Choosing Your Lessons

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I’ve always played sports — never particularly well, mind you — but I’ve always played something. In elementary school and junior high, I was all about football — that is, until the game graduated from flags to tackle, I stopped growing and everyone else started to loom over me. In high school, I took up tennis, made the school team, and lost *every* match I played against the country club set. (Okay, I lost to everyone else, too) As an adult, I got into ultimate frisbee, then biking, and most recently, volleyball. Like I said, I’ve never been an “A” level athlete, but I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of progressing from graceless beginner to competent, not-stumbling-too-badly intermediate. And that’s fine. I’ve never felt compelled to devote the 10,000 hours required to become really brilliant at a particular sport. I fancy myself more of a jack of all sports kind of guy.

But still there are times…times when I think, “I could really be good at this…” Just such an occasion happened to me last Sunday at my weekly, drop-in, volleyball game in Golden Gate Park There I was on the court on a calm, sunny afternoon, sandwiched between two people who didn’t really have setting “chops”. For those of you who don’t play the game, let me explain: in “center set” volleyball, the setter (the center person in the first row) has one main job: to set the ball high up in the air so the two, front-row hitters on either side can jump up and crush ball with a thunderous spike. The problem last Sunday was that my setter just couldn’t get me a hittable ball. After two or three games of this, without a spike opportunity, I found myself getting pretty cranky. And who wouldn’t be, right? How am I going to improve my spiking if I don’t get a chance to hit the darn ball! Clearly I was heading for a meltdown … not the first time, to be sure… when it suddenly dawned on me. I have a choice here: I can master my spiking OR I can master myself. Either option is a worthwhile endeavor– either one is a valid way to spend my afternoon. If the spiking chances aren’t there for me today, fine; I can use the time effectively (and enjoyably) by turning my attention from the outer game to the inner game. I can make a study of: What am I thinking about others? How am I viewing them? How am I judging myself? What’s my internal dialogue? What would be another way to see things? How can I help others improve? How can I get myself into the present and keep myself there?

The great thing about the art of self mastery is that you can work on it whenever you like and wherever you are. Unlike spiking a volleyball, you don’t need anyone else to help you get better at this skill. Your mind, with all its rich chattering, judging, and planning, is always with you. Observing your mind, values, hot buttons and attitudes is always a worthy plan B — except if you’re meditating, of course, when it’s plan A, front and center!

So here’s something for you to try: the next time you’re at work and a co-worker has failed to get you the report or the information you need, take a moment and step outside of the situation. Say to yourself: “What are my choices here? Clearly, I can’t achieve mastery of my desired work task at this very moment. No problem! This is a great chance get in some self-mastery practice. That’s time well spent.” And no time is wasted at all.

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