Ah, but all those noble moments add up to a small portion of the sporting life. What about the other aspects of being a spectator? The heartbreak, the competition, the monotony, the obscene emphasis on winning at all costs? That’s where watching sports really becomes a spiritual practice. It’s a testing ground, much like the challenges of everyday life test our capacity to carry into action the grace of prayer or meditation. In that context, the old cliché that sports are a metaphor for life takes on new meaning.
Common to every spiritual tradition is the recognition that the satisfaction of ordinary pleasures and material achievements is transient. Well, so is the elation of victory on the playing field, because tomorrow your team might lose. Even the best ones go down about a third of the time. Your favorite player got four hits? Scored 30 points? Passed for the winning touchdown? Next time around, it might be an opponent. Your team is in the lead? Enjoy it while you can. Nothing lasts forever, and sports are a great reminder of that. They’re also a reminder that pain and sorrow and disappointment don’t last forever, not even the curse on the Red Sox. Today’s losers are tomorrow’s champs, and today’s champs are tomorrow’s chumps. Because these ups and downs are vivid and sometimes precipitous, sports are a great reminder that we need seek contentment within us, not in the outer realm of impermanence. They’re also a great curriculum for learning how to deal with uncertainty and change, because nothing changes as quickly or as unpredictably as the score of a game or the fortunes of a team.
For more than 30 years, I’ve been working on spiritual virtues such as non-attachment and letting go of concern for the fruits of my actions. Few things in life measure my progress as concretely as watching an important game whose outcome I care about. Sometimes, as I get caught up in rooting, I think, “Haven’t you learned anything?” But other times, perhaps after a major loss, I think, “You’ve come a long way. Once upon a time you’d be depressed for a week.” And sometimes, I have the blessed experience of what the Bhagavad Gita calls “equanimity in loss and gain,” as I gleefully watch a tense game while feeling perfectly at peace inside. Admittedly, that’s a lot easier to do when I have no loyalty to either team.
Skeptics might say that sports are too vulgar to be called spiritual, and that watching sports (as opposed to playing them) can in no way be compared with sublime activities like worship or prayer. They have a point. But I think anything can be spiritual, depending on what you bring to the occasion. You can walk on the beach at sunset just to strengthen your leg muscles. Or to impress a date. Or to get a lovely photograph. Or, to celebrate the sublime glory of God’s creation. You can dance because your spouse insists on it. Or to show off. Or because it’s an ecstatic expression of your spirit. You can have sex to dominate another human being. Or to feed your ego. Or to gratify a physical urge. Or as a sacred act of love in a holy union.
Similarly, you can perform religious rituals outwardly while your inner landscape is so dark and dreary you might as well be in a bowling alley. As someone once said, sitting in a church doesn’t make you spiritual any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. It all depends on what you bring to it. As William Blake wrote, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, only a green thing that stands in the way.” If you bring to sports a spiritual intention and a fully attentive mind, a game is more than a game; it’s a step on the soul’s ladder of progress, win or lose.