(Mindfulness and the Spin of the Ball)

The first skill needed for the inner game is called ‘letting it happen’. W. Timothy Gallwey, “Tennis: Playing the Game.”

In my cozy, book-lined blog workshop, I have been trying to write a post on meditation and its first cousin, mindfulness.  Because I am a neophyte practitioner of these time-honored arts, I decided to start with a subject that I know more about: tennis. What has that time-honored sport got to do with mindfulness, you may ask? Please read on.

One of the “goals” (probably the wrong word) of mindfulness and meditation is achieving a focused, “present” mind. While it sounds a little woo-woo, NOW really is all there is. Yesterday and tomorrow only exist in a gooey gray server in the three-pound universe between our ears.

It has been on a tennis court, not in an ashram, that I have visited the bliss of the moment, temporarily relieved of past regrets and the fear of the future. As a junior tennis player in Northern California, and then on Princeton’s men’s varsity team, I sometimes played matches during which I drifted into a state of tranquility, undisturbed by thoughts of how the match might turn out. Tennis players describe this state as “being in the zone,” or “playing out of one’s head.”

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I never really thought about this phenomenon until I read “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey. Gallwey describes what I sometimes experienced on the court. While I oversimplify his thesis for brevity’s sake, Gallwey posits two opposing “selves” that sometimes don’t play very nicely in the cranial sandbox.

Self-One (“One”) is the insecure, competitive ego; an unstable mixture of venture capitalist and helicopter parent. One only cares about winning the match. Self-Two (“Two”) is the humble, highly-trained body; a system of motor mechanisms that has been trained, without any input from One, to play beautiful, flowing tennis. Think of Roger Federer.

Roger Federer | Biography, Championships, & Facts | Britannica

However, when One turns his neurotic attention to the outcome of the match, all bets are off. The validity of Gallwey’s dichotomy is illustrated by the following hypothetical, based on some of the nerve-wracking matches that I played on my college team. Imagine that you are the last player on the varsity ladder, and you are playing a challenge match against the number one player on the junior varsity. If you win, nothing will change. But if he or she wins, you will be demoted to JV. The coach is cool, the team is hang-loose, but the dark JV locker room is straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Imagine further that a match point arises against you. You are returning serve. Your opponent hits her or his first serve to your backhand but it lands just long. You see at the last second that it is out, but you hit the ball back anyway.

That shot doesn’t mean anything in One’s competitive world because it won’t affect the outcome of the match. One disengages his manic attention from this shot, and frets about how to return the next serve. Meanwhile, Two doesn’t care about what is at stake. It cares only about hitting great tennis shots. In our hypothetical it does just that, detonating a topspin (one-handed!) backhand return of the out serve.  Of course, since the first serve was out, Two’s epic shot doesn’t count any more than the faulted first serve did.

Now your opponent hits a second serve, again to your backhand, but this time it lands in the service box. As the ball curves in, One’s shrill nagging causes electrical storms in your prefrontal cortex. One goes into fight or flight mode and recruits the reptilian brain (its partner in the crime of negative thinking), tying Two up in a straight-jacket. You choke and hit a high floater back over the net. Your opponent puts the weak return away, and you and One slink off to drown your sorrows in a bottle of Tequila. Two, on the other hand, just wants to go hit more flawless ground strokes.

I’m no highly trained guru. My attention and thoughts (whether on the court or, as my Dad used to say, sitting cross-legged “contemplating my navel”) wander around like a big dog trying to run on ice. When this happens, Self-One still yaps that I am a bad meditator. Whatever. Meditation is not a matter of being a failure or a success. My attention to my breathing, the pedal cadence (rpm) while I cycle, or repetition of a mantra will inevitably give way to random thoughts. When I realize that my attention has gone AWOL, I just bring it back to the present. It wanders again, I gently show it back to its seat, and so on and on. That’s mindfulness for you. More on that next week.

May we ease into the NOW with an attentive mind and an open heart.


BOOKS: The Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey (you saw that one coming).

Levels of the Game, by John McPhee


If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration. Serena Williams

I don’t play for the record books. Roger Federer


My trusty steed and I are getting there. I have done 436 bike climbs of the Himalayan 135 foot Washington Road hill. That is more than half of the 846 climbs I pledged to do for my Cycling for Justice project to raise funds for The Equal Justice Initiative. $8,105 has been raised so far. Here’s the GoFundMe link if you’d like to join the 56 donors.


The Public Life of Bees (Thoughts on being mindful of the mundane).