It happens at least once every time I turn on the television and watch the Los Angeles Lakers play basketball. Their opponents may be younger, with a ragged, raw, desperate energy. Fans may be ringing cowbells, waving plastic wands, and booing, while the Lakers pass the ball fluidly among themselves. Amidst the movement, calm descends. The ball bounces, shuttles, and moves, and then—quicker than sight—Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant will leap and plunge it into the basket.
The trademark harmony of this championship team—and the stillness at its center as it moves down the court—is usually credited to Phil Jackson, the Montana-born Zen meditator who coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships before moving to the Lakers in 1999 and winning three more. Both teams presented Jackson with a specific coaching challenge: how to make highly paid and media-mobbed superstars (like Michael Jordan of the Bulls, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers) part of a collaborative, well-functioning whole. For the past decade, Jackson has been aided in this venture by Vipassana teacher George Mumford, an African American sports psychologist whose practice is emotionally informed by his own recovery from drug addiction.
Jackson first hired Mumford in 1993 to teach meditation—initially packaged as “stress reduction”—to the Chicago Bulls. His role has gradually expanded, and he now spends ninety days a year with the Lakers—about one week a month. In a 1997 interview, Jackson described Mumford’s contribution this way: “There will be a meditation, then he’ll do a little bit of a talk, and then the coaching staff and I disappear. It’s more of a group experience, where they do this quiet thing together, and then talk about the team as a community and bringing out the best in each other. The funny thing is, invariably we go on a five-game winning streak whenever we see George.”
Mumford, a former board member of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, is variously described as a Vipassana teacher, a sports psychologist, and a business consultant, but he is a maverick, not comfortable with any label. He may be best known for his work with the Lakers, but his life story is equally compelling—how the suffering of chronic physical pain and substance abuse led him from Twelve Step spirituality to a deep grounding in Buddhism and Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. Tapes of his retreats reveal a highly systematic but accessible teaching style—he speaks from his own life and never gives the impression that he’s a perfect soul who’s reached the top of the mountain.
I interviewed Mumford on a snowy day in November at the home he shares with his partner, clinical psychologist Edye Merzer, in the suburbs of Boston. It was just after Thanksgiving—early in the long basketball season—and halfway across the country, the Lakers were struggling uncharacteristically. Even though they had won the past three NBA championships back to back, they had lost eleven of their first sixteen games of the ’02-’03 season. Mumford struck me as a warm man with a busy schedule. He sandwiched our interview between a morning business consultation in Rhode Island and late-afternoon meetings with athletes he works with at Boston College. We talked in a rear den, looking out on neighbors’ houses and snowy birches.
It’s still relatively uncommon for an African American man to study Vipassana—much less to teach meditation in prisons and to professional basketball players like the Bulls and the Lakers. So I wonder if you could just start at the beginning and tell me, how did you get involved in Buddhism in the first place? Who are you?
I’m still asking that question. It’s not an everyday occurrence for an African American man to go to IMS [the Insight Meditation Society] to practice meditation with a bunch of folks he doesn’t know in a small New England town. I didn’t go up there because it was a cool thing to do. I came to Buddhist practice because I had dukkha, dukkha, dukkha [suffering]! Excuse my language, but my ass was on fire. [laughs] My life depended on meditation practice.
This was nineteen years ago. I was about six months into recovery from substance abuse—
Which substances? Heroin, crack cocaine, and alcohol. I was a functional addict. I owned a home that I shared with my mother, and I worked as a financial analyst for a Fortune 500 company in the defense industry. Being a perfectionist had allowed me to be a drug addict and continue to work. I don’t know how I pulled that off, but I did.
It was very schizophrenic. I had a hidden life. After work I would go to Roxbury, or Dorchester, or Revere, or wherever—to the shooting galleries. You go there, and you pop, and you get high. And it got to the point where I had to get high just to function normally. My god was getting high and leaving my body, floating in space, taking off—anything that would get me away from the emotions that I was experiencing.
And how did that lead you to Buddhism? I got into Twelve Step recovery and lo and behold, I had pain. I had to deal with a lot of chronic pain—migraines, headaches, back pains. And emotional pain and spiritual pain. And I knew, because of my addiction, that I couldn’t take pain medicines. So the therapist I was working with suggested I join an experimental stress management program that was part of my health plan. The person running it was Dr. Joan Borysenko, one of the pioneering specialists in the mind-body response.
Joan gave us a syllabus of Buddhist books to read, and suggested, to those of us that might be up for it, going to a silent retreat. Being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I spent a year reading every book on her syllabus and trying the exercises alone. And then I went up to Barre for a three-day [Vipassana] retreat. That’s how I got into it, and my practice just took off from there.
What was that first retreat like for you? Well, they told me to bring a cushion, and I brought, like, a regular big soft square cushion you’d buy at a store. [laughs] People didn’t tell you things. They assumed you knew things. To make things worse, I walked around and nobody was talking to me. I said, these folks are strange! And then the light bulb went off and I realized, this is a silent retreat! [laughs]
Physically, it was difficult. I tried everything. I sat on a chair, I sat on a cushion. My flexibility was really not there, and I had knee and ankle problems. I didn’t know then that there’s a relationship between playing basketball on hard concrete and being on crutches later in life.
I am very grateful for the folks on that retreat who put up with all my noise-making and movement. It was horrendous. But I knew there was something there, and I stuck with it. I never thought about leaving.
Did meditation help with your pain or make it worse? In time, it helped. I remember running my two and a half miles and having some pain—and realizing that by focusing on my breath and just relating to the pain differently, I actually could watch it peak and then go away, and still keep running. Just to notice the sensation, the bare sensation, adding nothing extra. I didn’t have to say “my knee hurts.” That’s a concept. I wanted to go down to the bare level of sensation. How is it to just be with the sensation? Is it twisting, burning, pulling? Then I got to see that it’s not even solid. It’s radiating differently, and it goes from one extreme to the other, and when I related to it that way, there wasn’t the mental anguish that comes with the physical pain.
That was an amazing thing for me. I learned that I could control my mind. No matter what happened to me, I could choose my response to it. I had lived in fantasy all my life. Once I started getting involved in meditation, I realized that I did have an alternative. It was the first time I had a sense of control in my life.
Had you had chronic pain a long time? I played basketball through high school, I was accident prone, and I was in pain all the time. They didn’t have pain management back in those days. I’d go to Boston City Hospital, and they’d just give me [the painkilling narcotic] Darvon, they’d give me stuff. And once they gave me stuff, I was able to be more gregarious, I could talk to people. Before that, I was very quiet, very shy, and I had very little to say. I was just really . . .
Locked in? Locked in. But I was always sensitive. I remember as a child just watching the sun’s rays come in, and watching the dust float around. I could feel people’s pain, and I would feel bad for the women out in the streets, you know. When I was in pain and I complained about it, people would say, “Shut up and stop being a sissy.” So you learn how to numb yourself. An emptiness is, I guess, how most people would probably describe it. Just not feeling connected—feeling empty. That make sense?
It makes a lot of sense. What was your upbringing like? I grew up in Boston—in Roxbury and Dorchester; being African American, there were only so many places you could live. I had eight sisters and four brothers, and I was number ten. My parents were from Alabama, near Mississippi, and they were still enslaved in a lot of ways. My father had two jobs—he worked for the New Haven Railroad as a laborer, and he was a barber. My mother worked in a hotel running the elevator, and she cleaned houses.
I had a conversation with my aunt a while ago—she was explaining to me why my uncles were all alcoholics and why they’re all dead now. She told me they were all pulled out of school in the second grade, in Alabama, to work in the fields; slavery was alive and well in the 1940s. They were sharecroppers. They would work all year and were supposed to get twenty dollars, but they always ended the year in the red, and they’d be lucky to get a smack of the whip. Alcoholism, that’s how my uncles dealt with the pain of being enslaved and not having the freedom to do what they needed to do.
So I was pretty much on my own. It was bad out there, and it was bad at home. My father also was an alcoholic. He would come home and beat up the wife and kick the dog. He was getting it where he worked; there was a lot he was dealing with.
It was rough. You didn’t have a lot of options. When the police saw you, they weren’t there to help you, they were there to put you in jail, or beat on you, or harass you. It was a very tough life, and you were made to think like, you can’t get out, there’s no way out.
So the way to survive was to live in fantasy. I knew the taste of beer before I could walk. At maybe fifteen or sixteen, I started snorting heroin—you didn’t shoot it in those days—you took diet pills, you sniffed, and you drank. I began using in 1967. I was a mainliner for a lot of years. I didn’t get clean until 1984—that’s seventeen years, a lot of years, a lot of life. I’m just getting to the point where I’ve been clean longer than I was using.
I had friends who were clean, and on April Fool’s Day in 1984 one of them took me to an AA meeting, and I got exposed to the fact there were other people like me who were able to change their lives. I went through a twenty-one-day program, and I woke up. I got clean, and when I left the detox, it was the first time I had ever really seen my street. It was the first time that I was dealing with life on life’s terms.
As I became clear, I realized that I was working for a corporation in the defense industry in a job I really didn’t like, even though I could do it with one hand tied behind my back. My company made the guidance systems for missiles. So I went back to school. I took another job, and that didn’t work out. I was sitting, and doing three-month Vipassana courses, and living at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. And I didn’t have any work for two years.
And then? I saw a note on the bulletin board at the center saying they were looking for somebody to teach meditation to inmates in a recovery unit.
What was it like, the first time you walked into a prison? I understood immediately what they meant by a hell realm. And I was just at the gatehouse, not even inside the place. You could feel the oppression there. Every time I went there, it took me several days to recuperate—a lot of sitting, a lot of metta [lovingkindness] meditation, just to get back to normal. And people are in this environment 24/7, for a lot of years. I might do fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes of metta meditation in my car outside before I’d go in. That was how I protected myself.
I meditate in a place where I feel safe—so I can open up. But when you’re in an environment that is so oppressive, how can people practice? Well, some could, some couldn’t. They had to understand that it was the best thing for them in that environment. They needed it more than I did, because their lives depended on it. Being present changes the quality of life in there.
The prison would give us these little offices to practice in. And you can imagine: sitting there, trying to practice being aware—breathing in, breathing out, labeling thoughts and sensations—and the intercom coming on very loudly with the voice of the warden! The folks in the class, the inmates, the brothers, would hear that voice and their minds would go off. You can imagine their thoughts: “Hearing . . . unpleasant perception . . . that so and so, I can’t stand him . . . da-da da-da da-da . . . he gave me a disciplinary report”—and on and on and on. Of course you know what happens. You’re sitting there, and that proliferation of thought takes place—and more tension, more tension, more tension. You’re cultivating the mind state of hatred, of resentment.
So we did what I call a Thich Nhat Hanh. We made the intercom the bell of mindfulness, if you will. We practiced just paying attention to the bare sensations, the bare experience, without our likes and dislikes—just experiencing things as they are, without the belief systems. Each time the intercom came on, just noting: hearing, hearing. Lengthening the process of perception. Not allowing the mind to go to the place of pleasant-or-unpleasant, or to the perception of who the voice is, and the thinking about it. It was possible to just be with the breath—breathing in, breathing out—and to be reminded to go back to the object of meditation. That was really powerful. The inmates were able to sit with the intercom coming on unexpectedly without being bothered by it. That’s the power of bare attention, the power of cultivating mindfulness.
Is this the way that meditation practice could make a difference to inner-city lives? I think the main benefit of meditation for inner-city African Americans is impulse control. The inner city is a pressure cooker, full of tension and anxiety. It’s easy to go off or to reach for something to ease the pain. Meditation helps people understand the operation of their minds and emotions. It teaches us how to detach ourselves from outside provocation and from our habitual patterns of reaction.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should take abuse and racism and all that other stuff, and just breathe in, breathe out. That’s something else. But the first thing we have to do is have control of ourselves, and then we can choose with a clear mind how to respond appropriately to our experience. It’s been very healing, when people treat me abusively, to be calm and to speak my truth to them, with the intention of just speaking it to them. Whether or not they respond to it is not so important as me speaking my truth. Because that changes my opinion of myself, and it also gives them the opportunity to change.
To make a big jump, in 1993, basketball coach Phil Jackson—who was referred to you by Jon Kabat-Zinn [founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center]—invited you to teach meditation and stress reduction to the Chicago Bulls. At the time, the Bulls had just won three NBA championships in a row. They were the most recognizable sports team on the planet. What was it like for you to walk into that situation? I began working with the team in October 1993, at the Bulls’ training camp in Deerfield, Illinois. A couple of weeks earlier, Michael Jordan had resigned from the team. Their best player had left—and at that time, the Bulls were known as the Jordan-aires. So my role increased from teaching stress reduction to teaching them how to deal with a full-blown crisis.
Oh, my. Here I was with a team that had won three championships in a row. I hadn’t been around a pro game since the ’70s, when I had friends who were pros, and I’d never done this before. I just had to go in and forget about myself and be of service. I figured if it worked in a prison, it’d work anywhere. It was a matter of going in and saying, “This is my experience.” I’m an expert on my experience-I can talk about what works for me. And I just went in and did my thing.
Did they resist? Did they think it was weird? Initially, I’m sure there was some of that. But also they really needed me because they were in a crisis, and they trusted Phil. Some of the players probably wanted nothing to do with it. But this was a team thing and they were expected to at least try. And I would go in there, hoping—well, some of them would get it and some of them wouldn’t. My job was just to set the table, whether they chose to eat or not.
Did you teach them formal meditation? I didn’t teach them any differently than I taught the inmates. I talked about how to relate to your experience internally, so that you can develop more skill. Same thing.
Did you have a meditation room? Just like in the prison, you work with the environment that you have. In this case, they had a team room where they would watch videotapes, and that’s where I worked with them. I just make do.
So did you specifically talk to them about what was going on? Oh, yes, most definitely. That’s the key. You have to deal with people where they are.
Do you mind walking me through what you said to them? The same thing I would say in any setting: This is it. How are you going to relate to it? Are you going to increase your awareness and your consciousness of it, or are you going to deaden it and deny the experience? We’re talking about the Bulls and the Lakers, but it’s the same thing no matter who is involved—if they’re human and they have a mind. The real question is always: Are you going to bring more awareness to your experiences, or are you going to bring less? That’s the question. Are you interested in understanding life and understanding your behavior and the consequences of that? Or do you want to keep on acting like you don’t know, so you don’t have to take responsibility? Do you know that if you don’t like your life, you can change it?
Was there a particular moment that was a turning point with the Bulls? I don’t remember key moments, but I do know that the team as a whole had fifty-five wins that year—two games fewer than the year before, when they won the championship with Michael. They came very close to advancing in the playoffs.
Is there a difference between working with the Bulls and working with the Lakers? There’s always a difference. Teams are different from year to year. Somebody leaves. Conditions change. And that’s why it’s important to deal with things as they are, not as they used to be or as they might be.
You work with other athletic teams as well, at Boston College and elsewhere. When you first come in to teach mindfulness to an athletic team, what do you say you’re offering? I first just try to get them to the table. I have about ten seconds to get their attention. And what gets most athletes’ attention is the idea of being in the “zone”—the mind-state where they are playing their best, they can do no wrong, and no matter what happens, they are always a step quicker, a step ahead. There’s a lack of self-consciousness, a relaxed concentration, and a sense of effortlessness, of being in the flow. Athletes understand that.
After I have their attention, I have them try to get in the zone. And they can’t. But I let them know that if they pay attention, the zone will happen as a by-product. There are other elements involved, but paying attention is the most important part.
When they are in the moment and absorbed in the activity, they play their best. And that takes mindfulness, being aware, being engaged with the present moment. I offer them the opportunity to be in the moment.
Do you encourage the players you work with to do meditation practice? Oh, they can’t do it without meditation practice. You can’t just practice mindfulness when you’re in a basketball game. It’s a full-time job.
Warriors have known this for a long time: when you go into combat, you cannot be afraid. You have to be able to deal with your emotions and be clear about what you are attempting to do, and this takes training. If you are in a game and shooting a free throw, you have to pay attention. Ideally, you have practiced so much that all you have to do is step up to the line without thinking about it, and shoot.
Without self-consciousness? Yes, without self-consciousness. But if someone fouls you pretty hard or if the official missed three other fouls or if you just had a shot blocked or if your girlfriend or boyfriend is in the stands, it might be hard. The bottom line is that when you go to the line, concentration, or focus, is one of the major abilities needed to play well.
In Vipassana we talk about right effort, and one form of right effort is to prevent the arising of negative emotions—say, hatred. With athletes, a lot of what arises is fear, and I work with them so that they can see when fear arises and how to relate to it. But first they have to accept the presence offer, and they have to open to it. And that’s a big part of this practice. It’s hard, because sometimes we want to just move away from it, but actually seeing it with mindfulness is how we get unstuck.
Forget about yourself and find yourself. Forget about yourself and find yourself. You go out there and you just perform. You don’t say, “Oh, I’m doing well,” or “I’m not doing well.” I can give you an example. There was one game, I think it was in the ’92-’93 NBA championships, with the Chicago Bulls playing the Portland Trailblazers. This was before I worked with them. But I remember watching the game, and I saw Jordan hit like five or six three’s [three-point baskets made from outside the twenty-two-foot perimeter line}, and that wasn’t his forte. After he hit the last one, he ran down the court and raised his hands up to the cameras as if to say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand.” As soon as he did that, he couldn’t hit another three. Once you become self-conscious, once you are saying, “Hey, look what I’m doing” —that experience of being in the flow is lost.
Afterward, you can reflect on it. But then the challenge becomes, do you identify with what happened and get so attached to it that you go into the next situation trying to recreate the previous good experience? It’s a constant process of trying to just go in fresh with beginner’s mind. And when you win the championship, it lasts for a minute, then you’ve got to get busy. People are trying to take it from you, and you’ve got to start all over again. And so it’s a constant thing where life is always changing.
Sounds like life, only more so. You go out there, and you just perform. You’ve got to be in the moment. And that’s the key to life, as well as athletics.