Searching for the spirit within, 1996
"Wind-chill factor 20 below," says fly-fisherman Bob Hines. "My hands are cold. My feet are getting cold. I'm getting numb. Then: a picture-perfect cast, and this big steelhead will grab the line. And I completely forget how cold I am. It's like spring."
"I get into a state," says artist Valerie Claff. "I lose track of time - I can only see what I'm working on . . . my hand just starts going, choosing colors. Like something's taking over, and I'm an observer to this process. I start off thinking, 'I'm going to make this painting about the horizon.' Then all of a sudden the rain clouds float in, and it starts raining in my painting. And I realize, 'Who's doing this? Me or something else?' "
"When it's really crazy, six seconds to go," says basketball coach Bobby Gonzalez - leaning to confide what he says only his mother knows - "the place is going berserk. Everybody's nervous; they're biting their nails, they're screaming, they're going nuts . . . I'm very calm inside, I'm very calm inside. I very much feel confident that I can do it, that I know what to do."
These three people - slightly more than dedicated, just shy of obsessed - are continually losing and finding themselves in their labors. The result, they say, is clarity, harmony, transcendence: feelings that more and more of us say we're craving.
Browse through the self-help section of any bookstore. The titles testify to a phenomenal restlessness: What Really Matters, Getting Unstuck, Creating Yourself, The Art of Selfishness, Pathfinders, Make It a Winning Life . . .
Just a few shelves over, in the New Age section, a growing crop of meditation manuals offers instruction in breathing our way through our spiritual longing.
"Don't just do something; sit there," a contemporary Buddhist saying goes.
Although the fisherman, the artist and the basketball coach are more of the do-something variety, an element of contemplation is, in fact, at play. All three say they achieve an intense focus, a happy aloneness, -- that fuels the rest of their life, and which they therefore pursue as if their life depended on it.
Are they on a search? Maybe. But for what?
"I am trying to get at something which - I don't know what it is," says Claff, the artist.
"You can't really put your finger on it," says Coach Gonzalez. "You're searching for something that you think is there but you're not really sure that's there, but it's something that propels you to continually chase it and be intense. It's maybe the thrill of the hunt; I don't know."
"There probably is no explanation," says Hines. "The only thing I know is, I was born to fly-fish."
It's as good an explanation as any.
The sense that they are fulfilling their basic nature, the joy of losing themselves in a loved activity . . . What is left to seek?
And yes, they say, they know some people might call them selfish.
The fisherman, after a divorce, went four years without dating so as not to neglect someone because of his obsession.
The coach warned his new girlfriend of the intensity of his other love: "I've had girlfriends in the past - they couldn't handle it; I went too long without seeing them."
The artist took a job in a hospital to ward off guilty feelings that "I'm just a hedonist, wanting to spend all my time making work and feeling good about life and, oh, isn't this great, and looking at the moon and saying it's wonderful."
Before too long, however, frenzied and disconnected from the source of her art, she quit the hospital job. "It's great for somebody who can," she explains. "But for me, I can't."
So call them selfish. They can be no other way. Like lovers, like addicts, they're traveling the only path they can see down.
Their common destination is a sacred place.
"I'M A CATHOLIC," says Hines, the fisherman. "I'm a good practicing Catholic. I go to communion every Sunday, go to church every holy day. But I gotta be honest: What do you think I'm praying about? Don't get me wrong - good health for my family, and so on and so forth - but 'Please, God, give me another day on the stream.' Wicked important. I'd be lost without it."
More than once, Bob Hines has risked his life fishing.
A few years ago, he and a buddy trekked through a jungle in Belize - sinking waist-deep in mud every third step, pulling themselves out by the mangroves - to fish in the hidden estuaries where the landlocked tarpon run.
"Pancho, how much farther?" he asked his guide after they'd gone quite far.
"Just over the ridge, senor
," he was told.They slogged on to their destination: a "majestic" lagoon, where the tarpon flashed like silver mirrors and gaudy birds sang all around them.
Hines waded in, cast his fly, and - "it's like getting a hole-in-one" - quickly landed his first-ever tarpon. He held the fish long enough to admire, measure and weigh it (it was 34 inches long and 15 pounds), then he let it go, as he always does.
He cast again. Again, he got a bite.
As this fish was struggling on the line, Hines happened to glance to his right - "what I think is this big telephone pole - well, it's a crocodile." "Will it bother me?" Hines asked.
" 'Maybe yes, maybe no, senor
He stayed put and by the time he packed up his gear, he'd caught three more tarpon.
Yes, it was worth it, Hines says. It's always worth it. Even in winter, before dawn, when it's so cold that his mustache is ice and the stainless-steel guides on his pole are frozen, and he has to put the rod in the water to thaw them - and then his fingers freeze so stiff he can't tie the flies on. But eventually "the sun comes up. It's great."
Hines, 44, collections manager for the Providence Gas Co., has fished since he was a boy, growing up just a hike from Cranston's Meshanticut Brook.
"To this day," he says, "the opening day of trout season - it's still a ritual. I still feel the exact same way as I did when I was a kid."
This morning, he leads a reporter and a photographer to the Blackstone River in Lincoln. The sky is slightly overcast, and Hines says the sun hasn't been out long enough to hatch the insects that attract fish. Still, he casts. And waits. Casts. And waits.
"Some people find their solace in church or in temple, or wherever they worship. I find mine when I'm out on a pond or on a river. Listen: You can hear the birds. It does something to me. Honest to God, it makes me crazy."
When he's standing in a stream, soothed by the sound of the moving water and the sight of a goose passing overhead, his mind, he says, is utterly focused on catching a fish.
Fishing has given so much meaning to his life, he wonders if he could live without it:
"There've been times when my right arm has been so sore from casting I've thought, 'What would I ever do if I lost my right arm?' I'd use my left. If I lost my legs, I'd cast out of a wheelchair. If I ever got to the point where I was paralyzed, but I could speak, I'd lecture about it.
"I'd say what it's done for me, how it makes me feel."
ACTIVITIES SUCH AS fishing, painting and basketball can be doors to the spiritual, says Joseph Price, a professor of religious studies at Whittier College, in California, who specializes in the spirituality of everyday life.
Unlike organized religion, he says, which involves shared beliefs, spirituality is almost entirely personal: "Michael Jordan getting into a zone where he's transcendent - that's a very intense, personal, idiosyncratic kind of experience."
It is just the kind of experience, says Price, that ages ago was regarded as sacred.
"It was just an impossibility for a tribe to think in terms of the secular, as opposed to the sacred. The sacred was thoroughly integrated in all of life - in (people's) play and their sports and their foods. It was all reflective of a religious, or a spiritual, dimension."
That changed, he says, with the evolution of modern consciousness - specifically, in the late 1600s, when animals and plants began to be classified scientifically. Out of the wilderness, says Price, the idea of nature as separate from one's self was born.
And yet, he adds, we humans cannot escape our "fundamentally religious" nature - our urge to know why we exist and to connect to some higher purpose.
Which is why Price is not surprised that more of us are seeking spiritual sustenance from secular pursuits.
It's not that church doctrine, being handed down fully formed, is less authentically spiritual: "The spirituality of prior generations, and of the people who continue to find nurture in traditional religious confessions, is also a spirituality from within."
But Price says spiritual feelings can be prompted by almost anything.
Citing the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, he calls such feelings "a surge of emotion in response to something perceived as divine and of awesome character."
That people are finding alternative spiritual paths may in fact be a credit to organized religion's having done its job: "opening us up to more possibilities than mere dogma."
"MY BREATHING SLOWS; I forget all sense of time," says painter Valerie Claff, 32, of Providence.
"I stop painting, put the brush down and realize, 'God, I have to go to the bathroom so bad and I didn't realize it.' Things like that. It's just a complete other world."
Claff, who has a master's degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and holds several part-time teaching jobs, has always had a spiritual bent.
She was raised an Episcopalian in Milton, Mass., attended catechism class with Roman Catholic friends and seders with Jewish friends, hung out after school with the Catholic monks down the street and later dabbled in Buddhism. These days, she worships with a group of women whose rituals center largely on nature.
Through all these incarnations, she's relished her solitude.
In school, she took special classes because she was dyslexic, and so was labeled a "dummy" by classmates - an ordeal that she says heightened her sense of compassion, but also caused her to turn inward.
In college, when she couldn't deal with the social scene, she'd take refuge in painting - "Gotta go to my studio," she'd say as she made her escape. Her studio is now a spare bedroom in her apartment, and it is still the place where she goes to feel safe - free from judgment.
It is a "sacred space": "a magical environment" in which "all things are possible."
"There's the sense that I'm a creator, that I in fact embody a spirit, and I in fact am Deity within me, if you can call it that. And that I can create something which has a life of its own. . . .
"The mystics talk about this fleeting image of universal truth or something: you catch it for an instant and then it's gone. I started to feel that way, and have ecstatic experiences, like" - she demonstrates by uttering a small gasp - "and then, poof, fog."
Outside the studio too, says Claff, in her painting of nature, she feels "another sort of transcendence, where you almost become invisible watching what's going on around you; you can sort of feel your oneness through just looking."
But this, she says, is only what we should expect from artists, since art is about transformation - about taking you "somewhere else."
The process of making her light-drenched landscapes involves stretches of what seems like idleness: "that time when you sit down and you think or not think, and just look, and be, and hang out. It becomes a thing you really have to try to do, in this world, you know? For me, it's a sacred thing. I really have to do that on a constant basis."
She's like the orchid on her windowsill, she says - the plant she kept watering even when it seemed dead, and one day it sprouted leaves.
"When it looks like nothing is going on, everything is going on." IN THE 1950s and '60s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow took note of so-called peak experiences, in which one feels a surplus of insight, an overflow of joy. He viewed these events as spiritual and potentially life-changing.
About 30 years later, the Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly said in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience that such moments are repeatable. He also said that the deep satisfaction known by a long-distance swimmer is the same as that of a rock climber and even a chess player - it is available to all of us.
But are such activities as spiritually satisfying as religion?
As a teenager, Geralyn Wolf, the Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island, played tennis and field hockey in national competition, and she trained by running six miles every other day.
There was something "very mystical" about the running, she says.
"Once you hit a rhythm, breathing is just like breathing in a time of meditation - very rhythmical, so you don't even have to think about it, and your whole body is matching that rhythm and it's a real mind-body experience. I will never deny the spiritual side of sports and training.
"But I'll tell you: Once I got onto the tennis court, it may have been a great experience, but my goal was to beat my opponent. My goal was not to join with them in some spiritual happening.
"And when I was on that hockey field, if you got in my way - " she laughs and seems to tamp down a killer instinct - "I had to use my skill to get around you, because the last thing I was gonna do was say, 'Oh, let's share the hockey ball.'
"It's, 'Let the best woman win.' But the truth is, in life the best woman doesn't always win, and the best woman sometimes is on the losing team - but she's still the best woman. And I think the church honors that in a way that sports doesn't."
THE SEPTEMBER issue of Bike magazine argues that sports can do the job.
In a cover story headlined "Is Mountain Biking a Religion?" editor-at-large Mike Ferrentino - taking care "not to discredit or devalue the faith of others" - says, yes, riding is "divine."
"In those rare moments that you can often remember with crystalline clarity, we transcend to something undefinable, something greater. . . . And in an intangible rush that can never be passed off as purely endorphin in origin, we get a glimpse of some greater unity and purpose."
Think about it, he argues. In an age when the family has collapsed, governments fail us and people kill one another over religion, "it's tough to really believe in anything that doesn't come from our own experience."
"And many of us, in that abyss between faith and family and meaningful context, found bicycles."
WHAT BOBBY GONZALEZ found was basketball.
As a kid in Binghamton, N.Y., he would stay up to watch Knicks games on TV, then fall into bed and dream of Madison Square Garden and Walt Frazier.
"The game - it mesmerized me," says the 32-year-old Providence College assistant coach, known as Gonzo. "Such great athletes, such an up-tempo game, lot of scoring, so many exciting plays . . . I got caught up into it, because it was kind of my personality. I was hyper-nervous. I wanted to do something fast-paced, and I was excited by basketball."
By the time he was in junior high school, Gonzalez had so honed his skill on the courts of his urban neighborhood that he was being scouted by high-school coaches.
Now basketball was more than a game; it was his identity - and a refuge.
"When I was out on the court, I didn't worry about family problems. I didn't worry about personal things. It was kind of my own little world, where I could just concentrate on basketball and be free."
When he was 18 and his father - the one who had introduced him to basketball - lay dying of cancer, it was basketball that occupied them.
"He didn't want me to miss a game, a practice. And I felt like I had to play because it was what he wanted me to do, it was what he asked me to do.
"On the day he died, I played a game. I played. And I played good."
Eleven years later came another trauma: His sister died at age 32 of viral encephalitis.
Her last words to her brother were about basketball: "Go out and tell them you're the best. We know you, we grew up with you, we know what you can do. You tell them that."
All of these experiences, Gonzalez says, imbued basketball with even more meaning than it had before.
He didn't make the pros, but his passion won him a free college education, and then a successful coaching career.
"He's here from before 6 a.m., and he'll be here till 1, till 2, in the morning," says John Scheinman, head coach at New England College in New Hampshire, who was recently at PC to help lead a high-school basketball camp. "He eats, breathes, sleeps basketball."
The largest part of Gonzalez's job is recruiting - itself a rough sport, with huge sums riding on the outcome. Still, for him, basketball retains its purity:
"The mystery, the mysticalness of it, the mental part of it. It's just so moving, so incredible, to actually get out there."
The game begins. It's on national TV. Thirteen thousand people are screaming.
But for Gonzalez, "No one else is there. You're there by yourself, and you're coming from your heart."