Zen and the art of skiing
February 1, 2008
In an instant, buckled into ski boots, clamped into skis, cutting through waist-deep powder on the world’s steepest mountains, Kristen Ulmer could get in the zone, a deeply meditative state that allowed her to conquer slopes and the inhibiting fear of life-threatening hazards.
But at the height of her career in freeskiing, Ulmer didn’t think much of this natural ability to stop what she calls her "monkey mind." She only knew it was a necessary state, essential to achieving athletic potential. When she decided to retire in 2003, she didn’t think she had much to show for her 15 years as a professional extreme sport athlete. "I just felt like I’d learned nothing from this sport," she recalls. "I didn’t know what to do about that."
Then, five years ago she taught a "Ski to Live" class with Zen Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, a Salt Lake-city-based Zen Master and founder of Utah’s Kanzeon Zen Center. Their collaboration was fortuitous: A psychologist had backed out last minute and Merzel, who typically maintains a very busy schedule traveling internationally for speaking engagements, was free.
"He came in and I didn’t even know what he taught," admits Ulmer. "But when he spoke, I ended up learning more about how skiing has affected my life in the first hour of my own clinic than I had in all my years as a professional speaker. It absolutely floored me and the guests."
Ulmer became Merzel’s student, and decided to dedicate her new private coaching career to helping other athletes, professional and recreational, achieve the zone through Zen. The upcoming workshop at Park City Mountain Resort, Feb. 28 through March 2, will be their 16th "Ski to Live" workshop.
The workshop the two Zen practitioners lead is not religious, or even instructional, insists Ulmer. Instead, the "Ski to Live" approach is strictly experiential.
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"The best explanation I’ve heard is: Buddhism is the study of what the Buddha taught, Catholicism is the study of what Jesus Christ taught, Islam is the study of what Muhammad taught, Daoism is the study of what nature teaches, but Zen is trying to feel what Buddha felt, trying to feel what Mohammad felt, trying to feel what nature feels," she explains. "You can have Zen science or Zen Islam, you can have Zen anything. It’s why the word Zen is a non-threatening word for people. Zen is just a word that suggests experiencing, feeling or being."
During the evening in classrooms, Merzel teaches a practice he calls "Big Mind," allowing everyone, including non-Buddhists, to experience the enlightenment of Buddha. Half meditation, half psychology, it borrows from the religion without the spiritual aspect, uniting eastern philosophy with western thought.
"We’re such ego-centric people here in the west. In the east, their culture isn’t so separated," Ulmer explains. "They’re more like a school of fish in the east, versus us being individual fish over here. So what he’s done is develop a process to teach Zen so that people in the West can also experience what it would be like a school of fish as well, to access their true nature."
During the day, yoga is taught, and Ulmer leads skiers on the mountain. "In ‘Ski to Live,’ we don’t teach anybody anything, we just show them the wisdom they already possess," says Ulmer. "In the workshop, we don’t let go of ego, we embrace ego as a way to transcend it and if someone wants to improve their skiing, for sure, ski to live is a million times more effective than a technical lesson. ‘Ski to Live’ not necessarily strictly about improving skills or athleticism, but discovering who and what you are as a human being. It’s a very, very powerful thing."
Ulmer no longer skis — coaching has replaced that passion, she says. Her clients include race car drivers, bikers and athletes of all levels and abilities. She likes to think of herself as a cooler, "sexier, more relevant version of a sports psychiatrist," but with a more global message.
"Genpo Roshi and I are very dedicated to raising a level of consciousness on the planet," she says. "We just really want to help people get it, get what life is, get what human beings are, what we represent. It’s so rare that people ever get a glimpse of anything beyond themselves."
"Ski to Live"
When: Thursday, February 28 through Sunday, March 2, 2008. Please note: for participants traveling from out of town, the event starts at 6 p.m. on February 28 and ends late on March 2 (a hotel stay is recommended that evening).
Where: Park City Mountain Resort Park City, Utah
Prices: Locals Price (no lodging or lift tickets): $1590; Mid-level Lodging, Double occupancy: $2215; Mid-level Lodging, Single Occupancy: $2650; High-End Lodging, Double Occupancy: $2822; High-End Lodging, Single Occupancy: $3800. This includes: an adult 3 of 7 day lift ticket, evening and on-snow programs with Genpo and Kristen, morning yoga instruction, ski/snowboard Instruction for three days; and most meals.
For more information: Visit http://www.kristenulmer.com . To register for the Park City Mountain Resort "Ski To Live" program, please call Sharon Ottoson, Mountain Reservations Manager, at (435) 647-5478.