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Football and Buddhism: A post-match analysis

England 1-Croatia 2: how football and Buddhism mix

Like great swathes of the UK, I was watching the football World Cup Semi-Final this Wednesday. 

I’m not a huge soccer fan. I sometimes get swept up in the World Cup fever but, to be honest, I prefer Rugby for that. (More points scored, bigger thighs.) But I was away filming with my film crew which this week was all-male, mostly in their 20s. They persuaded me to come and sit in the bar of the hotel on Anglesey where we were staying and so I sat down with my soda and lime and hunkered down for 90 minutes. 

Bloodstream awash with cortisol from start to finish

One of the reasons I’m not a fan of watching sport is that I find it too stressful. Tennis wears me out because I’m also worried about the person who’s losing and my bloodstream stays awash with cortisol from start to finish. Soccer matches at this level feel the same. There’s so much back and forth and so few goals that the tension really gets to me.

It felt doubly dreadful on Wednesday because my young director, T. was so incredibly invested in this England team winning and getting though to the finals. Despite his professional excellence, he readily admits that football means everything to him and that the prospect of England being beaten was too painful to consider.

Consequently, I spent the whole 90 + extra time feeling increasing levels of dread about T.’s wellbeing. And when the England squad finally lost to Croatia in extra time, I felt T’s pain as he crumpled into a heap and retired broken to bed.

Putting your happiness in the hands of 11 young men in Moscow

That left me feeling intense sorry for him and for so many of my fellow English males, who invest so much of their happiness in the performance of 11 young men on the other side of Europe. Giving away so much power into the hands of something you cannot control feels desperately unwise. The fickleness of a soccer team’s performance seems a terrible basis for personal wellbeing. Surely it makes more sense to ground the foundations of your happiness within your own sphere of influence?

And that made me ponder:why do people do that?

A 6-year-old is equally at the mercy of an unpredictable Other

The most obvious parallel is the state of infancy when we are completely at the mercy of the behaviour and performance of grown-ups. Our parents may win the World Cup or crash out in the qualifiers but we have no real control over their impact on us. A 6-year old is equally at the mercy of great parents or terrible parents. That’s an awful place of powerlessness that we tie ourselves into all sorts of knots to escape.

Indeed one of the great compensations of being adult is that we have a chance to free ourselves from relying on the vagaries of our parents’ behaviour and ground ourselves in the vagaries of our own behaviour. At least our vagaries are within the sphere of our control.

So why do we want to replicate that in relying on a football team to save us?

If English males bond over losing the football they can bond over other things

One of the other crew mentioned the idea of the tribe. But I don’t really buy into that. The tribe is a group of 100 or so physical beings who are around you and who you can jostle with, pal up with or feud against. That sense of shared control is a comfort. I’m not sure there’s the same thing going on in millions of TV supporters anchoring their happiness on strangers they have and never will meet. I admit that you might feel a tribal bond with your fellow supporters though. 

That leads me to think about a different interpretation of T’s devastation. Perhaps the bond of fellow supporters and the woes and tribulations of football’s inevitable ups and downs acts like parallel holding space for the ups and downs of life. If a group of English males bond over the pain of losing the World Cup Semi-Final, maybe they can also bond over the loss of a girlfriend or of a real-world dream?

If that were true, then my heartfelt hug for T. over breakfast the next morning might have replicated the uprush of love and compassion he’d have felt on the terraces at Chelsea – but it was a poor Buddhist substitute.

I belong to the Dharma Ocean squad because they are team players

As I was meditating before breakfast (and before that hug) I also suddenly saw how a similar thing happens with spiritual communities. Is the anchoring of our wellbeing on the performance of a football team any different from the anchoring of our wellbeing on the performance of a spiritual teacher or a spiritual community?

I notice this as I continue my studies and training with Reggie Ray who I now happily call my teacher. There are days when I’m so furious with him or the organisation. When I feel let down when I rely on him or his teaching to lift my mood. Is that any different from the fragile bondage of T. to his football team? 

There is definitely an uplift I feel when I practice with my fellow practitioners. I feel happy to belong to the Dharma Ocean ‘squad’ because I feel they are team players and skilled with the ball of awareness. I feel that Buddhist dharma give good rules for the game of living. On one level, that’s is what ‘taking refuge’ means

“The bad news is that we’re falling through space without a parachute”

But I’m also aware that Dharma makes the pinning of our hopes on an external other – a teacher, a team or a teaching – very problematic…

Chögyam Trungpa famously said: “the bad news is that we’re falling though space without a parachute. The good news is that there is no ground”.  He was relentless in removing any ‘reference points’ from practice. Similarly, Zen Buddhism says, “If you see Buddha in the road, kill him”. That seems to point to a system with no comforting team or coach to guarantee our happiness. 

Perhaps, the real happiness of ‘liberation’ is freedom from having to rely on any external reference points and find our life inside the ups and downs of success and failure, victory and defeat. At least that way you’re not surrendering your fate to the hands of others – eager to blame them when things go wrong and cling on to them when things are going well. It leads to a sense of responsibility. But, more importantly I guess, it leads to a sense  of community, a sense that someone else’s suffering is as real as your own and that together we might be able to ease the pain of a 2-1 defeat or a broken heart. 

I’d love to know your thoughts about football. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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