Sports and games are good examples of how comfortable human beings actually are with suffering. We volunteer to play or watch both with the full knowledge that both contexts require a winner and therefore at least one loser as well. So even if we’re confident we happily enter the game or field of play at least subliminally aware that we could be volunteering to suffer. In fact, that potential price would be what gives the victories their highs. In a way it’s a weird sort of relief.
I live near a school and during a recent break from some yard work I made a cup of tea and watched part of a junior high Phys Ed baseball game. That game is still going on, but watching it inspired me to write this so now I’m seeing it out my office window. It’s important that it’s Phys Ed class too, because the teacher appeared to be quite casual about who was on what team. When that’s the case the kids are not going to have any sort of strong sense of team affiliation. It’ll just be classmates playing baseball. And that’s much different than a team that’s trying to win.
Playing the piano is not the same as playing the piano to win an international competition, or a scholarship or anything where you can win or lose. You can’t lose at playing, but you can lose status, marks, money, scholarships etc. In a team sport this alters things considerably. People get competitive and they do things they otherwise wouldn’t. But in the Phys Ed. game the kids were all pretty encouraging of one another. They didn’t care who was on what team. They cared about whether or not their friends did well. So you would see cheers from the opposing teams on a good hit. It was very bubbly and happy and supportive.
The close camaraderie and unison that is derived from that game is a part of life that is too-often undervalued. Because we can’t buy relaxation or free time, we can just rent places to do it or buy things to encourage it. Relaxation is a verb, so like eating lunch or becoming Enlightened it’s not something that someone else can do for you. You have to relax to achieve it and the kind of play those kids were engaged in is a great way to do that with others. You just can’t have a personal objective. Or as a Buddhist would put it: have no attachments.
This is not to say the world of competition and that sweet sense of victory does not have its place in this world. That’s capitalism. It’s the Olympics and the Oscars. It’s you trying to get a scholarship. Those are really just systems and we live inside them. So it’s best to understand them and use them to your advantage so you can enjoy a life with a lot of winning in it. But that will not seem like much of a life unless you also learn to play. Because winning happens outside of us and play is something we feel inside of us. And that’s the difference between pleasure for your ego and nourishment for your soul.
When kids aren’t on team they have no motivation to yell for another kid to run faster. They have no reason to express disappointment if they strike out. They have no reason to taunt each other. Done right these things can be fun and they’re an excellent metaphor for life. But as with our work and our dating and our conversations, we should maintain an awareness of our State of Mind; are we trying to win or are we trying to enjoy our lives? Because people who do focus on winning at work end up becoming workaholics. And people who do that with love become serial daters. And the people who do that in conversation become tiresome. Winning creates losers. Play has value. Don’t forget play.
Move through your days with a mind toward monitoring your objectives. Ask yourself directly, are these actions intended to bring me happiness or bring me victory? Because there’s very few fights between couples that truly matter in the larger scheme of things so winning is quite hollow. And yet with happiness you start to feel it the moment you drop the need to win. It is the desire for those outside objectives—those ego-pursuits—that will lead you to surrender your happiness in the present moment. So please stay conscious. You can play and win, but don’t let the need to win lead you to compete instead of playing or you’ll already have lost before you’ve even started.
Now have yourself a wonderful day.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.