When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep. — Zen Proverb

They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it. — Willie Mays

Years ago, I sat on the floor across a low, polished wood table from my Zen master, Taizan Maezumi-roshi, both of us absorbed in translating a revered text by the great Zen ancestor Dogen Kigen. Sipping green tea to warm us against the winter morning chill, we worked slowly and with great care.

As we worked through the morning, I was scarcely aware of the passage of time, or even of the intense ache in my knees from hours of kneeling, Japanese-style, on the floor. Noticing the sun breaking through the late-morning haze, I was filled with a gracious sense of that intimate meeting of minds that is at the heart of Zen practice.

Our absorption was broken by a knock on the door. Charlotte, Roshi’s assistant, stepped in to inform me that there was an important phone call for me from Paul, a friend and fellow Zen student. This was odd. It was understood that interrupting Roshi’s meetings was not a casual matter. I asked Charlotte to tell Paul that our meeting was nearly over and that I would call back promptly. A few moments later, she returned, saying that Paul insisted on speaking to me right away. Curious, and a bit annoyed, I asked what could be so urgent that it couldn’t wait ten minutes. Charlotte replied, evasively, that I should just come to the phone.

Had I been focused less on Dogen and more on the conversation, I would have been able to read the conspiratorial signals indicating that this was a matter best taken up outside Roshi’s ken. Instead, I pressed the issue and, given no choice, Charlotte said that Paul had been offered free tenth-row tickets to that night’s Lakers-Sixers game and needed to know right away if I could go.

A formal Zen training period, such as we were then in the midst of, is highly structured, and one should miss meditation sessions only with good reason. I was well aware that, in Roshi’s eyes (which I now sensed were burning holes in the back of my head), Laker games clearly did not qualify. I turned back to meet his gaze and saw not the stern look I had anticipated but a very different expression, one of bafflement. I had seen the expression on just a handful of occasions. It was reserved for those times when the behavior of his American students appeared to him so strange as to be incomprehensible. With a start, I realized that he hadn’t a clue as to why this matter would cause me the slightest hesitation.

We held each other’s gaze, now two strangers staring across a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. After a long moment, things became clear, and I asked Charlotte to tell Paul I could not go to the game. The matter settled, we returned to Dogen.

But the matter was not as settled as I thought. Two hours later, as though in the space between two thoughts, I found myself on the phone pleading with Paul for the other ticket. I was in luck. That night, I slinked off to the Forum. It was a great game.

Back at the center after the game, sleepless from a giddy blend of guilt and elation, I reflected on the day’s events. It occurred to me that the chasm that had loomed between Roshi and me was also a chasm within myself. Two parts of myself, both rooted firmly and deeply, were strangers to one another. Both exerted powerful claims on my being, though the nature of these claims and the ways they made themselves felt were very different indeed. But the most striking difference was in my conscious relationship to them.

I regarded the spiritual impulse to be a fundamental human imperative, and I saw the refinement and cultivation of it as something with intrinsic and self-evident value. Through a practice such as Zen, this impulse was made explicit in activity and linked to a tradition of guidance, insight and inspiration. Through practice, one joined a centuries-old conversation about what is most essential in human experience. And within the framework of that conversation, the purpose, meaning, and significance of practice is given the kind of rich elaboration that elicits and gives intelligibility to one’s deepest intuitions.

The pull of sports was something else again. With the exception of a two-year post-’60s trial separation, they had been a constant in my life. Sports were just always there to be enjoyed. They were so close a part of daily life that I had rarely, if ever, paused to reflect on the power of their hold on me. I was an informed fan, fairly well-read in sports literature, yet the source of my passion, even the idea of it, remained obscure. I asked myself what it was that, as former Major League Baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giametti said, held such a “purchase on my soul.” But I was hard-pressed to answer. I simply did not have ideas that could do justice to the power of the experience.

Over the years, my love of sports—our love of sports—has ripened into a compelling question in my life, a kind of koan, if you will. What began as a problem of self-understanding became in time a source of self-understanding.

The religious nature of sport is the subject of Michael Novak’s The Joy of Sports. Novak argues, eloquently and persuasively, that in American society sport is a kind of “natural religion.” “I am saying,” he writes, “that sports flow outward into action from a deep natural impulse that is radically religious: an impulse of freedom, respect for ritual limits, a zest for symbolic meaning, and a longing for perfection. I don’t mean that participation in sports, as athlete or fan, makes one a believer in ‘God,’ under whatever concept, image, or experience one attaches the name. Rather, sports drive one in some dark and generic sense ‘godward.'”

Sports satisfy our deep hunger to connect with a realm of mythic meaning, to see the transpersonal forces that work within and upon human nature enacted in dramatic form, and to experience the social cohesion that these forms make possible. Whether or not we so name them, these are religious functions. But our society so thoroughly secularizes sport that we can barely recognize, let alone express, what it makes us feel. Sport is, in Novak’s words, “a faith without explanation.”

The historical record substantiates Novak’s argument. Our ancient ancestors believed sport was a gift of the gods, something with divine purpose. Sport has its beginnings in religious rites performed to win favor with the gods, to placate unseen powers, to honor departed heroes. Most importantly, they were a form of fertility magic. The ball games of native America, the wrestling matches of West Africa and Japan—these and other forms of ritual contest among ancient peoples were created to expedite the passing of the seasons, to bring rain, and to ensure abundant harvests.

Ancient Greece was, of course, the site of an extraordinary flourishing of sacred sport. For the Greeks, athletic contests were offerings to the gods. They were surrounded by ceremony and celebrated in poetry. Within this sacred context, sport was a container in which aggressive passions were channeled and transformed and an arena in which virtues were cultivated and displayed. Participation in sport, whether as contestant or spectator, was seen as an activity that educated, enriched, and emancipated the soul.
Sports may no longer be about transcendence, but they still enact transcendence. They retain their power to intensify experience and awaken within us a larger sense of being. They continue to provide forms that make present to us the primordial forces that in other times were called gods, that today might be called archetypes, and which still constitute the primary themes and motifs of art, philosophy, and psychology. This is the hidden dimension of sport, its secret life.

To do its inner work, sport demands from the player the rigorous application of skill, intelligence, and creativity within the inherent designs of the game. From the spectator, it demands a knowledgeable and loving eye. From both, it requires a passion to know those moments when we glimpse that perfection of form that is always sensed yet never attained.

Although we in the West have long ignored the primacy of sport’s inner life, recent years have brought a growing awareness of the role of consciousness in sports. We are, as a culture, finally catching up to Yogi Berra, who long ago observed, “Ninety percent of hitting is mental. The other half is physical.” One indication of this inward shift is the advent of the term “the zone.”

The zone. I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the term. It is a fairly new development in the lexicon of sports culture, perhaps fifteen years old, as near as I can tell. It denotes a place, as in the dictionary definition, but there is more to it than that. It calls up imagery of the supernatural (“the twilight zone”) and carries an implicit connection to altered states of consciousness (as in “zoned out” or “lost in the ozone”), a connection made explicit by less popular related terms: “He was playing out of his mind.” “She went unconscious.” But “the zone,” with its rich ambiguity and layers of meaning, says it best. It is indeed a place, but a map won’t get you there.

While the term is recent, the experience it points to is not. In his autobiography, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, written in 1979, basketball Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell evokes the “mystical feeling” that would on occasion lift the action on the hardwood to the level of magic: “Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. The feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level. At that special level all sorts of odd things happened. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teamm ates, ‘It’s coming there!’—except that I knew everything would change if I did.”

For Russell, these spells were fragile. A bad call, a poor play, an injury, or some other minor disturbance might be enough to break the rhythm. When the spell broke, Russell always experienced a letdown because there was nothing he could do to bring it back. Like grace, such moments came when they came, and all he could do was play his best and hope. But while in the midst of it, the sense was, “This is it. I want to keep this going.”

As a culture, we have come to associate profound experiences of our sense of being with religious contemplation, poetic revelry, or communion with nature. But, as former NFL linebacker David Meggyesy insisted when I interviewed him, such experiences are extremely common in athletics. The passions they arouse, the demands they make, and the mental focus they require bring to bear our most exceptional inner resources. Despite our skepticism, athletics provoke us to magic.

According to Meggyesy, not only are zone-type experiences common among athletes but they become more common the higher the level of play. For those playing at the highest levels, the ability to put oneself in a state of heightened concentration—to get “psyched up,” to “stay focused”—is as essential as physical ability, technical mastery, and knowledge of the game. Every so often, out of that concentrated state a player’s consciousness seems to make, of its own, a qualitative jump to a higher level. For someone who can fit such an experience into an overall view of life, it can have a powerful effect. But, says Meggyesy, most athletes (and most people in our culture in general) lack a supporting perspective that would place these experiences in a context where they have significance. They happen, they’re great, and they’re gone.

In Second Wind Bill Russell mentions many of the qualities athletes may experience in the zone: profound joy, acute intuition (which at times feels like precognition), a feeling of effortlessness in the midst of intense exertion, a sense of the action taking place in slow motion, feelings of awe and perfection, increased mastery, and self-transcendence.

Others have highlighted different aspects of zone-type experiences. Besides heightened performance, the quality mentioned most often is probably concentration. British golfer Tony Jacklin says, “When I’m in this state, this cocoon of concentration, I’m living fully in the present, not moving out of it.”

Mentioned almost as frequently as concentration by those discussing the zone are calmness and confidence. In his autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game, soccer genius Pele recalls a day when he experienced “a strange calmness” unlike anything he had experienced ever before: “It was a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically.” Athletes also describe perceptual enhancement as an aspect of the zone. For Michael Jordan, “The rim seems like a big ol’ huge bucket.” According to the Golden State Warriors’ John Starks, “It’s like you see something just before it really happens.” John Olerud of baseball’s New York Mets says, “When things are going well, there seems to be more time to react to a pitch. And it doesn’t matter what that pitch is.”

Coaches, athletes and owners would all love to bottle the zone. And they will shell out the big bucks for its formula. And, as a trip to the bookstore will show, more than a few have done quite well for themselves claiming to have it. But sports psychologists are divided on the question of whether it even makes sense to try to get there.

Mastery of one’s craft and relaxed concentration are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Visualization, meditation, counseling, progressive relaxation, and the other techniques of sports psychology can enhance one’s physical and mental abilities, but they cannot produce self-transcendence. For if there is one defining characteristic of those moments of pure intuition, a sine qua non, it is that it is effortless and unpredictable, a kind of state of grace.

This is, after all, the paradox of inspiration, no matter what the field. You must work and work and work some more, but the golden moment cannot be produced through an act of will. You can only prepare the ground for it to happen. As one Zen master has said, “Enlightenment is an accident, but some activities make you accident-prone.”

The reference here to Zen is fitting, because in Zen practice one engages this paradox directly. One is exhorted to practice rigorously, pursuing enlightenment with a sense of urgency, as if one were “extinguishing a fire upon your head,” as a traditional saying has it. And yet, as Maezumi Roshi writes, “When you seek after enlightenment, enlightenment will elude you. Yet without seeking after it, you will never realize it.” This can be a real problem.

In a famous passage from Genjokoan, Zen master Dogen writes: “To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” The object of one’s seeking, the buddha way, is not apart from oneself, and the way to realize this experientially is by forgetting the self. But how does one forget the self? Certainly not by trying. That would be like trying not to think of a white elephant: the more you try, the more insistent the thought becomes. One forgets the self by becoming one with the task at hand. Zazen, or seated meditation, is the quintessential form for this focused awareness, but it can be practiced anywhere and anytime. As practice deepens and matures, one may have a sudden intuitive glimpse of the intrinsic unity of all things. In Zen this experience is called kensho or satori, and it is the subject of Dogen’s next line: “To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”

Zen tradition can, I believe, shed some light on some of the contradicting views about the zone. This is not to say that the zone is satori by some other name. It is not. But a Zen perspective on the relationship between practice and enlightenment may help clarify structural issues in the relationship between self-effort and self-transcendence in sport. Like the relationship in Zen between practice and satori, certain experiences of athletes represent a qualitative leap in consciousness that is discontinuous with the preparation leading up to it.

The place of satori in Zen is analogous to the place of the zone in understanding the secret life of sport. Because of their power, because of what they show about human possibilities, because they are so compelling, it is tempting to conclude that transcendent moments are definitive of sport’s spiritual dimensions. They are not. But in such moments the potent reality of the secret life is made most evident and its key themes are brought into sharp relief. As with satori and Zen, the zone does not exhaust our understanding of the secret life of sport. It is not an endpoint. It is a point from which we depart with a deeper and richer sense of the inner landscape through which we travel.

Sport is neither a yoga nor a “Way.” It is, nonetheless, an abundant wellspring of spiritual life. But the spirituality of sport is grounded in an inner logic that is very much its own. In contrast to the equanimity, detachment, and directionality of a meditative path, the secret life of sport thrives on enthusiasm (a word whose Greek source means “possessed by a god”), on both player and fan being “carried away” (desporto, the Latin root of sport) into a more vital mode of being. The spirituality of sport is rooted in a primitive—that is, primary—sensibility of the sacred: ecstatic, communal, nonprogramatic, and linked to potent natural forces.

Sport approaches the sacred not by means of a spiritual path, a Way, but by displaying the elements of excellence in the human form: balance, proportion, rhythm, harmonious movement, strength, speed, agility. In ancient Greece, this sense of excellence, arete, was the preeminent human ideal, providing one with a glimpse of something more fundamentally beautiful and real than what was apparent in the natural datum of everyday experience. The formal limits of sport give the excellence it displays an accessibility and luminosity greater than is found in most any other field of endeavor, where the relationships among meaning, purpose, and action are more diffuse and complicated. An athletic event is a container constituted of well-defined boundaries, clear rules and objectives, and simple forms that allow the chaos of life to be distilled, given shape, and polished, until it radiates what John Updike wr ote of as “the hard blue glow of high purpose.”

The German philosopher George Gadamer writes of that “deep play” in which the individual’s actions so thoroughly merge with the intrinsic designs of the game that “the game plays the player.” No doubt this experience will likely occur with greater frequency and be both more evident and impressive among expert athletes. But excellence and perfection do not belong to the player; they belong to the game itself. And all those who have felt themselves given over to their power—the little league pitcher, the junior varsity linebacker, the weekend softball player and the devoted fan—come to share in some measure of the experience.

“Happiness is absorption.” Thus wrote T. E. Lawrence. In these moments when the world is experienced, as Zen master Dogen writes, with “the whole of one’s body and mind,” the senses are joined, the self is opened, and life discloses an intrinsic richness and joy in being.

Sport is not the whole of life, but, by joining consciousness to excellence in form, it ushers us into life’s wholeness. Sport may not make one a better person, but by showing much of what is best in us, it can help. It may not bring spiritual enlightenment, but it does display the spirit’s dazzling glow. Sport rarely brings substantive self-knowledge, but few things so readily connect us with the source of self-knowledge: the center of our being, that place within the swirl of action where we find what Rilke called the “stillness like the heart of a rose.”

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