“It is what it is.” (?)

As someone with an on again, off again dedication to the sport of golf, Buddhist thought and meditation, and the politics and contradictions of culture writ large and small, I have been interested to listen to Tiger Woods’ recent post-tournament comments in light of his fall from the iconic cultural graces of pop culture celebrity after his “crash” late last November and current struggles on the golf course since he returned to play in the Masters golf tournament about a month ago.

I am especially interested in speculating on his rhetorical recommitment to Buddhist practice that he made during his statement of apology back in February which he said he had abandoned and which, fundamentally, he asserted had led to his disastrous extramarital deviance and likely divorce from Elin Nordegren.

If he is a practicing Buddhist again, and here I give him the benefit of the doubt despite his apparent ability to hide his deepest and darkest cravings behind a shroud of purity and wholesomeness, I wonder if his almost flippant, perfunctory, and occasional response to questions about his golf and life struggles–“It is what it is”–is a facile attempt to publicly resemble an acceptance of his personal traumas of late.

I’m not suggesting his response, in his fairly typical limited manner, is not much of a response–I’ve never been a fan of Woods’ perfunctory, arrogant public interactions or interviews–is unusual since his fall from public grace. I think his secreted private life ironically belies not only a kind of anti-Buddhist practice not just in his insincere rhetoric of family protection, but in his general contempt for an audience that might actually care more for his humanity, if that’s even conceivable in a world that craves perfection at all costs, than for their preconception of a heroic, mythological caricature that he attempted to embody.

For me, “It is what it is,” is too easy, a throw-away line Woods seems to turn to when faced with contemplating and, especially, publicly commenting in a potentially mindful, honest, and humble way on his personal and public struggles.

I know people will disagree with me here. I’ve heard and read the common reaction that Tiger’s mistakes aren’t unusual, that he and we just need to get on with it all. Golf needs him, the PGA tour needs him. Let’s just move on–okay, already?

But his struggles are, he is, unusual and exceptional, in part, because of his immense talent, because of the expectations for him that he helped create and perpetuate, and because of, ironically, his incredible arrogance and everyday normal stupidity. His craving and ours created and perpetuated a cultural contradiction that begs for, even merits thoughtful, mindful criticism. It deserves what I suggest might be called exceptional scrutiny for this is a case of exceptional humanity that’s been returned to a plane closer to the rest of what normal humans experience. You know, us regular types who don’t have agents, publicists, and apologists, security people who clear paths for us every step of our way and cover our asses when we screw up. You know, those of us who experience the gamut of emotional, physical, and psychological traumas and pleasures without real and figurative “swing” coaches, trainers, and sport psychologists. (People aren’t falling all over themselves trying to ensure our peace, joy, and security. At least, last I checked when I drive, or walk, or eat, or visit the nearest restroom, I have no entourage! No one at the ready asking me what I need or want or am thinking.)

When Tiger said he intended to return to serious Buddhist practice in February and when he blithely asserts regarding his golf struggle, “It is what it is,” I would prefer to assume his response is at least symbolically representative of an acceptance of his common humanity and his personal struggle to be more mindfully engaged as a private and important cultural figure. I would like to think that he is more accepting of his limitations including his distorted, exceptional cravings and sense of entitlement that led to his fall.

But there is neither real indication nor expression of mindful practice in his “It is what it is,” because we are left to guess, to speculate as we usually are with Woods. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take advantage of teachable moments such as these when asked to comment on his struggles, in essence his “suffering,” those experiences of dissatisfaction common to all people and which were at the core of the Buddha’s search for a way to find peace and joy. For Buddha the search was for a way out of suffering that did not rely on outside sources including notions of exceptionalism  and power embodied in philosophies, ecstatic religious practices, or deities of any stripe. These approaches external to the mythological “self” rarely addressed the fundamental source of dissatisfaction that was experienced and renewed daily in multiple ways and content.

I think Woods’ thoughtful comments would be interesting and useful as an illustration of his commitment to a more human and humane approach to his culturally sensitive iconic status. I think, as well, the response would potentially be incredibly positive and heartfelt not because of some prurient need to know about his private matters, but because he could teach the public about the value of dedicated mindfulness as an everyday form of living. He could teach us and our young people about an alternative to the kind of live-by-the-seat-of-your-pants selfish craving that passes for conventional wisdom in everyday capitalist culture. He could really illustrate what the trite, misunderstood, trivialized clichés “living in the moment” and “being present” actually mean including how to live contentedly. (These clichés of eastern philosophical origins and meditative substance are clouded and distorted by book peddlers in every bookstore self-help section and sports psychologist pronouncing on the topic as if the philosophical position originated with them. Indeed, “New Age” cooptation and suffusion of these eastern conceptual systems in Western culture are probably as old as “Western” culture itself and likely, arguably coincide with the history of Western empire itself as part and parcel of that process of domination.)

Karen Armstrong, in her short, but useful, introduction to the Buddha (Buddha, Penguin 2001), describes how Buddha began to practice and understand the need for mindfulness or that way of living that paid attention to the everyday details of one’s existence in order to better understand the sources of one’s suffering and be able to clearly and effectively accept, address, and, perhaps, even relieve oneself of it. The practice which was ongoing because suffering–change, decline and death are that natural process of life–was not just about avoidance of undesirable attitudes and actions (asceticism), but of the fostering of positive attributes that highlighted conscientious attention (enlightenment) to one’s full human nature (the life of the body AND mind combined). (71)

Buddha’s “Middle Way” proposed a synthetic sensitivity to the mind/body relationship where he paid close attention to how his “…sense and thoughts interacted with the external world, and made himself conscious of his every bodily action. He would become aware of the way he walked, bent down or stretched his limbs, and of his behavior while “eating, drinking, chewing and tasting, in defecating, walking, standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, speaking and keeping silent.” [D?gha Nik?ya, 327) He noticed the way ideas coursed through his mind and the constant stream of desires and irritations that could plague him in a brief half-hour. He became “mindful” of the way he responded to a sudden noise or a change in the temperature, and saw how quickly even a tiny thing disturbed his peace of mind.” (72)

The awareness of this combined relationship of body and mind to the external world made him aware of the transitory condition of life that tends toward change, decline, and, ultimately death and the centrality of craving or desire to suffering in this process. Despite and because of what he learned from the positive effects of yoga and meditation–tools to heighten individual awareness of and controlled responses toward one’s inner and external relationships defined by inherited and learned cravings that lead to everyday human dissatisfaction–Buddha’s “mindfulness” was about accepting and learning from his humanity and teaching the rest of us to accept and learn from ours with sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and compassion.

It wasn’t about some reassertion of the strong, integral, healthy self–the individual–for that was at the center of craving itself. The self was illusory, a cultural creation that denied collective bonds and reinforced artificial needs and desires.

Mindfulness was fundamentally about losing the self in a stronger, deeper understanding of one’s intimate relationship to the external world where other creatures lived in decline and death, growth and life, just as the imagined self. Indeed, losing the ego, the craving for self-satisfaction was the deep knowledge of Buddha that included the spiritual and collective projections of self in the form of deities and other powers that were simply otherly formed, embodied cravings that ultimately failed to satisfy as well.

And this was/is the deeper irony and truth of Buddhism: the recurrence to the self in order to lose the self.

I can only speculate cautiously on Tiger Woods’ Buddhist practice. I really don’t know his degree of commitment to it. But, obviously, he has to figure it out for himself, how to live mindfully and to what degree he can do it publicly.

Generally speaking, though, his suffering is visible, almost palpable. I think his craving for control of his imagined, ego-filled self persists. Can he lose it someday and still win without the deep craving and, implicitly, the suffering for his cause? Hard to say. The cultural drug of omnipotence carries its own special demoralizing value in our craving, ego-defined world despite its long-term soul-wrenching costs for those who fail to identify them as they take hold subconsciously. (How is to live professionally in the crowd, but dissatisfied and desperately alone?)

I’ll be interested to see if Tiger ever responds with mindful purpose and understanding to his personal and professional suffering with something other than “It is what it is.”  Will there be a day when he sits down to mindfully tell me “what it is…”?

2 thoughts on ““It is what it is.” (?)

  1. I would like to watch Tiger just have fun playing golf if that’s even possible for him with all the self-imposed and external pressures placed on him including the fierceness he supposedly learned from his mother to have no mercy toward his fellow competitors. (Good, compassionate Buddhism?) When I see his younger amateur and professional swing, I see more freedom despite the flaws that he has since tried to correct. Since his star began to rise everything seems to be about containment or concealment in his swing and personal/professional lives, but those walls apparently weren’t solid or flexible enough to withstand the pressures, i.e. he swings too damn hard to be able to control the path of the ball and his ethical life. Relax…breathe…flow. I think you’re right.

  2. Interesting article Randy. I’m thinking that Woods’s need to control his image (as much as his game) makes it difficult for him to truly embrace the kind of mindful freedom you discuss. You ask can he “win” with a less driven ego. Maybe, after all, Mickelson had to learn more control to win big. Maybe Tiger needs to learn to be free and give up control to win on the course and in the public eye.

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