As I watch the Olympics, I’m struck by the paradox of desire. The Buddhists teach the notion of “non-attachment,” which Jesus reaffirms in the shortest of his sayings, “Be passersby” (Gospel of Thomas 42). The take-away lesson is often that too much desire can lead to our demise. Of course, so can too little. A few years ago, the following whisper came to me on how to handle desire: Hold anything you cherish like sand in the palm of your hand. If you grasp it too tight, you’ll squeeze it out, but if you hold it too loose, it will fall through your fingers. So cusp it gently and lovingly. Let the sand that wishes to blow away. That way, the remainder will stay true to you.
Great desire grasps too tightly. But great desire also builds the champion. No Olympian could be a “passerby” and no athlete could make it to the Olympics without exceptional desire, even intense passion. It must be a feverish sort of passion that leads to outstanding highs or devastating loss. I was especially struck by the depth of passion as I watched the despair of the Russian women gymnasts when they knew they were destined for the silver. “To receive a silver medal at the Olympics,” I thought, “Wow! How amazing! Ought they not be ecstatic? Elated?”
Admittedly, most silver medalists are elated and even as early as now, I imagine the Russian gymnasts are too. Much of their despair was due more simply to knowing they hadn’t reached their own personal best. In countless rehearsals, they had nailed every step, every turn, every flip, every jump, and every landing. Then at the event that really mattered, they nailed all of it but the landing. While the Americans were hitting every move, the Russians were in a tragic script that kept replaying itself, indicting gymnast after gymnast: a brilliant, daring, remarkable performance followed by a bad landing.
These gymnasts were shown with faces swollen in tears, absolutely devastated. To be so very devastated when so great an accomplishment had been achieved can only be the mark of tremendous passion. Those of us with average passion would not despair over a silver. Nor would we achieve such greatness. Only intense passion can bring one to break a body into impossible feats and break a mind of the universal human fears gymnasts must overcome. I’m mesmerized by the gymnasts (and high divers) not just by the execution of their glorious stunts, but also by their willingness to even try them and train for them. At 10, I quit gymnastics and joined the swim team just after graduating into Level 3 – that level when the gymnast moves from walk-overs to flips. This is the moment when the gymnast faces fear. With my closest friends on the swim team, swimming provided a nice out from facing that terrifying moment when the coach would move away from his spotting position and say to me, as he already had for some of the others, “OK, now do the same flip on your own.” Part of me eagerly wanted to prove I could do a flip all by myself and the other part of me – the stronger part, I regret to say – was terrified to try.
Much of what makes a great athlete great is that desire trumps fear. When the athletes are interviewed about how they manage to overcome fear – or blood, sweat, tears and all else – they nearly all reply with an answer like focused meditation. They enter their own meditative space and focus hard. That’s what 2011 world champion gymnast Jordyn Wieber did on Sunday. While the announcers spent an inordinate amount of time rehashing Jordyn’s distress at missing the qualification for the coveted individual all-around competition, they ought to have been focusing on how she overcame it. Finally, one of them noted how she did: she said she “went in to a personal bubble” and then emerged ready to compete in the team competition. Had she lacked the capacity to master her disappointment, she may have lost the US the gold for the team competition. Such an inability is often due to grasping the sand too tight. In other words, Jordyn had to have extraordinary desire to win the gold, but she also had to have the capacity to temper her desire in order to avoid losing the gold. Her “personal bubble” of meditation served that purpose. It tempered her desire, giving her just enough to compete at her best, but not so much that her loss would hold her back. Sure enough, she emerged from her bubble a true champion and went on to flawlessly execute all three of her team events to help the US take the gold.
Jordyn’s “bubble” and similar methods described by other athletes sound akin to mystic methods of meditation. I’ve been struck by this, as meditation often leads to the decline of intense passion, at least the form of intense passion usually associated with champions: the passion to achieve greatness. But Jordyn’s bubble teaches us that perhaps what meditation does for us all is to temper desire. Meditation trains us all to cusp sand in the palm of our hand. Some of it will blow away, as did Jordan’s disqualification from the event she most cherished. But if we permit the sand that wishes to blow away to do so, then the remainder will stay true to us. For both the mystic and the champion, the meditative bubble permits us to face our fears, persevere in trials, beat disappointment, and strike the perfect balance to achieve our dreams.