Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

8 Life Lessons from the Winter Olympics in Sochi

The Winter Olympics provided valuable lessons on living well all year long.

I didn’t follow all of the Winter Olympics, but I saw enough on television and in photographs (some of which are in this piece) to be able to reflect on the experience. Here are eight lessons I’ve taken away from the Winter Games.

1. “Comparing mind” gets in the way of enjoying the present moment.

As soon as I put on the TV to begin my Olympic viewing, I began comparing Sochi’s opening ceremonies to Beijing’s 2008 dazzling display of dancers, trapeze acrobats, and drummers. Then I moved on to compare Sochi to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where organizers managed to get the Queen to appear with actor Daniel Craig (as James Bond) in a stunt involving skydiving into the Olympic Stadium.

A tribute to Tolstoy
After a while, I realized that I was so busy making comparisons, I wasn’t enjoying what was going on in front of me. Buddhists call this “comparing mind,” and it interferes with our ability to be fully present for what’s happening in the moment. When I finally noticed what I was doing, I put aside thoughts of past opening ceremonies. The result was that I found myself thoroughly enjoy this one: a journey through Russian history; Russian classical music from all the greats; a tribute to Tolstoy, featuring over a hundred dancers moving as one in a beautiful human wave.

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Was this opening ceremony better or worse than those in Beijing and London? I don’t know…and I don’t care. Obviously, there are many instances in life when employing our ability to compare one thing to another serves us well. But not, in my experience, when trying to enjoy the opening ceremonies at the Olympics!

2. Be open to new experiences.

I’m not a big fan of winter sports (maybe it’s the California girl in me). I watch the Olympics mostly to see Alpine Skiing and Figure Skating.

Then my husband pointed out the Biathlon.

Competitors cross-country ski as fast as they can around a trail until they get to a shooting area. With their bodies pulsating and their hearts racing from the skiing, they quickly have to become as still as possible, calm their breathing, and try to hit five targets with a rifle. Then they start the cycle over again: ski as fast as they can; stop and become as still as they can, and hit those targets. Depending on the particular Biathlon (there are five types at the Olympics) if competitors miss a target, either a time penalty is added to their total race time or they have to ski a penalty loop. The person with the shortest elapsed time wins the Gold medal.

What a unique skill to reward—combining speed with the ability to suddenly stop and quiet the body and mind enough to be able to shoot with enough precision to hit a target. I never would have watched the Biathlon had my husband not been intrigued by this unusual combination of skills.

3. Being happy for others feels great.

Check out this picture:

The Russian figure skating team steps onto the podium to be awarded their Gold medal

I hope that just seeing these athletes jump for joy makes you feel better today. I know it makes me happy just to look at them. This ability to rejoice when others are happy is called mudita in Buddhism. In my book, How to Wake Up, I refer to it as one of the awakened states of mind. In other words, being happy for others 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 this picture.

4. Enjoy happiness to the fullest, but don’t cling to it.

Watching the Olympics has been a dramatic reminder to enjoy each moment fully when I’m happy, but not to set myself up for disappointment and suffering later by expecting that happiness to last forever. Happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow come and go. The universal law of impermanence dictates that this will be the case for everyone in life. It certainly was the case for many Olympians.

This Olympics featured a new event: the Figure Skating Team Competition. Before that event began, the odds-on favorites for the Ladies’ Singles Gold medal (to be decided later in the Games) were Korean skater, Yuna Kim, the Gold medalist from four years ago, and Japanese skater, Mao Asada, the Silver medalist from those same Vancouver Games. But by the time Russia won the Gold medal in the Team Competition, figure skating had a new star and a new competitor for Ladies’ Gold: fifteen-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya.

Yulia Lipnitskaya after the Team Competition
She won both the Ladies’ short and free programs for Russia in the Team Competition. She floated across the ice, landing jumps with ease, spinning effortlessly, and showing graceful elegance beyond her years. As a result, the media began treating Lipnitskaya as Kim’s only serious rival for the Gold in the Ladies’ Singles competition. One headline read: “Yulia Could Shock the World.” Figure skating fans were waiting for the Yuna Kim/Yulia Lipnitskaya showdown.

It never happened. In the short program, Lipnitskaya fell on her triple flip, an automatic one-point deduction. She ended the night in fifth place, far behind the top three ladies (who were led by Yuna Kim’s flawless skate). The next night, when Lipnitskaya fell again in her free skate, it was clear that she would not be getting a medal at all.

Even taking her age into account, I hope she wasn’t clinging so tightly to her success in the Team Competition that she wasn’t prepared to handle the disappointment of not medaling in the Ladies’ Singles event. I hope she understands that life is always going to be a mixture of successes and disappointments, and I hope that she’s still able to look back at her night of triumph with joy.

Thoroughly enjoying—but not clinging to—the good times helps us maintain a balanced state of mind (called equanimity—another “awakened state”) from which we’re better able to ride life’s ups and downs without being tossed about by them. The Olympics have served as a reminder for me to work on cultivating this calm and steady state of mind, so that I’m better prepared to meet the disappointments and sorrows in my own life without being disheartened or falling into despair.

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

Just as happiness and joy arise and pass, so do disappointment and sorrow. The Olympics have served as a reminder of this, too.

At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I remember watching Dominique Gisen of Switzerland crash on the Woman’s Downhill. It stuck in my mind because it was terrifying to watch. Toward the end of the race, she fell off the final jump on the course and slid to the finish line where she hit a bank of snow and was tossed into the air. She sustained several injuries, including a concussion. The speculation was that her skiing career was over.

Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze share Gold
Fast forward four years. At the age of 28, she won Gold (and also made Olympic history by tying with Tina Maze of Slovenia, giving the Woman’s Downhill two Gold medal winners).

 

Adelina Sotnikova in her free skate
Then there was Adelina Sotnikova, who, at age 17, was already the four-time Russian National Champion in Ladies’ Figure Skating. Leading up to the Games, she was Russia’s best hope to medal in the event. Then, to everyone's surprise, Sotnikova was left off the Russian Team Competition in favor of 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya.

Suddenly, Lipnitskaya became the darling, not just of the Russians, but of media outlets all over the world. How did Sotnikova respond to this? She took the ice with such energy and fearlessness that she won the Gold medal in the Ladies’ Singles competition, scoring an upset victory over Yuna Kim.

There’s a tendency to regard the universal law of impermanence—change, change, change—as a negative in our lives because of the uncertainty it brings with it; but I like to say that impermanence can be our friend, too. It certainly was a friend to Dominique Gisen and to Adelina Sotnikova at this Olympics.

6. All that glitters is not gold.

Julia Mancuso celebrates her Bronze medal
The usual meaning of this expression is that not everything that looks precious and genuine turns out to be so. I’ve come up with a new meaning for it. Look at the joy on Julia Mancuso’s face. Did she win a Gold medal? No. She won a Bronze in Women’s Skiing Super Combined—a Bronze medal that, clearly, in her eyes glitters like gold. I love that she’s thrilled to have come in third. A good life lesson for all of us, Julia.

7. Letting go of preferences can enhance your enjoyment of life.

There’s a well-known quotation from the 7th Century Chinese Chan (Zen) master, Hui Neng: “The Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” No preferences? Just as I did with the Summer Olympics in London, I began my Olympic viewing with several strong preferences about who should win various events. But there’s stress in that wanting. I like to think of it as friction in the mind.

One of my preferences was for Bode Miller to win the Men’s Downhill. I became a fan as soon as the media started calling him the “old man racer.” If he’d won, at 36, he'd have become the oldest skier to win Gold in an Olympic alpine event. No one thought much of his chances until he won two of the three training runs at Sochi. Then the buzz began and, suddenly, he was the favorite to win Gold in the Downhill. I was ready to see one of my preferences realized!

But by the time the race was televised, I’d known the results for hours. Miller had lost—coming in eighth. So, instead of rooting for him, I put aside my preferences and just mindfully watched the event. The first thing I noticed was how incredibly tough the course was: long, narrow, and steep (the height from top to bottom equaling that of three Empire State Buildings). I enjoyed becoming familiar with each twist and turn and jump as the competitors took their runs.

Matthias Mayer races to Gold in the Downhill
Then the guy who I already knew had won the Gold began his run. At 23, Matthias Mayer is young by Downhill standards; he had never finished better than 5th in a World Cup downhill race. With my preferences having become utterly irrelevant, I just watched him ski.

And a beautiful sight it was. He took the curves with steadiness and speed—no “chattering” on the edges of his skis. His jumps were huge and, unlike most of the other skiers who flailed their arms while airborne (which keeps them from losing their balance but costs them speed), Mayer kept his tucked by his sides. It was an awesome display of downhill skiing.

After that experience, I changed the way I viewed the games. I decided to give up my preferences and simply enjoy the athletes’ performances. Watching the competitions from this point of view, I could feel my body and my mind relaxing. No tension in the body. No friction in the mind.  

I did this with the Halfpipe. Snowboarder Shaun White came to the Olympics hoping to win a third consecutive Gold. I’d been hoping along with him, but once I gave up my preferences, I just enjoyed the competition as it unfolded. And, wow, did that Swiss guy deserve the Gold with his Yolo (You Only Live Once) Flip and his Frontside Double Cork 1080 (don’t ask me to explain them…I got the names from the announcers).

I did this with Men’s Figure Skating. I love the style and grace of Patrick Chan of Canada. As three-time world champion, he was the odds on favorite to win the Gold. I said to myself, “No preferences; may the best man win.” Chan had his chances but he faltered, and the Gold went to 19-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan.

Caveat: I can’t claim that I’d have had no preferences if I’d known any of the athletes personally. And I’m not suggesting that an athlete could successfully compete without “preferring” to win! But it made the Olympics a richer experience for me.

As an added bonus, by letting go of my preferences, happiness for each of the medalists filled my heart (mudita again), without stressful stories rushing into my mind, such as, “But he 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.

8. Someone is always in need of compassion.

Shani Davis after skating the 1000 meters
Here is a picture of Shani Davis after failing to win a record-breaking third consecutive Gold medal in the Men’s Speed Skating, 1,000 meters event. In fact, he didn’t win a medal in any of the four events he entered: the 500, 1,000, and 1,500 meters, and the Men’s Team Pursuit.

Compassion means to “feel for” or “suffer with.” I felt compassion for all the competitors who were disappointed with their performances. They came to the Olympics after many years of hard training. And, because many of their families had made tremendous sacrifices for them during those years, they often felt as if they’d let loved ones down when they didn’t do well.

Of course, there are people in the world who are suffering more than these Olympians. But cultivating compassion for them makes a difference, because when we learn to open our hearts 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 anyone in the world who is having a tough time, including our ourselves.

***

So, these are the eight life lessons I took away from the 2014 Winter Olympics: no comparing, no clinging, no preferences, impermanence rules, be open to new experiences, feel good for those who are happy and compassion for those who are sad, and…all of us can glitter without gold.

© 2014 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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