When I moved to New Mexico in 2001 I immediately joined a tennis club so I could meet people to play with. Finding tennis partners was not difficult. Playing through the pain in my neck and right shoulder, from too much tennis where I previously lived, was increasingly difficult. I contemplated not playing but I’d just bought two new pairs of sneakers and a bunch of tennis balls. When a workshop led by my tai chi teacher was offered, I signed up. After the workshop was over, I asked if he had any suggestions as to how I might play with less pain. It never occurred to me that I could play with no pain. “I have one,” he said. “Change your game.” What? I’d been playing for more than fifty years, with greater and lesser success. Now he wanted me to start over? It seemed too ridiculous to contemplate. Still, pain spoke for me. I signed up for a series of lessons.
When my teacher and I met on the court for the first time we hit a series of balls back and forth before he signaled me to come to the net. “I can’t teach you,” he said. Stunned, I asked why not. “You have so much negativity going on in your head, it will keep you from being open to learning new ways to hit and will drown out positive feedback.”
“How do you know about the negativity?”
“I can see it and feel it in the way you hit and then react when you don’t hit as well as you think you should.”
I was amazed he could tell what was going on in my mind, but he wasn’t wrong. My head was continuously filled with negative judgment. How was I suddenly supposed to get rid of a lifetime of involuntary destructive habitual noise? “I couldn’t imagine there was a way to stop thinking bad thoughts. “How do I do it?”
“You have to decide to change the voices. It’s a matter of practice and discipline. Figure out a way to stop the negative comments with a simple word or phrase that works for you. As we hit, decide what helps, then start using whatever you come up with. Avoid judgment. Everything’s temporary. Instead of judging how you return a ball, focus on the next one.”
I decided to use the word and with a question mark. It seemed like a quick retort to a negative thought. The retort did indeed turn out to be quick, but getting rid of negative thoughts was arduous. At first stopping the negativity seemed impossible; the thoughts were automatic. I became so discouraged, at one point I yelled, “AND?” after hitting a bad return. The negative thought disappeared. I was so excited I shouted, “I did it.” My teacher laughed. I was as excited as if I’d hit a perfect stroke.
The process wasn’t easy. Undoing lifelong bad habits takes time, patience, discipline, and if you’re lucky, a good teacher. My teacher continued to work with me, through bouts of leukemia, when I couldn’t find people to play with, and even when the bad habits mostly disappeared.
In the course of our lessons, the pain in my neck and right shoulder dissolved as did most of the negativity in my mind. By changing my strokes, using body power instead of arm strength, I improved my playing ability while using less energy.
When I decided to stop playing tennis, the healing I learned from tennis continued. Now when I make a harsh self-judgment, almost every time, the next word/thought is AND?
Have you experienced a time when you were able to heal pain you thought was permanent? If so, how?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.