Certain ancient practices have always puzzled me. Take hosting sports contests to honor the dead, for example. "Oh yeah," I'd think. "That makes sense. 'My buddy just died in battle. Quick, race you to that tree!'"
Still, the ancient Greeks and Romans did this all the time. Achilles sponsored races and boxing matches after his beloved Patroklos died. The Olympics got their start as funeral games to honor Greek heros, usually warriors who'd died in battle. Even gladiatorial contests started out as rites to honor the recently deceased.
None of it ever made sense to me. Until I joined CrossFit. I began to get a glimmer of the point one day when I noticed that, while doing a CrossFit workout, I could not/did not think about anything else besides trying to get enough oxygen into myself to survive the 20 to 30 minutes or so of intense movement.
No worrying about book deadlines. No fretting about the future. No internal conversations about what I had to do later. There was no way to get through the workout without being in my body and in the moment.
Then I learned about "Hero" workouts. There was the "Josh," the "Nate," the "Jason." Named for soldiers who had died in the line of duty, hero workouts are known for being especially hard. I didn't think I'd ever be able to finish one.
The day I completed the "Murph" -- named after Lieutenant Michael Murphy from Patchogue, New York, who died in Afghanistan -- I finally understood the connection. When I staggered to the end of it -- gasping for air and trembling with fatigue -- I thought of the young soldier for which the workout was named and recognized the irony of just how alive I was in that moment, how embodied.
I had the luxury of taking in huge gulps of air, the privilege of working muscles to exhaustion, the satisfaction of having completed something challenging -- none of which young Murphy would ever be able to experience again. By going deeper into the "being-ness" of physicality, we honored what he had lost. It made a kind of weird sense.
Now, if only I could understand why ancient athletes trained and competed in the nude...