Beliefs Ethics Opinion

COMMENTARY: The spiritual life: It’s not about winning

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Les Kaye is abbot of Kannon Do, a Zen meditation center in Mountain View, Calif., and author of the new book”Zen At Work: A Zen Teacher’s 30-Year Journey in Corporate America (Crown).)

UNDATED _ I started Zen practice 30 years ago, not fully understanding what I was getting into. Expecting magic and mysticism, I assumed Zen would somehow automatically unfold the secrets of life, providing timeless wisdom and mastery over the events of my everyday world.

It took me a couple of years to recognize it wasn’t happening. I wondered what I was doing wrong. One day, however, one of the Japanese Zen priests who had come to America to help the practice get started here, told me something that changed my entire attitude.”The most important thing is relationships with people,”he said. Hearing his remark was like waking from a dream, as if suddenly doused in ice water.

Of course, I realized. Spiritual practice is about living attentively in a world shared with others, not about controlling one’s own private island.

Why had I been so blind?

Eventually, I understood how deeply my view of life had been influenced by the primary themes of America, and how most people become products of their culture, living expressions of society’s dominant myths.

In this country, we are utterly devoted to the notion of winning, and to its antecedent, competition. In sports and in the marketplace, competition can provide emotional and material benefits, but blind devotion to winning has caused competition to seep out of impersonal, institutional activities into everyday personal affairs.

Winning something for ourselves _ comfort, convenience, excitement, wealth, recognition, power _ has increasingly muscled out giving of ourselves to each other in personal and organizational relationships.

Our society is tipped out of balance by the veneration of personal victories, large and small. Athletes blessed with great physical abilities, and men and women possessing the business skills of the marketplace, are heavily rewarded both financially and with recognition for their potential to make us feel like winners.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a great fan of both sports and business.

Having grown up in New York City as a Yankee fanatic, I was elated by last fall’s World Series. Helped in part by my MBA, I had a long and satisfying career in a major business corporation.

It is just that our overemphasis on the quest for personal victories has caused us to be blind to a greater need: the care and nurturing of each other and of society at large.

I think there is little argument that the men and women whose vocations are dedicated to personal relationships _ school teachers, counselors to troubled kids, nurses, caregivers to the elderly and disabled _ receive very modest compensation and little recognition for the work they do.

When family and other community elements break down, it is this group that America must rely on to care for the most dependent elements of society. Out of my own volunteer work in a local alternative high school for at-risk teens, I can verify that this work, rather than providing the potential for major victories, offers instead limited expectations, a high risk of failure, and the stress coming from being involved in what can often feel like a”no-win”situation.

When we are old, sick, and no longer have full capacity to take care of ourselves, will the nurses in our skilled nursing facilities and the caregivers in our homes or assisted-living centers be well trained and motivated? Are the teachers of our children sufficiently encouraged and inspired by how they are supported financially and emotionally? Have we done all we can to ensure they can provide our boys and girls with the education, stimulation, and interest in learning that will grant a satisfying life and stability for society?

If we cannot answer these questions positively then we are our own worst enemy. For these are the people whom we must trust to focus on personal relationships, rather than on personal wins and losses.

High-priced slam dunks are not much value to us or our children if school teachers are irritable and under pressure from being overworked and underpaid. Excessive executive salaries created by the promise of record stock prices won’t help us when we are ill, lonely, or in need of assistance while our caregivers are too stressed-out to provide us emotional warmth and comfort because they have to hold down more than one job.

Individually and collectively we are important to each other. In our daily lives _ personally and communally _ we have to find the balance between competition and cooperation, between progress and taking care.

If we don’t wake up to this challenge, we will someday wake up to discover that we are alone.

The good news is that the short-term, exciting satisfaction that comes from winning the game of the moment is far outweighed by the continuous, quiet pleasure that comes from caring about personal relationships.