How to Play Ball

Post image for How to Play Ball

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.

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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


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{ 18 Comments }

Ceci September 5, 2011 at 10:47 am

Hey David! This is a great topic, it’s a very, very powerful thing. I know I’ve managed to do this a few times, but I tend to forget. But whenever I’ve done it, it gives me a feeling of being something different than my thoughts. Most of the time I feel I am what I think.. my thoughts are me. But when this happens, I realise I’m separate from them. My essence as a person is something different… and in those moments I feel really calm because my thoughts aren’t eating me away. It’s like there’s a lot more clarity and peace of mind… and acceptance as well, there is no judging. It’s quite a beautiful state! Thanks for reminding me of this, I had kind of forgotten it lately.

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David September 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm

But when this happens, I realise I’m separate from them. My essence as a person is something different… and in those moments I feel really calm because my thoughts aren’t eating me away.

This is the big implication here, and it’s at the center of Buddhism and other spiritual traditions: you are not your thoughts. Thoughts are just things that happen.

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Ali of Spinner's End September 5, 2011 at 10:54 am

i suffer from an anxiety disorder and this exact process is something i have the most trouble with. prior to reading this, i wasn’t sure exactly how to break down what i should do about my negative thoughts in an anxious moment. this succinctly sums up the process i have been trying to sort out. i feel like i was just handed the map of an area i’ve been roaming around for years. i had a general sense of where i should be going, but you just pointed it out so plainly that it seems silly i couldn’t grasp it before. thanks.

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David September 5, 2011 at 4:05 pm

It takes practice because it must become a reflex in order to do it before the reaction takes you. It’s almost a physical reflex of voluntary relief. The kind of feeling you get when you thought you lost your keys but then you find them — it’s like that, only this time it’s not “Ah I didn’t lose them,” it’s “Ah, it’s just another thought.”

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rendered here September 5, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Ali, I also suffer from high anxiety in particular situations for which i take medication, however this simple process seems like something i will certainly try. maybe hone the skill in simple, less stressful situations before using it in those which i know have caused the problems.

it seems similar to the process i used to give up smoking, becomming aware of the cravings and reacting by choice and not desire, or in the article’s terms, consciously rather than unconciously.

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Andy September 5, 2011 at 6:08 pm

I think I understand what you’re getting at with this concept, but I think it would be really helpful, for me, to have an example of a situation in which you could use this technique and what each of those steps would look like in that situation. Any thoughts?

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Greg B. September 5, 2011 at 11:51 pm

One example that popped in my head is public speaking. I am currently finishing up college and I have been through many presentations. I still get that feeling of uncertainty before my name is called to speak in front of the class. It’s that feeling of being put on the spot. This causes anxiety in many people and it is all in the anticipation of the speaking and worrying about what others will think of you. I have used David’s technique to a certain degree to help with my anxiety before the presentations. It is important to recognize where this negativity and worry is coming from (your own head) and accept it for what it is (your own thought). This acceptance and openness to positivity will bring you more peace of mind and relaxation. The sequence would go like this:

Hearing your name called to present (bad gut feeling)
Realizing your about to talk in front of the class. (that’s fine)
Wishing you were more prepared or a better speaker. (wishing X was true)
Realizing this presentation is happening and your preparation or speaking ability will get you through it. (not needing X to be true)
Accepting that you are in the present and about to speak with the best of your ability. (relaxing)

I hope this was clear and helpful.

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Rosanne Dingli September 6, 2011 at 3:48 am

Thank you, this helped.
I don’t mind what happens.

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Belinda September 6, 2011 at 8:40 am

Well said, David! Thank you for this excellent pointing to acceptance and choosing our response to external and internal events.

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harpergrey September 6, 2011 at 10:50 am

I’ve had precisely this on my mind for the last couple of weeks (which have been filled with piles of the unexpected, but still wonderful). The sequence of events you’ve got here is spot on! And, like so many other things, once it’s internalized, you barely have to think about how it happens. It just is.

You always manage to lay things out so well — the baseball metaphor is perfect. Thank you for this! :)

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nrhatch September 6, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Wonderful analogy, David. Play ball!

A few uncharacteristic typos in this paragraph:
That might me relatively harmless if you’re swatting at a fly, but perhaps it cause cause a lot of trouble if you’re trying to deal with, say, negative thoughts about yourself or your life.

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David September 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Haha… This was proofread with a timer and it caused caused a typo

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Sara September 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Has anyone here tried The Work by Byron Katie? I have been using that lately and it has really been helping me do what you are describing in your article.

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Christy September 7, 2011 at 3:33 am

Good post you got here. Really useful.

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Lisa H. September 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I really liked what you said about the conundrum of all humans. When I first read it, it did sound depressing; but it is truth. So if we are going to be on this planet, we might as well enjoy it. Knowing we don’t have forever should inspire us to live the best life we possibly can– a life filled with contentment, peace, love, harmony, cooperation and connection.

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Asaf Braverman September 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm

It’s sobering to realize that the gist of this post, which took me about five minutes to read, unfolds in an instant. The challenge always lies in bridging that gap; in putting to action in the moment, what the mind has already agreed to in principle. Given the many moments that comprise our day, we will most likely falter much, but our unconscious reactions need not be declared as failures. They, too, can be Judoed in our favor.

We take advantage of our falls by using them as reminders to field, to detach, to respond. Thanks David.

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Tanya September 18, 2011 at 4:43 am

Brilliant post. This is a skill that my therapist has gone over with me on several occasions. When one is in the habit of fielding thoughts one becomes acutely aware of when others are doing it as well. Unfortunately few people do it…

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Jeff October 26, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Hey David, just like you and others have stated in the comments, practice will make this exercise easier. Such a parallel to the Shortstop analogy. A Little League shortstop does not have the reaction time of a an All Star major leaguer. He had to train his brain to accept that he will need to filed the ball in the near future while accepting that there is no time to think about it…

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