Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Now and zen

In my late teens and early 20s, I was fascinated by Zen Buddhism, and even now if I had to be pinned down on religion and didn't want to give the standard "atheist" answer, I'd go with Zen. One of the things that most fascinated me was the so-called Zen mind. I don't think I ever achieved anything close to that state through meditation, but I do think I have achieved it at crucial moments in my sporting life. In the middle of the first major race I ever won, the Tresco marathon, I remember a moment where the world seemed to disappear and the only thing that existed was the certainty that I would win this race. The normal pains and discomforts associated with operating at the peak of my athletic abilities seemed to just melt away. I remember feeling an intense concentration and hyper awareness of everything that mattered and an imperviousness to everything that didn't at other moments: when I broke clear in the 2006 New York ultra marathon and ran for over 2 hours alone, when I ran further than seemed physiologically possible in heat and humidity in Canada to become national 24 hour running champion, during the last two tables of the 2008 European Deepstack championship.

When I won the European Deepstack championship in 2008, I was virtually a novice. My game was still a work in progress, and far from the finished article technically, but I made crucial plays and decisions at the time for reasons I didn't understand that now, looking back, I realise were correct (and I now understand the reasons why). Was it luck that my intuition coincided with technical accuracy, or did it spring from the intense concentration I seemed to achieve so effortlessly at that point in my poker career? Zen masters talk a lot about "beginner's mind", how the truth can be clearer to a total beginner than to a knowledge-laden expert. Sometimes these days when I'm playing live, I find myself bored and distracted. I now know more about the game in general, but less about the specific game I'm in than when I was an absolute beginner and everything was vital information. Another professional who is renowned for being distracted at the table told me once about a tournament he won where he uncharacteristically clicked into a mental zone on the final table where he seemed to see everything: other players cards, their tells, their moods, their uncertainties, and it seemed inevitable that he would win.

Recently I've been trying to think how to go about recreating that state of mind on a regular basis.

The last week has been a mixed bag. The summary is live good, online bad. I cashed in the Carlow Deepstack (€1400 for second) on Friday night, losing headsup to Frances McCormack. I think I played better in that tournament as I have in ages. I overturned a 5:1 deficit headsup to take the chiplead, but it swung away from me in two big hands where I went with what I felt was "technically correct" rather than my instinct. Also played the Midlands Open, and played as badly as I have in a long time.

Online, I had my worst week in a long time, dropping 2K. This week has started better, so fingers crossed.


Fantastic article Dara. That 'Zen' state of mind is what all top sportmen/sportswomen strive for; it happens for the masses occasionally but only for the champions on a regular basis.

In a nutshell achieving his state of mind is THE difference between the multiple winners in any sport and the infrequent winners & also rans. There is very little technically between the cream of any sport it's the mental warfare that separates them.

I've had many many conversations with my best friend Irish professional snooker player Fergal O'Brien on this very topic. Meditation, clearing the mind of everything except the current moment, focusing intensely on 'one shot at a time', not thinking of the past, not looking to the future, staying in the 'present'. All are techniques to help you achieve this 'Zen' state of mind.

In reality it's not something you can just 'snap' into. The top top champions, however, seem to be able to achieve it on a more regular basis and TBH I really think that this is inbuilt into ones genetic makeup. With all the psychological tools & instructors available to top sportsmen nowadays it's a level playing field yet the champions are the champions and the also rans are the also rans.

If you have the technical skills and also have the ability to focus tightly on the situation & decision to hand no matter what the occasion then I guess this is your 'Zen' like state with regards to poker.

Running like God also help a lot too.


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