Zen Buddhism and Golf Psychology
This article is intended for the advanced golfers who have invested considerable time into learning beyond the basics of golf. In other words, advanced skills in swinging the golf club and regular experience of tournament golf is required for the context of this article to be relevant. This article may also be relevant for those who are in the early stages of their golf career and want to gain deeper understanding of how psychology, specifically Buddhism, applies to golf.
• When was the last time you were truly satisfied with your golf performance?
• Do you feel latent dissatisfaction because of your performance on the golf course?
• During a round of golf, have you ever been the victim of your own negative emotions?
• Have you gotten upset for no apparent reason and found yourself in a spiral of negative events that perpetuated themselves?
• Do you struggle to keep a good momentum going?
Do you get tense sometimes and tend to be too harsh on yourself?
If these questions apply to you, reading this article may help you find answers to most of your questions.
Please keep in mind that I do not personally benefit from promoting the Buddhist belief; There is no affiliate marketing done through this website, nor do I have the intention to spread Buddhist as a religion. By reading the article, I hope, readers will discover that I am solely interested in the lessons Buddhism can teach us in becoming better golfers.
How Zen Buddhism can help us improve our golf game
By now, most of us have probably heard of Zen or Buddhism and its potential links to golf psychology or sport psychology. However, unless you are already meditating, Buddhism most likely remains an elusive topic to you. In this article, I will describe the basics of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation, explain how Buddhism may help you take control of your emotions on the golf course and, thereby, help you reach a state of optimal performance or the “flow-state”.
Basics of Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and was founded in India in the 5th Century BC. The name, Buddha, was originally a common noun, meaning the “awakened one”. It was given to Siddharta Guatama (563 – 483 BC), who was the historical founder of the Buddhist religion. Before being named “Buddha”, the 29-year-old Siddharta embarked on a six-year long journey to figure out a way to deal with the struggles in life. Although, 2500 years ago, life was a lot different than today, the reason for why human beings struggle during the course of their lifetime have remained the same; We all strive for happiness in our lives, we fear death, we seek social integration, we try to understand who we are, we try to find our place in society, and more. During this journey, we get to know ourselves better and hope to find our own way of coping with all struggles life throws at us.
Siddharta wanted to find a way that would help him deal with all these struggles. After six years of painful physical deprivation and unsuccessful mental experimentation, Siddharta found himself under the Bodhi Tree. He was so desperate to find answers that he decided to sit there until he would find enlightenment. Finally, after seven days of meditating, Siddharta found what he was looking for; the ultimate truth of life. From this point in time, Siddharta was called “Buddha”, the awakened one.
According to Buddhism, Siddharta’s journey is symbolic for all our individual journeys through which we hope to find the ultimate truth of life. As such, the name Buddha is not occupied for the awakened Siddharta himself. Quite the contrary, all of us may find the ultimate truth of life and, after having done so, may call ourselves “Buddha”.
Understanding the Buddhist way: The four noble truths
Before going into detail on how our mental game on the golf course may benefit from Buddhism, we need to understand what Buddhism is all about. Just to give you a heads up, the thinking behind Buddhism sounds ridiculously simple but, in fact, is terribly difficult for most of us to apply on a daily basis, especially during a competitive round of golf.
Buddhism is best understood by referring to the four noble truths, which are to be understood as Buddhist observations or wisdom, not rules:
1. All existence is affiliated with suffering;
2. Desire, thirst or craving are sources of suffering;
3. Suffering can be brought to an end through the elimination of craving; and
4. The eightfold path is the means to eliminate suffering and escape from samsara (the endless cycle of birth and rebirth).
For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the first three truths. The fourth noble truth deals with the escape from rebirth and does not add any meaningful information as to how we can improve our mental game on the golf course.
Now, let’s describe the first three noble truths in a bit more detail;
Buddhism knows to be true that, to some extent, we all struggle with our mind, more specifically with our personal well-being, including our fears, our expectations, our hopes and dreams, our joy and more. Once we feel slightly off, we are not quite happy. And although many of us live a decent life, we feel latent dissatisfaction. By the way, the same is true with regards to golf. We strive to play well and dislike everything that goes the other way. As soon as we miss a shot, we lose our cool and start to worry about our swing or we question our confidence. We become dissatisfied with our performance.
Now if we look closer, we can identify personal well-being, health, longevity, and playing a good round of golf as being our desires. According to Buddhism, we should be aware of these desires and be aware of the consequences these desires have on our emotional state:
Although living a happy and long life or playing a good round of golf is something positive, nurturing the desire to do so may actually be harmful to us. Living a happy and long life or playing well becomes so important to us that we start to worry once things don’t go our way. Consequently, we try even harder to reach our goals, which usually lead to more mistakes in golf. If we don’t know how to cope with such a situation, we become more nervous or impatient or fearful or angry or sad or a little bit of everything. Because we are processing these negative emotions in our mind, we are mentally absent. We are not in the present and we are not focusing on what is in front of us.
Buddhism suggests cutting through this vicious cycle by redirecting our focus every time a harmful desire comes our way. The idea is, when there is no desire, the content of this desire is no longer important to us. We are able to let negative emotions go and are able to redirect our focus on the present.
No one will be able to tell you whether there is such thing as eternal life, perfect health, or a perfect round of golf. However, if these are your expectations, Buddhism predicts that you will neither be truly satisfied nor happy. This is because there will always be a gap between what you desire and what reality provides you with. Ultimately, it is this gap that leads to dissatisfaction and negative emotions. Buddhism argues, the only way to get rid of this gap and the subsequent negative emotions is to identify our desires, understand where they come from, and know which desires are harmful. Only then, we are able to deflect our attention away from this desire towards something that we actually want to focus on, something that is right in front of us.
One might think, “I should get rid of all my desires!” However, that’s a false conclusion. There are important desires that we need to maintain. For instance, we need to satisfy our desire to eat food, exercise, work, define goals and more. Getting rid of these desires would obviously hurt us. Rather, Buddhism is about finding the middle way; In fact, the 14th Dalai Lama suggests being smart about one’s desires! One should try to keep the good desires and get rid of the harmful ones. Which desires are constructive and which harmful is down to your personal judgement.
In order to understand the influence of our desires on our emotional state, we need to look inside of ourselves; we need to meditate.
Buddha once said that the mind is as restless as a monkey. In one moment, we think of this, in another we think of that. It seems as if our brain randomly picks thoughts relating to experiences we have made in the past or things we might experience in the future. Who we are and who we think of ourselves is constantly changing; We are this person today, another person tomorrow. One moment we are laughing, another moment we are sad.
Buddhism assumes that every human being will make these observations about oneself. And instead of chasing down every idea or thought, Buddha suggests to simply be aware of one’s restless mind and be aware that tomorrow one’s self will be different from today.
The difficulties in trying to cultivate more happiness come from within. When we meditate, we are experiencing sceptical thoughts, doubts about ourselves, doubts about the purpose of meditation, doubts about finding the same truth as Buddha did. Meditation is not about getting rid of these doubts or suppressing emotions such as anger and sadness. Rather, meditation is about realizing that we have random thoughts that trigger subsequent emotions. It is about, identifying them as they appear. Identifying our thoughts and subsequent emotions allows us to take an objective stance and, ultimately, allows us to get out of a harmful emotion peacefully. Put differently, we don’t want to waste our mental energy on negative thoughts and, potentially, engage in a spiral of negative emotions. We all know that the latter scenario doesn’t turn out too well on the golf course.
Furthermore, according to Buddha, we are able to identify our ‘real self’ through meditation. Not the thoughts and emotions that arise from an inattentive mind but the thoughts and emotions that we consciously choose to engage in define our real self. If we don’t pay attention to our mind, our emotional state will be influenced by random thoughts. The consequence is that we lose ownership of our mind. Buddha goes as far as to say that any thought and emotion that we experience during a moment of mind-wondering, during which we are unaware of our thoughts and emotional response, ought to be detached from our real self.
Buddha realized that once we turn to our real self, i.e. when our thoughts are chosen by ourselves, we turn away from our negative self. Instead of focusing on our fears, or pains or unnecessary thoughts, we are able to focus on the present and on things that are happening right in front of us. We understand that we are part of our environment and that our environment is influenced by so many other factors than ourselves. We are able to, ultimately, let things happen. We let things fall into place. The only thing we can influence is ourselves and the interaction with our environment. We do so by staying in the present.
Once we accept our thoughts and emotions as something that is ever changing, we stop centring your feelings around ourselves, and, become less egoistic. Instead, we feel compassion; compassion for the suffering of others and compassion for our own suffering. We allow ourselves to experience calmness, which in turn allows us to see our true strengths and our true motivations. This newfound realization will give us true self-assurance and confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Finally, we are at peace with ourselves and feel true happiness.
What Golfers can learn from Buddhism
The journey of becoming (like) Buddha helps us understand the functioning of our inner world, how we can identify our emotions, and how we can influence our emotions. In the end, this is a valuable lesson for a golfer to learn as our emotional state predicts our performance on the golf course.
Buddhism emphasizes that our state of mind and everything else in our universe is subject to change. Of course, this is true in life just as it is on the golf course. Once we accept this, we may focus on what matters most; being aware of the present (state of mind), focusing on this shot. Everything else is out of our control and doesn’t require our conscious attention. In doing so, we allow our subconscious to take over and execute the shot for us. Our conscious effort goes into making sure that we adhere to the mental process of staying in the presence;
1. Awareness: Be aware of your current state of mind.
2. Identification: Identify your emotions in the presence.
3. Judgement: From an objective standpoint, does this thought serve your goal?
If so, go back to the first step
If not, then…
4. Disengagement: Let the emotion fade away.
You do this through…
5. Choice: Refocus on the presence. Refocus on a thought or emotion that
serves your goal.
The goal is to follow this process for as long as possible, even after bad shots have occurred. Of course, it is ok to be angry after a bad shot because we don’t want to suppress our anger. However, it is important to quickly get back into the process outlined above. By doing so, we get back to what makes us perform successfully. We don’t worry about the next shots, we don’t get ahead of ourselves. Instead, we are in the presence and play shot by shot. As long as we stay in the presence, we are fully immersed in what we do. As a consequence, we lose our sense of time and find ourselves in a flow of events. We are confident because we stay in the presence, not because we play well. The outcome of our performance becomes secondary, which allows us to break free from any restrictions. Being in a state of optimal performance, we let our subconscious execute the next golf shot.
The truths that Buddha had identified to help us live a purposeful life are universal and apply to every human being. However, your way of finding the ultimate truth of life may be different from Buddha’s way. The same applies in the context of golf. There are truths that are universal to all golfers, i.e. our subconscious needs to execute golf shots in order for us to play well. However, my way of getting there might be different than your way. Most importantly, I hope this article showed you the importance of meditation and gave you inspiration in finding your state of optimal performance on the golf course and in life.
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