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Zen, Mental Health, and the Olympics

Emotions and proclamations of national pride abound in today’s media amidst the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. We in the Philippines are still on a high from the monumental win of Hidilyn Diaz, bringing home the first gold in 97 years, bringing the nation to tears as our anthem played for the first time in the Olympics. It’s truly historic and hopefully becomes a catalyst for awareness and support for our athletes, beyond the honeymoon hype.

There is another side taking on the media: mental health. This was especially brought to light by the withdrawal of Simone Biles, that later on drew support from Michael Phelps, who also opened up the conversation of mental health among Olympic athletes in the US.

I’m no Olympian, but I used to wonder: why do world-class athletes, top of their class, globally acclaimed, dominating the biggest arenas, end up being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, among others? How can you be successful in what you love, what you’ve dedicated yourself for years to train, and all of a sudden fall into a dark hole?

Having practiced zen, and seeing the results with our students in our mental training system, I’ve formulated some answers. It’s a different--I prefer to say “complementary”--perspective to the medical and conventional view of mental health. This is not only for Olympians and athletes, but for most people, at some point in their lives:

1. The dark hole that even successful people fall into is existential. Imagine grinding your way for years, to get to the top, achieving fame and glory, expecting some relief that this is the answer and solution to a happy life, and after the cloud of confetti and the roar of cheers fade, you realize: this is it? Now what? As Michael Phelps said in his documentary The Weight of Gold: “Who was I, outside of the swimming pool?”

2. A tragic loss or failure in someone’s life can lead them to question the meaning of what they do. When the pillars of your life, your beliefs, your ideals, crumble, everything else crumbles. The big question arises: Is this all a play? What does it all mean now? Who am I when the play is all over?

3. When we look at Olympians, many have had some experience that gave them a different perspective and drive. Some experience may have been painful, traumatizing, isolating, and perhaps it’s because of this that they were able to put so much power and discipline in the pursuit of success. The pain was channeled These issues, during their laser-focused pursuit, along with the attention, the noise, have been consistently pushed aside, buried, hidden, silenced. When the dust settles, these issues can crawl up with a vengeance. With nothing to distract you, how do you face yourself? You can’t keep running away.

It’s incredible to see this shift in global openness about mental health, and hopefully more and more facilities and safe spaces come out to support this.

Everything starts in the mind, and after years of our own search, investing with money, sweat, blood, and tears, it all comes down to taking back the control of your own mind and body. Traditions like zen, qigong, yoga, synergized with modern methods has shown profound and sustainable improvements as a holistic approach to overall well-being.

Further reading:

  • The Weight of Gold, a documentary by Michael Phelps:

  • Hidilyn Diaz, on beating anxiety, depression during her training:

  • Simone Biles, and her withdrawal from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to focus on her mental health:

Disclaimer: We are not doctors or medical practitioners. These are opinion and personal insights and experiences. Please consult with your doctor for medical advice, and proper diagnosis about your health.

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