Theology Reconsidered: An Introduction

What follows is the Introductory chapter from a newly published, two Volume work entitled Theology Reconsidered.  The book can be purchased from Lambert publishing via their website; Volume I here and Volume II here.

 


When looking at the first mythological and philosophical works from antiquity, it is very easy to get lost in the “facts” surrounding these ancient works and lose sight of their true meaning and import to the people and cultures within which these works emerged from and out of.  Much of the modern academic and scholarly literature concerning these ancient “theo-philosophical” works falls into this category.  To a large extent, the purpose of this work is to try and “recover” said meanings of these ancient works as much as possible, and to look at them within a much broader theological, mythological and philosophical narrative that we find throughout Eurasia in the first millennium BCE, the so-called “Axial Age” of modern man.

In order to do this, we take a primarily intellectual journey through the mind of ancient man, as he sees the world and as is reflected in the earliest literary evidence of man, trying to understand these works not only within the broader “Eurasian” context, but also trying to look at them through the eyes of the ancient philosophers, theologians, priests and scholars who wrote these ancient texts, or in many cases were the ones to “compile” or “transcribe” these longstanding theo-philosophical traditions, but also to try and understand them within the theological, intellectual and socio-cultural context within which these works arose.  This broader meaning we call knowledge, which from a modern philosophical perspective is referred to as epistemology.

This knowledge is what Philo Judaeus takes great pain to describe in his exegesis of the Pentateuch, Genesis in particular, what the Neo-Platonists take pains to describe in their literature which arises in defense of their doctrines as Christianity takes root and begins to supplant and snuff out their schools of learning and wisdom, it is what is alluded to in the so-called hidden, or unwritten, teachings of Plato and that which is hidden, kept secret, by the followers of Pythagoras  and also in the Eleusinian mysteries and the alchemical Hermetic doctrines attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and also what the Upanishads refer to as Brahmavidyā, or knowledge of Brahman, that from deep antiquity is believed to be passed down from teacher to disciple – as Plato refers to in his Seventh Letter as that which is “brought to birth in the Soul, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself.”.[1]

After the author completed his first major work, the Snow Cone Diaries, we considered the writing “experiment” complete, the Work was done.  Following that exercise, and for reasons we cannot completely explain, we found it necessary to flesh out some of the ideas therein, reflecting a continued interest, and ultimately curiosity, concerning the advent, development, and evolution of what we term theo-philosophical developments of mankind which abound in the historical record, following the intellectual journey as it were up until modern times, what we refer to herein as the Information Age, where Information is at our finger tips, where activity is “informed” by its surroundings (Quantum Theory), and yet while we all for the most part (and in particular in Western academia) ignore the wisdom of the ancients.

The Snow Cone Diaries was somewhat manufactured in the sense that it was intentionally modelled after one of the most influential books that the author has read written by a modern self-proclaimed “metaphysician”, or philosophologer (i.e. one who studies philosophy) named Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, initially published in 1974 but which the author encountered and read during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, years of great tumult and change for most, the author being no exception.

After college, as is documented in Snow Cone Diaries, the author spent several years pursuing a career in professional tennis which in the end amounted to more so than anything else a time period of intense reading and personal analysis and introspection that led the author, in a manner that can perhaps best be described as “chance”, or if you believe in such things, Fate as it were, to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  The author had been prepared for this adventure somewhat as he had majored in Ancient History as an undergraduate at Brown University and had written his thesis on the “Origins and Influence of Hermetism”.  In a sense then, the author’s initial, and now very persistent and long lasting, foray into Eastern mysticism was a natural extension of the intellectual pursuits of his undergraduate years.

The impetus and source of the author’s interest in Eastern philosophy, Kuṇḍalinī Yoga specifically in fact, stemmed primarily, at least at the beginning, from an interest in the mental and psychological demands of the game of tennis at the professional level, where many matches were determined by an individual’s performance at key points within a given match.  After spending a 6-9 months on the professional tour, mostly travelling in Europe, It became very clear that an individual’s success (which was of course almost entirely measured in Wins and Losses) while depending of course on physical attributes such as power, strength and fitness, at the same time very much depended upon what is referred to in sports as the mental aspect of the game.

This somewhat revealing and interesting component of the game, which arguably is an aspect of all professional sports but is more accentuated as it were in tennis given that it is mono y mono so to speak, became even more pronounced when two opponents were somewhat evenly matched as it were, and victory hinged upon just a few points – which as it turned out happened more often than you might think.  The author became somewhat intrigued by this phenomena, if we may call it that, and he became fascinated with what in professional sports is referred to as The Zone.

As such, it became very clear that in order to get into The Zone, there was a very well documented and well-studied connection between what peak performance and what we might call “clarity of mind.  In turn, this clarity was connected to, and in many respects seemed to be dependent upon, what are even in the sports psychological literature referred to as the development and cultivation of various rituals and practices, both on and off the court, before, during and after matches, in order to facilitate and/or “bring about” these states of mind where peak performance could be “attained”, or in Eastern philosophical parlance, realized.[2]

With this background then, the author while he was playing and studying, began writing – primarily about the so called “mystical experience” which was such an integral part of the Eastern philosophical tradition and its fundamental relationship to The Zone as it was understood in Sports Psychology.  The effort was centered around (and to a large extent this is also true for the Snow Cone Diaries as well as the current work) an attempt to establish a rational grounding, or intellectual footing as it were, within which these states of mind could be better understood and as such better integrated, or at least somewhat integrated, into what the author now calls the objective realist intellectual framework that underpins not just Western academia, but also is clearly the very rational ground of the Western mind, or psyche.

For despite all the author’s education and training, mental and physical gymnastics galore as it were, no one had ever even broached the topic or discussed with him this idea of peak performance and its relationship to the cultivation of clarity of mind, and the related states of consciousness that were associated to these “states” as it were, despite the fact that it appeared to be an almost empirically proven correlation between the two – at least in Sports Psychology circles.  It also became clear over time that this goal of peak performance as it were was not just dependent at some level upon these so-called states of mind, but in fact that that there seemed to be a very direct, causal relationship between the two.  Furthermore, these very same states of mind that were described in the Psychological literature around peak performance were not only clearly an exteremly significant, and somewhat undervalued and under practiced, component of competing as a professional athlete at the very highest levels, but that they were also an integral part of the mystical experience as well as it was described in almost all of the Eastern philosophical literature.  And of course, after some reflection, these states of mind seemed to be an integral component to success in life, however one might choose to define such a thing.

Following the model of Robert Pirsig then, and because the author felt strongly that the ideas that he was exploring, presenting and analyzing were best understood only within the psychological and mental context within which the author himself initially encountered and confronted such ideas, the author felt compelled to take his initial more “academic” works and wrap them around a loosely fictional character which he named Charlie, as well create additional (also loosely fictional) characters to which Charlie was “responding” and “reacting” to in order to try and establish the empirical reality and power of the nature of mind, and along with it the fundamental truth and power of the ancient art of meditation and mysticism to which it is integrally tied.  For perhaps the hallmark of the Eastern philosophical tradition is the emphasis and description of the art of meditation and its relationship to the attainment of these states of mind, what the author calls the Science of the Mind as it were, an altogether Eastern discipline.

Using Charlie as his mouthpiece then, we essentially argue in the Snow Cone Diaries, as Pirsig had done before him, that not only are our current (Western) intellectual models lacking in some very basic and fundamental ways – given the lack of emphasis and focus on the mind and experience itself as basis of reality as we understand it – but that these limitations had, again as Pirsig had argued before him as well, significant implications on how society in the West functioned and how individuals within that society behaved toward each other as well as the nature of the relationship between individuals and (Western) society as whole to the world around them in general.[3]

Given the level of effort and personal sacrifices that were made to publish Snow Cone Diaries, and given that the author is by no means a full time writer and first and foremost has a demanding professional career and responsibilities as a parent that were and are first priority, we never thought that he would embark upon a subsequent work.  We thought we were done.  However, our interest in ancient philosophy and the art of meditation did not dwindle, and the author’s meditation practice continued to flourish and grow and (as it is wont to do as any persistent and schooled meditation practitioner will tell you) the practice itself continued to have a profound impact on us in the following ways as it pertains to this work specifically:

  1. Our own personal conceptions of the nature of reality and the disconnect between it and commonly held and systematically taught “belief systems” which we are taught from early childhood and are presented as “empirically true” in the West,
  2. a continued and increased dissatisfaction of the current prevailing “Western” worldviews and belief systems,
  3. a deeper appreciation for the eternal truths that the very first philosophers from classical antiquity, as reflected in the term the Axial Age, were trying to convey and seemed to be missed or passed over in much of the scholarly work surrounding these ancient texts and authors,
  4. that in fact there were many more parallels and commonalities between these various belief systems that were compiled in classical antiquity throughout “Eurasia”, much more so than was reflected in most if not all of the scholarly and academic work surrounding these traditions, and
  5. the disciplines surrounding the study of the philosophers of deep antiquity were “siloed”, in the sense that the Sinologists (Chinese) weren’t collaborating with the Vedic or ancient Sanskrit scholars and the “Classicists” who studied the ancient Greek philosophers didn’t seem to be collaborating with either of these two disciplines either

Given these facts, and after studying the various traditions from antiquity, again as reflected in the so-called Axial Age, even from a layperson’s perspective it seemed that there were underlying similarities and patterns that were being missed primarily because these disciplines in and of themselves independently requires such a rigorous and deep level of knowledge about the specific domain.  Those that could understand and read ancient Chinese script were not necessarily the same people that knew and could read Vedic Sanskrit, and these people of course were not necessarily the same people that knew ancient Greek or Latin, and in turn these people were not necessarily the same people that could read cuneiform of the ancient Sumer-Babylonians or the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians for that matter.

However, given that we now live in the Information Age, and that the translations of many of these texts, as well as the underlying meaning and etymologies of the various terms and words of the ancient languages themselves as reflected in the ancient writing systems that developed in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE throughout Eurasia, are now readily available, the time seemed to be ripe for a generalist of sorts to pull together the knowledge from all these somewhat disparate domains and bring them together in some sort of cohesive whole, in a more comprehensive and somewhat more scholarly fashion than had been done in Snow Cone Diaries, which was more of a personal journey tan it was an intellectual or academic one.

So given that the disciplines and domains of study and research described herein continued to impress themselves upon the author, and given our continued interest in ancient philosophy, and writing even after the publishing of Snow Cone Diaries, we ended up publishing two interim works thereafter that summed up and further explored some of the more esoteric and less well known aspects of Hellenic philosophy and their subsequent influence on the development and foundations of early Christianity, as well as an exposition of the philosophy of the Far East, the latter being and area of research that was relatively new to the author and that was not considered in the Snow Cone Diaries.[4]

The Far Eastern ancient philosophical tradition, what is referred to as ancient Chinese philosophy, which is covered in detail in the current work, is intriguing for many reasons but for the sake of brevity in this Introduction, suffice it to say that the Yijing, what is more commonly known as the I Ching, is arguably the most fascinating and intriguing theo-philosophical work from antiquity, hands down.  And the more the author studied it and was exposed to its origins and influence throughout Chinese history, the more impressed he was with its place as one of the greatest and most intellectual achievements in the history of mankind, one that reached far back into Chinese antiquity (3rd millennium BCE at least) and one that undoubtedly rivaled the Vedas and Avesta as representative of some of the oldest theo-philosophical treatises of ancient man.[5]

Furthermore, as the author began to understand more and more of the nature, content, structure and origins of the Yijing, the most prolific and influential of all of the ancient Chinese “philosophical” works, if we may call it that, it became apparent that its basic architecture, particularly from a numerological and metaphysical perspective, shared many common characteristics of ancient Pythagorean philosophy, in particular as reflected in the symbol that perhaps more so than anything else has come to represent said philosophy, namely the Tetractys.  Following this intellectual thread as it were, the author published what was supposed to be a small academic piece on the similarities from a numerological and arithmological perspective between “Pythagorean” philosophy, or what we know of it, and classical Chinese philosophy as reflected in the I Ching, what is referred to in this work as its more modern Romanized form, i.e. the Yijing.[6]

 

This work in its current form is to a large degree an outgrowth and evolution of the intellectual journey that is documented and mapped in the Snow Cone Diaries, and in particular an outgrowth of research done after Snow Cone Diaries was written exploring the nature and origins of early Hellenic philosophy and its relationship to early Chinese philosophy as well as ancient Vedic or Indo-Aryan philosophy as reflected primarily in the Upanishads, the latter of which was rigorously and systematically studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York under the guidance of Swami Adiswarananda to whom this work is dedicated to.

So while this work can at some level be considered to be extensive revision and expansion of the academic and intellectual pursuits that are reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, it is distinctive from the author’s first major work in many respects and represents a much deeper dive into the material covered therein, as well as covers topics and areas of inquiry that are not covered.  Having said that, this work is much more “academic” in the sense that it represents – at least from the author’s perspective – a much higher level of scholarship than is reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, and of course the personal narrative, Charlie himself, has been put to rest (God rest his Soul).[7]

Given the extent of the material covered in this work, the author in no way intends to represent it as an exhaustive study of any of the specific topics that is covered herein.  In fact, each chapter or section of the work could be covered, and is covered, in much greater length in a variety of works that are cited as references and for further study and research.  The author has however taken great pains to try and refer to, and directly cite, the most influential and comprehensive works that cover the various topics in question and of course the interested reader can follow these lines of inquiry and these references to learn more about any given topic.

The specific source material that is used is not only cited directly throughout as footnotes, but is also covered from a much broader perspective in the Sources and Bibliography section at the end of the work.  Perhaps more so than other works from before the 21st century, an era the author refers to as the “Information Age”, this work stands directly on the shoulders of many academics and scholars that have toiled and taken great pains to open up the world of antiquity to the modern Western reader and scholar through countless translations and historical books and records, many of which are now electronically available and upon which easy access the author has greatly relied.

There are no doubt particular sections or chapters which the author has glossed over in a manner that may be considered to be “superficial”, particularly by academics and scholars who have spent the better part of their professional careers studying and writing about the specific topics in question.[8]  However, each of the lines of thought represented in each Chapter of each Part of this work represent a coherent and cohesive whole and in their entirety, and of course for the sake of brevity (as ironic a term that may be given the length and scope of this work), is intended to show as complete a picture as possible in one text.

The approach from a reference and bibliography standpoint is to have significant footnotes and references directly within the material itself rather than, as is the case with most academic works, at the end of a chapter or even at the end of the work.  The footnotes, the explanations and small intellectual excursions which are reflected in the extensive footnotes that are included directly in the text not only serve to give credit to the reference material and the work and analysis put in by other academics and scholars on whose research and work mine ultimately depends and builds upon, but also as sidebar notes that may be of interest to the reader that provide direct links and references to works that the reader can refer to if they are interested in a certain topic that is not covered in detail in this work.[9]

The footnote style that is used is essentially adopted from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda (1895 – 1973), one of the foremost Sanskrit and Vedic scholars in the West in the 20th century.[10]  Nikhilananda’s works have in no small measure influenced the author, as he studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center which he founded in the middle of the twentieth century which was led by the author’s teacher, Swami Adiswarananda from 1973 until his passing in 2007.[11]

In this context, Vedānta, and more broadly what we refer to as “Indo-European philosophy”  in this work, is a central and constant theme throughout this work, in particular with respect to the modern conception of ancient Indian philosophy as it is presented in the teachings and works of Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), one of the foremost proponents and most influential of the modern “Indian philosophers”.[12]  From the author’s perspective, Vedānta, as reflective of one of, if not the, oldest and richest of the Indo-European theo-philosophical traditions, can (and should) be leveraged as an intellectual and theo-philosophical benchmark of sorts for the recasting of the definitions of knowledge and reality in the West, one of the main thrusts of this work.

 

The work is divided into 4 major sections, Books or Parts, following more or less the intellectual development of mankind since the dawn of “history”, history in this sense being marked by the invention and widespread use of writing after which we have a “direct” or “first hand” exposure to the mind of man, or at least into the minds of the authors of the works that are covered herein.

  1. On Creation and On Metaphysics, Parts I and II: how the ancients looked at the world and defined reality and knowledge (),
  2. On Theology and Physics, Part III: how we came to our current, modern conceptions of reality and knowledge in the West (Part III), and
  3. On Ontology Part IV: a deeper and more comprehensive look at the nature of reality, Being in the sense that it was looked at by Aristotle and Plato as understood through a modern Western intellectual lens, and in particular in light of the knowledge of the East.

The chapters and sections in each of the respective Parts, or Books, are designed and written as much as possible to be modular as much as possible.  By “modular” we mean to say that they are written with the intention, again as much as possible, of being stand-alone essays or dissertations of their respective topics such that the reader can read a particular chapter without necessarily reading preceding chapters.  That is to say, the design of the work itself is such that it need not be approached or “read” in a sequential fashion from start to finish.  And of course as such, some material and content is repeated in the various sections and Parts of this work so that said “modular” design is achieved.  Given the breadth of the topics covered herein, this type of modular design is not only intentional but is almost required in order for the work to have value.  For if it is not read, it of course cannot have the intended impact or influence on modes of thinking which to a large extent the intended purpose of the work.

One of the main underlying themes of the work, especially in Parts I and II, is an exploration and analysis of the potentially shared origins of not just the mythology of the first “civilized” peoples in Eurasia, which the “Laurasian” Mythos hypothesis of Witzel, but also an expanded version of said hypothesis which analyzes and discusses the potential shared the origins of “philosophy” – what is referred to again as theo-philosophy throughout following the terminology of Snow Cone Diaries which brings attention to the fact that the earliest systems of “philosophy” from antiquity are not just analytical or rational systems of thought, but are also fundamentally theological in nature.

Parts I and II of this work are primarily focused on this area in history, the 3rd to 1st millennium BCE when we have introduced into the historical record evidence and documents that outline the Mythos of these early Eurasian peoples, specifically the creation narratives (what we refer to as cosmological or theogonical narratives), which is followed by a detailed analysis of the subsequent theo-philosophical tradition which emerges from, and is fundamentally and intrinsically related to, the underlying comsogonical narrative, i.e. again the respective Mythos.

Part III focuses on intellectual developments that take place in the West post classical antiquity from the intellectual developments that characterize Hellenic philosophy, through the advent of more orthodox religious or theological developments, straight through the Enlightenment Era and Scientific Revolution periods of Western intellectual history where effectively the worldview is overturned and Science, as we define it in more modern terms, begins to eclipse the dogmatic religious and theological worldviews that had dominated the intellectual landscape in the West for some thousand years prior, the so-called “Dark Ages” .

Part III then goes on to look at scientific developments in the 20th century, Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics in particular, which call into question our modern (and pervasive) notions of deterministic, objective based frameworks of reality, what we refer to collectively as objective realism, which represent from the author’s perspective a somewhat unintended byproduct of the Scientific Revolution and which, given their limitations with respect to understanding reality from a comprehensive or holistic perspective (i.e. ontology, or the study of the nature of being or reality), require – in the same intellectual spirit and intent pursued by Kant, Pirsig and other more modern Western philosophers – a wholesale revision in order for not only the two theoretical pillars of modern Science (Classical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics) to be understood in any meaningful way, but also such that the knowledge and wisdom of the East is integrated into our conception and understanding of reality as well.

Part IV covers in detail much of the material that was first introduced in Snow Cone Diaries with respect to the fundamental incompatibilities of Quantum and Classical Mechanics, going into (theoretical) detail not just with Relativity but also Quantum Theory, as well as some of the philosophical, and ultimately metaphysical, implications of Quantum Theory, covering two interpretative models in particular that the author thinks are relevant to the ontological questions that are the topic of Part IV – namely the Relative-State formulation of Quantum Mechanics by Hugh Everett as well as the pilot-wave theory that is attributed to Louis de Broglie and David Bohm.  The Metaphysics of Quality as presented by Robert Pirsig is also offered up as an alternate model for ontological inquiry given its adoption and incorporation of the direct perception of “intuitive” reality directly into its metaphysics as it were.

Part IV then offers up various alternative interpretations of reality that attempt to present and synthesize what we understand about the nature of reality both from a scientific perspective, as well as from what we might term a mystical or spiritual perspective, models which directly incorporate experiential reality into account when defining reality or the extent of knowledge itself, i.e. what is referred to as epistemology in modern philosophical nomenclature.  The models and analysis in Part IV directly take into account the role of active consciousness, cognition and perception, what in Quantum Theory has come to be known as the act of observation which from a Scientific perspective, at least again from the author’s standpoint, must be taken into account in any formulation of reality and in any definition of knowledge.

The alternative approaches to defining reality and knowledge that are presented and described in Part IV basically synthesize typically “Eastern” and “Western” worldviews, and from the author’s standpoint, are far better suited than existing philosophical or religious intellectual frameworks to prepare us not just as individuals to survive and thrive in the modern, Information Age, but also are much better suited to serve the society as a whole, from a national as well as global perspective, given the level of interdependence and interconnectedness of not just the human race, but also the natural world within which we live and depend upon for our survival moving forward into the future.

The last several chapters of Part IV, much more so than the author originally intended in fact, are dedicated to a fairly lengthy discussion of a relatively modern debate surrounding different ways or approaches to interpret, how best to understand, the life and teachings of the 19th century Bengali (Indian/Hindu) sage Rāmakrishna Paramhamsa, a tradition of course to which this author is closely linked from a theo-philosophical perspective.  Rāmakrishna in this sense, and how he is perceived and approached in these final chapters of this work, is the full manifestation of, and in turn the perfect example of, the limitations of Western “thinking” and the implicit epistemological restrictions and assumptions that while true, are fundamentally limited in their capacity to deal with anything that falls outside of the realm of Science proper and as such is dealt with as a case study of sorts for the need to integrate the Science of the Mind as it were into any ontological framework that we are to choose that would include the knowledge of the East along with the knowledge of the West.

This so-called mystical, or supraconscious experience, which is the intended result of the practice of the ancient art of meditation as it has been passed down to us through various classically Eastern theo-philosophical traditions – in the Upanishads in particular but also implicit in the writings and teachings of Plato and Greek Eleusinian mystery and Orphic traditions and of course in the teachings of Buddha as well – are presented as a necessary and integral component of any “redefinition” of reality and knowledge which, following any sort of rational interpretation of Quantum Theory must take into account the role of the observer and the act of cognition i.e. perception, into account in any coherent and complete model of reality.

Along these lines, various intellectual frameworks and models which include direct experiential reality are explored and discussed at length in Part IV, as well as in the Epilogue, with specific chapters dedicated to the re-interpretation of Upanishadic philosophy as presented by Vivekananda in the early 20th century as well as an objective analysis of the experiences and interpretation of the life of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna in particular who according to tradition of course was the primary influence and inspiration for Vivekananda’s teachings and life in general.

Rāmakrishna as a mystic then, and mysticism  in general – specifically defined by the practices and experiences associated with the direct perception of the ground of reality and existence itself which is the hallmark of Eastern philosophy – is not only one of the main, recurrent (and under emphasized) themes of ancient theo-philosophy in all its forms throughout Eurasian antiquity as reflected in the material in Parts I and II of this work, but also from an ontological standpoint represents one of the other main thrusts of this work which is covered in Part IV as well as summed up in the Epilogue which follows Part IV.

This “Western” view of Rāmakrishna, which is primarily represented in the book Kālī’s Child (a work which is critiqued at length in Part IV and the first section of the Epilogue as well) is from the author’s perspective a perfect illustration of the fundamental limitations of Scientific inquiry as we understand it in the modern Ear in the West.  An intellectual domain that rests squarely on the implicit, and very often left out, assumptions of not just empiricism and rationalism, philosophical modes of thought which characterized the Enlightenment Era for the most part, but also causal determinism and again objective realism, which provide the very basis for epistemology (i.e. our scope and understanding of knowledge itself) in the West, be they recognized as such or not.

Therefore when it comes to understanding, or again interpreting from a Western intellectual perspective, fundamentally Eastern theo-philosophical constructs such as Satcitānanda, Brahman, Purusha, Dao, or Nirvana, all words and terms that fall outside of Science proper in the West given their lack of empirical, objective reality and yet at the same time reflect concepts and ontological principles that are fundamentally required to come to any sort of understanding of any great sage, saint or prophet in the history of man – Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna included.  The choices we are left with given the modern Western intellectual landscape are the need to either study these domains specifically where these words and their associated meanings originate from, or alternatively expand our intellectual domain in the West to include some sort of corollary to these ideas, what they inherently mean and signify – the latter of which is the approach that Pirsig takes by formulating a new metaphysics which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality but what he unfortunately falls short of doing, a topic covered at length in the Epilogue as well.

This analysis of course lends itself to one of the core and final arguments of this work, namely that the intellectual and metaphysical model that is applied to reality in the West, i.e. our ontological framework, while being extraordinarily powerful from a natural philosophical perspective, i.e. Science, is in fact an inadequate conceptual framework for the comprehension of the full scope of reality and therefore  is in need of wholesale revision and/or significant expansion and extension metaphysically and theo-philosophically speaking in order to support a more broad definition of reality through which a more complete and fuller understanding of existence itself can be at least approached.  Hence the title of Part IV of the work, On Ontology.

 


[1] See Plato, Letters.  Letter 7, aka Seventh Letter 341c – 341d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7%3Asection%3D341c.  While the actual authenticity of the letter by Plato is debated by scholars it does for the most part reflect the writing style and philosophy as presented by Plato from the author’s perspective and so while perhaps not written by Plato’s hand, still nonetheless seems to accurately represent something akin to what Plato would write, specifically with respect to the specific part of the work cited herein.

[2] The Psychology of peak performance was spear headed in the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the 70s and 80s by the now well renowned and prolific Dr. Jim Loehr, now founder and Chairman of the Human Performance Institute.  See https://www.jjhpi.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr.

[3] An overview of Pirsig’s work and his invention of a new mode of thinking to address some of the inherent limitations of the modern, Western worldview which he refers to as the Metaphysics of Quality are covered in some detail in the final section of this work.

[4] These works are Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East respectively.  Both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2015.

[5] Tradition has it that Confucius is believed to have said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would spend it to contemplating and studying the Yijing.

[6] The original paper by the author regarding the similarities between Pythagorean philosophy and the Yijing is entitled “Numerology and Arithmology in Pythagorean Philosophy and the Yijing”, published in 2016 and can be found at https://www.academia.edu/27439070/Numerology_and_Arithmology_in_Pythagorean_Philosophy_and_the_Yijing.

[7] Two interim works were published by the author covering Hellenic philosophy and Chinese philosophy specifically that were leveraged as source material for some of the content herein, specifically some of the content in Parts I and II of this work.  See Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks (2015) and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East (2016), both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2016.

[8] In particular the author cites the sections on Enlightenment Era philosophy as well as Arabic/Muslim philosophy as examples of Chapters which could be expanded upon greatly and to a large extent do not do justice to the actors and individuals, and the belief systems which they put forward in their writings, described therein.

[9] The footnotes also incidentally serve as reminders and reference points to the author himself so as sections of material are revisited and/or reworked and/or revised, the pertinent sources are readily available.

[10] Swami Nikhilananda is a direct disciple of Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920), the consort and wife of the 19th century Bengali sage Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna (1836 – 1886).  He is also the founder of and subsequent leader of the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York from 1933 to 1973 and is one of the foremost interpreters (and translators) of Vedic philosophy into English in the 20th century.  He has authored definitive translations with extensive commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, and he is also known for providing the definitive English translation of the Srī Srī Rāmakrishna Kathāmrita, commonly referred to in the West as the Gospel of Srī Rāmakrishna, a monumental work covering detailed teachings and events of the last few years of Rāmakrishna’s life as seen through the eyes of one of his foremost (householder) disciples, Mahendranath Gupta (1854 – 1932), or simply ‘M’.

[11] See https://www.ramakrishna.org/ for information regarding the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

[12] Swami Vivekananda was the first to introduce Yoga and Vedānta to the West at the end of the 19th century.  He was the foremost student and spiritual successor of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna, a figure who is dealt with at length in Part IV of this work.  Vivekananda’s modern conception of Vedānta and Indian philosophy more broadly, is also covered at length in Part IV of this work.

Spirit of the Game

The lines are drawn
The rules are set
The racquets in hand
The balls are in play

The points are played out
Within the confines of the court
And the strategies are employed
To find the weak the spot of the opponent
And to try to find a way
To have your strengths dictate play

And points turn into games
Individual battles for points
Which turn into fights for games
And for every ball you chase down
Your opponent undoubtedly finds a way
To bring it back to a place
That puts him in the position
To find that weakness
So that he can strike you down
And bury that ball into the corner
And dishearten your spirit

One point at a time
One game at a time
The battle ensues
The the game of skill takes place
But under each and every stroke
Is a battle of wills
A battle of the heart
That takes place just the same

And theses battles for points
Turn into battles for games
And each game that is won
Puts you closer to a set
A set of game that must be won
In order that the opponents will be broken

There is no room for weakness here
There is no room for mistakes
Each point that is fought
Must be a battle for life itself
And in the opponents eyes
Fear must be seen
In order that he be broken
Spirit and will be cracked
Such that these games turn into sets
And these sets turn into matches
And the opponent can be vanquished
And the next opponent be met
With the same intensity
The same tenacity

Each and every point
Each and every game
Each and every set
Must be played as if it is your last
And in so doing
The true spirit of competition
With the utmost respect for your opponent
With the utmost respect for the game
Can be found and held onto
With a firm and tenacious grip

And if these very simple truths
Are held onto in every moment
One can find a peace and a harmony
In this battle of wills
And one might come to realize
That what is being fought for
Is not victory necessarily
But a gratitude in the ability to play
At the highest of levels
With the deepest concentration
And the gravest of respect

For a game with a ball
Between a give set of lines
With a basic set of rules
That have been established over the centuries
To pit one man again another
in a game of skill and precision
But more importantly in a test of wills
In a test of the heart

And the deepest and strongest
Sense of competitive spirit and will
Is found not in the end game
Not in the goal to win
But in the beauty of the competition itself
In the dance of two souls
As they parry and pounce
With their swords of play
Against the yellow fuzzy balls
That are the weapons of warfare
In this game of tennis

And perhaps one day
After years of practice and training
Preparation for matches and tournaments
One can find a peace and respect
For the game itself
And the beauty of the perfectly struck ball
The perfectly constructed point
Or the pure joy and bliss
Of architecting point by point
Game by game
The demise of your opponent
As his weaknesses are exploited
Your strengths are exhibited
And the will of the competitor
Is worn down to its thinnest point
And you have him broken
And the match is yours

But no doubt every opponent
Will be as prepared as you
And will be willing to go the distance
To run through walls
To push his body to the limit
To put his strengths against your weaknesses
And break your will
So that the games can be his
And the match can be taken from you
And so that he can move on
And put you in the abyss of loss
In the misery of defeat
As you watch your competitor move on
And you go home to lick your wounds

But this very game of wills
This exchange of ball after ball
On this court with its lines and rules
With the gamesmanship and the cheating
And the intimidation and hardship
That your opponent will no doubt instill
Is no less that the game of life
Where each point must be life or death
And that in the loss of a point
The lesson can be learnt
And the mind can move on
Accepting that the lost point is in the past
And all you have
Is the next point to play
And all you can do
Is the best that you can
To put your best effort into every shot
Every ounce of energy in that body of yours
Into each and every shot
From the moment the match starts
Until the moment the match ends

And in this effort
The glory of life can be found
As the bliss of the zone
Is entered into seamlessly and effortlessly
For as the focus and the rhythm
Is found in your game
In the small rituals that we practice
Between points and games
And the peace and rest is garnered
When you change sides and take a breath

This is the game life that is played
It is no other than the microcosm
Of this grand play that we have been cast in
And all once can do
All one can hope for
Is that we play with dignity and respect
Not only for the game itself
But for the opponent who stands against us
And for the will and the spirit inside us
Whose spark comes form no other
Than the source of it all

The Game of Kings, Kipling, and Ritual: Strange Bedfellows

What struck Charlie as he dug deeper into the extensive philosophical and metaphysical systems that were created by Plato and even more so by Aristotle was an abandonment of the faith based mythological traditions of their predecessors in lieu of the power of the human mind, in its essential form of reason and logic.  The dawn of civilization in the Mediterranean was marked by trade and cultural exchange no doubt, this theme of cultural borrowing that Professor Lumina was so intrigued by.  But it was marked as well by the domestication of animals, the creation of language and writing which allowed for the creation of more abstract forms of thought and exchange, the creation of monumental structures such as the Pyramids of the Egyptians and the great temples of the Greeks, the invention of agriculture that provided the sustenance to support larger populations and the creation of urban centers which further facilitated exchange and places of learning, the invention of advanced forms of weaponry ship building to facilitate warfare and territorial expansion, and the building of roads and means of transportation that fueled the advance of civilization that so marked the populations of the Western world in the first millennium BCE.

All of these technical advancements must have led to mankind’s belief in the powers of their own mind, their own creative (and destructive) powers, the development of mathematics and building that fueled these societies all must have lent credence to the belief that it was man that was the great creator, and that the mind of man, reason itself, was the potent force behind it, and that in turn the gods that they had believed in for so long and the underlying myths that gave these gods life, as well as the rituals that were the means to supplicate these gods, must be mere fabrications of the mind, creations for a people who did not truly understand the nature of the world around them.  The seeds of Reason had been sown, and as they bore fruit they replaced the gardens of mythology with more sound analytical thinking and philosophical systems that simply made more “sense” than the mythology and ritualistic based belief systems that had supported mankind through their hunter-gatherer roots in the Stone Age and Paleolithic eras that preceded it.

These Greek philosophical systems questioned these age old belief systems, and in turn replaced them with more robust intellectual frameworks that were based upon the powers of the mind, on reason and logic, induction and deduction, on mathematics and astronomy.  And it was the questioning of faith that struck Charlie as the guiding force which drove these developments.  Were these age old stories, these myths told by the great poets of society true?  Should they believe these stories just because their ancestors had believed them for so many generations?  What in fact should the criteria for truth be?  What was knowledge?  What was the essence of existence itself and what were its constituents?

The Greeks were the first to start the ask these questions seriously, and it was the proliferation and beauty of their language which allowed them to construct the abstract systems of thought necessary to support these new systems of belief, alongside the development of their liberal and “democratic” society which permitted these systems of belief to flourish and permitted the questioning of the belief systems of their ancestors, and to question authority itself really which rested on the authority of these old gods and goddesses, and the fear of not supplicating to them in a manner that pleased them.

This question of faith, and the idea and relevance of the rituals that underpinned faith, reminded Charlie an awful lot of some of the main philosophical principles that he had learned as a tennis player, ironically enough things he’d learned to try and stimulate peak performance during match play, the “mental” aspect of the game that had gotten him into yoga in the first place.  The zone.

 

“What do you mean we’re going on tonight?”  Charlie spoke in broken Spanish.  He hadn’t learned Spanish in school so much, but he’d picked up a lot of it while living in Spain.  Traveling around in a caravan with two Spanish guys that don’t speak a word in English for eight weeks is the best way to pick up Spanish, let me assure you.  They learned around a dozen words in English and Charlie learned how to stay alive in Spain.  That skill required a few hundred words at least.  His accent was not bad though, even the locals gave him that.

“You’re the next match on court one.”  Marcelo, the tournament director, spoke to me without looking up from the draw.  Marcelo worked for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), but he was Spanish.  The ITF ran some of the smaller professional events, and certainly within a given region you saw some of the same tournament directors around.  Let’s just say that it was important to be nice to Marcelo.

Marcelo’s English was good however.  He was able to communicate with the other English speaking players that knew no Spanish, nor cared to learn.  He was a young man, probably in his late twenties.  His hair was short, military style.  He and Charlie had grown to know each other over the past few months.  Charlie had played a few Satellites[1] in Spain over the prior few months, and Marcelo ran pretty much the whole Spanish Satellite circuit.  This was business though, and it was getting late.  It was eight-thirty, and the moon was already glowing in the night sky.  Night match in Malaga, Spain in May.  One of 4 foreign players in a qualifying draw of 128.  Sweet, Chalrie had been waiting all day and now he was basically the last match on.

The match on court one was in the third set.  The matches on the other courts were coming to an end.  Charlie couldn’t believe that he was going to put me on at nine o’clock at night.  That was unheard of.  It was even against ITF rules.  But that was okay, because they didn’t play by the rules in Spain anyway.  Charlie had learned at least that much in his time in Spain.  And he certainly knew better than to start quoting the ITF rule book to the tournament director.  He wasn’t that stupid.

Charlie tried the soft approach.  “Don’t you think it’s getting a little late Marcelo?”  He tried not to sound sarcastic.  It was basically night time.  No one else was going on at that hour.  Send on the lone American way after anyone could possibly be interested in watching some tennis.

There were four foreigners in the draw out of a qualifying draw of some 250 players – an Aussie, a Brit, Niels the South African, and Charlie the New Yorker.

Although Niels was South African, he was really a British at heart, the British culture being instilled in him from his youth even though he grew up in Cape Town.  He was not affected by Apartheid per se, but the aura of Apartheid surrounded him culturally and sociologically and to this end he was a product of Apartheid.  Niels wasn’t white but he wasn’t black either.  He was a hybrid of sorts, and apparently South Africa had a classification of society, a social stratification as it were, based on the color/darkness of your skin, part of the system of apartheid really as far as Charlie could gather.  The blacker you were, the more far down the rung you were.  So Niels wasn’t at the bottom of the social rung, but he wasn’t at the top either.  And even though he had grown up somewhat privileged, spending most of his youth on the tennis court or travelling to tennis tournaments with his parents, he still ran up against discrimination every once and a while.  Just enough to show him that there was some basic injustice in the world, and many times there wasn’t a thing you could do about it.  But Niels was the product of a British colony, like the Aussies in that respect, and he had that regal adorable South African accent – an accent which only the well-traveled could place to South Africa, as opposed to Australia or Great Britain.

So the four foreigners had spent some good hours together over the prior two weeks, the tournament in Malaga being the third leg of the four week Satellite event.  And over those two weeks, their matches had started to develop an “us against them” sort of tone.  The Spanish satellites were Spanish.  That much was clear.  The ITF sponsored the tournaments, that’s where the money came from, but Charlie had begun to realize why there were so few foreigners, estranjeros as the Spanish referred to them, in these tournaments.

So Charlie sat by the tournament desk and waited.  There was no use arguing with Marcelo.  He was going to do whatever he wanted and there was nothing Charlie was going to be able to do about it.  Charlie could bark all night, but he was still going to be the next match on court one.  So Charlie just buckled himself in and tried to save his energy for the match.  A few minutes later his name was called.  He couldn’t remember the name of his opponent, but he’d never forget that match.  That was for sure.

They headed out on court and started warming up.  It was the legitimately night time.  It was dark and there was a cool, crisp air that came up from the sea.  The courts weren’t on the sea, but they were close.  Malaga was a tourist destination for those visiting Spain when the weather was good.  Many of the Spanish had summer homes there.  But it was too early in the season for it to be crowded just yet, hence the reason why the facility was available for two hundred young men to come together to fight for a hand full of ATP points.

The match started like any other – racquet toss, a few early holds of serve.  There weren’t too many people watching, just a few guys who were interested in the two competitors.  But Charlie’s friends were there – the Aussie, the Brit and the South African.  He noticed that.  And most of all Charlie noticed Niels, sitting right in the front row of the bleachers, just behind where Charlie’s chair was that he sat on during changeovers.  Those guys didn’t need to be there, it was late and some of them had matches to play the next day, but they were there.  And over the course of the match it was their presence, silent as they may have been at times, that carried Charlie through that match.

So Charlie’s “team” was there, perched in the bleachers with nothing else to do on a Sunday night in what you could definitely call the middle of nowhere.  And of course Charlie’s opponent’s friends.  He had a lot of them, Charlie thought.  It was his home country, so that seemed far enough at the outset.  The bleachers could fit a lot more people though, it was court one after all, the main court in the facility.  They hosted some bigger tournaments there throughout the year, so it was a legitimate venue.  But this was a smaller event.  And it was the qualifying.  So the bleachers were all but empty relative to how many people they could hold.  An odd sprinkling of people set to watch a last round qualifying match with two unseeded players, in Malaga, Spain.  I mean who really cared.  Really.

And then some typical competitive nonsense began to unfold.  The Spanish had a nasty habit of coaching during play.  One of the unique aspects of the game of tennis, at all levels, was that there was no coaching permitted, not during the match at all and not during change overs or even in between sets.  It was one of the aspects of tennis, part of its history, that made the game special and unique in the arena of sports.  It was mono y mono out there.  A mentally draining affair where you had no one to rely on but yourself, all the way through from beginning to end.  That was one of the reasons why the mental aspect of the game was so important, because if you weren’t there mentally, you were done.  There were no teammates to lean on, no break on the sidelines while someone lese picked up the slack.  No coach to give you guidance or pick up your spirits if things started going out of hand.  Just you.  And if you couldn’t handle yourself, if you couldn’t take the pressure, then the unfoldment of your mind, the breaking of your spirit, was out there in the open for everyone to see.

But in Charlie’s experience in Spain, players would constantly be taking direction from their coaches throughout the match.  Their coach would perch themselves behind the court and whisper/bark/gesture instructions to their players throughout the match.  Charlie was used to it.  But it was late.  It was a big match for him, the winner made it to the main draw, and there was the opportunity to win some ATP points if he could get through this match.  It was late, a big match, and Charlie was cranky.

 

There was a relationship between the mind and body that Charlie had become very aware of in his travels on the professional tennis circuit.  Tennis coaches and psychologists talked about the importance of eating right, of training properly, or hydrating yourself well before and during a match.  But the element of the complex relationship between mind and body had been underemphasized, at least in his training as a junior player and at the college level.  It was this ‘state of mind’ thing, a question of mental focus and concentration that was clearly integral to peak performance.  The game was mental as well as physical and when one aspect of this symbiotic relationship began to break down, performance suffered considerably, this much was clear to Charlie, hence his interest in yoga and its mental aspects that spoke specifically to the role of concentration and focus in meditation practice and mind/body balance.

It was clear for example, that when Charlie was relaxed, well rested, and felt physically strong (i.e. not injured) that was when he played his best.  And reproducing this state of mind, especially during the big points of the match, was the core essence of what you tried to achieve with your training.  But the emotional side of the game, the psychological side, the production of the state of mind which supported, and in fact was a requirement for, peak performance Charlie believed thought was not really expounded enough or taught enough by the teachers and coaches of the game.

At some level it came down to your support system.  Your friends, your family, your girlfriend.  All of these subtle elements of your life that gave you balance, or imbalance, emotionally were just as important as the physical aspect of your training.  These were prerequisites as it were to ensuring that your body, your mind, was ready from battle and could be pushed to its limits with limited amount of damage – damage both physically and mentally.  And in fact, focusing on this balance, and how important it was to success in any endeavor, was something Charlie didn’t really master until much later in his life.  When his days of gladiating were well behind him.  But certainly during this match, and in his professional playing days in general, he realized quite clearly how this emotional stability factor and this mental concentration factor were cornerstones to his success as an athlete.

But on this night, Charlie had his friends at least.  His temporal friends.  His “team” as it were.  His friends he had traveled with, slept with, ate with, trained with, and talked with over the last few weeks.  A bond much stronger than you would think could develop over a short time, but a strong bond nonetheless.  They wouldn’t be on those bleachers if it wasn’t.  That was clear.  And their presence there and their support gave him strength.

Over time, Charlie lost touch with the Aussie and the Brit, their names fading into the recesses of his memory.  But he remembered their faces.  And their games of course.  But Niels and Charlie always remained close, as indicated by their correspondence after he had left the game of gladiating behind, and their continued dialogue and echange of the ideas of the mind, and the spirit, and their exploration of the idea of what it was that was “real” and “true” and what systems of belief could be trusted and believed in and which could not.  This frank exchange of ideas and strong bond they had developed together in moments like these, when your physical and mental skills were tested to the limits, and when all you had was a few friends on the sidelines who watched while you battled on court for those ATP points.  And the match that unfolded late that evening in southern Spain, and Niels’s role in keeping Charlie present and focused, and protected and safe at some level, when all around him seemed to be falling into chaos, was perhaps one of the reasons they remained close many years after their traveling days were behind them.

 

At a certain point Charlie had had enough.  Again it was late and he was cranky and the match was close, and it had great significance for both players.  Finally he broke his silence, and his stoic presence changed when he finally blurted out, “Coaching is not permitted here gents.”  Charlie stated bluntly to his opponent, piecing together a few Spanish words that got his point across.  His opponent ignored him of course.

It was a tight first set now, the tension on court rising as the two played deeper into the first set.  His opponent was clearly receiving verbal cues from his coach when he went to the far side of the court, direct instruction that seemed to not only be words of instruction but also specific commands about where to hit the ball and when.  They might as well have been having a cup of tea together.  They didn’t make much of an attempt to hide the fact that they were having an open dialogue.  They were daring Charlie to do something about it and Charlie had had enough.

“You can’t coach!”  This time Charlie said it directly to his opponent’s coach that was sitting just behind the baseline on one side of the court.  He said it in English and he said it loudly enough where not only the kid’s coach could here but that everyone in the stands watching could hear.  The guy knew exactly what had been said to him.  Exactly.  A look of death is what Charlie got in return.  ‘This was going to be fun’, Charlie thought to himself.

So Charlie found himself on court against a local Spaniard, battling to get into the main draw of this event and get some of those ATP points he had been fighting for so long over in Europe the past year, and he has to play against not only his opponent but also his coach, which was a direct violation of not only the spirit of the game, but a very clear and direct breach of the rules.  And Charlie needed this match.  Badly.  He had worked very hard to get himself into this position.  He’d only reached the main draw of an ATP event one other time in his brief professional tennis career, and now he had a great opportunity.  This guy was beatable.  He had beaten two seeds in the qualifying tournament just as Charlie had.  And there they were, two unseeded competitors, one match away from the main draw of the event.  One match away from being in a position to win some of those valuable ATP points.  BIG.  Charlie needed this win.  Everything he had trained for, had prepared for, in his playing days as a junior, in his college career, and now in his journeys on the professional circuit, all led him up to this moment.  Charlie could see that as clearly as he could see the moon above him as it rose and shone brightly on the far side of the court, high up in the heavens.

Many sports fans have a hard time understanding why coaching is not allowed in tennis.  It seems strange.  Coaching is permitted in virtually every other sport – soccer, basketball, football, the list goes on.  But tennis, steeped in tradition, does not permit coaching on the professional ATP tour.  But this rule, this golden rule, speaks to the importance and respect that the tennis world, steeped in its centuries of tradition[2], has for the mental aspect of the game.  The unique aspect of the game that pits two mind/body systems against each other on a court drawn up of lines, played with yellow fuzzy balls and a racquet with strings in it.  For tennis, more so than any other sport, pit the minds of two opponents against each other, and forced the competitors to face their demons in a way like no other sport could.  You were out there alone.  You had to battle your own thoughts as much as the performance of the opponent.

And it was your own thoughts, your own fears and psychoses that could stand in between you and peak performance like nothing else your opponent could throw out at you.  The battle against your opponent combined with the battle of your own personal demons and faith and belief in yourself.  A battle that was the microcosm of the battle of life, the subject of the great epic poem the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna inspired Arjuna the great warrior on the eve of battle to fight, and to fulfill his duty as a warrior and to his people despite the moral dilemma he faced with the death that surely awaited him, for either his or his brothers and sisters that he was to fight against.  In the words of the great champion Andre Agassi, the Zen Master of tennis:

 

It’s no accident, I think, that #tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice…[3]

 

 

And yet Charlie’s opponent, in arguably the biggest match of his professional tennis career up to that point, had a coach, a direct support system for his mind that gave him an unclear advantage, an unfair and unjust advantage.  He had a psychological safety net that was clearly in violation of the rules, rules that were steeped in tradition for centuries.  And tennis had another rule, one that was even more subtle and nuanced than the no coaching rule.  One that was rarely enforced and a rule that was nonetheless part of the fundamental principles of the game.  The rule was that the receiver must play at the pace of the server.  From the ITF rulebook, the rule states: ‘The server shall not serve until the receiver is ready. However, the receiver shall play to the reasonable pace of the server and shall be ready to receive within a reasonable time of the server being ready.’[4]

Kind of a soft rule, and yet part of the game nonetheless.  It was a rule that in modern times began to be enforced more and more given the amount of time that the pros were beginning to take in between points.  Every player had his own place.  The rhythm within which his peak performance tended to manifest most naturally.  Part of the game in turn, was to not only find your optimal rhythm, but also to break the rhythm of the opponent.  John McEnroe, one of the other legends of the game, was a master at this.  If John felt the rhythm, the momentum of the match was swaying in his opponent’s favor, if he felt the match getting out of hand, he would invariably cause a scene, question a line call, berate a spectator, do anything to disrupt the flow of the match and break his opponent’s rhythm.  John could take over the court and the arena like no other champion before, or after, him.  This was where his tantrums and outbursts came from.  His desperate need to control the events as they unfolded around him.  Nothing was more frustrating to Johnny Mac than a tennis match that was not under his control and no one was a master at dictating the rhythm, the pace, the flow of a match like Johnny Mac.  This was his great strength and source of greatness, and his great Achilles heel at the same time as he was berated and cajoled in the media for his tantrums late in his career.

To drive this sense of rhythm, to “tune in” so to speak to that rhythm that made you most comfortable and freed your mind to execute a serve as well as possible, every player had a number of bounces that they took before hitting a serve.  Charlie liked to think of it as every player having a “number”.  He categorized the player, assigned him a number, equivalent to the number of bounces they needed and wanted prior to hitting a serve.  And if the number changed, it was a reflection of a change in the state of mind of your opponent.  It could mean he was taking more time, trying to achieve greater concentration.  Or it could mean that he was rushing, taking less time and his mind was starting to break down and the match was beginning to take its toll on him mentally.

Charlie was a three bouncer, he liked a fairly quick pace.  He didn’t like to think too much out there.  To Charlie his mind could be his enemy, if he thought too much he tightened up and that affected his shot execution.  Agassi was the same way, he was a one or two bouncer, played at a very quick pace.  In the modern game, there was a tendency to take even more time before the serve, one of the reasons why the rules were changed to give players just 25 seconds between points rather than the 30 that had been part of the game so long, because players were abusing the time limits between points and disrupting the flow of the game, which in the end was hurting the game at large and its popularity because matches were taking longer and spectators were losing patience.

Nowadays there were ten bouncers out there, fifteen bouncers even.  Novak Djokovic, one of the great champions of modern times with 6 grand slams to his name[5], redefined the bouncer limits.  He was like a twelve or fifteen bouncer.  But his bouncer number increased with the importance of the point.  Break point down, 5-6 in the third set.  Twenty bounces.  Maybe twenty-two.  But it was a symptom of the mental pressure he was under, the more pressure the more bounces he took.  It was like a mental disorder.  And the more bounces he took before he served invariable the tighter his body was during his service motion and the less effective his serve was.  This was something he greatly improved upon later in his career, especially in his runs that led to his grand slam titles, and his he gained greater control of his mind, found a place of peace and tranquility prior to his serve that facilitated better execution of the serve itself, the most important shot of the game no doubt, the number of bounces he took before serving decreased.  He had gained control of his mind, and in so doing the manifestation of his psychosis that was the source of all those bounces and all that extra time to prepare for his serve, to “control” his nerves, had dissipated and improved and the effect on his overall game and performance was significant, and it showed up quite clearly in his results on court.

The number of bounces you used to drop into your ritual of beginning a point, that defined your rhythm.  It defined the pace with which the points within your service game were played.  On grass Charlie was a one bouncer.  But on clay and hard courts he was a three bouncer.  Three bounces for sure.  One, two, three, strike.  And he didn’t take too much time between points either.  He liked moving at a good pace.  He liked the rhythm of it.  He had picked it up from watching Agassi, or at least so he liked to believe.  Agassi played faster when he got older.  Like he just couldn’t wait to get on with it.  To force the events to unfold at a dizzying pace.  To lose yourself in the rhythm.  The ‘Zen Master’, the nickname that Barbara Streisand gave to Agassi, a nickname that stuck in no small measure due to its accuracy – and you can’t argue with Barbara Streisand.  There is a special place in hell reserved for those that disagree with Barbara Streisand, and they don’t serve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

But what Charlie didn’t know then, but what he learned about more and more as he studied the ancient traditions of the east, was that this bouncing of the ball, the rhythm and peace that it created in your mind, was simply a practice of ritual, a ritual that was designed to relax the mind and the senses, and a ritual intended with a specific result, namely perfect execution of the shot at hand, just as the rituals of the ancients were designed to effect a specific result, the result dependent on the specific ritual being performed.

But Charlie still needed to find a way through this match, despite the fact that this Spaniard was clearly taking advantage of the fact that he was playing in his home country and bending and stretching the rules as much as possible in his favor, that Charlie was an estrangero and could barely speak the native tongue.

 

Matches in the qualifying rounds of these small pro tournaments never had dedicated umpires.  There were roaming umpires, so if you had a problem on court you could go grab one and he’d help the players work out the situation, and of course occasionally call foot-faults on you from three courts away, but no one was roaming at this hour.  They were the last match on court and everyone at the tournament was now waiting for them to finish so they could all go home for the night.  This had put a few more butts in the seats actually, because there was no one else to watch.  But no roaming umpires available.  Sorry.

Furthermore, cheating was pretty rampant at this level.  Players got away with anything they could basically, and there was a lot of bullying and “shortening of the court”, as the players used to call it.  And this Spaniard wasn’t doing Charlie any favors in that department either.  It was clear at this point Charlie needed an umpire, things were getting kind of out of hand and part of being a pro is recognizing when things were getting out of hand, when the flow or rhythm of the match was not in your favor, and doing something about it.  The tension was definitely rising on court, Charlie was getting crankier, and he wasn’t getting through to either his opponent or his opponent’s coach that coaching shouldn’t be going on.  And he needed this match, and he needed to level the playing field.

Enter Marcelo.  Charlie ran off court and got him.  Just what Marcelo wanted, to sit in the chair for some meaningless match at the end of the night between some cocky American and one of the local Spanish talent.  Once Charlie made this move the dynamics of the match definitely changed though, and that’s what Charlie had intended.  The stakes were now higher.  The tension now rose.  Clearly any sense of trust between Charlie and his opponent, a relationship that was tenuous at best in any match at the pro level, was completely eradicated.  Now that there was an umpire, calls were being questioned more often, not less.  The Spaniard dropped a little further from the baseline to make sure his feet didn’t cross the baseline prior to his serve, the dreaded foot-fault.  Charlie did the same.  You could feel the electricity in the air.

Charlie could sense the electricity in the air, it was palpable and everyone around them who was watching the match could feel it as well.  That old expression that you could cut the tension with a knife seemed appropriate.  Charlie didn’t know it them but a moment of what the Tibetan Buddhists referred to as bardo, or opportunity, had now arisen[6].  A moment where the flow of life, an opportunity for awakening (or in this case for winning or lose an important match) had arisen given all of the factors and elements that were now crescendoing as this match unfolded.  Charlie could sense it as any professional athlete could, and in the words of the great Robert Horry, the end of game three point NBA championship master who had hit so many big shots in his career, game ending shots in huge moments over and over again, “pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond”.  This was clearly one of those moments.

The good news was that the coaching stopped.  And this player that was so used to receiving instructions from behind the court from his coach started to flounder a little bit when this channel was cut off.  Charlie was hoping that was going to happen, and he began to see the web of the Spaniard start to unravel, to see the opening in his mind, the splinter which Charlie could exploit.

Breaking your opponent.  Breaking him physically and mentally.  Chipping away at his armor until he was wounded and on the ground kicking and screaming.  If you didn’t take joy in the process, relish in the physical and mental game of chess that tennis truly was, then you had no business competing, certainly not at this level.  Because it was only through love of the game, love of the unique mix of mental and physical opponents that challenged you during every match, that you could somehow make peace with it.  And deal with the dizzying heights that came from victory, along with the depths of despair that came from defeat.  That you could play the game to win, with all your energy, and yet at the same time accept the pain of a loss and wake up the morning after, lick your wounds, and prepare to put yourself out there one more time.  Against another opponent, in another city on another surface.  Accept the game in all its rawness, in all its glory which meant dealing quite directly with the world of opposites, the yin and yang of the east that played out on a court of lines and with yellow fuzzy balls, a court and game designed by monks ironically enough, played out in the courtyards in the 17th and 18th century in what now called “real tennis”, or “court tennis” and was the game upon which modern day tennis was developed.

Only in an individual sport like tennis, did losses present themselves so clearly.  If you didn’t win, you came in second in a game of two players.  There was no one else to blame but yourself.  You could whine and moan about the conditions, about the speed of the court, about the balls, about some injury or another.  But any tennis player, professional or otherwise, knows implicitly that the conditions are the same for both competitors, and it is the victor who is able to overcome the challenges of the conditions, the game of the opponent, and the psychological battle that rages within one’s mind as the match unfolds, that produces a winner on court and ultimately a champion.

This rawness of losing was very difficult to stomach sometimes, and you truly needed to love the game in order to pick yourself back up and compete again after a devastating loss, losses which invariably came, came to every player that played the game no matter what level.  Charlie loved the game, at least he thought he did.  Otherwise what the hell was he doing in the middle of nowhere playing a match against some unknown player in front of just a hand full of people, most of which could be categorized as strangers, chasing after some silly ATP points.

One of the other unique aspects of the game of tennis is the prevalence of losing.  Every competitor had to deal with it.  And it was this shared experience that Charlie thought brought tennis players together.  This shared rawness of putting yourself out there, and exposing yourself to the challenges of your mind, along with your opponent, that Charlie thought brought all players of the game together.  For in every tournament, there is only one player, just one, that doesn’t lose.  Every single other player in the draw loses.  They could lose early, in the qualifying rounds even, or get all the way to the final and lose there.  But everyone, except the winner who held up the tournament trophy at the end of the week, lost somewhere along the way.  In a draw of 128 players for example, the size of the main draw for grand slam events, every single player left the tournament a loser except for one, the guy (or girl) who held up the trophy at the end of the tournament .  That was the nature of the beast.  Even the top players lost half their matches over the course of the year, only the very very top, the top 10 or 20 in the world, ending up the season with winning records.  And it was the losses, much more so than the victories, and how the player dealt with and evolved after those losses, which defined the player.

Charlie had heard a story once, one of the many myths of the game that were part of the tradition, that after Boris Becker, another of the legends of the game, the winner of the Wimbledon title at the age of 17, the youngest ever, the winner of 6 grand slam singles titles as well, that after one of his losses in the finals of Wimbledon one year he was so distraught, do devastated, that he didn’t leave his apartment for a full week after the match.  Charlie didn’t know if it was a true story or not, but he certainly could relate and it certainly wouldn’t surprise him if it was true.

Was it love of the game, or a fascination of the journey of the of the depths of his being that pushed him to compete week after week, despite how difficult and unforgiving the challenge of rising in the rank and file of the tennis world was?  Was it some psychosis that drove him?  Some very basic elemental desire to prove himself that kept him coming back again and again to the game that seemed to be the source of such great emotional strain and suffering?  Was it the dizzying heights of victory that he was pursuing?  It was probably a bit of everything, Charlie mused.

But at that moment on court, Charlie was focused on trying to win.  Nothing else.  Every atom of his being was focused on trying to choke the life out of his opponent, while he had the chance, while he saw the chink in the armor, while he saw the opening, and while the opportunity was clearly present before him to put some points, some games, and some sets between him and his opponent.  For if Charlie had learned nothing in his tenure as a professional tennis player, going all the way back to his days competing as a junior at 10 and 11 years old, was that opportunities present themselves in a match typically only once.  And when they do, you must pounce on them.  For if you don’t capitalize on these opportunities, you will invariably be plaqued by regret and remorse for not having done so.  It was these moments of bardo, moments of opportunity, that needed to be seized upon.  And step one was you needed to be aware they were present, and step two was you needed to capitalize.  Sometimes, if you didn’t capitalize on those moments and you ended up losing the match, the mental anguish of the loss could pursue you for years after, even decades.  Just ask Johnny Mac about his loss to Lendl in the finals of the French Open, a title he never won, where he squandered a two sets to love lead and up a break in the third set.  That won left a mark that’s for sure.  It was this fear of regret of a potential loss when he saw this window of opportunity, this opening, so clearly, that perhaps more than anything else drove Charlie on that night.  What pushed him to squeeze victory out of a very precarious situation, when the stars arguably were not lined up in his favor.

The good news for Charlie is that once he brought Marcelo on court, despite Marcelo’s Spanish roots, the pace of play on Charlie’s serve started to level out, and the Spaniard no longer had access to his coach.  His coach, in fact, was asked to move from beyond the baseline into the bleacher seats along with the rest of the spectators.  And the Spaniard was so accustomed to receiving direct instruction from his coach, sometimes even during points while they were being played, that when Charlie cut off that source of instruction from him, the poor bastard started to crumble.  His rhythm was broken, a rift in his mental state had been created.  Charlie had found the key that unlocked the room where the source of the Spaniard’s competitive spirit dwelt.  And Charlie charged right into that room, and made himself right at home, disrupting the Spaniard’s rhythm, getting into his head quite literally, and in turn disrupting his ability to play at his best, disrupting his peak performance.  It was almost painful to watch actually, even as his opponent.  To see such great play and competitive spirit turn into an error strewn display of frustration and anger.  Ok maybe it wasn’t so painful to watch.

Charlie started to gain momentum, the Spaniard started to make errors and get frustrated, and just like that Charlie saw a window to pulling out the match.  Up a set and a break.  Here we go.  The end is near.  And as the end of the match started to unfold on court, Charlie noticed that the bleachers had a few more bodies in them.  He wasn’t sure where they came from, but he was pretty sure that he had found himself right in the middle of a pretty good spectacle.  One with a villain, and a fallen hero.  Charlie was on the wrong side of this tale though.  At least on the wrong side from the spectator’s perspective.  From a won and loss perspective of course, Charlie very much liked the side he was on, the villain part he could deal with.

 

Charlie couldn’t help thinking though, even in the heat of battle, that this game was truly a test of the human spirit, a test of mental as well as physical strength and a test of skill and training, all wrapped up into one contest.  And the end result, the winner and loser, so illustrative of life itself on many levels, just as Agassi so elegantly put it, was the perfect example of the cold, heartless reality of a competitive game of tennis and in turn life.  Of one competitor doing everything in his power to break his opponent to achieve victory.  And there was a beauty in that, no question.  A beauty in the stark reality of it, in the test of the limits of the man’s competitive spirit.  But there was a harshness in it too.  A sense of brutal reality that one might find on the plains of the Serengeti where a lion stalks and hunts down the weakest of the gazelle so that she can feed her cubs.  Where there must be death in order to support life.  The whole circle of life thing as cliché as it was.

And Charlie had been here before, many times before.  And this training kicked in as he tried to navigate through points, and in turn games to create an opening for a victory.  And in the chaos of the moment, as Charlie started to create some separation between him and the Spaniard in that second set, he heard the echoes of that Kipling poem, in all its beauty and grace and power.

 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son![7]

 

The words passed through his mind like shadows as the match started to unfold before him, in his favor this time around thankfully.  He knew the poem not from school, but because the lines ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’ were inscribed on the wall of the player’s entrance to Center Court at Wimbledon.  The holiest of holy places in the game of tennis.  The place that made, and destroyed champions.  Where all of the legends of the game had passed through and made their mark.  For if you didn’t make your mark at Wimbledon, well then, you hadn’t really made an indelible mark on the game, or so the legend went.

That was it wasn’t it?  All captured in those two lines by Kipling.  Tennis wasn’t a game of kings, it was a game of gladiators, exploring the depths of the human soul and spirit in a fantastic array of athletic talent, endurance, strength, mental toughness and insight, and agility, all played out on this court with white lines and boxes on it, with a net in the middle, and this yellow fuzzy ball that you struck with a round shaped racquet with strings in it.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  A silly little exercise of chasing a yellow fuzzy ball around the court against an opponent within which all of the mysteries of life could be revealed.

And in order to achieve peak performance, to hit what athletes called “the Zone” when you really needed it, you needed an understanding of the art of ritual and how it was the railing that you held onto when all felt lost for you on court, even if you didn’t call it ritual it was those small ticks, those small little habits and exercises you did between points, that either prepared you for the next point properly, or failed to do.  For when the desperation for winning, or in many cases simply the core drive to avoid the prospect of failure, started to overcome you and take over your mind and lock you up physically, it was these small little rituals, these little patterns and behaviors that could calm your mind, bring you peace and set yourself in the moment, that could make all the difference.  And it was the same pressure, the same tension, that same inner struggle that all tennis players felt and had to overcome, no matter what the level, and that was in some respect the beauty of the game, the mental struggle to achieve peak performance, to achieve victory, to avoid the anguish of defeat, that everyone who played the game could relate to.

And of course at Wimbledon, that was where they held the key.  The source of the game’s strength and longevity.  The reason why champions were made there.  The Kipling quote wasn’t out there on Center Court for everyone to see, it wasn’t outside the locker room for all the press to view and snap photos of.  It was inside the walkway to center court, underlining and underscoring the momentous event that was about to unfold before you.  And to remind you.  To tell you quite clearly as you walked on court, that the game was bigger than you, that the game was about the inner struggle for perfection yes, and about winning no doubt, but it was about the definition of your character, the illustration of the depth of your soul for all the world to see.  ‘Treat those two imposters just the same’.  Nothing harder to learn, nothing more difficult to comprehend, nothing more difficult to achieve, no question about that in Charlie’s mind even after all these years of playing and competing, and yet when you find it, when you truly understand the depth of meaning that Kipling so eloquently described, then you had won already then hadn’t you?  Won at the game of life in fact.

 

Once tennis fans figured out that there was an interesting match unfolding, one with a little dispute that added some spice and story line, people started to assemble.  Charlie saw that so many times.  Where the people came from he didn’t know.  But they assembled when the tension rose, when a battle unfolded and two great competitors challenged each other.

So the bleachers started to fill up a bit.  Charlie could clearly tell by the applause between points that he had not ingratiated himself to the “fans” so much.  He was playing the role of the villain well.  He didn’t care really.  He just wanted that damned W.  The bodies in the bleachers were blatantly rooting for the Spaniard to come back.  Even Charlie’s camp, the other three foreigners in the draw, the English speakers, was very quiet.  They didn’t want to say a word.  They knew when to keep their mouths shut.  But they were there.  They stayed.  They had Charlie’s back.  And that was important.  Charlie wouldn’t forget that.  Especially Niels of course, with whom he had developed a bond that would last well beyond his playing days.

But Charlie was up a set and a break.  He was getting close to closing out the match.  He could smell the end, taste it.  He was so close.  His opponent was starting to get even more frustrated, making more errors.  The Spaniard was crumbling now.  Charlie could sense it like a lion senses weakness in a pack of antelope.  Charlie’s fist pumping didn’t stop though, he was getting a little carried away in the moment as well.  And the closer Charlie got to match ball in his favor, the more vigorous and buoyant were his fist pumping and shouts of encouragement which he levied upon himself.  “Vamos!” was one of his favorite epithets and that one escaped his lips in fervor many times as he attempted to close out that match, and its Spanish origins no doubt even further irritated the Spanish spectators that were hoping and praying that this Spaniard would somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat and beat this arrogant American and send him home packing with his tail between his legs.

None of this behavior ingratiated Charlie to his mostly Spanish audience.  They wanted their local boy to win, no question about that.  But they also clearly perceived Charlie’s behavior to be unsportsmanlike and ungentlemanly.  Charlie needed to fire himself up to make sure he closed out the match without letting his nerves get to him, but from the spectators view it was Charlie stepping on the throat of an opponent who was wounded and gasping for air.  But that’s what Charlie need to do, squeeze every ounce of fight out of his opponent until he had no more fight left in him.  Charlie was looking to finish the gladiatorial spectacle off with murderous precision and cold heartedness, and he didn’t give a damned what the Spanish thought of him.

As Charlie mind bounced from that epic poem, back onto the court, he started to capitalize on the hole in the Spaniard’s defenses that he had opened up.  He saw the path to the W.  He saw his opponent on the ropes.  He got more aggressive.  He knew how to close out a match.  That was something innate in him.  Something you couldn’t teach, his coaches had told him.  And he saw it now before him, and he pounced on the Spaniard and broke through his defenses.  Getting more and more fired up along the way.  Lots of fist pumping.  A few more, “Vamos!” thrown in for good measure and assert his on court presence and dominance over the flailing Spaniard.

And all the while he heard Niels’s small quiet voice, almost hidden within the backdrop of the Spanish din, that cheered him on.  That gave him words of encouragement and support, when he needed it most.  Niels’s cheering was not the loud, boisterous kind that was coming from the Spanish, it was the subtle more grave kind, one that understood the mountain that Charlie was climbing, and inserting just the right words of encouragement, or the clapping and cheering that was not accompanied by words, that kept Charlie going through that night.

 

Tennis is a dance.  It’s a dance of adversaries, where the ballroom is the court and the dancers are not intertwined physically necessarily but most certainly connected.  When Charlie played tennis, particularly when he was plugged in, in the zone, you were integrally connected to you opponent.  Connected in a way that you could anticipate his movements.  You could see where he was going to hit his next shot.

You had angles, Johnny Mac was so good at knowing the angles, the percentages.  And the percentages told you about probabilities really, what was the probability that your opponent would hit the ball crosscourt?  Down the line?  What was the score?  Was it a time for him to play conservatively or be aggressive because he had a few points to play with.  The tighter you kept the score, the bigger and more important that the points were, the easier it was to anticipate where their next ball would go.

Speed and quickness in turn, is measured not be how fast you actually move from point A to point B, but also how well you anticipate the next shot.  For any athlete knows, as clearly and plainly as the sun that shines before them, that there is no substitute for that first step.  The proverbial jump you get on a ball.

So speed is deceiving somewhat. Because it depends on your court position, your ability to anticipate, as well as your actually speed – how fast your legs can actually move the body/mind system that must be in position for the next shot in order to strike it, move it back to your opponent, with just the right spin, just the right velocity, such that your opponent’s next shot was as difficult as you could possibly make it for him.

And you always had to keep in mind the angles and percentages that you had to cope with when you struck the ball.  And the better position you were in, the more solid your physical foundation when you struck the ball, the more opportunities and better percentages you had to work with.  That was why movement was so important, so key.  On all shots except the serve of course.

The serve was a different beast altogether.  It was the only shot where you weren’t moving, in flight.  You had basically all the time you needed (actually 25 seconds between points) and yet it was the most technically complicated of all of the shots.  You controlled where the ball was, where you tossed it, how far out in front it was.  And yet on the serve, you had all the physical forces of your body at work – the hips, the shoulders, the legs and calves, the elbow and wrist – and the all had to work in perfect fluidity and synchronicity.  To strike that yellow fuzzy ball some ten to twelve feet above the ground behind the baseline, some 99 feet across a net that was three feet above the ground at its center, and place the ball with the perfect spin and at the perfect angle within a few square inches of your desired location, preferably just where your opponent was least expecting it or at the very least just where your opponent least wanted to see it. The best servers had the most fluid and smooth motions, but their fluidity hid the complexity of the stroke, they made it look easy but it was far from easy and it was an art form that took years and years to master, and some never did.  But the ones that did were the ones that achieved greatness, the likes of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer to name probably the best servers of all time, and the ones of course with the most fluid and beautiful motions, works of art really and art forms that took decades to perfect.

And of course it was the serve, and how a player serves under pressure, that in almost every tight match has the most impact on the actual outcome.  For tennis is a mental game, no doubt.  It is a battle of wills and minds, an attempt by the adversaries that have the net and court between them to break their opponent down, to find their weakness and exploit it as much as possible.  An exploitation that leads to frustration, that leads to pressing and lack of fluidity, which in turn leads to more pressing and in the end defeat.

You physically needed the game, the tools, to compete at the highest level though, there was no question about this.  You needed weapons.  Big weapons.  You needed a bomb of a serve.  A bomb that could be slipped and placed into every corner and every crevasse in the service box on the other side of the court.  You needed precision, as well as power.  And you needed to be able to vary speed and spin, ball velocity.  And you needed to be able to hold your serve.  Not hold in the sense as win your service games, but hold the ball on your serve such that you opponent could not see where the ball was going to be targeted until after the ball left your racquet.  The hold.  This holding, this deception, was such a subtle nuance of the game, especially on the serve, that it was overlooked even by the best of commentators and spectators.

If you look at the serves of Pete Sampras or Roger Federer, look at their ball toss, the quickness with which they snap their hips, shoulders and arm into the shot, and at the same time recognize that it’s not until their opponent sees their racquet face strike the ball, that they know where that serve is headed.  Sampras was perhaps the best at this, you couldn’t tell where he his serve was going until after it left his racquet and in many cases this was just too late.  And this was their secret, their great gift.  And this subtlety depended upon the balance and fluidity of the entire service motion, and the softness of their hands to push and stretch that ball into different corners of that service box with as similar a motion every time they serve as possible.  The same could be said of baseball pitchers really, how to make a curve look like a fastball or a changeup, such that the hitter couldn’t tell which one it was until after the ball was released from the pitchers hand and it was too late to change the momentum of your swing.

 

And there it was.  The match before him.  On his own racquet as they say.  Charlie dropped into his pre-service ritual.  Walking back steadily to the fence to pick up all the balls.  Spinning the balls in his hand to pick out the ones he wanted to use.  Catching his breath.  Breathing deeply through his nose to try and relax his nerves, his mind, his body.

Match ball.  The slider out wide on the ad side of the court.  That’s where Charlie wanted to go.  That was his bread and butter, his set up shot.  His “go to” play when he needed a point on that side of the court.  His opponent knew it was coming.  He had ridden that play all night long.  The courts were slick.  The balls were bald, all the hair torn off them as the two gladiators had beat them into submission over the course of three grueling hours of battle.  That made the balls slide even more.  So slider it was.  Charlie was committed.

Charlie rolled the balls around in his hands once more prior to serve.  The last part of his pre-serve ritual.  He selected the one he wanted to use for the first serve slider he could see so clearly in his mind’s eye.  It was the one with the least amount of ‘fuzziness’, the baldest one that would slide off the court the most.  The ball that would catapult him into the main draw and put him one step closer to that ATP point that he had been chasing all around the world.

Match ball.  Charlie served out wide, a slider, and came in behind it.  Charlie was a lefty and that slider out wide on the ad side if hit well could set up either a baseline winner to the open court, or sometimes he’d come in behind it and cut off the volley into the open court.  He came in behind this one.  The serve was hit well.  He got a flailing reply, a nice easy floating ball up the line.  Charlie cut off the volley and carved it into the open court.  One last fist pump and he was off to the net to shake hands with his opponent.  It was done.  Victory.

Then the fun started.  The Spanish seemed to coagulate and congregate outside the court.  As Charlie stepped off the court after shaking his opponent’s hands, and Marcelo’s hand.  He walked right into a fray of people and noise.  Charlie was still really wired, he had just pulled the victory out a few seconds prior and was totally tuned into the match.  He now had to make that transition back to no-tennis playing reality.  That usually took a few hours.   After a big match like this that could sometimes take up to half a day in fact.

And he stepped into the chaos.  Charlie was shocked to see the energy and anger of the Spanish as he stepped off the court.  There must have been 4 or 5 of them still left watching the end of the match.  It was late, well past midnight, before they finished.

And Charlie for sure didn’t see the arms and fists that came at him from behind.  He just felt them on his back.  And just as Charlie turned to face his new adversary, in a setting that he was altogether unaccustomed for (Charlie had been in just one fight in his life, with a pal from school when he was in 4th or 5th grade.  Charlie had won that battle as it turns out but it was quite tame, two private school kids in blazers wrestling around for a few minutes basically, not altogether good preparation for a cock fight in Malaga Spain), he saw Niels fly past his peripheral vision, and straight on top of the chap that had his hands and fists buried in Charlie’s back and kidneys.  Niels to the rescue, how fitting actually.

By the time it was over and Charlie and Niels were back in their hotel room ready to shut it down for the night, Charlie looked over at Niels and said, “nice work tonight my friend.  Not quite sure what I would have done without you, on or off court”.

“You probably would have gotten your ass kicked.  On both fronts my man”.  Charlie could see the wry smile on his face as he said this even though Charlie was on the other side of the room getting ready for bed.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”  Charlie responded.  Damn straight he was right.  A kinship that would last a life time, sown in the seeds of battle.  Rare indeed.


[1] The “minors” of the tennis tour, akin the triple A baseball league before the pros.  The Satellite events were four week events, typically under USD 20,000 in prize money.  Each of the four week long events would be hosted at different tennis facilities in the same general region, all in Southern Spain for example.  The best 32 players (in some cases just 16) qualified for the final week of the satellite, where all the ATP points were handed out depending upon performance.  The next level of the professional tennis tour were Challenger events which were in the neighborhood of USD 50,000, had smaller draws and were typically closed, i.e. there was no open qualifying rounds and you had to have a high enough ranking – 300 in the world or so – to qualify.  Satellites have since been replaced with what is called Futures, one week events as opposed to the four week Satellite tours.

[2] Tennis, or ‘Lawn Tennis’, had its root in Court Tennis, or Real Tennis, whose origins date back to the 17th century.  For a nice piece on the history of Court Tennis, see http://www.uscourttennis.org/index.php?id=48.

[3] Andre Agassi Facebook post, Dec 19th, 2013

[4] From Rules of Tennis, official rules of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), of which the United

States Tennis Association (USTA) is a member.

[5] As of Jan 2014 Djokovic had won four Australian Open titles, one Wimbledon title and one US Open.

[6] “The Tibetan word Bardo means literally “intermediate state” – also translated as “transitional state” or “in-between state” or “liminal state”. In Sanskrit the concept has the name antarabhāva. It is a concept which arose soon after the Buddha’s passing, with a number of earlier Buddhist groups accepting the existence of such an intermediate state, while other schools rejected it.  Used loosely, the term “bardo” refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth. The term bardo can also be used metaphorically to describe times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, as, for example, during a period of illness or during a meditation retreat. Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress because external constraints diminish. However, they can also present challenges because our less skillful impulses may come to the foreground, just as in the sidpa bardo.”  Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bardo

[7] Rudyard Kipling, “If….”

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