Zen is Not a Competitive Sport

This is a cartoon that I drew back in about 2011 or 2012, I think. Thank you WQ for saving it for me! Here's what inspired it.

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Zen is not a competitive sport
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Wait. Isn’t it? What have I been training for all this time, sitting on my cushion?

No, really, Zen is — or should be — practically the opposite of a competitive sport. Sitting on your cushion, or trying — however successfully — to keep your mind in the present and on the task at hand is the enemy of the competitive mind.

Yet I was finding that I would go to retreats and invariably meet up with the type of person I’ll refer to as “Mr. Competitive Zen Guy.” He wants to tell you that he has sat 12 retreats in the last year. He has studied with Lama Whatshisname, Whosthat Roshi, and Bhikku Bill, along with a string of other names he has at least been in proximity to during sitting. He then asks you to share your Zen stats. To how many retreats have you gone? Where? How long were they? Who was the teacher?

I truly believe and try to follow the bumper sticker wisdom, “Don’t believe everything you think.” So I questioned my reaction that this individual was comparing my meditation stats — which were, very much, unfavorable to his own. Note that you can actually do that — compare sitting stats — now with all of the meditation apps that are out there. I bet you beat me this last week with hours sat on the cushion!.

But, the thing is, I do think he was making a comparison. I think so because one of the things I don’t like to admit about my own mind and personality is the tendency to compare and compete. If you want to make yourself unhappy, constantly sizing yourself up to others is a good way! And I’ve, unfortunately, tried to practice meditation in a way that I can only label, “competitive Zen.”

Half lotus? Yes, I’ll push my knees into it until I pop my medial meniscus. Back pain? Yes, we can learn something from sitting through pain and discomfort. But if I can’t, then, do my regular tasks for a while, perhaps I’ve pushed it too far. I sat with the teacher at a retreat, and he said with a hint of sarcasm, at my very quiet, non-buff, self, “Yes, Perplexity, I expect you to be…macho.”

Mr. Competitive Zen Guy isn’t confined to meditation practice, of course. You can find variations of him everywhere. People in the travel community like to post stats on how many countries they’ve visited. Triathlons? If you train for them, you’ll meet people who like to compare notes on how many they’ve completed. You can keep and compare stats on everything from books read to pounds lost.

And that’s fine — friendly competition can be, and often is, fun.

And there are, of course, people who do have more understanding and knowledge because they have practiced longer than we haven’t have experienced more. They have more understanding.

This is why we have teachers — to learn from people who know more than we do. But, usually, if these people are posting their lists of stats it’s for the purpose of acknowledging their qualifications: the lineage of a meditation teacher might give you trust in their training and background, how many countries a travel writer has visited might illustrate that they’re a seasoned traveler and that you can trust their travel advice.

Does it bug me, just because my list of bragging rights about most things is small? Perhaps. But I still, even now, think that the mind of competition is, usually, unhelpful. It’s something I’m trying to overcome. And I’ll overcome it as soon as my app tells me that I’ve achieved my mindfulness goal. I’ll stop being competitive after I jump to the top of the meditation leaderboard for this week.

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