How did you know, Mr. Einstein?!
Physics is by far my dad's greatest passion. Ever since I remember he has been fascinated by the universe and various theories about its nature. It's extremely hard to impress my father but I'm sure that if he were to name one person that he unquestionably admires it would be Albert Einstein.
As it often happens, his passion (and daily lectures about physics during breakfast) spread a part of 'the disease' to me. Although I admire all Einstein's theories, these are not his scientific discoveries that have influenced me the most. What has made the biggest impression on me was his unique way of getting to those discoveries. He wouldn't spend hours reading scientific books or listening to lectures on physics. All he did was carefully observe all, most ordinary occurences around him and use his imagination rather than complex calculations to analyze them.
It took me many years to fully understand the essence of his genius. It wouldn’t have been possible for me at all if I hadn’t been introduced to the book by W. Timothy Gallwey, ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ (many thanks to my friend, Ewa Januszewska, for recommending it to me!). It's a kind of a guide book on how to use your mind properly to increase your performance, learn quicker and generally become your best self on many levels. The author is a tennis coach so he uses the game of tennis as an illustration for his ideas but all he writes about can easily be translated into other areas - playing the instrument for instance as well as learning any other skill or generally developing as a person.
Gallwey offers an approach which I would call 'westernized zen'. He doesn't set the bar too high for us raised up in a culture of success, a punishment and reward system and the cult of ego. Pure zen philosophy insists on letting go off all these concepts entirely which for western-world people usually turns out to be impossible. Gallwey proposes a milder solution- he encourages us to meet these two cultures halfway. Instead of disowning all our western concepts he suggests that we start using them wisely and with a zen-like, observant and distanced attitude.
I remember that when I was reading this book I was struck by Gallwey's idea of a dual, intuitive vs. intellectual nature of human beings. What surprised me, a western-world girl raised in the cult of science, books and eloquent concepts, was a gradation of these two elements. Following zen principles, Gallwey presented intuition as a core of our true selves equipped with natural wisdom and stunning skills. The intellect, on the other hand, was depicted as as a kind of an intruder that is constantly commenting on us and our surroundings, which overwhelms the intuition and undermines its efforts.
The main point of this gradation was to show that the intuitive part of our nature is ‘wiser’ than the intellectual one. It is the true source of our creativity and best learning and executive potential. Of course, human beings haven’t been equipped with an ability of intellectual, verbal analysis in vain - only if we use both parts of our nature in a proper relation to each other are we capable of becoming our truly best selves. All the genius concepts, scientific discoveries, books, poems, musical pieces and their phenomenal renditions have come into being like this.
What makes the ‘Inner Game of Tennis’ so unique is that it describes how to achieve that perfect balance between our intellect and intuition in a very simple way. Gallwey draws directly from zen philosophy but translates it to the Western culture language; hence makes it much more approachable for non-Asian readers.
First of all, he explains how to temper our ego or rather how to successfully seperate it from our actions. On the example of anegdotes from his tennis lessons he shows how emotional we tend to be about our performances – we hardly ever acknowledge mistakes or imperfections without getting angry, irritated or disappointed. This is our ego speaking. It identifies with the results of our actions and draws the sense of self-worth from a success. At the same time, though, in case of a failure it creates inner blockades within us and quickly leads us to burnout because of too big an emotional involvement. There's no way to avoid mistakes when we're acquiring a new skill and if we let our ego deprive us of our self-esteem each time failures happen the whole learning process will become very painful, unstable and inefficient.
The key to fully separate the sense of self-worth from our actions is to stop judging and start observing. Judgments are always connected with positive or negative feelings while observations are objective and emotionally indifferent. This is the crucial point. If we manage to unlearn a habit of scolding ourselves after a mistake and, surprisingly, also praising ourselves after a success, we will gain a priceless feeling of comfort. Our emotions will no longer distract us and slow down the learning process, the way we perceive our performance will become more objective and more accurate so we will diagnose areas that need improvement quicker and find the ways to do that easier.
Another extremely simple yet truly brilliant technique that Gallwey recommends concerns the right way of communication between our intellect and intuition. Using his terminology - these two natures do not speak the same language. Our intellectual part develops through education in a form of verbal messages so it operates only via words. The intuitive one, on the other hand, acquires knowledge through senses and the only way to communicate with is via sensory imaginations. It is connected to the outer world in a much closer and more natural way than our intellect. This is the reason why it possesses a 'higher wisdom' and the ability to respond in the most appropriate way without any prior verbal processes that we would consciously operate. It does learn, too, but only if we speak to it in its 'native' language.
Here we have to mention Mr. Einstein again because this is the point when we finally uncover the essence of his genius. The crucial part of its secret lied in the fact that he just instinctively new which language to use! He reached the most creative and brilliant parts of his mind using imagination or, more precisely, visualization.
This is exactly what Gallwey means when he writes about the right communication between our intuition and intellect. He claims that we have to transform the latter's verbal comments and instructions to sensory imaginations. If we're talking about improving our piano playing it can mean, for instance, picturing a shape of a phrase in our minds, playing a difficult passage in our imagination or innerly hearing a proper kind of sound that suits a given part of a piece. In case of a public speech it may mean picturing oneself behaving in a relaxed and confident way on stage, maybe even joking and making an audience laugh. For people who work on being more straightforward and honest about their feelings it could be imagining how safe and relieved they would feel after a truly open conversation with a friend.
No matter what area of life we want to apply this rule to there is one crucial ingredient without which we won't see any positive results - trust. We need to learn to trust our intuition. Confronted with a challenge, we feel such a burning urge to be in control that we give in to the old system of verbal commands of our intellect. It happens whenever there's a lot at stake for us, when we feel stressed or scared. However, since our brains code through repetitions we must dare to take a risk of letting go off control as often as we manage to. Our intellectual part will oppose out of fear that it will become neglected and forgotten. If we challenge ourselves to endure this emotion, though, and simply get used to how this new state of mind feels we will discover our greatest potential and unlock skills that we would never access otherwise. And who knows, maybe we will see another Einstein among us?