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What Can Basketball Teach Us About Lovingkindness?

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

There are some things I hate about basketball. The charge, for instance - a play clearly invented by an aggressive male. A defensive player assumes a position on the court, standing still as a statue, hoping that the guy with the ball will run over him, literally, as he charges to the basket, knocking him down so that every part of his body hits the hard court in a brutal, dramatic fashion. My sons used to beam with pride when they "took a charge," while I covered my eyes and wailed on the sidelines. I wasn't a conventional basketball mother.

On the other hand, nobody likes to see a player get hurt. I was watching the NCAA semifinals the other night when a star player for West Virginia, Da'Sean Butler, was charging to the basket, planted his foot, and then crumbled to the floor. The incident was sickeningly familiar.

My older son had torn his ACL, MCL and meniscus on an outdoor basketball court three summers ago. I'd heard he'd been in enormous pain, banging the cement with his fist, just as Butler did in front of 70,000 fans watching him in Indianapolis and millions more at home on TV. Someone playing with my son had called an ambulance, and my husband met him at the hospital. I'm not sure how much he was comforted by the other people before that, who heard the pop of his three ligaments tearing when he went down.

But Da'Sean Butler was surrounded by his teammates. And then an extraordinary thing happened. He was writhing in pain, when his coach, Bob Huggins, knelt down and tried comforting him, finally cradling Butler's head in his hands, looking into his eyes, his face inches away, telling him that he loved him.

"I kept saying how sorry I was," Butler said later in an interview. "Because I wasn't playing well and we were losing, and now I was injured. And Coach Huggins kept telling me what a great kid I was and how much he loved me."

In another context, seeing a burly older man throw his body on top of a young man, cradling him and speaking so intimately, would make millions of people uncomfortable.

But millions of Americans were riveted and moved by what took place on a basketball court. Why? Perhaps because what they saw was the ultimate display of lovingkindness - an unselfish desire to open our hearts to those who are suffering. Although when we practice metta, or lovingkindness, we don't just do so for those who are in pain, we do so for all living beings.

I recently participated in a study on lovingkindness meditation with neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg, at the University of Pennsylvania. For seven weeks, I meditated using Sharon Salzberg's instructions to wish lovingkindness for myself first: "May I be safe, be happy, be healthy; may I live with ease." Then I sent the same lovingkindness to someone who'd inspired me, someone in pain, and someone I barely knew. Finally I sent lovingkindness out into the world, to all living beings.

The results of my study have yet to be analyzed. But I do know what I've learned from watching basketball. We should practice lovingkindness, without self-consciousness, both on and off the court, on game days and off season, when we're injured or healthy, in the prime of our game, or at the end of our careers.

I'm coming dangerously close to using all of the sports clichés I've listened to my sons listen to on ESPN for years. So I'll close with a quote from Sharon Salzberg: "If you go deeper and deeper into your own heart, you'll be living in a world with less fear, isolation and loneliness. When you're wide open, the world is a good place."

Priscilla Warner is the co-author of The Faith Club. Her new book, about her journey from panic to peace, will be published by The Free Press in 2011. Follow her progress on her blog. And meet her mother at www.rivaleviten.com