Golf's Three Noble Truths
The Fine Art of Playing Awake
By James Ragonnet
New World Library Copyright © 2007 James Ragonnet
All rights reserved.
DEAD PEOPLE DON'T PLAY GOLF
After you're gone, Dear Golfer, who'll ever walk down the fairway the way you do? Duck-hook a drive into the woods the way you do? Listen at dusk to the mourning doves the way you do? Drive a golf cart the way you do? Pull the flagstick from the cup the way you do? Throw a golf bag in the back of a pickup truck the way you do? Line up a putt the way you do? Who will ever (except Jacques perhaps) shank a ball the way you do? (Geez Louise, you ought to see my friend Jacques shank a ball!)
The answer is simple: nobody! Sure, others may try to imitate you. But no one can impersonate you. When you're gone, the way you do things will disappear. In this life you're granted a finite number of breaths, days, divots, and rounds of golf. Despite your illusions, life doesn't go on forever. Until you realize that, you're missing the whole point. You don't need a whole new golf life. You just need to cherish the golf life you already have.
Death isn't some enemy waiting to destroy you. Rather, death is a friend reminding you to drop your pretensions and pay attention. Death will whisper to you about your unfinished business. Whether you listen to what death is telling you — that's up to you. I don't know much, but I know this: That if I don't cherish the moments I have left, someday I'm going to regret it. Before death hunts me down, I'm going to bow more reverently to golf — even if I don't know what I'm bowing to.
Death may seem like an odd subject for a book on golf. But when the idea of cherishing life's precious moments arises, death is the only place to start. Why? Because death compels you to decide what really matters in your life. To understand the preciousness of life, just contemplate death. It's like an approaching flood or hurricane threatening to demolish your house. Before you flee the area, you must decide what to take with you. "All human beings," wrote James Thurber, "should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why."
Trophies and a big golf reputation certainly matter — but what matters far more is this: to find joy in a game you love with all your heart. When my heart's aglow and I'm enjoying a round of golf with some dear friends on a beautiful day, I've been known to proclaim, "If I could drop dead right now on this beautiful golf course, I'd be the happiest man alive!"
Learn to cherish golf 's small miracles. The fairway bathed in green glory ... the dew glistening on the fairway ... the autumn trees clad in gleaming copper ... the wind swirling the autumn leaves in the rough ... the aroma of freshly mowed grass, the soft velvet of the green underfoot ... the wispy pink clouds connecting afternoon to evening ... the stroll toward your ball ... the American flag standing tall by the deserted clubhouse at dusk.
The things you most cherish and think about make you the person you are. The things you place in the palace of your heart determine who you are. When you internalize golf 's small miracles, you become the miracle. When you feel fully alive, fully awake, fully blessed — that's how you know you're standing in the right place. If you live joyfully, your life will never be a failure.
If you really want to come alive on the golf course, try this: imagine yourself lying dead in your fancy coffin. Picture a coffin large enough to accommodate you, your clubs, and that large Ping tour bag that Harold (your worthless, unemployed, ex-brother-in-law) sold you. Next, imagine yourself wearing your navy Cutter & Buck shirt, your Izod tan shorts, and your orange Niagara Falls CC golf hat. Imagine your lucky St. Andrews ball marker and divot tool in your pocket.
Imagine yourself, decked out as above, with your feet set in an open stance and your right shoulder positioned slightly lower than your left. Finally, picture your hands (in a Vardon grip) reverently folded across your chest. When you imagine yourself in your coffin, you'll get a whole new perspective. Suddenly, your golf problems won't seem that bad. (In fact, none of your problems will seem that bad.) This meditation exercise is a valuable reality check when things don't roll your way. Which is most of the time.
Consider each golf day a special gift. Slip each golf day — regardless of your score — into the archives where you store your most precious memories. When your golf moments are spent, they are lost forever. Eternity never gives them back. Before it's too late, acknowledge time's relentless melt. Don't wait until your final round to start loving golf. Don't wait until your last heartbeat to start loving life. Don't waste your last breath telling the EMT at your doorstep, "If anything should happen to me, please make sure George gets my new set of Mizuno irons."
Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, said that the reality of death compels us to change our life in such a way as to give it a meaning that not even death can remove. From this instant forward, this is what's left of your life. So tell me, Dear Golfer, what do you plan to do with what remains of your precious golf life?
Imagine yourself in a large conference room, along with one hundred other golfers taking a survey. The coordinator asks you to list the ten most vexing problems associated with your game. (You and other disgruntled golfers want to list more than ten, but the coordinator insists on the limit. You sense some hostility over this matter.)
Then the coordinator asks you to turn over the paper and list the ten most vexing problems associated with your health. After collecting the survey forms, the coordinator thanks the group for participating and invites everyone to return in a week to get the results. Before everyone leaves, however, the coordinator says, "Judging from the findings of previous surveys, you may be rather surprised at what I have to tell you next week." So you and the other golfers all agree to return.
A week goes by. The coordinator welcomes everyone back and summarizes the wide range of golf and health problems the survey revealed. He uses some colorful display charts to present his findings. You're surprised at the length of each list.
Next, the coordinator draws some basic conclusions. Based on the numerous golf and health problems cited in the survey, he bluntly reports, you and the others are definitely in the hurt locker. Apparently, this audience of golfers has plenty of problems!
The coordinator then asks what you would think if a physician promised everyone in the room — all one hundred golfers — one proven remedy for the dozens of health problems listed on the board. That's right — one remedy to cure everyone's pains, illnesses, ailments, and conditions. You marvel at the possibility of such an amazing remedy.
Now the coordinator confesses that he has some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that he can't offer one remedy to cure everyone's health problems. The good news, however, is that he can offer one remedy to cure everyone's golf problems. "Despite the nature and severity of your individual golf problems," he says, "there is one prescription, medicine, treatment, solution, remedy for your collective golf ills: awareness. Despite the complexity and diversity of your golf problems, awareness is the only medicine you need." He tells you that the way to improve your game dramatically (barring some physical or mental impairment) is simply to nourish your powers of awareness. If you want to improve your golf game, put awareness front and center!
Awareness is a liberating force that will tell you what matters most. You control only the things of which you're aware. The things of which you're not aware will ultimately control you. If you're unaware of the significance of things — like your grip or swing plane — then you're a prisoner to golf. If so, admit it. Liberate yourself by bringing awareness to the things around you. The greater your awareness, the fewer things will control and imprison you. If you want to become a self-sufficient golfer, sharpen your powers of awareness. Awareness — the key to growth — is your private path of guided discovery.
Your awareness, like money, is a finite resource. Let's say, for example, you have $100 of awareness at your disposal to spend on the green in order to make a critical ten-foot birdie putt. Accordingly, you spend $50 of awareness on the speed, grain, and break of the green and $50 of awareness on the requisite mind-body cues, such as softening your hands, keeping your head still, bringing the putter straight back, and accelerating through the stroke.
Having spent all your awareness money on those two big items, you have no awareness money left. You don't have $3 of awareness to spend observing what happened to Al's putt after it went by the hole. You don't have $2 of awareness to spend observing how spongy and wet the green feels underfoot. You don't even have $1 of awareness to spend removing a teeny pebble or granule in your line that will distort the roll.
To nourish your full awareness, learn to spend your "awareness cash" on as many things as possible, especially on little things. Learn to divide your awareness money on things both outside and inside you. Spend some awareness money on your thoughts and feelings, especially your confidence. Develop a checklist of how you want to spend your awareness money. Then set aside some spare awareness money for any last-minute things you may have overlooked.
Awareness means being conscious of what's happening at every moment. Being aware is synonymous with being watchful, alert, awake, mindful, attentive, observant, and perceptive. The opposite of being aware is being asleep, inattentive, oblivious, unobservant, and obtuse. Awareness will relax, center, and anchor you in the moment and intensify your sensibilities.
Being aware means being illuminated from within. When you become fully aware, the outside world stays the same. What changes is how you respond to the outside world. Once again, remember that your awareness is twofold. You must actively engage your hard awareness to actualize your intellectual center. And you must actively engage your soft awareness to actualize your heart center. Most golfers suffer from a poverty of awareness. They go about their business unaware of what's happening all around them. Without awareness, you'll make the same mistakes again and again. With awareness, however, you'll wake up, look deeply, and start to grow. Your golf problems — your short drives, weak irons, erratic putting, or negative thinking — will persist until you raise your level of awareness. Becoming aware means watching everything you do: your actions, your thoughts, your feelings, and your watching, itself.
First, watch your actions (and those of others). Become aware of every small movement and gesture. When you grip the club, watch how you position your hands. Watch how your partner grips the club and how she positions her hands. Watch your posture and the posture of others. Watch the position of your feet at address. Watch how far you bend at the waist and at the knees. Watch carefully the distance you stand from the ball. Watch how high you tee the ball. Watch the direction the flag blows on the green. Watch where your divots land. Watch how fast you remove your driver from your bag. Watch how quickly you walk or drive your cart. Watch how easily your partner swings her driver. Watch how your other partner overrotates his hips. Watch the puffy clouds moving lazily across the sky. Watch the windblown autumn leaves tumbling across the fairway. Watch the blue and pink ribbons of dusk vanish in the west.
Assuming you're somewhat athletic, the key difference between you and your favorite golf pro is essentially your respective levels of awareness. You may, in fact, be a more experienced golfer than your teaching pro. However, the pro has something you lack: awareness. Experience without awareness is meaningless. Unless you suffuse your golf experience with awareness, you're nothing but a sleepwalker on the course.
Greg Norman is a great example of someone with natural talent combined with keen awareness. At age fifteen, he could hit a ball 330 yards. At age twenty-one, he won the fourth pro tournament he ever entered. Obviously, being naturally athletic is important for a golfer. However, possessing awareness, especially self-awareness, is equally important. In sum, "Know thyself."
Second, watch your thoughts. Discriminate between important and unimportant thoughts. Keep discriminating among your thoughts as you play. Thoughts are like particles of dust on the mirror of your mind. The more dust that gathers on your mental mirror, the less clearly and accurately the mirror will reflect. Be watchful that not too much past-dust or future-dust gathers on your mental mirror. Watch for welcome gaps in your thoughts. Be watchful that your mind is not too cluttered.
Watch for indecisiveness. Watch your thoughts to decide exactly what you want to do. Watch your thoughts so you know exactly where you want to aim your putt — outside left edge, left edge, or in the middle. Watch your thoughts when you're unsure about what club to hit; which way a putt will break; what your yardage is to the creek; which way the wind is blowing; whether you want to lay up or go for it; or how far back to bring your putter to stroke a sixty-footer. Watch your thoughts for everything: confusion, contradictions, bravado, stubbornness, rigidity, narrowness, worry, anxiety, insights, and connections.
Third, watch your emotions and physical sensations. Pay attention to the feel of the clubhead as you swing. To the tension in your grip. To how much tension pervades your entire body. To how your rhythm and tempo feel. To whether your arms feel long and loose. To the feel of the ground as you establish a solid base. To whether you feel your shoulders rotating properly. To whether you feel your right shoulder on the downswing closing too early. To how soft your new putter grip is. To the cool, metallic feel of your 8-iron as you remove it from your bag. To what the wind feels like on your cheek. To what your anger and disappointment feel like when you miss an easy putt. Feel the anger and disappointment totally. Identify fully with both feelings. Then drop them.
Pay attention so that the anger and disappointment don't linger inside you. Don't deny the reality of the emotions. Just let them naturally pass like clouds or melt like snowflakes. Remain alert to all your feelings: the joy of draining a long putt, the agony of topping your fairway wood, the satisfaction of connecting your 7-iron squarely with the ball, the exasperation of seeing your chip shot roll twenty yards past the pin. Feel it all.
Finally, watch your watching. Become aware of your awareness. Golf — composed of innumerable small, subtle, and important things — demands that you play fully aware, fully awake, fully watchful. Watching your watchfulness occurs as long as you pay close attention to your actions, thoughts, and feelings. Awareness is a discipline and a practice, as well as a tendency and an inclination. Awareness is the only way to glimpse golf 's hidden wholeness, to actualize your growth.
In the East, an enlightened person is someone totally aware, or completely awake. There is a famous story about what it means to be enlightened. A long time ago, a man traveled very far to visit a legendary Zen master whom he deeply admired. As the traveler neared the monastery, he approached an old man carrying water from his well. The traveler asked the old man, "Where can I find the master of this monastery?"
The old man chuckled and said, "I am the person you're looking for. I am the master of this monastery." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Golf's Three Noble Truths by James Ragonnet. Copyright © 2007 James Ragonnet. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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