Golfing for Enlightenment (Conclusion of Series)

For the past several weeks, I’ve been writing off and on about my love-hate relationship with golf. Now in my declining years, my affair with the game remains as tangled as ever.

For example, when I retired a little over two years ago, I decided to get serious about the game. I bought a couple of books, subscribed to some DVDs, and for stretches played about four times a week. Of course, with all of that my scores lowered. A couple of times, I almost shot par on the easiest of the courses we play – and once (for nine holes) on a more difficult course. But mostly my scores remained in the 90s, sometimes, early in the season and on the tougher courses, creeping again above 100. More than once, I’ve threatened to pack it in completely.

But then I read Deepak Chopra’s Golf for Enlightenment: the seven lessons of the game of life. My golfing history and a life-long commitment to meditation made me pick up the book. Come to think of it, I’ve had a relationship with meditation that somewhat mirrors the golfing account I’ve been sharing here. This brings me to the ”life” and “enlightenment” part of these reflections.

You see, I had always been a religious boy. In fact, I entered the seminary to study for the priesthood at the age of 14. (Yes, the Catholic Church used to run what they called “minor seminaries” for aspirants that young despite an extremely high attrition rate.) I persevered though and was ordained in the Society of St. Columban at the age of 26. My training for the priesthood (along with the guidance I had received from the Sisters of St. Joseph in my earliest schooling) introduced me to the spiritual life about the same time my dad was acquainting me with golf. During my novitiate, at the age of 20, I was introduced to meditation in a serious way. I continued meditating every day for the next 12 years. I stopped that practice about the time I stopped playing golf – and for similar reasons. I had convinced myself I didn’t have time for it, what with job, family obligations and all.

But then 15 years ago – about the time we were in Zimbabwe and the boys were learning golf (See Part 2 of this series) – my wife showed me the error of my ways and got me meditating again. Peggy showed me a whole new approach to life – one based on the writings of Eknath Easwaran, a meditation teacher from the Kerala state in India. (Actually, the spirituality wasn’t wholly new, but a more mature reclaiming what I had been introduced to early on). Easwaran’s approach to spirituality combined the best of eastern and western traditions. All of that was completely resonant with the Catholic mysticism that had been so much a part of my training for the priesthood. Easwaran wrote of “enlightenment,” “one-pointed attention,” “slowing down,” “detachment,” and “leela” (i.e. “divine play”).

Golf for Enlightenment centralized all those concepts and more. But it not only taught spirituality; it reinforced a connection between golf and spirituality that had occurred to me independently, as well as to so many others: there is something quite spiritual about the game. Its ups and downs, its unpredictability, its frustrations and joys play out the drama of life and reveal what we are made of. Mastering the game is not about winning competitions or shooting par; it’s about conquering oneself and surrendering to life in the spirit of detachment. That’s what “enlightenment” means.

Chopra’s book is really a novel. It’s the story of Adam, a hacker just like me, and his encounter with Leela, a twenty-something golf instructor who takes him under her wing. Leela gives Adam seven lessons that change not only his golf game, but his very life. She teaches him  (1) Be of One Mind, (2) Let the Swing Happen, (3) Find the Now and You’ll Find the Shot, (4) Play from Your Heart to the Hole, (5) Winning is Passion with Detachment, (6) The Ball Knows Everything, and (7) Let the Game Play You. Those are the chapter titles. And their content shows Chopra not only to be an enlightened spiritual teacher, but a skilled novelist as well. Both Adam and Leela (really the only two characters in the book) are likeable and credible.

And they made me realize that my approach to golf (and to life?) has for the most part been. . . well, unenlightened. As I said, I’ve been frustrated by the game. Like Adam in Chopra’s book, nothing I do in golf ever seems good enough. Despite my best efforts, when I step up to the first tee, I’m concerned what those watching me might be thinking. Even when I hit the ball straight, it’s never long enough for me. I might drain a 25 footer on the green; but I chalk it up to “luck” never to my skill. If players are waiting behind me, I feel pressure for playing too slowly. As I set up for my 50 foot approach shot, I find myself praying, “Don’t let me shank this.”  If I have a good round going through the sixth hole, I’m convinced it will all fall apart on the seventh, and that my final score will be 45 or 46 – again. It usually is. Don’t even talk to me about bunkers and traps. In short, apart from bonding with Brendan and Patrick, there’s little joy in my game. Little fun. Lots of stress and strain.

Golf’s not supposed to be like that, Chopra reminds us. Life’s not supposed to be like that. Yes, both should be marked by dedication and devotion. But paradoxically, true dedication and devotion involve surrender, detachment, forgiveness of self and others, not worrying about results or score. They’re about transcending sorrow, jealousy, self-importance, fear, and self-criticism. What hard lessons those are to practice in a culture as restricted, unforgiving, and bottom-line focused as our own.

 Chopra’s own words say it best:

When you can laugh at a bad shot, you’ve transcended sorrow. When you can take genuine pleasure in some else’s victory, you’ve transcended jealousy. When you can feel satisfied with a round of ninety-seven instead of eighty, you’ve transcended self-importance . . . only when you set your sights to go beyond outcome can you allow in the possibility of defeating the voice of self-criticism and ending the frustration that holds in check deeper, darker fears. (Chapter 7)

All of this, I hope will increase my love for the game in the future and lessen my antipathy for it. Chopra’s insights might even make me more compassionate while watching someone like Tiger Woods. You see, it’s all relative. In his own way, Tiger’s as unenlightened as I am. He’s as unhappy with his game as I am with mine. When I see him swing so hard and slice his ball into an adjacent parking lot, when I hear the expletives that follow, I realize that his game is even more filled with strain, stress and unhappiness than my own.  And despite his millions, Tiger might be even less happy with his life than I am with mine.

After all, even for him, it’s not about lower scores, winning majors, or being the greatest golfer in history. For him as for me and everyone else, it’s about enlightenment.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “Golfing for Enlightenment (Conclusion of Series)”

  1. This article comes at an amazing time for me. I think even as a non-golfer I can recognise your battles with your own ego, trying to balance the desire to win with the passion for the play. I reckon that in every pursuit, whether it be sporting, creative or spiritual, there is this urge to compete and be the best which often overwhelms the initial spark of euphoria that inspire that pursuit in the first place. “Winning is Passion with Detachment” should be my new mantra! Thanks for another deeply thought piece of writing.

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    1. You’re right: I find it so difficult not to be “driven” and self- judgmental about reaching goals I’ve set for myself or that others have set. It’s unbelievable how golf brings out all those unresolved shadow issues that lurk just below my exterior that more or less “fools the public.” It’s all very humbling.

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