This summer we rekindled our love of playing tennis. We had time (the trend started while we were on vacation), a court, rackets and balls, and friends and family to play with. In previous years, I would get a bit nervous playing because my mantra of not having proper training, not being good enough, would run in my mind regularly and especially when I missed my shots, which meant playing was always accompanied by a fair amount of frustration (strengthening the not-good-enough mantra).
This time it was different. Maybe it was because I changed my mindset to just have fun and connect with my fellow players, maybe it is because I am letting go of having anything to prove, or maybe it is because I kept the intention of staying in my belly.
Staying in my belly has been my new mantra, one I learned from Jennifer Welwood while on retreat earlier this year. This simple self-connection practice has helped me stay grounded and present while teaching, parenting, playing, living.
You might already know that breath is one of the most powerful tools for staying in the moment, and yet, within the scope of a breath, there are many subtleties for opening up the channels of connection, of presence, of being. The belly is our root. Presence starts here and only from this root can we then expand out into the openness of the heart and the divinity of the mind.
So I have been working with my ground, my root, my belly. And my game has changed. On and off the court.
Nick and I were having so much fun that we decided to play in the Twinkie Cup, a tournament that started in 2007, bringing together our summer community on Cape Cod. We actually won our first game. The entire time I played I reminded myself to be in my belly, stay present, eyes on the ball. Nick and I agreed that we would not praise one another nor apologize to each other for mistakes, keeping our energy on the game. It worked.
And when we lost our second game, 10 to 9, deuce, we felt content to have played and given the game our full attention and presence until the very last point. We celebrated each other and our opponents, and then went for a swim in the ocean, feeling grateful and connected.
I realize now how much of a head game tennis is, or any game, for that matter. Except there is only so much the head can do. Strategy is important – especially when training, but presence triumphs even strategy during the game. If we are present, we can then act from our center, rather than reacting to the stories of the mind. After we got back I went to a clinic at my gym and noticed that every time I tried to hit the ball by thinking of the ‘right technique,’ I missed it. Only when I got back to my belly was I able to hit the shots (and learning to do anything the optimal way is important too, but my point here is about the over-thinking that gets me in trouble).
This weekend I watched the US Open and witnessed Serena Williams lose her center (and not for no reason). I wish I could have whispered in her ear: “breathe into your belly.” Now I whisper this to you – and to myself again and again – so that we can take this message and apply it in our daily lives. Being in the belly allows us to hit the ball no matter where it comes from, and makes space for grace when we lose.