By Aalif Surti
Playing in the zone takes a look at the secret life of sports—its spiritual side. The book talks about the zone’, a ‘mystical’ state experienced by sportsmen during peak performance. An olympics special
In Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball—one of the finest books ever written on the game and an important resource for this book—George Will thoroughly demolishes the simplistic notion that excellence in the game is based on instinct or natural talent. He recounts being told by the then Oakland A’s manager Tony La Russa, one of the game’s finest strategists, that what are called instincts are in fact the consequences of “an accumulation of baseball information. They (instincts) use that information as the basis of decision-making as game situations develop. Your instincts may say ‘pitch out now’ and later you may say: ‘Why did I do that?’ When you trust your gut you are trusting a lot of stuff that is there from the past.”
A pitcher might say: “I was just trying to throw strikes,” or a batter may claim he was “just looking for a good ball to hit,” but as Will shows, this apparent simplicity is quite at odds with the real complexities of processing tremendous amounts of information about the game’s crucial variables. But unless they are prompted to discuss the nuances of the sport—something that few journalists show the patience for—players and coaches retreat into a recitation of the familiar clichés.
Although an accomplished performance is anything but instinctual, the idea crops up too frequently to deny that there is something about it that makes it feel that way. That something is immersion. What feels like instinct is the absence of the fear, doubt, worry and unnecessary deliberation that result from self-consciousness. But whereas instinct is a regression to a level of functioning prior to the formation of self-consciousness, what we see in sport is a highly refined mode of intuitive functioning that transcends self-consciousness. It is a harmonisation of the faculties of body and mind, each doing the task that is appropriate to it, and a full trust in the knowledge that years of work have made second nature. There is, in Zen terms, ‘nothing extra’—no ego standing apart from the action encumbering it with useless commentary. Or as an Italian proverb has it: “Learn how to do it, then forget you know how.”
Michael Novak describes this experience beautifully, though he too, unfortunately, speaks of instinct where what is meant is intuition: “This is one of the great inner secrets of sports. There is a certain point of unity within the self, and between the self and its world, a certain complicity and magnetic mating, a certain harmony that conscious mind and will cannot direct. Perhaps analysis and the separate mastery of each element are required before the instincts are ready to assume command, but only at first. Command by instinct is swifter, subtler, deeper, more accurate, more in touch with reality than command by conscious mind.
“It is, of course, not really that well kept a secret. Almost anyone who has worked hard in some field of play can recall a moment of astonishment when all of it—body, mind, and the skill that runs through both—came together and the boundaries of possibility seemed to open wide before one’s eyes. In these moments, everything you do seems to turn into gold. I still savour a few such long-ago moments—on a basketball court, a soccer field, a ski slope—with the same vivid detail as I recall my first kiss.”
One does not have to be a player to sense this. As Shainberg observes: “Our fascination with the zone, and indeed with sport in general, may be due, in part at least, to the possibilities it reveals, the energy and strength and flexibility of the organism when liberated from its ordinary neurological and psychological constraints.” As spectators, we are drawn irresistibly by the thrill of witnessing the drama of self-surpassing play. In this way, athletics awaken and invite us to our own exceptional possibilities.
Novak writes that the discovery of this ‘secret’ harmony “takes one’s breath away.” This is another instance of the link between athletics and aesthetics. A moment of athletic beauty displays the self-finding full accord in the wholeness of its situation. It shows existence aglow in all its rightness. Metaphorically, we recognise in the actions of another that way of being to which our own deepest inclination always points us.
Earlier in this century, D.T. Suzuki nearly single-handedly introduced Zen Buddhism to the West. At the centre of Dr Suzuki’s discussion was the experience of satori; it was for him the key reference point for understanding the entirety of Zen thought and practice. As the religious scholar Huston Smith has pointed out, fascination with the sudden, dramatic breakthrough that is satori was to a large degree what made Suzuki’s writings so compelling.
In the 30 years since Dr Suzuki’s death at the age of 96, Zen has sunk its roots deep into western soil, and its teachings have been taken up by many tens of thousands. Over the years, Suzuki has often been criticised for so emphasising satori.
The reasons are many: focusing on satori presents a distorted and incomplete picture of Zen; it draws attention away from Zen’s other, less exciting aspects, which are the stuff of a life of practice; it encourages dilettantism at the expense of ripening discipline. Perhaps most significantly, focusing on satori hinders practice by establishing for the ego a goal to be attained in the future, something quite at odds with the practice of forgetting the self in full concentration in the present.
Such criticisms are valid, but they are also unfair. Dr Suzuki was introducing Zen to an audience that knew little if anything, about it. Because it is so discontinuous with everyday experience, Suzuki’s descriptions of the extraordinariness of satori served to open the minds of Western readers to the possibilities of practice. Satori is not the last word in Zen, but it is a good start to a long conversation.
I tell this story because the place of satori in Zen is analogous to the place of the zone in understanding the secret life of sport. Because of their power, because of what they show about human possibilities, because they are so compelling, it is tempting to conclude that transcendent moments are definitive of sport’s spiritual dimensions. They are not. But in such moments the potent reality of the life is made most evident and its key themes are brought into sharp relief. As with satori and Zen, the zone does not exhaust our understanding of the secret life of sport. It is not an end point. It is a point from which we depart with a deeper and richer sense of the inner landscape through which we travel.
From Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports, by Andrew Cooper, 1998. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, www.shambhala.com
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