In It to Win It

Once when I was talking to my friend Gesshin, she used the phrase “in it to win it” to describe the attitude she tried to take on life in general.

I think the phrase perfectly encapsulates the Buddhist approach to living.

I’m not sure where the phrase “in it to win it” originated. But it’s usually used when referring to something exciting, life-threatening, or something with high stakes like a race with a big prize.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from all these years of pointless Zen practice, it’s that life is better when you take the “in it to win it” attitude towards everything.

So, when I’m waiting for a bus, I try to be “in it to win it.” When I’m washing the dishes, I try to be “in it to win it.” When I’ve been sitting in endless meetings at work where nobody seems to be able to figure out what anyone else is saying, I try to be “in it to win it.”

It’s relatively easy to be “in it to win it” when the stakes are high or when your life is in danger. It’s easy to be “in it to win it” at a concert by your favorite band whose tickets you bought seven months ago.

It’s much harder when it’s an ordinary thing like driving to work through a snarled traffic jam, or hanging out with your boring uncle at Thanksgiving.

We tend to think of some parts of our lives as important and significant, while other parts might as well be lived as if our fingers were on life’s fast forward button. But that’s a really sad way to live if you think about it.

This is why I hate the phrase “killing time.” I have no idea how long I’ll have this life. Dogen died when he was barely older than I am now. The drummer for my first punk rock band in high school (Mmaxx) was two years younger than me and he has already passed away. I have got no time to kill.

Any time I find myself wishing that time would go by quicker, I remind myself that I’m really wishing for my life to be over sooner.

No matter what’s going on, I don’t want to miss it. Even if it’s horrible.

Sure. I might wish that the headache I’m having would hurry up and go away, or that I could get the dishes or  vacuuming done a bit faster. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those times when you’ve got to spend, let’s say, thirty minutes doing a thing and you find yourself wishing time itself would go by faster. That’s when you’re actually wishing for a shorter life.

When you’re “in it to win it,” you never wish time would go by faster. You’re able to really throw yourself into whatever experience you’re having at that moment.

The best ways I know of to learn how to do this is to go on a Zen retreat. There may be other ways. But I seriously cannot think of one that would be better.

One of the most brutal and difficult parts of any Zen retreat is that part right in the middle. You’re too far in to just get up and go home. Yet you’ve still got several hours or days of doing the most boring thing in the world — literally staring at a wall — to get through.

That’s the time when your mind really starts pulling out all the stunts it can come up with to escape. The only real escape you have at that point is fantasy. Your mind can spin out endless places you’d rather be and endless things you’d rather do. What’s worse, your mind can come up with lots of places you could be and things you could do if only you weren’t stuck there watching the paint dry. You experience real psychological pain.  

And yet, it’s these moments that are the most instructive and valuable. You come to realize that you really have only two choices. You can get up and leave. Or you can settle into this boring moment completely.

If you can learn to do that on a Zen retreat, you can learn to do that anywhere.

Then you’ll stop missing out on 75% of your life. You’ll stop wishing to get your time on Earth over with quicker. You’ll actually live longer, no matter how long you end up living, because you’re really all there.

If you’re interested in learning how to be “in it to win it,” we’ve got a retreat at Mt. Baldy coming up in just over a week from now. As of today, there’s still time to sign up at the discount rate.

Hope to see you there!


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November 3-5, 2017 Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt Baldy, CA

November 10-12, 2017 Non-Residential Retreat, Toronto, ON, Canada

November 14, 2017 Lecture, Dawson College, Montreal, QC, Canada


Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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 is now available as an audiobook from as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You!

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