As we see from the playing of the British Open this week, golf requires sustained and all-encompasing concentration on every shot. This is a daunting task that most golfers often back down from. I remember during a three-month meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts years ago, I reached a point of realization that every moment required an absolute state of presentness of mind. This thought overwhelmed me and I had to take a break from the retreat to reflect upon such an awesome insight. A depression overcame me, and I became dispirited and even demoralized. It was too much to handle. Every moment, even the most mundane, required me to be present and aware. Finally, I realized there was no way to escape this reality and, after a struggle, I settled into whatever the present moment dealt me. So I began to notice even the turning of a door handle, the lifting of a fork, the separate chews that led to the swallowing of each bite of food, each step from my room to the dining hall, and, of course, each breath in the meditation hall. Eventually, I reached a state of deep samadhi, or concentration. I was the happiest I’d ever been.
This state of mind and body, though, did not stay with me without effort. Each moment required a renewal of my resolve to pay attention, to not venture beyond the present to anticipate what might happen in the moment ahead. We humans spend inordinate amounts of time in the future or the past, and so miss out on the gifts of the present: the presents of the present, so to speak. As I settled into the present at that retreat, my patience with the present grew until I didn’t have to devote as much time reminding myself to “Be Here Now,” as Ram Dass once reminded all of us back in the 60s. The present folded into my consciousness more naturally, and I found a great peace of mind attending to the mundane events of daily life. Now, 30 years later, I still remember bites of food during lunches that took two hours at that retreat. And those memories enrich my present life as I can, at will, up my awareness of what I am doing “just this moment.”
Of course, golf represents a great training ground for the practice of staying present. We even have a score to quantify our efforts. And, in the pro ranks, we have a winner who is able to best stay in the moments of the intense fray, especially at the finish when the heat is highest, especially during majors. Ask Phil when he overcooked a wedge to lose ’13 U.S. Open, where his mind was at the time. Ask Lee Westwood when he repeatedly missed 3-footers to lose several majors which he had in his grasp. And ask Tiger when he dropped a 12-footer on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines to tie Rocco Mediate in ’08 and go on to win, where he was in relation to the present at the time.
Concentration, then, is remaining present, no matter what the content of that present moment is. As renown meditation teacher and author Jack Kornfield says often, “Every moment is no more or less important than every other moment.” That is an extremely profound statement which can be applied to anything in life. Golf is one area of life where you can see the results of your efforts at such concentration more graphically than most other areas, where results often take months or years to unfold. In golf, the spoils of concentration, are visible after one shot, adding up to a good score or Dufnering dejection.
The problem in golf, as in life, is that we are conditioned to be anticipating what’s ahead. We are strategizing constantly, planning where to place the next shot to set up the subsequent shot, or how hard to hit a putt so as not to go too far past the hole and face a knee-knocker coming back, or fearing a water hazard off the tee and what that might do to our score if we land in it. Now, given the nature of this sport and all its variables, we do have to anticipate and plan ahead, but the challenge is to do this planning before we swing. Once we address the ball and we know where we want to aim, we need to concentrate on the fundamentals which we’ve learned (hopefully) will lead to as good an effort as we can make to reach the target we’ve picked. Annika Sorenstam talks about a box she stands in behind the ball, assessing and thinking through her shot, before addressing the ball. Once she takes her stance, all thoughts of assessment are over. Step by step, she takes her stance, places her hands in the proper grip position, aligns her body properly, has a swing thought or two, takes a waggle of sorts, and pulls the trigger. This is the essence of concentration, and Annika’s record shows what such effort can bring.
For us amateurs and weekend dubs, the procedure to enter into the present is the same. Of course, we have the added burden, at times, of conversation that spills over onto the tee box. One buddy of mine, once he gets started on a hot subject, can’t seem to stop even as he assumes his address position. He’ll even walk away to finish his point, until he finally realizes that “While we’re young,” moment when he sees that he’s holding up play. If I get caught up in his monologue about a Supreme Court ruling or some idiocy coming out of the House Republican caucus, I’m doomed before I even start my pre-shot routine. So I have extra work involved in clearing my mind of whatever verbal spillover I’m hearing, and use my meditation skills to return to the quiet present and the golf shot at hand.
And the present is a wonderfully quiet space. It’s one of the great pleasures of meditation to hang out in that quiet, given the cacophony of our usual everyday lives. The golf course is one of those quieter places that give us respite from the noise of the street, and so the practice of concentration is easier there than it is on the street or the road or at work.
I don’t know if it’s still there, but there was a banner at IMS in Barre, that simply said, “Remember.” This is one of the keys of concentration while playing golf. You have to continually remind yourself to remember to enlist all your strategies for staying present, and to consciously oppose any obstacles to that hallowed state of mind. Have your conversations about this or that between shots, but when it’s time to play your shot, enter into another mode of being: a quiet, clear, fresh, alive, conscious, sensitive, wise, confident, calm, happy mode where the busy, noisy world is no more. It’s just you, your mind and body, ready to give that golf ball a smooth and present ride into history.