Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia discussed a syndrome some are born with where even with fully developed frontal and temporal lobes, considered primary to intelligence, and often with extensive vocabularies or outstanding musical skills, were unable to take care of themselves, to perform simple actions like tying shoes. The undeveloped part of the brain was the parietal lobe, home of our understanding of ourselves in space, our sense of where we are, our position and direction in our surroundings. Parietal intelligence is the intelligence of Einstein. (That was the part of his brain that was discovered to be bigger than other people’s.) He said his ideas came to him as images and indeed, much of our own use of language depends on metaphors based on moving in space. I think of parietal intelligence as “deer consciousness”; precisely aware of distance and speed, the vectors of movement, that when abstracted and symbolized at the human level become higher mathematics. At the visual level, a broad awareness is attuned to every shift and change in the surroundings. Assessments of ongoing change are the business of daily life.
Spatial intelligence reaches its pinnacle in tennis. The level of focus combined with alert awareness, heighten by anticipation, application of everything observed and known, into spontaneous response crafted by years of dedicated effort is a heartening thing to witness.
Listening to the TV commentators I started to realize how much of the language they were using was also the language you might hear from a coach in the practice of Zen. They talk about the virtues of taking it one point at a time, use phrases like “Staying in the Moment” that illustrate the present-centeredness true of a genuine spiritual state. And it’s easy to see how the mental chatter in the mind of any player is what defeats them and not usually a failing of the body. Throughout the game the unreturnable shot is called a “winner”. Winning is not something reserved for the result but happens throughout the game. Perfect placement and execution is a triumph in every instance it’s achieved. Attention to the moment, acting at the height of personal capability is the state of involvement we call flow. In the language of sports, to be in the Zone is to be continuous with the game, purified of the self-doubt and inner narration that keep us from doing what we can.
Watching Donald Young, a player I’d never seen before, I had so many opportunities to say “Wow!” and “Yesssss!” I was feeling really good, what with all the dopamine and endorphins flowing; when another outstanding shot was hit it left me laughing with pleasure. Our mirror neurons, following high quality action, stimulate the same brain chemistry ( to a lesser extent but still, we’re sitting on the couch). David Foster Wallace put it this way in one of his essays on tennis. “Great athletes are profoundly in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate, but televisable.” I can’t help thinking about Roger Federer when Wallace writes, “There is, about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man.”
The embodiment of ideals and the privilege of being able to watch their peak moments is an elevating experience. I don’t think Wallace overstates it. Incarnation is manifest spirit. There can be no charlatans. You can’t get there unless your dedication is genuine. All the training and hard work, perseverance and focus culminate in the championship moments that we get to share. Human beings need these models of human possibility to remind us of the power of attention to whatever our being in space is doing. It is this full attention that makes an activity autotelic, a pleasure in the doing itself. Pursuing excellence in anything feels good because we’re increasing our power, focusing on the action in the world through our embodied being. Emulating what we admire is how we become what we want to be. The qualities that make a great tennis player demonstrate virtues useful to any attainment.