In April I had the pleasure of visiting Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It boasts huge, authentic historical exhibits, including a German U-boat, a massive train which is famous for some reason, real WorldWar II planes suspended from the ceiling, and hundreds of other crazy cool exhibits. MSI is renowned for exhibits from the past and the future. There’s a machine that simulates a tornado. You can tour a coal mine and you can watch baby chicks hatch awkwardly from their eggs.
But what I found to be one of the cooler attractions is a Jedi Mindtrick device table called Mindball (located in the You! The Experience) where two people face off in a silent battle of the wills, trying to determine who is the most relaxed. Both participants wear headbands that monitor blood rate or brain waves or both. The calmer of the two will “push” the ball in middle to the other guy.
I was eager to try it out against Mendel B-. The dynamics of the game intrigued me: The goal of the game is to be relaxed, which in a certain sense, means removing the ideas of winning and losing from your mind. In other words, the less you focus on the winning, losing, and the fact that you’re even playing a game, the bigger chance you have. And the more pressure you feel to win, or not to lose, the less likely you are to win. It sounded like a challenge, and considering how I’ve dabbled in meditation before, I couldn’t wait to employ my relaxation techniques.
We watched three matches before ours. A chilled out boy challenged his mother. He was so calm looking; she looked haggard. But though he put up a good fight – or lack thereof – the chart monitoring his activity showed sporadic behavior, as he was easily distracted by nearby exhibits. I promised myself to do no such thing. His mom persevered and won. Mostly because she just kept her head down and took a nap. But hey, it worked.
Finally it was our turn. Mendel sat down first, and my heart started pumping in anticipation as I made my way over to my chair. I realized my increased heart pumping was not a good thing, and I tried to slow it down, to no avail.
I sat down across from Mendel and awkwardly strapped on the headband, with its cord upside-down, but I didn’t fix it. I suddenly noticed the crowd; I could feel everybody’s eyes on me. I tried to close my eyes, and just then the black attendant told me to push the button to start the game… ‘as soon as I was ready’. My heart was pounding ferociously, like a tribal war drum. I took a few shaky breaths, then I hit the button and closed my eyes. “Calm,” I commanded myself. “Calm!”
Three seconds later it was all over. The attendant was saying, “You flat-lined! Look at that!” My heart rate was off the charts. I guess that meant flat-line. “Whatever you’re thinking about, you gotta let that go!”
I yanked the headband off my head, forced a smile, and stood up. I was relieved it was over. But I was also overcome with a strange feeling: shame.
What had happened? Why had I gotten nervous? Was I not able to relax on demand? What did this failure mean?!
For the remaining 30 minutes in MSI, I was no fun at all. I ignored the swirling tornado machine, trying to think back to the moment when my heart rate picked up. Why had that happened? Was it because I saw so many people waiting in line? No, that was later…
Was it the normal nerves of performing, of anticipating the challenge? But I had just watched 3 sets of people before me, mostly kids, who didn’t seem to have off-the-chart readings! Was that normal childhood innocence, or are kids watching too much TV?
But it dawned on me: The reason why I couldn’t be calm is because I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to be calm. I expected myself to, but I doubted it too. And that fear precipitated the very failure I was dreading.
It was beautiful, I realized. The mechanics of the game were ingeniously simple, and in overthinking it – even subconsciously – I ruined my chances.
The mom who had put her head down had had the right idea. She refused to view the game as a battle of wills with a winner and loser, and so it disappeared. She lifted her head in victory.
Almost always, the worries we have in life are aggravated by the attention we give them. Yes, they are valid issues, but picking at the scabs only exacerbates them.
The way to deal with most issues is to do something. Focus on the positive activity, and forget the endgame, at least for now. There’s a time for planning, and for reflection. But if you concentrate on the future significance of every action, you can become paralyzed by the potentially bad results. All that negative energy fuels future bad choices, and more fear of failure.
“Calm,” I had commanded myself. But louder than that voice was the fear of messing up. And so I did. What can I say? I’m no Jedi.