I empathized with the figure skaters during the Winter Olympics from Sochi. The men and many of the women had an especially difficult time dealing with the pressure of expectations. All eyes were upon them but very few could complete their programs without a fall. Watching them reminded me that at twenty years of age I walked out of my final exams at Law School because I could not handle the pressure any longer. It took me time to heal from the anxiety and depression that had dragged me so low. Thankfully, the university awarded me the degree anyway and in time love heals all wounds (even if scars are left as reminders of limitations).
In the Olympic women’s figure skating Carolina Kostner from Italy took the bronze medal. She skated a relaxed and beautiful program, benefiting from her age and experience in international competition but most of all benefiting from her mother’s words of assurance to skate her program “for the joy of skating”. What beautiful words and wise advice to any young person trying to do their best in a field of endeavor! The medal was as good as gold since it represented Italy’s first medal in Olympic singles figure skating. The winner of the gold medal, Adelina Sotnikova, was not expected to be in the running for a medal. All the pressure was on her 15 year old team-mate, Yulia Lipnitskaya. My guess is that the pressure of expectations defeated Yulia and the lack of them benefited Adelina.
“Do it for the joy of skating!” Do what you do for the joy of it and you will be more relaxed and content. I discovered this when I started to study for the ministry. The academic study of Biblical literature, theology, ethics and psychology and the practice of ministry in hospital and parish settings were all challenging, but the pressure was alleviated because my heart was in it and I was writing about things that gave me joy. The switch to something that gives me joy, which invariably involves being creative, has been my guide down the years, especially when the stress level starts to climb.
For me among the most beautiful words in the Bible are those of Jesus to his friends in John 15:11: “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete”. Earlier in the same passage Jesus used the image of the vine and the branches to describe his relationship with his disciple friends. Before the joy of doing comes the joy of being. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, often interprets Buddhist teaching in the light of the Gospels. He teaches about the joy of mindfulness or being in the present moment, saying that mindfulness reminds him of the presence of the Holy Spirit (the one who keeps us united to the vine). He suggests the following exercise as a way of relaxing and dealing with stress but more importantly of staying in the present moment and touching the joy of being.
Focus on the in and out breaths and say to yourself:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment
(from Living Buddha, Living Christ, 1995, by Thich Nhat Hanh, p.16)
Christian meditation as taught by the Benedictine monks, John Main and Laurence Freeman, also helps us to focus on the present moment, the joy of being before the joy of doing. The use of a mantra in silent meditation is a longstanding practice in not only Eastern religions, but also in Christianity from the time of the desert fathers and mothers in the third century AD. The mantra helps to quieten the mind, body and spirit, and to focus in the present moment. For more about the way of Christian meditation please see my page on meditation.