Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes—and What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond. Maria Coffey. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. Hardcover 288 pages. $26.95.
One of the tragic aspects of being human is that our most vital experiences often happen long before our conscious mind takes notice. A premonition, a hunch, a prophetic dream, a curious “coincidence”—how easily such wayward occurrences are dismissed as mere figments or superstitions, only later to be recognized as genuine omens—and thus we suffer from the familiar lament: “Oh, if only I had listened...”That extreme athletes—mountaineers, kayakers, surfers, BASE jumpers, and others—should exhibit no immunity to this all-too-human foible comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that it took this long for a book to come along that investigates the matter.
The subtitle of Explorers of the Infinite aptly describes its subject matter, though I’m not sure how secret the spiritual lives of these people actually are. Maria Coffey begins with an interesting question: What drives these extreme athletes to risk their lives in order to push past human limits, and what do they discover when they do so? Well, they discover the same thing that ordinary people discover when they have a profound spiritual experience: mystery and wonder.
In ascending the spiritual heights, Coffey leads her reader along a well-established route. More than a century ago the venerable American philosopher and psychologist William lames—himself somewhat of a mountaineer—took up the same question regarding the nature of these extraordinary moments. In fact, the inspiration for his greatest work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, came to him one night while camping high on Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks. Like James, Coffey approaches her numinous subject by taking a look at an assortment of curious episodes drawn from various lives.
One of the more fascinating cases reported in Explorers of the Infinite is that of Diane Perry, an English woman born in 1943 who changed her name to Tenzin Palmo and spent 13 years living by herself in a cave at 13,200 feet in the Himalayas. “Tenzin Palmo believes we’re not on this earth to be comfortable,” Coffey writes. “We’re here to learn and grow, she says, and facing problems and challenges is an essential part of growth and knowledge.” As Coffey deftly concludes, this “is essentially what every extreme athlete would say about their sport.” The other stories in this book certainly support this claim. Consider the case of John Porter, whose dreams of falling rocks at Annapurna Base Camp in 1982 seemed to have presaged the death of Alex Macintyre. When asked what he made of such spookiness, Porter replied: “I think the starting point for any sort of weirdness is life itself…. If we’re here, then it seems to me that anything is possible.” No philosopher has stated it more clearly or more accurately. And perhaps the most compelling account in the book is the author’s own story of a harrowing kayak journey of six .weeks on the River Ganges, with all its pollution, rotting corpses, and hordes of bandits lying in wait, a voyage that “turned me inside out, challenged and exhausted me on every level.”
Explorers of the Infinite is most engaging when its author is simply recounting the peculiar tales of the extreme athletes she interviewed. The book is far less successful when Coffey starts grasping for explanations of the mystery by pilfering ideas from the social sciences and unconvincing New Age philosophy. Worst of all, the writing too often lapses into what might charitably be described as well-written book reports. Such explanations, ill-fitted and uninspired, simply get in the way of her ascent. They don’t belong on this particular expedition.
John R O’Grady