Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

7 Life Lessons from the Olympics

The Olympics taught me: no clinging, no complaining, joy and compassion for all.

I didn't follow all of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but I saw enough on television and in still pictures (some of which are in this piece) to be able to reflect on the experience. Here are seven life lessons I took away from the Summer Games.

1. Bigger and glitzier isn’t necessarily better.

The night that the Games were officially opened, the media focused on whether London’s Opening Ceremony could possibly compare favorably to Beijing’s dazzling display of four years ago. But I thought the more compelling story was the comparison between these Olympics and the last time London hosted the Games. It was 1948, a few years after the end of World War II.

Lighting the flame at the 1948 Olympics
Rationing continued to be in effect in London, and much of the city still lay in ruins from the devastating bombing it had suffered. No new facilities were built for the Games, and the athletes were housed in barracks. They were even told to bring their own towels. The Hungarian athletes showed up with eggs to share. The U.S. had fresh bread shipped over every day. The cost of putting on the Games would be the equivalent of about a million dollars today. It was the first Olympics since 1936 and marked a new beginning for the family of nations. That’s what moved me on opening night.

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2. Rejoicing in other people’s joy feels great.

Look at these two pictures:

Norway's Bartosz Piasecki celebrates with his coach his victory in the men's epee fencing semifinals
The United States celebrates after scoring their third goal during their soccer match against Colombia

I hope that just seeing these athletes’ joy brings you joy. This ability to rejoice when others are happy is called mudita in Buddhism and is one of the sublime states of mind. In other words, mudita feels good and is good for you. If it isn’t your natural response to other people’s joy, it can be cultivated until it becomes so. To practice it, just keep looking at these two pictures!

3. Thoroughly enjoy a good time while it lasts but don’t cling to it.

Aggie Radwanska carries the flag for Poland
Watching the Olympics was a dramatic reminder to enjoy each moment I’m happy, but not to set myself up for suffering later by expecting that happiness to last forever. Happiness (and sadness) come and go. At the Opening Ceremony, one of my favorite tennis players, Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, carried the flag for her country. Aggie is ranked #2 in the world and was a finalist at Wimbledon a few weeks ago. She was beaming with joy as she carried the flag during Friday night’s Opening Ceremony (another opportunity to practice mudita).

But by Sunday afternoon, she was gone from the singles competition, losing in the first round to an opponent who even the announcers had never heard of. By Tuesday afternoon, she was gone from the Olympics altogether, losing in doubles (which she played with her sister, Ursula). I hope she wasn’t so attached to the joy of Friday night that she wasn’t prepared to handle the disappointment of being out of the Olympics so early. And I hope she’s accepting that life is a mixture of successes and disappointments, so that she’s able to look back at her flag-bearing duties with joy.

And then there was Ryan Lochte. The first day of swimming competition, he was on top of the world, winning the Gold in the 400-meter individual medley against his rival, Michael Phelps. The media proclaimed that he’d dethroned Phelps (as if one swim could wipe out Phelps’ accomplishments). The next day, in a team competition—the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay—Lochte was picked to swim the anchor leg for the U.S. team. He dove into the pool with a lead given to him by his three teammates, only to lose it to Yannick Agnel who secured the Gold for France. And the day after that, Lochte didn’t finish in the medals at all in the 200-meter freestyle. The rest of his Olympics were a mixture of successes and disappointments. I hope that he wasn’t clinging so tightly to the exuberant joy of winning that first Gold that he wasn’t prepared to handle the disappointments ahead.

Thoroughly enjoying—but not clinging to—the good times helps us maintain a balanced state of equanimity from which we’re better able to ride life’s ups and downs with grace. The Olympics served as a recurring reminder for me to cultivate that calm, balanced state of mind so that I can handle life’s disappointments without being tossed away by them.

4. Disappointment and sorrow are subject to the law of impermanence too.

Jordyn Wieber in the middle as the U.S. wins Gold
Just as happiness and joy arise and pass, so do disappointment and sorrow. The Olympics served as a reminder of this, too. United States gymnast, Jordyn Wieber, is the reigning world champion in the individual all-around. She was the solid favorite to win the Gold in that category coming into the Olympics. But only two girls from each country are allowed to qualify, and she was edged out by a teammate from the U.S. for the second spot. Upon hearing that she’d missed out, she left the stadium in tears. But two days later, she had Gold around her neck as the U.S. won the team Gold in gymnastics for the first time since 1996.

And remember Phelps losing to Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley? Three nights later, Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time by winning his 19th medal. Life is a mixture of joys and sorrows. As to the latter, the universal law of impermanence can be our friend!

5. There’s always something to complain about. Why bother?

I had my list of complaints about the Games and NBC’s coverage. But…why bother? For one thing, complaints often turn out to be unfounded. Remember that bottleneck traffic that everyone in London was anticipating and complaining about? From the news accounts I read, it never materialized.

And even if a complaint has its merits, there’s often nothing we can do about it. There was a lot of complaining about the Olympic flame because it wasn't visible from outside the stadium. Perhaps this was poor planning since it meant that the flame wasn't seen by anyone who didn’t have tickets to track and field and that event didn’t start until the second week. But was there anything we could do about it, save complaining? No! And, for me, complaining is suffering. (I wrote about that here.)

The Olympic flame
Besides, it turned out to be more than a flame. It's a work of art—too fragile to be kept outside the stadium. The sculpture was created with the specific purpose of turning it into individual gifts for each participating country. It was made up of 204 flames, each representing one of the 204 participating countries. Each flame sat in a copper-petal bowl with a stainless steel stem. After the Games, the sculpture is to be dismantled and each country will be presented with the flame that represents it. Nice!

6. Letting go of preferences for who wins an event can be freeing.

There’s a well-known quotation from the Seventh Century Chinese Chan (Zen) master, Hui Neng: “The Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” No preferences? I began my Olympic viewing with strong preferences about who should win! But there’s stress in that wanting. I like to think of wanting as friction in the mind.

With my preferences firmly in place, I had an eye-opening experience. It happened while I was watching that 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay where Lochte yielded first place (and the Gold) to Agnel from France. By the time the race was televised, I’d known the results for hours. So instead of rooting for the U.S. team, I put my likes and dislikes aside and just mindfully watched the event. As I did, I found myself in utter awe of how Agnel swam that last lap, fiercely digging into the water to come from behind and take over first place. I appreciated the race in a way I wouldn’t have had I been rooting for Lochte to secure another Gold for the U.S.

After that experience, I decided to experiment with watching the Games from this perspective: “I’m just going to enjoy the athletes who perform the best at this very moment.” As I watched the various competitions from this new point of view, I could feel my body and my mind relax. No tension in the body. No friction in the mind. I gave up my preferences and, instead, appreciated the athletes who performed the best in the moment.

I did it with Lolo Jones who I’d really wanted to win the 100-meter hurdles, after having stumbled at the end of the race four years ago. I did it with Gabby Douglas, who’s my favorite U.S. gymnast. Douglas did win the individual all-around Gold, but for me, the experience of watching the competition without preferences was freeing. I relaxed and enjoyed the evening tremendously. (Caveat: I can’t claim that I’d have been “the spectator with no preferences” had I known any of the athletes personally. And I’m not suggesting that an athlete could successfully compete without “preferring” to win!)

As an added bonus, by letting go of my preferences, mudita filled my heart for whoever won an event, without obstacles rushing in, such as, “But she isn’t  from the U.S.” I felt joy for the winners as I watched them celebrate because I was never disappointed in the outcome.

7. Someone is always in need of compassion.

Here are two pictures from the Olympics:

In the first picture, A Lam Shin of Korea has just lost to Britta Heidemann of Germany in the women's epee individual fencing semifinals. In the second one, Colombia's Lina Marcela Rivas is assisted after a failed lift in the women's 58kg weightlifting competition. And, remember how gymnast Jordyn Weiber left the stadium in tears after not qualifying for the individual all-around?

My heart reached out with compassion to all these competitors as I watched their suffering. I know that in the big scheme of things, people are suffering more than they were (families in Syria come to mind). But when our hearts can open to anyone who is suffering, we’re accessing deep within what compassion feels like so that, with practice, we can learn to feel compassion for all beings in the world who are suffering, including our ourselves.

So, these are my lessons learned from the 2012 Summer Olympics: no clinging, no complaining, no preferences, joy and compassion for all. I certainly have my work cut out for me!

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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