Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. In the morning I will give thanks for all my blessings as I drive to my parents’ house. In the evening I will carve a massive turkey for my family and family friends (my Dad’s a vegetarian.) But in between those two events, with much gratitude and glee, I will watch men in hard plastic helmets smash into each other while trying to move an oblong hunk of leather across a three hundred feet of turf.
I consider myself to be a sensitive, spiritually-minded man. And I love football. This seems to make me an anomaly.
Over the last few years of feeling-based study I’ve interacted with hundreds of men who I can roughly generalize in the sensitive-spiritual category. This group ranges from everyone ranging from energy-healers, shamans, and level 5 vegans to men who have a simple interest in spiritual development or some form of authentic-relating. Out of all these men, I’ve only met one who liked football.
I met him a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh. He likes the Steelers. I overheard his girlfriend saying “He’s such a conscious and sensitive man. I can’t believe he cares about football.”
On the other end, the guys who I grew up with watching football, “bros” and those similar, don’t give a blink about conscious spiritual development.
In investigating what causes this divide we need to look at what the game of American Gridiron Football is.
First, it is a game. Implied, is that it’s a finite game. It is played to win. There are temporal boundaries: 60 minutes of field time per game, 16 regular games per season, and the playoffs for those who win enough games within the rules.
Football has a lot of rules. As any game theorist knows, the rules, that is both the parameters of play and qualifications of “winning,” is what defines the game. If you change just one rule, you change the game. The only thing that really separates American Football, Canadian Football, and Backgammon, are the parameters and qualifications.
Fans of football will point out how these complex rules allow intricate strategy. Within a single game of football are hundreds of smaller mathematical games which tickle the mind of any game theory nerd like myself. From the overlapping matrices of rush/pass, blitz/cover to infinitely complex overall play-calling strategy makes a football as nuanced as any game of chess.
A critic of football might say “Ok, that’s lovely. Now tell me why I should care?”
That’s a mighty good point. The emotional involvement of the diehard football fanatic is puzzling to the spiritually conscious man. He wonders why his beer-bellied brother is still mourning Monday morning long after the Patriots loss. Why do some people care so much about a game that doesn’t actually affect the grand scheme of life?
In On Becoming an Alchemist, Catherine MacCoun talks about the elevator of consciousness, “the vertical.” It’s a metaphor of how much one can “see” in reality. When one rises in the vertical he or she enters the realm of “angels”--- beings that can see much more of the game of life than average mortals. The higher one goes, the more the sentiment becomes “wow, life is really perfect. There really is nothing to fear or complain about.” In such consciousness the outcomes of finite games ranging from “Saints vs Chargers” to “who gets the job promotion at work” become trivial and nothing to sweat over. Such detachment outcome is a goal of many of the spiritually-minded. Zen.
But achieving specific outcome, winning, is the whole point of finite games and what gives them meaning (and fun.)
One can also descend on the vertical into the realm of “daemons”--- The word daemon has ironically been demonized into the evil-associated word, “demon,” but a daemon in this context is a being that “sees” less of the game and therefore feels more. When we are blind with rage, in the throes of sexual passion, jealous, scared, ecstatic, or any kind of emotionally overwhelmed, we’re in our daemon element. When we’re emotional our consciousness drops to a more primal level which is why when we eventually “pop out of it” we often look back at ourselves either with humor or embarrassment for throwing that fit at prom.
Football gives its fans an opportunity to drop into that primal daemon consciousness.
Intricate strategy aside, football is mainly characterized by violence. Critics of the sport point to how it’s violence appeals only to the base emotions of the human psyche. It’s “barbaric” to celebrate a quarterback getting flattened by a 300 lb defensive end, or a running back bowling through to linebackers delivering concussions. Yet, those are some of the most exciting plays to watch, appealing to both daemon and ego.
Sightings of the inflated male ego are seen in every victory dance and show of boat. This bleeds onto the fans who identify with their tribe being “better” than those of the other. Anthropologists theorize how sports jingoism is a remnant from our warring tribal ancestors. When Peyton Manning gets sacked, Broncos fans viscerally feel anguish because that’s their tribal chief taking an arrow or a tomahawk to the ribs. Something inside activates to a perceived threat to survival.
Stuart Wilde writes in The Quickening:
“In spirit-man mode you would see war as undesirable, but since most of the world is uncomfortable and frustrated with itself, war follows naturally. It is part of people’s growth. For the masses, there are precious few opportunities for metaphysical experiences. Childbirth, orgasm, and war are three. It is through these that the masses get to feel for a brief moment connectedness to all things. Why would you take that away from them?”
Perhaps for some people, football is only way they can enter a experiences a certain “spiritual” experience. Yes, the game doesn’t really matter, but if you go up the elevator high enough, nothing really matters. Those who claim to have been up there, through drugs or mindful practice, will say things like “you’ve lived every lifetime” and “we are of one.”
While spiritual non-attachment is nice, it gets boring. The fun of really giving a shit about trivial things is part of the human experience.
We watch plays and movies to enter finite realities where we get to feel the comedic and tragic events that perhaps we wouldn’t necessarily care about in our real lives. In Finite and Infinite Games James Carse writes:
“In a theatrical play the actor knows that she really isn't Ophelia. The audience knows that she really isn't Ophelia. But if she does a good job, Ophelia can express herself through the actor. The playing is most enjoyable when it is both clear that it is chosen play, that it is the actor doing it voluntarily, and at the same time it is so convincing, following the rules well enough that it seems real.”
Like Shakespeare, football allows people to enter a reality whose story allows them to really care. It simulates stakes. Combining complex strategy with the brawn of some of the most fit members of the human species offers the perfect finite reality to enter into for activation on multiple levels. AND, it’s important that you are able to move back up the consciousness elevator and see that it’s no biggie.
I may in fact represent 50% of the sensitive football fans in existence, so I want everyone to really understand what football is about.
To my spirit-seeking friends I say, “Brothers, you would do well paint your face and get rowdy at a tailgate and pretend a finite game matters to your life for a half or two.”
To my football buddies I say, “Bros, there are way more interesting discussion topics than who’s going to start for the Jets next year, and maybe get off the couch on Sunday.”
I don’t really know why there’s so few of us who like the NFL and spiritual pursuit with equal zeal. It’s strange to hypothesize that somehow Marshawn Lynch’s beast runs and Deepak Chopra’s YouTube talks feed the same hunger for vertical activation. Maybe it’s nothing more than something to pass our perception of time between birth and death. At least it’s something to do between Thanksgiving morning and a turkey dinner.