Last updated on 29th September 2011
I had an interesting mix of experiences yesterday. It's left me wondering - about the balance between passion and peacefulness, about whether vitality and craziness fit into a meditative life, about courage and risk and exploration.
I play tennis - not very well. I used to play quite a lot as a kid, and quite recently I've come back to it. I often go to the Monday evening open "adult practice" sessions at the indoor courts less than a ten minute bike ride up the road. I enjoy trying to play better. I had a few individual coaching lessons last year and I find it fascinating how sometimes I can play reasonably well and sometimes it all falls apart. For Christmas I asked for a copy of "The Inner Game of Tennis". It was published in the 1980's, but you can still buy it new at Amazon and of the 18 customer reviews, 16 are "five star". Interesting. The book jacket reads: "The Inner Game of tennis ... takes place in our mind, played against such elusive opponents as nervousness, self-doubt and lapses of concentration ... peak performance at tennis, like any sport, only comes when our mind is so focused that it is still and at one with what our body is doing. The key to the "Inner Game" and better tennis is achieving this state of relaxed concentration so that we are playing "out of our mind" ... Tim Gallwey, a professional player and instructor who has produced dramatic results among the amateurs and pros he has trained, explores how to overcome mental obstacles, improve concentration and reduce anxiety for better performance at every level. There is no physical reason why any of us should not more consistently serve aces or hit perfect returns."
I know quite a lot about this stuff. I teach and practise forms of relaxation and meditation, and have done for many years. For example, yesterday afternoon at the dentist I declined anaesthetic injections (as I tend to) to explore more how the mind deals with anxiety and pain. The friendly dentist said she wouldn't have undergone the procedure in this way. I did have an out though - we'd agreed I could wave my hand at any time and we'd switch to anaesthetic!
So the "Inner Game" approach felt like it came pretty naturally - but it's also very different from the usual way I play sport. I guess my roots go back to playing rugby for the various schools and colleges I attended. I was pretty passionate. At junior school we had boxing too, and I ended up as captain of our team, as I did at rugby. I love "going for it" and, at racquet sports, I tend to be the noisiest person on the court. My friends tell me it's fun! I certainly enjoy it hugely. So paradoxically - although an inner game meditative approach feels a familiar way to be - it doesn't feel familiar for me when I'm playing competitive sport.
Well, after one attempt at it, I would say it probably helped my tennis game. The jury's out. I plan to explore it more. But the point of this story isn't just about tennis. Afterwards I biked home through the icy, snow-filled streets. Quite dangerous, but I was being careful. I thought a little about the inner game as I cycled. Observant. Relaxed. Suddenly, as I was coming quite fast down an icy hill, a big solid snowball flew out of the dark hitting me hard on the side of the throat. Definitely dangerous. A few inches higher and it would have hit me in the face. I could easily then have lost control of the cycle. Not good.
I came to a stop and headed back up the street. I was angry. The snowball had come from the side of the canal, an area now screened behind the end of a big hedge. I didn't know who I would find in the dark or how many of them. I guess I can be quite impetuous at times. As I came round the edge of the hedge, I met a grinning teenager coming down the steps. Maybe 16 years old. A couple of other biggish lads with him, and an older woman. I grabbed the collar of his coat and yelled. Something about the danger and thoughtlessness of what had happened. He and his mates looked quite shocked, making excuses, saying (unrealistically) that the snowball hadn't come from them. I turned and left them. Was what I did sensible? Partly I wanted to make them think before they tossed a snowball at another cyclist who maybe wouldn't get away as lightly as I did. But yelling didn't fit too well, it seemed, into my "inner game" meditativeness!
How do passion and peacefulness fit together? Do they? I want both in my life. I have a dear friend who has meditated for decades. In recent years he has practised even more intensively and teaches retreats. I'm not sure that the way it affects him is all good. There seems to be a cooling. Sometimes I feel it makes him more withdrawn, less crazy, less passionate, less alive. Who knows? As I've written many times in this blog, mindfulness and relaxation can be hugely helpful. However, as the fine meditation teacher Jack Kornfield has pointed out, these inner practices can also go out of balance.
So now, the next morning, what do I feel and think about the snowball episode last night. It seems natural to me to experience anger when one is treated thoughtlessly and dangerously. I don't have a problem with this. It's a little dodgy in today's cities to head back to confront people, when one has no idea of who or how many they are. I'm glad I had the courage to do it. However I'm not so happy about yelling at them. Throwing snowballs can be a lot of fun. I don't now think they were being deliberately dangerous - probably more just thoughtless. Maybe I would have been more memorable for them - made it less likely that they'd be that thoughtless again - if I'd simply and quietly explained that I was upset and why.
I've done that before. Years ago, while I was sitting unobtrusively meditating in a no-smoking railway carriage (before trains became all non-smoking) in came five or six quite drunk football supporters. They were loud. One of them was smoking. Nobody in the carriage said anything. The ticket collector came by, but he too didn't confront them. They were big and sounded aggressive. Who knows - maybe I was foolish, maybe not. I was certainly very quiet and peaceful inside. I walked up the carriage and squatted down beside the smoker. I put my hand out to touch him lightly on the shoulder and said something like "I'd prefer it if you didn't smoke." I got a mouthful of abuse, but I was very peaceful still. I spoke again saying something like "I'm not trying to be aggressive. Smoking bothers me. That's why I'm in this carriage. I'd be grateful if you didn't smoke." And I then stood up and walked back to my place. There was some loud discussion amongst the football supporters. Then the guy who I think was probably their leader, stormed up the carriage with a cigarette packet in his hand shouting something to his smoking friend about throwing the packet out of the window. No more smoking. Quiet. Interesting.
Hey, but a bit of passion, dance, wildness - they can be good too!