Presence Must Be Like Breathing

“Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously.” - Josh Waitzkin

Diner Ismail

5 minute read

There’s something that I have been thinking about since the boxing match that I had on the 4th of November. That no matter how many possibilities and potential actions I could’ve taken during the fight, in the end it only mattered what I actually did. Was I capable of more? Maybe so, but that really doesn’t matter in the end. What the spectators have seen on that ring, that’s the reality. This frustrated me for days afterwards, as I’ve repeatedly analysed my mistakes in technique and mindset, knowing how much better I could’ve performed, knowing that I could’ve won the match if only I did things in a different way.

To me, this underlines how important it is to perform well in the important moments, and to be fully present to give our best. But in order to make sure we are fully present that needs to become a habit, a state of being. Josh Waitzkin says it best, in his book The Art of Learning:

“We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives. One the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art, and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximise each moment’s creative potential - for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line. The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.”

The ability to control one’s focus is necessary for creating anything substantial. Too much time and energy is wasted when doing things half-heartedly, or with the attention split in multiple places. The ability to sit down and work on one thing at a time is more important than ever in a time when we are constantly bombarded with a deluge of information.

In the hours before my fight, I remember trying to get into the right mindset that would help me perform well. What I realised in retrospect is that most of my self-talk was focused around calming down and relieving stress by convincing myself that it’s okay if I lose. First of all, what a loser’s mindset, right? Second, I was already thinking about the time after the match! Instead of doing my best to be present, my mind was already on the fun and relaxation that will come after the fight. What I should have done is tell myself “I’m excited”, which would’ve helped me re-frame that fear energy and channel it into something constructive and positive. Instead, I numbed down that energy and went so far into becoming calm that my level of engagement plummeted. That was my biggest mistake, because that affected my ability to be clear-headed and cool under fire. You might think that being in the ring by itself should have made me present enough, but somehow that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t obvious to the spectators that all of this was happening in my head, but for me it was painfully transparent given what happened in the ring.

So how can we improve our ability to focus? I have found that martial arts training helps a lot with that. When sparring, but even when practicing drills, losing your attention even for a split-second means you’ll probably get hurt. Besides, it’s an environment where you are practically sheltered from the outside world, as there are no phones, TVs or any other screens to take your attention away. Of course, it’s not only martial arts that does that for you. The same applies to other activities, like dancing, painting, writing, as well as pretty much all sports. As long as we are working on being fully engaged in any activity, that will be good practice in the art of presence.

“We cannot calculate our important contests, adventures, and great loves to the end. The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we’ll be in unfamiliar terrain. Conditions might not be calm or reasonable. It may feel as though the whole world is stacked against us. This is when we have to perform better than we ever conceived of performing. I believe the key is to have prepared in a manner that allows for inspiration, to have laid the foundation for us to create under the wildest pressures we ever imagined.” - Josh Waitzkin (The Art of Learning - An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance)

To excel, we must be fully engaged and present at every stage, especially when there’s no one watching, no one to instruct or give feedback, no one cheering us on.

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Photo credit: Agustin dal Lago

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