Or the Zen De-Mystification
I have been churning too many words on here of late. And I noted on the “Buddhism” thread that, with Zen, too much attempt at explanation can become counter-productive—the same might be said for poetry or music; at some point you can only get into the music by listening, without analyzing.
But the most recent conversations led me to take a look again at Michael Murphy’s and Rhea White’s book In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports. White compiled a pretty large database of athletes talking about being “in the Zone”. That phrase has become common in sports talk, and athletes go to sports psychologists for techniques to get into and sustain the Zone experience. And I suspect that some folks here are familiar with the term and the experience, and know what I mean (though definitions might be difficult).
The language used by the athletes themselves, in describing their experiences, often parallels the language of mystics—and they are often embarrassed by it.* Most of them seem to understand that, underlying the psychological experiences (of such things as unity with the environment, deep unshakeable harmony, ecstasy) and some physical ones (e.g., light seems brighter, time seems slower, all senses clearer, etc.) are neuro-chemical processes. But technical knowledge does not seem to help them get into the Zone again.
A number of the athletes talk about the diffuclty of repeating an experience that to them was profound. The Russian weight-lifter Yuri Vlasov called it the “white moment”, saying: “There is no more precious moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again.” [Murphy/White, p. 119, italics in original]
“Many athletes have trouble recapturing peak moments in sport because they have difficulty incorporating them into the rest of their lives. John Brodie [former pro quarterback] described this problem: ‘ Football palyers and athletes generally get into this kind of being or beingness—call it what you will—more often than is generally recognized. But they often lose it after a game or a season is over. . . . They often don’t have a workable philosophy or understanding to support the kind of thing they get into while they are playing. They don’t have words for it.’” [Murphy/White, p. 118; my bold]
Some athletes pursued such a “workable philosophy”, religious or not. Some turned to yoga or Zen. Some to psychology. The aim is pragmatic, not epistemological. In some martial arts, there can be a kind of embedded philosophy. Scottishinnz, a botanist (and atheist) who used to post on here learned of what his karate sensei called a “mu moment”. Mu is the Japanese word for negation: no or not. The “mu moment” referred to by Scotty comes from the Zen phrase mushin—generally translated as “no-mind” (made perhaps a bit famous in the Tom Cruise film “The Last Samurai” ). Scotty described it as just moving with the flow in a contest, without thinking, planning—without consciously “minding” what was going on. Then he did a perfect roundhouse kick, watched his opponent drop—and Scotty’s immediate spontaneous thought (the first conscious thought) was: “Wow, that was good. I wonder who that guy is?” And he meant it: he had forgotten his own identity and everything happened as if he were watching someone else do it. [The quote is as best as I can recall.]
So, Zen is a supporting philosophy and a set of practices, and a set of aesthetics (because a “supporting aesthetics” can also help) for being in, and as much as possible living in—the Zone. That Zone, the exact one, in all its variability, that athletes talk about. Behind the symbols and metaphors (the lingo) are what Buddhists call “effective means”. But, for some of us, the aesthetics, too, become part of effective means.
It is not the only one; it might be the best one for some, for others not at all; effective means for some, not for others.
But for those who don’t want to talk about spirituality (or religion or myth, etc., etc.)—for people for whom such things do not support “effective means”—you might try a sports psychologist. Seriously.**
But if the goal is to live into and in the Zone, then analysis of what it means doesn’t get one very far (and one can get lost in the details of analysis)—sooner or later one has to listen to (or play) the music, dance the dance, and just go deeper—into harmony, clarity, serenity, well-being. Into the Zone.
Michael Jordan, talking about those fantastic hang times, said: “I never practice those moves. I don’t know how to do them.” [Murphy/White, p. 95]
* Murphy talks about the parallels a lot, but I found just reading the athletes to be the most helpful.
** A few of them might even talk about Zen. Joseph Parent is a psychologist (and Zen Buddhist) who wrote a book called Zen Golf; in it he says that one of his most rewarding moments is when a student looks at him and says: "This isn't just about golf, is it Doc?"
And now I’m going to take a hike for awhile. Too many words; I’m losing the “white moments”. I apologize if I have left any posts unanswered. Be well all. See ya on down the line.