Chatter of the Squirrel – M&M

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I’ve talked a lot over the last couple of weeks about focus. About how I think I’ve been able to keep my mind in the right place, and as a consequence how my results have been improving. But there haven’t been many articles written about how exactly to improve focus, what the causes and consequences are, and what may detract from your ability to maintain that focus in an in-game setting. Today I want to tackle some of those issues.

Alarm rings. Breathe in, breathe out. Okay, Go!

Storm off the sheets and hit the shower. Five minutes, tops, you hear your boys say from the other room. We’re leaving at six, no exceptions, you’d better be out. Shampoo. Soap. Towel. Slap on some toothpaste, deodorant, comb the hair maybe. Back to the bedroom, the dresser. Used jeans, second-day socks, the Pro Tour: New Orleans shirt from when you glimpsed the big time. Deck, check, sleeves, check, dice okay and check. To the car it is.

Not that things end there.

“Shotgun!” you call, trading sleep for the foot space. Chatter about decklists, Jessica Alba, the San Diego Chargers. Man, this seat back’s stiff. Who listens to Three Days Grace? Did I forget my ink pen? No, there it is – Good Lord she was hot in Sin City. Yes sir. Isn’t she pregnant now? Talk dissolves, they fall asleep. The white lines in the road flicker past like bullet trains. Two hundred thirty, two thirty one, two thirty four, you count as the driver drones. “Yeah,” you say, and nod. Dodge cops, big-rigs, check your watch. Eight o’clock already? No time for breakfast, and boys, you’d better hold it.

“Cancel or Faerie Trickery?” when all of the sudden the tournament site. You think. No, last exit – did they change venues? – time for a U-turn. There. On the right. Scramble, hustle, out of the car. Register, count your seventy five, Judge ship it back I forgot snow-covered lands. Thanks, man.

Breathe in, breathe o–nope, time to battle. Players, you have fifty minutes, you may begin.

“For some reason, man, no idea why, I just stone forgot to activate my storage land this one turn. End the game, I’ve got Disintegrate, but I’m just one short. Story of my life.”

Do you ever stop to think how stressful your average PTQ is? Not to mention a Pro Tour, with the jet-lag, taxi rides, packed hotel rooms. I wake up and from the moment I blink my eyes I’m in a daze. You rarely eat, hardly sleep, and are lucky to steal a drink or two of water every couple of hours. And all of this is before we even begin to play Magic – one of the most mentally demanding games on the planet. How do we make it through?

Truth is, most of us don’t.

I don’t mean that everybody gets fed up and quits, or that people litter the tables at your average PTQ passed out from exhaustion. What happens is that we sacrifice something. Oftentimes that something is essential, and before we know it, we’re out for good.

I’ve punted tournaments in more ways than I care to remember. In St. Louis it was a Petalmane Baku counter, and later wasting a Nameless Inversion on a Paperfin Rascal. In New Orleans it was blocking an Aquamoeba and giving my Meddling Mage protection from Green with a Mother of Runes. In Memphis, well, it turns out that you can pay four mana to untap Mana Vault, and you might want to do that when you’re at one life. Whenever things like this happen it’s always difficult to pinpoint the cause. Was I not paying much attention? Do I need to slow down my pace of play? Are things like this to a certain degree unavoidable? All of these factors play a role, but I think I’ve finally started to understand that most of these little kinks can be boiled down to a matter of focus.

I’ve talked a lot over the last couple of weeks about focus. About how I think I’ve been able to keep my mind in the right place, and as a consequence how my results have been improving. But there haven’t been many articles written about how exactly to improve focus, what the causes and consequences are, and what may detract from your ability to maintain that focus in an in-game setting. Today I want to tackle some of those issues.

I’ll say on the front end that I’m not anything close to a psychologist, but I have taken a few classes and so I know a thing or two about the brain. For the purposes of this discussion, the most important thing to realize is that the brain is not designed to operate under continued and prolonged periods of stress and anxiety. It can think when it needs to, it can take a nice long refreshing dive into the tank, but it likes to chill a bit before and afterwards. This is why sleep is so important, and why it’s so jarring when, for example, you wake up late for work and have to spring immediately into action and into “get-stuff-done” mode. Moreover, this type of prolonged stress and anxiety requires resources to deal with effectively. When your body expends energy it needs to get it from somewhere, and most of us hardly keep to model diets when we’re in Magic mode.

When this doesn’t happen, we’ve all experienced the consequences. The brain jumps too early to a heightened mode of activity but it doesn’t quite know what to do. Our thoughts are all over the place. We panic. Sometimes our stomachs rumble, our fingers jitter, and although it’s hard to pinpoint, something just doesn’t feel right.

This isn’t going to be one of those “get sleep, eat well, play Magic” articles. Like last week, I know that doesn’t always happen. Fortunately, I’ve found a couple of techniques that have helped me win matches when your pre-tournament preparation doesn’t pan out according to plan.

The way to improve focus is to keep one’s mind concentrated as much as possible on the present moment. We can’t worry about the past, we can’t speculate about the future. This means we cannot tilt and we can’t tell ourselves “only three more wins and I make the top eight.” But it’s more than that. Our mind has to actively be on now. Sometimes we’re so scatterbrained that we’re not truly thinking about anything at all, and that can be much, much worse for our game. To maintain our focus, to maximize our ability, we must re-align our experience with the now.

Two ways to do this are Meditation and the Meisner method acting technique.

You say the word “meditation” and people cringe. Images of monks in the lotus position come to mind. “Give me a break,” they say. But meditation isn’t incanting “ohm”s, it isn’t entwined with some mystical experience. It is very simply and very fundamentally the ability to actively participate in your five senses.

At Worlds, Steve Sadin was gracious enough to allow me to stay with him at Sarah Lawrence. This was one of the best experiences I’ve had this year, but it also meant an hour-long commute to and from the Javits Center. This put us asleep at about two and up at about six, which is fine the first day but utter and absolute hell on the second. We woke up in a daze, and actually had a conversation about how it’d be a miracle if we wound up doing well. I couldn’t remember things as simple as the names of Lorwyn commons, and almost left my Legacy deck sitting on a sink in the dorm bathroom. If I was going to salvage this tournament, I reflected, I’d have to do something drastic.

On the train ride there I closed my eyes and leaned back. Steve asked if I was going to sleep, and I truthfully replied, “no.” Instead, intermittently interspersed with conversation, I meditated. Thirty minutes later I felt like a million bucks, an athlete on a full belly and eight hours sleep, and Steve remarked that I actually looked like a completely different person.

Fortunately, it’s not hard.

When you meditate, the object is, as mentioned earlier, to actively experience each and every individual moment. You don’t think about what’s going to happen, you don’t reflect on what’s already taken place. You simply try to take in and acknowledge what’s going on around you. My favorite – and the simplest – way to do this is a basic breathing meditation.

Say you’re doing one for a Magic tournament. Give yourself five or ten minutes. You can do it on the car ride there, or you can stand outside the tournament site away from the smokers and listen to the chatter outside. You can sit at a table in the back. The particulars aren’t important. What is important is that you’re not immediately required to be doing something.

I’ll walk you through it from step one. Bear in mind: some of this sounds absolutely idiotic. Trust me on this one. It feels unreal.

Get in a comfortable position. This can be sitting down, leaning against a wall, or even lying down if you’ve got that kind of luxury. The important thing is that you’re at least reasonably comfortable. Begin to take a deep breath, inhale the air around you, and focus on a particular part of how you’re breathing. Feel the air as it hits the back of your throat, feel your lungs rise as they fill, feel the pressure on your chest as you feel the need to exhale. Then, slowly, let the air out. Feel your chest deflate, the air moving past your lips, the way the entire experience of release feels. You don’t have to breathe deeply, slowly, rapidly, or whatever – all that matters is that you’re breathing and focusing on the experience itself.

After a few seconds, your mind will begin to wander. It’s okay. Gently allow your mind to acknowledge whatever it is you’re thinking about, and just notice it. Don’t rip your thoughts back, unnaturally, to your breathing. Just focus on what is happening at any given moment. Continue to breathe, continue to concentrate on that process. Notice that you’re sitting, standing, lying down in a comfortable position. Begin to think about how that feels. Notice the pressure of your weight against the back of a chair, the support of the solid wall against your shoulder, or the softness of the fabric on the car seat. Continue breathing. People may be talking ten feet away about one of ten million things; that’s okay, too. Notice the sound of their voices. Acknowledge what was distracting, and realize that the sound itself is not a distraction. It becomes just another thing, a sound among many – the static of the radio, the wind rustling through the trees, car horns blaring on the highway outside. And breathe.

For me, at Worlds, it was the motion of the train, the bumps and jostles as it chortled along, the stops at random intervals. The chatter of passengers, the brisk cold whenever the doors opened. The feeling of my thumbs against my upper eyebrows. And yes, my mind would jump to Legacy matchups, or to my exam in two days, or to whether or not I left my cell phone back at Steve’s place. But I wouldn’t worry about those things. I’d acknowledge I was thinking about them, notice that, be okay with it, and focus yet again on the rhythm of my breathing and the timing of the train.

Before I knew it, we were at Grand Central Station and I was ready to go.

The reason this works is that in a sense you’re “rebooting” your mind. It’s not possible to be scatterbrained when your focus rests simply on what you’re experiencing at the present moment. You can’t worry when it becomes okay – it becomes your goal – to simply concentrate on what’s happening to your physical body. To transform tactile inputs, audible sounds, all the rest, not into cognitive variables for you to process but into simple physical sensations. You become aware of where you are, focused on what is, and all the more ready to do what you came to the tournament to do.

The other method, which is more complicated but is easier to explain on paper, is the Meisner acting technique.

Few of you know this, but your friendly neighborhood Chatter is a stage and screen junkie. I’m reasonably experienced and reasonably well-trained, but one local filmmaker named Morgan Jon Fox loves to shoot in an extremely unique manner. It’s difficult to adjust to unless you’re used to it. Basically, he gives actors an over-arching scene description and films them until they improv the scene to completion. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but one thing that always happens is that the barrier between the character and the actor begins to break down. That’s what he’s looking for.

The Meisner method is one of the means we’d use in practice to adjust. Basically, it was originally designed to help actors experience their emotions in the moment and express them rather than “showing” what a particular emotion is “supposed” to feel like. Gradually, instructors began applying the method not just to the other arts, but to entirely disparate fields as well. It’s a fantastic way to force yourself to focus.

It’s designed to work best with a partner, but in the Magic setting I’ve found that it really operates optimally if you can find a place to do it by yourself.

Basically, you start out simply by noticing something. Usually this is physical, but it doesn’t have to be. “I see a chair.” “I hear Cedric Phillips voice.” “I feel my belly growling.” Notice that you don’t make an objective statement, like, “it’s hot in here,” or a statement about experience divorced from the self, like “my feet are sweating,” though that technically could be okay. The important thing is to capture an experience that you perceive.

Ordinarily, at this point your “partner” would repeat you, saying aloud, “You see a chair,” “You hear Cedric Phillips voice,” “you feel your belly growling,” and then produce an assertion themselves about what they notice. This could be inspired by what you say but doesn’t have to be; indeed, the point is that eventually you’ll be rapid-firing this so much that every single statement will inevitably have to consider the last one as the sum total of the statements become more and more a part of your immediate experience. So, “You see a chair, I feel a breeze coming in off the doorway.”

You repeat like this as needed, replacing the other person with your own dialogue. “I see a chair. You see a chair, I feel a breeze coming in off the doorway. You feel a breeze coming in off the doorway, I am looking for a place to buy a Coca-Cola.” You’re talking to yourself, sure. Might be awkward, but it gets the job done.

Eventually, you can start reacting to what’s being said. “I smell hot dogs simmering in a vat of grease. You smell hot dogs simmering in a vat of grease. I don’t like that.” At that point you continue as you had earlier: either, “You don’t like that? I like that.” or “You don’t like that, I am walking slowly.”

As the exercise progresses you’ll realize that at some point you’re feeling certain sensations in response to the statements being made. “I’m anxious about whether or not I’ll win the first round.” As long as you’ve said something that you’re actually feeling in the moment, that’s perfectly okay. You continue on as normal, and if you want to react to one of those statements spontaneously and in the moment, you can do that. “You are anxious about whether or not you’ll win the first round. That makes me uncomfortable. That makes you uncomfortable? I don’t like that. You don’t like that? I appreciate that. You appreciate that? I’m thirsty” and so on.

The idea is that a dialogue allows you to distance yourself somewhat from the content of what’s being said – independent of your own anxieties, judgments, reactions, etc. – to simply confront how it is you’re actually feeling, to become in tune with that, and to react on a real-time basis. You start Meisner-ing until right before a round, you’re going to sit down unburdened by anything else other than what is taking place in the moment.

Both of these things sound a little weird, and maybe a little awkward. “Why should it be so hard to focus, and why is it necessary to do all of these unnatural things just to think clearly?” you might ask. But take a second and reflect on the number of times in your entire life that you’ve been fully and entirely aware about what is going on around you. Right now, for example, I’m clicking away at keys trying to think of my next sentence. It’s only when I stop to think about it do I realize that I’m making sounds as I type, I’m anxious about running late for a meeting, my feet are slightly cold, and the lamp behind me is flickering ever so slightly. That’s the tip of the iceberg.

We tell ourselves that we want to succeed in Magic, and that any time we spend thinking about something other than the match at hand is time we spend begging to lose our focus and punt. If you’re serious about overcoming these flaws in your mental game, you’ve got to be serious about employing techniques to change.