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You Can't Win Meditation

We're entering heavy sports season here in the U.S., with the month-long college basketball championships wrapping up -- March Madness that now extends into April -- and playoffs looming for professional basketball and hockey, even as baseball opened its season Monday.

In a world where ambiguity muddies most situations, sports offer blessed certainty: Someone wins and someone loses. There's comfort in that. (Of course, if you look into the elements that go into those wins and losses, it can get fuzzy. Someone used performance-enhancing drugs. Someone violated recruiting rules.)

We'd like to be able to apply that certainty in our lives -- remember when Charlie Sheen  popularized "Winning" as a description of his life -- but life's not like that. You could see it as a series of games, I suppose, but there's no championship to end the season, declare a winner, and let everyone go home to rest. Life is about getting up and doing it again.

We'd really like to bring the game dynamic to our meditation practice -- we'd like a score, a quantifiable result that says we've won (or at least made the shot, hit the pitch, touched the rim).

The 17th Karmapa, who's touring the U.S. for three months, touched on this attitude in a talk over the weekend. Asked about ngondro, the preliminary practices students of Tibetan Buddhism undertake to get ready for vajrayana practices, Karmapa noted that attention tends to focus on the uncommon practices: 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 purifications mantras, 1 million or more devotional mantras. Students like to count, he said. Numbers make them feel like they've achieved something.

But in truth, it's the common practices, the ones that don't require any particular initiations, that are most important, Karmapa said. Those include contemplation of the Four Reminders that turn the mind to the dharma: Precious human birth, impermanence, karma, and the suffering inherent in all six realms of samsara.

The problem with those contemplations is that there's no way to quantify the results, Karmapa said. Your mind and your personality improve through those contemplations, he said. But there's no score, no stat line, no trophy that tells you that you've done it right or that you're the best in the league at appreciating your precious human birth, you know impermanence better than anyone. There's just you and those around you experiencing how you live your life.

We find that "boring," Karmapa said, interrupting his translator to say that precise English word. (He speaks in Tibetan, but he occasionally corrects his English translators.)

Those who play sports, who aren't just fans following the hot team, know the truth of what he says, though. Games aren't about the score -- they're about the practices, about building muscle memory so that the body knows what to do. Breanna Stewart doesn't have time in a game to think, now I'm going to block that shot by jumping up; she's well-trained and responds appropriately to the situation. Games are about showing up for every play, being present in the moment, no matter what the score. If you're focused more on the score than on the play, you'll screw up and let the opponent win. You need, as the sports cliche says, to keep your head in the game -- and out of dreaming about the victory trip to Disney World.

In shamata meditation, each breath is the only breath. In walking meditation, each step is the only step. In ngondro, every prostration is the only one. Each day starts fresh with no score.

Maybe someday, as secular meditation becomes more popular, there will be meditation competitions and there will be a meditation champion, just as there are yoga competitions now. But there is no outside acclamation or accumulation that can tell you when you're doing it right or doing it better than everyone else.

You'll know you're winning at meditation when that no longer matters.

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