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What Wrestling Taught Me About Zen and the Practice of Concentration

Developing and using concentration can transform the way we perform a host of activities in our work lives.

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Two high school boys wrestling on the floor

I was captain of my high school wrestling team during my senior year of Colonia High School in north-central New Jersey. One of the teams we regularly faced was J. P. Stevens High School from Edison. They were consistently one of the top-rated teams in the state and often sent wrestlers to the state championship. During the warm-up period, my team behaved like most high school wrestling teams. We ran briskly onto the mats, did some exercises, and made a lot of noise. The main objective of our warm-up was to demonstrate our prowess to the opposing team.

In contrast, the J. P. Stevens team walked out slowly and quietly onto the wrestling mat. They were poised, focused, and concentrated, preparing themselves for the task ahead by settling and quieting their minds. They seemed disinterested in our team. Their uniforms were black, and their heads were nearly shaved. They didn’t talk or smile. I knew right away that this was the team I wanted to be on. I think of this as an early sign of my desire to be a Zen student (and at times a Zen monk.)

One of the things that intrigued me in high school wrestling was the power, passion, and complexity of concentration. I noticed that my desire to win and my fear of losing often interfered with my performance, my concentration, and my enjoyment. I knew that something very important was going on, and I also felt that something very vital was missing. By my senior year I was a fairly good wrestler, having faced some of the better competition in the state. Competing with the best in the state was, as my coach proclaimed, a good way to develop. Our coach used to ask, 

“Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a big fish in a large pond?” 

This was his way of explaining that although we were a new and inexperienced team, it was useful to wrestle against the best teams in the state, even if it meant being utterly demolished and embarrassed.

In watching other wrestlers, I noticed that the good ones were usually strong and athletic and really wanted to win. The best wrestlers, those who became state champions, seemed different. They weren’t always the strongest or quickest or the most athletic looking. They certainly cared about winning, but they did not seem caught up in winning and losing. Rather, they appeared focused on what they were doing. They seemed to move and act from a deeper place than the good wrestlers. They often seemed a little odd and appeared not to care what others thought of them. I knew that there was something to learn from these wrestlers and that the lessons to be learned would translate far beyond the wrestling mat.

I notice now that the people I most admire in business have similar qualities to the wrestlers who were the state champions — they are not the smartest or most aggressive people. Successful businesspeople often seem quiet and sometimes shy. (Of course, there are many exceptions to this!) They appear somewhat unusual. They seem to be having fun and at the same time are present and aware. I notice a quality in them that I would describe as concentration.

Mindfulness practice describes two kinds of concentration, active and selective, that can be applied to our work lives. Active concentration is similar to mindfulness; it is focusing on whatever is arising in the moment. We appreciate and pay attention to whatever comes along. We are not judging or evaluating but just listening to what is being said, just seeing what is right in front of us.

Selective concentration is choosing a particular object or practice. We can use concentration to solve a quantitative problem or to design a new marketing campaign. Developing and using concentration can transform the way we perform a host of activities in our work lives. Three traditional objects of concentration can be applied to our work lives: concentration on impermanence, concentration on interrelatedness, and concentration on letting go of self. Let’s take a look at these now.

Impermanence

The Buddha suggested that one way to grasp impermanence is to picture our body after we have died. This practice involves seeing our body decaying, being eaten by insects, turning from the familiar human form to bones, then dust, and then returning to the Earth. Another way to practice with impermanence is to imagine that the work you are doing as no longer existing. Concentrate on the fact that the company you work for will someday not exist. Imagine your workspace as no longer being your workspace. Picture it as a forest or an empty field.

By acknowledging and experiencing the fleeting nature of your life, your awareness can drop down to a deeper place, where what really matters comes more clearly into focus.

Interrelatedness

Concentration on the interrelatedness of all things is critical in working with people, and in evaluating and implementing our business strategy. How we interact with each person we work with effects the entire team and the efforts of the company. How we organize or participate in a meeting affects the daily atmosphere, future meetings, and the success of the company.

In discussing interrelatedness Thich Nhat Hanh says, 

“If you are a poet you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.”

It is striking for me to realize that I have never done anything in business by myself. I need the skills of others who know about computers, software, phone systems, legal issues, and accounting issues. Businesses require caring and skilled employees, customers, and vendors, and a wide community of support. Every aspect of our work lives is completely interdependent.

Letting go of self

Concentration on letting go of self means not being attached to the images and ideas we have about ourselves. Practicing self-lessness is taking things less personally, widening your perspective beyond me and mine, gain and loss. Success or failure is not something that “I” did. We make our best effort in each moment, without being caught up in the illusion of what “I” accomplished, or didn’t accomplish, separate from all the interactions we have with others.

Some things to reflect on:

  • Notice where you choose to put your attention as well as the quality of your attention.
  • How do you, or might you, practice with impermanence, interrelatedness, and letting go of self – in your work, and in all parts of your life?
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