Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Golfing Zen #5 - Teaching and Learning

About Golfing Zen: This is the fifth in a continuing series of short essays dealing with the application of Eastern spiritual philosophy to your golf game.

The surface intent is that, as you apply the ideas, your golf and your enjoyment of the game will grow. However there is also an underlying motive: as you are able to see gains on the course, you’ll then be moved to alter your approach to life as well.

Today’s Topic: Teaching versus Learning

Today’s essay is another stone in the foundation we’re building. The stones that are already in place are:

    1. The “East” versus “West” differences and how they relate to golf.

    2. The Eastern Fundamental Truth: that life is suffering (dukkah) and that suffering grows out of desire or attachment. (And we all know how that relates to golf!)

    3. Enlightenment, the ultimate Eastern objective: often referred to as “remembering” who and what we really are, or “waking up" from the illusion. In life — and golf — the truth is within us and the goal is to recover it. Further, the golf truths are easy to execute… within the capability of all of us, yet we deny them.

    4. Last week’s “stone” proposed reasons why we fail to learn, to develop what is already within us. I listed three: impatience (we want it NOW!); getting better often means first getting worse (requiring another form of patience); and self-doubt (we don’t really think we’re worthy, so we don’t try.)

All of which brings us to today, and to two additional roadblocks: the white noise produced by many conflicting teachers and the interdependent role of the teacher and the learner. I’ll save the “many teachers” issue for next week, as understanding how we teach and learn is the critical question.

We’ve heard people talk about their experiences with golf lessons, and the opinions are almost always either black or white. Golfers are rarely neutral to their teacher; they’re either very enthusiastic or they aren’t going back. But in the long run almost no one goes back forever. Teacher/student relationships run their course and end, with the student eventually picking up the trail with yet another teacher. Almost never do you hear a student say that her teacher brought her to a happy and final end-state. “I’m now complete,” just doesn’t happen. It’s almost like serial monogamy, as we move from teacher to teacher.

Further, you never hear a student talk about his own success or failure in the learning process. The teacher is everything in the process; he either did or did not convey useful knowledge to the student. You never hear the opposite, “He’s a fine teacher, but I didn’t learn.”

So, how does all this happen within Zen, in the East? Like with golf, there are many teachers, and I’m sure they all don’t sing the same song. Also like golf, some Zen students decide (some successfully) to “go it alone.” So, what is different in the role of teacher and student?

In Zen study, the teacher only points and it is the student’s obligation to look and to see. And, in the seeing, he does not look at the pointing finger, but in the direction of the pointing. In other simpler terms, the obligation for learning is on the student, not the teacher. The teacher, in pointing, cannot fail, but the student certainly can fail to see.

And so Zen learning is an internal process, sometimes described as “breaking and entering” — entering into a Zen mind that the student always had, but which is both difficult to find and then to retain.

I’m sure you can see the golf parallel: the onus is on us. Others may point, but it is up to me to see. Failure to grow is my failure — mine only.

If you want some additional examples, then I’d suggest you listen to the companion podcast, number five in the series.

Then, in the next essay we’ll deal with the storm of conflicting “pointing” coming from the army of golf teachers out there. They can’t all be right, can they?

Next Time: The Noise of Many Teachers

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Golfing Zen #4 - Why Do We Forget?

About Golfing Zen: This is the fourth in a continuing series of short essays dealing with the application of Eastern spiritual philosophy to your golf game.

The surface intent is that, as you apply the ideas, your golf and your enjoyment of the game will grow. However there is also an underlying motive: as you are able to see gains on the course, you’ll then be moved to alter your approach to life as well.

Today’s Topic: Why Do We Forget?

In the last essay, I laid out a paradox:

• All the information that we need about how to swing is right in front of us.
• The skill required to perform the act (at least) reasonably well is easily within our grasp (assuming no major physical handicap).

And yet…

• 60% of us have handicaps over 18, while less than 10% have a handicap less than 10.

The conclusion is that, in some strange way, we either choose to cripple ourselves or we forget what we should know.

So, can I find a Zen parallel as an answer to the paradox? Yes, I can.

In an early essay I talked about the Fundamental Truth: that life is about suffering (“dukkah”), which comes from desire. Another word for desire is “attachment” and the Easterner would hold that all our negatives are born through attachment.

What negatives? All the usual suspects: avarice, greed, jealousy, pride, anger, etc. In the West, these are all considered a normal part of our makeup, unavoidable but held within control in the healthy mind.

In the Eastern mind, these negatives are not a given at all; they come out of attachment. An example: listen to this typical inner dialog.

I want a new sports car… I’ll be happy just as soon as I get one, but I can’t afford it. Bob has one… why does he have his when I can’t have mine? I’m ashamed to be seen in my old rattle-trap. No one will love me until I have a better car.

It’s easy to hear the negative emotions, but it goes beyond the obvious. Attachment re-enforces the sense (illusion) of separation (I see the car over there, yet I’m over here.), which strengthens and activates one’s ego state (the cobbled together false image of who we are, or are not.), and it leads to low self worth (because I have a junky car). All that… growing, in our own mind, out of attachment.

How does this apply to golf in general, and/or to my premise that we ignore what we know about the game?

Quite obviously, we’re attached to golf. We want/need to play better, and that must create — off in some corner of our mind — a potpourri of emotions: jealousy (I wish I could play like Bob.), anger (That’s not fair…why did that happen to me?), pride, and fear (If I miss this putt everyone will think I’m a loser.)

Of those, the two over-riding emotions are avarice and fear: we want it badly and we’re afraid we’re not going to get it.

This plays out in at least three ways:

1. Impatience. We want it right now! Yes, I know I should take lessons and practice, but I don’t have time. Besides, I took a lesson last year, and that didn’t work. Maybe if I just try harder…
2. Getting better means getting worse. Given that we’re not experts, our mechanics are a patchwork quilt of errors and compensations. We literally fend off the effect of one error by introducing a compensating error. Then when the pro gives us a lesson that fixes a flaw, we immediately get worse because the compensation is now exposed.
3. Deep down in our core, we don’t really believe or trust in our self. If I really try, then I might visibly fail. Better just to laugh and say, “I can’t.” I won’t fail if I don’t try.

The obvious question: how do we break out of that, without being prideful or attached?

Next Time: Teaching versus Learning

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Golfing Zen #3— You Already Know!

About Golfing Zen: This is the third in a continuing series of short essays dealing with the application of Eastern spiritual philosophy to your golf game.

The surface intent is that, as you apply the ideas, your golf and your enjoyment of the game will grow. However there is also an underlying motive: as you are able to see gains on the course, you’ll then be moved to alter your approach to life as well.

Today’s Topic: You Already Know

The fundamental objective of Eastern spiritualism is “enlightenment,” a complex idea, sometimes referred to as “waking up,” or “recovering from” the illusion.

The illusion — again simplifying — is the illusion of separation, of being something or someone distinct from, separate from, everything else that we see and experience. Remember, Easterners see reality as being one universal entity out of which everything emerges.

We are born into the illusion, and the search is to recover what we always knew: our true nature as an integral part of the universal consciousness. We already knew it… we’re trying to remember!

So… how does that relate to golf?

I would maintain that in a very similar way we already know what we need to know about golf. We simply forget… or we refuse to acknowledge the facts that are there, right in front of us.

How can I say that? How can I suggest that a 20-handicapper knows? Isn’t golf this terribly difficult and subtle game? Isn’t it beyond most of us… at least beyond our ability to excel?

That would certainly seem to be the case. Statistics — year after year — show that 90% of us have handicaps over 10, and a whopping 60% are over 18. The numbers don’t lie… clearly we don’t know. Or is really that we don’t remember? That we don’t act on what we know?

I maintain the latter, and here’s why…

Golf is not a hand-eye coordination game. Games where the ball and/or the player are moving — tennis, baseball, ping-pong, etc. — are hand-eye games. Golf, on the other hand, is a repetition game: the ability to repeat a specific motion, reliably and under pressure.

Said even more strongly, golf is not a skill game. After all, it doesn’t take any great skill to hold the club correctly, to stand up to the ball with correct posture and alignment. All it takes is paying attention: paying attention to what we already know (as anyone who has played for any time at all has read or been told the basic fundamentals). Further, if we know how to hold the club and stand up to the ball, is it a difficult and illusive task to move smoothly to the top-of-the-backswing position? Assuming that one doesn’t have a physical handicap of some type, the answer is obviously a resounding “no.” It’s inescapable… we must obviously choose not to do so.

Here’s the most obvious example. We all know that balance is part of the game; that being able to swing to a balanced finish position on our front (leading) leg is a fundamental. If we open our eyes at all, we see that every skilled player — 100% — does that every single swing.

But go to any golf course or driving range and watch. True to the single-digit statistic quoted above, you’ll see that 90% of us don’t hold a balanced finish, and most of us are falling backwards. How do we expect to move the ball forward when we’re falling back?

The conclusion is inescapable: the fundamentals of golf are right in front of us; the skills required are well within most or all of us. We know, but we don’t do. We forget to remember! Worse, we choose to forget.

If true —and it is — it begs a simple question:

Why?

Next Time: Choosing To Remember.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Second Essay: The Fundamental Truth

About these essays: This is the second in a continuing series of short essays dealing with the application of Eastern spiritual philosophy to your golf game.

The surface intent is, as you apply the ideas, your golf and your enjoyment of the game will grow. However there is also an underlying motive: as you are able to see gains on the course, you’ll then be moved to alter your approach to life as well.

Today’s Topic: The Fundamental Truth

In these articles, I’ll be simplifying as we talk about the Eastern philosophies, and this topic title is a good example. Buddhism actually opens its doors with The Four Noble Truths.

The first of those is that our experience is marked by suffering. Living means to suffer. The Eastern term is dukka.

The second shows the source of dukka to be desire, and the third shows how we can eliminate suffering: if it is desire that leads to suffering then the obvious solution is to stop desiring. Obvious, sure, but we would agree it isn’t easy.

This doesn’t mean we stop living, that we give up work, play, relationships, learning and growth, or even that we forsake goals. It does mean we stop agonizing about it all. Some things we’ll never have. I won’t be the next Senator from Pennsylvania, and I’m not going to make the PGA tour. That’s obvious enough, but most of us continue to hunger after things that are permanently outside our grasp, without admitting it to ourselves.

Or, there are goals that we can eventually reach but that we don’t have this minute. I’d like to have a retirement home in Asheville, North Carolina. But I don’t, today, and if I obsess about it, I can easily lose sight of the pleasures of my current life. It’s a fundamental: hungering after something not yet here contaminates our today.

So, the fundamental truth we’re talking about is this. Whatever we have today is everything we need – today.

The last of the Noble Truths lays out how to let go of desire: by following the Eightfold Path (understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). But the Path a big subject and is for the future; I’ll certainly do a piece on each of those steps along the Path in future articles.

For now, the connection to golf is obvious to any of us that have suffered on the course. And who of us hasn’t suffered? Ever throw a club? Dress yourself down — either out loud or within your mind?

Beyond the momentary outbursts, is your enjoyment of the game in general contaminated by not being good enough? Are you reluctant to play with people that are better? Do you despair about lack of improvement? Do you think about giving up?

The First Noble Truth within Buddhism is equally true on the golf course; our golfing dukka comes from our excessive desire, from our grasping after success. And here’s the real secret… that comes from playing golf in an ego-driven state. If we’re playing to re-enforce our own ego — either to others or to ourselves — then we’re going to struggle.

The answer lies in a simple (granted, difficult) idea: we are, today, only what we are today; our swing is what it is; our mental game is what it is. Therefore — we’re perfect — today. We can let ourselves focus on the beauty of the walk in the park, on the companionship of friends. We can be alert, we can pay attention, we can be mindful of everything we see and experience, we can allow our game to be what it is, and we can trust that we’re on a path that will take us to higher levels as we continue move along. And that’s true!

I’ll be giving you lots of ‘tips’ or ‘thought exercises’ as we move through these articles, and here’s one that applies to this subject. You can reduce your grasping (and thereby, your golf-course dukka) by detaching for the outcome. Laird Small, the head pro at Pebble Beach, calls it “NATO:” Not Attached To Outcome.

Here’s one way of doing that. Your golf-course job is to swing the club in a graceful, rhythmic, and balanced way. The Golf God’s job is to move the ball to a new point, for your next test. Your job is only to be mindful of how well you perform your task and to get out of the way and let the Golf God do his. Try that, next time out.

Next Time: You Already Know.