Max: When you picked up running you were probably in your early to mid-40s. What was it about running in particular that piqued your interest at that stage in life? Was it mostly related to meeting Mike Spino?
Michael: In the very beginning it was the need for exercise. I didn’t have any coaching or anything, but it was in the air. Everybody was starting to go jogging. So it was as simple as that. I’ve always been an exerciser. As a kid growing up I played baseball, basketball, and golf. Then it flipped when I was 20 into this worldview that I’ve talked about and you’ve read about.
I was 20 years old, and I was very influenced by Sri Aurobindo, the philosopher. That was in 1950. I started meditating and all that. It was not athletic practice. It was meditation practice. I finished my undergraduate work at Stanford and then went into the army for two years. In the army I pitched on the company baseball team. This was in Puerto Rico.
Then I got out, did two quarters at Stanford in graduate school, and then saw that my way forward was not through the thought of becoming a professor but instead went to India.
Michael:It was beyond just health. It was to embody the divine presence in action. There was a big emphasis on sports at the Aurobindo Ashram; they had all sorts of things. I introduced softball, if you can believe it, and I taught swimming. I played on the basketball team, et cetera. That was when I was 25 to 27 years old.
I came back to the states in 1957 and started Esalen Institute in 1961. By then I was 30 years old. So then it was all about Esalen, not running or anything. But finally when I moved to San Francisco, we started an Esalen center in the city. We had an office there, and this is when I started running. By then I was 43 years old.
At some point fairly soon I met Mike Spino. He and I became friends, and he started coaching us. He had been immersed in working with various great coaches, such as Mihaly Igloi, and then of course later on Percy Cerutty.
Michael: We started meeting all these big time runners, including Lee Evans who held the world record in the 400-meter. Do you know about that history with the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968?
Max: Yes, of course.
Michael:He set a world record there that lasted for 20 years. By then I had written “Golf in the Kingdom,” which was published in 1972. Then I wrote “The Psychic Side of Sports”, which was republished as “In the Zone” in 1978. In between, in 1977, I had written another novel, “Jacob Atabet”. So there were three books out that I had written in that period, but all the while “Golf in the Kingdom” grew and grew and grew.
And people – literally by the hundreds – were telling me about their mystical and occult experiences on golf courses. Now all of this was happening. When it started to burst loose, we had a major conference in 1973. Mike was around, and it kind of just happened. God, I got the bug. I got hooked, largely through Mike. So we started racing.
Max: Incredible. What was training with Mike like back then?
Michael: I had been jogging, but just on my own. There was one friend of mine, Sam Keen, the philosopher. And Mike said, come on; let’s go jogging together. So we did. I was living in San Francisco, but then at some point we met in the course of the Esalen Sports Center. At some point Mike started encouraging us to train in all the various ways I think you know.
We started doing different kinds of workouts. He made it interesting, and then he made it challenging. So pretty soon I thought of Vince Lombardi in the NFL. He organized a track meet in 1975. So I was still running with tennis shoes. I didn’t even have running shoes.
I was running, mainly the mile, but somehow we got into training for marathons, and I actually ran four marathons by 1979. On my fourth one I ran 2:59, but that was the end. I was 48 or 49, and now we were going to Russia.
Max: Yes, of course. How did this come about?
Michael: I was invited to the big conference at the Olympic games, and I made a proposal in a speech that Russians and Americans should train together. We defied the boycott, Carter defied the boycott. Meanwhile I gave up the marathons and started specializing on the mile. Then we were doing the interval training. When I was 53 years old I came in second in the western regional master’s championship to Bill Fitzgerald, who held the world record for both the mile and the 1500-meter.
By this time Mike had moved back to Atlanta, and I kept going more or less on my own with the things we’d all learned from him, for example how to run various kinds of interval workouts.
Max:Interesting. How did your practice change at that point?
Michael: I got real good, and I came in third in the national championships for 50-year-olds. The top three guys in a field of 20. We ran away from the rest of the crowd. We beat the fourth-place guy by 180 yards, if you can believe it.
Seriously I could have beaten 99 percent of all the high school kids in the U.S. I got it down to a 4:32 in the 1500-meter distance. I was 53 years old. So all of that, in particular the ways to train, I had learned from Mike.
Max: That’s such a beautiful story. We’re familiar with a lot of the techniques and the training methods that Mike brought to the table. What I’m also interested in is, what did you bring to him, were there any of your meditation techniques or anything you’d learned in India that Mike picked up from you?
Michael: Yes. It’s that same type of thing like we did this day with you, but we would do it for five days in a row. We’d get up every morning. We would meditate together around 6 am in the morning, and then walk together. There would be 20 to 30 people up in a ranch north of the Bay Area. With the slowest ones in front we’d go from sitting to walking to jogging.
It was a great mindful workout. The idea was silence, focus, and mind clearing, while running. Then we would have breakfast and take a break. And late in the morning around 10 am we had a big two- to three-hour workout. Mike was assessing our level of fitness, and he’d have different workouts, including really strenuous interval workouts for those of us who were in good shape, like me and like other ones who were either naturally very fast or younger.
By this time I was in my early 50s, and we had guys in their 20s who were good runners. Then we had older folks, people of all ages, and we were all working out together. So that would end, and then we would have a lunch and then naps. After that we would do all sorts of stretching or Somatic workouts, all these various modalities, such as qi gong, and then dinner and a couple of beers or a glass of wine and philosophy.
Max: What kind of philosophy?
We’d really get into philosophy. We’d recite from Shakespeare. We’d talk about Plato and get generally high on being, from the glow of working out and meditating, and a beer or two and a glass of wine. So after five days of that you really felt good.
So we would have those workshops going on. Meanwhile at that time I was writing that book which is now “In the Zone,” and the “Golf in the Kingdom”. It was coming to me. We were hearing from hundreds of people around the world, talking about a very, very wide range of supernormal experiences.
Max: What did these supernormal experiences entail?
Michael: So there was Rhea White, a lady athlete who also was a librarian. She had collected 30,000 articles over a 20-year period about exceptional sport, if you could believe it – 30,000. I, by that time, had started this big project on supernormal human functioning. I eventually collected 10,000 articles published in scholarly journals and so forth.
In organizing our material for a popular audience, we came up with 100 different types, and boiled it down to 25 different types. You can read the table of contents. That book “Golf in the Kingdom”, which is still selling after 47 years, is probably the bestselling fiction ever written about the game of golf.
So here I am now. I’m almost 90.
Michael: Yes. It’s a permanent book. People read it, and they swear by it. It’s become part of the language. It was fiction, but it was based on experiences that people actually have. The other book, “In the Zone” – we boiled it down into 25 categories. So you’d have to read it, because it’s so complex.
Max: What I’m interested in is these peak experiences you’re mentioning. You talk about the state of flow and being in the zone. Are these states analogous to a meditative state? Are they different, or is it a matter of semantics?
Michael: Well, it’s actually a wide variety of experiences. We’re still studying this at Esalen. I draw very much on the idea of supernormal powers as described in the great Hindu and Buddhist traditions. There are literally, I kid you not, many, many hundreds of named powers. So when you use a word like flow or the zone, it’s too simple. That doesn’t give you much information. It just tells you that people are at the top of their game, or they’re in a heightened state.
When you break it down into what they really are experiencing, they’re all sorts of different things, and very developed perceptual abilities. For example, if you’re playing a game like basketball or football, where you can see the field as if it’s slow motion, you can see more acutely. Then I wrote this very big book, my most ambitious book, “The Future of the Body”.
That’s the great summary book. All you have to do is just read the opening chapters. You see that it subsumes and takes into itself literally hundreds of different kinds of experience. So when you say somebody’s in the zone or in the flow, that’s a simplistic language. It came out of sport, but it doesn’t give you much information. So you have to get closer to what people are talking about. The best way is to read that book, “In the Zone”.
It’s a wide variety: sharper perception, sharper kinesthesis, reading your own body, elevated states of pleasure into ecstasy, real ecstasy, real telepathic abilities for communication, especially in teams. Certain teams will testify that suddenly they know what each player is doing. They become like a single organism.
Max: It’s like ants.
Michael: Yes, they start moving together. Pete Carroll is the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He’s an old protégé and friend, and he uses this idea – I think he got it through us – of the long body that comes out of anthropology. He talks about certain early Paleolithic peoples who seemed to operate telepathically. There’s evidence of this. William James’ “The Variety of Religious Experience” sets the stage for what we’re doing.
Max: So would you draw a clear line between these experiences and meditation? Especially when people say, running is my meditation, or, I can be in a meditative state in this, while I’m working out? Would you say that all blurs into one, or is that distinct?
Michael: Well, it can be both – for some people there’s a definite elevation, and there have been attempts to explain it physiologically, like the production of endorphins and various neuropeptides. Every human in every moment is producing neuropeptides. Since you and I started talking 20 minutes ago, you’ve probably produced at least 100 billion new peptides in these 20 minutes. The average estimate is that there are 68,000 interactions in every cell in the body. We have a couple billion cells in our bodies. It’s extremely complex.
With the right kind of exercise athletes get this glow. Good studies have been done that when you’re exercising, let’s say on a treadmill, if you say a mantra as you’re running you’re increasing your capacity.
One famous study – all you do is work out on the treadmill. When you’re beginning they measure your capacity; in other words, how long can you run on the treadmill, et cetera. So then you come back a second time, and this time when you get up on the treadmill, you just say, one, one, one.
If you can stay with that while you’re jogging, suddenly without any practice you have much more capacity. It’s amazing. That’s for people who are out of shape.
Max: It can be as simple as that, yes…
Michael: It’s as simple as that. Another guy named Robert Schwinn got people up on the treadmill, and did the same thing. You come in cold, and see what your capacity is. Then you come back a second time, and the only thing they tell them is just two words: Run relaxed. It’s moronic. You just tell them, run relaxed; and by God their capacity goes way up. It’s unbelievable.
So these are the sorts of things that Mike does in various clever ways. It’s like kindergarten. Any moron can do this stuff, but he’s exceedingly clever in what he’s doing. Not only does he know all these techniques, but he has a great eye to tell a person’s level of fitness, and also better form. Certain people should not be allowed to run in public. They have such bad form, it’s embarrassing. They need a little coaching – drop your shoulders; do this; do that.
That’s where good coaching comes in. Also Mike is good at not over-coaching. In other words he does the right amount, and he’s very clever, and he’s, I would say, very gentle; but then when he gets going, when he thinks you’re really getting good, then he starts yelling at you like he’s Vince Lombardi. So we had a lot of fun, and it was fun to break our own records.
We were racing. In 1953 I ran 13 races. I won 11 of them. In one I was second. In the western championships, I guess the guy that held the world record – he actually set a world record, and he beat me at the end. I almost beat him. Then I went to the nationals and came in third. So I had 11 firsts, a second, and a third in 13 races. So I got good. I was really good. So Mike’s just a fantastic coach.
He’s coached – oh God – all sorts of organizations and Kenyans. I guess you know his history.
Max: Yes, of course.
Michael: He has known several of the greatest runners of all time, particularly Kenyans and East Africans. Then we had a big tournament that we were part of up at the University of Oregon. That was in the late ‘70s.
Max: Thank you so much Michael. I’m mindful of your time. So maybe as a final question, what do you see around you today in the world of sports and the world of spirituality? What do you feel is going on in that world today, and how can we look at it differently?
Michael: Well first of all – I see the development of the inner game. The mental side of sports has developed quite a bit. We started back in the 70s, that’s 40 years ago. I was doing this stuff at the Aurobindo Ashram 60 years ago. So it has developed, but still there is a lot of prejudice in the sport establishment about the further reaches of this. We’re always playing the edge when it comes to the further reaches, but some of the coaches, like Pete Carroll and all, have to learn how to cool it.
If you talk too much the media starts making fun of you. You have to be smart about it. So there’s a kind of esoteric side to this. Now in the popular world, folks like us who are not trying to be professionals, there’s a million people into this kind of stuff, from beginners to more advanced athletes. Generally speaking it’s for health and for feeling good and for just all around health and wellbeing. It’s not primarily to win championships. That’s for the pros or for people like us who did it for sport. It was fun to race, go racing.
Max: Thank you so much, Michael!
Michael: Well listen Max, good luck with District Vision and all your projects!