"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tasmanian Tennis and the Search for Poise

I have recently taken up tennis to stay fit and try something new.  It's not easy to be a beginner when you're in your early forties; you have preconceived ideas about how things should be based on experience and perceptions.  During my first few lessons I literally attacked the ball.  I had Wimbledon on my mind, Maria Sharapova, the Williams sisters; I felt like I had to be larger than life, hit the ball hard, slam a serve into the box.  But I had it all wrong; I had no poise.  I went at that ball like I go at my life sometimes, afraid and driven by adrenaline to overcome my fears of not getting it right.  You don't make for a good tennis player when you are a Tasmanian devil whirring across the court.

What I have learned to seek is poise.  Equanimity.  Self-possession.  I seek to possess myself and not be possessed by fear or anger or stress or angst.  Perhaps if I find poise in tennis, I can find it in other areas of my life as well.  But what is poise exactly; what are its components?  Sure poise stems from ability, and ability implies confidence and experience, but also some luck, as well.  It takes time to develop poise; it takes conviction and patience and perseverance.  It's a practice, just as meditation is a practice.  In meditation, you learn to sit through things and breathe.  You learn that the things that possess you have a time limit.  You learn patience.  You learn to see the subtle progressions that imply change coming.  So you stick with it, in hopes that change materializes.

I have started to see those subtle improvements and I've started to believe that you really can teach an old dog new tricks, that the mind has a certain plasticity, an ability to stretch beyond its usual states of functioning.

There's substantial evidence of this plasticity or neuroplasticity, as it is called, in the individuals who have suffered traumas and injuries to the brain.  In these extreme cases, brains have recreated neural pathways to rebuild lives.  Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroanatomist who had a blood clot the size of a golf ball in the left hemisphere of her brain was "just an infant in a woman's body"; she couldn't talk, walk, read, write.  It took her eight years to regain her functioning after experts deemed it impossible; her TED talk has become an internet sensation for its hopefulness in documenting the expanse of the human mind.

So if a brain can rebuild a life, just imagine what it can do for your serve.

There are other neuroscientists jumping on the band wagon.  Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies the brains of meditating monks exclaims that "change is really the rule rather than the exception"and it is up to us to choose the influences that will rewire our consciousness.  In the meditating monks, Davidson measured brain rhythms as indicated by gamma oscillations; the more gamma oscillations, the better the clarity of perception.  This allows for "a richer, more encompassing sense of what it is to be human." 

Davidson emphasizes that the key to changing the brain is practice.

Marie Pasinski, Harvard neurologist and author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You says it best:

Regardless of age, your brain has the ability to make new neurons and construct new neural pathways throughout your life. When you engage in new experiences or think in novel ways, new pathways are forged. Every time you think a specific thought, a specific pathway of neurons fires up, neurotransmitters are released and synapses are subtly altered. With repetition this pathway is strengthened. 

In our overstimulated society, it only seems natural that an antidote present itself.  Even famous role models out there are doing it - turning inward, searching for poise using meditation and the like.  In the trailers for the new season of Sesame Street, Cookie Monster is studying the martial arts, discovering that "a little self control can go a long way."

Well, if a blue furry puppet can find poise, then surely it is attainable.