In the summer, one of the things I do to unwind from work is play golf. Sometimes I have friends who laugh about why I would play a game that involves walking around a big field, chasing a little white ball that seems to go in lots of directions. I love playing for many reasons. The obvious part is a great walk, outside the office, around a beautiful park—that, in and of itself, is a lovely and relaxing experience. But the real reasons I love playing golf are subtler and a bit harder to explain.
Golf is a game in which failure and success seem to come in rapid succession. One great shot can be followed by another shot that is an abject mess. One moment you are feeling the joy and pride that comes with a great swing and the next you are watching your ball arc unceremoniously into the water or the woods. It is a test of one’s ability to be present with what is and to watch how your mind reacts to the pendulum of experience that is the golf game. Golf is more like meditation that any sport I know. It has all the experiences of having and losing control, all the sensations of flow and contraction, and all the elements of forgetting and remembering. No other sport seems to be such a perfect metaphor for the practices I do to explore the nature of my mind.
Even for the most successful golfers, it is a test of resilience and capacity to recover from errors and loss. The ongoing issue is how you will respond when you make a mistake. The most common experience (for just about every golfer) is to step into serious bouts of self-criticism, self-judgment, frustration, and depression—in that order. I can hear the screams and curses ringing across the golf course from the various players as they slam their clubs, look toward heaven for salvation, and tighten their faces into angry grimaces. It’s clear that most golfers feel cursed by some unseen god who is playing with them, torturing them with moments of joy followed by stinging experiences of failure. It is not uncommon for me to have a calm, mature, professional friend be reduced, in playing just a few holes, to a screaming, or conversely, uncommunicative person.
It’s all a matter of how you relate to your experience. For me, the flight and arc of the ball is an exquisite feedback system, revealing to me the mysterious components of the movement I have just performed. It tells me everything…if I am willing to listen and learn. It allows me to inquire, in my next swing, whether a small adjustment will change the physics and psychology of the experience. I can choose how I look at my experience: It can be the opening to power, clarity, and presence. Or it can be the hell of suffering, confusion, and emotional overwhelm. Golf is feedback that unfailingly reveals a complex system of movement in my body/mind. As I make subtle shifts in attention within myself, changes occur in my actions and the results that I get. Isn’t that what we tell practitioners to notice in any skill-building process?
We each hope for the “perfect shot” and don’t appreciate the remarkable experience of the learning curve when we don’t hit it. Expectations for certain results often distort our capacity to be with a learning process. The learning is actually equally as powerful and important as the result. I find that the journey is the destination.
But really, don’t many of us just want the success? We resist the struggle because we fear failure and looking badly to others and ourselves. We wrestle with the process of letting ourselves go through the discovery process because we hate “not-knowing” and the fear of “not being enough” that is its sibling.
It is our ability to fully be with whatever experience we are having and to continue to gently explore adjustments that distinguish the learners from the deeply lost. Isn’t the same thing true in our relationships? If we are able to use the feedback from our relational experiences, we can flow with it and have the capacity for growth and joy.
There is a different challenge for those who consistently succeed. Our patterns of success can be the very thing that causes us to hit a plateau. Once we create a groove that helps us succeed, those habits become the path of least resistance. Often, we stop getting better. We pitch our “tent” at the spot in the mountain we have just conquered and fail to move on. The limits to learning are often set by the comfort we experience at a particular level of competence, even when it’s not all we are capable of being or doing. Many would rather have a limited level of success than explore the edge of what it means to be going for their full potential.
Growth inevitably requires some risk: of falling backwards and not doing as well as before. The great golf players are constantly reinventing their game and discovering new dimensions of how to play. The great learners in life are continually evolving, exploring new capacities within themselves, new ways to think and act, new ideas, and new perspectives on life. The true battle we take on, when we are committed to self-discovery, is with how we approach our patterns of success as well as our habits of failure. The next step is always to discover how we are in our own way and to open the door to self-mastery, self-love, and joy in whatever work or activity you are doing.
I have found that when I am neither in self-judgment nor overexcited about how I am playing, I have experiences in which beautiful, flowing, and empty movement occurs. There is stillness in the movement that is breathtaking and results that are exhilarating and surprising. It is stillness that I find within movement and in this stillness I feel attuned to the Tao, the flow, and the wonder of life.
I think I know what is meant when they say I have “been bitten by the golf bug.” What “bug” has caught you, and how is it revealing you, in the most entertaining, frustrating, and powerful ways?