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Mental Talent


by Dan Millman

Have you ever been lost in thought while someone was talking to you, when you suddenly realized you hadn’t heard a thing they were saying? Or maybe you’ve driven through a stop sign without seeing it? Your ears and eyes were open, but your attention was captured by random thoughts or daydreams. Attention moves in two fundamental directions —outward, to the world of energy and movement, or inward, to thoughts. For most of us, attention bounces randomly back and forth between the inner and outer worlds.

     Psychotics are an extreme example of people completely lost in thought —turning their attention inward is so compelling that they lose contact with external reality. Most of us are subject to the same tendencies, but to a lesser degree, as our attention drifts from the present to the past or the future.
     If you sit down in a quiet room and close your eyes, you’ll notice many subliminal thoughts that usually play just below the threshold of your conscious recognition. As you sit quietly you may also become aware of the rhythmic expansion and release of your breath. You may notice the beating of your heart and, eventually, more subtle internal displays of sound and light. Above all, you’ll notice the stream of thought, flowing on and on.
     Most of us are subject to patterns of fuzzy attention, floating back and forth, in and out — a parade of reveries, fantasies, concerns, plans, problems, fears, anger, expectations, sorrows, regrets, and rehearsals. Emotionally charged thoughts often command our attention. Pay attention and test this truth in your own experience.

How can you think and hit at the same time?— Yogi Berra

     Meditation practice — whether sitting, standing, or moving — develops insight into the process of your thoughts. By paying attention in this way, you are able to recognize, acknowledge, and accept thoughts and feelings, but no longer let them drive your behavior or run your life. This is the beginning of body mind mastery. The first step to transcending the mind is to notice how you blame external circumstances for your anger — to understand that the problem lies not simply in the circumstance but in your mind’s resistance to what is.

I’ve had many troubles in my life, most of which never happened.— Mark Twain

     Body mind masters have learned in sport and life to focus their attention on the present moment — the next pitch, the next shot, the next swing — or washing the dishes. Thoughts come and go, but the body mind master’s attention remains focused on the here and now. You can apply this skill to the practice of daily life. This practice of the present moment may be one of the greatest benefits of any form of training.


Take this amusing test: A door swings open before you, and you see a sink full of water. The drain is plugged, and the water is running. The water begins to pour over the sink’s edge. Do you turn off the water and pull the plug, or do you grab a mop?
     Many athletes, and others facing the problems of daily life, spend a lot of time "mopping up" — dealing with symptoms. Many couples, for example, argue constantly about various topics when they need to focus instead on communicating more effectively. Developing mental talent involves "pulling the plug" on the primary source of emotional turbulence and physical tension.
     One way to appreciate your present state of mind is to contrast it with that of a typical three-month-old. Babies store many of the impressions of movement and energy they perceive in the world. But because they can’t talk, and because they don’t yet have complex associations, beliefs, opinions, values, and attitudes relative to those impressions, they don’t think much about anything. Children don’t philosophize, conceptualize, or theorize. Their attention is entirely focused in the present moment, without judgment or expectation. While their intellects are undeveloped, their attention is also free of the complex fears, angers, attachments, expectations, plans, biases, self-imagery, and self-criticism that characterize most adult minds. Such "ignorance" is bliss.
     Babies are body mind masters in their clarity, relaxation, sensitivity, and openness to the environment, and in their simple, direct approach to life — free of mental reaction and resistance. These qualities account not only for their astounding learning abilities but also for their innate charm and spontaneity.
     When you pay close attention to what you are doing, your mind quiets; and in that moment of silence, the symphony begins.

     We all began life as movement masters, our minds free of meaning. When a child learns to stand and walk, they fall down a lot. But they don’t judge their performance or compare themselves to anyone else — "I’m such a klutz! I’ll bet the baby across the street could walk circles around me!"
     A first step in reclaiming our innate potential is to examine four obstructions that plague most of us: limited self-concept, fear of failure, destructive self-criticism, and lack of concentrated attention. The following sections deal with these key mental obstructions.


Limited Self-Concept
Those who believe they can and those who believe they can’t are both right.—Henry Ford

Your progress in life tends to consistently follow your expectations. This is often called the self-fulfilling prophecy, and it applies to any field of endeavor. If you expect to do poorly, you will be less motivated and less interested; you’ll commit less time and energy and thus won’t perform as well, which only reinforces your limiting belief. If you expect or believe that you are a great dancer, or that you aren’t very likable, or that you are a whiz at math, you set in motion behaviors and choices that will fulfill your expectations.
     Thus, in sport and life, your level of achievement tends to mirror your self-concept. An example is the story of the self-limiting shoe salesman who was given a one-hundred-square-mile area in which to sell shoes. The first month he generated $10,000 worth of business. His supervisor was so pleased that he doubled the salesman’s territory the next month. Nevertheless, the salesman still sold only $10,000 worth of shoes. Upset, the supervisor cut his area to half its original size. That month the salesman still sold $10,000 worth of shoes. He had a $10,000-a-month self-concept.
     When you were very young, you were free to learn — ready for anything. As you grew, however, you began to receive signals that you were good at some things and bad at others. You were praised and blamed, or lacked experience, or misunderstood the situation, as I did when I was five, when I started kindergarten three weeks after my classmates.
     In painting class, I made my first picture of a tree. It looked like a green lollipop, since it was my first try. Then I looked around at the paintings of the other children, and to my disappointment, their paintings looked like trees. I didn’t understand that they had practiced drawing many more trees than I had. I didn’t realize that, if I continued to practice as much as they had, my trees might look even more leafy than theirs. But I gave up too soon. Then and there, I decided that I was not a good painter.
     Three-year-old Sam formed a self-concept another way. Reaching for a glass of milk, he misjudged the distance and knocked the milk over. His mother, momentarily upset, exclaimed, "Oh, clumsy child!" This word "clumsy" was new to him. He figured it had something to do with milk.
     On another occasion, it happened again — but this time, with juice. "Clumsy!"
     "Ah," Sam reasoned. "It doesn’t mean milk, it means spilling that makes me clumsy." Soon he had several dozen glasses of spilled liquid and a few falls down flights of stairs to prove it.
     As a child, you were pure potential. You could learn anything within human capacity. You had within you the seeds of becoming a physician, an attorney, an engineer, a craftsman, a dancer, an artist, or an Olympian. It never occurred to you that learning was difficult. You were free from assumed limitation, like my friend Jim Fadiman’s daughter in a story he told me:
     My four-year-old daughter decided that she wanted to learn to fly. It seemed elementary enough to her — even birds could do it. She stood on the couch and jumped, her arms flapping. Her first attempt was not entirely successful.
     She reasoned that since birds have feathers, this must be the missing ingredient. She found a feather in the yard. Holding it in her little hand, she leaped again into the air. She told me that the feather had "definitely helped."
     In letting his daughter jump from the couch, Jim was allowing her to safely explore her natural powers and limitations. In this way she was able to gain a balanced, realistic view of her abilities, uncolored by other people’s expectations. When I asked Jim why he hadn’t just saved her some effort and explained to her that little children can’t fly, he replied, smiling, "How could I know? I might have been wrong."
     Whenever older children or adults began one of my gymnastics classes, I could see them acting out roles based on their self-concept. A few people play the role of class leaders, get in front of the line, and show what they can do. Others stand quietly at the end of the line, making remarks like, "Oh, I’m really not coordinated."
     Your self-concept relates to your activities in daily life. You may have a fairly high self-concept in athletics but a lower one in auto mechanics, bookkeeping, painting, writing, or connecting VCRs to TVs.
     Self-concept is no more real than the shadow of a shadow. It is an illusion imposed on you long ago. Yet this illusion can limit your every endeavor until you can see it for what it is and cut through it. You transcend self-concept through understanding — by seeing through it — opening your talent for body mind mastery.

In order to achieve all that is demanded of us we must regard ourselves as greater than we are.— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

One way to overcome limiting self-concepts is to write down a list of twenty qualities or abilities you possess, or activities you might like if you felt you could do them well. Once the list is complete, rate yourself on a scale from one to ten — one being totally inept and ten being world-class. Don’t limit yourself to writing down only those activities you actually perform; include activities you tend to avoid.
     Once you’ve rated yourself, examine this reflection of your self-concept. Pay particular attention to your low self-ratings. Do you enjoy any of the activities? Why or why not? Have you ever really put effort into these activities in order to become proficient? Are there any authentic reasons you couldn’t become good at these skills? People with no arms have become excellent painters; I’ve seen a one-legged man become a fine springboard diver; blind people have excelled; at running marathons and bouncing on the trampoline. What’s your excuse?
     Here’s final step in this exercise: When you finish this article, sit quietly and consider these points about illusory self-concept. Look over your list one more time.
Then burn it.

     Through the insight that self-concepts are often illusory, you can overcome self-imposed limitations. That’s when your training builds new momentum.

Sometimes . . . you feel that you can do anything. At times like this I can run up to the front of the board, stand on the nose pushing out through a broken wave; I can put myself in an impossible position and then pull out of it.—Midget Farrelly, champion surfer

     The danger of low self-concepts may seem obvious, since they limit your achievement. But unrealistically high self-concepts have their own unique problems. Young children who are constantly praised for everything get used to such praise, which represents the positive attention that all children crave. They will strive to maintain this praise and maybe even develop precocious abilities.
     The shadow side is that their self-esteem depends at first on the praise and is transferred later to the achievement that earned the praise. They grow up to expect success, and they project this expectation onto other people, so that everyone in the world expects them to succeed. This expectation becomes a tremendous pressure not to let the world down. It can create brilliant students, star athletes, and suicides.
     Unrealistically high or low self-concepts create problems. The best self-concept is none at all. Children raised in a home relatively free from exaggerated praise or blame form a realistic, experimental, and persevering approach to their pursuits, without undue psychic pressure. They explore life and achieve out of a natural and innate sense of curiosity and internal satisfaction rather than external stroking or reward. They achieve naturally and enjoyably, without undue stress, in their own good time.
     Competence breeds confidence. So pay attention to each small success. Pat yourself on the back more and kick yourself less. Above all, keep training. Michael Jordan didn’t sink every free-throw, but he did take the shot. And by constantly taking shots in your life, you increase your chances of success.
     Start making positive, rather than the usual negative, statements about your worth, your potential, your skill — whether or not you fully believe them. With every positive statement to yourself — "I am an accurate putter," "I perform well under pressure," "I remember names and faces," "I enjoy not smoking"— you open doors to new possibilities.
     Visualize your dreams in detail. Your subconscious mind doesn’t clearly differentiate between what you visualize in your mind’s eye and what you see with your physical eye, so the more you visualize positive outcomes, the more you attract them to your life. When I was competing in gymnastics I spent a lot of time visualizing myself performing fantastic routines; I believe this habit accounted for much of my success.
     Success breeds success because it undermines assumed limitations. And remember that the natural law of accommodation is stronger than any self-concept. If you practice over time, you will improve. Transcending self-concept is a primary step on the path of the body mind master.

Fear of Failure
I used to fail at least fifty times a day in the gym. Failure is a natural part of the learning process — a signpost and guide to progress. In order to learn, you have to examine what’s not working and change your behavior accordingly. One successful CEO of a Fortune 500 company said that if he could live his life over, he would "make more mistakes and learn from them."
     Most of us were taught as children to fear failure — especially public failure — and to avoid it at all cost. No one wants to be called a loser. So you learn defense mechanisms like "not really trying." By clinging to the belief that "I could have done it if I’d really tried, but it wasn’t important enough to me," you never really fail.
     Fear of failure produces tension; tension constricts the blood flow and slows the reflexes, which produces shallow breathing; shallow breathing results in the contraction of opposing muscle groups, which reduces coordination. Ultimately, fear of failure generates a vicious circle that creates what is most feared.
     To break this cycle, you need to make peace with failure. It isn’t enough merely to tolerate it; you need to appreciate failure and use of it. Allow a half-dozen errors each game —even miss on purpose once in a while — just to stay loose and keep a balanced perspective. If we can make ourselves miss, we can also make ourselves hit.
     Body mind masters have made peace with failure, treating it like an old friend playing a practical joke. The greatest inventors, artists, and athletes all failed many times. Babe Ruth was the home run king of his time, but also the strikeout king.

Destructive Self-Criticism
There are two kinds of criticism in the world:
1. Constructive: "You were a little too high on that one; try swinging lower on the next."
2. Destructive: "That’s all wrong! Boy, that was dumb!"
     If babies held the same tendency toward self-criticism as adults, they might never learn to walk or talk. Can you imagine infants stomping the floor and screaming, "Aarggh! Screwed up again!" Fortunately, babies are free of self-criticism. They just keep practicing.
     Self-criticism is a learned habit pattern, one that usually begins in childhood, when children naturally make errors and often receive destructive criticism.
     If you received destructive criticism as a child, you later internalized that criticism and began to criticize yourself to prevent others from doing so. This childhood defense usually does tend to deflect criticism from parents, brothers, sisters, or playmates, but it’s a hard habit to break.
     Some believe that we have to criticize ourselves to improve. Just the opposite is true. The judgment only holds the pattern in place.
     So be gentle with yourself; show yourself the same kindness and patience you might show a young child — the child you once were. If you won’t be your own friend, who will be? If, when playing an opponent, you are also opposing yourself, you will be outnumbered.
     You probably would find it cruel and unnecessary to say to someone, "You are really stupid; you keep making the same mistakes; you should give up; you‚ll never be any good!" Yet we think it’s okay to say the same things to ourselves.

Others will underestimate us,
for although we judge ourselves
by what we feel capable of doing,
others judge us only by
what we have already done.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One-Pointed Attention

There is tremendous power in total attention to the matter at hand. In the intensity of performance or competition we are more likely to focus our minds on the present moment, forgetting all else, than when performing habitual routines such as driving, walking, or eating, when we tend to daydream. But athletes in action experience the power of the present moment. And in these moments of truth, we can find silence and serenity.
     When we achieve one-pointed attention, we become completely present. This state has been called flow or being in the zone. The body mind master calls it home.

When I play my best golf, I feel as if I’m . . . standing back watching the earth in orbit with a golf club in my hands.—Mickey Wright

     When skiers and surfers feel this total attention, they know they won’t fall. Golfers in this state can sense lines of energy from the ball to the hole. Tennis players in the zone anticipate what is going to happen before it happens.
     As you learn to attain one-pointed attention to the present moment, you lift the quality of your sport and life.

You ignore everything and just concentrate. You forget about the rest of the world and become part of the car and the track. It’s a very special feeling. You’re completely out of this world and completely into it. There’s nothing like it.—Jochen Rindt

The following exercise shows how even a subtle distraction affects the body: Ask a friend to stand comfortably with his arms at his sides. Ask him to tense one arm, locking it straight and clenching his fist, with his arm pointed downward along the side of his body. Tell him you are going to try to pull his arm away from his body, sideways, a foot or two. Notice the amount of effort required for you to pull the arm out.
     Next, tell him that you are going to wave your hand in front of him, with a zigzag motion downward, without touching him, and then you’ll immediately try again to pull his arm out as you did the first time. Proceed to do this.
     Do you notice the difference? What happened to his mental focus when you distracted him with your hand?

Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.—Hanah More

     Athletic training is the best school for one-pointed concentration because it demands your full attention in the present. Body mind masters develop the ability to follow through in sport or life, no matter what distractions assail them.

I wasn’t worried about a perfect game going into the ninth. It was like a dream. I never thought about it the whole time. If I’d thought about it I wouldn’t have thrown a perfect game.— Catfish Hunter

A gymnast’s mind falls off the beam before her body does. In order for her to maintain perfect balance, she must keep her attention squarely over the beam. As the saying goes, "Don’t look where you don’t want to go." Before a football running back can be tackled, he must be distracted. Becoming unstoppable depends more on mental focus than physical skill.

The following two-part exercise can show you the difference between weak attention and total one-pointedness:

     Test 1. Stand and squarely face a partner from a distance of about ten feet. His feet should be a shoulder-width apart, each the same distance from you. Now, assuming a timid stance, walk in a straight line, as if to brush past his right side. As you are about to pass him, have him lift his right arm directly in front of your chest. Let your mind stop at the arm in front of you.
     Test 2. This time, perform exactly the same exercise, with one mental difference. Walking the same speed, project your attention, with force, a thousand miles in front of you. Pay no attention to your partner’s arm as it is raised; continue right through the arm as if it weren’t there. Remain relaxed, positive, centered. What do you experience?
     Your partner’s arm represents those little distractions of daily life, the thoughts that spring up to distract you. Fear and distractions will continue to arise. But when you pay as little attention to them as you did your partner’s arm, you’ll be on your way to one-pointed attention and body mind mastery.

     Every basketball player has experienced the difference between shooting a basket with full attention and attempting the same with only partial concentration. If, for example, Stretch is about to shoot with his attention divided between the basket and the opponent guard behind him, he’ll likely miss a shot he could easily make in practice. Experiment on your own with Trash Basketball:

Trash Basketball
Sit about 10 feet away from a wastebasket. Crumple some waste paper into about twenty little balls. Get ready to play.
     Step 1. Without paying real attention, casually toss some balls toward the basket, and see if you sink any.
     Step 2. This time, focus your attention intently in the center of the wastebasket. Sink your mind into the basket. Staying relaxed, toss a few balls in. (Remember not to try or you’ll become tense; just let them go in.) Check your results. Were you focused?
     Step 3. Repeat Step 2, but have a partner standing behind you periodically poke you in the ribs, at random, as you’re about to shoot. Notice how this affects your mental focus and accuracy. Then overcome it.

     One-pointed attention brings freedom from internal distractions and can help you master any game. Such mental power carries over into the games of life. As you stabilize your ability to focus your attention fully on the matter at hand, you will find yourself resting more and more in the present moment. Life will become more simple, profound, and full.
     Freedom from mental distraction equals power. Olympic champion weightlifters not only have powerful bodies; they have powerful minds. The same quality of attention frees us, in the moment of truth, from any thought of self-concept, criticism, or fear. Body mind masters eventually come to the realization that this and every moment, on or off the field, is the moment of truth.
     We have to isolate mental qualities before we develop them. Training is either conscious and systematic, or random and haphazard. If you feel something wrong with your running as you jog around a track but aren’t able to pinpoint the specific problem, you’ll struggle to improve by doing more of the same. You need to clarify a problem before you can solve it.

You’re involved in the action and vaguely aware of it — your focus is not on the commotion but on the opportunity ahead. I’d liken it to a sense of reverie . . . the insulated state a musician achieves in a great performance . . . not just mechanical, not only spiritual; something of both, on a different plane and a more remote one.—Arnold Palmer

     Golfers experience periods when they can’t seem to sink a putt; tennis players often have double-fault slumps. Because they can’t identify the source of their problem, these athletes may look to the heavens, wondering why the gods are punishing them. They start carrying rabbit’s feet wrapped in garlands of four-leaf clovers. They develop nervous tics or superstitious rituals. They may even voluntarily commit themselves to rest homes.
     Now that you have a better understanding of the mental mechanisms that influence your performance, you’ll realize that although we all find ourselves in slumps occasionally, we don’t need to get stuck in them. And when you feel like you’re going nowhere or even slipping backward, you may actually be backing up to get a running start.
     So when the time comes to act, remember to lose your mind and come to your senses.

From Body Mind Mastery, by Dan Millman. Copyright 1999 by Dan Millman. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $12.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-972-6657 Ext.52, or click here.