To Act Without Thinking: A Strategy for Tennis and The Game of Life

Corinne. Corinne. Corinne.” I repeated the name to myself a few times, as I always do when I meet someone new, as if attempting to stitch it into the fabric of my mind. Having recently relocated to Miami, from the German part of Switzerland, I figured this name should hold easily in the memory bank. Quite a few Corinne’s had crossed my path during the two years in which I had called the little town of Aegeri, in the Kanton of Zug, ‘home’. This Corinne was a vibrant woman. You could see and feel her coming from a mile away. She walked swiftly, smiled broadly, spoke enthusiastically and played tennis with a flare. She was one of the first tennis ladies to whom I was being introduced by my adopted tennis coach, cum surrogate dad, Ralph. I am not sure who adopted who first, but Ralph reminded me of my dad and and his brothers, both in his physique and temperament, and since I did not see my father and uncles very frequently, and Ralph was doing a very good job at helping me to remember how to play tennis after a twenty one year hiatus, I figured our relationship was here to stay. “Celia, Corrine. Corrine, Celia.” An exchange of pleasantries, and the non-Swiss-German lady of the court, fluttered away with a sparkle of her fingers.

This short story begins many months later, as Corinne walks towards me on a tennis court, during a group clinic. It is eighty degrees fahrenheit, but feels much warmer, and it is only early April. Having survived my first summer in Miami the previous year, I am wondering if a cool spell will grace us before the onslaught of rising mercury causes the houses to be shut up like fortresses, and the air-conditioning units to begin the long-haul whir until Autumn. Corinne is soaking wet, and panting a little bit. She smiles that unmistakably American smile, that makes the whole world feel at ease. I guess that she has had her hour long private lesson, before joining in the group clinic, which is a further ninety minutes duration. She nods her head to confirm. Smiles all round.

“Corinne, I am going to buy you a book!”, I joke with her, taunting that she needs a little Yin in her life. She laughs out loud. Apparently she really likes to read, but does not have time, and if she picks up a book, it is usually as she crawls into bed, and then she cannot put it down, and finds herself awake until the early hours of the morning. I imagine the Ayurvedic doctor, with whom I had consulted many years before in Kerala, India, gently wobbling his head as he considered the state of her Vata, Pitta and Kapha. As the players rotate from court to court and coach to coach, we continue the back and forth on the topic of injecting some literature into her life, before the Cinderella hour. Noah, the head coach at the club, who has known Corinne for many a moon, catches wind that I am suggesting that she slow down and read a book. He giggles and offers me good luck in my quest. I change the offer of buying a book, to writing a book for her. Surely if someone writes a book for you, you will find the time to curl up with it and chill out right in the middle of the day, to indulge in a little bit of down time, no? Maybe I am being too ambitious. Corinne does not have time to read a book, and I do not have time to write one! I make one last offer. “Ok, I will write you an article or a short story. Give me a title or a subject. Anything at all!”. Corinne pauses, her flushed face centimeters away from the frigid water spouting out of the water cooler. It crosses my mind that she might respond, “How harassing the President of the tennis Club gets your membership revoked”. I am on the waiting list for membership at this rather exclusive tennis club, where ‘not just any body’ is allowed to walk in and apply, and Corinne is the new President. Luckily, she is as kind as she is exuberant. She rallies, “Are you a writer?”. I answer with a quick volley (I am good at the net), “I would like to be!”. She pauses, perched on the precipice of indecision, and finishes the point with, “I can’t think!”, then laughs her way to a well-earned, refreshing sip of water. Well, I guess that will have to be the title then, or at least an indication of the direction of the flow of my writing.
I can’t think.

In the moment that Corinne paused, searching for an answer to my question, and time seemed to slow, a la doorstep-of-the-Millenium movie “The Matrix”, she was displaying a pattern that has become so prevalent that we assume that it is normal behaviour – the act of indecision. What are we doing when we stop to think before we act? Taking ourselves out of the flow of the moment, attempting to consciously calculate all possible variables and make a choice in order to control an outcome. Blatant indecision, and also the act of pausing to think, even for a nanosecond, before making a decision, is a display of an inherent lack of trust in ourselves and in our environment as a whole. It is symptom of a culture which lives outside of the present moment, either being sucked back into ruminating about the past, or thrust forward into anticipation of the future. It is an indication of an inherent anxiety which has sprung from a delusion that all is not well, and a fantasy in which the Yin and the Yang do not dance for all eternity in the myriad manifestations in this Universe of Opposites. We forget that we are playing a game, and that it really does not matter who wins or loses, because time is not horizontal, and does not come to an end, it is vertical, and as we drop deeply into the present moment, we dive into our own unfathomable bliss, and wellspring of wellbeing. That last bit was slightly airy-fairy. Please accept my apologies. I am into living in the present moment…

The Zen mind is one which acts without thinking. As I write, there is an iguana leisurely locomoting across the lawn downstairs, lunching on the leaves of one plant or another, and as I watch him, he appears to be pretty calmly going about his business, without much anxiety as to whether he is eating the right leaves or not, or if the puppies will wake up and chase him into the welcoming waters of Biscayne Bay, or if the sun will suddenly eclipse, plunging him into a most uncomfortable, cool, midday moment. I suspect that he is not ‘thinking’ as we Homo sapiens sapiens (this is not a typ-o…I really only recently discovered that we have a ‘ditto’ name which differentiates us from our ancestors, the Homo sapiens idaltu), have gotten into the habit of doing.

Now, I am not suggesting that we all walk around aspiring to be more iguana-like, but it might be nice to take a moment and contemplate what it wold be like to flow peacefully through a traffic-free mind-scape. What would it feel like to surf the thought-waves of our minds and swim playfully, even dolphin-like, in the ocean of emotion of our daily lives, without getting hung up and losing the game of life, as a result? What would it feel like to fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee? Thought-free?  What would it be like to play tennis the way Bruce Lee plays ping pong? If you have never seen that epic clip of the Master playing the singles court against two ping pong champions playing doubles on the other side of the table, I suggest you Google it right now. It is a short snippet, grey and grainy, which allows us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of an other worldly moment in space and time, and it warrants many a replay. Mr. Lee is so fast. Too fast. How is it humanly possible to be so fast? It is not Hussain Bolt fast. It is something else. It is the speed of the reflex. Apparently, the limit of human reaction time is about a quarter of a second, whatever that means. I guess that’s about the time between Matrix man, Neo, clocking that the guy who looks like he is auditioning for a part in ‘Men in Black’ is pulling a gun on him, and his managing to duck clear of the bullet before Morpheus calmly freezes the scene. Mr. Lee would have handled the situation in a different way. As he dances with the ping pong ball being fired at him by his opponents – there is no better way to describe it, as it looks like beautiful choreography – it would seem apparent that there is no act of hesitation on his part; no thought-glitch to hiccup an error into his game. The finesse and accuracy are born out of an understanding of flow. Be Like Water. Is it just me, or is he hypnotic? Maybe it is the accent! He is not playing ping pong, he is ping pong. He is not holding a racket, he is the racket. He is not hitting the ball, he is the ball. He is not clearing the net, he is the net. He is the edge of the table. He is his opponents. There is a sense of energetic expansion, in which he encompasses all of the elements of the game, and in so doing, he becomes the flow of the game. It is one step beyond ‘going with the flow’. It is ‘being the flow’. What would it be like to play tennis the way Mr. Lee played ping pong?

Before we all start selling our worldly belongings, except our tennis gear, resigning from our jobs, and excusing ourselves from the temptations of raising our children, in order to cross the planet in search of our soulmate martial arts Master, who has been calling to us across space and many lifetimes, I suggest you just take a moment to observe your breath. Feel how it comes and goes, rises and falls, expands and contracts, and creates an awareness in you of up and down, in and out, left and right, back and front. Most meditation techniques begin with this simple practice of observing the breath, and most of us, if we sit too long, and do not have a slightly masochistic meditation monitor walking around with a stick to prod us into wakefulness, will happily drift off into lalaland, and awake feeling like we made a mistake and missed the meditation. But what we have just experienced is also a clue to the mystery of the ping pong Master. Asleep, awake. Dark, light. Stillness, movement. Doing, non-doing. Being, non-being. It is a game of opposites. And though we have been taught that the opposites are ‘different’, and even that we should fear one side of the swing and fight tooth and nail for the other side to prevail, this is all a delusion, and a strategy which will inevitably lead to anxiety, and bleed the fun and frolic out of the game.

The more we can relax into the breath, the more we become aware of the spaces between the inhale and exhale, and the exhale and inhale. In Sanskrit, there are actually two distinct names for these spaces – Antara Kumbhaka and Bahya Kumbhaka – respectively being the space between the end of the inhale and the beginning of the exhale, and the end of the exhale and the beginning of the inhale. The house we lived in in Switzerland had the most sublime view over a little Alpine lake and down the valley to the snow-capped mountains. The first time I saw the view, I had the sensation of dropping into my body anew, as if, in that moment I had suddenly reincarnated. I felt a sense of deep peace and well-being. I felt as if I were resting in that space between my exhale and my inhale. I consulted with my Yoga teacher back in London, to find out what this space was called in Sanskrit, and, armed with her response, I excitedly suggested to my husband that we christen the house Bahya Kumbhaka. He looked at me with compassion. I expect that he assumed that the relatively rarefied air at nine hundred and fifty meters altitude was having an odd effect on my sea-level dweller brain. He entertained my idea for a while, but even today the house still sports nothing more than a discreetly Swiss number sign, indicating to a new postman in training, that he is in the right spot . Let’s just say that in a country where you can be reported for using the wrong type font on your mailbox nameplate, or having the wrong style doormat, or mowing your lawn on a Sunday, we decided to err on the side of not plastering strange Sanskrit words on the entrance of our house. But perhaps this was the point when I began to really be interested in the beauty of this space. I am fascinated by the way that many ancient languages have words for specific spaces, like the space inside of a cylinder, or a container. This points to a long lost awareness of the importance of space. In the distant past of our ancestral memories, there is a time when space is more than ‘nothing’, and in the present moment of many a physicist and open-minded, everyday adult, space is the birthplace of everything. It is the Field of Quantum field theory. It is the Ripga of Dzogchen Buddhism. It is the womb of creation. It is the moment when the yang wanes and the yin waxes, when the pendulum changes it’s swing. It is the peaceful void which exists in between the thought-waves in the cinema of our minds. It is our awareness of the space that inspires the realisation that the poles are connected. They are extrinsically different, but intrinsically the same. Separation is an illusion. When we are able to shift our attention away from the snap, crackle and pop of the day to day drama unfolding around us, and sit in the space between our thoughts, we find that we are able to navigate more serenely through the rough patches of the white water of reality. When we take this practice onto the tennis court, we can allow ourselves to merge into the expanded consciousness  which connects us to the court, the ball, the net, our opponents, the wind, our rackets, and we can slip, if only for a second, into the sublime space of Mr. Lee’s ping pong playing.

Try it for yourself. Is it not quite often that, in the middle of a rally, or a match, a thought arises, which you give attention to, and in an instant, you find you have made an unforced error? This happens to me so often that I am tempted to say ‘all the time’. I am acutely aware of sitting in the flow of the back and forth of the little yellow ball, and then the second a little thought wave pops up on the horizon of my mind, the ball goes flying over the fence, into the net, or seems to mysteriously change trajectory mid-flight, and land millimetres beyond the white line of fate.  Whereas, when I am completely in the present moment and have all my five physical senses focussed in the now, my gaze is softened and I allow my body to open to receive all the necessary information to keep me in the game; my feet automatically fall into the right position; I feel grounded on the court and smooth in my swing; I know where the ball is going without having to focus intently on the actions of my partner on the other side of the net; my legs start running before I consciously send them the signal to do so; my grip on the racket seems to change automatically before I have to think about whether I need to slice or topspin my shot; at the net my reflexes are firing so quickly that I wonder who is playing inside of my body….and then the ball falls into the net.  Thought crossing. GAME OVER. I remember those words flashing on the screen of my giant desktop computer when I was a little girl playing some relic video game involving a frog crossing a road in varying degrees of traffic. Now, I muse about the relevance of this phrase when contemplating mortality, and the transition out of the game of life, but for the purposes of this exercise, it is interesting to observe the correlation between the arising of the thought and the breaking of the flow of your play. We can extrapolate this into any activity in life. I have been playing with this awareness in every aspect of my waking state, from my horse riding lessons, to  interactions with my children, to my practice on the yoga mat. Time and time again, I experience that it is from the ‘space’ that I am able to ‘be’ in the flow, and in so doing, everything feels a little easier. A little more elegant. A little less stressful. The resistance falls away. The creative impulse arises. The voice of intuition is clear. The breath rises and falls, the thoughts come and go, and I ask myself, under the influence of Alan Watts, “Am I doing it, or is it doing me?”. I laugh. From the space it is clear that ‘I’ and ‘It’ are a part of the game. Characters in the play. Soon we will bow humbly before our appreciative audience, and then retire backstage where we will remove our masks and discuss our performances. But until then, there is tennis to be played!

I invite you to observe your breath and your thoughts, as they rise and fall. I invite you to become familiar with the spaces between inhale and exhale, and between thought wave and thought wave. I invite you to rest in the space. To lull yourself to sleep by falling into your Bahya Kumbhaka. I invite you to sit like a surfer, peacefully on your board, soaking up the sun and washing your cares away in the ocean, as you rest in the spaces between the swells, waiting for the perfect wave. I invite you to walk onto the court, and resign yourself from your subscription to the delusion of separation, and allow yourself to expand into the space between your thoughts, in which you can be your racket, be the ball, be the net, be your game partner, be the white line, be the wind, be the sun, be the space which is holding it all together.

“I can’t think!”

What would it feel like if you did not need to?

Stand on the precipice of your indecision, free yourself from the anxiety of choice, and dive gleefully into the space between your thoughts. Allow your Zen mind to lead you. Act without thinking, and you will discover the fun, the joy, and the satisfaction of playing the game.