Life is Like Playing Tennis

Daily living has a lot in common with playing tennis – this does not suggest that they are exactly the same, only that they have some features in common when observed from an effectiveness viewpoint.  As with any metaphor, to say that life is “like playing tennis” is to say that there are some aspects that are the same in each thing being compared.  Life and playing tennis are characterised by uncertainty and challenges, require constant adaption, are affected by our mental and emotional state and can be a source of happiness or disappointment.

When playing tennis, as in life, you are uncertain about the next ball/challenge you will have to face.  In tennis, the shot you have to deal with can vary in spin, speed, and direction and be affected by external factors such as wind and air temperature and the kind of surface you are playing on, as well as the condition of that surface.   In life, we are faced with all kinds of challenges such as financial and health issues, relationship problems or adverse work conditions as well as broader issues such as financial constraints or heath crises such as the pandemic.

I have to admit that I am a “tennis tragic” having played tennis for over 60 years and continuing to do so in my 70’s.  I only play social tennis now once a week (compared to in my youth when I played morning and afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, including different forms of fixtures and coaching).   As with life, I have had to make continual adaptions as I age.   I have decided, for example, that I need a new tennis racquet to provide better support for my game.  I requested a new racquet from my wife for my recent 75th birthday –  a racquet that is lighter and has a larger frame (for failing eyesight).   This replaced my 20-year old tennis racquet which was badly in need of a restring to restore power and precision.  

They say that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease you need to exercise and learn a new skill that challenges you and provides you with mental stimulation.  Again to overcome the declining strength in my arms and wrists, I decided to learn how to play a two-handed backhand instead of the single-handed backhand that I have used for the last 60 years plus.  This is incredibly challenging for me, not only from a technical viewpoint but also from the perspective of incorporating it psychologically in my game, with the high probability in the early stages of making a lot more mistakes when playing a tennis game.  It means  that I have to take more risks, reflect on what I am doing wrong and manage my mental and emotional reactions to the higher level of mistakes

To help me start out with the requisite technical knowledge, I asked by my sons to pay for three professional coaching lessons (as a 75th birthday present) which gave me a good grounding in the technique required to achieve an effective two-handed backhand.  Now, I just have practice to acquire the technical competency of a two-handed backhand and learn to manage my fear of making a lot of mistakes as I learn to adapt my shot and my positioning to different balls that I will face in a tennis game.  Fear can prevent me from trying out the two-handed backhand in a real game and deprive me of the opportunity to learn as I go.  As with life, I have to learn to manage my fears if I am to achieve a rewarding level of competency and joy.  

Over many years, I have learned to develop a number of principles for playing tennis effectively – a set of principles that have relevance to achieving a life that is fulfilling and happy.  I describe these principles below and they may serve to reinforce a positive approach to life.

My six principles for effective and joyful tennis playing are:

  1. As I approach each night of social tennis, I decide on one micro skill that I am going to concentrate on improving during that night (usually over three or four sets).  There are so many micro-skills involved in playing tennis that it is not possible or effective to concentrate on everything.  As with making resolutions in life to improve your behaviour, focusing on a single goal can prove to be more achievable, effective and reinforcing.   This process employed on each occasion of playing, has served as the basis for continuous improvement, one micro skill at a time.
  2. When playing, I make continuous adaptions to my game to adjust to the circumstances – different players and different conditions.  If some particular tennis stroke is not working or getting me into trouble, I try something different.  Over the years I have developed multiple forms of spin such as top spin, slice, back spin, “out-swinger” (spins away from the body of my opponent) and “in-swinger” (spins into the body).  I adapt my spin to suit the circumstances, e.g. the type of players I am playing against and the external conditions.
  3. Over the last few years dealing with declining physique, I have had to change my mindset playing tennis.  Earlier on when I was much more physically able, I used to try to avoid making mistakes.  But increasingly now, mistakes are a part of the game of tennis.  So I have come to view playing each shot as an experiment – in the face of the numerous variables involved in a tennis shot (both received and hit), it realistic to view playing tennis as a process of conscious “trial and error”, with relevant adjustments for what is deemed to be an error in shot selection and/or delivery.
  4. Instead of dwelling on mistakes I make in a game, I try to savour my really good shots – those that were executed well with the desired effect.  Over time, I have built up a mental video playlist of really good shots which serve to build my sense of self-efficacy – my belief in my capacity to competently complete a particular shot (e.g. a backhand, half-volley lob). 
  5. The challenge when continuously making mistakes or doing the wrong thing, is to avoid beating up on yourself.  I am learning instead to appreciate the fact that I can still run, play a tennis shot, enjoy a game with friends, have ready access to tennis courts and be able to afford to play.  When I am tempted to chastise myself for a poor shot, I try to express gratitude for the things that I have and can do on a tennis court.
  6. Over time, as my physical capacities have declined, I have had to adjust my expectations of what I am capable of achieving.   In my secondary school days, I was trained as a sprinter and achieved selection at GPS level.  Now I am a lot slower off the mark.  I have had to change my expectations about my speed and mobility around the court and capacity to hit fast tennis shot (owing to weakening strength in my arms and wrists).  I do try to strengthen my wrists and arms through exercise but this can only serve to reduce the rate of decline.  In the meantime, I have had to adjust my expectations (though sometimes, I attempt to play like a 40 year old…and suffer accordingly!).
  7. I have taken up again the regular practice of Tai Chi which helps to build balance, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and overall energy.  I have learned that Tai Chi has quite remarkable benefits for playing tennis.  This form of meditation-in-action also suits my personal approach to developing mindfulness and helps to offset my declining physical prowess as I age.

Reflection

I have previously written about how tennis can build mindfulness if approached in an appropriate way.  For me, playing tennis involves a continuous process of reflection.  AS I grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, I am increasing my self-awareness about my thought patterns and emotional states when playing tennis.  I am also learning to adapt and adjust my expectations and to approach my game more mindfully, enjoying the present moment without the contamination of continuous negative self-evaluation.  There can be real joy in savouring the experience of competency and being grateful for what I have and can do. Despite the aging process.  I am increasingly convinced that If you live a reflective and mindful life, wisdom becomes a natural outcome.

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Image by Tonny Nijkrake from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Being Mindful 0f Our Thoughts

Tom Heah presented a guided meditation podcast on Mindfulness of Thoughts through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Tom reminds us that we are often lost in thought either about the past or the future – all of which detracts from fully experiencing the present moment.  In relation to the past, we might be absorbed by regrets about what we have done or failed to do; disappointed that certain outcomes (sporting, academic or otherwise) did not meet our expectations; or depressed about a broken relationship or lack of achievement or advancement.  In relation to the future, we might be worried about the unintended consequences of our words and/or actions; concerned about loss of physical/mental capacities; or anxious about our financial situation or the pervasiveness of the pandemic. 

Tom Heah is an occupational therapist and an experienced meditation trainer and practitioner with many years’ experience training facilitators of programs such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy).   He has a low-key and reassuring way of facilitating meditations and provides strong encouragement to “have a go” and try different approaches.

Guided meditation

Tom begins the guided meditation by suggesting that we focus first on “arriving” – being really present in body, emotions and mind.   He encourages us no matter what our posture is (e.g. sitting, standing, lying down or walking) to become very conscious of our bodily sensations – are we bringing any physical tension or tightness to the meditation?  He suggests we welcome any feelings that we may have at the start and to acknowledge their existence without blame or concern to shift them.  As part of this grounding process, Tom asks us to tune into sounds around us without interpreting them or seeking to evaluate them in terms of pleasant or unpleasant – acknowledging that these sounds just exist outside of ourself but within our soundscape.

Tom then uses our bodily sensations as an anchor before moving onto the potentially disarming and distracting element of our thoughts.  He encourages us to feel the solidness beneath our feet (whether through sensing the floor or the earth).  He switches our focus to our palms – firstly, placing our palms downturned on our lap, followed by having them in an upright position and becoming aware of the different sensations associated with these alternative positions (e.g. tightness, tingling or warmth).   This process can be followed by a full body scan moving from the top of our head to the souls of our feet.

When we have achieved some level of groundedness and being present to what is, Tom suggests that we become aware of our thoughts – their content, focus and associated feelings.  He draws on the work of Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, to assert that thoughts lead to action that, in turn,  lead to consequences.  To change the consequences, we need to change our thoughts but the starting point is awareness of our thoughts, their patterns and their reactivity to negative triggers.  Joseph maintains that awareness of our thoughts leads to an “opening of the mind”.

Associated with our thoughts are emotions that are manifest in our body.  Tom encourages us to return to our anchor, bodily sensations, to tap into the embodiment of our thought-provoked emotions.  Again, we can become aware of the bodily sensations associated with particular emotions (e.g. anger can be reflected in muscular spasms or tightness; depression may be experienced as inertia; and nonspecific anxiety can manifest as fibromyalgia).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness and become more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can learn to accept what is and achieve a level of groundedness and emotional control.  Associated with these outcomes are increased resilience and heightened creativity in dealing with challenging situations and experiences.

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Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Reflecting on Our Past Year and Planning Our Future

Allyson Pimentel, meditation teacher with UCLA’s mindfulness education and research center, offered a guided meditation podcast on the theme, Mindfulness and End of Year Reflections, as part of the weekly meditation podcasts conducted in collaboration with the Hammer Museum.  In the podcast, Allyson drew on the work of Amanda Gorman, appointed the first US National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.

Amanda also wrote and delivered the Presidential inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb, for the inauguration of  President Joe Biden.  In her poem, Amanda encourages us to acknowledge the past –  the pains, divisions and the victories over challenges.  At the same time, she exhorts us to see the light in our past difficulties – despite the grief, hurt and tiredness – and to recognize the growth, the hope and persistence we displayed.   In looking to the future, Amanda encourages us to “rebuild, reconcile and recover” and reminds us that “to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside”.    

In the introduction to her guided meditation, Allyson draws on Amanda’s latest book of poems, Call Us What We Carry, to inspire reflection and forward planning.  In particular, she focuses on the poem, What We Carry, which in Allyson’s words “captures the essence of mindfulness”.  The poem grounds us in the dampness of the earth and reminds us that even what is grimy, mired and marred can be a gift and a source of wonder (a perspective we experienced as children sitting on the ground or the grass or playing on the river’s edge).  Amanda reassures us that even if we are not clear about “what we have left behind”, we are enough “for what we have left” in our life.

Guided meditation as an end of year reflection

At the outset, Allyson encourages us to become grounded in the present moment – being conscious of whatever we bring to the meditation including our aches and pains, reticence or excitement, readiness or unease.  She acknowledges at the outset that there are times when stability of presence and its associated calm and quietness are not readily accessible – but still encourages us to try to relax and focus.

The next stage of the guided meditation involves focusing on the sounds both within us and around us.  Within us, it could be the sound of our outbreath, ringing in our ears, or the rumbling of a hungry stomach or upset microbiome. The sounds surrounding us could be traffic noise, birds singing, the rustling of trees, the cough of a family member, music from our neighbour or  footsteps on the stairs to our meditation place.   Allyson encourages us to tune into the sounds without interpretation or any effort to control or edit them.

Next, we are encouraged to place an upturned palm on our lap – symbolic of openness to all that we have experienced in the past year.   Allyson draws on the words of Amanda’s poem to suggest that our palms  are “open but unemptied”.   We can focus on the past year with its achievements, challenges and set-backs – looking clearly at the things we have done that we are proud of and those we wished we hadn’t been engaged in.  We are challenged to look at both our successes and failures, our compassion towards others as well as our unkind words and actions.

As we reflect over our past words and actions, Allyson encourages us to turn our palm downwards on our lap and draw on the warmth and reassurance of our body.  This is symbolic of receiving self-love and kindness towards ourself as well as forgiveness.  We can tune into the bodily sensations flowing from this sensory experience of acceptance and support.

Finally, Allyson encourages us to think about “how we wish to walk into tomorrow” – to decide how we are going to turn up in the world.  This decision can be informed by what we were dissatisfied in relation to our words and actions in the past.

Reflection

At the outset of the podcast, Alyson reminds us that mindfulness and the Hammer Museum have a common goal “to bring the light of awareness” to every aspect of our lives, including our experiences of art, poetry, music, disillusionment, joy, relationships, inspiration and wonder.  She expresses the hope that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can live with more justice, a sense of openness and spaciousness, and a feeling of being strongly grounded and in control of our emotions, however difficult.

Amanda Gorman offers both enlightenment and hope and the firm belief that we can rise to the occasion of positively shaping the future for the generations to come – a future that is not built on division but on our connectedness and interdependence.  Diana Winston encourages us to bring intention to our New Year resolution, while Leo Babauta suggests that focusing on a single resolve, such as daily mindfulness practice, can have flow-on effects to many facets of our lives.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Natural Awareness through Observation and Listening

On New Year’s day, I was sitting on my deck at home and immediately thought about Diana Winston’s discussion of natural awareness.  All I wanted to do was sit there, observe and listen.  It was as if I was being transported into a different world where nature was supreme and everything else faded in the distance.

As I looked out from the deck I could see the waters of Moreton Bay in the distance through a gap in the trees that afforded a glimpse of the bay and the island not far from the shore.  It was one of those days when the sun was warm, the sky was blue and there was an eerie stillness in the air.  The trees glistened with drops of water after many days of rain.  There was a clarity about the view and a coolness in the air despite the summer weather beginning to warm up.

I could hear the birds in the foreground and background –  Doves cooing persistently, Butcherbirds stretching their necks to break into song and raucous Rainbow Lorikeets breaking the silence with their fast flapping wings as they sped by screeching.   The air was suddenly filled with loud sounds as a Kookaburra landed nearby to let out its laughing call.

I began to observe more closely my pot plants on the table, cupboard and floor of the deck.  I was able to notice new growth with emerging leaves and buds, the thickening of stems and the increasing individuality of the plants as they matured in their pots and took in the air and sunlight.  Some succulents had very shiny leaves, others were tall and imposing, while a small group hung over their pots and extended their reach to the floor.  Another variegated plant that was previously close to death now displayed its bright colours and scalloped edges in a new location on the deck that afforded lots of air, light and access to light rain.

The sky was a bright blue with light, passing clouds moving slowly and forming unusual shapes.  The many birds that surrounded me seemed to rejoice in the clear skies, the gentle breeze and the brightening sunlight.

Reflection

I am reminded of Costa Georgiadis exhortation in his book, Costa’s World: Gardening for the SOIL, the SOUL and the SUBURBS, that we should become more mindful of our immediate environment as we move through it and around it, often totally unaware of its beauty, variety and earthiness and its ability to make us grounded.  Deepak Chopra reminds us of the healing power of “earthing” – consciously grounding ourselves by walking barefoot on the earth or grass.

Diana, in her book The Little Book of Being, also offers ways to develop natural awareness and encourages us to monitor our sensations throughout the day, engage in deep listening and avoid unnecessary aggravation either of our emotions or our microbiome (through the ingestion of inflammatory foods).

As we develop natural awareness and grow in mindfulness through meditation and conscious observation and listening, we can achieve a sense of tranquility, gratitude and peace amid what is increasingly a turbulent world.  Our own backyard can be where we earth and become grounded.

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Image by Perez Vöcking from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.