Thursday, June 30, 2011

Extending Influence

Beauty in Sports

The theme from Wimbledon always gives me a catch in my chest. In the early years of my enthusiasm I would wear white and get up early singing along trying my best to sound like a fanfare trumpet. Long before I knew anything about endorphins giving us pleasure for what has survival value, I knew that watching tennis was good for me. Seeing something so well done is exhilarating, a stimulus to higher achievement. Mirror neurons get a healthy workout, reflecting the facial expressions of concentration and focus, the body language that pushes the envelope of physical capability. The positive feelings we experience show that we’re meant to push our abilities. We understand and participate in the international language of gesture. When players show frustration, it’s a sign they’re taking it personally, have lost the sense of their mission. It doesn’t take ESP to see that’s not a winning attitude. We know what it feels like and how it can drag us down.
Watching Wimbledon is a superlative visual pleasure, tennis in its most jaw-dropping beauty, on grass and framed by the elegant English aesthetic. With crowds gathered to witness the best tennis in the world, it is the level where sports can be high art. We’re drawn to the style of the player that expresses something our soul yearns to reinforce. Everyone has their own expression of excellence. I don’t tend to root for a particular player until they clearly deserve to win. The ones I like best have to do with their style and attitude toward the game, how they handle setbacks and the winning shots of their opponents, staying focused when things aren’t going their way. Marion Bartoli drew me in with her earnest determination, her movements both balletic and fierce. Then there’s the fact that she beat Serena Williams, a tremendous player who only a few years back inspired me to call people up and say they should turn it on immediately. She looked like sculpture in motion. Her sister Venus was even more graceful in her heyday. When sports becomes art there are no wasted motions, the grace and attunement can only be achieved with high level skills pushed to their limits. It has so many followers because of our attraction to what we admire. Not only does it show us what “the zone” looks like, but through our inner mirroring, what it feels like as well.
The enjoyment for the spectator is not just about the competition the but seeing the sport taken to new levels, to feel that heart swelling admiration for the hard work and intense discipline it takes to get there that stimulates the best in ourselves. It’s the mindfulness that a game requires that draws attention around the channeling of pure life force and makes us feel more fully alive. If you haven’t experienced what watching tennis can make you feel, give it a try this weekend. The Finals are Saturday (Women’s) and Sunday (Men’s), 9am, NBC.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Fondly remembering my month in France two years ago.

Making a Game of Self-Improvement

Almost by accident, but surely as a result of reading the book “Reality is Broken”,
I found myself assigning point values to the various things I do. What I valued the most I gave the highest scores, but everything I wanted to encourage from smiling to creative breakthrough was matched by a certain number of points. I was surprised at how much fun this was, comparing the relative values of not just the obvious stuff like taking my walk or doing an errand, but more nuanced behaviors like asking someone a good question or transforming a negative experience into a positive are encouraged by high scores. The highest scores are for creative breakthroughs, starting something new and doing something entirely different. Visiting my parents and getting my car’s emissions tested have the added satisfaction of contributing to high scores as well as feelings of satisfaction.
When I was in the hospital a few years ago, Union Memorial used a pain scale that helped patients put a number on the degree of their pain. A strip with faces numbered one to ten registering mild unease at the low end and screaming pain at the other not only helped me pinpoint the pain, it gave me a chance to compare and see how I was doing. It was satisfying to be able to measure my descent from nine to four over a period of days. Putting it on a spectrum, even though quantifying, gives a sense of perspective. Studies have shown we’re happiest when our left front hemisphere is active. That’s why the act of putting thoughts and emotions in words feels good. It’s encouraged by our reward system. Analytical abilities are there too, the good feeling is a sense of knowing what something is, a small act of pinning down the difficult to express.
Giving points to all the behaviors I want to encourage uses a game mode to fulfill the “I Ching’s” advice for being a happier person by cultivating my best qualities. Additionally I consider the modern happiness research and give points to whatever encourages a happy state of mind. Every smile counts. Negative points subtract from the total. These are for behaviors I want to discourage like mindless habits. Higher negative scores are given to anger and impatience, yelling at other drivers and careless accidents according to degree. The process of quantifying stuff like this is entertaining in itself. Living it through the day can be outright funny. When I forgot to put the whistling cap down on the teakettle, my husband called my attention to it when it had almost boiled down. After setting it right I came out of the kitchen and announced that I’d penalized myself five points. We both laughed.
In the time I’ve been playing this game it’s been especially effective with mindless habits. I have a few nervous habits of which picking at the skin around my fingernails is most intractable. At minus two points per instance, I’m amazed at the power of that little shift to make me more aware and resistant to the automatic. And when I do catch myself, I chuckle when I write it down and maybe the pleasure is partly in having some small penalty to exact. Looking at the day as an opportunity to beat a previous days score clearly adds mindfulness where it wasn’t before. I enjoy tallying up the previous days points when I write down my first scores the next day. Right now my highest is seventy and my lowest, twenty-eight. That shows how hard it can be. A day spent watching TV or daydreaming earns no points so would likely end up in the negative values after the nervous habits, angry voice and extra glasses of wine are added up.
One feature of happiness concerns how something becomes more meaningful when tied to a bigger picture. Putting separate routine actions into the larger score of my day, pulls together all the isolated acts that were difficult while separate, but became meaningful when tied to the whole. For a person not usually given to quantification, I think what I like best about playing this game with myself is that instead of counting up stuff- money, possessions and the externals of our lives, we’re counting our interior wealth, focusing on our actions, the behavior that creates our character. It’s a game that encourages us to live with the person we want to be.