Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dogs of War, Dogma of Sport

Has anyone else gotten the sense that the Olympics have gone on too long? Are curling and bobsledding that important that they have to dominate the front pages for weeks while war rages unabated and the world continues its slide into a cesspool of toxicity and corruption?

I also wonder about the messages coming out of Turin, which aren't that different in spirit from those we get from the chickenhawks leading our nation. The girl who finished second in skating described herself as "disappointed" and "painful".

For winning a silver medal, she is grousing. That is, if you're not first; if you don't get 100% of the fame, glory, and money, life has no meaning. Sound familiar? It arises from the same cult of competition that pushes us to cut off the car in front of us on the freeway, that makes a corporation descend into corruption to keep its competitive edge, or that leads a nation's leaders to attack a sovereign nation on thoroughly false pretences (see the Paul Krugman quote below).

This all reminded me of a story from one of my favorite books, Mitch Albom's modern classic, Tuesdays With Morrie. If you haven't read it, I would heartily recommend you get a copy and spend some time and inward-turning thought with it; it is truly one of the great books of our time. The story I am recalling is from the past of the gentle professor whose life and death are celebrated in the book. Albom tells how Morrie was once at a basketball game at his college, when a student hometown chant of "we're number one!" got going. Morrie stood up, faced the chanting students, and cried, "what's wrong with being number two?" There was a self-conscious silence in response.

I talk about the cult of competition in my book, Drinking From the Darkness:

Competition is one of the most prominent props of Western societal belief, especially here in America. It is said to define our economic system: without competition, there would be no free market capitalism. Athletes competing at the highest levels of professional sport are paid salaries under guaranteed, long term contracts in sums that most of us cannot even comprehend for their enormity. Our media, especially among advertisers, continually demand that we compare ourselves and our possessions against others, with the implicit accompanying demand that we make virtually any sacrifice—of reason, financial commonsense, loyalty, community, friendship, even sanity—in order to beat or outpace our neighbors. This cult of competition has recently been ratcheted to a breaking-point of madness in one of the more dissociative entertainments ever concocted, reality TV. Whether it’s a spelling bee or the Super Bowl, a trip to the mall or to an island in the Survivor kingdom, we are obsessed with victory: Americans want to win.

Unfortunately, the delusion of competition is so deeply ingrained in us that we only recognize its pathological features when we lose—that is, when we fail repeatedly and so catastrophically that we are brought to a bottoming-out point. This is where the icy breath of Death—either as an internal crisis that manifests the approach of inner death, or as a depression marked by suicidal thoughts—grips the soul and stills the ego. This is where the quiet voice of the true self, the treasure that we have always had within us, is allowed to speak and be heard.

The fuel that drives this engine of competition is fear: the more fear, the better—that is, the fiercer—the competition. People will lose their minds and sacrifice their lives if fear and competition are ratcheted up to an institutionally-desirable extreme within them. This is what Paul Krugman was referring to in his recent column in the Times:

When terrorists attacked the United States, the Bush administration immediately looked for ways it could exploit the atrocity to pursue unrelated goals — especially, but not exclusively, a war with Iraq.

But to exploit the atrocity, President Bush had to do two things. First, he had to create a climate of fear: Al Qaeda, a real but limited threat, metamorphosed into a vast, imaginary axis of evil threatening America. Second, he had to blur the distinctions between nasty people who actually attacked us and nasty people who didn't.

In my book, I attempt to point a way free of this competitive, fear-driven obsession that is drilled into us by our culture. A quote from that is copied below; but I'm always open to better ideas—send a comment if you have any.

If you have been driven to such a point amid the cult of competition, then I would suggest that you review once more the four-point syllogism discussed earlier. Once again, its main premises are as follows:

1. “I am insufficient”
2. “I must therefore go outside myself to obtain what I lack”
3. “The world cannot provide for everyone—the proof is in all the Want that we see around us. Therefore, I must struggle against others to obtain what I lack”
4. “Therefore, I am in competition with others—this is the reality of life in Nature, and so it is with us: that’s why it’s called the ‘law of the jungle’”

In a meditation along the same lines of practice that we have followed throughout this book, ask for help from the hidden world in identifying the phrases and ideas that are most deeply inhibiting your growth and forward movement in life. Then, go over those four premises in your mind—simply let them float freely through awareness as you are also noting your breath, your physical and environmental sensations, and any other thoughts that are scudding like clouds across your inner sky. If any of the four main tenets of the competition syllogism strike an inner chord of emotion, feeling, imagery, or resonance within you, then stay with them and see whether any related ideas or beliefs come to mind. It is also possible that a different set of notions, or a variation in the language from what you’ve found here, will present itself and provide you with a visceral reaction, ringing a note of discord so loud that it may cause you to cry out in distress. If that’s what you feel and hear, then go with that: write down the phrases exactly as they appear. If a memory—for example, of something that a parent, teacher, or a similar authority figure or influential other once told you about the necessity of competition—should appear to you in your meditation, then let its voice carry through you, and write it down as well as you can recall it, for both its expression and your feeling-response to it.

After one or two such meditation sessions, you will have some ideas, beliefs, and expressions related to the cult of competition written down. I think by now you can guess the next step: ask for help in dissolving these beliefs from your consciousness, in ridding them from your body and psyche; then perform the inner No practice upon these phrases, following the steps outlined in the exercise at the end of Chapter 3. To ensure success and prevent the ego from reinstalling these ideas, it is best to repeat the inner No practice to the same set of phrases for three consecutive days, in a daily meditation.

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