Toughness as an Act of Imagination
"When watching for that distant clock to strike, our mind is so filled with its image that at every moment we think we hear the longed-for or dreaded sound. So of an awaited footstep. Every stir in the woods is for the hunter his game; for the fugitive his pursuers. Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol. The image in the mind is the attention; the preperception ... is half the perception of the looked-for thing."
--William James, Principles of Psychology
When we talk about being mentally tough in running and racing, it is often unclear exactly what we mean. Most commonly we seem to imagine the tough individual as the one who can endure the most pain. Ascetic philosophers and religious figures through history have seen the encounter with pain as purifying in a certain way. Pain allows us to test the strength of our will by providing an obstacle to it, allowing us to distinguish the actions we choose from what has become ingrained habit. Through this test we learn to what extent we are in control of ourselves, and perhaps these lessons can be extended to other areas of life. This ascetic picture tends to draw a tidy relation between the quantity of pain that one endures and the quantity of willpower that one possesses. The more pain that one can endure, the stronger the will, the tougher the competitor.
|Makau on his way to the WR.|
While the runner must monitor his effort closely and be very attuned to sensation and impending or present pain in the early stages of the race, James helps us understand how attention to pain can be detrimental in the later stages of the race. If, as he writes, "the preperception is half the perception of the looked-for thing," then the runner has to be wary of projecting onto his experience more pain than is actually felt. As pain rises up in the latter part of the race, attending to the pain actually magnifies its quantity, adding to the "actual pain" the image of pain in the mind's eye. The psychology behind this is exactly the same as the psychology of "ripping off a band-aid;" we rip it off quickly before the mind has a chance to pay much attention to the site of pain. Pain that we haven't prepared the mind to perceive is, actually, less pain.
Thinking about the role of attention and preperception in pain allows us to understand more clearly the role that attention plays in toughness. Being mentally tough is less about confronting pain and more about controlling the attention. The toughest racers are those who allow their attention to be "consumed by the race," as a friend recently described it. Being tough, paradoxically, doesn't mean confronting the largest amount of pain. What it demands is literally not feeling the pain at all--keeping the attention absorbed in other things, like controlling the body, competing with rivals, maintaining the rhythms of the running motion. When we achieve a race like this, we usually call it a breakthrough. What has been "broken through" is an old preperception, an old habit of attending to an image of the self or of pain that was supposed to come but didn't.
The attention is the greatest tool of the human mind because it allows us to select from the world the stimuli to which we would like to respond. Intelligence, it seems to me, is a matter of selection; more about tuning things out than opening the mind. The great geniuses of history created a world that made some sense through acts of attention--selecting a single problem so that progress could be made, setting up the world as intelligible when apprehended along very particular lines. Great thinkers help us frame our vision--by telling us what to see or how to see, they also tell us what not to see.
|Tunnel vision is at the core of human intelligence.|
Perhaps it is counter-intuitive, but it seems to me that mental toughness is more about imagination than brute willpower. The toughest thing in life is breaking out of old habits of attention. This breaking out requires the imaginative invention of a better self--and the willingness to trust that preperception once imagined.