I recently discovered and been diving into a mindset podcast – largely for women – by a woman named Kara Loewentheil: “Unf*ck Your Brain.” It’s a big recommend. She’s a mental coach and offers tons of really insightful tools and explanations for free on her podcast and I’ve been getting a lot out of each and every one. In the last year I’ve been full-on committed to making the mental adjustments that not only will help me succeed in the ring, but also live a happier life, doing the thing I have the most passion for. I completed a very intense mental training group course with Niyi Sobo of “The Sports Motivation Podcast,” and got so much from him and that experience – tools, strategies and perspectives that changed the way that I think about myself and my goals. Shortly after finishing that course, I had my 200th fight, something I had defined as an Everest Goal as no western man or woman had fought that much in Thailand, and then went straight into a 3 day Vipassana meditation retreat. Again, really hard, and really rewarding – I’m just scratching the surface of what Vipassana can do for me as an athlete and a person, I see parallels between it and all my other specific-to-fighting mental work. And then in December my friend Robyn gave me a book, a classic, really, called The Inner Game of Tennis, which is an incredible book and came to me at a time when I could nod along to really knowing everything it was telling me, but having it all written out in a concise and affirming little book that can be read over and over again. In fact, I did read it over again during the 6 week Intensive Training I did with Karuhat and Chatchai in Bangkok in April-May, which I was tying together with Vipassana practice, and then happened to find Kara’s podcast at the same time. I’ll be probably doing an Inner Game of Tennis workshop later with my patrons.
above, you can listen to the podcast on What Creates Your Personality here
The Inner Game of Tennis and Vipassana go together really well. In fact, the author of the book breaks down the concept of Self I (the mind) and Self II (the body) in a manner that is exactly the objects you focus on for Vipassana meditation. But one (the meditation) is a practice for dissolving the delusion of “self” at all, and the book is directing the same practice of awareness toward sports. I was getting a great deal out of Kara’s podcast, but for me a lot of what she talks about in her podcast required a bit of creative interpretation to plug directly into these practices, which is what I’ve been focusing on. That is, until I listened to the “What Makes Your Personality” episode as I was walking Jaidee the other morning. My mind was blown. The three influences were coming together. It may sound trite or new-age cliche, but it can have a profound impact on your mental practice: You don’t have a personality, you just constantly take actions and make decisions and we create a narrative around the pattern that we then call our personality. No personality, no “I”, no need to be under the tyranny of Self I. It all fits. For me, this is was a huge step because concepts of myself as being a certain way, being a certain kind of person – my personality – have led to lots of difficulties and undercutting. Untying that knot of “personality” is a big step into accessing different ways of thinking and acting to situations that might feel beyond one’s control, at least for me and maybe you as well. And somehow hearing “You don’t have a personality” hit me in a different, more immediately-concrete way than something more Eastern sounding like “You don’t have a Self.”
So, here’s the super brief breakdown: in Vipassana you focus on the mind (Nama) and the body (Rupa) as objects. The body is as you would imagine, like a physical object that manifests in physical ways. Rupa has 4 positions in the meditation: sitting, standing, lying and walking. So, when lying on the bed the object is to just observe rupa lying, as a position. Like if a doll were lying on the bed and you stared at it, just watching it lie there. Occasionally, sensations occur, so rupa itches or feels a pain somewhere and there is movement to a new position – like, from lying to sitting. Then you watch rupa sitting. But when the position changes, the observation that the change came about as a means to alleviate suffering – like, if a back ache caused one to sit up – and it wasn’t you or I wanting to move. Just relief from suffering, shifting. That’s Rupa. When there’s a sound and “you” hear that sound, it’s Nama (mind) hearing it. So the observation is just watching Rupa in a position and then there’s a bird chirping and the observation is briefly interrupted by, “Nama hearing.” Just observe it. There was a sound, ears are receptive to that sound, and so it is heard. You or I aren’t choosing to hear, it’s just that there’s sound and the receptor to hear it, so hearing happens. One of the more wonderful realizations in my Vipassana training was that the mind wandering, which has its own term, “Nama Foong,” is a natural state of the mind. There’s nothing “wrong” with it, but just as you shift from sitting to standing to relieve physical suffering, you shift from Nama Foong to greater focus (by not following whatever story Nama is starting to get distracted by). Just get back to center. There is no “I” in either Nama (consciousness) or Rupa (physicality), and both are constantly arising and falling away. The way I understood this was to picture a flip-book, on which every page is a very slight alteration to a single drawing, so it looks like it’s moving when you flip the pages fast. But each page is a billionth of a second, or something, and each image on each page is actually a separate drawing. This is like the cells in the body or the “awareness” of the mind – every billionth of a second is arising and falling away (becoming and destroyed) at such rapid speed that it appears to be continuous, but isn’t actually all one thing. So, ultimately, when you can get to the point of no longer clinging to this kind of conscious experience of “I,” there’s a movement toward escaping the birth cycle that allows consciousness at all. Nirvana.
So what the Hell does that have to do with tennis? The author of The Inner Game of Tennis reiterates many times that the natural learning process is one that is neutral, erring on joyous. That’s very much what being a Monk is like, in terms of striving toward Equanimity (neutrality) and the natural state of joy. This process is interrupted by “Self I” (Nama, or conscious thought, or just the mind) trying to control everything and not allowing “Self II” (Rupa, or the body, or muscle memory) to run the show. Basically, Self I is always trying to get Self II to lie a certain way or sit in a specified position. The difference being an over-thinking struggle to “grip the racket lightly, slight tension in the wrist, a twist on impact, step this way, bring the racket this high, aim for X,” etc. that never makes anyone a fantastic player in any game, and the “in the zone” quiet mind that just gives instructions to the body like, “hit the ball into the corner” and then lets the body take over. The first one tries to make so many adjustments, it’s just a ball of tension and there’s no consistency. The second version is a “natural athlete” and actually very consistent. Moreover, it’s joyous, or at least enjoyable.
I have a very hard time in my Muay Thai training to just let go and trust my body to do what I want/ need it to do. Part of this is that I’m incredibly verbal, so breaking down a movement and technique helps me understand it… but that’s understanding it verbally. I’m a writer, so there’s an inclination toward the concept for me, but I’m also very good at imitation. If I see someone make a movement, I’m pretty quick to be able to identify where to look and how to recreate it. The first one is great for writing articles or doing voiceover on my videos, but the second one is what actually allows me to do a technique. Muay Thai, especially the Muay Thai of Thailand, isn’t verbal; it’s all physical. But my brain just will not shut up. I have a nasty inner-coach who always berates me for not being able to step on every kick, or not turning my hip, or not staying close, or letting my elbow pop up on a punch… it’s endless, a real chatterbox. And the more I berate myself, the less I actually enjoy what I’m doing and it never results in me fixing these errors. But, if I just take note that I was off-balance because my arm was too loose on the kick and then just kick again having made that notation without judgement, it corrects itself. Further proof: if I really want to kick well, my kick will be the shittiest thing I work on all day because I’m focusing too hard on it. But nearly anything else I’m not super focused on will be just fine, or even really good. So, focusing too hard on my kick will make my kick awful, but my elbows will be incredible. It’s like this: we all walk around without thinking about it. Once you learn to drive a car, you can zone out for miles before coming back to focus on the road and realize you’ve been making turns and stopping at lights without even thinking about it. Just auto-pilot. Of, if you think about the act of walking, if you are suddenly asked to break down the detailed mechanics of your walk down a street, suddenly it becomes weirdly stiff and you don’t remember how to walk “naturally.” If your super critical uncle is in the car, getting all judgmental about how you drive, you’re all focused and instead of zoning out and getting where you were heading without much effort, you’ve made two wrong turns and nearly hit a squirrel that you somehow didn’t see but everyone else in the car who wasn’t “trying” to drive did. That kind of thing.
Letting go of having Self I run the show is an ego thing. Self I can take credit for shit; if you hit a ball out of bounds and then remember to turn your wrist and the next shot is a perfect point inside the line, Self I is all, “oh yes, I did that.” No, your body did that. So, the conscious mind is much harder for me to quiet down; it’s the part of me that’s way harder to stop calling “me” or refer to as “I” or understand as being my identity. My body, sure, I can dissociate really well from my body. I am not my hair or my muscles or my height, those are all just qualities of my physical form, which is like a casing for the “I” that is my consciousness. But during my Vipassana retreat, it was really hard to detach from the conscious mind as being me and I. Likewise, just trusting all my training to express itself through my body under the pressure of a fight or sparring is insanely hard to do. My mind always wants to hold the steering wheel and it’s, like, yapping away at the car trying to tell it how the wheels should turn. A car doesn’t operate on words, man. SHUT UP and drive.
Okay, so how did this podcast blow my mind and bring all this together? Glad you asked. The very unfortunate thing about mental training is that you have to fix your brain by using the brain, and a brain that requires a lot of work is going to love telling itself how broken it is. There’s something called the “negativity bias,” which basically is a theory in Evolutionary Biology that the kind of brain that could connect the dots around dangerous and negative possibilities survived longer than brains that thought everything was groovy. Thinking a shadow in the leaves is a tiger is much safer than thinking a tiger is just a pattern in the leaves, right? But our brains do this to a detriment, where we see mistakes and failings and danger all the time, which keeps us from seeing successes and positives and the benefits of risk as well. So, rather than thinking, “I landed a kick and got kicked back, so I can land that kick again,” we think, “I landed a kick and got kicked back, so I’d better not kick again.” Same literal facts, different interpretation. In this podcast, Kara Loewentheil talks about how we interpret actions out of people, based on how we have labeled their personality. Your uncle tells you that you look fat in your jeans and it’s funny because that’s his personality, but your boyfriend does it and he’s sleeping on the floor for a week because, “what the fuck did you just say?!” But the difference is your interpretation, not the actual facts of what was said or who said it. The whole construct of a personality is also part of this Evolutionary Biology theory of seeking out patterns. Our biases and categorizations are helpful because it saves time. You don’t have to figure out what a cup is every time you see a different version of a cup; instead, you see a coffee mug or a high ball or a thermos, all of which look different, and you know what they’re used for because of how your brain works and the assumptions it makes. Sometimes that tendency works against us, like when your racist grandpa is going off about how some group of people is a monolith and they all do x, y, or z. But we do this with ourselves as well. We expect ourselves to react a certain way because, “that’s my personality,” and then we actually look back into our past to find greater evidence to support this tendency. But, Kara was arguing, we have this pattern and like to personify everything, from house pets to household objects: “My computer is being a dick today and keeps crashing.” So, personifying your computer (or my dog) is actually no less crazy than the way we attribute shorthand tendencies, qualities, actions and traits to actual persons in the form of “personality.” Kara’s argument, which blew my mind and connected my “I hate myself,” work to my Vipassana and Mental Training work is the simple notion that you do not have a personality. These tendencies and patterns and traits are just made up to help your lazy-ass brain save a little energy on having to work out what something is or who someone is every time there’s a new contact with it/them.
How often do we tell ourselves that we keep doing something we wish to change, or don’t do something we wish we would do, because “that’s just how I am”? I do it a lot. I err on the side of negativity because that’s just my personality. Sure, I know what that word means and based on that, it’s true. But “personality” isn’t an unchangeable fact; it isn’t even a fact. It isn’t more true than, say, that I see the positive in bad situations. I also do that a lot, but I don’t ascribe it as part of my personality. Because I’ve decided on this other pattern and then gone back and looked for more dots to connect it to, thus convincing myself that I’ve “always been this way.” By simply realizing that “personality” is just a lazy-brain’s shorthand to do less work, it helps to detach from those traits in the same way that meditating on the idea that my body isn’t “me” and my thoughts aren’t “I,” does. It’s brilliant. In the same way that Vipassana taught me that every moment is this separate arising and falling away that is then stitched together by narrative to create the delusion of continuation and persistence (rather than ephemeral and impermanent), realizing that “I” am not a personality but rather an endless process of decision-making that is then strung together and given a narrative to create patterns… hard to explain, but it’s very liberating. It means that the pattern can be broken every second. There’s no “I” in there, so if I don’t like my personality or I’m harping on the aspects of it that are causing me suffering, the first realization that none of that is truly “I,” and then indeed all that is required is a shift of position (mentally or physically) to relieve the suffering. I’m really stoked on this idea.
Listening to Kara Loewentheil’s podcast has been full of revelations for me. These three episodes in particular really had impact:
I’ll add these to my list of Mental Training Resources For Fighters which you can check out.
This issue of the interruption of the Mind is also closely connected to the realizations I’ve been having about Golden Age Thai technique in terms of continuity. You can watch this interview discussion vlog I did with my husband Kevin on what I’ve been discovering about Continuity:
You can follow my intensive study with Karuhat and Chatchai on my new sylviestudy.com website hosting in-depth training experiences