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Fundamentals! (Rinse--Repeat!)

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

It may seem odd to portray spiritual practice as a sports metaphor, but the word "practice" is precisely synonymous in both pursuits. Meditation, contemplation (as always, we don't quibble about the terms) is not some lofty, otherworldly act but a simple craft that one may learn from simple instructions and refine in practice.

One of my favorite sports stories applicable to spiritual practice comes from the historic Green Bay Packers football franchise. Its legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, was known for putting fundamentals first. Every year, on the first day of Green Bay Packers training camp, Mr. Lombardi would hold a ball aloft and declare: "Gentlemen, this is a football!" [1]

If you're not a football fan, just know that Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a poster football city. The Green Bay Packers are legendary in the sport. Every season, the team's players represent many of the best at the game. And Mr. Lombardi was one of the winningest coaches in football history.

Despite all this advantage and talent, Mr. Lombardi--like the high school and university football coach he once was--returned again and again to the game's fundamentals and trained his team of professionals from there. Spiritual practice periodically requires precisely the same "back to basics" focus and effort.

Fundamentals require repetition. Lombardi demanded all of his players--many already great players--to review basic blocking, tackling, conditioning, and drilling techniques. Additionally, he emphasized focus on their characters: "hard work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness, and respect for authority." These, Lombardi believed, "were the fundamentals of excellence." It doesn't require much thought to adapt these ideas to spiritual practice.

In my Zen Buddhist tradition, "Right Effort" is an aspect of the Buddha's Eightfold path to spiritual awakening. [2] Lombardi says, "Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because, in the process, we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good." That aim could have come from my spiritual teacher and many I'm familiar with in history. So, just for fun, let's look at spiritual practice through Mr. Lombardi's eyes.

"Hard work, sacrifice, perseverance:" Meditative practice IS WORK, no argument there. It's not digging a sewer, scaling a mountain, or cage match combat, but it's no walk-in-the-park either. It must be done regularly--like a job, every day--to be helpful.

Yes, there will be days when other priorities will take precedence, but we do our best; we "chase perfection," always remembering, "nothing is perfect." As one learns to take stillness practice into activity--meditation from the sitting place into the marketplace--perfection gets a bit nearer. One works at it, the best one is able.

"Competitive drive:" With whom are we to compete? Sounds pretty martial, military, doesn't it? Well, I suggest it is. It depends on the day, the moment, or where one is in one's practice. In the vernacular, we compete with ourselves. In the spiritual sense, we compete with "our Self." Ego, the artificial "I," the separate "One" from the "Great Mystery," as the Lakota called it, "God" (Uh-oh, don't go there!), the "Mysterium Tremendum," you pick your term for the great "Oneness" of creation.

Throughout history, humans have experienced the ultimate "Oneness" as "That," which displays "Itself" in the infinite variety and diversity of creation which "We" experience. To reconnect with "This" is the ultimate aim of a spiritual practice.

To those of you who may be at the outset--the beginning of your spiritual pursuit--you may not have yet recognized this aim in yourself. No matter, don't concern yourself. If you meditate for serenity, good health, psychological stability, focus, or mindfulness, it's good enough. Depth, with time and practice, will reveal itself, and the ultimate purpose will emerge clear.

"Selflessness:" Here's a softball to be fielded. Spiritual practice is looking at the "Self," beyond the "Self," to "No-self." "No-self" is, again, a Buddhist notion. To express the idea in another sense, recognizing "No-self" is realizing--experiencing--immersion into the "Greater-Self"-- uh-oh, we're back to that "God" thing! Just as we don't quibble about meditation versus contemplation, we don't quibble about the infinite number of names for the "Ultimate." Pick what's comfortable for you. Any moniker will be less than the "Ultimate's reality," so any alias will do.

"Respect for authority:" I confess I had trouble with this fundamental. Why? Because here at CloudMeditation, we teach wariness of power hierarchies. So, we'll restate our caution here. Coach-player, teacher-student, master-disciple; these are power hierarchies. In most instances, the relationships are beneficial to both. Teachers need students to teach. Students need teachers to teach. Historically, master and disciple have a more intimate spiritual bond.

If they are healthy, honorable, ethical, all of these relationships work—both parties benefit. Vince Lombardi epitomized excellence in all these respects. In addition to developing good character, Lombardi demanded academic excellence in his players. He required it of himself as he matured. As a young man, Lombardi was a scholar, even as he pursued his sport. He understood and advocated that excellence in sport was only one element of a well-rounded human being. Spiritual practice is only one element of a well-rounded soul.

Per biographer David Maraniss, Vince Lombardi offered a pep talk to his team, beginning with the question: "What is the meaning of love?" Its purpose was to bond the individual teammates together. Some years later, when asked the source of his team's excellence, Lombardi said: "They did it because they loved one another. Teamwork is what the Green Bay Packers were all about. They didn't do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another."

Again, it's not difficult to find a spiritual analogy. In my Buddhist tradition, we have the Arhat and the Bodhisattva.

The Arhat is a perfected person. This is one who has, through single-minded effort, awakened to the true nature of existence and has achieved Nirvana (spiritual enlightenment in traditional vernacular). Those aspiring to Arhat will leave society, enter a monastery, or reside in a forest. They may beg for food but otherwise avoid people. Some Buddhist traditions see the Arhat as selfish, looking to their own awakening without helping others.

Like the Arhat, the Bodhisattva has awakened to the true nature of existence, but they refuse to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings, however innumerable, are enlightened.

Bodhisattvas take a more sacrificial approach. One may look at Jesus. Sacrifice is something given up for the sake of others. Bodhisattvas sacrifice their own release from samsara for others. Jesus dying for other people's sins is a sacrificial act. Even small actions can be sacrificial if you give something up for a purpose. In the words of Vince Lombardi: They didn't do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another."

So, we should spiritually practice!

[1] Source for all Lombardi quotes: The Conversation:

[2] The eight elements of the path are (1) right view, an accurate understanding of the nature of things, specifically the Four Noble Truths, (2) right intention, avoiding thoughts of attachment, hatred, and harmful intent, (3) right speech, refraining from verbal misdeeds such as lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and senseless speech, (4) right action, refraining from physical misdeeds such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct, (5) right livelihood, avoiding trades that directly or indirectly harm others, such as selling slaves, weapons, animals for slaughter, intoxicants, or poisons, (6) right effort, abandoning negative states of mind that have already arisen, preventing negative conditions that have yet to arise, and sustaining positive states that have already occurred, (7) right mindfulness, awareness of body, feelings, thought, and phenomena (the constituents of the existing world), and (8) right concentration, single-mindedness.

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