Ego Death

Yes, I'm still disappointed with myself. Last year, the week after I did so poorly at Nationals, I decided to get my navel pierced, in part because I'd just spent ten days in Miami Beach and had seen how many women (and men!) have had their tummies done and so was thinking, "Why not? My tummy is surely as good as theirs"; in part because I wanted something that I could change about who I was. And, of course, because I think it looks cool. This year, now that the piercing is fully healed,[1] I'm shopping for navel jewelry, but everything I like comes in diamonds and I'm not sure I can persuade my husband that we can afford (sigh) more bling right at this moment. I'm not really interested in getting a tattoo and I don't have any more body parts I'm eager to pierce [2], so I'm thrust back upon my blog and trying to think my way out of the paper bag that is my ego-self. But, oh, how I wish there was something else I wanted to have pierced, how much simpler it would be!

My friend Badger read my posts from the tournament last week and shared this meditation with me, courtesy of her coach: "Fencing is a reflection of who you are. What you are inside, this show in your fencing. To change your fencing, you need change yourself. You need kill your ego." What does this mean, "kill your ego"? I know what I think it is supposed to mean: kill that part of yourself that judges and cares about being judged; the self that wants always to be in control, observing and critiquing; Self 1 with all of its anxieties about making mistakes, its desires for success and its preoccupations with the past and the future. And, indeed, how wonderful it would be to be able to change myself in this way, to let go, at long last, of all of the anger at myself for not performing as well as I'd hoped, to learn to act (at least on the strip) always and only in the moment, for the moment; not putting the mind anywhere but rather keeping it open and flowing, without attachment, as Takuan Soho would put it. I know that this is the only state of mind--or state of no-mind--in which it is possible truly to fence; I've even been there a few times (blissfully, intermittently, ever so sweetly, when it comes). The problem, as with the Rule of Seventeen, is that as soon as you notice that you are in this state, you have come out of it. As Bruce Lee put it, according to Joe Hyams, "The instant you become conscious of trying for harmony and make an effort to achieve it, that very thought interrupts the flow and the mind blocks." So how do you practice it?

In his book, The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin outlines a method for what he calls "building your trigger", essentially, creating a routine to help you relax before stressful encounters such as competitions. Fencing manuals sometimes suggest practicing a reminder, e.g. squeezing your grip, to help open your focus before you engage on the strip. All sound advice, surely. Nevertheless, one of the reasons I am still so angry with myself--in fact, the principal reason--is that I have been practicing techniques like this for years and they still don't work. Or, rather, pace every "how to" argument that suggests learning to find "flow" in one context will help you in others, they work in all sorts of other contexts--teaching a class, doing yoga, sitting down to write--but not in fencing. So, clearly, there is something else that needs to change other than just my general capacity for absorption in the task at hand. Horribly enough, I am fairly sure at the moment that I know what it is, but I am hesitant even to say it because it does not sound like the kind of answer that one is supposed to give. Certainly, when I told my coach last night the way I am thinking, he looked sad and tried to talk me out of it. But as far as I can tell, it is the only way I am ever going to improve: I have to convince myself that I am as good as I will ever be and that I will never be up there on the podium with the top 8, not next year, not in in ten years, not ever.

You see, I told you this was a horrible thought. It goes contrary to everything we are taught to believe--and, indeed, against everything to which I, as a teacher, am professionally committed: the belief that education works; that hard work will be rewarded; above all, that change is in fact possible given appropriate instruction, motivation and practice. Why else would I be constantly reading all those self-help books (like Takuan Soho's and Waitzkin's) if I were not, ultimately, optimistic about changing myself for the better? And yet, I am starting to realize; more accurately, have slammed myself against the brick wall of my fencing long enough to have to acknowledge, that it is, almost certainly, my optimism, a.k.a. my relentless desire for self-improvement, that is my own worst enemy. As one of my friends somewhat more charitably put it, "I wish you would stop worrying about getting better and just enjoy it. It's supposed to be fun." Part of me wants to snap, "Well, of course it's fun for you; you've been up on that podium before." But, of course, that's why he's been there: it simply is fun for him, whether he wins or loses--so, generally, he wins, and not just in points. But for me to stop wanting to be better than I am at the moment, well, it is a sort of death and not one that will come easily.

There is another way of describing the state of mind I am trying to put myself in. Not morbid ("This is as good as I'm ever going to be so I should get used to it"), but rather calm ("I am already as good as I ever need to be"). The problem is that, positive as it is, the calm version feels to me just as resigned as the morbid one. At the very least, the morbid version has more fire because it is an angry response; the calm one just seems to be passive. The fact is, I'm not happy with the way I fenced last week, nor do I enjoy the thought that D is the highest rating I may ever receive. I have no illusions about ever becoming an A, but maybe a C? But, no, even to step on the strip with that thought--of the possibility of achieving more than I previously have--is to court disaster by taking my mind off the moment and looking instead at the goal. Likewise dangerous are all my coach's promises that "This year will be different" along with his stories about how other fencers have had startling success after only months of retraining. I know that he is trying to be encouraging, but I can't trust such assurances any more. It is as Badger's coach said, "You need kill your ego"--which means, I think it fair to say, all of your ego's aspirations for your self (your body, mind, abilities) to be other than it is.

What is interesting about this line of thinking (pessimistic, resigned, angry) is how hard it is for me to sustain it even now. Even as I tell myself, "Give it up. Quit. Just go to practice and practice; you will always be stuck in the middle, so don't worry about it," I can feel the glimmer of hope that the trick just might work. Certainly, I fenced well at practice last night having been telling myself all of the above for most of the day. Which more than likely means that at practice tomorrow night, I will be back to my old ambitious self, frustrated that I can't execute the actions that I need to in order to get past my opponent's defense and thus pushing when I should be watching; trying harder to be better in the future when I should be keeping my eye on the here and now. George Leonard describes this state of affairs from a slightly different, but equally revealing perspective. In his words, I am more or less a carbon-copy (how's that for a dated reference?) Obsessive, hard-working and impatient for success, convinced that if only she (or he) will work harder, she will achieve perfection. Conversely, I am afraid of becoming what Leonard describes as the Hacker, content once she (or he) reaches the first or second (inevitable) plateau of improvement simply to stay there more or less indefinitely. The catch, of course, is that neither the Obsessive or the Hacker are on what Leonard calls the path to Mastery: the Obsessive because she is unwilling to accept the plateau even for a moment; the Hacker because as far as she is concerned, the plateau is all there is and that is fine with her.

"Be perfect," the Master once said, "as your heavenly Father is perfect." But, also: "do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Matthew 5:48, 6:34). (Who says Zen has a monopoly on koans?) How can I not be anxious for tomorrow if I am not yet perfect? Or perhaps He means that to be perfect one cannot be focused on tomorrow; that being anxious for tomorrow is itself an imperfection. And yet, is it not to be rather a Hacker than a Seeker to be content always only with the moment, never testing the edge? Leonard (not to mention, Christ) has answers to all of these questions, of course. The path of Mastery involves both long periods of apparent stagnation (the plateau) and moments of pushing oneself to the edge. The problem that I'm struggling with (as an Obsessive) is wanting some guarantee about how long the plateau is going to be when the point about staying on the path is doing so without being able to see the end, above all, because there isn't one, only more steps and higher plateaus.

You will be wondering what all of this has to do with getting my belly button pierced. I am sure, if he were still alive, that Dr. Seuss would have something to say about it. The question is, what did I hope would change last summer by making myself a Star-bellied Sneetch? I want more than anything to be up there on that podium wearing beribboned bling, to be a medalled Sneetch with a star-upon-thars. What if, tomorrow, I could go through Sylvester McMonkey McBean's Star-On machine and be a C-rated medalist, just as I went to the piercing studio and emerged with a gemstone where my Sneetch-star would be? And yet, by having my navel pierced, I became someone else, one of those who has her tummy pierced rather than not. Am I thereby welcoming change--or avoiding it? Interestingly, although the piercing was amazingly quick (it really didn't hurt any more than a pin prick, less than a tetanus shot), the healing was not. Nor was there any way, care for my piercing as I might, that I could speed the process up. I simply had to wait for my body to do what it needed to do; nothing I thought about it could change that. But, then, I was relatively certain that once the nine months were up, the piercing would heal. It is much harder to be a Plain-bellied Sneetch and not know when, if ever, one's Star will appear. The real question is, can I be happy with this? And if I am, will I still be me?

[1] Yes, it really takes around nine months for a navel piercing to heal, much longer than even noses or ears. No, mine never got infected and was only a little sore, but it was a long nine months cleaning it every day just to make sure.
[2] Yet. Just in case you're wondering, I don't exactly make a habit of this, but the urge does seem to hit every so often: ears, age 12 and 16 (I think, I can't quite remember; say Middle School and High School); nose, age 26 (this one I'm sure about). I wonder what I'll get a hankering for at 50?


  1. Just promise me if
    I give up all ambition
    I will be perfect



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