Meditation calms the mind. It lets us collect the various parts of ourselves and bring them together to work on a specific objective. That objective can be to develop our athletic expression.
In training and life, it often happens that things just aren’t going our way. We’re in such a hurry that we stop functioning well: we drop a vase, and then we have to hurry even more to clean it up. The cycle just quickens—hurry only begets more hurry.
Paradoxically, in order to move faster, we have to learn how to slow down. But when the pressure’s up, that’s usually the very last thing we want to do. The ability to defuse those impulses is what separates good performers from the very best. That’s why you often hear in the Special Forces: “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” As I’ve discussed before, elite performers understand that when there is too much speed in a system—when they get the jitters—things start to go bad. On the other hand, when the non-elites see the elites moving faster, they assume (based on their mental models) that it is because the elites are putting more speed into the system.
But the reason the elites are faster is because they know that their worst enemy is the jitters—that’s what makes them elite. There’s a saying in the outdoor leadership community, which I quote from Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez:
“In a survival situation, everyone’s afraid of something. The difference between survivors and those that don’t make it is that survivors are afraid to panic.”
The survivors—the ones that performed to whatever level was required by the arbitrary circumstances they found themselves in—understood that, luck aside, their only shot at survival was to slow . . . down. On the other hand, most people (at least 80%, according to Gonzalez) typically respond to these situations by increasing the speed of the system: cortisol and adrenaline go through the roof, up to the point where the body literally starts shaking. Elite performers temper this autonomic stress response (ASR) with a powerful counter: they use their parasympathetic nervous system—which relaxes the body—to allow their mind and body to slow down.
That’s why you see a lot of career soldiers and athletes able to sleep on a whim: their parasympathetic responses are so powerful that they can counter any runaway stress immediately. Their bodies know without a doubt that more stress will be coming, and so they know that the best way to deal with the new stress isn’t to “get stressed” but to relax, and allow the body to prepare for the challenges ahead. This consciously-induced relaxation, brought on by the deep awareness and understanding that “stressors” don’t have to “stress you”—more on that in a bit—is what allows these elite performers to focus so sharply when the time to perform does arrive: a meditative state.
I’m a bit of a functionalist: I believe that things don’t have “essential value.” I believe that the reason we assign “essential” value to some object, idea, or activity, is largely because it has been proven by history to provide an essential function.
The same goes with meditation. I believe that it is held in such high regard because it allows people to achieve extreme levels of physical, mental, and social performance. No doubt it does that by making us better people, and allowing us to “achieve enlightenment”—whatever that means. But again, self-improvement, self-acceptance, and self-knowledge are important insofar as they perform an important function—which again, I believe to be that it allows the mind to achieve extraordinary levels of coalescence and organization, to be exploited for the pursuit of a particular goal.
Most forms of Zen meditation aren’t just about meditating; they are about meditating on something. Often, the annoyingly vague and contradictory sayings associated with Buddhism and Confucianism are used as objects of these meditations. The idea is to break through mental models: by forcing the mind to contemplate an apparent paradox, these meditations bring the mind to a higher level of understanding. On that level, the saying no longer seems paradoxical, but instead represents an obvious way in which the universe works. In Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chogyam Trungpa characterizes Enlightenment as the discovery of a piece of fundamental information about the world, rather than the typically sought-after “experience” of “losing the ego.” (You can see that would be a bit problematic: the experiencer is the ego). Hence his words:
“With disappointment comes enlightenment.”
That is how the machinery of meditation does its job: it turns irreconcilable differences into non-issues.
You can see how that helps the problem of slowing down: under a typical mental model, hurry—the experience of going fast—is the same as going fast. But meditation, by calming the mind, dissasociates these two states, and allows the practitioner to grasp the idea that going at the maximum possible speed doesn’t have to mean going in a hurry.
Again, this is exactly what we see in extreme examples of performance. Jet fighter pilots are calm during ejections. Elite marathoners are focused and calm twenty-five miles into the race. Cave divers maintain their breathing steady despite the encroaching darkness and the suffocating closeness of the walls. In fact, this language illustrates the mental model: to the cave diver, the darkness is just dark, not encroaching. The walls are just close, not suffocating. Meditative states allow them to abstract away from these tacked-on ideas and see the darkness and the walls simply as things, devoid of such meanings.
Meditation helps us achieve greater levels of performance because it lets us break through our mental models. Meditation allows us to deconstruct what we think we know about the world, and what we think we know about ourselves. We can then update our mental models much more freely and with much more recent information. We can see only as far as our horizons—only as far as our mental models—but with meditation, our horizons go quite a bit further.
If we keep the same mental model because we consider it valuable, for all intents and purposes that will be our world. If we run at a certain speed, and never update our mental model, that will always be our speed.
And if instead of updating our mental models, we just increase our exertions—our hurry—we will never get any faster, (or break our bodies while doing it), and we will always be confused as to why.