Nothing Doing*

Sometimes the answer really is staring you right in the face, if only you could see it.

As you, my faithful readers know, it's been a hard past couple of weeks for me, preparing for the almost certain disappointment of Summer Nationals. But why "almost certain"? I could tell I wasn't ready, boy, oh, boy, could I tell I wasn't ready. The problem is (was), I didn't know what to fix. Some of my friends spent the latter part of June at fencing camps, working out extra hard, getting their bodies ready to compete. I've done camps before with much the same hope, but I knew from past experience that, for me, at least, they haven't really worked. Sure they sound like a good idea, but I knew that if I went this time I'd just get hurt and exhausted and come out none the wiser for all of the extra bouting.* So, instead, I got depressed. Well, okay, so that wasn't so much my plan as what I fell into, but I really didn't know what else to do. Because, of course, that's the whole problem--or, at least, I thought it was: I didn't know what to do.

I can't tell you the number of times over the past few weeks that I've found myself wailing in frustration (mostly inwardly, but sometimes outwardly) exactly these words: "But I don't know what to do!" Nobody could help me, not my coach, not my clubmates, not my friends. My coach has been badgering me for months about correcting my point control ("Use your fingers!") and my extension ("Stop throwing your shoulder!"), reassuring me time and again that doing my actions right was the answer to all of my difficulties. "You'll see," he has promised me more times than I can count, "just do it this way and you'll see a big difference." Except that I can't (see a big difference, that is), other in the number of compliments I get on my form. Apparently--according to everybody but my coach--I am a technically beautiful fencer; it's just that I can't seem to do it when I need to.

More advice from my coach: "You need to set up your attacks!" Fine. I know this; it's what I've been trying to do with all those beats, except when we videotaped one of my bouts a few weeks ago, all he saw was me searching for the blade (which is a bad thing, apparently, not what I am supposed to do). "The beat is a preparation!" Fine. I know this; it's what I've been trying to do, but all it seems to do is telegraph to my opponent that I'm trying to set up an attack so that when I do, there she is with her parry. "You need to watch what she does so that you can counter it!" Fine. I know this; it's what I've been trying to do, except that being able to see her parries doesn't seem to help. I know exactly what she is going to do and then I attack into her parry anyway. "You need to have confidence in your attacks!" Fine. I know this; it's what I've been trying to do, except that having confidence, again, seems to be simply a telegraph service to my opponent. The harder I try to make my attacks land, the more certain it is that she is going to be able to parry them. So, what, exactly, am I supposed to do?

I think I've figured it out. Here it is: nothing. Yup, that's right: nothing. I was thinking about it this weekend as, time and again, I flung myself "in confidence" against my opponents only to run onto their riposte, and suddenly, it came to me. My problem isn't that I don't know what to do; doing isn't the problem. In fact, I don't have to do anything. That's the whole secret: nothing. Beautiful, isn't it? And completely counterintuitive. Here I have been convinced all along that my failure was one of action, when--as everybody who has seen me fence tells me, quite truthfully, I now realize--my actions are fine. Not that they can't still improve, I know they can; indeed, I've always known they can because I'm really good at practicing how to do things. Give me something to practice, and I'll fling myself against it indefinitely, pounding out scales, swimming laps, doing backbends, conjugating verbs, proving theorems. And yet, oddly, when the crunch comes, I still won't be able to do it. Because, of course, I'll be trying too hard to figure out what to do.

You're smiling, all of you, I can tell. You've been telling me this all along: "Relax! Have fun! Enjoy it! Don't think so much!" But I couldn't hear because I thought you were describing yet another thing that I had to learn how to do: "not-think" as opposed to "thinking"; "having fun" as opposed to "being miserable." And I was angry because, at least initially, it seemed you had to be wrong. Sure, I thought, you can get away with saying, "Don't think so much!" You know lots of different actions that you can use; you have the muscle memory to take a parry without even thinking about it, but I still have to think. And I could see it--and, indeed, I can see it even more clearly now as I watch less experienced fencers than I who, indeed, do not know what to do. My coach is right to insist that I get my actions right, keep my point on target, land my attacks without throwing my shoulder, parry only enough to close my line, extend just enough to make the touch. I can't get on the strip without knowing how to do all of these things and expect to do anything other than get hit. But neither can I get on the strip expecting to do them.

It sounds very Zen and all, I know, but that's, of course, because it is. Or not. All I know is that when I get on strip thinking that what I need to do is get in there and make my attack, it fails, but when I get on strip convinced that I haven't a clue what to do--as, for example, when I fence épée--somehow the actions are available to me in the right time. And yet, even saying this now makes me anxious. Surely (I can hear myself thinking), I need to know how to read my opponent and anticipate her actions. Surely, I need to have a plan when I get on strip about how I am going to make my attacks. Surely, the whole point about fencing, if it is "physical chess," is to outwit your opponent by thinking ahead of her, not, as my current insight would seem to suggest, by not-thinking ahead of her. Judging solely from my results this past weekend,** however, I'm not so sure.

As often happens when such insights hit, I found a book in the airport yesterday that would seem to be speaking to exactly this question. Oddly, however, it wasn't the book about building confidence or being effective. Rather, it was the book about elegance. The answer? You guessed it: nothing. For, it seems, when it comes to effectiveness, whether in art, science, life or, yes, sports, less--or, indeed, nothing--really is more. Matthew E. May quotes the great Taoist master Lao Tzu:

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub,
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel,
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room,
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there,
Usefulness from what is not there.

Can you see where I'm going with this? I hope so--because, as May also points out, one of the great pleasures in life (as, for example, in fencing) is filling in what's missing when we are presented with a problem. Did I say great? Perhaps I should say greatest, for what could be better than the dopamine hit that we get through the striatum whenever we manage to see something that we have not hitherto been able to see? It's quite literally addicting, which, also, of course, explains why it hurts to much to lose, at least at fencing: "I couldn't see what to do!" Read: "I'm in withdrawal, and I can't get my fix!" Yes, it's that painful. Believe me, I've been there.

But about that nothingness. Again, I've been told it was there. It's that magical door that everyone promised me would one day open, after which, yes, I would be able to see. And every so often over the past year I've had a glimmer that I'd found where it was, when I was overtired and expecting nothing; when I could somehow breathe and relax; most of all, as on Friday this past week during the women's épée, at least during the pools, when I was absolutely convinced that I did not need to do anything at all, not even "pay attention," because, in fact, there was nothing that I could do. The brain scientists have actually figured this one out. According to May, according to Dr. Mark Beeman (apparently my near neighbor, just up the road at Northwestern), moments of insight show up on high-density EEGs as a burst of fast gamma waves. In order to experience such bursts, however, it would seem that we need to start from a state completely the opposite, the famous alpha-wave "zone" of complete relaxation.

The catch? You can't purposefully get there, at least not directly. There is (as we all all-too-painfully know) no switch that one can throw in order to put oneself into the zone. It's the door that you find only when you are no longer looking; the window that disappears as soon as you start to look for it. Which would seem to suggest that we are doomed to be always at the whim of our Muses, except that certain techniques (hurray! something to practice) really do seem to help encourage us to be able to enter and maintain such "open-focus" states. Okay, yes, I'm feeling like an idiot. Like I said, sometimes the answer is staring you in the face, but you just can't see it. I know all about breathing and watching the breath. Believe me, I would do even worse in tournaments if I didn't think about this every so often. But it still seemed to me something to do, whereas now I appreciate that it really isn't. It's just a way to practice doing nothing. Even better, it is a practice that also has Christian roots, as, again, I already knew; but, as always, I've been too busy trying to figure out what to do to be able to appreciate.

So what do you do when you've tried everything? Try nothing. Ironic, isn't it?

*Nor, truth to tell, does it ever really make any difference. I never manage to stay in long enough (typically, pools plus one D-E) to get properly tired.
**42nd out of 115 in Div III Women's Épée; 77th out of 105 in Div III Women's Foil. In other words, I did better in the weapon I don't actually fence; indeed, I did better in Div III Women's Épée than I've ever done in Div III Women's Foil (albeit not Div II, go figure), despite the fact I've only been competing in épée for less than a year and in foil for now well over five.***
***And, no, I don't think it will help to switch to épée as my primary weapon. See above: then I might start thinking that I actually needed to learn what to do.


  1. Wow. The Art of Nothingness. I really like how you form and phrase this whole idea. Thanks for giving me something else important to think about.

  2. My pleasure. I'm so glad what I've written makes sense! It's a real challenge trying to describe an experience that, in all sorts of important ways, isn't really there, if you see what I mean. ;)


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Fake News

Abortion Games: The Lady Priest

Bears Abroad! Q&A with Madam Mayo

Confessions of a New World Sugar Eater

Spice Wars Study Guide