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March 28, 2019

Spectator Zen: Watching Sports as a Spiritual Practice.

I write this on one of the holiest days of the year: Opening Day.  And it occurs during the annual Rite of Spring known as March Madness. For spiritual spectating adepts it’s like going on retreat.

My wife thinks I watch too many ballgames.  I tell her it’s an important part of my spiritual life.  She rolls her eyes and laughs.  Not without some justification, I have to admit.  Sometimes, I watch games with all the spirituality of couch potato with a bet on the game.  At other times, when I’m attentive and the higher purpose is alive in my awareness, watching sports is a profound spiritual practice. No, really.

Anything that inspires awe and wonder can be a spiritual experience.  So can anything that uplifts the soul, proclaims the dignity of the human spirit, or affirms our capacity to shatter boundaries and transcend limitations.  A shortstop dives for a ball in the hole and turns a double play; a closer strikes out the side to end a close game; a swift, elusive point guard orchestrates a fast break, and a graceful giant slams home a dunk—moments like those can be as awe-inspiring as a leaping school of dolphin, as sublime as a Himalayan sunset, as elevating as a gospel choir.

Feats that go beyond physical prowess and bring to bear strength of will and nobility of character elevate the spirit in a different way.  Some athletic endeavors transcend sports entirely and rise to the level of mythology—the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviets, Jesse Owens humiliating Hitler, Jackie Robinson breaking the color line—and some performers make you feel like you’re watching something as miraculous as a sea parting its waters or a burning bush speaking.  Watching a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James seemingly defy the laws of physics, for instance, makes the legendary mind-over-matter feats of yogis and fakirs seem plausible.

When teammates interact with friction-free harmony, selfless execution, and virtually psychic communication, I gasp at what humans can accomplish when they let go of their egos, tune in to one another’s souls, and strive for common goals.  Reading Bill Russell’s description of playing with his Boston Celtic teammates is like reading the Tao Te Ching on attaining perfect harmony with one’s surroundings. And acts of courage, fortitude and self-sacrifice in athletic competition bring a lump to my throat, much like the Spirit-driven works of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela.

Ah, but all those noble moments add up to a small portion of the spectator’s sporting life.  What about the heartbreak, the ruthless competition, the monotony, the obscene emphasis on winning at all costs?  That’s where watching sports really becomes a spiritual practice.  It’s a testing ground, much as the challenges of everyday life test our capacity to carry into real-world action our articles of faith or the grace of prayer and meditation.  In that context, the old cliché that sports are a metaphor for life takes on new meaning.

Common to every spiritual tradition is the recognition that the satisfaction of ordinary pleasures and achievements is transient.  Well, so is the elation of victory on the playing field, because tomorrow your team might lose.  Even the very best go down to defeat about a third of the time. Your favorite player got four hits?  Scored 30 points?  Passed for the winning touchdown?  Next time around, he might be humiliated.  Your team is in the lead?  Enjoy it while you can. Nothing lasts forever.  At the same time, sports remind us that pain, sorrow, and disappointment also don’t last forever, as Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs fans can testify.  Today’s losers are tomorrow’s champs, and today’s champs are tomorrow’s chumps.

Because these ups and downs are vivid and sometimes precipitous, sports are a great lesson in the spiritual imperative to seek contentment within ourselves, in the moment, not in the external realm of impermanence and uncertainty, and not in the hope of future glory. They’re also a great curriculum for learning how to deal with unpredictability and change, because nothing changes as quickly or as unpredictably as the score of a game or the fortunes of a team.

For decades, I’ve been working on spiritual virtues such as non-attachment and letting go of concern for the fruits of my actions.  Few things in life measure my progress as concretely as watching a game whose outcome I care about.  Sometimes, as I get caught up in rooting, I think, “Haven’t you learned anything?”  But other times, I have the blessed experience of what the Bhagavad Gita calls “equanimity in loss and gain,” as I gleefully watch a tense game while feeling perfectly at peace inside, unconcerned with the outcome. (Yes, I hear you: it’s a lot easier to practice the Zen of Spectatorship when you have no emotional stake in either team.)

Skeptics might say that sports are too vulgar to be called spiritual, that watching sports can’t be compared to authentic spiritual practice.  I understand their point, but any experience can be spiritual. It depends on what you bring to it.  You can walk on the beach at sunset to strengthen your leg muscles, or to impress a date, or to post a lovely photo on social media—or to immerse your soul in the sublime glory of Creation.  You can dance because of peer pressure, or to show off—or because it’s an ecstatic expression of a devotional impulse. You can have sex to dominate another human being, or to feed your ego, or to gratify a physical urge—or as a sacred act of love in a holy union.

Similarly, you can perform religious rituals outwardly while your inner landscape is so dark and dreary you might as well be in a bowling alley.  As someone once said, sitting in a church or temple doesn’t make you spiritual any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.  It all depends on what you bring to it.  William Blake wrote that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, only a green thing that stands in the way.”

If you bring to sports a spiritual intention and a fully attentive mind, a game is more than a game; it’s a step on the soul’s ladder of progress, win or lose.

Play ball!



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