If you’ve read any of my previous posts, and let’s be honest, there aren’t many of you, you’ll recall a post about a 10-K. In a nutshell, I compared life planning to a government mandated corporate fiduciary responsibility and transparency document for investors. In retrospect, that analogy may have targeted a niche audience that we in the “business world” would call, too small to break-even. However, despite that, the intention and call for personal exploration that underwrote it make it worth revisiting, if only for me.
In it I talk about revisiting what’s important to you, since as the cliché says, “time is short”. There is only so much time available to accomplish what it is you want. That is, until Ray Kurzweil solves the whole mortality problem through the Singularity or some other mechanism – possibly involving mole rats… but I digress.
I made a list of important things that came up for me. One of them was to be ranked by the USTA (the United States Tennis Association). I didn’t have the (tennis) balls to actually pick a ranking to shoot for – i.e. #1 seemed to ambitious/arrogant and #100 would seem like I’m not really committed/invested. Actually, my sports reel highlight ambition is much less grandiose. I just want to play in a tournament that actually determines my play RATING. In tennis, skill levels are defined by ratings from 1.5 = total beginner (baseball-tennis memories anyone?) to 7.0 = world-class player. At my best, I can play at a 4.5 level which is better than your average bear…. playing tennis.
When I was younger and more obnoxious (hard for some to believe I know) I used to think that I enjoyed tennis because I was “good” or that I was “competitive” and I would win more often than not – which somehow proved how worthwhile I was as an athlete and as a person. The fact that I didn’t bother to train consistently however, also proved just how committed I was to any of those things.
What I didn’t consciously realize was why I still wanted a USTA rating in the first place -not until I hit my first tennis ball in 2 years recently. I had the opportunity to hit with a teaching pro – a talented woman who had made her mark in the southern tennis region of the US back in her day. She has been teaching for over 40 years and her level of experience and patience is admirable. Add to this, the fact that she recently had her spine fused to overcome a nasty and painful back condition and her dedication and perseverance become borderline inspirational and heroic. But it comes down to this – she just loves tennis. She loves playing it. She loves teaching it. She loves being on the court in almost any capacity. And standing on the court with her, I realized why I love it too.
I don’t and probably never will have her level of skill and experience. I don’t think I will ever derive the joy she gets from teaching, but there is one thing I do get – the joy and wonder of hitting the perfect ball.
One of the “advantages” of not playing regularly for a few years is that the technology of the game changes. One such change came in the form of a new robot that this pro had purchased recently for training students – the ball machine.
I’ve used ball machines off and on through my adult life, but this one was top of the line. It was a giant, green box and held at least 100 balls. It launched projectiles at almost any speed, with wicked spin. Basically it is the pinnacle of relentless punishment and training futility that one experiences hitting against a wall. But at least this torturer had a “safe word”. And it was “remote”. With a press of a button from across the net I was feeding myself topspin forehands, sliced backhands and overheads. And when my stamina gave out and I was gasping for air and blood, a button press gave me the reprieve I needed. It was glorious.
Most of my shots were ugly and in poor form. My fitness, already wanting, was also ill suited for the hot/humidity of Florida’s gulf coast. In short, anyone with a discerning eye could see that I had a ton of work ahead of me if I was going to get into any sort of competitive shape. But amidst all the mishits and horrible foot placement/body positions were a few moments of perfection. At unexpected moments, my mind would quiet from all the cacophony of self-doubt and expectations. In this cathartic, brief silence my mind and body aligned in concert to a single purpose – chaotic motion coming together in a quantum moment of being Present and resulting in the most satisfying THWACK and subsequent ball action. In those moments, hitting a ball was almost effortless – it seemed like cheating.
It was like the feeling that is described by Zen masters, where there is nothing else but the Now and Life is about being Present every moment. THIS is why I love to play tennis and ultimately will be rated. Because being Present is so hard in general that when you experience it, you want more of it. For some people, this experience may be in martial arts. For others, it may not be in sport at all, but maybe in programming, where you have a particularly ingenious solution to an intractable problem. Life just WORKS in that moment – and then it’s gone. And while some may spend their lives in 坐禅attaining this, I’ve chosen tennis among other methods. What I’ve realized is that being Present doesn’t just happen – it takes practice – work. But it’s work worth doing and ultimately/ironically it is the people who take pleasure in the thing itself and not the result who find the greatest success. Roger Federer embodies this way of being.
Who knows, maybe I will be ranked someday, but it won’t really matter because I’ll just being enjoying/seeking every moment of Presentness I get while playing. I wonder what else on my list Being Present will transform for me. I’ll be sure to report back to the 3 of you when I find out.
Hey, at least this one wasn’t about your 1040 tax return – that’s NEXT week!