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March Madness and the road through the Four Immeasurables

If we're placing our attention on basketball, can we still be practicing? How college basketball can show us our perfect heart.



We're always placing our attention on something, we're told during instruction for shamata meditation. In that case, we place it on the breath as we train in stabilizing and focusing our minds.

But what if, like me, much of your attention for the next three weeks is on basketball?

It's March Madness, baby, the annual basketball marathon, when 128 college teams -- men's and women's in separate tournaments --meet in pairs with the winner of each game advancing to the next one.

The NCAA tournament would seem to be the antithesis of non-attachment and calm abiding, things we seek to cultivate through meditation. And fans covered in body paint, screaming loudly (and sometimes profanely and rudely) don't much resemble the sangha we see in the meditation hall, at least the ones I've been in.

But if everything is dharma and all moments carry the potential for awakening, is there a way to practice while immersed in Madness?

Of course.

Take the brahma viharas – aka the four immeasurables, or the divine abodes (where there must be basketball). It's easy to work them into games. Take advantage of commercial breaks when you can place your attention on your breath for a minute and send some metta, some loving-kindness, out to the people in the game. May they be safe (easy, you don't want anyone hurt); may they be happy (with whatever the result is); may they be healthy (see safe); and may they be at ease -- after the game.

The second one is compassion. If you can look at the losing team in the final seconds and not feel compassion, then this might be a good thing to work on in your meditation practice.

Empathetic joy -- that's a tough one because it means being happy for whichever team wins. And their fans. Maybe you can feel a flash of kinship, a sense of hey, we're all in it for the same thing. (And really, isn't that pure joy of putting in great effort and seeing it pay off why we care about the outcome?) Sometimes is translated as appreciation. That's less complicated -- you can appreciate the hours the players, coaches, trainers, referees, announcers, camera operators, and anyone else you can think of put in to bring the game to you.

Finally equanimity -- not being thrown into turmoil, either elated or depressed, over the result. Uhn ... we can't expect perfection from ourselves. just that we try. Maybe this doesn't come immediately after the game but a bit later, with reflection.

Or you could look at the Eight-fold path. Right speech, anyone, when the ref calls it out on the wrong team? (Ask a Pittsburgh fan.)

But what I want to say, why I watch, is for the delicious experience of taking part in something that is happening right now. Sure, you can DVR it, you can watch replays. But you can't change a thing that happened. That moment when the game is tied, the ballhandler is looking for a lane or an open teammate, the ball is in the air -- it only exists NOW. Even if you've got a week's salary riding on the outcome, even if you're praying for it to go through the net or bounce off the rim, you can't change it, you can't do it over (there might be another chance, but it will not be exactly the same), you can only be in it.

I realized this during tournament play leading up to the NCAAs. The local team, which under-performed, shall we say, at the end of the season, was playing a noon game against a tough team. Twenty seconds to go, and the score is tied. The loud exclamations from the corner office, where the boss has a TV, alerted everyone that it was an interesting game, so a bunch of people -- some big fans, some casual observers -- gathered around a TV. The star got the ball, he faked, he faked, everyone was quiet, everyone was paying rapt attention (in Madison Square Garden as well as around the TV sets). The defender bit, the star shot, the ball went in as the clock hit zero -- and there was a spontaneous reactive explosion of sound.

Watch here

They say that sneezing or having an orgasm is getting in touch with the ultimate. Maybe watching 20 seconds of desperation basketball with the outcome on the line is close. Or maybe it's only that second, that instant reaction. But it is a connection to something pure.

A few years ago, after his team lost a hard-fought game, University of Connecticut men's coach Jim Calhoun (yeah, now you know my teams) made this statement: "When you have a perfect heart and perfect effort. you can't ask any more of the kids."

I have bad knees. I can't play basketball at all. I can run across a street to save my life, but it'll hurt.

But perfect heart and perfect effort? That I can aspire to.

Classic Final Four moments, recreated in Legos


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