The following is a chapter from my book ‘Parables For The New Conversation.’ One chapter will be published every Sunday for 36 weeks here on Collective Evolution. (I would recommend you start with Chapter 1 if you haven’t already read it.) I hope my words are a source of enjoyment and inspiration for you, the reader. If perchance you would like to purchase a signed paperback copy of the book, you can do so on my production company website Pandora’s Box Office.
From the back cover: “Imagine a conversation that centers around possibility—the possibility that we can be more accepting of our own judgments, that we can find unity through our diversity, that we can shed the light of our love on the things we fear most. Imagine a conversation where our greatest polarities are coming together, a meeting place of East and West, of spirituality and materialism, of religion and science, where the stage is being set for a collective leap in consciousness more magnificent than any we have known in our history.
Now imagine that this conversation honors your uniqueness and frees you to speak from your heart, helping you to navigate your way more deliberately along your distinct path. Imagine that this conversation puts you squarely into the seat of creator—of your fortunes, your relationships, your life—thereby putting the fulfillment of your deepest personal desires well within your grasp.
‘Parables for the New Conversation’ is a spellbinding odyssey through metaphor and prose, personal sagas and historic events, where together author and reader explore the proposal that at its most profound level, life is about learning to consciously manifest the experiences we desire–and thus having fun. The conversation touches on many diverse themes but always circles back to who we are and how our purposes are intertwined, for it is only when we see that our personal desires are perfectly aligned with the destiny of humanity as a whole that we will give ourselves full permission to enjoy the most exquisite experiences life has to offer.”
23. The Competition
One morning a young boy and his older sister were fishing on a small stream that ran through the forest on the Western side of the island of Allandon when the branchless trunk of a fallen tree floated slowly by.
“Look, a tree!” said the boy.
“So what?” replied the girl.
“So we can play ‘tip-over’!” he said.
“Ha! You’ve never beaten me at that. Why do you keep asking me?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” started the boy in a tone mimicking the village crier, “we are now ready for the finals of the main event, the tip-over! Will the contestants please take their positions on the tree!”
“All right,” she said, “get ready to lose again.”
They waded into the shallow stream and got onto the tree trunk. As they slowly and stutteringly rose to a standing position, he continued his announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the contestants are set. When one contestant falls in the water, the other will be declared the winner. Ready, steady, and go!”
The girl stood nonchalantly, trying to make it look as effortless as possible. But minutes started to go by, and he was also staying steady. She knew if she could get the tree spinning he would fall. He had always fallen. After a bit of effort she got it started, but this time he was spinning it right with her.
“Why aren’t you falling?” she asked.
“I’ve been practicing!” he replied.
She tried to reverse course and stop the tree trunk from spinning in the hopes it would put him off balance. Instead, she slipped and fell backwards into the stream while he remained on the tree trunk. “It’s over!” he said, and jumped into the water with an exuberant splash. He followed his sister out of the stream with arms raised, exclaiming, “He’s done it! He’s done it! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new world champion!”
“All right, enough,” she said, looking back at him with annoyance.
“What?” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever won!”
“Relax,” she said, “it’s just a game.”
“Just a game?” asked the bemused young boy. “Do you mean there’s something else?”
My search for a more spiritual life after university, inspired by a growing interest in Eastern philosophy and practices, brought with it an unexpected byproduct: it compelled me to become more acutely aware of my highly competitive nature. Competitive soccer, for example, was a major part of my life. Doing activities that did not lead to ‘winning’ were still somewhat foreign to me. I remember the difficulty I had during my first ever yoga classes around that time. I’m not simply talking about the fact that I was preoccupied with holding my postures longer and stretching further than the middle-aged women around me; I’m referring to the internal clash of emotions I was feeling just as the postures and the rhythms of the yoga began to relax me. My mind kept conjuring up vivid images of battling on the soccer field and passionately celebrating victory with my teammates. Although I was convinced that yoga could bring me some much-needed peace of mind, I left those first few sessions feeling restless and even somewhat ill. I had a vague sense that doing yoga was a threat to my competitive instinct and lifestyle. And since I didn’t feel ready to give that up, I did not practice yoga again for over a decade.
In the back of my mind I imagined that being competitive was a phase that I would eventually grow out of as I matured. Some of my own experiences and the literature I had been reading seemed to support that. And yet today, even as I have returned to yoga, meditation and other holistic practices, I still have not been able to pull myself away from the lure of competing. Not only that, but I continue to follow some professional sports competitions with pointed interest. I realize there are more than enough things going on that should have turned me off of that whole scene, with the outrageous salaries and image-related endorsement contracts, performance-enhancing drug use, gambling, match-fixing, and other distractions. Yet I still sometimes find myself in front of the TV, captivated by the unfolding drama of my home team’s game or an important golf tournament. Sometimes when I am watching an event and my wife comes in, I will enjoy making a big production about the importance of the moment. “There’s only a minute left,” I will say, “he has to make this free throw,” or “this putt is so important.” She will often sit with me through the moment of truth to humor me, even though the drama usually has little impact on her. Of course I understand her perfectly. I would agree that in the grand scheme of things it really makes no difference for my life whether my team wins or not. In quiet moments after the final buzzer has sounded and the teams have left the floor, the thought will occasionally occur to me: Do I just need to grow up and get over all this?
For me this question has been more complicated than it might seem. At first blush, the desire to pit individuals against one another to see who is stronger, faster, and better appears to be the epitome of Ego-Self-motivated fulfillment. Indeed, it was during the emergence of the Ego Self at the dawn of Western Civilization that formalized competition first came into prominence with the inaugural Olympic Games in Ancient Greece in 774 B. C. However the Greeks had some noble reasons for initiating their Games, not the least of which was to facilitate the pursuit of areté, which was perhaps the most esteemed value of ancient Greek culture. Areté can be translated as ‘virtue,’ but actually means something closer to ‘being the best you can be,’ or ‘reaching your highest human potential.’
Looked at from this point of view, competition may in some cases hold value for our lives. Being the best we can be, striving to reach our potential, is who we actually are. And so the pursuit of areté is an exercise in being our true selves. Our true self is not the self that we outwardly identify with, the self of a name and job and habits and addictions. Our true self is the high water mark of self-actualization that we have achieved to date, and it is only when we consistently attempt to reach and surpass our high water mark do we gain the real sensation of being fully alive.
I think that beyond the commercialism and corruption, our competitive sports heroes can still inspire us towards this. They demonstrate that peak mental and physical performances result from commitment and dedication, courage and focus. If our heroes are to be of benefit to our lives, it is through the way they model grace under pressure, and a willingness to face and challenge their own fears to rise above and perform. Athletes can still exude a simple, almost childlike love for the game, and demonstrate unabashed joy when they individually or collectively overcome the greatest challenges of their sport.
There is a danger for us, however, if we always remain spectators, living vicariously through the achievements of professional athletes. We must recognize that the victory of our home team or sports idol is not really our own. Our joy is short-lived, a pale imitation of the feeling the victorious athlete says “cannot be put into words.” Our own euphoria is reserved for the times when we face the challenges that have our name on them, and lead ourselves to victory by our efforts. The more we focus our emotions on the exploits of others, the more we will shrink in fear when we get the opportunity to step onto the playing field ourselves. We will not be prepared and we will look for the comfort of the sidelines. The only thing is that, in life, there are no sidelines. We are always on the field of play, even when we’re just curled up in a ball trying to avoid all the action.
It is important for each one of us to determine whether or not competition is serving us in our lives. If winning has become everything, and we are willing to cheat to earn victory, then competition is no longer a context for reaching our highest potential. It only echoes the dog-eat-dog mentality rampant in our society where one person’s gain is always another’s loss. However, while the design of competition puts one of us against the other, I believe it can still give us the feeling that we are in this together. When we do it with an awareness that winning is not the only thing, competition can bind us to an unspoken understanding that we really play together in order to celebrate life. The famous saying that ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’ rings true—because in life it’s possible to play the game in a way that everybody wins.
While we may be in danger of taking the game of life too seriously, there is also a danger of not taking the game seriously enough, of playing it too safe and not really engaging in life. Remember Helen Keller’s words that ‘life is either a daring adventure or nothing.’ There is a fine line that we need to observe, because it is in the balance that life is fun. A common misconception is that a spiritual life demands we withdraw from the game. I believe a spiritual life urges us to walk that fine line, and play the game as though everything was at stake while being wholly detached from the outcome of our efforts.
We all cross both sides of that fine line throughout our lives, but in some magical moments we can get it just right. In one of his lectures, Wayne Dyer recounts a true story told by the father of a young boy with motor and learning disabilities when his son wanted to join a baseball game in progress.
The boy’s father thought it was unlikely that the players, who were his son’s age, would let his son play. So he was pleasantly surprised when one of the players he asked actually consented, albeit hesitantly and a bit out of embarrassment, to let his son onto his team. The young player rationalized that that it was already the 8th inning and his team was losing badly, so the boy was given a glove to play outfield and was promised an at-bat in the 9th inning.
His son’s team made a courageous comeback, however, and by the 9th inning they actually gave themselves a chance to win. They were only down by three runs and had the bases loaded. The only problem was that there were two outs and it was his son’s turn to bat. The father, who could appreciate the drama of the moment, highly doubted that the team would let his son go up to bat at this critical moment. After all, his son could not even hold the bat properly, let alone swing it. But to his surprise, he saw his son making his way timidly to the batter’s box.
The players could see right away that his son would not be able to get a hit, especially after he missed the first pitch clumsily. So one of his teammates came up behind him to help him hold the bat while the pitcher moved closer in order to lob the ball in softly. On the next pitch the two boys swung together and hit a weak ground ball to the pitcher. The father thought that the pitcher would easily throw his son out, and that would be the game.
That is when something remarkable started to happen. The pitcher instead hesitated for a moment, and then threw the ball high over the first baseman’s head and down the right field line. The young boy’s teammates started yelling to him, “Run to first! Run to first!” Never in his life had he run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide eyed and startled. By the time he rounded first base, the right fielder had the ball. The father knew that the outfielder could have thrown the ball to an infielder who would tag his son out, as he was running along the base path aimlessly. But the outfielder suddenly understood what the pitcher’s intentions were, so instead he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head, as everyone yelled, “Run to second! Run to second!”
The father saw his son run towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. When his son reached second base, the opposing shortstop actually ran to him, gently turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, “Run to third!” As his son rounded third, the players from both teams gathered behind him screaming, “Run home! Run home!” Together they guided him home, and as soon as he stepped on home plate all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit a grand slam and won the game for his team.
There is perhaps no greater feeling than when, focused as we get on a game that pits one against the other, we transcend our Ego Self to touch the world of unity beyond. But to have this experience, we need to chalk the foul lines, fasten the bases in place, and have a sturdy umpire behind the plate telling us to “Play ball!” The rules of the game provide the context for some of the most magical experiences in life.
In those moments when we feel the rules of the game are brutal and unfair, whether it be from having a loved one die, or losing our fortune, or being born with a disability, it is a good time to stop and reflect for a moment. When the totality of life is taken as a game, all of its difficulties can be seen as the challenges that make the game worth playing, where the emphasis falls on the experience of life rather than its outcome. The struggle towards self-actualization, the pursuit of areté, is no easy ride for any of us. But if we were really looking for an easy ride, we likely would not have come onto this field of play in the first place.
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