I am a huge advocate of mental/emotional training for enhancing performance. Having spent the majority of my sporting career as my own worst enemy, I had my entire approach to performance turned on its head when the time and conditions were finally right for me to get down to some serious psychological work. That experience led to a period of my career with by far the highest and most consistent level of performance, and with a sustained sense of joy and meaning along the way. Not only that, but the tools and skills I learnt back then have reverberated through my life since, to the extent that they are still showing up, daily, in my work, family and social life, 10 years later.
There are all sorts of approaches, tools and strategies like this that performance psychology employs to help us do better, and to feel better, in performance. But these past few years, as I have been exploring a more spiritual path, it struck me that we might be making things far more complicated than they need to be with these multitude of approaches to performance psych. Not only that, but those approaches tend to be quite hit and miss, affecting people differently, with varying levels of effectiveness in different contexts, and with a lot resting on the personality and style of the practitioner themself. My newfound understanding of a certain type of spiritual philosophy, called non-dualism, has given me the sense that performance psychology may be overly occupied with simply helping us manage our fragile and volatile egos, and that the real gold is to be found by going a level deeper.
Non-dualism is a philosophical and spiritual concept that challenges the notion that there is any separation between our self and the outside world. It proposes that there is no distinction between the observer and the observed, the subject and the object, and that we are not isolated entities, distinct from other people and what we see around us, but rather are an integral and interconnected part of the whole universe. The illusion of separateness arises from limitations of the ‘tools’ we have available to us to perceive reality. I heard a nice metaphor for understanding this – imagine a pilot flying a Boeing 747 in a cockpit with no windows, and they do this by simply monitoring all the instruments on the dashboard. They get all the relevant information and can take-off, fly and land just fine, but they still never get to see or experience what the world really looks like outside the cockpit.
Nondualism has been influential in various religious and philosophical traditions, including Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism. It offers a way of looking at the world that transcends the ego and allows for a deeper sense of interconnectedness and harmony with the universe.
For now we will skip the details of how you could come round to a non-dual understanding of the nature of reality, but when you do arrive there, you realise that what you are, in your deepest essence – beyond your thoughts, feelings, memories and body composition – is pure consciousness. And furthermore, the consciousness that makes you you, is one and the same as that which makes me, me… and everyone else and everything else. This speaks to the classic phrase you will have heard - We are all one.
Now, what has this got to do with sport and performance? Surely this is the realm of yoga gurus and Buddhist retreats, not elite sports? Well, I’m going to propose to you that this spiritual philosophy of nondualism has the potential to be a kind of performance psychology 3.0, the be all and end all of sport psychology, the thing that makes all other approaches obsolete.
So, yeah, even putting hyperbole aside, I have the idea that it can offer something relevant, and truly potent for achieving high-performance in any domain. Here is why:
Let’s start with flow, otherwise known as peak performance. A flow state is one in which an individual is fully immersed in an activity, experiencing a sense of energized focus, total involvement, and enjoyment. An exhilarating, somewhat magical experience – the ego drops away, your identity dissipates – you become one with the activity itself. A non-dual understanding of the world says that flow is us connecting with the true nature of reality and with our most core being. Indeed, Tennis pro, Matteo Berretini said about being in flow, in the Netflix series, Break Point, "I get to know myself way better when I am there. That is who I am". As we just found out, in the state of flow our ego dissipates, we lose ourselves in the moment and in the task at hand. So, Berrettini's statement is striking because he is effectively saying - 'when I transcend my ego, I find myself'. This is precisely the view of nondualism. The ego is an illusion, and when you get beyond it or deeper than it, you will find your true self, and also your greatest source of power. Because let’s not forget, it is this place beyond ego that we specifically call peak performance.
So, to start with it seems that non-dualism and the holy grail of performance psychology are pointing to the exact same thing. But how can we best achieve flow then? If we take a non-dualist starting point rather than begin down the path of psychological tools and strategies, then we are inclined to recognise all our thoughts, feelings and sensations as simply the contents of consciousness. They are not direct feedback on reality but rather just part of the illusion of the separate self – our ego – and need be given no power over us. To put this into a practical example, let us take one of the most common inhibitors to flow – performance anxiety. Simply put, performance anxiety can be understood as comprising some combination of the following categories of thought-pattern:
Negative self-talk: negative statements that you make to yourself, such as "I'm not good enough" or "I'm going to fail."
Catastrophizing: imagining the worst-case scenario and dwelling on it. For example, that you are going to embarrass yourself by how badly you perform, and lose the match as a whitewash, with everyone laughing at you.
Mind-reading: assuming that you know what other people are thinking, even if you have no evidence to support your assumptions. For example, you may assume that your teammates or supporters think negatively of you or your performance.
Perfectionism: setting impossibly high standards for yourself and being overly critical of your performance.
Comparison: comparing yourself to others and feeling inadequate or inferior.
If your underlying belief about the reality of the world is such that your ego is an illusion and it masks the true nature of your being – a shared consciousness which is inherently wise, peaceful, compassionate, and the source of great inspiration and power – then each of the above thought-patterns become meaningless. “I’m not good enough” refers to the illusionary, egoic ‘I’, not the true ‘I’. The true self wants for nothing and is inherently ‘enough’. Catastrophising, mindreading, comparison and harsh self-criticism are always and only the rampant assertions of the ego, and have little to no connection to reality, so hold zero sway.
In essence, this philosophic approach recognises that thoughts and feelings are not to be innately trusted, listened to, or heeded, and in the heat of performance we are far better off letting them float on by, so that we can connect once again with our deepest being, and the source of our greatest power.
The final benefit of this approach that I would like to highlight here (I feel there may be more blogs to come on this subject), is that a non-dual understanding of the world automatically brings with it a deep sense of responsibility and compassion for, and connection to others. If we are all one, then by hurting you, I hurt myself, and equally by caring for you, I care for myself. If you train yourself to recognise your ego as the source of what inhibits, ails, derails you, then you become better at recognising the same thing in others. What follows is far more acceptance, non-judgement, and compassion for the struggles that others are having with their own egos, which in turn creates fertile conditions for connection with everyone around you. You’ve heard of team spirit. Well very rarely does the spirit part actually get a look in. This is what it would look like to double down on true team spirit, where every team member recognises their shared being, and can tap into greater connection, love and sense of harmony. Where a few big egos don’t take up all the space in the locker room, where the groups needs come first, and where finding a collective flow state becomes a daily (rather than once-in-a-lifetime) phenomenon.
To wrap it all up (sort of)…
By accepting the interconnectedness of all that we know, athletes can learn to let go of their attachment to outcomes and to the petty fears and desires of their egos, and begin to cultivate a sense of inner peace and contentment – a powerful foundation from which to perform.
And by breaking the obsession with outcomes, athletes can learn to view their performance not as a means to an end, but as a journey of self-discovery and growth. This can help them develop a deeper sense of connection with their sport, their teammates, opponents and all those supporting them, and allow them to perform at their best without being weighed down by anxiety or fear.
That’s not to say it’s an easy journey to achieve such profound spiritual insight and consistent peak performance, but this utopian vision feels to me somehow, strangely, within the realm of possibility. But even without attaining full spiritual enlightenment, there would be significant advantages for athletes to cultivate a non-dual understanding of the world.
"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
If you would like to hear the topic of sport and non-dualism discussed in spine-tingling form, then I highly recommend listening to this podcast where the excellent Simon Mundie interviews Rupert Spira, titled - A philosophy of sport and reality. (This is also where I first got inspired to go down this mindbending rabbit hole)