Engrossed in Sport: Zen-Like States in the Midst of Competition

I have recently, after years of halfhearted attempts motivated by sincere desire, joined an adults intramural sports league.  My new year’s resolution for 2015 was to finally buckle down and join a league in one of many possible sports (flag football? basketball? volley ball?), and in the process of trying to figure out the logistics of finding a local recreational league, singling out a sport, and convincing enough friends to join, an offer to join my mom’s workplace softball league fell into my lap.  I was extremely excited because not only did it fulfill my aspiration to join a sports league, it freed me from the banal and headache-inducing duties of finding a league, navigating less-than-professional websites, registering, going to the “coaches” meetings, getting enough people to commit, collecting money, etc. All I had to do was show up and play. Additionally, it coincided perfectly with my renewed interest in baseball.  I had played as a youth, and loved it.  I had always excelled at Center Field and yearned to play a sport (and a position) that I was naturally adept at. My baseball career had ended freshman year when I tried out for my high school’s team and was promptly cut.  Puberty was a rose that blossomed a little late for me, and my hairy-legged, deep-voiced peers had the physical advantages that I lacked. I remember being pretty devastated by being cut; few things are more heart-breaking for a teenage boy than watching all his friends, who he grew up playing baseball with, go on to fill the roster of a team he was deemed unfit to play for.  I knew I had talent, especially on defense, but my pre-pubescent body simply wasn’t up to par when it came to swinging the ol’ bat.  What followed was a temporary disintegration of my interests in athletics.  The rest of my teens was spent prioritizing sex, drugs, and recreational recklessness. It wasn’t until my mid twenties that the desire to play organized sports returned to me.  There is something about the mid-twenties lull in one’s life that tends to reinvigorate certain interests that were previously abandoned for the chaos and excitement inherent in one’s late-teens and early-twenties. People start developing or re-discovering comparatively tame, albeit more mature, desires and hobbies.  The wish to get back into sports, and baseball specifically, flowed from this common stage of development.  But I digress.

The point of this essay is not to chart the path of my personal interest in sports, but rather to briefly discuss a certain mind-state that occurs when one is thoroughly engaged in an activity; in this case the activity of playing a sport.  Professional psychologists refer to this mind-state as “flow”.  “Flow” refers to the psychological state that arises when one is so engrossed in an activity that they no longer have the resources of concentration to be self-conscious.  The feeling that results is one of self-transcendence and exhilarating happiness.  A happiness that is highly elusive for most of us.  This sort of happiness occurs when the incessant pursuit of happiness is totally and completely dropped, and the mind focuses deeply on the activity at hand.  This can, and often does, occur with musicians in the midst of playing an instrument, a writer in the midst of a effortlessly laying down a string of prose, and of course, an athlete in the midst of competitive play.  Its the latter of these examples I wish to discuss here.

For most of our waking life, we are almost neurotically self-obsessed.  If one examines the content of their thoughts they will surely find a startling high percentage of self-referential thoughts.  Whether the thoughts are directly about the self or indirectly about the self, if one seriously observes their own thought patterns, they will find the vast majority of their thoughts are pathetically narcissistic. This sort of constant self-analysis often leaves us dismayed, depressed, anxious, neurotic, and feeling rather empty.  Many of us feel a disconnect between who we are, and who we want to be; between what we need and what we want; between what we have and what we desire.  Those who lack a certain degree of self-awareness float through life with a subtle, but not fully understood, sense of discontent. Those with high levels of self-awareness see the problem quite clearly but the solution often evades them.  But whether one is highly self-aware or not, we all have experienced the bliss and freedom of being temporarily engrossed in one activity or another.  Many of us are driven, unconsciously, to engage in activities that give us temporarily relief from the long, recursive inner dialogue that dominates our inner life. That incessant voice in our head that talks to itself all day long.  Sports are one way in which we find relief from this voice.  When we are sprinting across an outfield to retrieve a well-hit ball, with the overwhelming and urgent compulsion to pick up the ball and hurl it, accurately, into the infield to stop the opponent from advancing we do not have the time to engage in self-talk.  The mind goes silent as the body takes over, and this temporary silence is intoxicating. When we are cutting back and forth on a football field, avoiding other apes who are trying to physically crush us, balancing coordination, vision, speed and grace, our minds simply aren’t allowed the room to ask “am I happy?”.  When the game is tied, and the clock is ticking down the final minute of play, and we are dribbling a basketball around defenders, searching desperately for a square foot of unimpeded room on the floor to take a shot from, our bodies politely and discreetly wrestle attention away from our minds in order to focus that attention on the present moment.  In these brief spurts of athletic engagement, we find a sense of happiness, not because we have a certain set of self-referential desires that are being met or because we have strategically *thought* our way into a state of happiness; we experience happiness precisely because we have stopped the search.  Our attention is wholly devoted to the present moment, it simply doesn’t have enough resources to engage in these activities while maintaining an inner dialogue. And therein lies the principle mental benefit of athletic competition: we are forced by circumstance to shut the fuck up and let the intrinsic intelligence of our bodies take over.  We fall, headfirst, into the present moment; into the NOW. Many athletes would be at a loss to give this sort of account of things, but the truth of this diagnosis is immediately acknowledged to any athlete for whom it is explained.

This state of “flow” that we obtain in athletic competition is the same exact state that practitioners of meditation try to achieve in everyday life. By sitting down in meditation, one focuses the attention away from the inner dialogue and inward towards the breath and body.  Its a methodical way to train the mind to enter into a state of flow without having to be engrossed in a certain activity.  To meditate properly is to be totally engrossed in everyday life; to achieve the sense of balance and “now-ness” that most people can only *briefly* obtain through activities that DEMAND total attention. I meditate daily as well as play softball, and therefore I am in a position to make these comparisons and to have the insight into the commonalities that occur in deep states of meditation and complete absorption in sports.  In quiet times in the outfield, when the batter has not quite made it to the batter’s box, and there is a lull in the action, I reflect on my mind state and see, with glaring clarity, how meditative I was during the previous play.  For example, last week during my softball game there was a pop fly out to shallow left field.  I was playing deep center-left field, and once the ball left the bat of my opponent, I had to strain every muscle in my body to run towards the infield if I had any hope of making the catch.  I saw the ball descending rapidly and I noticed I had several yards of space to overcome still.  As the ball approached the ground, pulled inexorably by gravity, I realized that the only way I could catch this ball was to dedicate myself to a frontward dive.  I had to leap, extend my body, place my glove in the correct location, and maintain bodily stability to secure the catch through the hard fall.  I felt and heard the solid thump of the ball landing in my glove.  My teammates immediately roared their approval, and I hopped to my feet and threw the ball back into the infield.  As I turned to run back out to my position, I had time to reflect on the fact that my body made that play with absolutely no input from my conscious mind.  I had not thought about how I was going to extend my body.  I had not contemplated the physics or pondered the decision to dive; I JUST DID IT. My body demanded full attention to make the play, and my mind was as silent as the bottom of the ocean. It was blissful.  A beautiful dance of meditation, physics, and that mysterious involuntary bodily intelligence.  It was only after the catch that I was able to put the experience into words.

These mind-states are valuable and beautiful.  They punctuate the routine and banality of everyday life with excitement; and it is in these brief moments of “flow” where we feel alive.  I encourage anyone and everyone to try to increase your opportunities to enter this state by picking up hobbies and going deeply into them.  Whether its playing the guitar, writing poetry, or playing sports.

To conclude, I leave you with a passage from the book I am currently reading: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  In this passage, the narrator is describing a conversation that a main character (Orin) is having with another character.  Orin is a highly talented punter for his college football team, and he is describing why he enjoys punting so much: 

Orin said the thing he thought he liked was that he literally could not hear himself think out there, maybe a cliche’, but out there transformed, his own self transcended as he’d never escaped himself before, a sense of presence in the sky, the crowd-sound congregational, the stadium-shaking climax as the ball climbed and inscribed a cathedran arch, seeming to take forever to fall…”

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