In the summer of 2021, I designed a very special weekend for a group of Danish national team athletes (check out this video to get an idea of what went down). As part of an eclectic programme, Jacob Aremark led a meditation on the Buddhist concept called The Four Mind Turnings.
The idea was to help these athletes connect their own experiences as elite performers to something deeper and more meaningful. The Four Mind Turnings are essentially ways of thinking that can help relieve your mental-emotional suffering and connect you with your own spiritual nature.
1. The preciousness of human life
2. Impermanence - everything changes, everything dies
3. Karma – Each of our actions have countless, untold effects
4. Suffering in life is inevitable
I want to describe briefly the relevance that I think these have for athletes and how they could help both for the psychology of performance but on a far deeper level too.
The preciousness of human life
This is essentially a lesson in gratitude, which has been proven to have a profoundly positive effect on our mindset. Athletes can reflect on just how lucky they are to be in their position – healthy, physically fit, talented, and with the honour of representing their nation at the sport they love. So few people get this chance, and it really is a privilege to be able to compete in sport, let alone at the elite level.
The career of an athlete is relatively short and will inevitably come to an end. Far too often it is abruptly cut shorter by injury or other circumstances outside of the individual athlete’s control. Reminding ourselves that our time in sport is limited, and we never know just how much we actually have left, can bring a welcome sense of appreciation, and urgency to use that time effectively. It would be foolish to assume that we will still be going strong through to our late 30’s and so have plenty of time to develop and improve before then.
Reflecting on the fact that our actions have consequences is a meditation on responsibility. Recognising that the behaviours and actions of those around us have causes and reasons that we may not be aware of, can lead us to engage with the world more compassionately. Embracing this mind turning leads us to consider our actions carefully, and with integrity, and to treat others with grace and forgiveness. Being arrogant to teammates and opponents might not have an immediate and obvious repercussion, but there are sure to be consequences down the line which you cannot escape. If you don’t know all the possible reasons for someone’s behaviour, such as a referee who is having a bad day at the office, then it’s best to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Suffering is inevitable
The parable of The Second Arrow is important here. The first arrow that strikes us is the event itself – the mistake, the loss, being cut from the team – and that has a certain amount of suffering attached to it. But it is the second arrow that does the most damage, which is what we tell ourselves about the event – the rumination, self-flagellation, catastrophising etc.
Suffering in sport is out of hand, with so little awareness about the danger of that second arrow. Athletes tend to be their own harshest critic, beating themselves up for failures, mistakes, inadequacy. On the one hand we all admit that mistakes are essential in development, on the other, we treat them in ourselves as utterly unacceptable. We also tend to isolate ourselves in our suffering, but it is just part and parcel of being human - baked into the nature of the human condition. Recognising our common humanity in this, that many others have been in our shoes, can relieve some of the pain. Accepting some suffering as inevitable, but refusing to compound it by our own hand, is an essential approach for athletes to thrive and perform far better.
I believe that we are missing the mark in what sport can be for the world and for those that take part in it. Connecting the lived experience of sport with a deeper understanding of a life well lived, a spiritual understanding, is one of the ways that we can harness sport’s true potential.