Polo Zen and Now

by Dan Harvey Pedrick

"Ninety percent of hitting is mental, the other half is physical."--Yogi Berra, Star Athlete and Zen Master

The quotable catcher from Brooklyn may not have had the math right but he still hit the nail on the head: it is mental concentration that allows athletes to reach the "Zone" where accomplishments rise above even their own expectations. But that concentration is not just chanting some video game mantra like, "Boy, I'm gonna whack the hell out of that thing right now!" Rather, in the refined and disciplined approach of Zen, it comprises (among other things) transcending the self, sublimating it to, and merging it with, the task at hand.

If that doesn't sound easy it's because it's not, and I won't pretend to teach you how to do it even if I could. Besides, as anyone who has ever tried can tell you, explaining Zen in words is notoriously difficult. As an obscure Zen poet once wrote in a Haiku poem:

“He writes what he will
And he is paid by the word.
What do you expect?”

Alright, so I wrote that one and I'm no Zen poet, obviously. But that's OK because I don't want you to get too deep into this for the very simple reason that, if you do, you might give up polo altogether and become a Zen monk, "sitting quietly doing nothing" instead of playing polo—and that would be counter-productive to my goal. You can go ahead and become a Zen monk after you retire, if you want. In fact, I think you should. But right now we need more polo players. So, let's just try to distill a bit of the essence of Zen meditative technique, outline the mechanism behind it, and discover how following this path might lead to finding yourself in the "Zone," that El Dorado of athletic wisdom and excellence—or, at the very least, help you to become a better polo player.

First, a little background. Zen is a way of life that does not fit well into the many categories of Western thought. It is neither a religion, nor a philosophy, nor a science. It is described in its native Asia as a "way of liberation" and is similar in this respect to Yoga. Yoga is the root of Buddhism (Buddha having started his studies with the yogis) and Zen later developed within Buddhism as a sort of secular off-shoot. Think of Zen as a kind of Yoga for the mind.

Historically Zen developed within Buddhism from its earliest times, in India, China, and especially in Japan where it was practiced by the Samurai class who lifted Zen to its most creative heights. It is still deeply rooted in Japanese culture today. Since the collision of cultures that took place in Pacific Theatre of World War II, Zen has become a potent force on the growing edge of Western thought and its teachings have been studied and taken up by many Westerners.

So, what exactly are the techniques of Zen meditation and what are they supposed to accomplish? The actual practice of Zen meditation can be described as mentally stepping back from our involvements, activities, considerations, and thoughts, letting go of our judgments, our egos—our very selves—and experiencing our own fundamental awareness on a new level. This Zen idea of “non-thinking” allows us to focus clearly on the immediate present. When we come to rest in the fundamental awareness of our own minds, the habitual conceptualization and background chatter that go on in our brains cease. This, according to the Zen masters, is true mindfulness. Here thoughts and ideas, views and prejudice, associations, memories, and imagination all fail to overwhelm and distract us from the reality of the present moment. In this condition we experience the world and our selves as they really are while our false, dualistic notions of "self" and "other" fall away, allowing us to awaken to our true nature and that of the universe we inhabit.

That’s when the doors of the “Zone” may open.

Zen meditation (or practicing mindfulness) requires genuine motivation and diligent practice. It is a path, like Yoga (or polo), leading to understanding, acceptance, and self-mastery. It may even lead to satori, a blinding flash of transcendental insight—but let’s just leave that for the moment (I don’t want to scare you!).

Now for the actual techniques. Sit down on the floor. If you have followed the advice of Peter Rizzo and taken up the practice of Hatha Yoga you might be able to manage either the full or half lotus position. Can't do it? I know the feeling, but don't despair. Just sit on a chair or bench for now, the aim being a stable upright sitting posture. Place the left hand on the right hand, palms upward, and allow the tips of your thumbs to lightly touch, as if cradling, umm… a polo ball! Allow your hands to rest in your lap holding them close to your body and aligned with your navel. Hold your head up and let your shoulders relax. Place the tip of your tongue gently against the roof of your mouth, just behind your upper teeth, keeping teeth and lips together. Breath through your nose. Allow your eyelids to relax, neither wide open nor closed. Let your gaze fall several feet in front of you at about the level of your chest. Don’t try to focus your vision or allow it to wander.

Once you are settled in, take several deep breaths then allow your breathing to become quiet and natural. Concentrate on the rhythm of your breathing and dispel all thoughts from your mind. If they try to creep back in—and they will—re-focus on your breathing and pay your thoughts no heed. Your thoughts are like clouds floating across a blue sky. In Zen meditation you want to stay connected with that blue sky and not be distracted by the thought-clouds.

When you have become proficient in these methods of sitting meditation (zazen), in emptying all thoughts from your mind, the practice may be carried out during nearly any activity or non-activity—within reason, of course.

The ability to do this will release your mind from all ego-related thought and activity, if only temporarily, and open the door to the possibility of a transcendent experience which, in its most potent form, is called satori, or total enlightenment. Don't expect this to happen in the first five minutes, though. In fact, put that thought right out of your mind along with all others!

Now, let’s take this back to polo and the search for the “Zone.”

Polo is a complex game. You need many things to play polo, some tangible, some intangible. You need some good horses. You need a ball, and a ground, and some other people to play with. You need a strong desire to play and the motivation and the means to make the commitment to continue playing. And this complexity extends most of all to the game itself where you must balance a host of variables—horses, mallet, personalities, team strategies, weather conditions—all while riding at top speed. It’s obviously not the time to be thinking about something that happened yesterday, or last year, or last century. Along with the skill and ability to perform the physical demands of the game you must also develop the ability to focus and remain focused on what you are doing. In the same way you learn said physical skills, by diligent practice over time, you must learn the skill of mental focus –and a good place to start is by learning to empty your mind of irrelevant and distracting thoughts.

A master polo player who once tried to teach me his craft likened these distracting thoughts to a monkey, an unwelcome creature that rides on your back, ruining your posture as well as your concentration. “You’ve got a monkey inside you as big as King Kong,” he admonished me. “You must learn how to keep it locked up in its cage. Don’t worry, everybody's got one,” he added.

"Even you, Maestro?" I asked.

"Having one is not the sin," he said, "but failing to control it is. When the monkey is rattling the bars of his cage, that's when you've really got to stay cool."

Meanwhile, your conscious mind only wants to help you, so give it a job: learning technique. Then your unconscious mind, working with your motor memory, will take over when the magic moment arrives—and you may own the Zone!

This is the concentration athletes all seek: anchored in technique, rooted in the body, focused on the task at hand,
the conscious mind shuts off, deliberate intent is transcended, and the self seems to fall away.
The conditions are ripe for the zone.

—In the Zone: The Zen of Sports, Andrew Cooper, Shambhala Sun, March 1995.

It won't happen overnight, but with practice, Zen meditation unveils a new and liberating perspective that is about evading illusion and seeing reality with clarity, focus, and calm.

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