Golf And The Art Of Zen

Golf And The Art Of Zen

Golf And The Art Of Zen – can the application of Eastern spiritual philosophy to your golf game make a difference?

Although the title says “Zen,” this article will look equally at the other Eastern disciplines: Buddhism, Taoism, etc.

If you apply these ideas to your golf and your enjoyment of the game grows, you’ll be moved to alter your approach to life as well.

‘West’ versus ‘East’

Before we can dig into the details, we need to start with an overview of how Eastern and Western thought differs, in the most fundamental of ways.

Westerners are trained from birth to use our logical, analytical, conscious minds, our ‘three pounds of meat.’ From our earliest age, we learn to name, to sort, to categorize.

We may not grow up to be scientists, but we learn to think according to the scientific method, and we worship at the feet of the great thinkers: Einstein; Newton; Steven Hawking.

In a very fundamental way, we learn to distinguish, to separate out, ourselves, our people, our places and things, and our beliefs… from everything else that is ‘out there.’

Eastern thought is the polar opposite. They attempt to quiet their active chattering mind so that their inner subconscious can emerge. Through that practice, they come to see and believe in an underlying (and conscious) universal Whole, of which they are only a part.

From that different perspective, life changes in very fundamental ways. One small example: The only logical approach to conducting my life is to focus on optimizing the whole of things. Since I’m not separate from the whole if there is really only one person in the room, then how can I ever capture things for myself, at the expense of others?

Thinking too much about how you are doing it when you are doing it is disastrous.

Harvey penick

How Does This Apply To Golf?

The Western idea is that golf is a competition, both with the opponent and also with one’s self. The basic idea is to win, to defeat that other guy. As such, we practice, study and try (hard). At a very deep level, we play to re-enforce our ego, our sense of worth, to others and most importantly to ourselves. If we don’t play well, then we aren’t worth much.

Here again, the Eastern idea is the polar opposite. Winning and losing don’t make any sense (if there is only one person in the room) and the Easterner knows that he can’t force anything to happen through his own will. He knows that everything happens through the Whole, and so his approach to golf is to use it as a means of connecting with the Whole, to let the Whole move the ball through him. He allows his golf to happen, he doesn’t demand that it happen.

The Fundamental Truth 

This is a very simplified view of Eastern philosophies and this topic title is a good example. Buddhism actually opens its doors with The Four Noble Truths. 

The first of those is that our experience is marked by suffering. Living means to suffer. The Eastern term is “dukka.” 

The second shows the source of dukka to be desire, and the third shows how we can eliminate suffering; if it is desire that leads to suffering, then the obvious solution is to stop desiring. Obvious, yes, but we would agree it isn’t easy. 

This doesn’t mean we stop living, that we give up work, play, relationships, learning and growth, or even that we forsake goals. It does mean we stop agonizing about it all. Some things we’ll never have. I won’t be the next Senator from Pennsylvania, and I’m not going to make the PGA tour. That’s obvious enough, but most of us continue to hunger after things that are permanently outside our grasp, without admitting it to ourselves. 

Or, there are goals that we can eventually reach but that we don’t have this minute. I’d like to have a retirement home in Asheville, North Carolina. But I don’t, today, and if I obsess about it I can easily lose sight of the pleasures of my current life. It’s fundamental: hungering after something not yet here contaminates our today. 

So, the fundamental truth we’re talking about is this. Whatever we have today is everything we need – today. 

The last of the Noble Truths lays out how to let go of desire: by following the Eightfold Path (understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). But the Path is a big subject and is too much to cover in this brief overview. 

For now, the connection to golf is obvious to any of us that have suffered on the course. And who of us hasn’t suffered? Ever throw a club? Have you ever dressed yourself down, either out loud or within your mind? 

Beyond the momentary outbursts, is your enjoyment of the game in general contaminated by not being good enough? Are you reluctant to play with people that are better? Do you despair about the lack of improvement? Do you think about giving up? 

The First Noble Truth within Buddhism is equally true on the golf course; our golfing dukka comes from our excessive desire, from our grasping after success. And here’s the real secret that comes from playing golf in an ego-driven state. If we’re playing to re-enforce our own ego, either to others or to ourselves, then we’re going to struggle. 

The answer lies in a simple (granted, difficult) idea: we are, today, only what we are today; our swing is what it is; our mental game is what it is. Therefore, we’re perfect, today. We can let ourselves focus on the beauty of the walk in the park, on the companionship of friends.

We can be alert, we can pay attention, we can be mindful of everything we see and experience, we can allow our game to be what it is, and we can trust that we’re on a path that will take us to higher levels as we continue to move along. And that’s true! 

Here’s something to take away from this subject. You can reduce your grasping (and thereby, your golf-course dukka) by detaching for the outcome. Laird Small, the head pro at Pebble Beach, calls it “NATO: Not Attached To Outcome.” 

Here’s one way of doing that. Your golf-course job is to swing the club in a graceful, rhythmic, and balanced way. The Golf God’s job is to move the ball to a new point, for your next test. Your job is only to be mindful of how well you perform your task and to then get out of the way and let the Golf God do his. Try that, next time out. 

Thinking instead of acting is the number-one golf disease.

sam snead

You Already Know

The fundamental objective of Eastern spiritualism is “enlightenment,” a complex idea, sometimes referred to as “waking up,” or “recovering from” the illusion. 

The illusion, again simplifying, is the illusion of separation, of being something or someone distinct from, separate from, everything else that we see and experience. Remember, Easterners, see reality as being one universal entity out of which everything emerges.

We are born into the illusion, and the search is to recover what we always knew: our true nature as an integral part of the universal consciousness. We already knew it… we’re trying to remember!

So how does that relate to golf?

I would maintain that in a very similar way we already know what we need to know about golf. We simply forget or we refuse to acknowledge the facts that are there, right in front of us.

How can I say that? How can I suggest that a 20-handicapper knows? Isn’t golf this terribly difficult and subtle game? Isn’t it beyond most of us at least beyond our ability to excel?

That would certainly seem to be the case. Statistics, year after year, show that 90% of us have handicaps over 10, and a whopping 60% are over 18. The numbers don’t lie, clearly we don’t know. Or is it really that we don’t remember? That we don’t act on what we know?

I maintain the latter, and here’s why

Golf is not a hand-eye coordination game. Games where the ball and/or the player are moving, tennis, baseball, ping-pong, etc. are hand-eye games. Golf, on the other hand, is a repetition game: the ability to repeat a specific motion, reliably and under pressure.

Said even more strongly, golf is not a skill game. After all, it doesn’t take any great skill to hold the club correctly, to stand up to the ball with correct posture and alignment. All it takes is paying attention, paying attention to what we already know (as anyone who has played for any time at all has read or been told the basic fundamentals).

Further, if we know how to hold the club and stand up to the ball, is it a difficult and elusive task to move smoothly to the top-of-the-backswing position? Given that one doesn’t have a physical handicap of some type, the answer is obviously a resounding “no.” It’s inescapable, we must obviously choose not to do so.

Here’s the most obvious example. We all know that balance is part of the game; that being able to swing to a balanced finish position on our front (leading) leg is fundamental. If we open our eyes at all, we see that every skilled player, 100%, does that every single swing.

But go to any golf course or driving range and watch. True to the single-digit statistic quoted above, you’ll see that 90% of us don’t hold a balanced finish, and most of us are falling backward. How do we expect to move the ball forward when we’re falling back?

The conclusions are inescapable: the fundamentals of golf are right in front of us; the skills required are well within most or all of us. We know, but we don’t do it. We forget to remember! Worse, we choose to forget.

If true, and it is, it begs a simple question: 


Golf And The Art Of Zen: Final Thoughts

This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as applying Eastern philosophies to your golf (and life) go. Why not give it a go if you aren’t making any progress with your golf game.

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