The Yoga of Spectator Sports
Inspired by Hilary Lindsay’s blog, “Football and the Bhagavad Gita,” I dug out an old essay of mine to warm up for the Packers and Steelers.
To me, anything that inspires awe and wonder is spiritual. So is anything that uplifts the soul, proclaims the dignity of the human spirit or affirms our capacity to shatter boundaries and transcend ordinary limitations. Sandy Koufax throwing a perfect game, Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points, Usain Bolt running the 100–feats like those are as awe-inspiring as a leaping school of dolphin. Some athletic endeavors–the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviets, Jesse Owens humiliating Hitler, Jackie Robinson breaking the color line–transcend sports altogether and rise to the level of mythology, and some performances make you feel like you’re watching a sea part its waters or listening to a burning bush. For me, Michael Jordan’s defiance of gravity made the mind-over-matter feats of yogis and siddhas more plausible.
Feats that go beyond physical prowess and call upon strength of will and nobility of character elevate the spirit in a different way. Acts of courage, fortitude and self-sacrifice in athletic competition bring a lump to my throat, much like the spirit-driven works of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. 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 and strive for common goals. Read Bill Russell’s description of being on court with his Boston Celtic teammates, for instance; it will remind you of the Tao Te Ching‘s description of a sage in harmony with his surroundings.
But those noble moments add up to a small portion of the spectator’s sporting life. What about the heartbreak, the ruthless competition, the obscene emphasis on winning at all cost? That’s where watching sports really becomes a spiritual practice. 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 best ones go down 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, and sports are a great reminder of that. They’re also a reminder that pain, sorrow and disappointment don’t last forever, as any Boston Red Sox fan will tell you (but Chicago Cubs fans might deny). Today’s losers are tomorrow’s champs; today’s champs are tomorrow’s chumps. Being a fan teaches you to seek contentment within yourself, in the moment, not out there where everything, even victory, rots and rusts. It’s also a curriculum for learning how to deal with uncertainty and change, because nothing changes as quickly or as unpredictably as the score of a game or the fortunes of a team. You know you’re making spiritual progress when you can watch a tense game and delight in the action, unconcerned with the outcome, feeling what the Bhagavad Gita calls “equanimity in loss and gain.”
Purists might say that sports are too vulgar to be called spiritual. But anything can be spiritual, depending on what you bring to it. You can walk on the beach to get a good workout. Or to impress a date. Or to get a lovely photograph. Or, to be at one with the glory of creation. 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 an alley. As someone once said, sitting in a church 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. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, only a green thing that stands in the way,” as William Blake put it. 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.
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