Zen agency

I’ve been thinking about agency a lot lately. A agency is fundamental to being human; the costs of giving up on it are catastrophic. By “agency,” I mean only having the sense of acting on your own behalf.

In Martin E. P. Seligman’s superb book Helplessness, he reports on experiments with animals who are actually helpless and those who believe they are helpless, whether they actually are or not. Even a casual reading of that book will give you a rich sense of how valuable agency is.

And then, today [1] I got a contrary idea. I’d like to tell you about the contrary idea and then I would like to find some way to affirm them both.

zen agencyThe contrary idea came to me from W. Timothy Gallwey’s book, Tennis: the Inner Game. Gallwey’s idea is that to play tennis well, you need to expose your body to the game long enough that it can learn the right responses, to give it enough time to learn them, then you need to get out of the way. Give your mind something to do so it doesn’t get in the way of the kind of tennis your body knows how to play.

One of my favorite stories from Gallwey’s book is about an exercise in the topspin forehand. Gallwey is the instructor, and he aims the tennis ball machine where he wants it and tells the student that he just hit away; that Gallwey doesn’t really care where the ball lands. All he cares about, he tells the student, is the student’s ability to say just where the ball lands so he has the student watch watch where every stroke lands and call it out. Two feet too far, just inside the line, three feet out, and so on.

Gallwey doesn’t really care about the student’s ability to do that. He just wants to give the student’s mind something to do so it doesn’t get in the road of his body’s ability to play tennis. So over the course of this exercise, the amount of topspin the student puts on the ball increases. The student doesn’t know that. The clean address of the ball by the racquet gets more consistent. The student doesn’t know that. By the end, the student is hitting screaming forehands that land consistently six inches or less inside the line—gorgeous forehands! And he doesn’t know it until Gallwey calls his attention to it.

This is one of my favorite tennis stories, but what, exactly does it have to do with agency? If agency is the explicit attempt to realize my intention and if my intention is the problem—it puts me, not my body in charge—then agency is the problem, not the solution. The solution for me as a player is to let go and let my body do what only it can do—play tennis.

That’s what Gallwey says. But he knows it isn’t really true. He knows that if the question is who, you or your body, is going to notice that when your opponent begins to rely too much on slice returns, the answer is that you will. “It” will not. On the question of how best to reply to some particular slice—not sliced returns in general—you body will do a much better job than you will and, in doing so, will rely on information you never become consciously aware of at all.

So there is a kind of interplay between “you” and “it.” And, as in all cases of such interplay, there are three jobs. There are the jobs you do better, the jobs it does better, and the job of deciding whether any particular instance falls into the one category or the other.. Imagine that you are the personnel director in a two-person department and that you are one of the employees. (“It” is the other one.) Your job is to hand out all the assignments and to actually do the assignments that come to you.

And if, as seems likely, you are accustomed to doing all the jobs there are, you will have the additional task of getting out of the way and staying out of the way on the jobs that are assigned to “it.”

It is this interplay of doing and not doing that I am calling “zen agency.”

[Gunning Fog Index: 10.63]

[1] In the middle of a stretching class, actually, I had an idea I was afraid I was going to forget, in the middle of all the deep breathing and stack your vertebrae one on top of the other. I was so afraid I would forget it that I left the class and found a piece of paper and a pen and wrote it down. This is it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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