(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here. 

In fifth grade I was obsessed with three things: statistics, sports, and sports statistics. When we played football at recess, I tallied my stats and recorded them on a sacred sheet in my desk as soon as we returned inside. Just like the pros, I wanted to know how many receptions, touchdowns, and interceptions I’d recorded in a given season. Unlike the pros, it was hard to tell just what was at stake. Since no one else was obsessively recording statistics, I led the league in every category. 

One rainy recess we were locked in an epic battle against the fourth graders. As I was approaching the line of scrimmage, a fourth grader hustling to get back in position accidentally knocked me into a puddle. I could see the remorse on his face, but in a blind rage I grabbed a clump of mud laden with rocks and hurled it at him as hard as I could.

It was clear that I’d crossed a line. The boy wasn’t hurt badly, but the resulting discussion with my teacher, Mrs. Keefe, revealed that the aggressive hurling of hard projectiles at somebody else was intolerable. I did tend to get hotheaded at times, but this was something else. This was violent. This was dangerous.

That moment was a turning point. On top of having to apologize to the boy, Mrs. Keefe “punished” me by forcing me to spend a recess playing football with the fourth graders while my friends were no doubt doing something far cooler, like a coed game of tag. To my surprise, I found that I liked playing football with the fourth graders. The rage I’d felt the day before gave way to the joy of play and the thrill of sport. By the end of that recess I felt a respect for them that hadn’t previously existed. And I felt something else, which I’m not sure I could’ve identified then, but which I would describe now as compassion.

Compassion is one of the core tenets of Buddhism. Though people commonly mistake compassion for its misunderstood hippie cousin loving-kindness, having compassion does not mean spending eternity as a grinning doormat. Chögyam Trungpa termed this kind of compassion “idiot compassion”—wanting to do good because of the pleasure it will bring to you. And as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said, “There’s nothing that’s going to make me run away faster than somebody who comes around and wants to be helpful.” The feeling I felt back in fifth grade was not a desire to do good but the simple understanding that the fourth graders were my equals. To treat them differently was absurd. To throw rocks at them was egregious.

Now, 20 years later, I find myself on the other side of this lesson. Sports are full of mixed messages: Do whatever it takes to win! . . . But don’t cheat. Give 110 percent! . . . But good heavens don’t hurt anybody. As a gym teacher, my job is to throw my students into the center of this paradox. I give them a structured activity with a clear goal and then caution them not to get too hung up on that goal. I pit them against each other and then urge them to cooperate.

Watching my students in action, I marvel at how closely gym resembles real world conflict. Let’s see: they occupy a territory in which is stored a precious good. They won’t give it to us, so we have to sneak in and take it. But in doing so we risk becoming captives and losing all the freedoms we have in our territory. Capture the flag is not for the weak of heart. The inverse is also true: watching real world conflicts, I marvel at how closely they resemble the games we play in gym (complete with childish behavior). Conflict in gym, as in life, is inevitable. Compassion is not. Yet I have many students that compete like little Buddhas, content no matter the outcome. As one of my basketball players said after we lost our first game of the season, “We came in second place!”

Then there are those like me; those that want to lead the league in every category. I can go hoarse telling them that no one has ever gone undefeated in gym, and that the results of today’s dodgeball game will not be on SportsCenter tonight. When they throw tantrums, I ask them who their favorite athlete is and ask if they ever see him or her throwing tantrums on TV (as you might imagine, this doesn’t always get the desired point across). It might take years before they recognize the Sisyphean pointlessness of rage. Many adults never do. But though I can’t force that recognition upon them, I can create the circumstances in which it can arise. In that sense, gym acts as a compassion incubator. 

Practice, both the athletic and the spiritual kind, is not a manifestation of perfection, but an acceptance of imperfection. One does not achieve or attain compassion; one develops it by meeting the moment over and over again. When I sit, I am often amazed at how much time I spend fantasizing about soccer brawls. I used to chastise myself for this—shouldn’t I be past this kind of obsession? Now I realize that this glimpse into my own mind gives context and space to a tendency that I might otherwise act out. The writer Karen Armstrong said, “Compassion is practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently day by day.” On the zafu, one is able to see how deep-rooted aggression can be within. In gym, one is able to see how anger arises in others, and is given the opportunity to practice with it.

Charlotte Joko Beck said: “In spiritual maturity, the opposite of injustice is not justice, but compassion. Not me against you, not me straightening out the present ill, fighting to gain a just result for myself and others, but compassion, a life that goes against nothing and fulfills everything.” Expecting young athletes to display spiritual maturity is unreasonable. And yet, in the heat of competition, they often do, pausing to pick up a fallen classmate or offering to get someone an ice pack. And they often don’t. They will cross that line, they will get heated, they will shove somebody, and like Mrs. Keefe did for me, I’ll remind them where that line is. Then I’ll set up the game again, blow the whistle, and encourage my students to keep practicing.

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