I confess that I have rarely been attracted to professional basketball—more excited by football frankly. But lately, and perhaps because I am older now (in my 75th year), and because my local team, the Golden State Warriors, are the best team in the NBA, I am allured to watching them. That and because their play at times resembles a ballet or an art form as much as a competitive sport. It can border on the sublime.
Their number one player, Steph Curry, voted Most Valuable Player (MVP) by sport writers and broadcasters for the year 2015 in the team’s amazing run of winning 67 games, is an artist with the basketball—not only with his dribbling and behind-the-back passes and in his jump shots from way behind the three-point line, and his often soft lay ups that float high above seven-foot defenders at one time and are off the board at another time, but in the quiet way in which he sets the tone for the rest of the team and leads them and feeds them the ball regularly often with breathtaking passes. As well as his apparently very contented family life that features his two-year old child who likes to break into news conferences following games thereby stealing the spotlight from her father.
Much goes on in sports and one of the wonders is lessons of getting along, lessons of a common task, therefore of team work and community building. Regardless of personality differences or role differences or differences in builds and physical stats and positions, a good team learns to get along together to get to a common goal. That is what community is about—cum-munio—share a common task. Team work happens and it happens constantly with the Warriors as sometimes Steph or some nights Klay Thompson or some nights Andre Iguadola stand out. No room for envy within the team itself, rather they learn to think for the whole and play for the good of the whole and rejoice when one player is standing out one night: That’s what teamwork or community is all about. “Collective unselfishness” is how one person described the current Warrior team. Several star players actually sat on the bench to make room for other players to emerge this year and did so apparently with very little resentment.
The team comes before the individual—and in a narcissistic culture like ours has become, such modeling is rare. But the Warriors team did indeed model it this year and perhaps no one more than Iguadola who won the “Most Valuable Player” award for the finals championship games coming off the bench to play fierce defense and important offense. Interviewed about his award, he said, ‘its an honor to win the MP. But for me, it’s not about that. It’s about getting guys to buy in.” And that means buying in to the team as a whole. Character matters and they have their healthy share of the big “C.” This shows a capacity for taming the ego that most spiritual traditions promote.
For some time I have been speaking about meditation as being a powerful way to calm the reptilian brain—and it is–for reptiles are accomplished at solitude more than at bonding and meditation puts humans in touch with the solitude (or monk) in each one of us. So to meditate is to calm that reptilian brain and this is a very important task in our time.
But now, after watching the Warriors, I am convinced that we have another way to calm the reptilian brain (or is it just another form of meditation?). Sports too can help calm and redirect the reptilian brain. Sports too can be a meditation. Why am I so sure of this? Because the reptilian brain wants to win—it’s win/lose with a crocodile. Athletes want to win too—that is why they practice so hard and sacrifice much to get to their common goal, a goal usually defined as winning. But what makes the reptilian brain in sports different from the reptilian brain in war for example (or often in business), is that in sports there are 1) a spatial parameter (the ball court) and 2) a temporal parameter (the game is only 48 minutes long as such) and 3) referees and 4) a beginning and an end. And if one loses, well, “it’s only a game.” That is where the excitement derives: Will the reptilian brain win or lose tonight? Which team’s reptilian brain will triumph? Sports exercise the reptilian brain—but safely and within parameters. And if one wins, the larger tribe, the followers of the team, go bananas and rejoice and express themselves in irrational ways that are exactly what one needs after suffering through the daily grind of work and bill payments and children’s sicknesses and all the rest that life offers on a daily and sometimes humdrum basis.
When done well, sport addresses the critical question of How Do We Tame the Reptilian Brain? For when we can calm the reptilian brain, our mammal brain, the brain of compassion, can begin to assert itself. The former is 420 million years old, the latter is 210 million years old.
Sport can be a medicine for our hyper-active reptilian brains. Why do I say this? First, because the reptile in us sees life as win/lose, one winner takes all. One does not readily compromise with a crocodile. What does sport do with this desire embedded in all of us to be Number One? It plays with it. It lets it run its course, but according to a limited parameter (think: Soccer field, basketball court, football field) and with referees or umpires to keep the “players” on track. What this does is to allow the reptilian brain to “do its thing” but within parameters and lucid rules that all are subjected too. Playing with the reptilian brain is not the same as making war with the reptilian brain. In fact, it is medicine for the war compulsion.
Sports then are more than merely a “distraction” and a re-focusing of one’s energy and attention for a specific time period. They are also a recharging of the reptilian brain but also a keeping it within bounds. In this way, as in meditation, the reptilian brain finds its outlet not in beating up on others or conquering others but in re-learning how much of life is merely “a game” and one can lose one day and survive to start over the next.
There is a certain “high” when one’s home team wins; it puts wind in one’s sales for the rest of the day; it awakens optimism and even hope, that victory (that elusive archetype) is some times possible and even something that can happen close to home. Furthermore, the joy and optimism gets shared when others in one’s tribe also take delight at the results. Here too community is engendered, the community of hope and joy that pleases not only team mates but the larger tribe. Surely this is a better use of the reptilian brain than is war?
Of course, only one team wins and ultimately only one team wins a championship—that is the definition of championship after all. But others live on to play another day, or another season as the case may be. And hope runs eternal (as it did in Oakland since this was the first championship for their team in forty long, draught-fill years). And we praise those who win the day, especially if they have done it with grace and good sportsmanship. The tribe grows larger through praise and respect for excellent play.
One cannot take delight at basketball without marveling at the athletic grace and endurance and wakefulness and fierce warriorhood that the game requires. Such grace does not come easily but through plenty of blood, sweat, tears, workouts, hours of practice and lots of discipline. One sees all that in the results, “by their fruits you will know them,” as one spiritual teaching once said. This is a special gift that came our way this season from the Warriors, a gift of grace, of the artistic genius it takes to steer a ball into a hoop and to hustle down the floor and to find the open player ready to receive a well-directed pass as well as defending a hoop by severe fierceness and perfectly timed leaping and reaching. Watching such aestheticism and athleticism together can move one to tears.
There is also an intergenerational sharing that can take place in sports. One’s playing days are over usually about in one’s mid-thirties and there is lots more living and watching to do. So it’s exciting to see another generation of young adults put themselves through the rites of passage that it takes to be proficient in the sport and to show up with the same kind of energy and alertness and grace and beauty to play the game with gusto. Thus one generation cheers on another; and both generations profit from this mutual exchange, one providing the play, the other the encouragement (and the coaching and managing and ownership also). Sports can generate intergenerational sharing and joy and understanding.
In the grand order of things, one can easily conclude that winning (or not winning) a basketball game is of no great consequence. But wait! Maybe it is. Just because leading a graceful and generous and fierce life is something we all are called to do. It does not hurt to see one particular profession, gathering five people on a gym floor for 48 minutes over a period of several months a year, strive to do exactly that: To apply the human gifts of the athletic and the aesthetic into a 48 minute event that one spends months and years preparing for. Such an event is archetypal, it is a mini-pattern of our lives that, granted, are the big game but that require mini-games that condense the dance of beauty and grace, effort and stamina, perseverance and community teamwork, into a ritual reminding us of our better selves, our most beautiful and community-oriented and generous and warrior selves, our reptilian brains put to the service of community and excellence here to delight and spread joy that others can participate in deeply. The reptilian brain feeds the mammal brain in sport insofar as when there is a victory there are lots of hugs to go around. Affection is felt and friendships are made and a sense of community is expanded.
Yes, basketball is a ritual and it crosses the line between so-called “secular” and “religious” rituals. Spirituality links the two at times.
Another spiritual dimension to Warriors basketball (and indeed to most sport) is the role that beauty plays—the beauty of a long three pointer, the beauty of a leaping rebound, the beauty of a fast lay up or a rapid pass to the one open player cross court and more. Beauty is very much a spiritual term—in the Middle Ages many were the mystics who called God “Beauty” and celebrated how humans are “participants in the Divine Beauty.”
Sports address two primary chakras it seems to me. The first, because it conjures up tribal consciousness—people root “for the home team” and assert themselves in the most whimsical and loud and irrational ways. They raise the roof in appreciation of a good shot or a defensive stop or the seizing of a championship. They become friends to others who share their “tribal status” of this or that particular team. This too can be a great thing for again it is playing with the tribal notion that “we are the only ones” and expands the tribe to include strangers.
Of course this is nonsense but by playing with it instead of claiming its literal truth sports allow us to be ourselves, to pay attention to the tribalism from which we all emerge. When one tribe wins and another loses, there is glee in one camp and sadness in the other. But ultimately one learns that “it is only a game” and people do move on. The first chakra is about not falling into tribalism as such even while we do recognize our specific tribes but in the context of a greeter whole—that of the universe itself. The key to the first chakra is vibration and it is no coincidence that much of the cheering elicited in a basketball game is very much of a mantra kind—“Defense, Defense, Defense” or ‘Warriors, Warriors, Warriors,” goes the crowd—the mantra evokes vibratory power which engenders togetherness. Group mantras feed not only group tribal feelings but the soul itself. The lower chakras are fed and nourished by such mantras. Lessons are learned and relearned about the role the tribe plays in our lives and always has for member of our species.
Another chakra awakened by Sports is the seventh chakra which, when healthy, is about our light energy climaxing in the back of our heads and extending out to other light beings to link up with them in shared community whether these beings be ancestors or angels or others on a path of light and fitness. But the shadow side to the seventh chakra is Envy which also recognizes the light in other beings but instead of celebrating it chooses to shoot it down or go to war with it. Sports awaken the seventh chakra: One recognizes the talent and light in one’s opponents (even while paying attention to their weaknesses to exploit) while seeking to defeat them. But again, one plays at this, it is temporary, and limits are set by abiding rules that forbid an actual destruction of one’s opponent. In this way one learns to strive to accomplish one’s best and most excellent gifts and while there is competition with others, the competition is not the last word. Envy does not rule (envy being the great shadow of the seventh chakra). Playing superlatively does rule.
The ritual of basketball (like the ritual that other sports are) has its altars for focusing points. “Ancient as the workbench is the altar” writes one poet and pastor. An altar is an archetype of a focusing point, there lies its power: it gets us to focus and thus brings about meditation. What sports have is usually not an altar but two altars: That is where the competition lies: Which altar, attracting which team, will prevail? The altar in the basketball court is obviously the hoop: That is the focus of all that goes on: Get the ball into the hoop; prevent the other team from getting to the hoop. (In hockey the altar is a net, as in soccer; in football it is the goal line or, lacking that, the goal posts; in baseball it is the home plate but three ‘minor altars’ precede it). Everything is done for the sake of the hoop—but there are two so each team is engaged in a struggle both offensively and defensively to get to the hoop or to prevent the other team from getting to their hoop. Getting to the altar is an adventure, a struggle. It takes warrior energy and excellence and skill and craft and endurance to achieve access to the altar. Above all, it takes focus.
Ordinarily an altar represents the axis mundi or center of the universe but since in sports that center tends to be binary, it is as if each team is fighting for its own universe. And this the cheering fans, the supportive community, sense also: It is our altar and our universe vs “their altar” and “their universe.” A mini-pageant ensues of one tribe vs. another. There is a satisfaction in “winning” by getting to one’s altar more frequently than the others; and there is a sadness in defeat. But still, life goes on. (Though in some ancient ceremonial sports the losers were sometimes sacrificed if they lost. Thus the altar dimension to the ritual of sport was taken more literally, the altar being the place where a sacrifice is enacted.) The struggle and the injuries that happen on the court are part of today’s sacrifice at the altar of the hoop. It is less final than those ancient sacrificial focal points.
So sport conjures up profound archetypes among the participants and those who cheer them on. More than ego is involved—the psyche and cosmos (symbolized by an altar or two) are at work, a struggle to engage psyche and cosmos is happening. Players offer their gifts and sacrifice much on the field and in preparation in their training and excellence to conquer, to give the reptilian brain the achievement it yearns for. Lessons of victory and defeat are learned. Mighty chakras are engaged. Excellence is called for.
Is sport a mere “secular” ritual? Or can it have more important and lasting consequences? This depends on how we look at it. If sport is just a “business,” then most likely it is thoroughly secularized. But if it accomplishes some or most of the other dimensions I have named in this article, then it is very possible that the feelings of achievement and glory and the memories of beauty and artful playing, are “more than secular.” They join the realms of awe and gratitude and beauty where the soul feeds and grows and nourishes itself and others and that the mystics call the “Via Positiva.” Joy is aroused for many in the community. There is an intergenerational accomplishment as well since elders, who themselves may have participated in such games as young men and women, acknowledge and appreciate excellence when they see it played out by a new generation. They cheer them on, as does Steph Curry’s father who was a professional basketball player himself. There is a kind of ‘sacred tradition’ that is handed on from generation to generation.
Is there a shadow side to professional sports? Of course there is as there is to anything humans embark on. Among its shadow side can be addiction, couchpotatoitis (when so much work needs doing in our culture and passion needs to come alive in compassion), hero worship that becomes an excuse for not taking on one’s own responsibilities, projection of one’s own greatness onto others, vicarious living via TV, capitalist greed, power trips and ego-trips, banishing the poor and working classes from watching live games, etc. etc. So a “caveat” is in order, a warning to stay alert.
On the bright side, a championship run is a taste and hint of Joy and community and diversity and respect for excellence and hard work and achievement and beauty and grace that ought not be forgotten. It is an eschatological occasion, meaning a taste of a better and fuller future. The year 2015 for the Warriors was such an eschatological moment that led to joy for many, joy at being human yet still excelling, joy at being a team and community, joy at beauty and excellence and the marriage of art/aesthetics with athleticism, the joy of a job well done. Thanks, Team.
Some people pontificate against the “secular” world but I am not one who is at home with a stark separation between the so-called “secular” and the Sacred. On the contrary, in a healthy society much of what some call “secular” can be very sacred. Grace is grace and nature can be grace. Thus humans who do their work gracefully—and this includes those with a vocation to basketball or other sport—arouse a sense of the sacred by the splendor of their work and of course they share it with the rest of us. This is true of our work and it is true of our sports. If basketball can bring the sacred and the secular together—and it can—then basketball has its place among us and for good reasons.
But still, it is just a game—that is its appeal and that is its essence. But it is a game with consequences, sometimes to the wallet but more importantly consequences for the soul.
Tip ball anyone?
Matthew Fox is a spiritual theologian and author of 32 books on spirituality and culture that have been translated into 58 languages. The books include Original Blessing, The Reinvention of Work, A Spirituality Named Compassion, The Hidden Spirituality of Men, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Time. He is an Episcopal priest and resides in Oakland, California where he enjoys, among other things, Warrior basketball.