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.

How My Sons Brought Me Back to the Game (of Life)

It’s been nearly a month since my last “Golfing for Enlightenment” posting. That realization along with this week’s PGA “Major” brings me back to the topic. My last entry had me rehearsing my love-hate relationship with golf. Given my frustrations, around the age of 30, I threw in the towel.

But then for some reason, in my mid-fifties, I introduced the game to my two sons, Brendan and Patrick. Their uncle, Gerry encouraged and instructed them further and from then on there was no stopping them. As early teenagers, they spent a year in Zimbabwe, while my wife, Peggy, was doing her Fulbright at the University there in Harare. In Zimbabwe, Brendan and Patrick’s after-school activity was playing golf. Their venue was the Royal Harare, where (with an extremely favorable exchange rate), the annual membership fee was something like $150 USD. In no time at all, they were threatening to break par and winning golf tournaments.

They also lured me back to the course. I remember playing with Patrick early on in Zimbabwe. He was 12 at the time. It was at about the thirteenth hole, that he realized he was going to beat me for the first time. I recall the confusion in his eyes when our conversation made that apparent. He wasn’t sure it was right to beat his dad. But he forged ahead and whipped me soundly. Soon my pre-teen was instructing his 58 year old father on the differences between what he called “effortless power” and the “powerless effort” he saw in my swing. Since 1998 I’ve never even come close to challenging Patrick. His drives of 300 yards + make my 180-200 yard efforts laughable. Still he and his brother like me to play with them. And they’re usually pretty kind about their dad’s pedestrian performances. If it weren’t for the bonding between the three of us on the course, I’d have quit the game for good long ago. 

When I retired two years ago, I decided to get serious about golf. I bought a couple of books, subscribed to some DVDs, and 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 just shared. This brings me to the”life” and “enlightenment” part of these reflections.

 I’ll deal with those in my next golf posting.

Golfing for Enlightenment: An autobiographical review of Chopra’s book (in three parts)

It’s summertime. And although it may seem out of character to many of my friends – and somehow misplaced in these pages – I must confess I am a golfer. My son, Brendan, gave me a new set of sticks (Adams “Speedline Fast 10”) for Christmas. I love the clubs, and have been breaking them in all summer. So golfing is on my mind.

Let me begin by correcting that opening line. I said I’m a golfer. To phrase it more accurately, my life has been cursed by golf! Yes, I love the game. The beauty of golf courses truly brings me back to the Garden.  When Tiger’s playing, I feel compelled to monitor his every shot. When he’s “on,” his game reminds me of the near perfection that’s possible in life itself.

And yet, I hate the game too. I wonder about a sport that’s so white, so elitist, that uses so much water, and that’s so chemical-dependent in terms of fertilizers and pesticides. In those respects, it’s like the world in general. As for the game itself, whoever called it “a good walk spoiled” was right. For me its downs are so frustrating; its ups so few by comparison. I guess that’s like life too.

In Golf for Enlightenment: the seven lessons of the game of life, Deepak Chopra agrees. He shows how the two – golf and life – are deeply interrelated and connected with the spirituality that none of us can escape. Reading it caused me to reflect on my own experiences of all three – golf, life, and spirituality.

Let’s begin with golf. . . . I inherited the game. All the men on my father’s side of the family were avid golfers. And when I was in grade school, my dad often took my brother Jim and me to a course near our home on the northwest side of Chicago to introduce us to the game.

That doesn’t mean that I come from the country club set. I don’t. My background was working class. I grew up in the 1940s. My father was a truck driver. His three brothers (he also had four sisters) were brick layers, bar tenders, and construction workers; one was a sometime bookie. But they all started out as caddies at Butterfield Country Club just west of Chicago. And that’s where my father, Ray, and his brothers, John, Leonard, and George learned the game – as caddies.

That’s where I learned the game too. In my early teens, I caddied at Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood, just north of Chicago. I was Caddie # 339, when the best caddies would be #1 or #2. Somehow though the caddie master, Jack Malatesta, took a shine to me, and throughout my years at Bryn Mawr, Jack kept calling me “339,” even though he ended up giving me some of the best “loops.”  Later, beginning in high school, I worked on the grounds crew at Arrowhead Country Club in Wheaton, Illinois. I remained there for fifteen years. As I said, golf’s in my veins.

In fact, I’ve been swinging a club since I was seven or eight. And by the time I got to Bryn Mawr, older caddies were telling me that I had one of the best swings they’d seen. That made me feel good. Little did I know such compliments would represent the high point of my golfing life. Problem was, my swing looked great, but it never got me straight shots or low scores.

Let me put it this way:  it wasn’t till my 21st birthday that I broke 100 for the first time! And it’s pretty much stayed like that till about the age of 30 when I walked away from the game.  Its frustrations along with my work and family obligations (not to mention the high cost of playing golf) made me stop.

Next week: How my sons brought me back to the game (of life)