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Jumping Through Life’s Hoops

1995 was a pivotal year for me. My Mom had died two years earlier from a rare form of cancer, which tore me apart. Simultaneously, I was trying to make sense of where I was headed professionally after my career in healthcare administration ended rather abruptly.

Living in Chicago at the time, I was contacted by a friend who was a member of a local Kiwanis club.

“Hey, Michael — Sorry to hear about the loss of your Mom. Just checking in see how you’re doing.”

Not much, I responded. Just trying to get my life back together.

“Hey, while I have you on the phone, I wanted to see if you could come and speak to our club.”

What! On what?

“Make up a topic and come. Our members will love hearing you speak.”

Little did I know that this one speech would lead to a whirlwind of association and corporate speaking engagements over the next ten years that would take my professional life to stratospheric levels.

Despite the fun of being in front of rapt audiences on a weekly basis, this was an unsettling time for me — traveling place to place, waking up in strange cities without any sense of grounding. I longed for a spiritual base, one which would allow me to reconnect with the essence of life and experience a sense of calm amidst the frenetic pace that I was on.

Fortunately, I found respite in a book published in 1995 called Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. It remains my all-time favorite read.

Written by former NBA coach Phil Jackson, it offers a compelling look at one man’s quest for enlightenment through his two greatest passions:

Basketball and Spirituality

While coach of the Chicago Bulls in the 90’s, he developed a new leadership framework that guided the team to multiple championships. Phil’s aim was to get the players to recognize the quest they were on as something greater than themselves. Running counter to the relentless, winner take all attitude that remains to this day, he stressed the importance of awareness, compassion and selfless team play.

Much of this philosophy was informed by his discovery of Zen Buddhism at the end of his own playing days in the 70’s. It was also during that time that he began meditating regularly.

Here are five excerpts from his book that continue to hold profound meaning for me to this day

“In basketball — as in life — true joy comes from being fully present in the moment, not just when things are going your way. Of course, it’s no accident that things are more likely to go your way when you stop worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose and focus your full attention on what’s happening right in the moment.”

I use to spend a good portion of my day racing through life without paying attention to what was right in front of me. Phil’s advice helped me realize that my time on earth was much, much more than that next speaking engagement or paycheck in my pocket. Rather it was about being aware of each and every precious moment of life and enjoying it.

“What pollutes the mind in the Buddhist view is our desire to get life to conform to our peculiar notion of how things should be, as opposed to how they really are. In the course of everyday life, we spend the majority of our time immersed in self-centered thoughts. Why did this happen to me? What would make me feel better? If only I could make more money, win her heart, make my boss appreciate me. The thoughts themselves are not the problem; it’s our desperate clinging to them and our resistance to what’s actually happening that causes us so much anguish.”

To this day, I still have moments where my ego-centered thoughts get in the way. During those times I often try to force things to happen in the way that I want them to versus trusting the natural flow of the universe. Taoism encourages us to let go and follow the “Wu Wei” path of effortless action by letting go of the need to control what is already being perfectly orchestrated.

“..I learned early that one of the most important qualities as a leader is listening without judgment, or what the Buddhists call bare attention.”

When problems and conflicts arise, it’s best to simply acknowledge them with an open, listening heart versus immediately trying to jump in and fix them. Today when a knotty situation surfaces and my knee-jerk reaction is to try to immediately fix it, I’m reminded of how many times when I’ve done nothing and the issue mysteriously begins to sort itself out with little or no intervention on my part.

Being aware is more important than being smart.”

There are lots of so-called brilliant experts and intelligent folks in the world who in reality have no real awareness of the underlying dynamics taking place around them. I recall an ex-partner of mine whenever she saw me confronted with a problem or issue saying “come on, you have a Master’s Degree,” as though that conferred me with an extra dose of intelligence. All I could do is smile at the absurdity of that comment

“I used to believe that the day I could accept defeat was the day I would have to give up my job. But losing is as integral a part of the dance as winning. Buddhism teaches us that by accepting death, you discover life.”

I find it healthy to ponder physical death on a daily basis because I’m ultimately going to experience that fate. Life and death for me are simply two sides of the same coin — — shifts in consciousness that occur many times over the course of our lifetime. In Phil seems to suggest, life is a mystery — a beautiful dance where it’s not about winning or losing but how you play the game.