Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Zen of Sport

A lot of debates have been coming up recently over the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee sprinter. With the use of specially designed prosthetic leg extensions, Pistorius has been training in order to participate in the upcoming Summer Olympic Games.

The debate is over whether Oscar’s prostheses give him an unfair advantage. In January of this year, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled him ineligible for competitions conducted under its rules, including the 2008 Summer Olympics. This decision was recently overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, when the Court ruled that there is insufficient evidence to prove that Pistorius's prostheses give him an advantage over so-called able-bodied athletes.

Oscar’s participation in the Olympics is hotly debated by competitive athletes around the world. But I think the debate misses the point. And further, it’s completely obvious why the debate misses the point – it’s symptomatic of what I would call our misguided understanding of the purpose of sport.

You see, the question of whether Oscar’s prostheses give him an advantage is only relevant when one is placing exclusive emphasis on the purpose of sport – in this case, of sprinting – being to see who can get to the finish line first. So the whole purpose of the race is to see who can get from the starting line to the finish line in the shortest amount of time.

I realize that, to most people, this seems like the obvious and completely appropriate purpose of a sport such as sprinting, or for that matter distance running, swimming, cycling, and so on. But I happen to think it’s a terrible purpose.

You see, if the race is all about getting to the end of the race, then for the duration of the race one’s mind is somewhere else – specifically, at the finish line. One becomes obsessed with the finish line, and that particular numerical score one receives there that quantifies the time it took to arrive. This in turn determines one’s value as an athlete, and as a person, as it were.

This same attitude permeates one’s training regimen as well. If the purpose of sport is that little number one gets branded with at the finish line, the then purpose of training becomes that moment in the future where one’s value is obtained, the mark of success or failure as an athlete. Thus in all of those hours, days and weeks of training, one’s mind is never in the here and now, but rather at that singular moment sometime in the future when dreams are either realized or crushed.

I realize that this is all a perfectly “normal” attitude for competitive athletics, but it strikes me as rather perfectly morbid. With this attitude, one is completely incapable of enjoying sport. Training simply amounts to a kind of grim drudgery one undertakes in order to keep the demons of poor performance at bay. It’s a recipe for suffering and misery so far as I can tell.

Our society has this attitude towards sport because it has this attitude towards everything – life, work, career, hobbies, relationships, etc. In our society, everyone is all about getting somewhere. This seems to be the defining characteristic of what we call “civilization,” this constant desire – a longing, really – to be somewhere else, in both space and time.

I’m not sure where that somewhere is, or when it is, but it is certainly not here and now. Our society believes that the present is completely unsatisfactory, that things will be much better in the future. And so we must race to get there as soon as possible, in flight from the dreadful here-and-now.

Now I can’t imagine a better recipe for perpetual suffering, misery and anxiety! To take as a fundamental metaphysical axiom that the present is never good enough, is never right, and that things will only be enjoyable sometime in the future is a guarantee that one will be in a state of chronic anxiety until the moment of death.

But just look around and you will see that this is true of just about everyone. Most everyone seems to be in a perpetual state of sacrificing the present for the future – “If I can get into such-and-such a program in University, then I’ll have attained success…” or, “If I can get that promotion…” or, “If I could only make more money…” or, “When I can buy a new house (or car)…” or, “Once my house (or car) is paid off…” or “When I can eventually retire…”

Perhaps the most telling are the huge numbers of so-called religious people who have entirely given up on this present life, and are just kind of holding out, biding their time until they die, so that they can go to Heaven! “Yes, then the fun will begin, if we can just hunker down and endure a few more years of this mess down here on Earth…”

You see, the predominant attitude in our society is that the present is never right, is never good enough, so we must get to that better future as quickly as possible. But of course, it’s impossible to get to the future, because as soon as you find the future has arrived, you realize that once again it’s just “plain old now.”

And you can pick up and move your whole life, feeling that here – wherever you are – is a dreadful place to be. But once you’ve settled in “over there,” you look around and find that once again you are actually right back here – the same old you with the same old anxieties, albeit relocated to another geographical spot, but in fact everything’s pretty much the same.

So we’re a society that’s pegged our happiness and well-being and peace-of-mind on accomplishing something that’s flatly impossible and on its face patently absurd. To recall an ancient Zen proverb, we’ve become like a mosquito biting an iron bull – it’s the nature of a mosquito to bite, and the nature of an iron bull to be un-bitable. So we just stubbornly go on with this, in perpetual frustration and suffering. Is there any wonder that the pharmaceutical companies rake in billions every year selling us mood-altering drugs like Prozac? They’ve got a guaranteed market of hordes of perpetually dissatisfied, depressed and anxious people!

So we’re obsessed with getting to the finish line, and as a consequence, we’ve missed out on the whole wonderful race along the way. In other words, a tragically large proportion of us get to the end of our lives and find we haven’t lived at all, being always focused on something in the future, some place other than here and some time other than now.

And because we’re so obsessed with getting to the finish line as fast as possible, we have this morbid approach to athletics where all that matters is reducing that little number that indicates how long it took to get from A to B.

The truth is that to reduce the distance between A and B is to make B the same as A, since one is in much the same state of mind when one arrives at B as when one left A – as travel time decreases, the distinction between the two vanishes to zero. And then one finds that there’s no point in going from A to B, because “there” has effectively become “here.” What are you going to do then?

Athletics ought to take a lesson from dance, or music. When you dance, you don’t pick out a spot on the floor and devise the quickest way to get there. No, not at all – you dance, and that’s the whole point of it. Certainly not to end up somewhere as quickly as possible.

Similarly, as Zen philosopher Alan Watts liked to point out, when you go to a concert, you don’t just go to hear the finale. The point is the whole thing that’s going on as it’s going on. Otherwise, the best orchestras would be those that played the fastest, and the best composers would just write finales! Everyone would take their seats, there would be one huge crashing chord, and then everyone would get up and go home! How ridiculous!

So the point of athletics is not this business about getting to the finish line first. It’s about the race itself, and being present to that. Really we ought to weep at the finish, not because we weren’t fast enough, but because we were too fast, and now it’s all over! We ought to weep out of nostalgia for the dance of the sport.

Alas I realize that once again I’ve expressed an unpopular opinion. People will surely go on about the grim task of “training,” intently focused upon that moment in the future when all present pain and suffering will be vindicated – when one will finally clasp the golden chalice of accomplishment and in so doing make one’s ego a permanent fixture of the Universe – and in the processes miss out on the here-and-now-ness of sport and life.

Luckily for me, I’m a mediocre-at-best swimmer. This means I can swim without succumbing to the expectations of others to achieve anything – win races, set record times, or what have you. No one expects any of that from me, which makes it easier for me not to expect it from myself. Thus I can get right down to the business of grooving on swimming, of being in the moment right down inside the here-and-now of the water, of tuning into the full experience of my body – my musculature, my breathing, my stroke and kick, and this flowing-gliding kind of dance I do with the water.

I won’t get to the finish line first, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t want to get there fast – I’m having way too good a time grooving with the water to hurry this thing up.

And I think this is the attitude we ought to bring to sport and to life in general. I don’t want to ask Oscar Pistorius if he enjoys an unfair advantage. I want to ask him if he enjoys the race, if he enjoys the life process itself. Is he having an uproariously good time? That’s what I want to know. I hope he is.

Of course, they don’t give out Olympic Gold Medals to the one who’s enjoying him- or her- self the most. But with a deep sense of personal peace and satisfaction in the present moment, who needs an Olympic Gold Medal?


Rob said...


It is all so true, what you are saying. Like a point in every direction is the same as no point at all. You have come to an understanding of life that many people don't. It goes so against what we have always heard. We have found though, that things have a way of working out for the best for you - even if you thought what was "best" is not at all what you end up w/.


permavultures said...

i agree with your momma.... and i really enjoy your outlook on this...ditto...