A friend sent me these articles. I usually just post an excerpt, but this is short and very very good. Note that the links to the original articles at the New York Times will be found at the end of each one.
These two articles both describe interesting aspects of the mind, which applies equally to martial arts, zen, daoism, ... you name it. Enjoy.
Pitching With Purpose
A few years ago, a former professional baseball player mentioned a book that had made a great impression on him. It was called “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching,” by a sports psychologist named H.A. Dorfman. I read the book one spare evening, though, as you may have noticed, I’m not a pitcher — and no major league organization has expressed interest in making me one.
The book left an impression on me too, mostly for its moral tone. Dorfman offers to liberate people from what you might call the tyranny of the scattered mind. He offers to take pitchers, who may be thinking about a thousand and one things up on the mound, and give them mental discipline.
Others are eloquent about courage and creativity, but Dorfman is fervent about discipline. In the book’s only lyrical passage, he writes: “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”
His assumption seems to be that you can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.
Dorfman builds that structure on the repetitiousness of baseball. It’s commonly said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft — three hours of practice every day for 10 years. Dorfman assumes that players would have already put in those hours doing drills and repetitions. He urges them to adopt their own pregame rituals. He notes that Trevor Hoffman, the San Diego Padres closer, walks from the clubhouse to the dugout every game in the fourth inning and moves to the bullpen in the seventh.
As a pitcher enters a game, Dorfman continues, he should bring a relentlessly assertive mind-set. He should plan on attacking the strike zone early in the count, and never letting up. He will not nibble at the strike zone or try to throw the ball around hitters. He will invite contact. Even when the count is zero balls and two strikes, he will not alter his emotional tone by wasting a pitch out of the strike zone.
Just as a bike is better balanced when it is going forward, a pitcher’s mind is better balanced when it is unceasingly aggressive. If a pitcher doesn’t actually feel this way when he enters a game, Dorfman asks him to pretend. If your body impersonates an attitude long enough, then the mind begins to adopt it.
Dorfman then structures the geography of the workplace. There are two locales in a pitcher’s universe — on the mound and off the mound. Off the mound is for thinking about the past and future, on the mound is for thinking about the present. When a pitcher is on the pitching rubber, Dorfman writes, he should only think about three things: pitch selection, pitch location and the catcher’s glove, his target. If he finds himself thinking about something else, he should step off the rubber.
Dorfman has various breathing rituals he endorses, but his main focus during competition is to get his pitchers thinking simple and small. A pitcher is defined, he writes, “by the way the ball leaves his hand.” Everything else is extraneous.
In Dorfman’s description of pitching, batters barely exist. They are vague, generic abstractions that hover out there in the land beyond the pitcher’s control. A pitcher shouldn’t judge himself by how the batters hit his pitches, but instead by whether he threw the pitch he wanted to throw.
Dorfman once approached Greg Maddux after a game and asked him how it went. Maddux said simply: “Fifty out of 73.” He’d thrown 73 pitches and executed 50. Nothing else was relevant.
A baseball game is a spectacle, with a thousand points of interest. But Dorfman reduces it all to a series of simple tasks. The pitcher’s personality isn’t at the center. His talent isn’t at the center. The task is at the center.
By putting the task at the center, Dorfman illuminates the way the body and the mind communicate with each other. Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence. In fact, it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the mound.
And by putting the task at the center, Dorfman helps the pitcher quiet the self. He pushes the pitcher’s thoughts away from his own qualities — his expectations, his nerve, his ego — and helps the pitcher lose himself in the job.
Not long ago, Americans saw the rise of a therapeutic culture that placed great emphasis on self-discovery, self-awareness and self-expression. But somehow the tide seems to have turned from the worship of self, and today’s message is: transcend yourself in your job — or get shelled.
A fitting reminder from opening day.
Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind
DECLINING house prices, rising job layoffs, skyrocketing oil costs and a major credit crunch have brought consumer confidence to its lowest point in five years. With a relatively long recession looking increasingly likely, many American families may be planning to tighten their belts.
Interestingly, restraining our consumer spending, in the short term, may cause us to actually loosen the belts around our waists. What’s the connection? The brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others. The good news, however, is that practice increases willpower capacity, so that in the long run, buying less now may improve our ability to achieve future goals — like losing those 10 pounds we gained when we weren’t out shopping.
The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task.
In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.
Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.
What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks, while people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than on the first. Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.
In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy.
On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.
Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.
In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.
No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.
Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower — and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.