Of hockey games and memory loss: Seeing with beginner’s eyes
How my first ever hockey game jarred me into a moment of clarity about the beauty of seeing things fresh…and how my cousin’s experience with memory loss forces him to see the world with “beginner’s eyes” every day.
New fan in the making
Weaving my way cautiously through the aisle, beer in hand, my eyes dart between two seating sections, struggling to find row “CC.” Behind me, the hockey game roars on and my ears perk up at the unmistakable snaps of skates, pucks, and sticks smashing against the ice. I squint my eyes toward the seats in the back, still not seeing my designated place. Two rows in front of me, an older man turns and gestures my way.
“Where are you trying to go?” he yells over the sounds of the game.
“Oh, I’m not quite sure. My ticket says row CC but I just see A-Z up there. I’m probably in the wrong section,” I reply, a bit flustered, showing him the ticket on my phone.
He takes a look, frowns to himself a little, then turns to face the rink and points. “That’s you. Down in front.”
I follow his gaze and see one open seat in the very first row, inches from the plastic safety guard, just at the curved point of the rink, clearly within “shot range” of the goal. Thirty seconds later, I’m perched awkwardly at the edge of my rink-level seat, trying to avoid making direct eye contact with the fans around me, as I’m certain they are already questioning my loyalty in joining the game 30 minutes late.
Almost immediately I hear the loud CRACK of the puck smashing into the wall right in front of us, and my entire body jolts rigid in response. I lash upwards reflexively, then burrow myself into the seat tighter for safety. Next thing I know…SMASH! The plastic wall in front of me shakes, and I hear scratching and scraping and muffled sounds of the fight to reclaim the puck. The players are using the wall, the thing 10 inches from my face, as a buffer for their play. With each subsequent thud, I grimace while watching the plastic shield quiver all the way from top to bottom. My entire body is on high alert.
I laugh nervously, looking for some nearby sympathy to appease my obvious discomfort. Finding none among the boisterous Canadian fan base, I settle for a Tweet instead. Current status: PANICKED.
Within seconds, I get a notification: “The @TorontoMarlies liked your Tweet.” Touché.
Needless to say, it’s not quite what I was expecting from my first ever hockey game.
— — — -
Do you remember your first sporting event? What about the first time you saw a giraffe? Can you remember what it was like to ride the subway for the first time? Or to have the experience of asking someone on a date? Of using a smartphone? Of eating pizza?
For many of us, these are mundane moments that blend into the tedium of our typical day-to-day. Chances are, we probably give little conscious thought to identifying the individual flavor profile of a slice of greasy cheese pizza. We just eat it. (Likely in under 3 minutes.)
The older we get, the easier it is to slip into comfortable and familiar situations. We go to parties where we know most of the people attending. We eat at restaurants that we know we like and order the dish that we always prefer. These first impressions — positive or negative — imprint on our brains for years to come.
Yes, first impressions and “imprint experiences” teach us important things like, “Don’t touch the stove” or “I think I’m lactose intolerant.” But what if we could remove our biases and preconceptions?
In Zen Buddhism, the term shoshin refers to this core idea of looking at the world with a mind free from preconceptions or expectations. In a recent post on the topic, James Clear explains this particularly well, asking this provocative question:
“Who is to say that the way you originally learned something is the best way? What if you simply learned one way of doing things, not the way of doing things?”
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve probably heard something like this from your instructor: “Forget what a “downward dog” pose felt like yesterday or what you think it ought to feel like — instead, appreciate the motion and the movement of this pose right now, today, as a brand new experience.”
With a shoshin mindset, you could approach each yoga class a brand new experience and observe different and new sensations in your body.
There are many advantages to this “beginner’s mind” approach, least of all being that you can approach problem solving and critically thinking from new perspectives.That’s why the leadership team at Pixar built it into their creative process. Ed Catamull describes in Creativity, Inc. how they promote design thinking in this way by encouraging people not to draw the chair, but the “un-chair,” the negative space around the chair.
“Drawing the ‘un-chair’ can be a sort of metaphor for increasing perceptivity. Just as looking at what is not the chair helps bring it into relief, pulling focus away from a particular problem (and instead, looking at the environment around it) can lead to better solutions.”
Essentially, shoshin is a mental hack to look at things a bit more clearly.
As a society, we sensationalize this idea of the “new” and the “novel.” We admire thrill-seekers, incentivize “out-of-the-box thinking,” and even structure company policies based around ways to reinvent and refocus in order to approach each moment with a fresh viewpoint.
However, even these moments are additive, compounding on memories, moments, and experiences that are already stored somewhere deep inside. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to experience any true new novelty. The only way this truly becomes possible is an event almost certainly against your will.
Like what happened to my cousin, Sam.
Eight months ago, Sam was hit by a truck while biking off the coast of Northern California. After spending weeks in a coma from which some people were unsure he would ever emerge, followed by many months of intense physical therapy, Sam is finally starting to recover the physical strength and mental clarity to rebuild his life.
But it’s a life he has no memory of. Not the accident, not the early recovery. He has complete shoshin.
As an attempt to understand and process the world around him, he has taken to chronicling his journey and what he learns new each day. Here’s what he wrote about the accident itself:
“I heard I was pushed into a ditch by a truck. I have scrapes on my knees and a few on my neck. I heard I had tubes all over my body from my parents. I even remember they said the doctors were unsure if I was going to be paralyzed. I have a bachelors in mathematics with some graduate school. Will I ever finish or attempt it again who knows.”
Sam doesn’t remember the cross-country biking trip he took across the United States or the dozens of people he met couch-surfing along the way. Nor does he remember the time he spent teaching abroad in Korea. He barely remembers his own Facebook friends and family, let alone meeting my husband or attending our wedding last year.
For Sam, every day is new. Every food he tastes is fresh, and most people he meets — friends and family alike — are strangers.
Sam has “beginner’s eyes” about nearly everything in the world around him.
In addition to taking on highly ambitious goals (like getting back on the bike, writing a book, and taking more classes to finish his graduate degree), Sam spends his days piecing together moments, stories, and vignettes from friends and family, striving to learn more about the person he had been and still wants to become.
Facebook’s “timehop” has become a sort of ritual in his day-to-day, an opportunity for him to rediscover forgotten moments, photos, or friends. He reads the words that he himself wrote years ago and has no recognition of the context but clings to them as his only way of trying to reclaim and rediscover his true self. Then he shares with us daily updates on his progress and observations he is making about himself, his mind, and the world around him.
In effect, Sam is actualizing the possibility of learning a new way of doing something the second time around. What will his hobbies be? How will he cultivate relationships with friends and family? What are his dreams? Does he still enjoy biking? Will he prefer pizza over spicy foods? Would he rather live in Brazil than Korea?
Talk about inspiring. Talk about decision paralysis.
In theory, this “open field view” is what we aspire toward. But in practice, reinventing everything seems like the hardest thing in the world. After all, there is a reason that our brains store memories. It’s a way for us to process information in faster and more efficient ways the older we become so we don’t have to expend as much effort on day-to-day tasks. The more we experience while we are young and our minds are still growing and maturing, the easier it is to take in the new.
I can’t imagine waking up today and not remembering what the ocean looks like. I think I would be downright terrified. But then again, how would I know what I lost?
Living a life that is 100% through fresh eyes like my cousin Sam seems to be just about the scariest thing in the world.
The most beautiful part is that, through this all, through all that has happened and the new lens he has on the world — he is taking in these new experiences as with a sense of joy, of beauty, and of wonder. Talk about brave.
And he’s still decided that he wants to get back into biking — the activity that nearly killed him.
The law of diminishing firsts
The game lasted through triple overtime by the time the Toronto Marlies finally defeated Albany to advance their position in the playoff series. Needless to say, after 6 periods of play, I no longer flinched at every errant sound, save for one moment when I whacked my own face in an attempt to protect myself from an airborne puck that was coming in hot, just at eye level. But it could have been a lot worse. The guy several rows behind me took a puck to the lip and was escorted out, face oozing blood.
All and all, I like to I think I did pretty well. On the way out of the arena, I realized that this would be my last time experiencing a hockey game for the first time.
I thought back to my cousin, Sam, and his first re-experience eating Indian food that I had shared with him the previous month in Oregon. It made me smile to remember how much he enjoyed it — and how much enthusiasm he had expressed about being so completely open to trying anything and everything out there.
Spicy foods? “Why not?”
Foreign cuisines? “Bring it on!”
The weird delicacy on the menu that most of us are too scared to order? “Let’s do it!”
Without the tight constraints of expectations and prior experiences holding him back, Sam is welcoming the whole world of possibility. It’s a world I only experience on the periphery in my day-to-day, when I happen to be out of town and get an erratic idea to try something new.
But if we could all live a little bit more like Sam; if we could all think about enjoying our days not as a series of habits that we’ve grown accustomed to and comfortable with — but as an awakening to new sensations — I like to hope that we could all find a bit more of that present joy and admiration of what’s right in front of us.
No hockey puck to the face required.