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Zennis: Mindfulness and the Spin of the Ball

For thousands of years, meditation has opened the door to spiritual transcendence; a path to the joy of living in the present. In more recent times, this honored process has been overshadowed by the material rewards of our Western culture, and by the competition that fighting for them fosters. It is refreshing to see the prejudice against this Eastern practice erode as mindfulness, meditation’s cousin, becomes increasingly popular.

I practice meditation. I occasionally slip into a relaxed state, floating along in the moment. The feeling quickly evaporates, of course, as soon as I realize that I am experiencing it. Trying to recapture it is, as Yoda taught Luke, the antithesis of serenity. It has turned out that the lonely sport of tennis has been a better vehicle for me to achieve a focused, “present” mind. As a junior player in Northern California, and on the Princeton varsity team, I sometimes played tennis matches during which I experienced an inner tranquility, undisturbed by thoughts of how the match might turn out. Tennis players describe this state as “being in the zone,” or “playing out of one’s head.” This is not casual slang. I never really thought about this phenomenon (a good thing, in an important sense) until I read The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. While I oversimplify his thesis for brevity’s sake, Gallwey posits two very different “selves” that sometimes don’t play very nicely in the cranial sandbox.

“Self One” is the ego, a mix of competitive VC and helicopter parent, who cares only about winning the match. “Self Two” is the humble, highly-trained body, a system of motor mechanisms that knows how, without any input from Self One, to play beautiful, flowing tennis. Think Roger Federer. However, when One is anxiously focused on the outcome, it becomes more controlling than the worst soccer parent. The validity of Gallwey’s thesis is illustrated by the following hypothetical, based on some of the matches that I played (and would just as soon forget) on my college team.

Imagine that you are the last player on the varsity ladder, and you are playing a challenge match against the number one player on the junior varsity. If you win, it will be status quo. If he beats you, however, you will have to switch to JV. Imagine further that a match point arises against you. You are returning serve. Your opponent hits his first serve to your backhand but it lands just long. You see that it is out, but you hit it back anyway. Your shot doesn't mean anything in Self One’s competitive world because it won't affect the outcome of the match. Self One disengages from this shot, and frets about how to return the next serve. Self Two, on the other hand, doesn't care about what is “at stake.” It cares only about hitting great tennis shots. In our hypothetical it does just that, detonating a topspin backhand return of the out serve.  Of course, since the first serve was out, Two’s epic shot doesn't count any more than the faulted first serve did.

Now your opponent hits his second serve, again to your backhand, but this time it lands in the service box. As the ball curves in, Self One is about to disrupt Two's ability to hit another brilliant backhand. As thoughts of the JV’s sorry win-loss record and spartan locker room bounce around in your prefrontal cortex, One goes into fight or flight mode, recruiting the reptilian brain, its partner in the crime of negative thinking. Self One’s fear of losing puts Two in a straight-jacket. You choke and hit a high floater back over the net. Your opponent puts the weak return away. You and Self One go to drown your sorrows in a bottle of Tequila. Self Two, on the other hand, just wants to go hit more flawless ground strokes on some back court.

Since I can’t play tennis every day, I am learning that being present is a state of mind that is available anytime and anywhere. While I am writing, giving talks, cycling, or just sitting in traffic, I am a bit more alert and mindful. When that doesn’t work, I will lock Self One in his cage, head to the courts with Self Two, and watch him hit those gorgeous backhands.

Copyright, Cameron G. Stout 2018

Eva CollinsComment