I promise this isn’t about to become a tennis blog, though I’d have no objection. This is the first in what will be a 10 or 12-part series on the game’s deep impact on me, and its confluence with playing music. After all, racquets and guitars are both strung and played.
Tennis and I go back around 40-years, and, along with slinging a guitar (also 40+ years on now), swinging a racquet remains one of the few grounding, meaningful, and fun threads through almost every stage of my life.
Zero-zero. Love-love. Lazy sunshine, soft breeze, nothing beyond this moment. I just had to start writing…
Two settings stretch time for me: playing music and playing tennis. In a continuum of crescendos and rests, each space buffers my senses with silence, rewarding me with greater and greater focus and unity of body and mind. When things flow, that’s just a glorious present – there is only my next note or my next shot. I am in motion and also still.
Silence is not a prerequisite for stillness, but it can be a superhighway. That said, even in the center of continuous action and kinetic fury, one can find stillness in the noise. All this to say, treasure wherever you can find your stillness.
There are places where you and others on your wavelength become the entire world. In those continuums, nothing else – no one else – matters. Anything except the present – the now – is irrelevant. Achieving a state of exquisite flow is one thing – being able to share it, as you can on stage or on a tennis court, is where you find humanity. And fun.
Stillness is antithetical to “the now.” The present is the most restless tense. As of yet, we can’t listen to the past or the future. We only hear the now. All your senses only exist in the now.
You can’t see the past, any more than you can taste the future. You can’t smell time, or touch space.
You can, of course, recall sensations – often to a point that transports you. But memories and lucid dreams are still only shadows. The future is pure chaos, but controllable through the decisions you make in the moment. The past is dead. The present, at any given time, is all you know for certain.
In a way, every choice you make in life is a means to create (refuse?) fate. The more you can predict, the better you can react. The entropy of the universe can be tamed by even the slightest overlay of order on the cosmic randomness we ping-pong around in. How fortunate we are to live when productivity and meditation apps are on the same device.
There is a sort of optimum middle where order and randomness go together. That is what a master is looking for in a work of art: the optimal combination of order and randomness.
Tennis, for me, brings all this home. On court, my body and mind are forced to deal with and solve problems, together, in space and time. The game narrows my awareness to the ball, the movements, the sounds, the light… all that surrounds me in the immediate moment. Playing tennis suspends me in the present, where for me “living in the now” is a subset of fun.
At the same time, “living in the now” terrifies ungrounded folks. Looking inward risks the construction of a mental anechoic chamber. Sometimes for me, dropping out life’s noise and clutter via intense focus silences the world outside, but not loud thoughts within.
Quieting the din of modern life is the point of any meditative activity, but silent acoustic space doesn’t always quiet my mind. With no competition from without, every thought I have can become oversized, locking me in loops.
So in music and tennis, I find peace, but also the war within. As I try to fill myself with stillness, demons can split my head, and every negative perspective on myself can take over my mind. Tennis matches and music performances can take me to an Upside-down World akin to Stranger Things.
The paradox of stillness is that, since it would take all the energy in the universe to stop the universe, true silence is unattainable, merely approachable. What we discern as silence is in effect merely the event horizon of pure nothingness. We can “be quiet” or “be still,” but we’ll never “be silence” or “be stillness.”
The best we can do is get unstuck in time, as Kurt Vonnegut advised. Freed from temporality, your mind can’t tell the distance between any here or there. Everywhere you are is now. So, dance break!
From the first time I picked up a tennis racquet at 5 years-old, I didn’t yet sense the game pointed to a larger universe or to order in chaos, but I knew I felt safe on a tennis court. Over the next dozen or so years, as I played in leagues and high school teams and camp tournaments, the game revealed life’s primary challenge to find stillness and peace of mind. In order for your movement in space to be at a maximum, for you to perform your best, in the context of tennis, there can be nothing but the thought of the shot you are taking. Nothing, that is, but to be in “the now.”
For me, in tennis and beyond, movement has never been the issue. Stillness is my white whale. For how fast and frenetic tennis appears from without, the game within demands absolute focus. And it’s not enough to perform your best once or twice. You have to be perfect over and over again. And even then, one or two points lost at critical moments can derail everything.
In the end, every time I walk on the court, I know if I can solve the puzzle of my game, I can solve parts of the puzzle of my life (or at least find a few edge pieces).
Lol, no pressure.
Next up – Part 2: Winston