Last week, I promised to write about learning to quiet the thinking mind so that what I'll call the "body-mind" can do its thing. Some people seem to find this very easy and intuitive. I am not one of those people. As a dyed-in-the-wool control...enthusiast ("freak" seems a little harsh...) this is something I have wrestled with for a long time...and continue to wrestle with, if I'm being honest.
It started when I first read Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis as an undergraduate music student 25 long years ago...
It's 1991. I'm a geeky over-achiever and I have decided to dedicate my life to the tuba. My teacher has told me about "peak performance" and "the zone" and I want in. He suggests that I read The Inner Game of Tennis and, ever the keener, I dig right in.
One of the first concepts that Gallwey presents in The Inner Game is the notion of the two selves. He suggests that within each of us there are two selves: a "thinker" or "teller" self that he calls Self 1 and a "doer" self that he calls Self 2. The relationship between these two selves, says Gallwey, is of critical importance:
...the kind of relationship that exists between Self 1 and Self 2 is the prime factor in determining one's ability to translate his knowledge of technique into effective action. In other words, the key to better tennis -- or better anything -- lies in improving the relationship between the conscious teller, Self 1, and the natural capabilities of Self 2. (Gallwey, p. 23)
It is the constant "thinking" activity of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached. (Gallwey, p. 28)
Peak performance, you say? I'm listening... Gallwey goes on:
When a player is "in the zone," he's not thinking about how, when or even where to hit the ball. He's not trying to hit the ball, and after the shot he doesn't think about how badly or how well he made contact. The ball seems to get hit through a process which doesn't require thought."
Aaaaand, I'm out. The ball seems to "get hit"??? Which, translated into tuba-speak, would seem to suggest that the right notes would also "get hit" if I could just manage to...what...not think?
This seemed neither plausible nor desirable.
It seemed implausible because I couldn't imagine shutting off my thinking mind. Heck, I thought I was my thinking mind. It seemed undesirable because if I was going to get into the zone or achieve optimal performance, I kind of wanted to be able to take the credit. "Letting it happen" was a non-starter; I wanted to make it happen.
And yet...something told me there was at least a kernel of truth in what Gallwey was saying -- in part because he wasn't the only one saying it. Take this little nugget of wisdom from Zen In the Art of Archery, which I read around the same time:
What stands in your way is that you have too much willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.
"Precisely," I thought.
Over time, I became convinced that my "willful will" was not, in fact, my biggest asset. But, in all my reading, what I didn't find was a description of how exactly to quiet my thinking mind and allow poor, sidelined Self 2 to come out and play.
To be fair, in The Inner Game of Tennis, Gallwey does offer a four-step plan for optimal learning:
- Make an attempt at something and non-judgmentally observe the results.
- Picture the results you desire.
- Trust Self 2 and make another attempt. Don't think about it; just let it happen.
- Again, non-judgmentally observe the results. (Gallwey, p. 116-121)
But this left me feeling equal parts intrigued and frustrated. To me it suggested that cultivating a better relationship between Self 1 and Self 2 was ultimately a matter of a relatively simple shift in perspective. Just observe non-judgmentally! Trust Self 2! Let it happen! Problem was, I couldn't even get past step one.
Eventually, I moved on to a more cognitive-behavioural/psychological skills training approach to practice and performance. Here were the straightforward how-to guidelines I had been looking for! Using resources such as Don Greene's Performance Success, I began to focus on things like goal-setting, self-talk, visualization, mental practice, etc. I crafted detailed mental workouts and pre-performance plans. A lot of it was very helpful. But I also think that many of these strategies only served to reinforce the hold my thinking mind had on not just my approach to playing, but on my entire worldview. In other words, I was learning to use my thinking mind to greater advantage, but Self 2 remained very much a supporting player.
You know what happened next. I got into yoga and meditation and Self 2 emerged in all her glory and it was all rainbows and unicorns and optimal performance from that point forward.
By the time I got into meditation and yoga, I had pretty much given up on Self 2. I was as identified with my thinking mind as ever and, all things considered, it had served me pretty well. So when I began to experience the "quieting down" that I had read so much about in my 20s, it kind of snuck up on me.
And here's what I learned: The thinking mind can be a real tyrant. In both yoga and meditation, we're invited to step out of the flow of mental activity and just observe what's going on in our present-moment experience. When I started to do this, I was surprised by how much planning and judging and ruminating was going on all the time. This was especially true of any mental activity related to playing. And I was so immersed in all this planning and judging and ruminating that I thought it was who I was. But then, when I started to look at it, I realized, "Oh, that's not me -- that's just planning, judging, and ruminating." Once I got some distance from my thoughts, a lot of mental space opened up. Within that space, I began to see possibilities and connections that hadn't been available to me when I was so identified with thinking.
Okay -- I am going to press pause on the personal reflection and try to keep this somewhat practical. And what could be more practical than a neuroscience explanation for what I just described?
In The Mindful Brain, clinical psychiatrist and mindfulness researcher Dan Siegel identifies two broad processes that govern our response to experience. First, there is "bottom-up" processing which refers to direct sensory experience in the present moment. As an example of this type of processing, Siegel offers the pure experience of feeling the breath during meditation:
We sense our breath, for example, becoming aware of the in-breath, the turn of inhalation to exhalation, and then the out-breath. Within this...ever-present interface of our body with the outside world, we bring awareness and create a resonance of connection between attention and corporeal self. (Siegel, p. 138)
Bottom-up processing is inherently non-conceptual and greets each each experience openly and without preference: "Bottom-up brings us into now." (Siegel, p. 138)
This is in contrast to "top-down" processing which refers to the ways in which our experiences, memories, beliefs, etc. shape how we perceive and act on information coming from the senses. According to Siegel:
...top-down influences have had huge survival value in our evolutionary history in that they enable the brain to make rapid assessments and carry out efficient information processing to then initiate behaviours that enable the organism to survive.
Furthermore, top-down processing helps us function effectively and efficiently in our day-to-day lives:
If every moment of our lives we approached experience as if it were a baby's first step, we would never walk to the market. We must make summations, create generalizations, and initiate behaviours based on a limited sampling of incoming data that have been shunted through the filters of these mental models.
The down side is that top-down processing can cause us to miss information that, although it might not fit into any known category, could nonetheless be extremely valuable. Not only that but, "On a practical level, if our past top-down influences create an internal set of "shoulds," then becoming enslaved by these beliefs...would make us prey to being quite judgmental about ourselves and others." (Siegel, p. 137)
What does this have to do with Self 1 and Self 2? Possibly nothing. But, what I have been trying to get at is that, for some of us, quieting the thinking mind can be extremely difficult. And I think this top-down vs bottom-up framework helps explain why. It's just kind of the way we're built. Getting out of habitual patterns of thinking and reacting is really, really hard. As Siegel says, "Dissolving preconceived ideas and reactions, those ever-present top-down influences on ways of experiencing reality, is a challenging process." (Siegel, p. 145) This is why, if you have a habit of judging your experience as good or bad, it is going to be almost impossible to follow Gallwey's four-step process without losing your footing on step one.
This is where mindfulness practice has been invaluable for me. Mindfulness is kind of like The Inner Game for Dummies (and Really Neurotic People). Take basic meditation instructions, for example. Usually, when you begin to meditate, you hear something along the lines of:
- Put your attention on your breath and try to keep it there.
- When your mind wanders, which it will, simply bring your attention back to your breath.
The assumption that you're not going to be able to do it -- keep your attention on your breath, that is -- is built right into the instructions! In mindfulness practice, it is a given that mental habits like judgment, self-criticism, trying hard, impatience, etc. will rear their pesky heads again and again and again. And each time they do, we simply notice them and return our focus to an object of attention. In other words, we say no to top-down influences and settle back into bottom-up perception.
As we do this, we learn that we can experience directly without interference or instruction from the thinking mind. For some of us this can be quite a revelation!
From a place where the thinking mind is a little more quiet, perhaps learning to trust Self 2 -- which really means trusting yourself, stripped of all the trappings of the ego -- seems a bit less like a leap of faith.
In retrospect, I think that if I had approached Gallwey's advice as a practice rather than as an endgame I might have made the leap to trusting Self 2 much sooner. Or maybe not.
What I do know is that the practice is ongoing. I have to make the leap again and again. It's not just a shift in perspective like I originally thought. Instead, it's an ongoing commitment to being open to what each moment offers.
Why does it even matter?
Gallwey says that this is how you achieve peak performance. Maybe. I'm not sure how predictable peak performance ultimately is. Certainly, my own record has been a bit spotty... But I do think that when we stop making everything so bloody personal, we naturally tap into something universal that can infuse our practicing with tremendous energy and commitment and our performances with generosity and humility.
William Westney (can't have a post without a quote from him!) says:
...a performer who responds with his entire self, not just his thinking mind, can create art of transcendent spirituality. Not only is the artist as open as a child is, but the constraints of individual ego and personality seem to dissolve in the act of performance. Putting personality aside opens the way for greater artistry. (Westney, p. 24)
Next week: No waxing rhapsodic, just a couple of exercises to help put this all into practice.
Thanks for reading! Happy practicing.
p.s. To be clear, just because I found its principles difficult to put into practice doesn't mean I don't think The Inner Game of Tennis is a fantastic book! So is Performance Succes. I highly recommend them both. Plus a little mindfulness...
Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House, 1974. iBook.
Herrigel, Eugen, and R. F. C. Hull. Zen in the Art of Archery. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1953.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2007.
Westney, William. The Perfect Wrong Note. Newark, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2006. iBook.