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"I Am not the Body; I Am the Soul"


Breaking Limits with Sri Chinmoy

An interview with Ashrita Furman
by Elizabeth Debold
 

AF: No, not at all. That's why this thing is so exciting for me. I had always been interested in the Guinness Book of Records as a kid. I was fascinated by it for some reason. I found out, just a couple of years ago, that I was born four days after the Guinness book was conceived. I think there was some connection because in that year—I was born in 1954—Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. And there were other things like that happening. So I had always been interested in it as a kid, but I was very unathletic. My father was an attorney and really stressed education. I was into that; I was very, very mental. I felt that sports were a waste of time. I could be reading or studying—why waste my time doing sports! My whole life revolved around the mind. I didn't see any purpose in developing the body.

I became dissatisfied with life as a teenager. When I was fifteen, I read Siddhartha. I started really becoming disillusioned with the world as I saw it, and with my life, as I saw how it was going to become like my father's or like others' around me. I didn't want to lead a life like that; I didn't see any meaning in it. So I started searching, doing yoga, and reading books on Eastern spirituality. Sri Chinmoy actually lived in my neighborhood. I saw a poster and I went to a meditation—they were held in his house in those days.
WIE: How old were you?

AF: I had just turned sixteen. I knew the second that I saw him that he was my teacher. I had no idea what his philosophy was. In fact, my concept was that I was going to go into a cave and try to realize God. That was my idea. I was a little disappointed to find out that that wasn't his philosophy. But I knew he was my teacher. As soon as I saw him, I saw that he was a divine being, and I knew that I was meant to follow him. So I had to conform to his philosophy of staying in the world, not going into a cave, living in the world and manifesting for other people whatever spirituality that you get through your own spiritual practice.

His idea is that we have to live in the world and be examples, to try to inspire other people. And also, to develop every part of ourselves; not only our spiritual part but our mind and our heart and also our body. So he would encourage people to participate in sports. But because I was so unathletic, I just figured, "Oh, that doesn't apply to me." Because I was like the biggest nerd. I just really didn't believe in it and I didn't feel it applied to me. But after a number of years, there was this big race in Central Park, a twenty-four-hour bicycle race.

WIE: Was it put on by Sri Chinmoy?

AF: No. I don't know who it was; it was sponsored by Pepsi. It was in 1978. They had a five-mile loop in Central Park, and the idea was to ride the most times around this five-mile loop. You wore kind of a bib, and they would stamp you every time you went around. Sri Chinmoy encouraged all of his students to join. He himself went out and practiced. He would go out at five in the morning and ride his bike around in the park. And I figured, "Okay, well, I think maybe I should join this." I had no idea. Not having ever done sports, I really had no idea.

So I bought a bike and trained—I rode around for ten days or something before the race. And then the night before the event, we had a meditation. Just for fun, Sri Chinmoy asked each person—we had about two hundred people who were entered in the race—how many miles they thought they were going to do. Usually people would ride and then sleep for a few hours, and then ride, and then rest—like that. The really good athletes in our group were thinking like 300, 325 miles, because it's a hilly course, and it was hot. I figured, "Okay, I'll say 200 or maybe I'll say 250—I mean, that would be incredible for me."

WIE: This was your first physical effort?

AF: Yes, exactly. It came to my turn and instead of letting me say anything, Sri Chinmoy said, "Oh, Ashrita, how many miles are you going to do? 400." And I almost fell over. I was really in shock. Because 400—I think the guy who won the race did just a little more than 400 the year before. I was numb. I just kind of nodded.

I went home, and I knew that Sri Chinmoy could see something within me that I wasn't seeing. So I was determined to try to do that 400, or else I was going to die trying. I literally wrote out my will. Not that I had much—I had a rabbit and a bird because I used to do magic shows for kids. I really had no idea what would happen, but I was ready to go out into the battlefield.

So I took a little picture of Sri Chinmoy and taped it to my bicycle. I had a very good meditation right before the race—and then I went out there. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. (I've had so many since this started!) For one, two, three hours, everything was going well, I was keeping the pace. And then, of course, my legs started hurting, and I would use different things that Sri Chinmoy taught me.

WIE: Like what?

AF: For instance, I remember vividly that my quadriceps really started to ache, and I said to myself that the Supreme was massaging my legs. In other words, instead of feeling that sensation as pain, I felt it as something good. When I started getting tired, I would start chanting and using all the techniques I had learned. I would start saying a mantra, or I would try to do some pranayama [breathing exercises]. All this was happening on the bike!

It was amazing. I remember that at one point the course was almost completely empty. This was in the middle of the night. It was very, very dark, except for a few lights in Central Park. I was riding around the course with the wind blowing through my hair, and I was up there with the leaders! Riding around the course! By the morning, people were in shock. Because I think I got off the bike once for a bathroom break for five minutes. But people, everybody, could not believe it, because they knew I wasn't an athlete. And even Sri Chinmoy seemed surprised, I think. I ended up tying for third place overall—I did 405 miles.

WIE: That's fantastic.

AF: It was an epiphany for me. It was obvious that it had nothing to do with me—with my body. It was completely the grace of my teacher and the Supreme.

From that moment, when I got off the bike—well, I fell off the bike—I knew that I was going to try to break a Guinness record. That was such an incredible experience for me. That was the basis of everything else. I knew then that I would be able to get into the Guinness book. And I wanted to do it, really, to honor my teacher, because all of this was coming from him. I dedicate every one of these Guinness records to Sri Chinmoy because I feel that he's inspired me. And not only inspired me—he gives me the capacity because I invoke him throughout when I'm trying to break a record. I consider them as spiritual experiences. Besides that one vision on the pogo stick, I've had many, many deep spiritual experiences doing the records.

WIE: Is there any particular record that stands out for you as even more challenging than the rest?

AF: I'm going to tell you about the somersaults because that was very inspiring, the somersault record. But first let me tell you how I came to try for that one. You see, the first record I did was jumping jacks. The record was 20,000; I did 27,000. As I told you, I was in such terrible shape—I could only do 50 when I first started. I would do jumping jacks as a meditation. I would meditate and then do the jumping jacks almost as an extension of my meditation. I finally got up to the point where I could do 10,000 and then I went for the record.

It was one of my favorite records to do because I had a picture of Sri Chinmoy right on the wall at the gym. I would meditate on the picture while I was doing the jumping jacks. So I did 27,000 and broke the record. And then I figured, "Wow, that was my first official record." I looked in the book, and I saw right next to the jumping jack record was the somersault, or technically, forward roll. And I thought it would be kind of neat to have two in a row. I tried it, and I got so dizzy doing even a few rolls that I said, "No, no. Let me try something else." But it bothered me, because I felt that I should be able to transcend that feeling of dizziness and nausea. Someone else did 8.3 miles.

WIE: Someone really did 8.3 miles of somersaults, forward rolls?

AF: Exactly. So I kept thinking about it. And one night I went out at two o'clock in the morning when no one was around, because otherwise people would think I was crazy. And I rolled around the track; I did a quarter of a mile. I was so happy. I was completely nauseous. I didn't use any padding, I was black-and-blue, covered in dirt—there was glass on the track. But I was thrilled that I had been able to push through and do a quarter of a mile. I practiced and got to a point where I felt I was ready to try for the record. I actually broke the record in Central Park: I did ten miles. And nobody broke my record, so then I decided that I was going to break my own record. And I chose to do Paul Revere's Ride in Massachusetts.

WIE: How long is that?

AF: It is twelve and a quarter miles. People magazine was there, and there was a lot of media coverage. I was very, very nervous. And, well, I ate four slices of pizza the night before. I was doing this thing called carbo-loading, but I didn't realize that it was not going to get digested. So I was completely sick. It's funny, the unofficial rule, Guinness rule, is that you have to do continuous rolls, but they allow you to stop to throw up. Because the thing is, you do have to throw up. It was also a hilly course. I had never trained on hills. I had only trained on a flat track. So right away, my whole equilibrium was off. I was struggling from the moment I started. People were screaming, "Ashrita, how are you doing?" My friend was yelling out, "Oh, yes. He's going to Charlestown!" And I'm thinking to myself, "I'm never going to make it. There's no way I'm going to make it." Usually I'm not in that kind of frame of mind, because I usually try to stay in a soulful consciousness while I'm doing this, really stay within my heart and think of my teacher. But I was really thrown off. I felt so nauseous and sick from the very first mile. I figured, "I'm never going to make it."

This is actually one thing I love about the records: there's always this moment of truth, somewhere—usually in almost every single attempt—where I really have to transcend my body and my mind, go deep within and really connect with my soul and with my teacher's grace. I'm invoking it all the time. There's a moment when I have to truthfully make that jump, leave my own human capacity and jump into something beyond me. It is something that I can't even take credit for. I don't take credit for these things.

So around five or six miles, I was finished: "I just can't; I just can't go anymore." I stopped, and I meditated. And I got the inspiration. I had a very deep meditation—it was very quick—but I had a very deep meditation. I really felt this force, this divine force inside me, and I kept going. The record was ten miles, and I decided, "I'm going to go just a little past ten miles and then stop. I'm not going to finish." I had already decided that in my own mind, because it was so painful.

A radio station had been broadcasting my progress, and there was a furniture store a little bit past the ten-mile point. They had put this lounge chair out on the road, on the sidewalk. I saw this chair out in the distance like an oasis. And I said, "Okay, I'm going to hit that chair, and I'm going to stop. That's it. I'll have broken the record, but I'm not going to finish. I'm not going to go to the end." I got to the chair and plopped down. I said, "Okay, that's it." I told my friends who were with me, "That's it. I'm finished." They said, "Ashrita, we actually called Sri Chinmoy." Because one fellow knew me very well, and he had figured out what I was thinking, even though I never expressed it. He said, "I called New York." Now, Sri Chinmoy doesn't usually get involved. I couldn't imagine that they had called and found him. They told him that I was having a lot of trouble and that I was probably going to stop just after ten miles and not finish the whole course. So Sri Chinmoy said, "Tell Ashrita that he has the capacity to do it." As soon as I heard that, I was overjoyed. My teacher was actually telling me that I could do it! I was in a pretty good consciousness, and I knew that I would find some way.

So I just got out of the chair and I started rolling. With each roll at this point, my whole abdomen would cramp up. It was very painful. But with the first roll I did, these words came out of my mouth, "I am not the body; I am the soul." It was like a mantra, which I had never said before nor had ever heard before. With every roll, I did it, "I am not the body; I am the soul!" And I tell you, it was thrilling! It was exhilarating! I finished with no problem at all. I had no physical injuries after. I had been so uplifted by that message. Again, I attribute everything to my teacher, because he gave me that message that lifted me up out of my physical pain so that I no longer identified with what was happening with my body. That's my goal in all of these things, to try to transcend the physical and go beyond it.

WIE: It's very inspiring just to hear you speak about it.

AF: I feel like we only touched the tip of the iceberg, but the tip hopefully will inspire some people.

 

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This article is from
Our Transformation Issue

 
 
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