Dear Wrestling, Thank You
I started wrestling in second grade, at which point wrestling became an increasingly valuable part of my life. I am 28 now. Since I was about 17, the longest break I have taken from wrestling- injuries, surgeries and "off-seasons" included- has been about a month. A month away from the mat feels like a month away from home. My story isn't all that unique. Most college wrestlers and coaches will share similar stories. What I want to say to wrestling here is a simple thank you. Wrestling has been consistently one of-if not the-most positive aspects of my life. It has given me fitness, friendships, heart break, triumph, anger, sadness, mentors, mentees and so much more.
More than anything, wrestling has given me the present moment. The present moment is an elusive experience that we, in our busy lives, are capturing less and less. Our western society is beginning to understand just how important presence is to mental health and quality of life. In recent years there has been an explosion of books, classes, seminars and experts, sharing how to live more fully in the present moment and its connection to spiritual growth. Nearly all forms of meditation are practiced with the indirect goal of becoming more present. A meditative practice strengthens our ability to be present-both in the current moment of meditation and, in future present moments.
"Life is available only in the present moment." - Thich Nhat Hanh
Our modern lifestyle makes it difficult for us to stay present, to focus on what is right in front of us rather than what was yesterday or what may be tomorrow. By focusing on yesterday or tomorrow, past or future, we are forgoing the loss of the present moment which, is the only real thing we have. You cannot simultaneously be living fully in the present moment and be pondering the past or the future. The past is gone; it does not exist. The future has not happened yet but when it does, the only way to enjoy it is to be present. If mindfulness is a new concept to you, one way to bring it into your awareness is by simply trying to recognize every time your thoughts are on a past event or dwelling on a possible event in the future. For many of us, this is the majority of our waking time- spent on thoughts of the unreal- past or future.
Though many of us don't realize it, wrestling is a vehicle that draws our attention sharply to the present moment. In this sense, wrestling is spiritual, it connects us to the present moment. It is also meditative since by definition, meditation is what wrestling requires- focus and concentration. The present moment is the only time we can experience who we truly are, our real self, enlightenment, or a higher-power. In his book titled- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this reality by saying- "When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.” One of the keywords in this passage is concentration. It is through intensely focused concentration on the present moment that we lose ourselves.
When we lose ourselves in the present task-the present moment-we free ourselves of the anxious thoughts we so often cling to. We temporarily forget about the pain of yesterday and the anxieties of tomorrow. Those thoughts are detached from our sense of self. Our sense of self becomes less confined to our own body and mind and more about the entire system of our focus- as Csikszentmihalyi says in the passage above, “This is the way the self grows”. Our entire being becomes joyfully focused on the present moment, flowing from one instant to the next, without stopping to judge or analyze what we are experiencing.
In order to throw oneself into a task, we must have a goal. Wrestling offers a goal, a strong purpose, a process to strive for. Dr.Victor E. Frankl, holocaust survivor and one of the most significant psychiatrists and philosophers of his time, explains the importance of finding meaning in his book Man's Search for Meaning - "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task." Through striving for a worthwhile goal, happiness will ensue because pain, anxiety and suffering cannot exist in the present moment. It is striving for a worthwhile goal that allows us to see our suffering- our training, our injuries, and our losses- not as suffering but as part of the beautiful and exciting process that leads towards reaching this worthwhile goal. Dr. Frankl states it so accurately here- “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
It is absolutely amazing what wrestlers can endure: swollen-destroyed ears, stitched eyebrows, thirst, missed meals, hunger, weight loss, sauna suits, multiple daily workouts, early mornings, hours of heart pounding fatigue, blood, sweat, injuries, disappointment and at times, embarrassment. Wrestling gives us a purpose, which teaches us how to transform hardship into something positive-not to merely bear suffering, but to transform it into something beautiful. Though very few people would admit to being envious of this suffering, it has great value.
Most wrestlers will tell you, their time spent in a wrestling room each day is often some of the most enjoyable. This enjoyment is a bi-product of being forced into the present moment. If you slap hands with your partner and start wrestling a live go, without your full attention present, you will quickly be ripped back to the present moment. Just a few seconds of thinking about the previous moment or the future moment can leave a wrestler exposed to an attack or a missed opportunity. Focus on the last exchange that happened and you will find yourself flying through the air-on your way to giving up a takedown. Allow yourself to ruminate on the mistake you made earlier and your lack of presence will snowball into a negative, frustrating practice. Focus on closing out the match instead of accepting each moment as it comes and you will have lost your performance. Stay present however, and you will enjoy access to your instincts, your intuition, your conscious and subconscious mind-working together, simultaneously, to achieve your goal.
Thank you wrestling for giving me time each day- free of the stresses of daily life. For the two hours each day that I am unable to relive the past or anxiously imagine the future. Thank you for teaching me how to transform hardship into opportunity, experience into insight and for giving me the chance to consistently experience the only real thing in life- the present moment. Thank you for giving me an outlet to practice mindfulness, for teaching me how to gain insight and control over the complexities of myself and my unbridled thoughts. Thank you for developing the introspection and the grit that has helped me to enjoy life more completely. Thank you for allowing the lessons I have gained in wrestling to spill over into other aspects of my life because- "Being a mindful athlete involves living this truth for yourself, because there is no separating who you are on the court, field, or yoga mat from who you are in the world at large. That "intrinsic wholeness" serves you wherever you are and in whatever you're doing." - George Mumford, author of The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance