two levels and work to reach the centaur level. This should be the primary goal of every coach to have each athlete experience this state of consciousness of the total organism married to his environment. It is an experience that can easily be part of larger life beyond the playing field. The mental component should an integral part of the daily training by being integrated with both the physical and technical aspects of the program. For me, having my coach confined to the canal bank, was both a fortunate and unfortunate circumstance in many ways. It was unfortunate that his close checking of my technique was restricted, but fortunate, because I was able to enjoy the solitude of the environment and the experience of being primordial with the shell, wind, and water. There certainly were more moments of being totally immersed in nature than I would have had with a coach alongside in a coaching launch.

The oarsman is fortunate because in his sport he is subjected to all types of inclement weather. In many respects the oarsman is an amphibian moving from the warmth of the fall sun to the cold, snow and freezing rain of winter with a respite from the elements with indoor training, to the wind and wet of early spring on the river. So for other than a couple of months of indoor training, he is really a creature subject to vagaries of nature. He is forced to develop his powers of persistence, patience, and endurance.

For the sculler this also means developing a tight seamless integration between his flimsy shell, the oars, the body, the wind, and water. It involves the interplay of all our senses of feeling, seeing, hearing, and even smelling.The athlete operates with a highly concentrated and relaxed mind combined with an absolute quality of flow to his total organism: his mind focuses on the present with a total awareness of his immdediate surroundings.

But it must be understood that the rower must first master the first two stages of Wiber’s Consciousness Spectrum, the Persona, and the Ego, before moving on to the final two stages. We need to spend time working on our inner peace that will project to our external being. We need more empathy, detachment, non judgement, gentleness, wonder, creativity and true humilty. We must learn to treat everyone equally and be the same person to all at all times. This requires mindfulness. Much of this work can be accomplished outside of the shell with proper attention by the coach and the athlete. This is where the the daily attention to meditation, concentration, and mindfulness are so critical. The first two stages will be solidly established with this type of inner work. Wilber’s persona and shadow of the first stage will unite to form the ego. then the ego or mind will unite with the body in the second stage to form a united organism, the Centaur. The we move to the third stage, where the unified organisn of mind and body envelopes the environment. For the college athlete this would require an enormous committment in terms of discipline and concentration.

When I was younger I lived many years in wild and remote areas. When I returned to “civilization” I was constantly aware of the loss of silence; I still am. I’m also aware of what silence can do for the human spirit. I don’t believe that we can live without it and fully experience who we are. I find it alarming that many people have never known true silence. Many are uncomfortable with even moderate silence, and must constantly a television or radio, or talk on the phone. I often wonder what physiological and physical changes will occur in the brain, ears, etc. from our current state of noise.

For me this return to solitude began at a very young age shortly after the end of World War II. The valley of the 12 mile creek outside of the city limits of St. Catharines was a wonderful sanctuary for me for experiencing silence. A gentle murmur emanated from the running stream over the old dam and the hillside of this small portion of the Niagara escarpment was gloriously carpeted with white Trilliums.The dam was located an easy 20 minute ride on my old ballooned tire bike. A few concentrated moments sitting here in the brilliant sunlight was an excellent way to enjoy the solitude and stillness of the surrounding area of our swimming hole. It was an excellent exercise in moving me towards the Centaur level as my mind and body were not only enraptured by my surroundings but became an intimate part of those surroundings. Little was I conscious of this at the time. This meditative escape was part of my spring, summer, and fall routine, before the first snowfall blocked my route to my quiet haven by the creek. The challenge for any athlete or person is to take this unified organism, integrate it with the environment and through additional concentrated meditation try to embrace the Universe. Wilber refers to this final stage as Unity Consciousness, “a loving embrace with the Universe as a whole.”

This is the final stage of his four stage process. We have to be aware and conscious of nature on a daily basis.

For the college athete today it is difficult to make progress through the first two levels of consciousness because of the fast paced, busy and noisy lifestyle. There seems to be little emphasis on slowing down, solitude and quiet reflection. Sometimes the student athlete is not totally commited mentally to the sport, so that the inner and outer mind are in conflict. He does not realize that this experience is a significant ancillary education to his academic study and possibly the coach does not not present this as such.The athlete is stuck at the first stage of the process. However, the practice of quiet sitting in particular can assist the novice in bringing his inner and outer minds together and to begin to know himself.“I went down into my inmost self , Teilhard de Chardin wrote, to the deep abyss whence I feel dimly that my power of action emanates.”

We need to remember that in probing our solitude and seeking concentrative moments we find our real strength and power.

With the ordinary college student with limited athletic experience there can exist a significant gap between the academic and athletic worlds that produces a significant dualism between the mind and the body. I recall working with a young MIT student on his mind and physical coordination off water. We were in the gym and I kept feeding the soccer ball to a place in front of his body and he returned the ball behind me as we attempted to move down the floor. He could not grasp the concept of feeding the ball in front of me. It was outside his academic purview; his mind was concentrated solely on his academic work and was entirely estranged from his body. He was an excellent example of a Cartesian mindset at play. Needless to say, this was his first athletic experience and fortunately he remained in the sport for his four years at the institute. That day in the quiet of the gym proved for me to be a great lesson in patience and empathy for this type of student.

It might be possible to achieve the first three levels at the College level but the fourth level would require a highly intensive Integral program, a psycho-physical program. Wilber’s Spectrum is a wonderful psychology that is rational, positive, educational in the broad sense and progressive. However, understanding of the possibilities for flow as the goal in the athlete’s life must be recognized as well as understanding the nature of these four levels may assist the coach to understand where his athletes are located on Wilber’s simple Spectrum of Consciousness and the individual athlete’s mental/physical/spiritual performance potential.The simple solution for advancing on the spectrum lies with integation of the mind, body and environment, and certainly, it is possible for the rowing experience to help in this regard. Probably without a well defined and systematic mental component to the training the college athlete will only reach the first or second level and will have to pursue the sport or some other activity in his post graduate years to possibly experience the second or third stage in the evolution of his consciousness. First, however, it is important that each indidual is made aware of these levels. So a reading of Wilber’s No Boundary should be required.

The rowing coach has an excellent opportunity to develop his athletes to the second level in the Spectrum with the possibilty of occasionally experiencing the Flow state or Centaur level of Consciousness. The coach strives to have the athletes consciously aware of their body movements, their minds, and finally, just to be totally aware. The athletes should also be conscious of the educational value of such an education; it has important value as an ancillary activity to the formal education. They are learning how to think, focus, and concentrate that is directly transferable to the classroom. To evolve to this level of being and wholeness requires that the athlete and coach “inhabit the focused moment”, in and out of the sport. The meditative training assists greatly with this learning process. To achieve the fourth level of being and wholeness requires a lifetime of training in the sport and in life experiences; there are many examples by which this holistic perspective is woven into the fabric of our daily life. Many everday experiences that demonstrate our ability to make connections include gardening, house cleaning, washing dishes, dancing, playing an instrument, painting, writing, sports, walking(with my hip replacement recovery in full swing I am doing a lot of observing of the ant kingdom) or simply experiencing the flow of driving a car in a courteous fashion. By enlarging our perspective to encompass other aspects of our daily life we are more likely to achieve this important quality of wholeness in our sculling. Francis Thompson the English poet, once write , “that one could not pick a flower without troubling a star.”

Intuitively, he has sensed the enormous interlinked complexity of life. This is a significant leap from embracing the environment to embracing the Universe. Once we step outside each morning we have an opportunity to relate to nature, the larger world close at hand.

We think of ourselves as so intimately entwined in bodily life that man is a complex unity- body and mind. But the body is part the external world, continuous with it. In fact, it is just as much a part of nature as anything elsethere – a river, or a mountain, or a cloud. Also, if we are fussily exact, we cannot define where the body begins and where external nature ends.

Yes, it is imperative that we don’t create this boundary between our inner self and the outside world. Often at the boathouse I would take a quiet moment and have the athletesobserve a tree and see the tree as the object and then reverse the situation and try to imagine themselves to be the object and the tree the subject looking at them. Then to complete the picture I would try to have them bring the two objects(the tree and themselves) together in their minds so that the tree was part of their being.

Similarly the rowing stroke can become a seamless flow when the body, blades, shell, and and the water are tightly connected producing an integral unit. Our shell environment seems to melt into the surrounding physical environment; we are part of the elements and the water. There are no boundaries to our existence. We begin by recognizing that our body, the rowing stroke, Nature, and our world function optimally as a whole. The body combined with the mind and our spirit forms a complete unit. This integral approach develops a more balanced comprehensive person who has depth and breadth. We feel this seamless connection to the external world, this wholeness when we sit quietly with closed eyes and experience the “no boundary” effect between our skin and the world at large. We only experience a slight pressure on our backside.The organism seems to have no borders and it feels that every part of the body blends with the larger world of our immediate surroundings. Whenever I need to be reminded of wholeness I return to this simple drill of sitting, listening, and feeling with my eyes closed and this can be done easily sitting in the shell. This is the Centaur level. To experience this level the athlete has to do his meditative practice on a regular basis.

In order to accomplish this integration the coach and the athlete must view the sculling as a beautiful and powerful dance. This is the end result of the lengthy process of integral coaching on the one hand and dedicated practice by the athlete on the other hand. Both extensive drilling for exact timing and simulation exercises without the oar handle for the hand and body patterns should be woven into the training process to obtain percision movements both for the individual and the athletes practicing in concert. Unfortunately, this commitment to percision has for the most part been lost. Both types of training, the drills and the simulations were employed successfully throughout my teaching and coaching career resulting in the athletes achieving effortless power. It does require patience, imagination, and persistence on the part of the coach and the athletes. These exercises combine nicely with deep abdomial breathing. This is personal odysssey of doing, thinking, feeling, moving, observing, listening, planning,researching, reading, studying, connecting, and experiencing flow through an evolving and integrated life.

The cylical nature of the stroke cycle lends itself beautifully to the Integral approach for both the coach and the athlete. Eventually, the potential exists for the stroke cycle to become the unity of self, the mind and body, the body movements combined the shell and oars and the environment of wind, rain, snow and water.  The end product is an athlete who operates with a highly concentrated mind, with a relaxed flow to his body movements and with a highly developed awareness or the Centaur level. For this to occur, it is critical that the technical and physical components of the training be integrated with the systematic yearly mental training. Thus, the athlete must sit quietly on a daily basis to develop his powers of concentration.

 A good athlete can enter a state of body awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is the paradigm for non–action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game played the game; the poem writes the poem; we cannot tell the dancer from the dance… It happens when we trust the intelligence of the universe in the same way that an athlete or a dancer trusts the superior intelligence of the body.

The skills become a part of us, part of our deeper self and being.This represents a tremendous leap in the development as the athlete shifts dramatically from the skilled technician level to becoming an artist. We become conscious, aware, and mindful of how we sit, walk, and, of course, row. Thus, in this advanced state we are playing in the sport rather than playing at the sport. We are sculling the shell. Our performance becomes concentrated and consistent.

Can we talk about the wholeness of life? Can one be aware of that wholeness if the mind is fragmented? You can’t be aware of the whole if you are only looking through a small hole.

In discovering wholeness, we learn to coordinate our body movements at the various points in the stroke cycle so that parts are a whole.Then we recognize the objective of having our body, the rowing stroke, and the natural world, function optimally as a unit. So in the shell we must strive to be synchronized with the shell and the water. This I recall was difficult to achieve, the swing of the body in harmony with the flow of the shell. It took lots of concentrated hours and miles on the river to achieve. This skill requires an integral training approach that is balanced, and comprehensive. It should entail meditative, physical, and technique training throughout the yearly cycle so the sculling becomes an integral part of our deeper being. This personal journey for the athlete and the coach exceeds the narrow limits of his sport and spills over into his life out of the shell; this could occur in his life’s work, a hobby, or field of study. This applies to the coach because he should still be capable of demonstrating the important quality of flow in the shell or on the ergometer.

“The old coach skillfully deconstructed the stroke cycle for the young student and then reconstructed the parts back to a logical whole. The observer was witnessing a masterful demonstration reminiscent of a watchmaker reassembling the parts of a delicate timing piece.” This occurred on a regular basis during each practice on the water between the coaching from the coach and the young sculler. Consequently, for the sculler the flow of the stroke became part of his being, just as it was for Ivanov. The smooth, linear, balanced movements of mind and body, are sought in your everyday experiences. However, I am now that old coach and I would follow this practice of decontructing the stroke and then restructuring back to the whole. I have evolved over the years through study, reading practice and coaching. Thus my coaching has evolved as well as my person and this book is really the story of that personal odyssey beyond the normal reaches of the mind, the spirit and the body. Refinement and change is always at work. The distant goal is the embracing of the total Universe or Unity Consciousness. This involves a lifetime of training, discipline and concentration. Art Wilmarth, a lightweight oarsman at Yale in the 1970’s, and now a law professor, recently wrote this

Your integration of philosophical, spiritual and psychological insights with physical training has been a hallmark of your coaching career. I always appreciated your emphasis on technique and swing as essential components of power (as opposed to brute force). I’m sure that I could never have succeeded in a rowing program that emphasized quantitative measures of force (e.g., the ergometer). I remember watching other rowers working on ergometers (which were just beginning to be used at the end of my rowing days at Yale). Many of the rowers distorted their technique just to generate a few more revolutions of the ergometer — I couldn’t see much sense in that. My strongest memories of rowing are of practices or races where the boat was truly running out and we could hear the gurgling of the water under the shell. During those times I definitely felt “in the zone” and there was very little consciousness of “work” – instead, I felt the coordination of our collective efforts and the harmony of the shell with the water and the surrounding environment. Your concept of “Flow” expresses perfectly what I felt then but could not have articulated in the way you’ve done.

In my work as a law teacher and advocate, I have experienced the same feeling of harmony when I have opened my mind to God’s wisdom and asked Him to give me insights to solve difficult problems, to reach my students, or to construct a new narrative to explain a complex issue. It has amazed me how often I have received such insights when I stopped trying to “do it myself” and instead opened my consciousness to the eternal wisdom of God.  It’s certainly a “radical” approach, and I don’t attempt to explain it to people who refuse to acknowledge any source of knowledge beyond human rationality. But I know that you have experienced the same transcendental wisdom.”

So much of developing the the consciousness requires cooperation, integration, and unification. Now in retrospect, I find myself retracing my steps to find my early encounters with integration and subsequent experiences. All of this probing is helpful in moving beyond the first two levels of the spectrum and attempting to reach an understanding and possible experiencing Flow and the Centaur level in the early years beyond college.


    • 1 Ken Wilber, No Boundary, p.80

    • 2 Ken Wilber, No Boundary, p.10

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