Swimming trophies. Photo courtesy of Terren.
Written by Matt Waters
Spirituality does not invite simple answers to complicated feelings. Plenty of people in life have experienced moments beyond common definition. These events belong specifically to the individual, an unforgettable chunk of consciousness transcending the haze of memory, permanently real. Glimpses into a higher reality occur at all sort of different times. Indelibility may drop into someone’s life at a totally innocuous hour, or during an intense situation that may heighten awareness.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great Russian author, experienced many sufferings throughout his life. Perhaps the most traumatic episode was a mock execution, which occurred in 1849. He and other intellectuals were rounded up, essentially as an exhibition, by Tsar Nicholas I, and eventually given a four-year sentence in a Siberian prison camp. Dostoyevsky not only endured this horrible fortune, he wrote beautiful passages about beauty overcoming cruelty, such as this one, found in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
“Brother, I am not dejected or crestfallen. Life, life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. Near me will be people, and to be a person among persons and stay him forever, to not be cast down or despondent no matter what the misfortunes are – therein lies life, therein lies its purpose. I realized that. This idea entered my flesh and blood. Yes! It’s true! The head that created and got accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head is cut off from my shoulders. What’s left are the memories and images created and not reified by me. They will ulcerate me, indeed! What I have left is my heart and the same flesh and blood, which can love, suffer, pity, and remember, and this is life, after all …”
Unfortunately for Dostoyevsky, his journey to the special, spiritual plane that allowed him to conjure such wondrous literature involved intense suffering. Suffering is not exactly a prerequisite to discovering transcendence. In fact, Buddhism argues just the opposite. Dipa Ma, a Buddhist master, had an insightful take in his book, entitled, Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master. The website, View on Buddhism, provides a helpful summary of Ma’s teachings on this subject:
“More importantly, in addition to formal sitting on the cushion, Dipa Ma urged students to make every moment of their lives a meditation. Some of us are busy people who find it difficult to set aside any time at all. ‘If you are busy, then busyness is the meditation,’ she tells us. ‘Meditation is to know what you are doing. When you do calculations, know that you are doing calculations. If you are rushing to the office, then you should be mindful of ‘rushing.’ When you are eating, putting on your shoes, your socks, your clothes, you must be mindful. It is all meditation!’ For Dipa Ma, mindfulness wasn’t something she did, it was who she was – all the time. Dipa Ma made it clear that there is nothing wrong with lapses of mindfulness, with the mind wandering. ‘It happens to everyone. It is not a permanent problem. There is nothing ultimately to cling to in this world…. Life is not to be rejected. It is here. And as long as it is here and we are here, we can make the best use of it.'”
Considering the core drive of religion, no matter the belief system, is based upon finding and defining an eternal source, it is fascinating how the transcendent aspects of faith remain hidden under the surface. Transcendence can be shared among everybody. But the surface is where many people stop looking.
The surface is closely connected with a consuming quest for victory, a winning ideal. The surface is vying for attention. It is debated in public forums, with different victors announced on a daily basis, as if someone were keeping score of spiritual rhetoric. The surface involves people believing Jesus Christ was playing a role in Denver Broncos football games last football season. The surface involves tired debates on news telecasts involving issues that are deeply personal on an individual level but fundamentally exist in gray areas, where dogma is even more useless than usual. I was raised a Catholic myself, and am currently in a state of spiritual flux. After making my own explorations, I have no definitive answers, and am without allegiance to any particular ideology. Even still, I feel very strongly about the need for a pursuit we can all share together without any argument: the search for transcendence.
What is the winning ideal, and how does it interfere with that search? The winning ideal is worshipping small sample sizes. It’s eschewing dignity in the name of a hollow victory. The winning ideal ruins the life ideal, because it deems life mere scenery, the accidental soundtrack murmuring behind a mad dash for success. The winning ideal stars sad people convinced they are “losers,” not realizing that to be a “loser” one has to play an imaginary game existing only in the minds of insecure people. Winning is just fine. But when winning becomes the obsession, instead of a simple outcome, the finer qualities of life are drowned in a sea of senseless noise. Transcendence is one of those finer qualities.
Many members of the sports media, for instance, will only now allow for some appreciation of LeBron James’ prowess because he has secured the great equalizer of a championship. All the great stuff he did before winning that one championship seemingly lacked context, without the ring on his finger ironies abounded throughout James’ quest. Philosophically speaking, his triumph this spring could have been tainted by joining the Heat, who already had an established great in Dwyane Wade. But Wade was hobbled as the playoffs unwound. Chris Bosh, the other star who signed along with LeBron, was also slowed by injuries. James was forced to be the main man, just as he was in Cleveland, where he had failed.
Or did he fail? Why did James need a title to assign some context to his career? Who was more desperate? LeBron, or the media which struggled to define him? Socially speaking, does this process sound familiar? How often do we look outside ourselves for validation? Perhaps that innate desire for external proof offsetting internal confusion is what drives our winning obsession. With this mentality, James’s tenure with the Cleveland Cavs was a waste, even if he was no significantly greater or worse of an athlete, physically speaking, with or without a ring.
Sports are always a great talking point for this subject. They say so much about where our society resides. Sports journalism is more obsessed with championships than ever. Entire seasons are labeled meaningless because of playoff disappointments..
Wallace Matthews, a sportswriter with ESPN, assessed the Yankees entire 2011 season thusly, after they fell in the playoffs to the Detroit Tigers:
“But the truth is, despite their 97 wins and their AL East championship over the highly touted and truly underachieving Boston Red Sox, the Yankees showed cracks and vulnerabilities all season long — flaws that kept getting plastered over as they continued to cobble together victories.”
Note Matthews’ use of the phrase “cobble together victories.” This is simply a post-facto attempt to paint a successful regular season in an extremely negative light. The Yankees scored 867 runs and allowed 657 runs during the 2011 season. That’s hardly cobbling. Painting the entirety of a season in such trying terms because of a playoff letdown is unreasonable, in my opinion.
Speaking as a Yankees fan, we are stereotyped as being obsessed with winning titles. The media absolutely hammers that theme home. But speaking for me, the Yankee’s entertainment presence, providing a consistent source of happiness in my life, is far more important to me than whether they have playoff success. The playoffs are important, they just shouldn’t be blown out of proportion, a calling card of the winning ideal. Ultimately, there probably are no winners, in the world of transcendence that we only occasionally glimpse, wherever it is; just a lot of fun and games… And the games on our plane go on after a champion is crowned.