“The greater the emotions, the greater the wisdom.”
Old Buddhist tantric saying.
There are quite a few core tenets, or attributes, we all need to develop in our journey through life. One of them is discipline. Nearly all obstacles and chronic difficulties can be traced back to a lack of discipline, which has something to do with sticking to something, be it an activity, a principle, a vocation, a marriage – and so forth.
Often in conversation, I have found myself bringing up professional tennis players as well-known examples of hard-core discipline – as covered briefly in the preceding article On Wimbledon and English Summers. Today’s short article is about a related aspect of that, namely the way top players have the ability to raise their game whenever a challenge requiring them to do so arises. Many of us, confronted with two championship points against us for example, might crumple under such pressure, give up, or just throw the game away somehow in a state of nervous panic. But the top players find a way to raise their game by serving up two aces in a row, or getting the ball back no matter what until their opponent loses focus and misses a shot, or by hitting almost impossibly brilliant winners. They dig deep and come up with the gold.
Part of the dynamic here is that the challenge in question is initially felt as some sort of pressure or intensity which we experience as heightened emotion. Such emotion may not be easily labelled as ‘anger,’ ‘jealousy’ or whatever, but it exists somewhere along the axis where emotions involving success and failure dwell, so perhaps there is fear of losing along with determination or even expectation of winning. The fear of loss and hope to win are two sides of the same coin in this tennis game realm. Of course for professionals this game is their livelihood, identity and what they achieve in life so it’s a loaded situation – albeit still only a game: after all, they do not face imminent execution or loss of all assets if they lose.
In any case, at certain critical points in the match, they can channel the heightened emotion aroused by the existential game being on the line into enhanced performance. Interestingly, this resembles two key aspects of the spiritual path, namely how to use emotions to engender heightened awareness and wisdom, and also how to handle what happens after you die. In both cases, the recommendation is to make out like the top tennis players, namely to raise your game in the face of increased intensity and challenge.
In terms of the meditation aspect, some of the old yogic manuals recommend deliberately putting yourself into hostile environments so that you can confront and master extreme emotions, by for example meditating in charnel grounds (where in India they threw dead bodies to be eaten by animals who roam around at night doing just that), or market places, or haunted houses, or remote caves in the Himalaya mountains and so forth. This is because it is hard to engender strong awareness whilst in a state of languid comfort or only milquetoast emotion. People have this image of meditators favoring only tranquil situations, being peaceful, calm, quiet, always joyful. That’s not really how it works. In fact, life is constantly presenting challenges, just like those key moments in tennis matches. How we face such challenges becomes a defining part of our character, which in turn determines how we handle the ultimate challenge awaiting us in what Tibetans call ‘the bardo,’ the state of being after death.
Bardo is any in-between state. Right now we are all in the ‘waking bardo,’ which is the state between birth and death. There is also the dreaming bardo between being awake and asleep, and you could say the childhood bardo between infancy and adulthood. Everything is some sort of bardo: the present moment is a bardo between past and future. The moment of intensity facing a Championship Point is also a type of bardo too, as the period after physical death before whatever comes next is sorted out.
In some of the old yogic manuals dealing with this topic of transmuting emotion into awareness, they suggest standing in front of a mirror and engendering strong emotional states by grimacing fiercely – even shouting – to provoke anger, or crying to provoke sadness, grinning and goofing around to provoke joy and so forth. The trick is learning how to merge those heightened emotional states with awareness. Now it’s not the purpose of this series of articles to get into exactly what that is and how to do it, but suffice to say it’s basically the same thing as what a Federer, Nadal or Djokovic does when facing those break, set or championship points.
They pay attention to what is happening, focus completely on what needs to be done and then execute fearlessly using the heightened emotional intensity of the challenge as fuel for the fire of their correspondingly heightened awareness in the form of a greater level of play. In short, they ‘step up their game.’
They say that if we become good at doing this in our daily lives, then we can do a fairly good job of encountering what arises in the after-life bardo, which is experienced as varying intensities of sounds and lights, both abstract and familiar or phantasmagoric forms. The trick is to go into the bright lights and loud sounds rather than turning away from them into something less intense, more comfortable, more familiar. So if you experience the dim lights and low intensity zones, you need to be aware that they are such rather than buying into the comfort and reassurance they seem to offer, rather keep paying attention to details. As such details emerge, intensity will rise again until you face the next key point in the match, at which time you can call upon your prior training and experience to raise your game and, rather than turning away, rather face forward into the bright lights of heightened emotional intensity.