The transformational power of poise.
Since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated with the concept of poise—the paradox of relaxation under great duress. How does one learn to relax when every instinct in your body tells you to tighten up? Does relaxation in this case really mean relaxation? Or is it some altered state where your body is loose, but your mind is in a heightened state of awareness?
A friend of mine was one of the first victims to come forward and talk to the Globe about being abused by a Catholic priest here in Boston. I met him in a church basement, ironically, where he helped me enormously as I tried to sort out my then-decimated life. He described his own journey as one where he started as a fist, balled up with a great amount of anxiety and tension, that slowly eased and opened to a position of rest. His ability to live with that grace and poise is apparent in my interview with him, “Bringing Down the House”.
Zen masters explore this concept. Golfers understand what I am talking about. There was an influential book, Inner Skiing by Gallwey and Kriegel, that addressed it in the context plunging down death-defying mountains. I once spent a couple days trying, in vain, to learn how to drive a race car on a track somewhere in Georgia. Listening to the professional drivers, with their thick southern drawl, talk about how to take a turn at over 100 miles per hour was not far from reading a book on zen meditation. “Stay gentle with your hands and don’t forget to breathe,” they told me.
But I have experienced this paradox, most profoundly, while rowing boats, riding horses, and because of the muscle memory I created during those two experiences, in doing deals.
New London, Connecticut. April. 1986. The water rushes by a mere six inches below me. I do not notice. I have spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours in this position. I am the “seven man” in an eight-man racing shell, meaning I have only the “stroke” in front of me. I mirror his every motion. I pick a spot in the middle of his back and concentrate on it. Our arms, backs, and legs coil up in preparation for the entry of the oar into the water. As we catch at full compression, there is a “plop” when all eight blades hit the water simultaneously. The boat surges forward. I can hear the bubbles run along the keel as I drive my legs down, pry open my back, and finally finish the stroke by drawing the handle to my body with my biceps. My outside hand taps down on the oar, removing it from the water, while at the same time my inside hand twists the blade parallel to the surface of the water. My leg and abdominal muscles remain taut, while the recovery of the stroke begins again. The boat gradually slows until we hit the next catch, when it once again surges and I again hear bubbles.
The boat is rowing well. It is rock steady. The power is on and then it is off. On then off. On then off. The key is to relax on the recovery, to collect and fully prepare for the next stroke by getting in the appropriate position. This we are doing. The pattern is almost unconscious. I can simply feel it. I become one with my oar. I am my oar. I become one with the other seven oarsmen. Our minds become a single entity. We are part of a machine ready to compete.
The coxswain, Karen, calls for all to “way enough.” We take one final stroke and then stop, oars an arm’s length from our bodies. The boat runs out in a glide, our bodies perfectly still, all eight blades off the water, balancing without effort. Finally, Karen calls “blades down” and all eight blades hit the water at the same time. Each of us moves to take off his warm-ups. From a patchwork of favorite hats, sweats, and stinky shirts emerges our common racing attire, a white shirt with Wesleyan red-and-black trim. All the now extraneous clothing is passed up, man to man, until it reaches Karen, who puts it under and behind her seat. She calls, “Count down when ready!” The words “bow, one, two, three, four, five, six” are heard. I add my “seven,” and finally David completes the count with “stroke.” Now we are ready.
We have been preparing for this event since September. The fall in collegiate rowing is a warm-up season consisting of longer “Head” races that are timed but don’t mean much. Our new coach had spent the fall starting from scratch, trying to get the most basic principles of the sport into our brains. It feels natural to come up the slide on the recovery of the stroke, he had told us, with your shoulders in your eardrums. It is a power move, and your body wants to tense up in preparation. The problem with that style is that it is like approaching a 250-pound barbell, bending over it, and trying to lift with only your arms. It can’t be done. You have to use your legs to drive the barbell upward, gaining momentum. That fall, when I would revert to rowing with tense shoulders in practice, Will yelled in his megaphone:
“MATLACK! Would you please make my day and report to the catch. You are late. Get your head out of your ass and relax on the drive. This is a finesse move. We aren’t trying to kill it. Get the damn blade in the water.”
I had patiently improved my technique over the course of Will’s instruction. But I was still more comfortable in the middle, fat part of the boat called the “engine room,” where strength is more important than rowing pretty.
The starter calls us to the line. We paddle up. He begins the process of getting the boats aligned for the start. I take a deep breath, in and out. Finally, he tells us that we are even. The coxswains must now get their points, meaning they must get their boat pointed directly down the course. Karen sits with her hand in the air to indicate we are not ready. “Give me two strokes bow,” she says. “Good.” I take a really deep breath, way in and all the way out. Fire and ice. “This is it, gents, sit tall,” Karen growls. The starter bellows, “I see two hands? I see one hand? I see no hands? READY ALL, ROW!”
—Photo via The Race
Florence, Italy. October. 1999. I traveled to Italy with four friends. Each of us had suffered a loss that drove us to search for a personal renaissance. Tuscany seemed as appropriate a place as any.
We soaked up the local culture. I learned the history of Santa Maria Del Fiore Duomo, designed by Brunelleschi and built over generations with pure faith that its unprecedented scale would remain structurally sound—a daring belief at a time when the Black Plague had wiped out the city’s population and the ruler of Milan threatened the Florentine Republic. I stood on the floor of the church. I looked up in awe because I couldn’t imagine that much faith.
We stayed in the countryside among the olive trees. From my bedroom window, I often watched an elderly man patiently harvesting the olives, a single tree at a time. He moved with great precision as he raked the olives onto cheesecloth. He never seemed to be in a hurry as he went about his task.
One afternoon, I sat at a picnic table with my friends on the grounds of our little inn. I heard a horse snort and stomp its feet on the hillside across the valley. I turned to look at the animal, examining the color of its coat and the grace of its movements in the afternoon sun.
For the first time in years, I recalled riding horses as a boy. My instructor, a young woman, four years my senior, had told me that horses are the most intuitive beings on the planet, perfectly mirroring the mood of their human handlers. Although she feigned indifference as I backed my horse into a briar patch the first time we saddled up—and then made me clean out the stalls—her eyes always let me know that something about my gangly awkwardness stirred her wild streak.
As I continued to watch the Italian horse shake its mane, I remembered the day the handler and I rode bareback at a gallop through the woods near the horse farm her father owned. Afterward, I looked at my teacher with the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who’d has seen the perfection of a 16-year-old girl and doesn’t need to take another breath.
The vision of perfection was shattered a couple weeks later when she told me she had to leave, that she was pregnant and planned to marry the father—a mean-looking guy with a beard—and move to Maine. I could still see her fake smile, trying to make something all right that really wasn’t, even for her, and feel the shattered expression on my face that, as much as I tried, I couldn’t hide.
Back at our villa near Florence, I drifted back to our circle and listened carefully. One of my friends wept gently as he whispered the story of his wife succumbing to cancer. He’d held her hand as she slipped away, their five children surrounding her bed.
I looked back at the horse. It had moved to the other side of its corral and was now munching on grass. I held the sight in my eyes for a moment.
Another friend told the story of seeing his son on the evening news after the boy had carjacked a woman, actually removing her from the driver’s seat. In a drug-induced blackout, the son had left the car in the middle of the road and walked home. He only escaped serious jail time because a judge sent him to treatment instead.
I noticed that the old man in the grove below us was now up in the tree, picking his olives. He was quietly going about his business, something I imagined his father, and his grandfather before him, had done. His movements were intentional and beautiful in their simplicity.
The friend next to me described discovering his teenage daughter having an affair with his best friend. He’d been at a cookout when he finally put the pieces together and then suffered for months afterward as this man stalked his daughter.
The distant pop of gunfire in the woods nearby—locals hunting for birds or perhaps wild boar—startled me. It was my turn.
I told my story of adult love, loss, kids, and divorce. When I was finished, I looked up the hill. The horse lifted its head, mid-bite, and looked my way. It was the first time there was no darkness in my heart, only Tuscan sunshine and thoughts of riding bareback through the woods at a gallop, chasing a schoolboy crush.
My friends and I played bocce that evening in the olive grove. We swore at one another like brothers, smacking balls and talking trash until the sun went down. And somewhere deep in my soul, I knew, from that day forward, that I would end up with a woman—a woman whose Italian roots would bring me full circle back to that day. Her name was Elena.
Elena, the three kids, and I are just back from our fifth trip to a dude ranch. We did a lot of loping this time. Moving as one with my horse Mags, while huge mountains move along in the Montana background, I found myself looking at my hands, seeing if they were holding the reins for dear life. Or if they were holding loosely, comfortably, allowing my horse to move out at her natural gait.
In a rowing boat your back is turned. You literally cannot see where you are going. In a race, if you fall behind, you have no idea how far ahead your opponent might be. Every fiber of your body wants to tense up, white-knuckle the oar, and force something that isn’t there. The only way to have any chance is to stay relaxed. To keep doing what you are doing. To have faith. To be poised.
I have seen the power of all that in a conference room with billions of dollars at stake. Grown men reduced to anxiety-ridden rag dolls. It’s not that I have any more courage or balls than anyone else. I just know how to keep my hands loose. When the pressure goes up, my focus becomes more acute, more relaxed. I actually feel myself get a little giddy. I’m not proud of such arrogance. But I know I have this secret weapon, this training in the sport of life when my heart was broken. I know the paradox of staying with it, of keeping my shoulders out of my eardrums, matters a heck of a lot more than some deal.
—Main photo Flickr/Noel Feans