There’s a skill I’ve referred to casually in a few posts but I never stopped to explain what I mean. It’s more of an intuitive skill but it can be learned, and I’m going to break it down for you.
It’s a verb I borrowed from baseball, where it’s a very specialized skill, but if we think of it in a broader sense it could be one the most useful skills a person can learn.
Fielding. The ball comes your way, so you field it.
For example, in Deal With it, Princess I used it this way:
As I gradually come to understand the relative unimportance of the form my problems take, the better I get at fielding them in real-time.
That’s why fielding is a perfect verb for it — it implies that the acceptance and response happen in real time. It implies that you take responsibility for it, and that you deal with it without resenting it.
Before we go any further, let me say that I’m not really a baseball fan and you definitely don’t need to be one to get something from this. I’d use a football analogy but this one works too well.
Fielding Your Moments
Life unfolds only in moments, and a lot of those moments require a response from you. You can’t really avoid responding in some way, even if your response is to just wait and do nothing. Most of the time your response is probably an unconscious reaction, like swatting a fly that lands on your face.
In any given moment, chances are pretty good that something new is emerging: someone says something, or you notice it’s too warm in here, or you hear a crash in the kitchen, or you realize it’s 10:10 and you figured it wasn’t even 9:30 yet. These events aren’t always bad (dinner’s ready!) but there are so many thousands of them daily that some are bound to give you some degree of a pit-in-the-stomach feeling.
An event can emerge any time and if you don’t consciously field it, then by default you leave it to unconscious reaction, and that’s really just rolling the dice. It’s something like letting Facebook “suggestions” choose your friends for you. It’s using autopilot for something that might be pretty delicate.
Most of the “balls” that come your way are thoughts. Thoughts tend to be events of that more delicate type, because they cause other thoughts very easily. This is what a mood is. You have a thought, which causes another, similar thought, and it continues indefinitely.
When you’re fielding something, you’re watching it the whole way. By the time you even move, you’ve accepted that’s it’s happening, and you’re then free to do something smart, rather than just doing what emotion dictates.
Reaction is acting before you’ve accepted that it’s happening. This means any action will be fueled by some form of emotional rejection, or contempt. That might be relatively harmless if you’re swatting at a fly, but it might cause a lot of trouble if you’re trying to deal with, say, negative thoughts about yourself or your life.
Fielding thoughts can be done. It just takes awareness and acceptance.
The Shortstop’s Mindset
In baseball, all “moments” begin with a pitch. Most pitches end up in the catcher’s glove. On most of these the shortstop isn’t directly involved in the play.
When a ball does come his way, it might pop right to him, slow and easy, or it might be an ugly, bouncing drive. In every case, he has to be receptive the moment the ball is pitched, he has to adjust to get behind it, and he has to do something with it once it gets to him. He has accepted all of this before he even leaves the dugout.
Most importantly, he’s got to recognize in real-time that he’s going to be the one to field it. Once he sees it’s a long fly to right field, he knows it’s out of his hands and he has to put his faith in the outfielders, or other forces beyond his control.
When the ball is struck, he doesn’t first argue that the ball always comes his way, that the pitcher should be striking this guy out, or that maybe the bat is corked and if that’s true then this whole thing is totally unfair and a lot of players are on steroids these days and they don’t really enforce substance testing stringently enough because that would mean fewer home run heroes and the greedy owners just couldn’t stand to make a few million less this year just by making this game fair.
There’s no time (or reason) for moral objections about why this ball should not be coming his way.
What I’m getting at is that fielding (as opposed to reacting and scrambling) can only be done when there is acceptance of the present moment. By acceptance I don’t mean that you like what’s happening, or that you don’t intend to do anything about it, only that you acknowledge this reality as it is happening.
The nature of the game
When I say that the only sensible thing to do is field the damn ball, you might be thinking that you don’t particularly care for baseball and that the shortstop plays because he loves the game and he chose to be in it.
Life’s different in this sense. Although sometimes we’d like to be, none of us are really spectators. There’s nobody in the stands, we’re all on the field. Playing can be stressful, but you have to do it, whether you do it expertly or very badly.
I may be taking the baseball analogy way too far, but the necessity of fielding can’t be avoided, because of a serious philosophical conundrum all humans face:
You did not choose to be alive, yet you are.
As long as you are alive, you are experiencing.
As long as you are experiencing, you must respond.
Every response will affect what you experience next.
There is no way out of this, except death.
Sounds terrible, and I guess you could think of it that way, but we all know that playing this game can also be unbelievably awesome, depending on how we do it. And we can’t help but do it one way or another.
Even letting the ball go by you is a response. There is only one response that actually gets you out of the game, and the odd person does choose that one.
How to field a thought
Whether you’re good at it or not, you’re familiar with fielding external “balls” — questions asked of you, opportunities presented to you, obstacles impeding you, competitors descending on you. Fielding internal events — thoughts and feelings — isn’t really any different, as long as you recognize them for what they are: events emerging in the moment, like everything else in life.
1) Something happens.
We can’t really turn our reactions off, but we can learn to associate certain reactions as red flags that we need to take conscious control of the moment. That’s how the fielding process has to start, because the first thing you’ll probably do when something does happen is react. Now, I use a pit-in-the-stomach reaction as a red-flag reminder to start the fielding process. It’s not that all thoughts are negative, or that there’s no sense in fielding positive thoughts too. But it is true that the reason conscious fielding is so useful is because negative thoughts are much more liable to be damaging to your mood and your situation if they are left to unconscious reaction.
2) This is okay, it’s only a thought.
And all thoughts are okay and inherently uncontrollable. This is the crucial part. Acceptance is the only way to stay conscious. I’ll say that again: Acceptance is the only way to stay conscious. Action without acceptance is unconscious. All dreadful occurences in life are only dreadful because of the dread part. Dread is thinking.
Some people cringe at the thought of accepting something you really don’t want to happen, so let’s be clear: acceptance is not resignation or approval, it’s an agreement that what’s happening is happening.
So whenever you feel that pit-in-stomach feeling, the first thing to do is remember it’s coming from a thought, and the thought is causing the body to react. Thoughts happen all the time, and are by themselves harmless. Any time you feel bad, a thought is proposing a reason you should feel bad. Find it and let it be what it is. Otherwise you’ll feel a need to defend yourself from it, and you’ll be acting on emotion again.
3) What does it make me want?
All anxiety starts with a desire. Thoughts will make you want something, or want to get away from that thing. Desire and aversion are just basic thoughts, by themselves harmless too. But we often make non-negotiable, unenforceable rules, that say we couldn’t survive anything but getting what we want here. We know that’s not true, we’ve all had these unenforceable rules get broken on us millions of times.
4) What will I do?
So everything’s fine, it’s just another thought, you know what your emotions want you to do, but you’re now free to act on your own. There are lots of things you can do here. So do whatever seems smartest to you.
That sounds like a lot to do every time you have a troublesome thought. The idea is practice it so that you can scoop up the ball and get it to first before you can even wish the batter didn’t hit it (last baseball reference, I promise.)
Soon it will be more like this: bad feeling > that’s fine > I wish X was true > but I don’t need it to be > so I can relax and do what makes sense, getting through all the steps in two seconds without any anxiety except that initial pang that sets off the process.
There will be moods in which you won’t be able to pull this off. That’s fine. When I’m really cranky I lose my head and my life skills go out the window. But this is rarer than it once was.
I can’t begin to tell you how liberating it is when you begin to do this. There will be times when you know nothing can really touch you, because no matter what emerges you’ll relax and field it. The best outcome you can create is a given for you, because this conscious, real-time engagement with what happens will always outperform the reactive, rejection-based mode of action that humans typically use to address adversity.
When asked how he can stay so calm and confident, Krishnamurti said “I don’t mind what happens.” The skill of fielding thoughts shows us that this invincible state of mind really is possible to create, for ordinary people. Anyone can play.
Photo by ecstatisist