In my last blog post, I wrote about my bratty childhood and how meditation can transform one’s relationship with winning and losing. I’ve found that not only does meditation help me get over the losses faster, it teaches me how to learn from them. The following is a story that happened a couple months after I started meditating.
The most illuminating job interview I’ve ever had was for a job that I didn’t get—I didn’t even make it to the second round of interviews. It was over ten years ago and the interview was for a company that sold health care research, and I’d be managing clients who’d purchase the research. I connected with the interviewer. We had lots of shared experiences, and she loved the non-profit where I’d been working at the time.
When I didn’t get the job the company asked me to fill out a survey about the process of interviewing with them. I agreed upon the condition of getting feedback about myself as a candidate. My interviewer obliged, and told me that while I seemed like a good and competent person, she didn’t get the sense that I was at all profit-driven, which was a necessity for the position.
She was absolutely right, but it was unusual that I could immediately take in that truth, as opposed to becoming indignant and despairing about not getting what I thought I wanted. I not only learned valuable data about my priorities, which would determine what jobs I’d apply for in the future, I also saved myself the inevitable suffering I’d have if I actually had to do that job. That doesn’t mean it didn’t sting at the time.
The conditioning to want to win runs very deep. I remember a story a mediation master* shared during a dharma talk. (the word dharma translates to the way things are, as well as the Buddha’s teachings. A dharma talk is when a meditation teacher talks about both.) This world-renowned master was playing soccer and the guy who was covering him was kicking him the whole game. Eventually, the meditation master threw an elbow at the guy. I took great heart in that story, because if one of the world’s greatest meditation masters is still throwing elbows in the heat of competition, it gives a great space of practice for the rest of us.
Basketball games with my friend Matt have sparked a number of conversations about the most skillful relationship with winning and losing. We both subscribe to the quote of Peter Tolan, chief writer of the Larry Sanders Show (one of my favorite shows of all-time), “People show themselves truthfully in a time of competition.” Any ideas of how you want the world to see you fall away when you’re on the court. Matt is relentless. If I get lazy boxing out for a rebound, he’s going to steal it from me. If I lean on my back foot when guarding him, he’ll drive to the basket. Yet he’s not playing like I did in little league—he’s not identified with whether he gets the rebound or the basket. He derives his joy from giving his fullest effort on each play, not the outcome of the game.
Matt may not be attached to winning or losing, but his attention to each action on the court is often a cause and condition of winning. I’ve got a ways to go in cultivating non-attachment in this regard. Though I do see that when my wellbeing is hitched to outcomes (winning, making the basket, grabbing the rebound) then my chances for unhappiness skyrocket. Yet when my satisfaction is connected with wholehearted effort there’s a lot more joy in the game. As far as I can tell, attachment to winning has never made me any more likely to win.
*I vividly remember this story, but it was some years ago, and my guess is it would take me at least a dozen hours of listening to dharma talks to confirm it, which seems excessive, but I won't publish a name without verifying the details. But I can assure you this is one of the world’s most renowned masters. Oprah knows him.