Poker, Palms and Poo
We are losing the ability to be present when it really matters the most.
Having (re)started meditating recently I’ve found that several ideas that have been present in my life and world-view for some time are marvellously connected. The reason I started meditating, like many others, is to improve my focus and quiet my thoughts during stressful situations. Just a week in I have discovered that that isn’t the point at all — you shouldn’t quiet your thoughts because that implies expending effort. What happens when you try to go to sleep? Instead meditation is a process of being in peace with your thoughts and not judging them or running after them.
Some high performers, like athletes and soldiers, are indeed able to quiet their thoughts and use razor sharp focus and force of will to get the job done. I’ve been there, although in less stressful situations than world-class sport or war, but I can tell you it’s not a sustainable course of action over the long run. This is true particularly during long tournaments where you need to conserve your energy. If you watch a tennis tournament for example, the players who end up playing into the end of the second week are increasing their focus and determination as they go along. Same is true of poker tournaments where the aggression rises towards the critical bubble stage. And that is where emotions and our relationship with them really comes into it.
It’s hard not to be scared of the lion but you need to show your teeth too, otherwise you’re lunch.
In poker, as you approach the money-winning group in a tournament it’s understandable to be anxious. The correct and rational decision is to start raising and showing aggression in order to scare others away. If you act based on your emotions, then you will get out of the way of the aggressors, who time and again reach the final stages of tournaments. This is where rationality needs to rise above ‘gut instinct’. That is the point of training your mind for this kind of situation. Rather than feeling the emotion by amplifying it with your thoughts, just observe the thought, acknowledge it, and make the correct decision despite its existence. After all, its only natural that an emotion should be there.
In high stakes situations it’s far better to eliminate regret than to reduce the risk of immediate sadness. But how does one visualize an emotion without it taking over? Besides, emotions are really strong for a reason and must be taken seriously, right? Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer were psychologists who in the 1960s worked on the problem of emotions and the pathology associated with emotions. The commonplace view at the time was that the causal chain of events was as follows: See an axe-murderer → get scared → run for the treetops. That didn’t resonate with Schachter and Singer however. They observed that a multitude of emotions caused the same pathology. For instance, if you are about to talk to a pretty girl at a bar your heart rate will increase and your palms will get sweaty. Similarly, if you found yourself being mugged you would also have an elevated heart beat and sweaty palms. For this reason, Schachter and Singer speculated that emotions are determined by our surroundings. First you see the axe murderer → then you experience high heart beat rate and sweatiness and run for the treetops (survival instinct) → and then you appreciate the reality of the situation and feel scared. I’ll save space and won’t talk about Schachter’s and Singer’s experiment that proved their hypothesis but those interested can look it up (because it is simple and brilliant) here.
Existential angst? Terrible movie? Try indigestion.
Using the ‘emotions are caused after observing your surroundings’ view of the world can help you make observations in your everyday life. You will find for example that you frequently don’t like what you’re doing at a particular moment in time and then develop a stomach ache or hunger or fatigue. It was the pathology of indigestion that caused the ill-feeling, not the activity you were engaged in (and certainly in the overwhelming majority of everyday cases it isn’t the activity that causes indigestion). The gut actually plays a crucial role when it comes to mood and emotions. For an enlightening talk on this subject, watch Giulia Ender’s talk on the science of the gut here.
The take-home message out of all of this is that there is no reason (and it isn’t useful) to feel sad because you are noticing feelings of longing and nostalgia (could be diarrhoea), or to feel bored because you are noticing feelings of apathy. That is a hard lesson that every good student or writer who has deadlines needs to learn. Just because you don’t feel like doing the work, doesn’t mean you mustn’t. You will frequently feel as though you shouldn’t do something and yet you have to. The way in which you view these moments is crucial to your calmness, performance and enjoyment you get out of life.
Do you see A) An evil lightning storm or B) A lightning storm?
Instead of ‘getting on with it’ and feeling like a sorry mess, observe the emotion without trying to change it or judge it, and don’t go down the rabbit hole of that feeling. Don’t chase after the feeling with your thoughts. Furthermore, it is not useful to label the emotion itself on top of feeling its effects. The example I like to use is the labelling of natural phenomena with animated terms, like saying sunshine is good or that typhoons are bad. Apart from these adjectives being inaccurate even if we accept the concept (sunshine can be ‘bad’ if the land needs water for the growth of crops) they convey natural phenomena as having intent and emotions all of their own. An emotion in the mind is rather an output to the environment or situation based on entirely internal modes of operation. In a way, that is what characterizes many symptoms of mental illness. In manic depression the manic parts are hyperbolic, joyous and uncontrollable but equally intense are the crashes and self-feeding cycles of depression.
I’m not trying to say that all emotions can, or indeed should, be viewed like the way I have described so far. I use the example of mental illness to stress that some emotions are very strongly related to pathology and hard to overcome. Perfectly ordinary individuals that encounter trauma will experience the mental and physical effects that come with extreme events. It’s also sometimes important when it comes to being empathetic towards a loved ones’ state of mind to be able to experience the same emotion they are so you can understand them better. The stakes are so much higher though when it is a loved one who is going through a traumatic incident when you’re present to witness it. The rational thing to do is, much like a neurosurgeon or soldier, look at the situation as a machine would and act accordingly — hard to do when a loved one’s life is on the line, but one ought to do what’s best. Luckily there are systems in place that usually take care of such extreme circumstances for us. This way, our mental training can reward us during our next race, exam, negotiation or match.
So I invite you to close your eyes and lightly focus on the breath.