Unthinking Performance

Unthinking Performance

Dennis Bradford

389 Posts



Unthinking performance is masterful performance that is free of thoughts.  It’s liberated from attachment to the egoic self.

This is just another way of talking about the topic of my last post on character possession, namely, that creative acts come from thoughtless awareness of  Being.

In a short article in this week’s The Economist, Ian Leslie argues in favor of unthinking performance by drawing on academic research as well as on examples from sports and music.

Reaching genuinely masterful performance has two stages, namely, years of learning followed by letting go of egoic thinking when it most counts.

Leslie cites a semi-final match at last year’s U.S. Open between tennis masters Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. On a critical match point, Federer seemed to exhibit “mental frailty” while Djokovic returned a Federer serve with “nonchalance” and “such lethal precision that Federer couldn’t get near it.” Djokovic said later that he tends to do that on important points because letting go “kinda works.”

This is the kind of story that will be familiar to you if you have read The Inner Game of Tennis:  The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.

What, though, about verbal performances such as writing? Can unthinking performance work as well in that area?


When the middle-aged Bob Dylan was interviewed by 60 Minutes, he talked, as Leslie put it, “wistfully” about “his youthful ability to write songs without even trying.” His song “Like a Rolling Stone” is recognized as one of the greatest songs ever written. Dylan said it gushed out of him like a “piece of vomit.”

Thinking can be good.  Thinking can be bad.

Even Zen masters, whose lives tend to move from one unthinking performance to the next, are not in favor of giving up thinking. Of course fresh thinking can be extremely valuable! Some problems cannot be solved without it. There’s no issue about that.

It’s the other 90% of thinking that is bad for us. It obstructs creativity, whereas being in a nonegocentric trance enhances creativity. Creativity is spontaneous, light, exhilarating, liberating.

90% of our thoughts are repetitious, needless chatter. We drag these thoughts with us into each new experience thus deadening the experience. They are heavy; they weight down on us. These thoughts are incessant background noise that diminishes what would otherwise be joyous experiences.

This wisdom has been available for centuries. Sengcan, who wrote the oldest extant zen document, writes that, if you “live in bondage to your thoughts,” it’ll be a “heavy burden [that] weighs you down.” [Rochester Zen Center translation.]

When was the last time you picked up a glass of water and took a drink thoughtlessly yet with alert awareness of your action? You probably cannot remember. A simple act like that can be beautiful.

Now, though, it is so familiar that you do it routinely without paying attention to it because you are busy “thoughting” (to use Roshi Philip Kapleau’s word) about something else.

If you can’t take a drink of water well, joyfully, lightly, how can you expect to wash yourself well? Or dress yourself well? Or do your work well? Or sustain a friendship well?

What incessant, needless thoughting does is rob attention from whatever you are doing in the present moment, even if that’s only breathing.

Thoughting separates and, so, creates dissatisfaction. It divides attention. It blocks unthinking performance.

There are all kinds of practices that are available to diminish it. All the best are very simple. However, they are also very difficult. They demand relentless practice of the right kind.

The point is to return the serve or compose the song or drink the water egolessly, thoughtlessly, yet with focused awareness.

The catch is that Djokovic spent years practicing tennis, Dylan spent years practicing song writing, and, although you don’t remember it, you spent a long time practicing the coordination necessary to pick up a glass of water and drink it.  No practicing, no mastery.

All spiritual practices are designed to grind down egocentricity. Mastering one is not easy.

The ideal of the sage is the ideal of making every act an act of unthinking performance.

As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this, please pass it along.

Related post:   Character possession.

Related resource: Ian ALeslie, “NONCOGITO, ERGO SUM,” The Economist, 12-18 May 2012.

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