Influences

I’m a great believer in the kindness of the Universe. (That’s my generic name for God; replace with the term of your choice.)

When I was at Stanford from 1959 to 1966, I was kind of a sad little sonofagun. I was smart enough to get into one of America’s elite universities, but not smart enough to understand the full dimensions of the situation that I’d gotten myself into.

I was looking for answers that were not to be found in the curriculum. My dad, a wonderful man, had at age 48 come up against a crisis of faith and, in a moment of despair, shot himself through the head, permanently blinding himself. It was typical of my old man that he never once complained or bemoaned his fate, but bore his karma stoically and made the best of the rest of his life. We moved to Los Angeles where Dad entered the Braille Institute. He learned Braille at record speed and within months was serving on the board of directors. That was Dad — his courage, inner strength and irrepressible good cheer have served me well throughout my life as personal characteristics worth emulating.

At Stanford, I was kind of a mope. Up to the point of my father’s tragedy I had drawn my sense of self-worth from my academic accomplishments. And now, when I needed a soulful sense of life’s meaning, I found that the rational mind simply couldn’t deliver it. When I was desperate, the intellect let me down. Words, words, words. I longed for a warmth of meaning on a human scale that would nourish my heart.

I heard a saying at the time: “Unrelieved boredom is the beginning of the end of being bored.” The painful longing for “something else” would, in time, end up serving me well.

For starters, I had the inspiration of friends who seemed to know life’s meaning with a sure and faithful instinct. One was Jim Youd, my roommate for a year, a very athletic young man, a varsity water polo player and intramural champion heavyweight wrestler. Jim had a heart of pure gold, as strong as his formidable body with its 18 1/2-inch neck. (I remember a pillow fight where he knocked me on the floor with a pillow that he hurled so hard it felt as if I’d been hit with a 100-lb bag of cement.) In any crisis that involved issues of the heart — as when a friend of ours was dating a woman from wealthy Atherton whose parents couldn’t bear that fact that their precious little girl was choosing to consort with a mere engineer — Jim was the soul of compassion and wise, heartfelt counsel.

That year, I also roomed with Jim’s cousin, Don Buehler, an All American water polo player who would have a long, successful career as a heart surgeon. Don’s teammates on the water polo team thought he might be on the verge of flunking out, because he looked kind of like a country boy from the Ozarks. Actually, he was Phi Beta Kappa and was offered a Rhodes scholarship in his senior year, which he declined in favor of entering med school.

It was through Jim and Don that I met Marty Hull, a superstar water polo player whose disposition was just about as positive and upbeat as I imagine it’s possible for any human being to be.

It was from people like Jim and Don and Marty that I began to sense that there really was something else, something better to aspire to in this life, though it would be some years before I could fully understand the radical personal changes that would be required before I could begin to get that something for myself. Toward the end of my time at Stanford, during a graduate year while I worked for my MA, I was paralyzed from the chest down by a benign tumor that was compressing my spinal cord. I eventually recovered, though it would take three years, and it was during this period that I hit bottom. I could see nothing in this world that promised the kind of happiness I was seeking — except for the sole possible exception of the teachings of the saints.

In the end I decided that I had no alternative but to test the spirits, and see for myself if they were true. I would take up the spiritual teachings and make them prove themselves.

Of course, the spiritual side of my story is a long and, I think, fascinating one, though this probably isn’t the right place to tell it.

A relevant point is that my physical and spiritual recovery began with the body. In fact, it was Brother Bhaktananda, a senior monk in the monastery of a great Eastern saint, Paramhansa Yogananda, who got me started on an exercise program. Again, that’s a story for another time. The short, significant upshot is this: as I began to get fit, my body began to pour energy into all of the other aspects of my being. My mind was suddenly sharper and better able to concentrate. My heart was suddenly filled with fresh new enthusiasm. My soul occasionally soared when time stopped and I found myself running in the moment. The body was teaching me that there was such a thing as joy, and that I just needed to learn how to work with all of this energy in ways that would harmonize my body, heart, will, mind and soul. It was the scientific teachings of the world’s great religions that helped me begin to move toward that very down-to-earth goal.

At 77, the work continues, and I still find tremendous inspiration learning about athletes young and old who manifest the attitudes that create a happy life: whose hearts are strong, loving and expansive. For example, this morning as I searched for information about Marty Hull, I came across an article about Jessica and Maggie Steffens, sisters who happen to be among the most accomplished and inspiring water polo players of all time. I was struck, following Maggie’s career at Stanford, by how she reminded me of Marty, in the way her teammates reported that they loved to be around her because of her relentless positive magnetism and good cheer. (Here’s a letter of appreciation from Maggie to her big sister Jessica.)

I had a long conversation yesterday with Helen Purcell, director of one of America’s most inspiring and successful TK-8 elementary schools. The average high school GPA of Living Wisdom School’s graduates is a remarkable 3.85. I’ve served LWS as a web manager and writer for about 35 years. My two most recent books are about the school.

Our conversation was about kindergarten, and how it’s possible to create an environment where 4- and 5-year olds can begin to acquire the attitudes and the confidence to grow up to be inspiring people like Jim Youd, Don Buehler, Marty Hull, and Maggie and Jessica Steffens. And at LWS, it’s not just sales talk. I recently spent many hours filming the kindergartners at LWS, and I was impressed by how well on their way those little kids are, to becoming inspiring people.

If you’ve been an athlete for more than a day, you’ll doubtless find the methods of Living Wisdom School completely familiar, because they’re the same principles that enable success in today’s training and tomorrow’s race. During our conversation, Helen reaffirmed that the most important of the eight LWS “School Rules” is: “Choose Happiness.”

I realize how simplistic it sounds. But I think I was able to make a pretty good case in The Joyful Athlete that the best training is also the happiest — because it’s the kind of training that nudges the edges of our body, heart, will, mind and soul in the most appropriate ways. And the most basic spiritual principle of all says that every least expansion of awareness at any level of our life invariably produces a corresponding little extra shot of joy.

For all these reasons, I think it’s extremely important for our own happiness as well as our athletic careers to assemble a personal environment in which, like the kids at Living Wisdom School, we can be free to expand ourselves and to help others expand themselves and experience happiness, too. We can cultivate the company of good, positive role models whether close or at a distance, and we can offer our lives to serve as helpful influences for others. The world will never be permanently improved by “fixing” it with a thousand rules. It will only become a happier place when each person makes the decision to choose happiness and share it freely.