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Consciousness

Scientists Show How Gratitude Literally Alters The Human Heart & Molecular Structure Of The Brain

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Scientists have discovered that feelings of gratitude can actually change your brain. Feeling gratitude can also be a great tool for overcoming depression and anxiety. Furthermore, scientists have discovered that the heart sends signals to the brain.

  • Reflect On:

    Every time we struggle with depression, why are we constantly encouraged to take prescription medication when mindfulness techniques actually show more promise?

Gratitude is a funny thing. In some parts of the world, somebody who gets a clean drink of water, some food, or a worn out pair of shoes can be extremely grateful. Meanwhile, somebody else who has all the necessities they need to live can be found complaining about something. What we have today is what we once wanted before, but there is a lingering belief out there that obtaining material possessions is the key to happiness. Sure, this may be true, but that happiness is temporary. The truth is that happiness is an inside job.

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It’s a matter of perspective, and in a world where we are constantly made to feel like we are lacking and always ‘wanting’ more, it can be difficult to achieve or experience actual happiness. Many of us are always looking toward external factors to experience joy and happiness, when really it’s all related to internal work. This is something science is just starting to grasp as well, as shown by research coming out of UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. According to them:

Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant. Now that’s a really cool way of taking care of your well-being.

There are many studies showing that people who count their blessings tend to be far happier and experience less depression.  For one study,  researchers recruited people with mental health difficulties, including people suffering from anxiety and depression. The study involved nearly 300 adults who were randomly divided into three groups. This study came from the University of California, Berkeley.

All groups received counselling services, but the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person every week for three weeks, whereas the second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group did not do any writing activity.

What did they find? Compared to the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counselling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health for up to 12 weeks after the writing exercise ended.

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This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief. (source)

Previously, a study on gratitude conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami randomly assigned participants to be given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another group recorded daily troubles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the troubled group. They reported fewer health complaints and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more. (source)

Researchers from Berkeley identified how gratitude might actually work on our minds and bodies. They provided four insights from their research suggesting what causes the psychological benefits of gratitude.

  • Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions
  • Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it
  • Gratitude’s benefits take time & practice. You might not feel it right away.
  • Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain

The brain part is very interesting. The researchers at Berkeley used an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity while people from each group did a “pay it forward” task.  During the task, the participants were given money by a “nice person.” This person’s only request was that they pass on the money to someone if they felt grateful.

They did this because they wanted to distinguish between actions motivated by gratitude and actions driven by other motivations like obligation, guilt, or what other people think. This is important because you can’t fake gratitude, you actually have to feel it. If you don’t feel grateful or practice trying to feel grateful by taking the necessary steps like keeping a gratitude journal, you may not experience as much joy and happiness.

In a world where emotions aren’t really taught in school and the importance is put on striving for high grades, it’s not abnormal to have difficulty feeling grateful. This is especially understandable if you’ve been brought up in the western world, which is full of consumerism and competition, a world where we’re constantly made to feel we are lacking so we need to strive for more.

Participants were asked to rate how grateful they felt toward the person giving them the money and how much they wanted to pay it forward to a charitable cause as well as how guilty they thought they would feel if they didn’t help.  They were also given questionnaires to measure how grateful they felt in general.

We found that across the participants, when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinct from brain activity related to guilt and the desire to help a cause. More specifically, we found that when people who are generally more grateful gave more money to a cause, they showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude.

Most interestingly, when we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.

It’s also interesting to note that a recent study just discovered a brain network that “gives rise to feelings of gratitude. The study could spur future investigations into how these ‘building blocks’ transform social information into complex emotions.” (source)

What About The Heart?

The work and research above is great, but where do we actually experience these feelings? They are clearly not a product of our brain, they are products of our consciousness, and when we feel them the brain responds.  Researchers are now discovering that the heart also responds and that it might actually be the heart that’s responsible for sending these signals to the brain.

A group of prestigious and internationally recognized leaders in physics, biophysics, astrophysics, education, mathematics, engineering, cardiology, biofeedback, and psychology (among other disciplines) have been doing some brilliant work over at the Institute of HeartMath.

Their work, among many others, has proven that when a person is feeling really positive emotions like gratitude, love, or appreciation, the heart beats out a different message, which determines what kind of signals are sent to the brain.

Not only that, but because the heart beats out the largest electromagnetic field produced in the body, the Institute has been able to gather a significant amount of data.

According to Rolin McCratey, Ph.D, and Director of Research at Heartmath,

“Emotional information is actually coded and modulated into these fields. By learning to shift our emotions, we are changing the information coded into the magnetic fields that are radiated by the heart, and that can impact those around us. We are fundamentally and deeply connected with each other and the planet itself.” (source)

Another great point made below by the Institute:

“One important way the heart can speak to and influence the brain is when the heart is coherent – experiencing stable, sine-wavelike pattern in its rhythms. When the heart is coherent, the body, including the brain, begins to experience all sorts of benefits, among them are greater mental clarity and ability, including better decision making.” (source)

In fact, the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends in return. What’s even more amusing is the fact that these heart signals (from heart to brain) actually have a significant effect on brain function.

Research findings have shown that as we practice heart coherence and radiate love and compassion, our heart generates a coherent electromagnetic wave into the local field environment that facilitates social coherence, whether in the home, workplace, classroom or sitting around a table. As more individuals radiate heart coherence, it builds an energetic field that makes it easier for others to connect with their heart. So, theoretically it is possible that enough people building individual and social coherence could actually contribute to an unfolding global coherence. –  McCratey

So far, the researchers have discovered that the heart communicates with the brain and body in four ways: neurological communication (nervous system), biophysical communication (pulse wave), biochemical communication (hormones), and energetic communication (electromagnetic fields).

“HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive function. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect. It facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability.” (source)

Gratitude and Positive Feelings Can Change The World

It gets deeper:

Every individual’s energy affects the collective field environment. The means each person’s emotions and intentions generate an energy that affects the field. A first step in diffusing societal stress in the global field is for each of us to take personal responsibility for our own energies. We can do this by increasing our personal coherence and raising our vibratory rate, which helps us become more conscious of the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that we are feeding the field each day. We have a choice in every moment to take to heart the significance of intentionally managing our energies. This is the free will or local freedom that can create global cohesion. – Dr. Deborah Rozman, the President of Quantum Intech (source)

Overall, this type of work suggests that human consciousness in general can change the world.

One study, for example, was done during the Israel-Lebanon war in the 1980s. Two Harvard University professors organized groups of experienced meditators in Jerusalem, Yugoslavia and the United Sates and asked them to focus their attention on the area of conflict at various intervals over a 27-month period. Over the course of the study, the levels of violence in Lebanon decreased between 40 and 80 percent each time a meditating group was in place. The average number of people killed during the war each day dropped from 12 to three, and war-related injuries fell by 70 percent. (source)

Another great example is a study that was conducted in 1993 in Washington, D.C., which showed a 25 percent drop in crime rates when 2,500 meditators meditated during a specific period of time with that intention.

This type of information is heavily correlated with quantum physics, as many experiments in that area as well as parapsychology (telepathy, remote viewing, distant healing) indicate similar findings. (source)

This holds true as far back as 1999. Statistics professor Jessica Utts at UC Irvine published a paper showing that parapsychological experiments have produced much stronger results than those showing a daily dose of aspirin helps prevent heart attacks. Utts also showed that these results are much stronger than the research behind various drugs like antiplatelets.

This type of work has statistically significant implications, yet is heavily ignored and labelled as pseudoscience simply because it conflicts with long-held beliefs we have trouble letting go of … But times are changing.

“For many years I have worked with researchers doing very careful work [in parapsychology], including a year that I spent full-time working on a classified project for the United States government, to see if we could use these abilities for intelligence gathering during the Cold War… At the end of that project I wrote a report for Congress, stating what I still think is true. The data in support of precognition and possibly other related phenomena are quite strong statistically, and would be widely accepted if it pertained to something more mundane. Yet, most scientists reject the possible reality of these abilities without ever looking at data! And on the other extreme, there are true believers who base their beliefs solely on anecdotes and personal experience. I have asked debunkers if there is any amount of data that would convince them, and they generally have responded by saying, “probably not.” I ask them what original research they have read, and they mostly admit that they haven’t read any. Now there is a definition of pseudo-science-basing conclusions on belief rather than data!” – Utts, Chair of the Statistics Department, UC Irvine (Dean Radin, Real Magic)

The Takeaway

Emotions and other factors associated with consciousness have the power to transform our inner world in ways we don’t fully understand yet. These findings show how consciousness can actually transform the physical/material world, and that’s huge. This validates the idea that if we can change our inner world through gratitude, empathy, compassion, and meditation, we can make our outer world more peaceful.

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Consciousness

Remember This When You Forget How ‘Powerful’ You Are

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    We all feel down at some point in our lives. Sometimes just a simple reminder of our true essence can bring everything into perspective, like the 28 quotes below.

  • Reflect On:

    Sometimes we simply need to change our perspective. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Easier said than done, but what action steps are you taking to feel better?

We all feel down at some point in our lives, and some of us more than others. Sometimes we feel defeated, depressed, and unworthy. If you are anything like me, you may have spent a lot of time feeling broken, ashamed, and guilty, too. These are some of the most difficult emotions to feel about yourself.

This was at a time in my life, where, although I had woken up to a conscious understanding, and had learned about many spiritual concepts — how to overcome challenging experiences, the idea that everything happens for a reason, etc. — for the life of me, I could not implement this knowledge and understanding into my life. I felt as though there was actually something wrong with me, that maybe my mind worked differently, or maybe something in me was blocking me from progressing. I was trapped, and I felt truly broken. I compared myself to others around me and just thought they had it easier. I was stuck in this victim mentality.

There were, however, a few pieces of writing and wisdom that I had collected over the years that truly helped me through these hard times. A simple reminder of how powerful we truly are really touched me because, deep down, despite these low feelings, I knew that like everyone else, I was a part of source — everything that is, God, whatever you want to call it. Yes, I realized that I just I said am God, but it’s okay because so are you!

Sometimes just a simple reminder of our true essence can bring everything into perspective. I hope that you can find some solace in the following quotes when you are going through tough times, and don’t forget, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

  1. “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” — Hafiz
  2. “Within you is the light of a thousand suns.” – Robert Adams
  3. “A beautiful day begins with a beautiful mindset. When you wake up, take a second to realize what a privilege it is to be alive and be healthy. The moment you start acting like life is a blessing, I assure you it will start feeling like one. Time spent appreciating is time worth living.” — Anonymous
  4. “You’re so hard on yourself. Take a moment, sit back, marvel at your life;
    At the grief that softened you
    At the heartache that wizened you,
    At the suffering that strengthened you.
    Despite everything,
    You still grow.
    Be proud of this.” — Unknown
  5. “There is no reason to doubt yourself. If you know what your intentions are you will always give yourself guidance, and if you momentarily seem to get off track, which isn’t really even possible –then you will always allow yourself to know that there is something you will learn from it in a positive way and know that you haven’t really left the track at all. You have simply expanded the track wider.” – Bashar
  6. “Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life. Because you become what you believe.” – Oprah Winfrey
  7. “Change can be scary, but you know what’s scarier? Allowing fear to stop you from growing, evolving and progressing.” – Mandy Hale
  8. “We are travellers on a cosmic journey, stardust swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share this is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.” – Paulo Coelho
  9. “Tear off the mask. Your face is glorious.” – Rumi
  10. “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.”
  11. “We are all made of stars.”– Moby
  12. “Don’t worry, don’t be afraid ever, because this is just a ride.” – Bill Hicks
  13. “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein
  14. “But without the darkness, we’d never see the stars.” —Anonymous
  15. “Do not feel lonely, the entire Universe is inside you.” – Rumi
  16. “A lot of the pain that we are dealing with are really only thoughts.” — Anonymous
  17. “Never compare your journey with anyone else’s. Your journey is YOUR journey, it’s not a competition.” — Anonymous
  18. “You were given this life because you were strong enough to live it.” — Anonymous
  19. “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” – Eckhart Tolle
  20. “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” –Eckhart Tolle
  21. “The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love, and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you, the world is transformed.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
  22. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
  23. “You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” –Louise Hay
  24. “Until you feel broken you don’t know what you’re made of. It gives you the ability to build yourself all over again, but stronger than ever.” – Melissa Molomo
  25. “The pain that you’ve been feeling can’t compare to the joy that’s coming.” – Romans 8:18
  26. “Every struggle in your life has shaped you into the person you are today. Be thankful for the hard times, they can only make you stronger.” – Pravinee Hurbungs
  27. “When you face difficult times, know that challenges are not sent to destroy you. They’re sent to promote, increase and strengthen you.” – Joel Osteen
  28. “Life has a way of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or having everything happen at once.” – Paulo Coelho

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Consciousness

Retired American Bishop Believes The Church Invented Hell & Is In The “Control Business”

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Below is a video of Jon Shelby Spong, a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church explaining that religion is a business and it is used as a control mechanism.

  • Reflect On:

    Is religion an invention of man used for sinister purposes? A form of brainwashing? Is there some truth within religion? Is that way it resonates with so many? Is religion different today from what it was many years ago?

Religion is a controversial topic, and I’d like to preface this article by saying that it is not my aim to belittle or diminish anyone’s beliefs. My problem is not with faith but with religion as an organization, which has been used as a means of control, to pit people against each other, and to incite terror and war. Religion in this context serves the purposes of many various global elitist agendas.

Religion is also confusing, to say the least; within several different religions exist different ‘sects,’ each with their own teachings and version of the ‘truth’ and how to live one’s life. Within Christianity alone, there are multiple versions of the Bible, and teachings that contradict one another. What one religion says in one part of the world may directly oppose what another says in a different part of the world. This alone is a recipe for feelings of confusion and isolation for anybody who is seeking ‘the truth.’ If various religions preach different ways of life and truths, they all can’t be correct, can they? I guess that’s why they call it faith.

Below is a video of Jon Shelby Spong, a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church, discussing these problems. He argues that religion is a business and it is used as a control mechanism (and he’s not the first insider to do so). We can see this happening most clearly in the rise of Islamophobia. Islam has been turned into a scapegoat, a target at which we can direct all our fears and anger, and an excuse to invade other countries and create a more intense global national security state. But the truth is, Islam has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. These manufactured fears are all part and parcel of ‘false flag’ terrorism, which you can read more about here if you are unfamiliar with the concept.

In the video, Spong affirms that “religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand. It’s in the guilt producing control business.”

Every church I know claims that we are the true church, and they have some ultimate authority. . . . The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system by any human creed by any human book, is almost beyond imagination for me. God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu a Buddhist; all of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God.

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He is describing the difference between faith and religion. I myself have explored multiple religions, and have discovered teachings within all of them that deeply resonate with me. I’ve also found teachings that don’t resonate at all. I don’t believe one religion has all the answers.

Using fear to coax people into a certain way of life or belief system, just like the Bishop mentions above, seems to be common practice in nearly every religion, and that certainly doesn’t resonate with me.

The history of the church itself is problematic. Whether it be the church’s role in the First Nations Genocide here in Canada, or the European crusades, the church has a history of forcing their views upon others and of condemning science and new discoveries.

Furthermore, as the Bishop says above, people need to accept responsibility for the world. If we simply leave global change in the hands of God, we remove our own responsibility and agency in this world. If we want to change the world, WE have to do it. After the Paris terrorist attacks, the Dalai Lamai expressed this as well, arguing that it’s not enough to just pray. We must take responsibility for our planet.

We are also dealing with texts that are very old, and considering there are multiple versions of various texts, all of which have likely been manipulated, changed, and distorted over the years, I find it difficult to accept any one without question.

Another point that turns me away from religion is hypocrisy. Many people claim ties to their faith yet know very little about its tenets, and fail to follow what they claim to believe in. This is commonly seen within the ‘spiritual’ movement as well, which can be seen as another form of religion in itself.

When it comes to religion, I believe you have to do your own research; you have to read the books and examine the teachings for yourself. Use your own head and find what resonates with you instead of allowing yourself to be indoctrinated and letting someone else do your thinking for you. These texts are open to interpretation; it’s up to you to find meaning in them and apply it to your life. You can still believe in God and not be religious. Religion is a manmade construct, and I think if God were to suddenly appear somewhere, he or she would have no idea what religion even was.

Religions as organizations are going to have to change. New discoveries are constantly being made that are challenging long-held belief systems. We cannot grow if we refuse to have an open mind and accept new possibilities about the nature of reality, and it’s childish to hold on to old belief systems just because they are familiar.

I personally believe in the soul and other non-material phenomena, as well the idea that life does not end here on Earth, and I believe there is enough evidence in various forms, aside from my own intuition and gut feeling, to support this stance.

What about you? What do you believe? What it all boils down to, for me, is respect. We must learn to respect each other’s viewpoints about ‘what is.’ We need to work with each other and accept our differences so we can focus on helping the planet, our shared home.

“It’s a mark of an educated person to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.”

What do you think about religion and what Spong is saying in this video?

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Consciousness

Parables For The New Conversation (Chapter 23: The Competition)

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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.

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“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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