An excerpt from the book Golf’s Three Noble Truths: The Fine Art of Playing Awake, by James Ragonnet, published by New World Library and available at www.newworldlibrary.com or at bookstores near you.
NAVAJO SUN, GOLF SUN
The Navajo teach their children that a new sun is born each day. It lives for only 24 hours. At sunset, when it dies, it will never return again. When Navajo children are old enough to understand this notion, their parents sit with them at dawn and wait for the sun to rise.
At first light, the parents tell their children that the sun has only today to live. To not waste the sun’s precious and sacred rays, the children are told to live this day in a special way. On only this particular day will this particular sun shine down on them. To waste a single precious moment of their day is to dishonor the sun by letting it die before it was ever fully used.
If you view the sun as Navajos do, you won’t waste a single moment when you play golf. Your golf game will become a succession of precious moments. If you become miserable and depressed, you’ll waste the sun shining down on you. Your resentment and disappointment with your score will prevent you from appreciating the hot smell of pines at noon or the fresh green of spring. Remind yourself that you’re never going to have this golf moment again. Give thanks. Nothing is worth more than this moment. Rumi, the 13th-century poet, wrote, "There are 100 ways to kneel and kiss the earth."
Remind yourself that you’re never going to have this golf moment again. How can you possibly be upset knowing that these beautiful things all around you are so steady, so simple? The fairways ever growing. The wind ever stirring the branches. The trees ever shading the course. The wildflowers ever sprouting in the rough. The birds ever singing. The water ever sparkling in the sun.
Magnify the obvious. "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "how men would believe and adore!" Your thoughts shape your personality. What you cherish ultimately defines who you are.
You are totally present with golf when you ask yourself, "Have I ever been this happy before?" When you feel enraptured – fully absorbed in time and place without a hint of ego or judgment – you are in what the ancient Greeks called "kairos." That’s when time stops. Rumi called that same rapture "the secret sky within our hearts."
"The Seventh Direction" is a legend passed on by Native American storytellers. They describe how the Great Spirit quickly established the six directions of north, south, east, west, above, and below. Then the Great Spirit had to decide where to establish the most important direction, the Seventh Direction, containing power and wisdom. The Great Spirit selected a secret place where humans would never think to look – inside their own hearts! This story illustrates the point that wisdom is not something that you need to create from scratch: it’s something already inside you that you need to discover.
Remember to open your heart. Use each golf day to connect your life passion with your golf passion. The sun – born to shine on only this particular day – will die this evening. Every day is special just as it is. Don’t waste it.
Most golfers view trees as bad news. Trees obstruct your line of flight, interfere with your backswing, deflect your shots, and cost you strokes. Broken limbs obscure your ball. Overhanging branches and surface roots snag your clubhead. Tree trunks make you waste shots. Leaves scattered on the fairway hide your ball. And pine needles in the rough really make for a tricky lie.
But trees can actually be your best friends. They can teach you some great golf lessons. Open up to them as you play. When you take your stance, pause momentarily and observe a tree or a stand of trees. Today, many teaching pros stress the importance of swinging flat-footed to keep a firm base. Feel your feet being rooted deeply in the earth. Become a tree. Feel its stillness, solidity, and balance. Transfer the feeling of the tree into your mind and body. The thick trunk and deep roots will anchor you. If you tend to sway or move your feet too much, a tree will teach you to stay put.
In short, use the ground the same way the tree does. Feel the force of the earth entering your feet and passing into your legs, hips, chest, arms, and shoulders. Gather up the power of the earth just as the tree does. "Using the ground" was Bobby Jones’s expression for properly introducing the hips and legs into the shot. Just glance at the trees and remember that your power is not in your upper body. It’s down below your waist.
When you swing, almost every part of your body (with the exception of your pancreas) moves. If all parts of your body moved at the same pace, speed, and direction, the golf swing would be a piece of cake. But in the golf swing, with so many moving parts, your only fixed, stable, constant element is the ground. So remember that trees are on golf courses to help you, not just to beautify the landscape. They remind you to swing flat-footed, maintain your spine angle, and keep dynamically still.
Byron Nelson used the tree metaphor to teach his pupils how to keep their heads from swaying laterally or lifting up. In Shape Your Swing the Modern Way, Nelson wrote, "Now, when a tree sways, what is moving? The top of the tree, not the trunk. The trunk is stationary. In the golf swing you want an action that is exactly opposite. You can move considerably underneath your head. As long as your head stays still, you can keep your balance nicely." To keep your head still, like an upside-down tree, Nelson advised his pupils to keep their legs flexed and loose and moving freely toward the target on the downswing. Imagine Nelson’s image of trees standing upside down to remind yourself how to keep your head still by letting your legs below move freely toward the target.
You can also learn from trees some key emotional lessons, such as patience. Trees take a long time to grow and to spread their roots. They don’t rely on shortcuts. If you expect slow and incremental growth in your golf game, you won’t be frustrated or disappointed. Borrow patience from the trees around you. Expect to grow like a tree, one ring at a time.
Also, note how trees are perfectly matched to their environment. Many trees have been standing since long before you were born. Trees are in balance with the totality of nature: the earth, air, sunlight, rain, and wind. Feel, hear, and see the interconnected web of life. Feel the soft earth beneath your feet and the sun on your skin. Hear the wind through the branches. See the shadows and colors around you. Open yourself, like the branches and leaves of a tree, to the sky above. Integrate yourself to the whole course like a tree.
Trees can teach you how to swap thought for intuition. They don’t intellectualize about their goals. They don’t have to think about the complex biological functions they need to grow. They just take in nourishment, then actuate their potential. A tree is a living, dynamic event just like you. Become aware of the creative energy of life within you. Your energy is already inside you, so let it unfold. Depend on what’s already there.
Trees can be great sports psychologists on the course, teaching you how to relax. Picture, for example, a tree in a raging storm. The small branches and leaves at the top sway violently. At the top the tree looks frail and vulnerable. However, when you consider the trunk and the roots, you realize how still and steady the tree really is.
During the storm, practice breathing in and out…in and out…in and out…in and out. Focus on your breathing. Inhale the stillness and steadiness of the tree. Exhale your tension. Don’t wait for a storm to become the tree or to practice your breathing. Make it a habit. The trees on the course are your meditation teachers.
Trees can also help you let go of your ego. Egos thrive on comparisons! If you’re playing with a much better golfer, you may become intimidated. Or if you’re playing with a much worse golfer, you may become cocky. Obviously, you won’t play well with either an inferiority complex or a superiority complex. Just stop making comparisons and let ego and judgment vanish. Your ego creates fiction based on needless comparisons. Remember: humans make comparisons – trees don’t.
If you compare yourself with every other golfer on the course, you create a needless mental burden. As you observe the trees on the course, remind yourself to be yourself. Some trees are big and some are small. Some golfers are better than you, some worse. Who cares?
To maintain your physical and mental stability, visualize yourself as a stately oak. In fact, choose the biggest oak you can. Get in touch with it. Know that you are stronger and steadier than you suppose. Borrow from those trees their steady and quiet dignity.
You’ve probably never heard of Barbara McClintock. She’s a noted geneticist and one of my intellectual heroes. When she died in 1992, The New York Times printed her obituary on the front page, a space normally reserved for fallen heads-of-state and big-time celebrities. For forty years, McClintock studied corn to figure out how genes move and carry messages.
Her biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, asked McClintock how she did her great science. McClintock humbly replied, "Really, all I can tell you about doing great science is that you somehow have to learn how to lean into the kernel. You have to learn how to think like corn." And so too with you, Dear Golfers. To play great golf, you need to learn how to lean into the trees. Pay some respect to them. They’ve been giving golf lessons for years. The next time you pass a tree felled by a chain saw, strong wind, or lightning bolt on the course, express silently your condolences. One of your golf teachers is gone.