It’s a new year here at LittleYellowBall (and everywhere else, too), and I can’t think of a better way to kick it off than with some David Foster Wallace. Here’s a snippet of brilliance from his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”:
[T]hose who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it–and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”
The quote is actually the final line of the essay, a conclusion Wallace earns in his usual circuitous fashion. In the course of ripping apart Tracy Austin’s vapid autobiography, Wallace argues that gifted athletes lack the hyperconsciousness and introspection needed for a profound memoir.
This isn’t because athletes are unintelligent. Rather, it’s because a conscious awareness of the mechanics of one’s skill sabotages the state of flow.
In contrast, the lesser–and more articulate–athlete is subject to counterproductive self-talk. Wallace refers to this consciousness as the “Iago-like voice of the self,” Iago being the Shakespearean villain whose murmured insinuations ultimately brought down Othello.
I definitely have my own mental Iago yakking at me, both on the court and off. So here’s the question: Is there a way to become “blind and dumb” while I’m playing tennis? A way to “bypass the head and simply…act,” as Wallace puts it?
Maybe not, but if there is, it probably involves meditation. (Everything involves meditation nowadays, right?)
I decided a few weeks ago to start incorporating meditation as part of my daily routine–and not just to improve my tennis game. Very occasionally I do yoga, followed by a brief meditation. I love the resulting clarity and serenity, the relaxed and uncluttered mind.
What I have a hard time doing is meditating without the yoga. I just can’t quiet my brain. And since I don’t especially want to do yoga every day–or even every four days–I thought I’d try an online guided meditation to help. Here are three I found:
This ten-minute video was the first guided meditation I tried. I didn’t totally warm to the narrator’s voice–a little too British-sounding for my liking. (Nothing against the Brits, but it’s hard for me to relax around them. I’m always afraid of doing something improper.)
During the narration, a simple musical intonation plays in the background. I found the music helpful for keeping my mind where it needed to be.
The video length feels like the perfect amount of time–enough to get in the zone but not so much that I’m getting bored. And the video does its job. A half-hour after I listened to it for the first time, I played tennis, still feeling very zen and detached.
Sample line: “You are not controlled by your thoughts. You can acknowledge that they are simply that–thoughts. They proceed from you, but they do not own you. You control them.”
This video by yoga guru Rodney Yee clocks in at six and a half minutes–a little short, but sometimes that’s all you can squeeze in. Yee is persnickety about positioning your body just so, including your hands. (“Left fingers on top of the right, with the tips of the thumbs together.” I bet he has pretty strong feelings about the correct way to load a dishwasher, too.)
But once you get past all the positioning nonsense (which I ignored), I enjoyed this meditation. The narrator’s voice is soothing as he walks you through your senses, directing your attention outward to sounds and then inward to the feel of your skin over your muscles. Gentle musical tones form the backdrop to this meditation, as well.
Sample line: “Feel how everything drops into the center of your heart and how everything expands from that center back out. Feel your body and your mind in the context of its environment.”
Finally I tried the meditation app Calm. Most of the Calm app is premium content–you have to pay the $70 subscription fee to access it. Behind that pay wall is a wealth of meditation packages that focus on specific goals, like improving sleep, increasing self-esteem, and enhancing focus. But there are a few free meditations, as well as a library of soothing scenes and a cute “breathe bubble” that can help you focus on slow, deep breaths.
The narrator’s voice is light and compassionate–there’s nothing intimidating to this approach to mindfulness. (This narrator doesn’t care which of your hands is on top.) One drawback for me, though, is the lack of background music during the guided meditations. In the absence of an anchoring sound, I found my mind more apt to wander. Perhaps as I get better at meditating, I won’t need this crutch quite so much.
Of these three guided meditation resources, Calm takes the most pragmatic approach. Each meditation is framed by a brief discussion on being more mindful in our daily lives. For instance, one Calm meditation offers suggestions on how to limit digital distractions.
Sample line: “You’ll find from time to time that your mind will wander off. Don’t worry when this happens. It’s not a problem. It’s not a mistake. This is what minds do.”
I did end up subscribing to Calm. Heaven knows I could use some more mindfulness throughout my day. But for tennis purposes, I’ll probably stick with the two Youtube videos. I don’t want a lesson in reducing digital distractions or setting priorities right before I play. I just want to get in my zone.
Who’s going to meditate with me this month???
Do you agree that athletes need to be “blind and dumb” about their gifts? Are meditation and mindfulness part of your daily routine?