Even for non-sports fans, sports offers excellent examples of how people behave when they’re functioning from an enlightened perspective. The lesson I’ll present today surrounds my own city, Edmonton, Canada, and our hockey team, The Edmonton Oilers.
The context is that Edmonton got an NHL team at the end of the 70’s and within only five years that team began a run of 5 Stanley Cups. Frankly, it created very high expectations that have since proven quite painful. With one almost accidental exception, the team has floundered at the bottom of the entire league for twenty years.
The contrast between the two team histories had made Edmonton hockey fans a somber bunch. There wasn’t much to rally good thoughts around. Recently, into the vacuum created by seasons of finishing last, came a once-a-generation elite draft pick and a brilliant new coach and GM and the nicest arena in sports. Suddenly the team has gone from vastly underachieving to significantly overachieving.
An important part of the lesson is that normal is defined by whatever you’ve gotten used to. For a generation of Oilers fans losing was normal, so winning stood out like a sore thumb. It was sure easier to enjoy. If your team is dominant–as Edmonton was in the 80’s–then you couldn’t help but half-expect to win. And that is a recipe for disaster.
When you expect wins and they don’t come it’s painful. Likewise, expecting losses and getting wins feels especially good. Fortunately, that phenom player really is as good as they said he was, and so are the coach and GM, so in short order orange jerseys and t-shirts were selling like crazy to very, very happy fans who were suddenly forming more of an actual identity around the team, (now that the team finally had one).
Here’s another important part of the lesson: most people started off the year excited by the fact that we might make the playoffs for the first time in eleven years. And then boom. We beat the really good team we’re up against and we’re in the second round of the playoffs. It was Oilermania in Edmonton. Suddenly this previous source of anger and frustration and sadness has people feeling awesome, and how awesome depended entirely on all of that anger and frustration and sadness.
At public screenings of the game total strangers embraced after goals. They are now a family of fans. For good luck, there is now a First Nations drum circle done by Oiler fans prior to every game. I have witnessed people I know to have racist feelings about Natives, showing support for the Native drum circle. Stop and think about what’s happening in that person’s mind.
A guy has a very dim view of First Nations Canadians. This is innocently because of the part of the province he grew up in and some early programming from his parents, plus some unfortunate early experiences. So he’s always felt entirely justified. If he sees one of these guys as a Native then he’ll take a dim view of the very same person he will embrace if the guy’s beating a drum at an Oiler game! Think about that. The Native guy has multiple identities within the mind of the racist fan. And that racist opinion is so thin that it can be burst by an orange jersey. This is real bridge-building between cultures.
Even non-hockey fans got into these playoffs. They weren’t joining in the love of hockey. They were joining in on that wave of positive civic feelings. And why not? Why not make choices that help you feel connected and good? That’s how healthy, connected people do it. Once everyone was in a healthy state of mind, when the team finally lost something very interesting happened.
People think they’re not being successfully spiritual if they don’t dispel their expectations. It’s true, that’s a path to the path. But as I always say, you can’t have path without not-path, so that “wrong part” is actually equally important to your spirituality, hence yin and yang and the acceptance of suffering that the Eastern philosophies suggest. So yes, dispel your expectations, but don’t think you’re “outside” of spirituality if you have them. As long as you accept the teeter totter you’re on, you do get to trade your expectations for intense experiences.
In the end what happened was that everyone would have been happy if the team just made the playoffs at all, so this year everyone felt that the team had exceeded expectations. They were able to trade those exceeded expectations for very little pain when the team finally did lose in the third period of game seven of round two.
Yes, many fans were disappointed in that seventh game, many said so when interviewed. But to a person, they also said that it had been a wonderful year, they were proud of their team, proud to be a part of the fanbase, they’d made many friends and they lived in excited anticipation of next year. That is wonderful! They became voluntarily part of a family. They fell in love with the team and each other, and they’re hopeful. And for this year, they are literally happy about losing.
Of course, all of this will set up our expectations, so if we don’t make the playoffs next year people will be especially disappointed. I won’t have that expectation, just anticipation. So I’ll avoid the roller coaster. But I might join it for the playoffs, voluntarily. Why? Because it’s fun. And because, when it comes to true spirituality, even when you’re out you’re in. This is the yin and yang of life that we all must accept before we can live in peace. Here’s hoping this lesson helps you understand how that state of mind works. Have a great weekend everyone.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.