Does Spirituality Fit Into Sport?

Interview with Reyn Cabinte: NYX Athlete and Pastor.

Laura: Let’s start with what you do for work.

Reyn: I’m a pastor. We started a church here in Manhattan in 2007 and I’ve been a pastor there for about 13 years. It’s deliberately cross-cultural. It’s deliberately what we call “gospel-centered.” So I’m a Japanese/Philipino in a Dominican and Jewish neighborhood. I’m using the resources of the gospel, trying to build community across culture.

L: What does your day-to-day look like?

R: Number 1 is pastoral care – so people have life issues, they have questions about spirituality, they want to know what the bible says, they want to know how to pray. And then there’s community leadership which also leaks out into community organizing. There are aspects in which we have resources for the community, both spiritual and on the social justice side. 

Last summer was, on one hand, making sure people were ok spiritually. Everybody was operating at about 35% capacity and still trying to do work at home and get their kids what they needed. And then there was this other aspect that you couldn’t ignore where people were just in incredible pain from watching the George Floyd video or whatever else, and hearing things on the news. And so the community, which has been traditionally immigrant, was scared. Organizing that group and the churches around here to have a voice was another piece. So there’s really 2 aspects of my job: there’s the spiritual leadership and community injustice.

L: When you are working on community injustice, is that just within your religious community or do you reach out to people who are not necessarily coming in through the church? 

R: Oh yeah. My main leadership is the ability to bring churches around these issues. We move them toward people who are in need. You know, whoever needs a cup of water, we’re going to give them a cup of water. 

L: Ok before we go further into that, tell me about how you got into triathlon.

R: Oh yeah that’s actually the spiritual part. Eight years into planting the church, I was getting burnt out. In both of those sides – the spiritual side of helping people grow, and the justice side – it’s hard to know how you’re doing. It’s hard to give yourself a grade because change is slow. Change is two steps forward, one step back. And you know when that happens in any job, you start to question your calling. What are you supposed to be doing in life? Who are you? Are you good at what you do or not? 

By nature my job doesn’t have great measurable goals although it takes enormous effort, so I needed to take a sabbatical. I took 6 months off to get my head clear, to pray, to think about things. It’s hard to evaluate where you are in life unless you step away from what you’re doing. But you can’t do nothing on a sabbatical, so part of it is what we call recreation: re-creation. You’re re-creating yourself, literally. It’s connected to the idea that we are created in the image of God and we have been made with amazing bodies and amazing abilities, and to connect with that. So my big hairy audacious goal for the sabbatical was to rest by getting in touch with the athletics that I knew when I was a kid. 

The way that I rested for 6 months was to train for an Ironman with Alison.

L: That doesn’t sound very restful.

R: Yeah I know it’s ironic, but re-creation has to do with connecting you with who you are. It’s far more restful, restorative, and refreshing to discover yourself than to simply sit around on the couch and do nothing. And actually when I came back to work I was more ready to go because I had been in contact with parts of myself that I hadn’t been in contact with for years.

So yeah that’s how I started and now it’s part of my regular sabbath, my regular rest every day. It’s part of how I – not unplug – but get connected with the things that really matter. 

L: One of the things that you said that stood out to me was that it’s hard to know how you’re doing in your realm of work, and for us now in triathlon, it’s hard to gauge how we’re doing without races. Are you now able to fill in the gaps in other ways, without tangible race results? 

R: No, I would say that triathlon has still given me finish lines! One thing especially during covid that you discover is that triathlon, unlike spirituality and justice work, if you put something into it, it gives you something measurable out of it. If you stay consistent, your FTP goes up! You guys and Alison still gave me goals over the summer. I ended up doing an Everesting-

(rudely interrupted by Laura)

L: I know! And let me just clarify this for everyone: you didn’t just do Everesting (29,029 feet of climbing on the bike), you went all the way to 10,000 meters! 

R: Yeah, I must be hungry for those finish lines! And you know, it was the process. And again, the finish line – the measurable goal of finishing – gives me something I don’t get in my work. The process of regular sabbath, regular rest through re-creation every single day is spiritual to me. It’s not separate from what I do in my job. I need that to do my job well. I got 2 big finish lines last year: Everesting and 4/4/48. My FTP went up and I got a lot more durability in my running. What I put into it, I got out of it.

L: I love hearing that triathlon gives you a stabilizing force in your life. Is there something about your job that helps you through triathlon, especially when it gets really hard?

R: Yeah, I definitely identify with the darkness metaphor of NYX. The Christian gospel says that renewal and redemption comes though the suffering of our savior. That he has won for us a new life by laying his life down. That’s the central metaphor. That’s the reason you can always hope that when someone is broken they can be redeemed. You can move towards someone who is your enemy as someone who can be turned and loved. That is a story that we’re taught to lay over every aspect of life. 

So when I’m in the dark places of the run, I know that through suffering – it’s deeper than just a silver lining, it’s deeper than “I can get a medal.” You’re learning something about yourself through the suffering that you could not learn otherwise. And that’s redemptive because you discover qualities of character that would have been latent if you hadn’t gone through it. I don’t necessarily draw on that narrative every single time, but if you just stop and reflect, it makes triathlon a spiritual act. 

L: I’ve been thinking about what you just said a lot lately – that it’s more than just a silver lining. People might think about the darkness being mostly negative and that the goal is to try to find the positive within the negative. Lately I’m finding myself not wanting to rush through those hard moments, but to be inside them and to affirm, “This is not bad. This feels uncomfortable but discomfort is not bad.” So what else is in here, in this darkness? How can we sink into those uncomfortable feelings and listen more to what they can teach us? 

R: One of the things we talk about at our church is not to be negative but to move away from the spirituality that is surface-y and pie-in-the-sky – the silver-lining type. We talk about normalizing difficulty and normalizing conflict – normalizing the fact that life is hard and just recognizing it. Rather than living the lifestyle where you’re just trying to avoid all the difficulty in life and pretending that it’s not there because only when you see it can you move onto other lessons like “don’t waste your suffering.” With the right lens, there are things that you learn about yourself. That’s a story I lay over triathlon all the time. Because you know in triathlon, it’s the whole year that you’re going through suffering!

L: Do you have an example in your life about a struggle that, through the act of reframing it, you were able to turn it into a growth opportunity?

R: That’s what my whole sabbatical was about. I was burnt out. I didn’t know who I was. The cross-cultural spiritual ministry takes a lot of denying of yourself and entering into other people’s spaces and pain. When you get into other peoples’ mess, some of that mess gets on you. And when it happens over and over again, it becomes a huge burden. So I didn’t know what to do. Taking 6 months off of your job, when in a lot of ways it defines you and gives you meaning and life, that’s a really really hard thing to do. But other people were saying “hey listen Reyn, you need it.”

That was a dark place. But only through that did I realize that I was more of a person without the work. I’m finding more out about myself than I did before… I feel like I’m not adequately describing the dark place that I was in… but I learned things like apparently it takes 6 weeks for your brain chemistry to calm down enough so that you don’t think about work voluntarily. You can’t not think about work so you’re getting anxious about what you have to do. We take 4 week vacations and we think that’s enough, but your brain is just going and going and going. I didn’t realize I was doing that to myself.

L: You said that the cross-cultural aspect of what you do takes a lot of “denying of yourself.” Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?

R: Well each one of us has a cultural perspective that we grew up in that we’re used to – a way of looking at the world – and in order to love and understand somebody else and especially their pain, you have to take on a culture and a worldview that’s not your own. In other words, your own world view has given you advantages to be able to see the world in a certain way and operate but it also makes you blind to other people’s pain.

L: So it’s an extreme form of empathy?

R: Right, exactly.

L: And what you’re saying is you have a hard time coming out of it? 

R: Right, because you have to add an additional gear. When it comes to someone else’s pain that you don’t experience, someone else’s pain because of racism, their pain because of how other people have treated them – that’s not my personal experience, so it’s always going to take something out of me. It’s always going to be a sacrifice of myself to stop my own engines and ask questions and really get into their skin. You know I’m not Dominican, I don’t have the Jewish experience. I can read the textbooks, but if I’m really going to love somebody in a way that they can understand, and lift them up and encourage them, I’ve really have to do a brain shift. Does that make sense?

L: It makes a lot of sense.

In the spirit of community building, I think that it’s most difficult to have empathy for people who don’t believe in creating the same future as you are working towards. I have people in my life who are not interested in doing the work of anti-racism and they’re not interested in looking at their own white privilege and I have a hard time having empathy for that perspective. What I have not done successfully, but what I think I need to do, is find a way to reflect their experience back to them from the most open-hearted place – reflect them back to themselves at a deeper level without all of the fear on top of it. Can you tell me how to do that?

R: Sure. The first thing I usually say is it’s ok to be really frustrated with that process. You’re bound to be frustrated. 

Secondly, it’s going to take a lot more conversation than you think. It’s not going to be a conversation where you present them the facts and then they’re going to agree. That’s not how the change typically happens. Where I’ve had the most success building common ground – when you’re talking about mirroring back – I think that’s a good way of thinking about it – but on the level of values. In other words, not talking to them about the facts and the preferred future necessarily, but talking to them about what they really care about. What the value is underneath the position that they have – and asking questions that will get at that. 

The position or the facts or the preferred future – those are just symptoms of what their heart is longing for. That’s why it takes tons of conversation. And on top of that, it takes an awful lot of effort on your part to pave the way through your love and your willingness to be around them.

L: Tell me why these conversations with people who feel so differently than you do are so important right now?

R: From my perspective it’s because people are hurting. People are dying. I care passionately about this and the reason it’s important for me is because there are people in my neighborhood, people in my congregation who are just in deep pain. When they see a video like the one we saw with George Floyd, they have to have a talk with their children about how to be safe when they see a police officer. They wake up every morning worried about their black boys and how they’re either going to be looked at by the world as really beautiful boys or a threat. So that’s my job, to help them with their anxieties, to help them with their worry, to help them walk through the moral consequences of buying a gun because they’re afraid. Or other folks in my congregation see how immigrants are treated and they think immediately of their mother. They think of people that they know that they love who might be deported, even if they’re legally here. People are actively being mistreated. 

Martin Luther King said the reason we’re fighting for civil rights is not to get rid of racism as a concept, it’s to improve the daily lives of black folks. So that they can live as free as everybody else. And people aren’t living free. It’s not just the debate, it’s actually affecting people’s lives.

L: Back to what you said at the beginning about why you needed to take a sabbatical. Have you found more ways to know how effective you are? Have you found more measurable feedback mechanisms? Or is it just that you have to trust yourself more?

R: I think I don’t care about it as much anymore. 

L: Is that maybe because you trust it more?

R: Yeah. One thing that happened when I came back was the church was still there. The church that I planted, the community, the organization had good foundations and it doesn’t need me. It doesn’t need me to achieve in order to continue. 

L: Was that hard? To know that it doesn’t need you?

R: Yes, that was terrible for my ego! But you know, that’s the darkness. And it’s inordinate, right? It didn’t need me. Apparently I believe in God and God is stong but I believe in our folks. So yeah, I’m not as amazing and as important as I thought, and yet it’s a wonderful community. So my work has meaning. It’s easier for me to go about my business week to week and just keep doing what I’m doing. 

But that also, you know triathlon helped me see that aspect of it because triathlon improvement takes a long time too. There are whole months in your periodization where you have to just put your head down and do the workouts one after the other even if you’re feeling terrible.

L: And in order to stay motivated to do that, you have to have a certain level of trust that the work accounts for itself, right? The work matters, whether or not you’re seeing results on a daily basis. 

R: Oh and another thing is that when I came back, I had the ability to believe people when they said things were going well. People would say you know you did a good job, things are going well, people are improving, spiritual maturity is growing, justice is being done. When you’re so close to it for so long you can’t see and you don’t believe. So when I came back I had the capacity and the humility to believe ok it’s going well, I could actually take that in and be encouraged by it in a way that I wasn’t before. 

L: Have you gotten more clarity about what your personal mission is, or you know, the purpose of your soul’s journey through this lifetime? 

R: Yeah we have a question in our tradition – what we call a catechism – and it says what is the chief aim of humanity – and it’s to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. That plays out in a million ways, but the clarity has become enjoying the process of that as it works out, as opposed to achieving that question 100% of the time. The purpose has always been there, but the clarity is that my need to achieve it all of the time – that fire has died down a little bit. For me, that’s life-changing. I don’t have to get an A on every single paper, but what I learn as I’m going through the class is part of the purpose. It’s part of what it means to be glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. 

L: Help me with this: I think there’s something more than “it’s ok” to not get an A on every paper. I think that it’s actually important that you don’t, right? I know (or at least I tell myself) that it’s ok to not get an A, but I’m still going to try really hard to do it.  But I’m getting the sense that it’s important to not strive for that sometimes, to take it easy sometimes, or to give yourself something else in place of it. Do you know what that something else is?

R: Well I think you need to teach me about that because as soon as you said it I knew what you were talking about but maybe I haven’t learned it yet. I think I’ve moved more towards that for sure, but even when you said it’s ok not to get the A and to embrace that – I totally believe that, I totally believe it more than I did in the last 2 years – but I still cringe.

L: I do too, that’s why I asked you! I was hoping you could tell me how I could do that. 

R: I can only affirm that it’s absolutely important. We normalize discomfort, we normalize the fact that things are challenging and we embrace it when it comes but I’m not going to induce it. I mean I guess triathlon is a version of that. I’m not necessarily going to induce suffering in my life just so that I can grow.

L: But you do kind of induce discomfort. You put yourself in some hard situations. Your job is really hard. Triathlon is really hard. You didn’t pick an easy path in life.

R: That’s true…

L: I don’t know if I’m always conscious of choosing discomfort, but I do know that I’m not interested in the easy route. There’s nothing about the easy path to the goal that feels satisfying on any kind of soul level for me. And I think there’s some kind of universal truth about that, right? 

R: Yeah, well I think maybe the goals of where I think I’m going make the suffering worth it rather than being ok with the suffering. Does that make sense?

L: Yes, you know that your purpose takes precedence over what you have to go through to get there.

R: Yeah it’s attractive to me. The curiosity of how much I can achieve. Curiosity motivates me in triathlon a lot. I understand the role that suffering plays in it but I still want to avoid as much suffering as I can. I’m getting perspective on everything and I think that’s what you’re helping me to see, but I still cringe when you say it’s ok not to get there.

L: Yeah me too. So let’s end it there with this question floating out there for anyone to help us with – what is the benefit of inducing or even choosing failure?

R: We’re admitting that there’s some value there and that we’ve gotten value out of that failure, but holding back from admitting it because it’s not where our physiology and where our spirituality is right now.

NYX Endurance

Our mission is to develop an endurance community that empowers each member towards both individual and collective potential. At NYX Endurance, we believe in the relentless pursuit of better. We believe there is no success without suffering. There is no progress without perseverance. There is no light without darkness. #embracethedarkness