The Volley Between Concentration and Mindfulness

Finally, we are headed into the heart of summer with long days of sunlight, warmer weather, and all sorts of recreational opportunities.

Speaking of recreation (re-creation), I recently sat down to talk with my friend Marina Merzel, Editor at Court Girl Magazine, about Mindfulness on and off the tennis court.

Our conversation was not so much about tennis skills or technique, but rather about focus, concentration, and mindfulness. And how a mindfulness practice can help us access a fuller and more expansive experience of whatever you may find yourself engaged in this summer.

Marina shared, "As much as I love playing outside, lately I’ve had a hard time staying focused. With a family, job, dog and playing doubles tennis several times a week both socially and competitively—I have a lot on my mind. Every time I begin playing I start to think, “Ok, focus.” I almost never do that at any other time of day. The rest seems to be on autopilot.

When I step on the court the world is turned up to full volume...

'Where’s the ball? Did I close the fridge door? Where’s my partner standing? Did the kids forget their lunch? Which direction is the wind blowing? Seriously, that lawnmower is so freaking loud! Oh, no looks like the opponents are strategizing. Are those squawking birds mocking my serve? Wow, that cloud is weird. Look a butterfly... How did I miss that ball?'

As soon as I think ‘focus’ everything and I mean every little thing is sharp, loud and I’m in hyper awareness mode. Am I over focused? Or maybe it’s not about focus at all... maybe it’s about mindfulness?"

But what exactly is mindfulness?

While many experts offer different definitions, one thing is clear - mindfulness is different than concentration or one-point focus.

For instance, say we are laying down relaxing in a hammock in the back yard. We hear the natural sounds around us. Birds are singing, children are laughing, and a plane flies overhead. All of these sounds seem to rise and fall on their own, in and out of our awareness. As we just relax, and not 'follow' any sound with our attention, it feels like they are just ocean waves, rising and falling, in and out of the big ocean. Coming and going.  We notice the continual change of the sounds, are just like the continual flow of the changing tide. And, we relax without trying to listen to any particular sound.

Then suddenly, workers start fixing the street in front of our home, and they start up a jackhammer. We can't stop fixating on the sound. It's all we can hear. And it is really consuming our attention. We forget that simultaneously, there is still that same spaciousness and the rise and fall of all the sounds that we were relaxing with just moments ago. Now, it seems like the only thing that exists is the jackhammer. But in truth it is just like any other sound we were allowing before. We just don't like this one. And we can't seem to remember that it too, will stop.

If we could allow ourselves to relax all over again, and open up our awareness, our mindfulness, we may still hear the dominant sound of the jackhammer, but we won't fixate on it in the same way. Our attention will be wider, looser, and more open... We will be more available to other sounds and sensations that somehow slip in to the seemingly solid soundscape of the jackhammer. In fact, if we remain mindful, instead of over focused, we will not feel the 'disturbance' of the jackhammer as much. And, we will also be more aware of how we can continue to relax even with most of our attention on that particular sound.

In other words, mindfulness is our larger expansive awareness, the part of us that can 'pull back' and witness what's happening. For instance, the sky (expansive awareness) is space behind the weather (what's happening). While the weather is unpredictable and constantly changing, the sky remains calm, steady, open and limitless. The ability to see ourselves as the sky simply witnessing the stormy weather, knowing it will pass and recognizing it is not a part of us—is a helpful skill not only on the court but more importantly in the day-to-day moments of our lives.

Mindfulness is explained well by Ram Dass when who teaches: "The technique of the witness is to merely sit with the fear and be aware of it, before it becomes so consuming that there’s no space left. The image I usually use is that of a picture frame and a painting of a gray cloud against a blue sky. But the picture frame is a little too small. So you bend the canvas around to frame it. But in doing so you lost all the blue sky. You end up with just a framed gray cloud. It fills the entire frame.... So when you say 'I’m afraid,' or, 'I’m depressed' (your frame is small), if you would enlarge the frame so that just a little blue space shows, you would say ‘ah, its just a gray cloud' or 'ah, its just fear’".

In the same way, we might consider anything that distracts us and pulls our attention in—not just emotions, thoughts, sensations (pain, discomfort), but also sounds, and experiences that we encounter. Such as hearing a lawnmower while playing tennis may pull our attention away from what's happening on the court, but if we open up our awareness we can soften the sound and understand that it is not really in the way of hitting the ball.

Concentration vs. Mindfulness

While we do need to concentrate and focus, let's say on the ball in tennis, by feeling the movement of our whole body (not just our arm holding the racket) we become more open and mindful. We feel our feet meeting the solid ground as we move, we feel the air on our skin. This wider sense of experience allows us to focus on the action of the ball, without loosing our expansive awareness. We can change direction and react to split second information, allowing us to be more receptive and able to best respond to ever changing circumstances while remaining steady and calm.

Concentration, on the other hand, is a more hyper focused use of the same awareness. It is useful for the beginning stages of 'showing up in the present moment' and pulling our initial attention in so we are not scattered. But the truth is, the actual 'events' of the present moment (such as playing out a point) are constantly shifting and changing. They are not fixed. So 'fixed' attention will not serve us best when we want to be fluid and responsive to the reality of the 'changing' nature of tennis and of life.

Techniques & Practices

Try this next time you are on the court or doing any activity at all really. Whatever you are doing and focusing on, simultaneously sense the flow of your breath as it moves in and out of your nose, all the while feeling your feet as they connect with the ground.

Here are a few practices that may help to develop our ability to expand our awareness even as we 'pay close attention'.