Monday, June 14, 2010

Golf, and the Art of Seeking Spiritual Wisdom

There was a repeat yesterday on CBS Sunday Morning (my favorite network show!) of a Bill Geist segment on blind golfers. In case you missed it, these extraordinary people swing their way comfortably around the golf course, assisted only by "coaches" who choose their clubs and line them up for the next shot. Coincidentally, I am just finishing a book by a sighted golfer, the journalist Josh Karp, about his long self-exploration in quest of his "authentic swing." It's called Straight Down the Middle, and it has one of those fashionably long subtitles (not unlike my own!): Shivas Irons, Bagger Vance, and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Golf Swing.

If you don't know a thing about golf and you don't really care, join the club (and forgive the pun...) I do not play golf. Never have. I hesitate to say "never will," because I'm reluctant to close the door on any future adventure, no matter where it leads me. To the golf course? Unlikely. But who knows? My only contact with the sport, aside from the knowledge that some of our friends are avid golfers, was when I was a child, surely less than ten years old... (Fair warning: I'm about to veer wildly off course.)

Long-time readers of The Buddha Diaries may remember that my father was an Anglican priest. Prone to debilitating stomach ailments, he spent many years chasing after numerous diagnoses, therapies, cures, and palliatives for his pain. (One of them, I recall, involved ingesting enormous tablets with the memorable name of Poudres de Coq--"cock's powders." Make of that what you will.) It was another doctor who, in a grave misunderstanding of my father's temperament, prescribed the game of golf for the relief of tension. No sportsman at the best of times--though he had oared for his Cambridge college in his youth--my father proved a particular duffer on the golf course. He struggled with it obstinately for a while, but decided to give up after a particularly embarrassing display of distinctly unministerial language... in front, it turned out, of the local verger and his wife (no, worse! my sister reminds me, it was a couple of choirboys!) whose presence had been unfortunately concealed by a stand of gorse bushes.

I believe myself to be deficient in whatever gene supports the visual ability to locate objects moving in space, particularly those moving at speed like say, a soccer ball. As for an object as tiny as a golf ball, well... let's just say I'm better off keeping a sensible distance from it.

Which brings me--with apologies to the author for my long digression, to Straight Down the Middle. Why would anyone send me, for mention in these pages and possible cross-posting to blogs with greater numbers of followers, a book about golf? Better yet, why would I read it? Because, as it's subtitle suggests, it is only tangentially about golf. It's real subject is the author's quest to perfect--well, to improve--his golf game by apprenticing himself briefly to every golf guru he could find. And a surprising number of them turn out to be, well... Buddhist.
They are, it seems, quite plentiful, as are the books they write--not to mention readers to consume them. In reading this one, I discovered a whole sub-genre of works devoted to the honing of sports skills by "spiritual" means, starting with seminal works like Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom and Steven Pressfiled's The Legend of Bagger Vance, later made into the movie of the same title. Zen, of course, comes into play with everything from motorcycle maintenance to tennis, and golf is no exception. I have not, truthfully, read a word of any of this literature, so count me a non-expert in both the sport and the books it generates.

But I did read Karp's book, and I did enjoy it. He brings into the mix a Jewish heritage of self-conscious angst and an obsession with irresolvable internal debate and agonized self-criticism, along with an oversized dose of highly intellectual skepticism. And he takes us on an often hilarious, always self-deprecating romp through the highways and byways (and, may I say it, the fairways?) of our seemingly inexhaustible supply of contemporary cultural gurus. Along the way, Karp introduces us to many delicious "characters", each of whom has her or her own key to the kingdom of the perfect golf swing--which allows him ample room to poke fun at the sometimes silly pretensions of today's innumerable spiritual paths, but also to learn from whatever wisdom they have to teach.

And it turns out there is really plenty of it. The goal is a simple one: to get this self-confessed eternal worry-wort out of his head and into the flow of the moment--a place where his golf swing is unencumbered by self-conscious and self-critical hindrances. It's about "shedding the inner Woody Allen," as he puts it, and learning to trust the body and its wisdom; about learning "doing" instead of "trying." Along the way, of course, it also gets to be about all kinds of quintessentially Buddhist teachings, like impermanence, non-attachment to outcomes, and attaining (or really not quite ever attaining) satori. Into all of which the author steps lightly, inviting us along for the ride without ever getting preachy.

My father, the preacher, would have enjoyed this book, and he could have learned from it. Would have. My father kept an open mind. I'm not sure that it would have encouraged him to return to his golf game, but it could certainly have introduced him to a variety of ways to reduce the stress that caused him such physical and emotional distress. It represents a wisdom he was striving for and which, in a certain measure, he attained later in life; though he was still struggling when he died. I'm sure that he would also have had a good, healing laugh along the way. Which would have helped.


michael w said...

Maybe it was your father maybe it was someone else who told me the story: God and Son are level (all square in golfing terms) as they tee of for the match on the last hole. God allows Son drive off first, perfect straight down the middle, stops 15 inches from the hole. Dad by this time somewhat agitated makes the golfer's classic blunder, a massive swing a huge distance but wildly pulled to the left. Ah but then a dove appears takes the ball swoops to the green and.. HOLE IN ONE! "But Dad", Son shakes his head, "it's only a game!" Cheers Michael W Barcelona

PeterAtLarge said...

Nice story, Michael!