The Seahawks versus the Packers. National Football Conference Championship. Fourth quarter. Seahawks down by 12. Quarterback, Russell Wilson, intercepted for the fourth time with just five minutes to go. He’s been playing a lousy game. The voices in his head as loud as the crowd in CenturyLink Field. “What’s going on?” “How can I turn this around?” “How do I get it back? The breath back. The connection back. The place from which comes the perfect pass?”
And then, there he is. Minutes left. A pass connects.
And here he is, ball in hand, see’s Jermaine out there sprinting towards the end zone. Draws back on that place – deep, true, connecting, beyond all the other voices. Throws the perfect pass that wins the game.
It was the kind of turn-around that leads commentators to use words like “improbable”, “unthinkable”, “unfathomable”. Only one NFL team had ever tailed by 12 points with 2:10 left in a playoff game and come back to win. And that was the Cowboys. 1972.
You don’t have to like football, care about football. You can think it’s just a dumb and dangerous macho game. You can pontificate about the outrageous salaries. Yes, if you will, you can think all of that, but you can also know that what we saw happen with Russell Wilson on Sunday is something we all long for. To turn it around. To find our way back when we’ve lost it. When we’ve been playing a lousy game, to get back in the game.
Russell Wilson didn’t just “do” that on Sunday. What he did shows just how much he had been practicing. Practicing finding his way back to this still, small, quiet, empty place from which the perfect pass can come.
Like you, I have practiced a lot of things in my life. In high school, I “practiced” the French horn “in my head”. I didn’t actually pick up my instrument, I thought about how it felt to play it. And though “thinking” about practicing may have got me somewhere, it didn’t make me a very good player.
Practice finally means entering that great effort, frustration, and struggle to actually pick up the horn and put our fingers to the keys. Take a deep breath and begin to play. To practice over and over and once again, over again, those dumb scales.
Practice takes time. I never did find my way to that still small quiet space playing the French horn.
Practice is hard. Especially when it’s something new. Leads to lots of frustration, fury, and feelings…”I can’t do this!” “I’m a lousy player!” “I will NEVER be a good player” “I don’t want to do this!” “Who would want to play a dumb instrument like this anyway!”
Decades later, I tried practicing sitting on a meditation cushion. The practice of sitting, breathing, listening. I usually remembered two out of the three. “Oh yes, sit.” (I am sitting here.) “Oh yes, breath.” (Oh, I guess I better breathe.) “Oh yes, listen.” (Yes, I hear the car screeching around the corner – are they crazy?….I hear the growl in my neighbor’s stomach…Oh, that’s my stomach. My thoughts. Boy, am I hungry. When is the bell going to ring? When is this going to be over? I am so tired…)
Group pressure helps. Keeps me sitting on the cushion practicing trying to sit, breathe and listen until the bell rings. It’s what may keep you going back to the spinning or yoga class even though feel like such a fool out there.
And we do it, we keep at it, this practicing, because when we find a practice that clicks for us, we find our way over time, through time, to that still, small, empty place from which everything is possible.
I need to find my way back here again and again during my day. I need to leave the office and go to the gym. Go out for a run. Get out on my bike. These practices have become my prayer – a communion that comes through sweat and breath with a release into something deep, abiding, connecting, true.
And in this place, this quieting space, such joy, delight, ease. An at-homeness amidst everything that otherwise is not so at home.
Last month I was sailing with Elena who runs the livery at the Center for Wooden Boats. I asked her why she loves the practice of sailing.
“Sailing restores my perspective. At the end of the workday, with whatever I am stressed out about, worried about, going out sailing takes my lingering anxiety down a notch. You can’t ‘think’ when you are sailing. You just sail. Emptied of anxiety.”
“And when you are empty, what comes in?”, I ask.
“Nothing”, Elena says, looking up, appearing somewhat surprised at the question.
“Nothing comes in. It’s just being empty. It’s just listening to the sound of the water on the hull. How different it sounds when you tack this way, or that. How different it sounds than the last time. How the boat feels when you are sailing the best you can. How you feel. Nothing else is needed. It’s just empty.”
Empty. That place from which everything can happen. That place through sweat, frustration, fear and fury we need a practice to bring us back to. That place from which you too can look down the field. See Jermaine way out there hands outstretched, sprinting towards the end zone.
We reach back, find something deeper than our fear, anxiety, self-doubt and despair. Something clear, holding, grace-filled and true. We throw the ball. We are back in the game.