In my 2021 return to facilitating mindfulness groups, I revisited my almost decade old meditation instructions in a worn manilla folder. In the synergies of teaching and my own sitting meditation, some new ideas and images emerged, one involved tennis balls.
More often these days when I meditate, I soften my focus on the breath and let my mind open and wander in the Vipassana approach, insight meditation. According to the Buddha, “These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana).” “Vipassana meditation is designed to quiet the mind and refine our awareness so that we can experience the truth of our lives directly with a minimum of distraction and obscuration.” I have experienced and witnessed how a sitting meditation practice gently opens one’s imagination and the creation of very personal ideas, images, and metaphors.
Putting his own beautiful strangeness on the ocean metaphors in the mindfulness literature, the filmmaker and meditator, David Lynch wrote in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity:
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful . . . My thirty-three-year practice of the Transcendental Meditation program has been central to my work in film and painting and to all areas of my life. For me it has been the way to dive deeper in search of the big fish.”
In my sitting meditation, an image came to me of the thinking mind being like a bubble machine, the mind making bubbles. But a bubble machine didn’t feel substantive enough, perhaps it is more of an aspirational state of mindfulness, for our thoughts to be like bubbles, soft and ephemeral. The second image that emerged in my imagination was that of a tennis ball machine hurling tennis balls, perhaps the machine is malfunctioning and you are trying to hit the rapid fire of tennis balls, often getting pelted, you are off balance, your muscles are tense and contracted, your mind is agitated and distracted.
Then a mindfulness instruction came to me, step away from the machine, set your racket down, sit off to the side away from the hurling tennis balls, come back to your breath and your body, inhabit a more relaxed and peaceful state. Let the machine run its course, detach and observe until it slows down and runs out of tennis balls, without interference or efforts to change it or shut it down. This is the nature of our thinking mind, but we can choose to get out of its way and feel the freedom of that simple choice.
I recalled a book with a tennis ball on the cover that a patient recommended over a decade ago, a book that long resided on my Amazon.com Wish List, The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey. The book was originally published in 1974 and the 2008 paperback edition includes a foreward by Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, who is an advocate and practitioner of mindfulness. This 1970s book cites Maharaji, D.T. Suzuki’s foreward to Zen in the Art of Archery (1948), and Eric Berne’s Games People Play (1964). Gallwey also noted that he studied the psychologies of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. This slim volume is a remarkable and unique treatise on mindfulness. According to Gallwey, “The inner game of tennis isn’t about tennis.” Gallwey developed the inner game by deconstructing tennis coaching and playing with the key concepts of mindfulness and Buddhist psychology.
Through the medium of tennis, Gallwey illustrated the nature of the thinking mind, and how our thinking and its attachment to judgements, outcomes and the ego is often the cause of our stress and lapses in concentration, our tightness and nervousness, our self-doubt and self-condemnation, our suffering (and bad tennis playing).
He further illuminated that beneath the thinking mind, beneath words and thoughts lies a more natural, experiential and often spontaneous learning process, one that is more body-based and intuitive, like a child learning to walk, like the natural processes and rhythms of the breath, like letting a flower grow from within. Sounding like Jon Kabat-Zinn talking about the origins of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Gallwey wrote, “We all have inner resources beyond what we realize.”
The inner game is configured in relationship to the outer/external game, the inner game is the mental aspects of the game, and it is in this interior where Gallwey proposes the operations of two selves, Self 1 and Self 2. “We have arrived at a key point: it is the constant ‘thinking’ activity of Self 1, the ego mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when the mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.”
Gallwey outlines and gives instruction on several inner skills, most notably, non-judgmental awareness; focusing on the present moment with instructions to breathe, notice and observe, use images, feel and sense in the body; and to cultivate the art of relaxed concentration. “As one achieves focus, the mind quiets. As the mind is kept in the present, it becomes calm. Focus means keeping the mind now and here. Relaxed concentration is the supreme art because no art can be achieved without it, while with it, much can be achieved . . . To learn this art, practice is needed”
These inner skills open up the more subtle, intuitive and creative energies of Self 2, of our natural learning processes, of our capacities for growth, play, and the building of an inner stability. The cultivation and expression of Self 2 is not unlike Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, the focused and absorbed experience of a seemingly effortless and enjoyable momentum, a flow state. According to Gallwey, “Freedom from stress happens in proportion to our responsiveness to our true selves, allowing every moment possible to be an opportunity for Self 2 to be what it is and enjoy the process.”
W. Timothy Gallwey grew into something of a brand since the publication of The Inner Game, but at its heart I see a sage and practical perspective on the limitations of the thinking mind and its contributions to our suffering, the beauty of the present moment, remembering and recovering our child-like capacity to play, and the mindful removal of the debris that covers and constricts our luminous Buddha nature.
In writing this piece, I thought about the great tennis players I’ve watched on television in the course of my life on the red clay courts of The French Open, the green grasses of Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open Blues in NYC. I have particular memories of watching Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, all roughly the same age as myself. And in the previous decade, the 1980s, there was the bold personality of John McEnroe, who continues to be a part of the game as a tennis commentator.
I remember the great matches between Steffi Graff and Monica Seles, and the teenage Jennifer Capriati who was cited in The Inner Game. The four-teen year old was asked by the press about being nervous and stressed playing the best players in the game. She responded that she considered playing at this level a privilege and “’If I was feeling frightened playing tennis. I don’t see why I would do it!.’ With that the reporter stopped questioning her.”
And then, perhaps the greatest of our time, there is Serena Williams, a Black woman whose decades of exceptionalism and character is configured within often severe sexism and racism. According to Claudia Rankine, in her NY Times profile, “The Meaning of Serena Williams: On Tennis and Black Excellence,” “There is no more exuberant winner than Serena Williams. She leaps into the air, she laughs, she grins, she pumps her fist, she points her index finger to the sky, signaling she’s No. 1. Her joy is palpable. It brings me to my feet, and I grin right back at her, as if I’ve won something too. Perhaps I have.” I just started watching the HBO docuseries, Being Serena (2018).
Naomi Osaka, the reigning 2020 U.S. Open champion, who defeated her idol, Serena Williams at that Grand Slam in 2018, recently drew attention for making a controversial decision that she will not attend press conferences at the 2021 French Open. She posted her plan on Twitter and Instagram citing that the practice of press conferences is often animated by a “disregard for athletes’ mental health.” The 23-year-old, woman of color, who uses her tennis platform to be an advocate of Black Lives Matter, is rebelling and resisting the unquestioned institutional norms that making yourself available to the press is part of the athletes’ job: “Do press or you’re going to be fined. I just gotta laugh. Anyways, I hope that considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
Just as I was posting this piece on May 31, 2021, sports news reported that Osaka withdrew from the French Open after being fined and faced a heavy-handed approach from the French Tennis Federation. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.” According to the sportswriter Tumaini Carayol, “With their heavy-handed statement, the grand slam tournaments have much for which to answer. They responded to Osaka as if she was a threat, and all-to-familiar sensation for black athletes who step outside of the box.”
Self 1, like the press, often has no regard for your mental health. Protect your mental health, support and encourage the expression of your Self 2, and dive deep in search of the big fish.
The Reasoner Report on The Inner Game of Tennis (A vintage video gem on Vimeo)