meditation and sport

The Lakers’ mental preparation

The Lakers have an opportunity to prove, on Thursday, that they are the best team in the world. They are favored to do so. And if you listen to the coaching staff, they will be uniquely prepared to do so thanks to the team’s carefully cultivated meditation habits.

The Laker coaching staff is focused on relaxing the players, even though one of the most consistent critiques of the team has been their occasional nonchalance. There is barely ever even the slightest shred of desperation about how they carry themselves. Not much in the way of screaming coaches or players flying off the handle. Bobby Knight is not about to walk through that door. When they lose, fans find it frustrating how the team never seems to get a quick pulse.

Phil Jackson often refuses to call a timeout, instead just sitting there, watching, drawing one of the largest coaching paychecks in the known universe apparently merely to spectate and exude calm. (And when he does call timeout, he typically passes much of it merely chatting with assistant coaches, before either speaking, or not, to the players only for five or ten seconds after the buzzer has already called the players back to the court.)

Anyone who has ever seen a sports movie knows that getting mentally prepared for a monumental challenge — like a Game 7 — means screaming, hooting, hollering and generally getting oneself warlike and adrenalized.

And that’s exactly what the Laker coaching staff will not be doing the day of Game 7.

Instead, by careful design, before shootaround the team will assemble in the comfortable chairs in the film room at their practice facility in El Segundo. Phil Jackson will say a few words, and then the lights will be turned off, and everyone will have instructions to pay attention to nothing but the in and out of their breathing. For five to ten minutes they’ll sit in the dark, and nobody will say anything. They do not chant. “Breathing in silence” is the goal. Afterwards, they will watch film.

It’s mandatory to be in the room, but this is not a graded exercise. “It’s not a requirement. We don’t go around and check,” says assistant coach Jim Cleamons. “They could very well be asleep.”

But for some of the Lakers, this meditation practice has become momentous. Derek Fisher says he gets a lot out of it. Lamar Odom re-creates aspects of it in his mind as he walks to the free throw line. Pau Gasol, according to Cleamons, is enthusiastic. During many timeouts, instead of talking to the team, Jackson will instruct them to reenact the meditation session by sitting together on the sideline to “share a breath.”

When things happen that might be stressful — a trip to the free throw line, the other team making a run, a hard foul — the Lakers are all likely to very consciously take a breath or two to get centered. And setting that mood starts on game day mornings in the film room.

How important is it? Would the team fall apart if they skipped the meditation session? Assistant coach Chuck Person — who says he never meditated before he worked for the Lakers, but meditates every day now — fielded that question: “Oh,” he says, a little startled. “We’re not going to skip it.”

“Just quiet meditation,” explains Cleamons, “in order for them to understand the business at hand for that evening. If we’re going through some turbulent times, to help us get focused.”

“I took coaching theory classes at college,” says Cleamons. “Those athletes who don’t tense up in the most stressful times, they flow freely. Basketball is all about skills. Being able to move quickly. Shooting is all about visualization and focusing on the rim. Ball-handling is about being able to pick the ball up. Defensively, you’ve got to concentrate on team sets, and see things in advance. It all comes down to a presence of mind and a clarity … the mind being comfortable plays a great role in your success.”

But what about the team getting in a circle and screaming in each other’s faces? What about the ways athletes get psyched up in movies?

Cleamons, every muscle in his face relaxed, his voice dripping calm, is unimpressed.

“That psyched up stuff doesn’t work. If you get psyched up, at some point in time you get psyched down,” he says. “Let’s take the game tomorrow night. A lot of people think it’s a big game. … The purpose is to give yourself an opportunity to get your best performance. It’s not about winning. There’s a difference. You want your best performance. You want your teammates’ best performance. And if you provide your best performance chances are you will win. But in order to have your best performance, you have to be relaxed.”

A lot of Laker fans and critics say the Lakers are sometimes too relaxed, but Cleamons says that’s something he never worries about: “Fans,” he says, “are fanatical. Their expectations are off the charts. You have to realize that you’re not a robot. Even though you would like to give the exact same energy all the time, we don’t. … What you try and do is reach that level of consistency and stay there. Consider running track. If you’re consistently a 9.9 sprinter in the 100 meters, then if you run 9.9, you’re probably going to be in the upper echelon of your event. Every meet, you want to run 9.9. If a guy wants to beat you, he has got to run 9.8. If he runs 9.8 that night, you give him credit. But you know if you run your 9.9 you’re going to be in the final. What we try to do is run 9.9 every night and there are nights the other team does bring more energy, more passion, more determination, but by and large I think the way we would like our team to play, they get the results we want over time. I like our history.”

“He teaches calm,” says Person, of his boss Phil Jackson. “He teaches you how to find your way in the maze, in the chaos. You can always go back and find yourself with that breath. I’ve learned during anxious moments, since I have been here with the Lakers, that that breath is very important to take to center yourself. Players do it. They get together, take a breath, collect their thoughts, so they can perform. … We’re going to take our breath and we’re going to have one mind, one collective breath, and we’re going to go out there and do it together. Phil teaches that, and he’s great to learn from.”

“Before the lights are turned off,” says Person of the sessions like the Lakers will have the morning of Game 7, “there are a thousand things going through your mind. A thousand thoughts, personal, basketball-wise, or anything else. You start to focus on that breath, everything goes away. You’re in complete darkness. It’s just you and that breath. And when the lights come on you feel relaxed, you feel rejuvenated, and you have a rejuvenation period that carries forward onto the court.”

What about the fact that sports are just about as macho a thing as there is, but meditation is really so tough? Person won’t fight it. “It’s very sexy,” he says. “The approach is not macho at all. It’s kind of cute, in a sense, that you’ve got a bunch of 250-pound athletes, strong and lean and they sit five minutes meditating with one another, trying to learn from their collective breath.”

Mock it, he says, at your peril. He’s confident it’s the right thing to do. “Phil,” he points out, “is the ultimate leader when it comes to the mental coaching game.”

The Laker staff is convincing that meditation offers a major advantage, and one any team might consider employing. So … do the Celtics do the same thing?

I told Glen Davis what his opponents will be doing before Game 7: “They meditate?” he replied, his face scrunched up in confusion. “In the dark? What is that? They just sit there? For real? … Naw, I ain’t trying that. If that’s what they do to get ready for the game, hey: Whatever floats your boat.”

Henry Abbott, ESPN

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Meditation has pro golfer dreaming of a win

George Murray used principles of meditation to produce his second four-under-par 67 over the Macdonald Spey Valley course and claim the halfway lead in the Scottish Hydro Challenge.

The 27-year-old former Scottish amateur champion from Anstruther who has yet to enjoy his first triumph as a professional has been reading a book called Zen Golf, the same one that helped Vijay Singh to become a major champion.

“It chills me out. I approach every shot as though it has no relevance,” said the Fifer who enhances his eastern leanings by practising yoga in winter. “I stand over four-footers thinking they’re not important. If I miss then it’s not the end of the world.”

Just as unimportant is the matter of money and Murray earned around £40,000 for finishing third earlier this season in the Madeira Islands Open.

“I needed that because I was skint at the beginning of the year, but it hasn’t made the difference between playing in tournaments or not. I’d have just rolled up debt on the credit card,” he said with a shrug. “You are looking at £1000 a week on tour.”

That big prize was on the European Tour. This week is a developmental tournament, a step down on the Challenge Tour, and the prize for coming first is £27,000 and he heads Germany’s Christoph Gunther, Sweden’s Magnus Carlsson and England’s Lee Slattery by a stroke.

“I am just going to go out tomorrow, hit it, find it and go round in as few strokes as possible,” said Murray. “I don’t really think about winning, I just want to let it happen. That’s the Zen Golf talking. I was in the last group for the last two days in Madeira so I have been up there.”

Yesterday he opened with a drive, pitch and carefree four-footer for birdie and followed that with four more of the same. Naturally, he was unconcerned at his only dropped shot at the 12th. “It was a difficult par-4 today so I’m not bothered,” he said.

Another irrelevance this week is good diet, his housemates for the week, Scott Jamieson, Adam Gee and Robert Dinwiddie, having produced a chocolate cake complete with candles for his birthday on Thursday.

Housemate Jamieson was in the frame, too, after a 69 yesterday for 137 to lie three off the pace and Chris Doak kept his hopes alive with a 70 for the same halfway total.

One of the most notable showing was from Lloyd Saltman, who was Scotland’s great hope for the future five years ago and showed signs of a return to form with a six-birdie inward nine.

The 24-year-old won the silver medal for top amateur in the 2005 Open at St Andrews but so far has failed to live up to that promise. Yesterday’s 67 for 139 that left him five behind Murray is hardly reason to announce that the fallow days are over, but his tail is now up and he has brought a run of five missed cuts in a row on the Challenge Tour to an end.

It came at a time when the scent of a possible return to the Open at the home of golf, where he was joint 15th last time, is driving his ambition again, and so is the current form of Welshman Rhys Davies who is now challenging for a Ryder Cup place.

“We grew up together and Rhys has always been a great player. Look at him last year, he didn’t have a category but now he has won more than 1million Euros,” he said.

“He has done the right thing by staying patient and not chasing his tail and that is a rut that maybe I get caught up in a little bit and pushing too hard instead of enjoying myself on the course.

“I know I have the game and the aptitude. I just have to wait for it all to fall together and if I get to St Andrews then who knows what might happen.”

Saltman is waiting to find out his venue for local final qualifying and said he was hoping it would be Scotscraig where he qualified back in 2005. In the meantime he is languishing at No.130 on the Challenge Tour order of merit, but believes he is on the right track with a new putting set-up he has been working on with coach Colin Brooks and a more controlled left-to-right ball flight.

Saltman finished with three straight birdies, holing at the last from 20 feet. “I’m a little bit behind but I can push on from here today and tomorrow,” he said.

[Douglas Lowe, Sunday Herald]
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Should we cut Tiger some slack?

“Tiger Woods, you suck. God damn it!”

Those might have been the harshest public comments to date about the man who was making his much-anticipated comeback to golf from a self-imposed four-month leave of absence triggered by the eruption of a tawdry sex scandal. The source? Woods himself — the born-again Buddhist — on the sixth hole Saturday at the Masters.

Only five days earlier, when Woods faced the media for the first question-and-answer session since his shocking and swift fall from grace, he had pledged to try to “not get as hot when I play” and to “be more respectful of the game and show appreciation for the fans.”

His jarring outburst seemed to suggest Woods had failed to change and had acted contrary to what’s believed to represent Buddhist teachings. But did he?

“Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security,” Woods said during his Feb. 19 statement, his first public utterances since the scandal came to light. “It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.”

In his comments, Woods made it abundantly clear that recommitting to the religion of his childhood would be a crucial part of becoming a better person on and off the golf course. With more scrutiny on Tiger than ever before, critics were quick to dismiss the idea that Woods had changed, forgetting that breaking long-established habits doesn’t happen overnight.

So how might the journey to correct the error of his ways occur?

“Buddhism is a religion of experience that takes time to learn,” said Jonathan Bradley, the president of the New York Diamond Way Buddhist Center and a student of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for 13 years. “It’s the development of our fullest human potential.

“Practicing Buddhism starts from understanding that we are responsible for our reactions and the causes that create the circumstances we experience in the future,” he said. “There’s a teaching called ‘karma cause and effect,’ which says that from this moment forward, we have the ability to change through becoming more aware of our minds in the present. But it’s a process. So if Tiger Woods is applying the teachings sincerely, he’ll get the results over time.”

Just minutes into the CBS broadcast of Saturday’s action, Woods’ unsettling outburst blared into the microphones surrounding the sixth tee box and, consequently, the televisions of the millions of viewers.

While many watching at home scrambled to rewind their DVRs to ensure Woods hadn’t uttered a much stronger word, CBS’ Jim Nantz scolded Woods for that thing-he-vowed-he-wouldn’t-do. (To be clear, Woods actually hedged in his Monday statements by saying he would “try” to limit his on-course tantrums.)

Surrounded by the intoxicating dogwoods along the hallowed fairways of Augusta National, Nantz expressed his “disappointment” and presented a flurry of biting questions to analyst Nick Faldo about what he perceived to be Woods’ breaking his word. Simultaneously, the Twitter-sphere exploded with 140-character sound bytes, ranging from outrage to jokes to snarky criticism that Woods’ language was contradicting Buddhist values.

Before Woods could stomp up the seventh fairway, where another, less pronounced “Dammit!” slipped, the now-infamous “Tiger Woods, you suck!” video had been posted on YouTube and was making its way around the blogosphere — along with fiery comments both defending and chastising him.

Would a Buddhist consider Woods’ outburst to be against the religion’s teachings? Not necessarily.

“People shouldn’t be too harsh on [Woods],” said the Venerable Dhammadipa Fa Yao, the abbot — or spiritual leader — of Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, N.Y. “If he wants to yell, it’s his way of expressing his emotions. It doesn’t mean he’s not Buddhist. As a human, we can’t expect him to be perfect.

“From a monk’s perspective, there are two thoughts, the first being that he shouldn’t have done that because it spoils the image of Buddhism. Another would say everyone has their own karma. He should do as they like as long as it doesn’t intentionally hurt anyone else.”

Another interpretation? Live and learn.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but it’s how we react to them,” Bradley added. “Buddhism leaves you with ways to reflect on them. When the outcome of our actions isn’t ideal, we’ll try to act differently the next time. It’s not a good idea to have temper tantrums. But it’s not a moralistic thing; it’s just a piece of advice.”

Raised as a Buddhist from childhood by his Thai mother, Kultida, Woods confessed to straying from his spiritual practices in recent years. “I’d gotten away from my core values,” he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi on March 21 in his first interview since the scandal broke. “I’d gotten away from my Buddhism. And I quit meditating.”

A 1996 Sports Illustrated profile of the then-20-year-old Woods implied he practiced his religion seriously. The story went on to say that every year around his birthday, he visited a temple with his mother and wore a gold Buddha around his neck.

Of the millions in America who watched the Masters on Sunday, only a small percentage are Buddhists. As a first-generation Chinese-American, I grew up with my family practicing some Buddhist traditions. So I knew there was more to it than the “core values” statements Woods reiterated over and over through his public comments over the last two months. And I wasn’t going to grasp it by reading about it at home or listening to El Tigre.

My mother, who considers herself a Buddhist and meditates every once in a while, kept chiding me, saying I was being too critical of Woods and should forgive him. I tried to explain that wasn’t the point. He had disappointed and deceived so many people. How could we believe anything he said?

A lesson in meditation, she said, would help remove these negative feelings. My interest was surprisingly piqued.

Could understanding the power of meditation explain why, when Woods abandoned it, he turned into such a cad that he sent crude text messages to women not called Mrs. Woods? And what makes someone a Buddhist? Coincidentally, a meditation retreat taught by Fa Yao started the upcoming weekend. Sign me up! Gulp.

For three days, a before-dawn wakeup call came from the banging of a gong. With very little human contact and no food after noon, we listened to lectures about Buddhism and practiced (or tried) meditation for most of the waking hours. It’s not easy. My legs and back ached from sitting in the proper posture just 15 minutes into a 3-hour session. (It’s karmic suffering, and we have to train our minds to will it away, Fa Yao said.)

The first technique taught actually was applicable to my attempt to feel compassion for Woods: I first had to visualize myself being happy, then go through the same exercise with close family and friends. Eventually, I worked my way all the way to someone like Tiger Woods.

So what could Buddhism, and meditation, do for him?

“[Woods] can study morality, establish focus and avoid distractions, which will help him see everything in a clearer manner,” Fa Yao said. “With a clear mind, he can understand what he did to hurt others and learn more about himself through the Buddhist teachings. Then he will have less anxiety and concerns and be able to see reality more clearly in the present and make better decisions.”

So is there a specific type of meditation that helps recovering sex addicts cope?

“There’s a technique called ’32 Body Parts,'” Fa Yao said. “He needs to understand the body is a component of 32 different parts — the eyes are one part, the heart is one part, the nose [is] one part. Then when he visualizes them that way, he won’t be aroused and won’t think about the beautiful form.”

On Monday of the Masters, when he was asked whether he might have played even more brilliantly during his career had he not drifted from his principles, Woods replied: “I would like to say yes. I would be more centered, more balanced, and that’s what I’m headed toward. I just lost that and unfortunately lost my life in the process.”

As a Buddhist would acknowledge, Woods has made progress just by identifying his mistake, which is the first step on the journey to regaining his center. Interestingly, the word “meditation” in Tibetan is “gom,” which literally means “becoming familiar with” or “getting used to,” Bradley said.

When Woods made his way to the first tee in the opening round at Augusta National, he looked different — perhaps it was the small army shadowing him to deflect the slim possibility of unseemly disturbances, or perhaps it was the nervous smile on his face.

Throngs of spectators flocked to watch with tense anticipation, politely applauding. No one knew what to expect from the “new Tiger.” He had endured rehab (but won’t say for what), and seemed calmer and friendlier.

Moments before his 1:42 tee time Thursday, a slight disruption came from the skies. A small plane hovered above, carrying a banner that asked, “Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?”

Woods denied ever seeing the plane and instead striped a perfect drive down the middle. He sauntered down the fairway and didn’t forget to acknowledge the crowd, smile and utter thank-yous.

In the final round, other than a “Jesus!” and a “Come on, Tiger!” comment, he stifled his notorious tantrums despite playing the first five holes in 3-over par.

Near the end of a tumultuous Sunday, Woods flew the pin on the 17th green. He scolded himself with an indignant “Tiger!” and turned away before passing off the club to his caddie.

Five months ago, that club might have gone flying into the gallery followed by a series of expletives. But this Tiger stopped himself and looked down — maybe at the Buddhist bracelet (which he said is for strength and protection) that he started wearing on his left wrist.

As the week progressed, the mental fatigue caught up with Woods. He showed less poise and composure, but he refrained from dropping f-bombs and chucking clubs. At times he let the club hit the ground with disgust, but certainly more delicately than “old Tiger.”

Sure, Woods blurted out some choice words over the weekend, but even his reactions to good shots didn’t have the same gusto. Even in the final round when he holed out for eagle on the seventh hole, he seemed subdued. There were no crazy fist pumps as in the past. He simply threw both arms in the air and smiled. Overall, he stayed relatively even-keeled.

Woods wasn’t flawless, but contrary to what some critics believe, he didn’t necessarily flout the pledge to tone down his emotions on both extremes. He promised he would “try” to hold back his negative outbursts.

When he slipped, he was reacting naturally to hitting poor tee shots. Do we want Woods to turn into someone he’s not? (Which, mind you, would probably be more offensive than the foul language.) We just don’t want him to be a jerk.

Tiger isn’t going to wake up and miraculously be rid of all his bad habits — ones that have been 34 years in the making. Perhaps we should remember that and give Woods a bit of a break.

Oh, wow. Did I just write that? The meditation retreat must be working.

[Stephanie Wei: ESPN]
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Tiger Woods finds his mantra again: Meditate (and be nice to fans)

Evidently, we’re more like Tiger Woods than we realized. No, not profligate sexual tom cats or historically accomplished athletes or control freaks micromanaging our lives (well, maybe the latter…)

But lots of people, just like Woods, have drifted from the faith of their childhood. In his case, it’s Buddhist meditation. The Ommmm apparently lost its ooomph.

In his pre-Masters tourney press conference today, he reiterated that recent therapy has forced him to see “how far astray from the core morals my mom and dad taught me” he had traveled. Now he has resumed daily meditation, “the roots of Buddhism” as him mom taught him.

But how different is that, really, from what other 34-year-olds might say: They drifted away from their Catholic or Baptist or Methodist or whatever upbringing and now, gee, maybe they’re missing something.

A 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that among 16% of U.S. adults who now say they have no religious affiliation, most didn’t leave in a huff. Instead, about 70% say they “just gradually drifted away.”

I haven’t found (yet) statistics on people who quit meditation. But from perusing a few sites, it appears fairly common for people to drift in — and out — of spiritual practices.

A site for Tai Chi, a martial art that “encourages a calm mind and composed emotions” and nurtures “tranquility, harmony and balance,” points out that “many people quit. In fact most people quit.” It’s hard. It’s about losing control. And, of course, “A lot of people are just downright lazy…”

Meditation teacher Brenda Stephenson on her web site, acknowledges that a survey of past students found most quitters “simply lost their interest in meditating.”

And commentator John Pappas observed after the last time Woods said the same back-to-meditation line last month that it’s not magic.

It isn’t something that is outside of you that causes your actions and arbitrarily donning a magic bracelet or bemoaning that you didn’t sit facing a wall more will not help you look inward and is not going to solve your problem. It takes striving, faith and doubt. The realization is dawning on Tiger and I hope that he keeps working at it but approaching your practice (or any religion for that matter) as a crutch will never solve the problem.

It isn’t a magic elixir to be swallowed or special words to be chanted or super-mega prayers to be sent to big globular masses in the sky. It is work and it is humility. An extra hour of meditation a day is like a band-aid for a split jugular.

[via USA Today]
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Brooklyn basketball stadium gains a meditation room

Call it Zen and the art of basketball!

The Brooklyn Paper has learned that the Barclays Center will be the first sports arena to feature a meditation chamber — an intriguing element that is one of the few unreported details of the widely covered home of the future Brooklyn Nets.

The concept was envisioned by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, the fiery pastor of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church on Atlantic Avenue, who has played a behind-the-scenes role to acquire various “community benefits” from developer Bruce Ratner.

This meditation room appears to be one of them.

“The idea is to say to people there are values in reflection, contemplation,” explained Daughtry, who gave the convocation at the groundbreaking ceremony for the arena last month.

“Whenever you’re in the arena, you can go to meditate.”

Daughtry suggested that the “meditation room” was a watered-down version of what he initially wanted in the arena: a chapel.

“I got plastered for that,” he said. “You can’t use public funds for religious purposes.”

A spokeswoman for Ellerbe Beckett, the arena’s architecture firm, was able confirm that a meditation room was in the blueprints — and that it is likely unprecedented.
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“To our knowledge, the meditation room at Barclays Center will be the first meditation room to be included in a new NBA arena,” said the spokeswoman, Sara Cziok.

One close follower of the sports industry was initially taken aback by the spirit-soothing revelation.

“It seems so odd,” said Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University. “It’s like, ‘I’m going to put a scuba diving tank in my arena, too.’ ”

Upon reflection, however, Boland noted that the room could serve many different purposes.

“Increasing the potential use of an arena is smart,” Boland said. “I can see this space being a place for a Sunday morning mega-church. It could open the door to that community.”

He added that the room could potentially be a revenue generator if it could accommodate a large congregation. And that’s a big deal at the Barclays Center, where the main tenant only needs the space for 41 games (and possibly a few more if your prayers are answered and the team makes the playoffs).

“This arena is going to have an issue over what its second, third and fourth tenants are going to be,” Boland explained. “A mega-church could be a potential renter of the facility — there isn’t a lot of basketball played on Sunday mornings.”

Sports and prayer have been linked as long as there has been athletic competition, but a recent USAToday story noted a “faith surge” in professional sports. But that trend is mostly limited to players. A meditation room could bring prayer to the people in the cheap seats, too.

For now, all observers can do is speculate. A spokesman for Forest City Ratner would not reveal the design of the room, or whether it would be open during hours when the arena is not hosting an event after it opens, slated for the 2012-13 basketball season.

Of course, there is at least one likely benefit to the room: it could serve as a sanctum for spiritually devastated fans and basketball players if the Nets continue their role as the whipping boy of the NBA.

[via The Brooklyn Paper]
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How to run, meditate, and not get hurt

Boing Boing: It’s a brisk Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, and I’m standing outside of Sports Basement with a metronome in my hand. Several hundred feet away, a guy in a funny hat is running around the empty parking lot at a consistent 85 steps per minute. His upper body angles forward as his legs cycle backwards to the beat… beep beep beep. It looks kind of ridiculous, but the guy is actually demonstrating an innovative exercise regime that combines the concepts of Tai Chi and mindfulness meditation with athletic techniques used by Kenyan Olympic sprinters. It’s called Chi Running, and it’s directly related to recent debates around natural vs power running and the case against heavy-duty sneakers.

Most conventional athletic coaches and sports apparel companies advocate power running — running for max speed, personal records, high performance, lots of muscle (think European sprinters with giant legs surging forward and arms pumping furiously). Chi Running takes advantage of a force that comes naturally to all of us — gravity.

The funny runner guy is Chris Griffin; he’s my instructor. I’m training for my first half-marathon right now, so I figured now would be a good a time as ever to learn good form and try to stay pain-free. Earlier, lying on the floor of the Triathlon department on a gaudy red carpet, me and a dozen others — including an injury-prone high school track star and a 60-year old grandma — learned the basic tenets of this unique running philosophy.

Read the rest of this article…

By using what Griffin calls “the lean,” we create momentum through gravitational pull, using the arms as levers and the legs as wheels revolve naturally behind us. “If you ever watch the Kenyans running in the Olympics,” he says, “they’re practicing Chi Running. It’s the most natural way to run.” There are some simple rules to follow — core tight, butt relaxed, calves relaxed, head straight, feet straight (a lot of people run with their feet pointed slightly outward, which causes stress on the knees and toes), weight balanced in the middle of the feet, cadence consistent no matter what the speed. And it works.

One of Chi Running founder Danny Dreyer’s first group of clients in 1999 was a group of rocket scientists at NASA’s Ames campus in Silicon Valley. “One physicist came up to me after class and said, ‘I don’t believe in Tai Chi woo woo stuff, but what you’re teaching is straight down the line good physics,'” Dreyer recalls. “Nobody had applied physics to running before, but this made sense to them.”

In 1972, American marathoner Frank Shorter won a gold at the Olympics and started advocating the idea that anybody could run for exercise. This led to the dawn of the running sneaker industry — by the end of that decade, the first Nike Air product had hit the market, New Balance had earned a reputation as the best running shoe ever, and UK company Reebok entered the US market with the most expensive running shoe to date.

The problem is that most running shoes are designed with a half-inch heel lift. “George Sheehan, a cardiologist who wrote for Runner’s World in the 70s, proposed quite correctly that by increasing the height of the shoe, you could increase stride length,” Ian Adamson, a world champion adventure racer who now directs product development at running shoe company Newton, tells me. “But this can cause a couple of unfortunate results. Changing the biomechanical ratio between the fibula, tibia, and femur causes you to strike the ground too soon. Also, the 1/2 inch lift means you’re effectively always running down a 15-degree slope. So you end up constantly over-striding; your joints lock out and it causes immense shock on the body.” These performance-enhancing shoes have played a tangible role in the number of injuries caused by running. This has also inadvertently led to the rise of the running injury treatment industry — think braces and surgery and PT.

The sneaker industry, though, has been showing signs of change. Newton currently sells about a dozen running shoe models exclusively designed for a mid- and forefoot strike. New Balance’s 800s are made specifically for Chi Running, with shock absorption cushioning at the midfoot. Nike’s Frees, though still with the half inch heel lift, are designed to mimic the sensation of barefoot running. And if you really want to get close to running with no shoes on there’s Vibram Five Fingers. “There are a lot of options out there,” Griffin, the instructor, tells our class. “But remember, technique has to precede gear.”

It’s been about a month since I took the Chi Running workshop, and I’m happy to report that the 100+ miles that I’ve run since then have been injury-free. The hardest thing for me to incorporate was the mindfulness aspect. Most of us have gotten accustomed to listening to music or podcasts while running, so when Griffin suggested we ditch the iPod and treat running as a practice like yoga or meditation, I was hesitant. The whole reason I’d been able to start running distances in the first place was thanks to Nike Plus, so I just wasn’t sure how I’d feel to run without knowing how fast and how long. One day, though, I forgot my iPod at home and was forced to run without metrics or music — it ended up being one of my most refreshing runs ever. I just listened to the wind and focused on my breathing. It reminded me of a passage I read in novelist and runner Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void… The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always.

I still like to run with my iPod when I remember it, but I think that’s okay. Like with any practice, it’s important to be comfortable where you are while acknowledging that you’re on the road to improvement. That’s how I feel about my running now.

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Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea, by Jaimal Yogis

Saltwater BuddhaThe siren song of the sea calls surfers away from school, jobs, family, and in Jaimal Yogis’s case, even a monastery. But for this surfer, bobbing on waves might be the best place to practice Zen.

If you’re wondering what in blue blazes has surfing got to do with Zen, don’t worry–Yogis clears it up in the book’s introduction. He cites a teaching in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as his “all-time favorite Zen-surfing quote:

…I like to think he [Suzuki] had surfers in mind when comparing thought waves to ocean waves. He said, ‘Even though waves arise, the essence of mind is pure… Waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion.’

Still have doubts? Read on. By the end of the book, it’s clear that much like those who find Zen in calligraphy or, kyudo (archery), Yogis’ single-pointed focus on catching a wave (and often on staying alive in rough waters) has made it just as important to his practice as just sitting.

Title: Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea
Author: Jaimal Yogis
Publisher: Wisdom
ISBN: 0-86171-535-7
Available from: and Wisdom.

Jaimal Yogis had auspicious beginnings in life for two things: meditation and surfing. Yogis and his sister grew up getting kicked out of mom and dad’s meditation room and going to Hindu temples. His parents even named him after a great Hindu teacher, Baba Jaimal Singh. (Yogis, it turns out, is not a Sanskrit invention. It’s merely a shortening of a cumbersome Lithuanian name. I can appreciate this–my own Lithuanian great grandfather’s name was changed from Zigmuntus Kapustas to Ziggy Miller by an official on Ellis Island.)

While the family was living on an island off Portugal when he was a small child, Yogis’ father taught him how to bodysurf and read the waves. Though the family moved away from the ocean, the experience of being on the sea had made its imprint.

Saltwater Buddha opens with a teenage Yogis setting out on a Siddhartha-like quest for both meaning and surfing. Writing years later as an adult, Yogis pokes fun at his own grandiose ideas about the quest. This opening quickly warmed me to Yogis’ story. Though I’ve never surfed, as a reader of a spiritual memoir, I can find something in this quest to identify with–the desire to escape, the search for an escape route (surfing), and the need to question, the search for answers.

Yogis goes on to become a monk, but his abbot suggests that he spends some time out in the ‘real world’ and all its trappings, like girls and paying rent. The young monk ends up back in Hawaii, where he meets a surf guru named Rom, an Australian from whom “great teachings naturally arose” by virtue of proximity, yet who told him “No one can teach you how to surf.” Rom embodied the inherent Zen that Yogis saw in surfing:

At the monastery, many of the core lessons were about the Buddha’s teachings of interconnectedness, how everything is linked to everything else, down to the smallest insect or blade of grass, and how failure to respect that interconnection leads only to suffering, both for individuals and societies. I came to see that Rom was teaching me the same concepts in a way I could really connect with, a way that pertained directly to my life right now.

Eventually, Yogis moves back to California and eventually on to New York for graduate school. Throughout his travels, his Zen practice progresses alongside his surfing skills.

I’m a huge fan of first-person writing–when it is done well. It takes a talented writer to compose a memoir that doesn’t smack of self-importance, even (perhaps especially?) in the context of a spiritual quest. A common trick writers employ to send any trace of self-importance far back into the shadows of readers’ minds is to employ occasional self-effacement. Yogis uses this old ploy, but since he is a Zen practitioner it feels genuine. It’s a testament to Yogis’ writing skill and his Zen practice that he keeps any whiff of ego in check, which lets the story of his life-less-ordinary breathe and just be.

Yogis’ prose certainly has that familiar Zen-author flavor–simple yet profound, concise, and sometimes abrupt. There are no long, flowery paragraphs full of lovely yet perhaps unnecessary metaphors. His writing recalls a hint of Joko Beck, or even Shunryu Suzuki. Buddhism and surfing are equal intertwining threads through the story, but it is often his surfing adventures that provide the waves of tension and release that will carry a reader through to the final page.

Suzuki Roshi said:

…If you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can express fully your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature. This is our way. …When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat.

After thoroughly enjoying and appreciating Saltwater Buddha, I felt it would be safe to add to this, “when you surf, you should just surf.”

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase…”

man climbing a cliff face

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step,” said Martin Luther King.

Some years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years before, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.

I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of panic, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.

I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.

If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck

My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.

See also:

Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.

And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.

Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.

And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.

Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.

Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).

The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.

So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.

So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:

1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.

2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?

In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.

Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.

I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.

In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.

And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.

In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.

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G.K. Chesterton: “The true object of all human life is play.”

G.K. Chesterton

The bodhisattva moves through life elegantly, “in the zone” and in a state of playful “flow,” and he can do this because he has abandoned any clinging to the idea of self. “Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering,” Bodhipaksa tells us.

I think Chesterton was absolutely right when he said that the object of life is play. The best kind of life we can live, I believe, is one in which we love, laugh, and learn: one in which we can be serious without being down, and can laugh irreverently at life’s difficulties without being facetious or trivializing them.

One problem is that we sometimes get into a habit of deferring happiness. We know we’re overdoing things now, taking life way too seriously and failing to nourish ourselves. We know that our needs aren’t being met. We’re aware that we’re stressed. That we’re over-working and spiritually under-nourished. But we live in hope that in six months, or next year, or after this big project is over, we’ll be able to start enjoying life. But we’ve been through this before, and we forget that six months, or a year ago, or before the last big project, we thought exactly the same thing. And here we are. And life’s still hard.

Because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here

Chesterton seems to fall into this way of thinking as well. In the full quotation he adds, after “The true object of all human life is play” the words, “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” Even if he’s being metaphorical, the metaphor serves to distance us from happiness. Here we are on earth, with all our worldly cares. Heaven is somewhere over the horizon, and because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here.

Buddhist language sometimes can be interpreted in the same way. We talk about the life of frustration, stress, and suffering as being samsara. The literal meaning of samsara, “the faring on” suggests a long, hard slog. And then there’s nirvana, which is the “extinction” of delusion and suffering (although not, as some people used to argue, individual existence).

Also see:

Nirvana, as the end of suffering, is the beginning of an unshakable state of peace; a joyful equanimity; a wise, compassionate, and serene way of being. It’s rather like earth and heaven, and often I hear people talk about the two as being separate places.

Other Buddhist metaphors reinforce that notion; we talk about practice as being “a path” and what does a path do but lead from one place to another place. And if there are two places they must be separate, and they may even be separated by a great distance. Some Buddhist schools (mainly now extinct, interestingly enough) used to see nirvana as being immeasurably far off, and only attainable after millions of lifetime of practice. While that may have emphasized how amazing enlightenment is, it also made it hard to take it seriously as a realistic goal.

Nirvana is ‘arriving’

But earth and heaven are not places separated in space. It’s not that samsara is one place and nirvana is another. There’s only one reality, and we can see it in different ways. We can look at the world we live in with a mind that’s always seeking — always “faring on” through experiences, never really resting in the present moment, never really appreciating what’s going on right now, but always hoping that things are going to be better later on. We’re always thinking about what we’re going to do next, but when we get to that next thing we’ll be thinking of what’s coming after that. There’s always the promise of fulfillment, but it never quite arrives because we’ve not arrived. That is samsara.

And nirvana? That’s the same world — the world of children and commuting and deadlines and international conflicts — but seen with a different attitude. Nirvana is “arriving.” It’s letting go of the “faring on” attitude. It’s letting go of looking for fulfillment just over the horizon, and realizing that fulfillment is possible right here, right now.

Spatially, samsara and nirvana are the same place, but mentally they’re very different. When we talk about “the path”, we’re talking purely metaphorically. We’re not fundamentally talking about getting away from our current lives, but about changing our relationship to our current lives.

Samsara and nirvana are the same reality seem through different mental lenses

Sometimes, to be true, there are times when we do have to move on from a job, a relationship, a place, in order to find happiness. Sometimes the particular circumstances we find ourselves in are so difficult that we really need to get out. But in the end we realize that we take ourselves with us. We carry our own attitudes along with us wherever we go, and it’s all too often those attitudes that get us into difficult circumstances in the first place. Eventually we have to let go of the idea that happiness will come from getting circumstances in the outside world right, and accept that happiness will come by getting our attitude to life right.

As Sunada points out in her post, Playing our way through life, the life of the bodhisattva — the person who is “arriving” in life rather than “faring on” — is characterized by play, or līla. Līla means not just play, but grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. The idea is a life where we deal with difficulties gracefully, where our attitude is beautiful, where find elegant solutions to problems, where we appreciate the loveliness in others.

Another aspect of līla is “mere appearance, semblance, pretence, [and] disguise.” This doesn’t mean that spiritually advanced Buddhists are running around in disguise! It suggests that the bodhisattva is living in the world in a different way from the rest of us. Samsara and nirvana, remember, are the same reality seem through different mental lenses. The bodhisattva is living in the same world as we are, but isn’t confined by the same self-imposed limitations and assumptions. Crucially, the bodhisattva is aware that protecting our “selves” is the worst thing that we can do for ourselves. Let me give an analogy to explain.

Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

Imagine a basketball player “in the zone” or in a state of “flow.” There’s no thought of “Oh, here I am, and I have the ball, and there’s the opposition, and there’s the hoop, and I have to get past all those guys and score.” Instead, what you have is the complete absence of any sense of self and other. There’s simply a playful and spontaneous response to circumstances. He’s flowing around the court in a state of līla, with grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. Now consider the basketball player who does think all those things: he’s dead on the court. He’s wooden, because he’s either afraid or trying too hard for results. He’s paralyzed by his own self-consciousness and his awareness of others as obstacles who might stop him getting what he wants.

Bodhisattvas are very like that, but in terms of life as a whole rather than just what goes on on a basketball court. There’s freedom from the idea of there being beings to help, which is how the bodhisattva can help them. He can also help them because he has no idea that he is helping other beings — he just responds spontaneously, in the zone, in a state of flow.

Two different attitudes within one reality. It’s up to us to choose. And we can make remarkable changes in our attitude in the space of a moment. When we let go of our mental rigidity, relax, and create a mental space for creativity to appear, we can very quickly find a sense of play, of līla, bubbling up from within. Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

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Bid for freedom

man playing poker

Is it possible to combine spiritual practice with professional poker, to remain detached and equanimous in the midst of a game full of bluffing, where the aim is to take away other people’s money? In 2005 Vishvapani talked this over with Andrew Black, one of the world’s finest poker players — and a devout Buddhist.

The World Series of Poker at Binions Casino in Las Vegas is down to its last five players. After eleven days at the table, little sleep, and ferocious competition, they are the last survivors of the five thousand people who each paid $10,000 to enter this no-limit hold ’em tournament. The winner will walk away with $7.5 million.

Behind designer shades and $21 million in chips sits Irishman Andy Black, nicknamed The Monk following his five years out of the game living a Buddhist life in the U.K. with the Triratna Buddhist Community. With a million in chips already bet on this hand, Steve Dannenmann, another of the five players, pushes forward his entire stock: “All in,” he says. Black lifts his sunglasses and studies the board. “I call.” He matches the huge bet on the table and the players reveal their cards.

Black has a pair of nines, which gives him the edge over Dannenmann’s pair of sixes and ace high, but there are two more cards to be played. The next card helps nobody. Now only an ace or a six on the last card can beat him. The dealer turns the card… and it’s another ace; Black loses the hand and his position is destroyed. A few hours later he finally exits the tournament to a standing ovation from the crowd, who have been captivated by his skill and demeanor. Black has won $1.75 million, but he has lost a tournament that was almost in his grasp, and, visibly upset, he refuses all media interviews.

 Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker, but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice.   

A few weeks after his Vegas exit, I traveled to Dublin to discover why he has returned to the game he had left behind, and how he squares it with his dharma practice. What about the manipulative mind games, the lives ruined by gambling, and the focus on winning money and defeating your opponents? What about the sheer, unabashed vulgarity at the end of the tournament, when millions of dollars were emptied onto the table and gleefully clutched by the whooping victor?

Such high-minded criticisms are a sore point for Black. The day before we met, he received a letter from the man who was to have ordained him into the Western Buddhist Order. It said that he couldn’t get behind Black’s ordination request while he was playing poker. Sitting down to talk in a Dublin restaurant, Black is upset. The thirty-eight-year-old is far from the image of reserved, poker-faced cool: his open, expressive face and expansive manner are set off by sharp eyes and a diabolic goatee. He opens a book to a quote from the ancient Buddhist scripture describing the lay bodhisattva Vimalakirti: “He lived at home but remained aloof from the realm of desire. He made his appearance at the fields of sports and the casinos, but his aim was always to mature those people who were addicted to games and gambling.”

Black looks at me with a flash of defiance. “I used to think, ‘I can’t do that because I am not an enlightened master.’ But look at the mahasiddhas. We like to tell stories about these wild, aggressive tantric masters who do crazy things. Well, they’re dead! If someone tries to do that today, you get this reaction!”

I haven’t come here to judge Black or to determine the ethics of poker: I know that competition poker is a sport, though it connects with a wider world of gambling. I can see its appeal as a contest that demands no athletic prowess and sets people against one another in a battle of minds plus chance. But I am fascinated to know, in the face of Black’s protests, how a dharma practitioner can survive in that world. I can’t help but wonder if he is simply succumbing to attachments and encouraging them in others.

One day I looked around a poker table and thought, We’re all hungry ghosts.

Black has had a long journey to get here. Growing up as a Catholic in a Protestant area of Belfast at the height of the Troubles, he had few friends, worked hard, and went to Trinity College, Dublin, to study law. Then he discovered poker. “I was submerged in poker: I would bring conversations around to it and hone my skills by trying to outwit people in daily interactions.” His early career culminated at the 1997 World Championship, where he got down to the last fourteen and was sitting at the table with Stu “The Kid” Ungar, reputedly the greatest-ever card player. Ungar lavished Black with attention — and then took his chips. Black had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. He was devastated. Four months later, he made his way to the Dublin Meditation Center. Initially he hoped that meditation would improve his game, but the teachings he encountered began to resonate on a deeper level for him.

Still haunted by his defeat, Black realized that poker was making him unhappy. “One day I looked around a poker table and thought, ‘We’re all hungry ghosts'” — the craving-filled beings from Buddhist mythology whose grasping is perpetually frustrated. In 1999, Black moved to the U.K. to live with other Buddhists from Triratna and work in Windhorse Trading, a large Triratna-run “Right Livelihood” business that offers supportive, shared working conditions for dharma practitioners. Then he spent two years going door to door asking for regular donations to the Karuna Trust, a charity supporting projects in India that help people considered “untouchables,” many of whom are now Buddhist converts. Rather than manipulating prospective donors, he found he attracted contributions by being straightforward and making a connection with them.

Black sees this as a training period in which he learned about the dharma, meditation, and teamwork. But the pull of poker remained: “I learned a lot about myself, and I was happy to be away from it. But something in me was unmet. Returning to poker, I feel that this is really my life. I’ll be honest: I’m obsessed by it, but that obsession brings a lot of focus, which you need in order to excel at anything. If I bring in my spiritual training, I believe this can be a powerful arena for practice.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling. “I intensively prepare tactics and analysis before a game, but when I’m playing I just try to be in the present moment. All poker is about making good decisions. I find I make wrong decisions when I act out of tune with my gut sense of how things are: what this person is like, their situation at this moment, and the element of chance. My experience of Buddhist practice means that I also include how I am, how I am treating the other players, and how I respond to both winning and losing. You can disregard that feeling, just like in life, but in poker you get immediate payback. It’s always the same lesson: when your actions are not in accordance with how things are, you suffer.”

Losing is one of poker’s hard lessons. As well as being highly intelligent, Black is a clearly a very emotional man. “Because of the element of chance, you can do everything right and still lose. You get hit by unbelievable body blows, which are dictated by statistical probabilities. I work with this by saying, ‘This will happen.'”

I ask what it was like to lose that hand at the World Championship. Black’s face creases: “It was so painful, you have no idea. Afterward, while I was playing, I was trying to hold the pain without being overwhelmed; to remind myself that what had happened is now the past and I am in the present. Even now, I’ll be sitting in meditation turning over the same six or seven hands. That’s my practice.”

Black saw his return to the tables in summer 2005 as a one-year experiment in combining dharma practice and poker. But his unexpected success at the World Championships has made this a high-profile adventure.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling.

In the years since Black left, the game’s popularity has exploded on the Internet and TV, turning it into a multibillion-dollar industry. His exploits were followed around the world, and in Dublin he’s a local celebrity.

Black attracted some attention during the World Championships with an unexpected display of principles. A break in play was called, and when the players returned, one was missing. The announcement of the break had been unclear, and everyone realized that the missing player had simply misunderstood when to return. But the organizers insisted that play recommence and the missing player be eliminated. Incensed, Black protested and tried to enlist the other players’ support. They shifted uncomfortably but kept quiet. Black was in tears — visible to the TV audience — as he stalled for time until the player returned.

The incident prompted admiration and discussion about sportsmanship in poker. The game includes bluffing and deception, but does that mean that, within the rules, anything goes? Black believes that ethics still apply, but not simplistically. “There’s a line, and you know when you step over it. You have to look at each case individually, examine your own motivation, and you still need dialogue and communication to help you understand. I assume that even so I am still making mistakes and engaging in all sorts of rationalizations, but I think that’s a realistic model for trying to act well. It’s different from the view that you should withdraw from the world and purify your motivations before engaging.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players. “Sometimes people try to upset you by being aggressive and insulting. I will say, ‘There’s no need for that.’ The next stage is to say, ‘Is this doing you any good?’ If there is the slightest element of judgment in me, it doesn’t work. I have to connect with the person, and not come from a higher position. I have to genuinely feel ‘I’m concerned that this is doing you no good.’ When I do connect with people in that way, I see their relief that they don’t have to be like this.”

Central to Black’s plan for maintaining the practice dimension during poker tournaments is sharing the experience with his friend Donal Quirke, whom he knows through the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Dublin center. “I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey. I can’t do that on my own. I respond to the image of the Buddha’s disciples heading off two at a time, connecting intensively with each other and going through things together.” In Vegas, Black and Quirke meditated together in the mornings and sometimes read dharma texts during breaks in the tournament.

I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey.

Where Black is an exuberant, commanding personality, Quirke is steady and quiet. He was with Black in Vegas, acting as coach and confidant, discussing the day’s play and how Black’s game could improve. He plans to accompany Black on the World Poker Tour, that will culminate in the 2006 World Championship. As a man clearly steeped in dharma practice, what does Quirke make of the world he is entering? “Vegas is a challenging realm, suffused with ego and greed, and I found those aspects of me were heightened. In the breaks, reading dharma aloud with Andrew, just hearing the words, ‘Thus have I heard,’ was like diving into a pool for both of us. I know it had an orienting effect on Andrew as well. But poker’s fascinating: coming back from Las Vegas, I was watching it on latenight TV. Though of course, you could ask, is anything gained by a group of people sitting around trying to take money off each other?”

I wonder if Quirke thinks Black will be able to sustain his attempt to make poker a practice? His answer is surprising. “There’s my friend Andrew Black, who I’ve known over the years. But in the poker world there’s another person called Andy Black. I think dharma practice is about not trying to control and manipulate, but that isn’t how you win poker tournaments. You need to want to win, and Andy Black is a master of control. But it’s complex. Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker — on his day he’s one of the best in the world — but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice. I don’t think he can just forget Andy Black. He needs to meet this guy, honor him, play the best poker he can, achieve what he can, and then let it go.”

You can’t help liking Black, and I found myself envying him — not so much the money or success, but the intensity of his engagement. As he told me: “One approach to the spiritual life is that you renounce things. Another is to place yourself in the middle of attachments and purify yourself there. We’re all imperfect beings struggling along the path, learning as we go. At some point I’ll find I’ve gone as far as I can in the poker world, but at the moment it’s incredibly exciting. Lets see how I’m doing in a year.”

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