Those doing soul work,
who want the searing truth
more than solace or applause,
know each other right away.
Those who want something else
turn and take a seat in another room.
Soul-makers find each other’s company.
Like many boys, I participated in organized sports. I had my name on many rosters including those of soccer, rugby, hockey, basketball and volleyball. It was soccer, though, that was my first passion. I was a goalie, a good one. I generally excelled in most sports, and my bedroom was graced with a collection of trophies to prove it, but it was in soccer that I shone the brightest.
And like many kids, I was competitive. Very competitive! I was hard on myself. A goal let in was a dagger to my heart. I let myself down, and the team. It was hard to forgive, even if I had no chance to save the ball, and it would often take days, or more than a week to recover from my perceived, or occasional legitimate, error. So much was riding on my performances, on each decision I made in the 18-yard box, more than I knew at the time.
I was not a popular kid in high school by any means, nor was I an outcast, at least not at first. I had friends, and was in the “middle group”, one could say. I was certainly not “cool”, nor of the “nerds” / “geeks”. After a few years, though, in around grade 10, I started feeling increasingly lonely, separated from others. Long standing friendships began to fall away as cliques, girlfriends, drugs and general interests pulled people apart, and I stood in the emptiness, betwixt and between, not feeling drawn to go to parties and join the prevailing drug scenes. Girlfriends were not on the radar, school dances were awkward, and I loathed academics. I was invited out less and less by old friends now moving on. Encroaching Friday and Saturday nights tormented me. What would I do? It would be another weekend alone, or of playing Risk with my now one and only equally desolate friend, Darren, while everyone else attended wild parties and had great sex. I gradually chose, and was forced into, isolation, both in and out of school.
Except there was soccer, which continued to be the one beacon of hope I had, the only place I truly belonged. Between the white lines on the grass pitch lay my weekly opportunity to carve an impression through a miraculous last second diving fingertip save, and to have all my teammates, their family, and my coach rally around me praising my heroism. Mondays weren’t so bad, either. Upon arrival at school I would receive further acclaim from my teammates for yet another stalwart performance.
These weekend and Monday moments were small treats and reprieves from the doldrums of continued despair and isolation. At a time when my home life was rife with conflict, my deft performances, along with my beloved cat Peter, kept my inner flame alive.
Years past and, although I met new friends at a restaurant I worked at, I still felt pretty lonely. Fortunately, my passion to play continued to keep me above water in the now newly formed soccer team I co-founded with fellow waiters, and other staff. We bonded through our victories, and by this time I was a pot-smoker, bonding with them through altered states as well. I had rejected this lifestyle in my earlier high school days, segregating myself intentionally. But since everywhere I looked this was the lifestyle of choice, I eventually capitulated. Now in my early twenties, I couldn’t handle being alone any longer.
But over time, this lifestyle (along with the pains of university) would grate on me heavily. I could not fathom continuing to get high every Friday and Saturday night, and often on weekday evenings as well; watching sports, playing cards, and going for the odd hike in the woods, stoned, of course. I could not imagine myself living this dying existence.
And so the day of my convocation, I bolted out of town, happily forsaking my graduation ceremony at Simon Fraser University. I flew to London, England, where I would live for two and a half years, soul searching, not knowing what to find. It was there I was guided by a work colleague to begin my path of self-exploration / inner work. I started the long journey of discovering who I really was, why I was here, and why I was so intense, lonely and unhappy. After working with a wise therapist (a savior in my life who said I was the most intense client she had ever had) and attending a few personal growth courses—you know, the ones that make you cry in front of everyone, and call your mom and tell her you love her—I began to experience something strangely foreign inside. Peace. The lure of the pubs diminished and the call to the commons (parks) grew. I spent less time drinking and “pulling” (chasing women), and more time reading inspiring books and reflecting while lying on wide-open fields staring up at the sky.
My life was changing quickly and unexpectedly, and those around me noticed. I remember my roommate’s girlfriend commenting on how I was less intense than when she first met me. The aggressive, sarcastic edge that pushed others away so quickly, the same one that made me thrive in sports, was slowly melting into a new softening; into my vulnerability.
As things continued to evolve for me inside, the outside no longer resonated. The massive hustling metropolis and the debaucherous lifestyle I had only known in London weren’t a match for who I felt myself now to be. Moreover, a new sense of purposefulness in my life to become a life coach had found me, calling me home to begin training. It was time to move back to Vancouver with new wings and new vision.
It wasn’t long before I found myself back between the white pipes blocking shots, this time for a new team, a much better one. We won everything while in the top flight of our league—the division title, the cup, indoor tournaments. I had never had that much success in sports, nor played that well. But the process I had started in London of sinking into my authenticity had taken hold of me, and had its own inexorable momentum and agenda. That something that had changed within me was only changing more, exponentially, opening my senses and heart as I continued my path with further self-awareness workshops and private support. I was transforming in ways that both startled and enlivened me.
The result was that I cared far less about performance. If the ball went in the back of the net I calmly shrugged my shoulders and plucked it out. The intensity and aggressiveness that had defined me was losing its firm grip. This does not bode well for playing in competitive sports, let alone for goalies. Successful goalies tend to have an edge, a swagger, a fearlessness for a reason. It’s useful when diving face first into charging knees and elbows, and rising assuredly above others to claim the ball as rightfully theirs. It is why goalies, both in soccer and hockey, are often considered imperious, cocky, and odd ducks having a screw loose. My captain noticed my blooming blithe attitude and decided to confront me on it. “You’re not as intense as you used to be. I want to see more anger from you, more arrogance. I want the old Vince back!” I couldn’t give it to him, and this would be proven weeks later.
Our team signed up to play in a tournament full of top-level teams. At this point in my life I was increasingly working weekends, building my fledgling workshop business. Soccer teams cannot do without a goalie, so because I could not play, my captain decided to bring another guy in. Yet, at the last minute, it ended up happening that I could make the tournament, and so now we had two goalies. We decided that he would play the first half and I would play the second. And play he did. He was incredible, making deft save after acrobatic save, gracefully sailing through the air, reaching and reacting in ways I just knew I could not, and against a dominating team that pelted him with a barrage of well-placed hard shots.
For the first time in soccer I was intimidated. A dark shadow began to creep over me. It was his. I was standing in it. And it was my own shadow, rooted in old fears now projected onto him. I didn’t have what it took. I thought, I’m not good enough, a belief I had never entertained before as a goalie. I shuddered at the thought of playing the second half. How could I compete with his performance? I would look a fool, and lose my status as the number one, the Great One, the Savior, the guy my team could lean on. Suddenly I would be second best.
I could not take the chance, and so I told my teammates that I could not do it. I made up a story that I wasn’t feeling up to it and thought it best, since he was on a role, for him continue on. It was “best for the team”, after all. And so the guys played on without their regular stalwart between the pipes.
And I, not being able to carry the weight of growing heartbreak, slowly stumbled to my car to sit, alone. There I hid, tears running down my cheeks. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t play this game anymore, the game within the game. I couldn’t pretend to be someone I was not. I couldn’t pretend to care. I couldn’t carry on the fight. I just couldn’t compete any more.
There I sat, face to face with what I had been running from my whole life—the idea that I was not enough.
It was then that I turned the radio on, seeking comfort, and out played a song that reached me in ways my ears could not understand. I felt it, heard it, from a place that cares little about winning or losing; from the same growing part of me that wouldn’t allow me to play the game anymore. “You have only waited for this moment to arise…Blackbird fly.” Blackbird, by the Beatles, auspiciously poured words into me that, without a doubt, were destined for the crossroads I was at. And it was then I knew my time was over.
Since then I have learned to play the game in a new way. No longer do I have time to be part of an organized league, but the odd chance I get to join a drop-in match I love it dearly. Recently I played with a group of men and women on Cortes Island where I was attending a retreat. Hollyhock retreat center is beautifully located by a sandy beach and the sparkling jade ocean, and surrounded by an array of winding trails, towering cedars, eagles, ravens and grazing deer. The food is healthy and delicious, and the people meet you in an array of engaging conversation. And yet, it was the soccer I played with the locals away from Hollyhock that was the most memorable experience for me. I, of course, played goalie. And the joy felt gathering scrapes, crashing into people’s shins, and soaring like one of the resident eagles still finds its way into my heart as I type these very words. The game, I was delightfully reminded, continues to pour through my blood, but it does so in a different way; for, now it is about the joy, not the need to prove myself. It is no longer about making myself enough, for in my hard-earned days of healing old pains and sorrows I have learned to feel enough despite outer circumstances.
I’m not “there” yet, nor am I sure I ever will be. The old belief of “I’m not enough” still takes hold of me when losing in my favorite board game, Catan. It occasionally triggers my competitive edge a little too much when struggling on grassy hills playing bocce ball. And I continue to unconsciously project it onto family and friends, claiming they don’t think I’m enough when it’s still only me thinking that. It has a grip on me, but not nearly as often and intensely.
I depend less on winning and looking good, and on others performing for me, and believing they can somehow make me feel good. Relying on others to fill our inner void is what we do with professional sports teams/athletes, and celebrities in general. Their performance becomes our performance, especially when we don’t feel enough, and are not living our own dreams. In my younger days I would be devastated if my local Vancouver Canucks or BC Lions team lost, particularly during the playoffs. Now, however, while still appreciating them and cheering them on, I care little whether they win or lose. I don’t get angry if they underperform, nor care to scrutinize them in any way. For, no longer are they an extension of my wounded ego. I’ve learned to face it. And no longer are they an extension of my unlived dreams. I’ve learned to live them. It is exactly this outward projection, or disowning of our core wounds and gifts, that drives sports hysteria and celebritism. It is a projection that continues until people can watch, play and live with a joy dependent on nothing but them.
I wonder what would happen to sports if fans and athletes alike had less urgency to prove themselves through performance and claiming victory; if they cared less about winning, pushing themselves hard, and seeking approval in the eyes of another; if they could watch and play for the love the game versus needing the game to make them love themselves?
If you listen carefully to professional athletes you will hear their need to prove speak loud and clear. How many times have you heard an athlete say, “I still have something to prove”? Where is this need to prove coming from? What motivates their intense drive to achieve? Perhaps they are still trying hard to make their parents proud. Maybe they, unconsciously, want to receive just one loving blessing from their mother or father to prove they are worthy. Maybe they believe that without external validation from high performance they are not enough.
From my 18 years of experience leading others through their journeys of self-awareness, I’ve discovered that believing you are not (good) enough, worthy, or lovable, are common core wounds shared by all. For many, as it was with me, these unconscious beliefs make it hard for anything to ever be enough. Until you feel enough in yourself, standing in a felt, embodied-sense of self-assuredness, the hard edges of your past will keep driving you forward. Until your need to prove melts, and you finally rest in the elusive now you’ve been running from, and long for, no amount of accolades will feed you. You will always be left starving for more. It is one of the reasons why athletes struggle, often through the lure of drugs, sex and crime, to transition out of the limelight—they have been dependent, often for decades, on the roars of sycophants and pandering minions for their identity, people who have done well to reinforce a false and fragile sense of self. And now that reinforcement is suddenly gone.
In my inward journey I quickly came to realize that it is self-love that we seek—loving our darkest corners, and loving ourselves enough to shine our light. Sports, along with relationships, finances, health and careers are simply pathways; they are gateways into our pain, sorrow, power and potential, into loving all of ourselves, if only we dare enter. The less love we feel for ourselves, the more we will project that lack of love onto others and expect them to provide it; and the harder we will lean onto our external endeavors trying to squeeze something out of them they cannot give us. It is why people get addicted to work and relationships. It is why people push themselves so hard. They try so desperately to get from the outside what can only be found within.
In slowly realizing and feeling self-love, we awaken to an understanding, an intuitive sense, that the world will never give us what we want. It cannot. Only an open heart will. It is this understanding that invites surrender, letting go, softening into vulnerability; a withdrawing from life, like a caterpillar that no longer wishes to consume only, and longs for something more—to begin the journey of unraveling into the butterfly that flies in purposeful flight giving back.
In leaving Vancouver, I was on some intuitive level acknowledging the call of the butterfly, and beginning the journey inwards into the cocoon. I heard this call even as early as my high school days, which is why I withdrew and isolated myself then. It was the best I could do with the subtle knowing that I was here for something more.
Loving by being gentle on yourself and feeling vulnerable does not mean you will become spineless and without ambition. You will still try to do your best, strive for excellence, and grow as an athlete, businessperson and individual; but you will be driven less by the edges of fear and past trauma; by the intensity of attachment and agenda to win or succeed. And instead, your actions will come from a desire to give more than take; from a sense of purposefulness drawn from the deep well of your heart’s knowing; and from a sheer delight of engaging in a sport and life you love with the love you bring to the playing field.
* * *
Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults