lichess.org

image credits: John Peters for Unsplash

Why You should meditate and how to do it

Off topicOver the board
The no-nonsense guide. Help your chess and your life.

WHY

Mediation is what we are. Not what we do.
Rupert Spira

Why should we meditate? Very simply: to gain emotional control. Byproducts will be

  • better relaxation (as we can let go of upsetting thoughts easily)
  • better focus (as we can better recognise distractions)
  • better understanding of your own mind (because you actually pause and look at it)

I will not take a specific viewpoint (some people will stress the neuroscience aspect, others the spiritual aspect, etc). I will be very straightforward and particularly tailor things to chess, even though this goes beyond chess or its uses for peak mental performance.

As a chess player, imagine being able to reduce stress and anxiety before your game. If you blunder a pawn, you are getting lost in an uncontrollable spiral of thoughts.
I just lost this pawn. Why did I not see this knight move? I am so stupid
Why did I take time off to play in a chess tournament? This was clearly nonsense.
Why am I even playing chess...

The goal of mediation is to bring space between stimulus and response

Let's take a look at the typical stimulus/response.

  1. Something happens on the board. You win a pawn or lose a pawn.
  2. You immediately start to think. If you've lost a pawn "why did I make such a mistake". If winning "oh great I must be winning now"
  3. The thoughts, feelings and emotions do give rise to further uncontrolled thoughts, even more extreme.
  4. Losing the pawn becomes "why do I play this variation, why am I coming to this tournament, why am I even playing chess at all". Winning the pawn becomes "this will liquidate into a winning endgame, I am going to be on 2.5/3, and I am going to be paired with that strong player tomorrow"
  5. The internal turmoil and distraction prevent from playing the current position properly

Now with increased skill at meditating

  1. Something happens on the board. You win a pawn or lose a pawn.
  2. You immediately start to think. If you've lost a pawn "why did I make such a mistake". If winning "oh great I must be winning now"
  3. you recognise the thought and pause. You can choose to let it go, and accept things as they are.
  4. You actually play the position in front of you.

Fellow coach Scott Donald (@scotteeedeee) has a great graphical representation:

For your daily life, you will be able to also improve your emotional response to any external stimulus. Not just for helping you let go of very strong emotions, but also on a general basis.
Imagine your day is work, gym, chess training, and dinner with friends. It is very possible to think about your workout while at work, your chess while working out, and your friends while chess training. This makes your day not ruined, but clearly subpar. You can be a little bit more present for every single activity.

A monk asked, "What is the practice of mediation?"
Joshu said, "It is not the practice of meditation."
The monk said, "why is it 'not the practice of meditation'?"
Joshu said, "It's alive! It's alive!"

If meditation is just thinking about what you want to think about. That’s already something you do a lot. We’re just going to develop a little bit of extra skill at thinking of what is purposeful and adequate with the present.

HOW

We are going to use a one-two-punch combo. Five minutes of focus meditation and five minutes of insight meditation. The focus meditation is there to quiet down the mind. We will focus on the breath, but not in a forceful way. This isn't the same focus as when you are trying to beat your puzzle rush high score. Just let the sensation of breathing fill your whole awareness. I will direct you to focus on the sensation of breathing at the tip of the nose. This has the added benefit of making you pay attention to a very subtle bodily effect that you unlikely never pay attention to. You can either count the breath (to four and then start from one) or just focus.
If your mind wanders, just bring it back. No judgement, this isn't about success or failure. After the end of these five minutes, stay where you are and we move straight into the insight meditation. You are now prepped - this is the main set. We are going to give the 'thinker' a complete rest. With the inquiry "what is there, when there is no problem to solve?" - consider this inquiry and just rest as awareness itself. Now we will just observe the contents of the mind. This is it. If a thought, sensation, or emotion arises, we take notice, acknowledge it, label it and let it go. Imagine awareness being the wide blue sky and thoughts being clouds that pass. No cloud can change the colour of the sky, in the same way, you are not changed by thoughts and feelings. Strong emotions like anger are like large stormy clouds. They are overpowering and yet all storms pass, just like every flash of anger you ever felt has passed. Just do nothing. Rest the mind as it is. And when something comes up, notice it and let it go.

I recorded the following to help you meditate along for 10 minutes:

10 minutes of guided meditation (SoundCloud)

How to build a practice

You cannot expect to not practice and tackle the storm when it arises. This practice is not a magic bullet that you do once before your tournament. Just like you won’t solve a set of mate-in-2 once and declare that you are done with mate-in-2 forever.

We are developing skills by having to quieten the mind and doing easy labelling and observations of whatever arises.

Building a habit may be difficult. I suggest meditating once daily, in the morning or evening, with the following very simple rule: never miss two days in a row. Ultimately you should be very quickly drawn to the practice as it offers instant reward and relief.

“When you stop thinking, you are no longer imagining things that are not true.”
Papaji

The insight meditation is incredibly powerful. The peace and relief you have by resting as awareness is always with you. Keep that feeling in your back pocket and use it as necessary when you need to go through life.

And don’t miss two days in a row.

I help chess players of all levels with mental performance, from amateurs to 2700+. Follow me here on lichess or on Twitter @BenjiPortheault

Reconnecting