If, as a renown wisdom teacher once proclaimed, “Our life is the creation of our mind,” it might be worthwhile to spend some time Getting Good (a minimum of 10000 hours worth?) at observing our mind and studying how it works. This point was recently driven home to me last weekend watching Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open. Near the end of the broadcast on Sunday, with Tiger needing to make a crucial putt to tie and send the tournament into a playoff, a commercial was broadcast for Nike featuring Tiger and his recently deceased father, Earl. “Tiger, I promise you that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn’t and he never will.” This was Earl explaining why Tiger would not only make the putt to tie the tournament, but why the following day he would eventually go on to win the U.S. Open. And he would do it with a ruptured Anterior Cruciate Ligament in his left knee and a shin bone stress fractured in two places. Mentally tough would seem to also include being physically tough.
Here’s one neurological description from Richard Davidson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin of what it might mean to be “mentally tough”:
Activation in specific neural systems associated with conflict monitoring (e.g. the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), selective attention (e.g. the temporal parietal junction, ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex, frontal eye fields) and sustaining attention (e.g. right frontal and parietal areas and the thalamus).
Translated, this essentially means that central structures in the front of the brain have acquired the wonderful ability to act in a chief executive capacity. Their central location allows them easy access and connectivity to other brain areas, particularly the limbic structures. This improved executive function allows for greater capacity for emotional self-regulation – fewer people, places and things trigger fear reactions. There is also some evidence that growing out this area of the brain improves immune function. Based on Tiger’s performance this past weekend, I would hypothesize that it also improves pain tolerance!
A Terrible Thing To Trust
I play golf, and one thing I recognize is that I am not mentally tough. I’m easily distracted, often frustrated and dejected after hitting a poor shot, and rarely find my way back to any kind of centered, calm state of relaxed alertness. I often have to take a Mulligan on the first hole, and it takes me three or four holes to settle down enough to actually begin thinking about the game I’m playing, both the inner and outer. On the golf course and through the rest of my life, settling down most often works by taking a number of deep, 7-11 breaths and reminding myself that: “My mind is a terrible thing to trust.” In other words, the things I think and the emotions those thoughts generate, often aren’t particularly helpful. Left mostly to its own devices, my mind regularly throws up fear-based and anxiety-ridden thoughts about things like getting old, sick and/or being homeless. Every abdominal cramp is stomach cancer, every chest pain is “the Big One,” and every headache is the long-awaited brain tumor finally come home to roost. In order to feel comfortable and not be regularly “tossed away” by the thoughts I think, it would have been good to have begun some kind of contemplative or martial practice as a young kid, much as Earl Woods did when he started Tiger in the martial art of golf at an early age.
Lacking the obvious benefit of that early support and training, I have had to find other means of developing what child neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel calls Mindsight – the weaving of insight and empathy to promote kindness and compassion. I study social neuroscience, occasionally practice Aaron Beck’s cognitive behavioral thought confrontation techniques which I call “mindscoping,” and spend as much time as I can hanging out with people who minds I trust. These are people who, somewhere along the way, have had the benefit of great early mind training. Such associations form a sort of Sangha for me, one that serves as a continual reminder that with becoming mentally tough, practice makes … for a good reminder to put in more practice.