Sports and games are good examples of how comfortable human beings can actually be with the idea of 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.
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 is what gives the victories their highs. First we volunteer for genuinely challenging competition, and then we play to achieve a weird sort of relief from a risk we ironically chose to take.
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 us. We 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. We 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. It’s incredibly valuable. It drives much of our personal and societal success. It includes people’s dreams of having their own restaurant, but it’s also the Olympics and the Oscars. It’s us trying to get a scholarship or even beating a sibling in a race for the good seat in the car. Competition can bring joy in the right context.
Business, contests, family rules; those are really just systems and humans live inside them. So it’s best to understand them and use them to our advantage so we can enjoy a life with a lot of winning in it. But that will not seem like much of a life unless we 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 our ego versus nourishment for our souls.
When kids aren’t on a team they have no motivation to yell for another kid to run faster, or to hope one trips and falls. 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?
People who focus too much on winning end up being things like workaholics. And people who do that with love become serial daters. And the people who do that in conversation become tiresome. Winning creates losers and sometimes that’s what we want from life. But at the same time, simple noncompetitive play also has value. Let’s not forget play.
Let’s move through our days with a mind toward monitoring our objectives. We should ask ourselves 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.
With happiness we start to feel it the moment we drop the need to win. It is the desire for those outside objectives—those ego-pursuits—that will lead us to surrender our happiness in the present moment. We must do our best to stay as conscious as we can. We can play and win, but we can’t let the need to win lead us to only compete —for without any play, we’ll have already lost before you’ve even started the game.
Now let’s have ourselves a wonderful day.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.