Inner Lessons: Stopping the World
Not-doing is so difficult and so powerful that you should not mention it. Not until you have 'stopped the world,' only then can you talk about it freely.
-Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Casteneda
By Kim Shanley
To The TennisONE Community
Every Monday at noon I try to stop the world. This is the time for my series of inner lessons from our Senior Editor Jim McLennan. Jim knows as much about the outer game (stroke bio-mechanics) as anyone, but he's also one of the most insightful writers about the inner game of tennis. You too can enjoy some inner game lessons with Jim by reading his new series, "First Things First."
So what miraculous event happens at noon every Monday? Does the sun stand still in the Northern California sky like it did for Joshua in the Old Testament? Sometimes it seems to for a few minutes.
High noon in the blazing sun is a strange time to schedule a tennis lesson, outer game or inner game. I feel a little disoriented walking out to the court in the heat. The sun, parked vertically a few miles above, drops a luminous sheet of white heat shattering down on the court. While Jim proclaims "the sun is killing me," he appears completely unaffected by the heat as we walk out to our practice court. He shoots the breeze with me about this and that, walking with a certain skip or lilt, his natural ebullience manifesting itself. I, on the other hand, usually have my head down, brooding on my inner dialogue: will I be able to stop the world today?
The iron latch to the court lifts with a scrape, as we enter our dojo. As we walk across the court I feel the heat and light shock my legs and radiate up into my face. The lesson begins in the corner of the court, where a few feet of shadow gives us some relief from the sun. It seems appropriate to start each inner lesson in the shadows, with the outer game belonging to the sun-splashed courts.
The first thing Jim does is take a look at my forehand motion. He asks, "How does that feel?" Always the smart-alec, I say, "Well, it feels okay now, but when I'm playing I feel that I'm always late." Jim, sphinx like, doesn't have any reaction. He says, "Okay, let's just do less with that swing. Meaning, don't turn as much. I'll throw you some balls, and you just do less." And then we walk out into the sun to try to implement this simple inner lesson.
Jim has me stand on the 8 Board, a device designed and built by another TennisONE contributor, Jack Broudy. The 8 Board consists of two freely rotating platters, and it's designed to teach you how the kinetic chain is suppose to feel, transferring the energy from your legs and hips into your swing. If you try to turn your shoulders at the same time as your hips, you can't generate any power. You must turn your legs and hips first, and as your legs/hips uncoil, the racquet follows ("the dog wagging the tail" Jim calls it). Well, in trying to hit the first five or six balls, I can't get the hang of it. Jim, laughing at my trying, says, "The tail is definitely wagging the dog."
Every master was first taught by another master, and for Jim McLennan that master was the legendary Tom Stow, who mentored Don Budge (first winner of the grand slam). In "First Things First," Jim writes:
"So in all instances, Stows eye was to carve off all extraneous movement, and to find the essence of the turn. If the player turned and tightened the arms, he might say, "Turn means turn, nothing else, lets try again." Always trying to get more by doing less."
Jim tells me the Stow story and instructs me not to turn so much, to do less. Trying not to try is hard, but I tried. Suddenly, after 30 balls of trying too hard, there it was: a conk, as Jim calls it. A conk is the racquet squarely meeting the ball and transferring all the energy of the swing to send the ball in the opposite direction. Conk, conk, conk. Jim asks, "How does that feel?" Clunk, clunk, clunk. Suddenly I've lost the smooth turning rhythm that gave me the Conk. Jim says sheepishly, "I shouldn't have asked you that."
So what we work on is the same thing Don Juan continually asked Carlos Castenda to work on throughout his Don Juan books: not-doing. In Journey to Ixtalan, Don Juan, the real or mythic (who knows?) Yaqui Indian sorcerer who teaches his apprentice the secret ways of knowledge, tells Carlos, "You must let your own body discover the power and the feeling of not-doing." At one level, Don Juan means not-doing is not-trying, not letting your conscious mind or ego get in the way of your body. At another level, doing is your mind (and ego) constantly reinforcing and maintaining a certain view of reality. Doing takes you away from awareness of the present moment, and projects your self back to the past or into the future, where your ego is typically justifying some past decision or worrying about some upcoming threat. Doing also sustains your conditioned view of your world and your self. As Don Juan says, "The world is the world because you know the doing involved in making it so."
What does doing mean for a tennis player? Defining yourself and others in terms of your USTA rating is a form of doing. What happens when you're a 3.5 player playing a 4.0 player and you're winning? The thought suddenly pops into your head, "Hey, I shouldn't be beating this person. They are supposed to be better than me." That's doing. You're up 5-2 and serving for the set. Suddenly you think about the score and think, "Hey, what happens if I blow this lead?" Absolutely nothing has happened but a thought in your head. Suddenly you feel more pressure, and the shoulder turns stiff and the elbows feel like concrete. That's doing.
Taking a tennis lesson so that you can get better, so that you're rating will go up, so that people at your club will admire you more, etc., etc., is another form of doing. Jim occasionally would break into song or tell me stories as he fed me balls, trying to disarm my constant doing, constant over-trying. Some moments the world would stop, and I wasn't doing, but just hitting. Conk, conk, conk. And then just as quickly, I would glace at my watch, thinking about how much longer the lesson would be. The result: clunk, clunk, clunk.
Mushin: Focused Awareness
In my last newsletter ("Impeccability"), I said one of the central paradoxes of sport is the fact you must have a strong desire to win yet be able to let go of the outcome. So how do you train yourself to do that? In the martial arts, they teach mushin, the literal translation being "no-mind." Mushin is defined as "the state of being empty of expectation, yet fully and completely present. No-mind is the way to be open-minded and react to each situation with a new response. There is no pre-patterning the state of readiness or anticipation of what to be ready for: just be ready. Mushin is focused awareness." (from Zen in Ten)
To achieve mushin, you can breathe deeply, you can meditate, or you can hit a tennis ball with complete attention and presence. In mushin, "your mind is not distracted by thoughts that come and go. You don't evaluate how you are doing, how tired you feel, or what your friends are doing. You simply perform with clarity of attention that is fully attuned to action."
Did I achieve mushin? As I said, perhaps for a few moments. Am I discouraged that I couldn't stop the world longer? As a chronic over-achiever and over-tryer, yes, I was a bit. But I'm going to keep trying (that word again) not to try, keep subtracting and doing less, until I can sustain the true beginner's mind: "Each moment is complete and new. We are all beginners each moment. And therefore, every moment is a fresh opportunity to learn."
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