Courtesy of The New York Times

September 1, 2016

VAN ZILE | The Tao of Beer Pong

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I was standing somewhere on a Friday night during my freshman year when a stranger asked if I wanted to hear the secret of beer pong. I don’t remember what he looked like, just that his face held an expression of profound serenity and compassion.

“The secret of beer pong,” he said, “is to throw the ball into the cup.” I asked him what the hell he meant by that.

“Beer pong is a metaphor for life,” he said. “What is it to exist but to throw a ball into a cup? Listen. If you could see the miracle of one ball thrown into one cup clearly, your whole life would change.”

“Huh?” I said.

He looked at me with infinite calm. “Listen. No difference exists between missing and hitting the cup. You are the ball and this moment is the cup. Simply throw the ball into the cup, without prejudice, judgment, or desire.”

“Do you know the way back to north campus?”

“Look inside yourself. See the truth in my words. Nothing important can be taught.” Then he turned and pointed. “Keep walking uphill, and you’ll get there.” I never saw him again.

Some time later, I realized that the stranger was an enlightened person, someone who had achieved the state described by Buddhists as “highest perfect awakening.” The secret to beer pong is the secret to life, and beer pong is as simple an analogy to existence as any game I know.

Beer pong, like life, is essentially beyond your control. If your opponent hits enough cups, you’re guaranteed to lose, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can play well and lose, and you can play poorly and win. And no matter how much you play, suffering is always part of the game: Represented by the bitter taste of Keystone. All you control is the ball in your hand.

All situations are a ball, a beer and a cup. For instance, are you by any chance stressing out about getting a job or an internship? Know this: To get an internship is the same as not to get an internship, just as all cans are one can. Whether or not you get the internship, you’ll be you, and your experience of the world will be more or less the same. The only thing you control is sending out the application: Throwing the ball.

Having girl problems? Can’t get your no-good boyfriend to commit? Feeling lonely? Personal problems like these are your eternal opponent, standing across the table stacking cups into a triangle, and without the opponent, there is no pong game. You can’t throw the ball into the cup without having the ball thrown into your cup, too.

I know your suffering, stranger. The person you yearn for, the perfect GPA you need, the job you’re nervously applying to: It’s your desire for those things, not the things themselves, that cause you pain.

Forget about winning the game. Enjoy one moment – one ball, one cup – and you win.

During this past O-week – my final one, if you can believe it – I was standing somewhere when I saw a youngish guy watching a pong game, sadly, in the darkness. I fought through the people around him and asked him what was up.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Are you trying to play pong?”

“I don’t even like beer pong,” he said. “It’s boring as hell.”
“To the novice, maybe,” I said, and he glared at me. And then I tried to sit him down and explain everything – that babies and old men are the same age, that you’ll later see that the most important thing in your life is something you haven’t even considered yet, that all thoughts are impermanent, that Keystone Light literally is Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It was a great speech, I thought. But it didn’t seem to register. He just laughed and walked away, out into Collegetown. It made me a little sad, but then I remembered: Nothing important can be taught.
You, the person reading this: Don’t be like him. See the truth. Someday, your college experience will have blurred into one long hazy memory, and you’ll have some other concern to chase after, but there will always be a ball to throw into a cup, and a set of unimportant concerns meant to distract you from it. Be in this moment. Throw the ball.

Max Van Zile is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mvanzile@cornellsun.com. 

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