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Eye on the Ball


When I went to that self-compassion retreat a few years ago, one of the teachers told me that she thought I loved tennis because I love practicing mindfulness. As you know, I’m a big advocate for mindfulness, but I was pretty sure I cared more about competition, burning calories, hanging out with friends, and wearing cute outfits than I cared about practicing mindfulness. But I can see her point. Tennis is the only thing I can do that allows me to block everything else out of my mind, and I almost always feel better afterwards.

For example, last Monday I was feeling so depressed that I actually did not want to play. Which almost never happens. But I knew it would make me feel better, and I was playing with a friend, so I forced myself to do it. It was tough, though. I thew up 4 times, which is a record. I’m not that good at singles anymore, so I was losing for most of the match. For the first set and a half I felt like crying.

But then I channeled my inner warrior. I told myself I could cry when I got home. I reminded myself of all of the times I was depressed during matches and played through them. How I’ve had to lie down for several hours after matches because of heat exhaustion–which is not a great thing, I know, but it does demonstrate my mental toughness.

And It worked. I won that night. I even saved a match point. I felt better afterwards, but I still cried when I got home. Still, I was proud of myself for my ability to fight through adversity. If there’s one thing that depression teaches you, it’s how to be resilient. To play my best under pressure. It has made me a stronger person.

The most helpful strategy was to keep my eye on the ball–which is pretty much always my strategy. If you’ve ever played with me, then you know that I often publicly announce that I am going to watch the ball before every point. I told myself that in that moment, I’m just a tennis player. Not a psychologist. Not a sister taking care of her brother. Not a depressed person. It’s just me and the ball. Nothing else exists.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you practice mindfulness, happiness is available to you at any moment. I can’t say that I was happy after the match, but I did feel better afterwards. And there were moments when I was in flow. When I was free from all the thoughts and feelings that plague me. And that is a great feeling.

So whatever your equivalent is to keeping your eye on the ball, be sure to call upon that strategy whenever you’re feeling down to help you ground yourself in the present moment. You’re bound to feel better afterwards.

In the Zone

Want to be happier? Try adding some flow to your life.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that engaging in activities that you find pleasurable and absorbing is one of the things that makes life worth living. When you are in flow, you are focused on the here and now. You experience a loss of self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. You feel like you can handle anything that comes your way.

Flow is what athletes feel when they are in the zone. Although I don’t consider myself athletic, I have experienced flow on the tennis court. It doesn’t always happen, but every now and then, the ball does exactly what I want it to. No channeling of inner warriors required: everything is effortless, unconscious.

Flow is not limited to sports. You can experience flow at work, during artistic activities, and in nature. Sometimes I’ve experienced flow with clients in therapy: I feel so connected to them in the moment that I know what they’re trying to say before they say it. Occasionally, I’ve experienced it when blogging: the words and ideas seem to be writing themselves, and they are perfect.

And there are those rare moments–usually when I’m at some lookout point–where I have a moment of clarity. I am Neo at the end of “The Matrix,” when he breaks the code and fights off the Agents with minimal exertion. The mysteries of the universe unfold. I feel joyful and calm at the same time.

Flow can also be interactive. Like Hazel and Augustus in “The Fault in Our Stars,” you stay up all night, sharing your life stories, and time stands still. Or like when you’re catching up with your best friend who you haven’t seen in ages, but you can pick up right where you left off, as if you talked just yesterday.

This weekend I was blessed to experience flow in all of these areas. I was at the Virginia district tournament with my tennis team, and I was in flow on the court. My team was in flow, and we made it to the finals for the first time ever. And all of the moments off the court were filled with joy, celebration, and camaraderie. Even writing about it is effortless. No self-consciousness. No demons. Just a pervasive sense that life is good.

Usually Mondays are hard for me, but today I am happy. In this moment, I am in the zone.

Orange Crush