Saturday, July 21, 2018

Hitting the Bullseye

As a kid I spent afternoons practicing basketball shots. As a precociously serious yogi, I was concentrating on the inner process, sensing how fear and neediness and uncertainty could undermine the shot.

I recognized that there was nothing my mind could do to help. Thoughts were utterly impotent; they could only comment, to no benefit. Nothing helpful comes from the mind; all calculation is inherently miscalculation. You must train your body to take the action, and otherwise relax and let it quietly happen. Less mental chatter means less distraction.

Pretty good stuff for a nine year old, yet I never became a great player. I was the guy who made shots that spun around the rim a half dozen times before drooping down the wrong way. Same for bowling, putt-putt golf, and every sport or repetitive physical activity. I was always a "B", never an "A".

My latest computer game addiction is Fallout Shelter, which I play on iPad (App Store link). Part of the game involves a coordination task that requires touching the screen the moment a rhythmically oscillating series of lights forms a bullseye. And I quickly figured out the trick: feel the rhythm, jab your finger along in time with the lights, and, once synchronized, simply punch the bullseye. But I usually hit a nano-moment too soon or too late. Again, a "B", not an "A".

But this time there was an epiphany. I noticed I was doing something counterproductive; something I'd always done in all sports and games. Once I've begun poking my finger at the screen (or releasing the basketball), I let the gods handle the rest. Having aimed, and quieted my mind, I figure that's it for my end. Either it works or it doesn't. Buh-bye and good luck.

So I tried something new. I did the synchronization trick, I quieted myself down, and added a new step: I also decided to hit the bullseye.

And....bullseye. Every time.

I've expressed it a bit delicately. I "decided to" hit the bullseye. You might call it self-confidence, or faith, or positive thinking, or lots of other things. I've heard it expressed by many people in many ways, but it never struck me that all they're saying is you need to decide to hit it. It's not a desire or need (though that's how some people express it, even if they reject the grunting, whiny, emotional approach I've instinctively avoided). Simply don't forget - amid all the prep and tricks and quieting down and whatever - to also hit a bullseye. Don't leave that part off the to-do list. Don't forget to also hit a bullseye!

I always entrusted basketballs to fickle winds out of a staunch distaste for over-attachment to results. That reasoning was wise, but I'd taken it too far. I was literally throwing it all away. There is an anxious, emotional, yearning sort of attachment that I'd correctly recognized as counterproductive, but there's a much lighter, merely intentional sort of attachment that's necessary. Within calm silence - blithe equanimity with whatever ensues - you still need to engage that playful sliver of an intention. It's small. It's not John McEnroe screaming at the ball. You may entirely let go of the process, but you still must drive it home.

I figured out very early that bad musicians play their instrument while good musicians play the room. I think this is the exact same move; a sense of engaged follow-through. So I already knew it, but forgot to apply it in this context. It's cursedly hard to distribute insights from one realm into all realms. In the end, little's actually hidden from us (which is why revelation so often elicits a sense of deja vu; an exclamation of "of course!"). We just get unnecessarily blinkered. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.


Richard Stanford said...

This post reminded me of something that I feel to be true (yet have no real proof of), mainly the key characteristic that I've found over the years between people who are successful at making a life change (diet, smoking, etc) and those who aren't. The former decide positively to make the change, while the latter feel and know absolutely that they should make the change. Turns out that the art of making the active decision made all the difference in the world.

Jim Leff said...

Yeah, but you're putting it all onto a monumentally fuzzy word: "decide".

For most people, a decision is a thought. And while thought is useful for calculation, it's absolutely ineffectual in affecting (much less spurring) action. All the platitudes and notions in the world can't do a damned thing. As I say in the posting, thought is commentary, nothing more. We spend our lives thinking a command and then doing it, without recognizing the obvious truth that the body acts and then the mind hastily gives the order ("I meant to do that!!"). When, coincidentally, thought and action align, we feel satisfied. When they don't, we feel stressed. See this:

A few years ago, I was about to fall asleep and realized I'd left the back door wide open. The problem was that next to that door lurked a bag of freshly baked cookies I'd managed to avoid eating all night. So I told myself I'd 1. go close the door, and 2. wouldn't eat the cookies. I headed downstairs, closed the door, and ate the cookies. Every last one of them.

My mind's "decision" had nothing to do with it. The door needed shutting regardless of my lofty mental resolutions. My body did what needed doing while my mind feebly took credit. And then my body ate the cookies, because that, too, seemed needful. The mental narrator meanwhile gnashed his teeth, re-experiencing yet again the horrible truth: all this time it's only been pretending to be in control.

So how do you actually make life changes? When they appear something that absolutely needs to be done. We never obey mental orders, but we do - for better or worse - respond to needs. So it has to be a need, not a "want" or a mental command. In any case, you definitely can't think your way there, that should be obvious to all of us.

After I had a stent inserted into my heart, and my cardiologist said the way to spend the rest of my life confident of my heart - feeling healthy and strong rather than sick and victimized - was to go whole hog with cardio. Suddenly, I had the initiative to walk up steep hills, miles at a time, day after day after day. Friends inviting me over for lasagna? Sorry, I've gotta walk. Twisted my ankle? Fuck it. I'll walk on bloody stumps. I walked and walked, and I aced my stress test a month later. The nurse said it felt like a locomotive was in the room.

It's like anything else; when we get used to recognizing and responding unflinchingly to needs, we get better at it. That's how we develop things like character and commitment. People who haven't learned the flimsy impotence of their mental thought stream never develop a relationship between need and fulfillment. They just tell themselves stuff.

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