by Terry Plotkin
Of all the sports I have played, tennis is the one that is hardest for me to keep my focus. There is something about the stoppage of play, waiting for the serve, importance of getting your feet set, your racket back, awareness of your opponent, selecting the right spin, knowing what is working today and what is not, what your opponents strengths and weaknesses are, the score, all of these cause me to struggle with the most important thing: keeping my eye on the ball. It is immediately obvious to me when I am focused and when I am not, as the quality of my hitting reveals it. Sometimes after forcing the mind again and again to return to watching the ball it becomes effortless, the mind grows quiet, there are no distractions, and it is almost as if you become connected to it. When I am at my best, I am so focused that I move with the ball as if I were dancing with a partner. At my worst, I am listening to songs stuck in my head, while my badly placed feet and ill-conceived stroke lead to a shot that is not even close. When that happens I have only one mantra: Refocus.
Even drinking water needs a focus. Swishing it around in the mouth and slowly swallowing quenches thirst much better than gulping it down. Listening carefully to what is being said when there are directions being given or your partner is telling you something meaningful requires that you be present.
Lately, I have been doing the sudoku number puzzle from the morning paper. As I have learned the secrets of solving the puzzle, I have gotten much faster. I have trained my mind to see the patterns quickly. I don’t let myself stop until I finish. The lapse of time is barely noticeable; everything besides the puzzle is forgotten, even my breath slows. It is the same with writing; absorption in the topic makes for a quality outcome.
I know people who lose their keys, their wallet, and forget their appointments. It is not for lack of intelligence that this happens, it is not ADHD, and it is not that they are space-shots. When it happens to me it is because my mind is over-filled with projects, obligations, work, social, and emotional needs that fill my brain to such an extent that there is not enough room to hold the task of the present moment in the forefront.
The goal of meditation is to focus the mind on one thing to the exclusion of all other thoughts. The mantra picked should have a spiritual connotation, and the results, if successful, are a quiet, peaceful, higher-thinking mind. Along with the other attributes of Yoga, the results are transformative. The spiritual practice begins with what is called the Yamas and Niayamas. Without going into too much detail, they call for things like harmlessness in living, truthfulness, and a moderate and balanced life. The point being, the mind cannot focus well on anything, never mind spirituality, if lifes conditions are not set up to accommodate it. If you are angry with someone, it pulls your agitated mind to the subject of the anger; uncontrolled jealousy can take up all our emotional and mental space; fear of being caught in a lie and living with deceit disturbs our peace so that it is difficult to breathe deeply. Wanting what is not yours agitates the spirit. Greed makes you restless. The trauma of our past: the heartbreak, the fear, the anxiety, and the guilt that afflict us needs to be healed. The mind is like a wild horse that has to be trained. If you can take control of it long enough and keep it focused, eventually it will stop its’ bucking and do what you want it to, at least for a while. The whole process is a big commitment, but a necessary one. It was Buddah who explained that right living and mindfulness are steps on the path of liberation.