February 4, 2014

The Zen Master & the Crazy Sports Fan.


I took my Zen teacher to his first NBA game.

Utah Jazz games are normally loud but since we were in the playoffs, it was deafening.

It must have been a bit of a shock, going from a peaceful monastery to being in the midst of 20,000 screaming fans, desperate to see their team win. But he handled it well, sitting peacefully, occasionally looking at his normally calm student, now a barely contained ‘Stockton to Malone’ fan. I tried to stay somewhat calm, but by the final buzzer, the arena was out of control.

We had reached overtime.

At that point I had joined the masses and had proudly embraced my inner lunatic. Fortunately my teacher had changed as well. He had slowly transformed into less of a peaceful monk and more of a drunken pirate, wildly waving his arms and shouting obscenities at the referees in English, as well as Japanese and possibly Sanskrit.

When ‘We’ finally won. He calmly sat down and took off his giant foam finger. He turned to me and said, “Now I understand. Drop off body and mind. Good practice.” He smiled thoughtfully as he tucked in his sweat drenched shirt. On our way out, he replaced his shirt with a Karl Malone Jersey.

What is going on with sports? Psychologists and non-sports fans have often suspected that die-hard sports fans are, mostly, lonely people trying to boost low self esteem by identifying with a sports team. However a recent study suggests the opposite: Sports fans seem to suffer fewer bouts of depression, and have more friends, than people who are uninterested in sports.

My favorite theory traces the psychology of fans back to a primitive tribal warfare, where in battles with other tribes, warriors were genetic representatives of their people. If your warriors lived, you got to live too.

“We didn’t die! Go team!”

In a sense, sports recreate war on a playing field. Our chosen warriors’ failure or successes, may re-create the intense emotions that tribal warfare had on our ancestors.

”Our sports heroes are our warriors,” says Psychology Professor Robert Cialdini, ”This is not some light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent grace and harmony. The self is centrally involved in the outcome of the event. Whoever you root for represents you.”

This may explain why a normally peaceful group of yoga and meditation teachers, turned into raving lunatics at our Super Bowl party last night. Even I fell victim to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. (Mostly just the agony of defeat part—I’m a Broncos fan.)

But perhaps there is a difference from when I was younger in that I am aware of what I am doing, and a part of me simply and calmly observes as I swear and throw tantrums at the invisible sports gods. It’s fun. It’s playing a game within a game.

And really isn’t that what life is about? Choosing the games we want to play?

The trick is knowing we have a choice.

So, the next time you cringe at crazy sports fans, have some compassion and know it’s beyond their control. And just remember. At least it’s not tribal warfare.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum/Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant archives


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