Letting Go of the Outcome and Still Winning
Recently, I was invited by the Athletic Department of my alma mater to offer workshops in peak performance for student athletes and their coaches. At this highly competitive, elite, New England college, winning is the prime target for all twenty-seven varsity teams. Imagine then, the audience’s surprise when I framed the workshop with this shloka from the Bhagavad Gita:
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 47 ||
You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction. (2:47)
As I recited this I could see a question mark forming on many faces, “What does that mean?” I explained: “Your goal,” I said, “is not to win.” A visible uneasiness rippled through the room—people started shifting in their chairs; some turned to others with looks of disbelief, “What planet is this guy from?”
I reminded everyone that as a graduate of the college I was well aware of the school’s national status in athletics, the importance of attracting top competitors from around the country, and how winning translates into alumni dollars. Moreover, in my private practice as a performance psychologist, professional and amateur athletes seek me out because they want to win. So what did I mean when I said the goal is not to win?
That was the question I had when Acharya Shunya offered a discourse on this shloka. At first it made no sense. After all, I was brought up in the highly competitive world of American education, where coming out on top is all that matters—having the #1 football team, grasping the A+, getting the highest SAT score, gaining admission to the most prestigious college. In America, and throughout most of the world, life is all about winning. Now, my teacher is opening the crystal clear window of the ancient, sacred text for a different vista. On the battlefield of Kuruksetra the Lord is instructing, even commanding, the warrior Arjuna to focus on his duty: to fight the noble battle— slay the sensory-driven Kurus—and not be stuck in his ego-driven anxiety of “What will happen if....?”
As human beings, we are always in action. Cooking a meal, studying for an exam, making love, writing a book: we play out our lives on the field of activity. But if we strive to cook the most delicious meal, to get the highest marks, to be the best lover, to write the award-winning novel, our focus is not actually on what we are doing, it is on the result. Put another way: when we are preoccupied with the outcome of our actions we are in an indeterminate future, not the present. The Lord is instructing Arjuna—and all of us—to put our entire selves, body, mind and spirit, into what needs to be done now. When we are fully present, we are committed to our dharma, our duty. We are not distracted by how we appear to others or what will happen if and when....
And what does Krishna mean when he says, “Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities”? Shakespeare provides a poetic response: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.“ We are in the leila, the play, of God’s design. Ishwara is the producer, the playwright and the director. Krishna is reminding us there are much greater forces at work that shape the events of which we are part. And he also affirms that we cannot be idle bystanders (“...nor be attached to non-action”). Our job it to fulfill our dharma.
How does all of this translate for the student athletes and coaches? What should they focused on, if not winning?
The answer is simple, they have to play the game to the very best of their ability. Each athlete has this responsibility to themselves, to their teammates, and to the people who cheer them on: be your best. Whether you win or not depends on many forces out of your control (the other team’s prowess, the weather, the time of day—literally, God knows what). Since you have to act, exercise your dharma, in the moment, at the highest level you can.
One more note: when we go to a baseball game, a swim meet, or a tennis match, we are enthralled and inspired by the talent and commitment of all the athletes, by the level and quality of their play. They represent the best in us. But focusing on the winner by definition implies that someone is a loser, with all the unfortunate connotations of that word. In our winner-take-all culture, a loser is less capable, defeated, pushed aside, ultimately forgotten. While Arjuna needed to slay the ego-driven Kurus—a metaphor for what each of us needs to do on an inner level—on the field of life we need to play together. That is the game. Two sides make one whole. We are one.
Acharya Shunya tells us, “We live in a designer universe.” Ishwara has designed endless opportunities for us to excel and for each one of us to contribute to a world in which we all can grow and thrive. Play the game. We all can win. This is our birthright, and our possibility.
Ben Bernstein, PhD, Performance Psychologist (PSY14306)
Ben Bernstein, PhD, is a veteran clinical psychologist who specializes in stress and how it affects performance. Known as a “Master Performance Coach,” he works with a wide range of people in high stress-high performing occupations: athletes, business executives, lawyers, surgeons, opera singers, and many students of all ages taking tests. Known as “Dr. B,” he has created an original training model for reducing stress and improving performance and is the author of three books on stress (Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident and Focused on Any Test; Stressed Out! for Teens; and Stressed Out! for Parents (with Michelle H. Packard). Dr. B is a national speaker on stress. He offers lively, informative and useful talks and workshops to diverse audiences ranging from parents, to dentists, to middle managers, to teachers. DrBPerformanceCoach.com
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