Both the athletes and artists I work with regularly face performance anxiety. This makes sense because both groups perceive that they are in an event they can potentially win. They imagine there is a good outcome and a bad outcome, and so they place considerable mental energy on worrying about the bad one, and yet all that does is attract the bad experience to us by distracting us from our task.
Have you noticed that your best performances always feel relaxed? If you golf, you know our best golf swings our often easiest golf swings; and why is that the piece of art that seemed the easiest to create is the one everyone loves and gives you credit for? This is a nice spot to discuss the Buddhist Illusion. What is that illusion? What is it made of?
The illusion is made from words. The illusion is a conversation we have over top of an event. So while we’re standing off-stage or at a starting-line we’ll be talking to ourselves about success. We’ll be reminding ourselves about the shape and components of failure. We will weigh our competitor. And it’s critical to note that all of those states (success, failure, competitor) are all things that can only exist in our minds—in our imaginations.
If those states of mind were actual objectively real experiences, then everyone would feel the same way and yet they don’t. The experience is individualized and internal. Some competitors are worried about their training, others about their equipment, others about various competitors.
Prior to a performance or race or competition we will be dosing our brains with all kinds of chemistry based on whatever thoughts we’re thinking as we prepare. But despite all of that thinking, the only thing we have real control over is our actions in the competition.
When I drag race a car, I’m really not racing the guy next to me. Because he and his car will do whatever they’re going to do—I have no influence over that. All I can do is prepare and drive mine the best I can and the rest is the giant math of the universe. Some days my performance would win, others not. I can’t be thinking about the universe’s math. That’s out of my hands. I have to be focused on what is in my hands.
If the only thing in my control is my own performance then I should focus 100% of my attention on that, not on word-based thoughts about the events. I’m not looking for language to describe what’s happening, I’m looking for actual open, focused awareness that then smoothly becomes action, like it does for heroes. It’s a subtle but significant difference.
When a crane is fishing, do you imagine its mind is full of thoughts? Do you think the crane is standing there in the water, perfectly still, thinking to itself that it really needs to get this fish—that its family is hungry and this fish is important? Or that it needs to beat this fish in this contest? Do you think the crane is trying to win? Or is the crane prepared to strike with a speed that can only come from a profound stillness on both the inside and out.
There is in fact intense activity in stillness. A crane is fully invested in the hunt. With no thought whatsoever directed toward an abstract idea like failure, the crane is left with only Now. There is no outcome. There is no winner or loser, there is only the present unfolding moments and the math between crane and fish; and that is the universe’s math, not the crane’s, and so that is why no thought is given to it.
Can you see that when you are at a starting line, you can be an ego, or you can be like the crane? You can be open and aware, with access to all you know, poised and ready. Or you can stand in the same position, but have your head filled with busy, noisy, distracted thinking.
In doing so you weave an illusory layer of words between you and the experience—between you and your reactions. You can simply look at a golf ball, or you can stand there with your eyes on that ball, but your mind playing words about how you should keep your eye on the ball. That again is a subtle but critical difference that will have a remarkable influence over your performance. Mental discussions about things are not those actual things.
If a crane had to stop thinking about how important this fish was, or how hungry its children are, then it would have to download that thought before it could enact its physical being and strike at the fish. But without that layer of thought, it is simply ready. It may still miss the fish, but again, that is nature’s math not the crane’s.
The crane doesn’t worry itself with things it cannot control. Its mind is filled with being itself, and that will either be enough or it won’t. Athletes and artists would do well to do the same. Be the crane. Be still inside. Because then there is nothing standing between us and the best performance the rest of the universe will allow.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.