Saturday, January 16, 2010

Competitive Zazen and Trying too Hard to Win

Over at the blog MindDeep, Marguerite writes about how she became competitive during a meditation period, while counting each breath.

Looking at the clock more and more often. Meanwhile keeping up still. I am going to make it to the end. Never mind nascent headache. I notice some people taking a break, and having some tea. Not me! Counting, counting, competitive streak is taking charge. By the end of the session, I inherit dim satisfaction from drill well done, and discomfort from full blown headache.

It's interesting, this wanting to do something better than others, or to stick it out when others have decided to move on. I can remember a few times during meditation retreats where I pushed pass pretty strong discomfort in my knees and lower back in order to skip sitting in a chair or adding a pile of props under me. Some attachment to form if you ask me now. Back then, though, it was trying to hang with the big kids - the seasoned meditators in the group. Then there was the half day retreat I did in December with Brad Warner where I sat in half lotus too long because I wanted to be an example for the more novice meditators in the group. Again, a certain attachment to form when I look at it now.

When I first read Marguerite's post, I thought about my days playing organized sports. As a kid, I played on baseball and soccer teams. During high school,, baseball dropped me (eye sight changes) and broomball found me. It would be lying to say I didn't have a competitive streak, and in fact, I still find that energy cropping up in my life. I don't see competitiveness as a bad thing, or a good thing - it's just another provisional form of life. However, when I was younger, I often didn't have a very good handle on how to ride this kind of energy.

I remember in eight grade, the year after our baseball team won the city title, we were back in the playoffs. Our team was actually better than the previous year's one, and we thought we were a shoo-in to repeat as champs. However, we ran into a team with an excellent pitcher, one who we found out later was over the age limit, but it was too late by then to do much about it. (This was in the days before the hyper-involved parents who fight coaches, file lawsuits to overturn the results of little league games, and generally cause more trouble than its worth.)

Anyway, we made it to the last inning tied, even though their pitcher was mostly killing us with curve balls (something most of us had never hit before.) They scored a run in the top half of the inning after a disputed call at second - I swear the guy was tagged out to this day! And then we came up to bat. My friend Dave, the only regular left handed batter (I switch hit), got a single, which made us all excited. The next guy struck out, leaving it up to me and one other batter.

I had been timing the pitcher's pitches behind the backstop, and felt ready to finally breakthrough, even though I was scared of the curve balls he threw. I stepped to the plate and dug in. Lots of competitive energy ripping through me. I was also still pissed about the safe call the other team had gotten during the top of the inning. I was going to show that ump who's boss, yes I was.

The first pitch came in the way eight others had that year. I was hit by a pitch 8 times that year, and thought this was going to be the 9th. Once, a guy plunked me because I had gotten two doubles in the previous at bats. I was a good hitter, and probably too confident at times, like this one. Moving out of the way, I heard the ump call "Stirrrikeee!" I turned around and glared at him. Super pissed. Then stepped back in for the next pitch. This one came in even closer, so close to my eyes that I thought my head was it's target, but it bent in at the last second and, as I fell to the ground, I heard "Stiiirrkkee Two!" I wanted to smash the ump's head at this point. This is the fallout from aggressive competitiveness - you start targeting others as enemies to take out, instead of harnessing that energy to hit the ball, or throw the ball, or whatever it is you need to do.

I got up and stepped in again, completely ticked off, and completely scared at the same time. The pitcher knew it. My coach knew it. Everyone knew it. I don't even remember seeing the last pitch, only taking a huge swing at it, and missing by a mile. What I do remember is stomping behind the backstop, throwing my helmet at the ground, and getting an ear-full from my coach about bad sportsmanship.

Needless to say, the next guy struck out too, and the game, plus the season, was finished. In fact, it ended up being the last game I'd ever play for a team - not much of a way to go out, but definitely one with lessons for the taking.

So, what does the picture above have to do with this post? Nothing maybe. Although when you notice competitiveness gone amok, it's definitely as ridiculous as a red barn advertising a live reptile show. What the hell happens at a reptile show, anyway? Is it just a bunch of cages to look at, or is there some kind of event, competition even? Snakes hissing at each other and at us - the perfect send off for this post. SSSSSSSSS


Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

Thanks Nathan, for picking up the thread! I am often surprised by the mystery of each moment, and how the object of meditation can shift . . . Mindfulness is a beautiful thing indeed! and as C.G. Jung puts it, always a defeat for the ego :)

Deep bow to you,


Algernon said...

The post reminds me (and hello to Marguerite) of a retreat where I told Bobby I was suffering a headache, and she said, "Yes, because you're trying to make something happen while you sit. Just sit. Don't make anything happen."

A headache can be like a blow from the teacher's stick. "Let go!"