Emotional Detachment and the Zen of Golf

About a month ago, I played golf for the first time with Number Three Son (N3S). I was looking forward to a pleasant afternoon. I imagined fresh air, healthy sunshine, and that father-son banter that women who don’t understand men categorize as superficial.

The afternoon started off as hoped for. The sun was shining. The course was green. We prepared by eating hotdogs and lighting up cigars. But on the very first tee, things started going badly. At least for N3S.

N3S is a novice golfer. He’s played less than half a dozen games. He was focused on long drives and good chips and accurate putting. When he didn’t hit the ball well – which was most of the time – he was angry with himself.

Though he may not have been hitting the ball the way he wanted, he was hitting it. I was impressed and told him so. “You are doing a lot better than I was at your stage of the game.”

That didn’t mollify him. By the ninth hole, he was emotionally exhausted. He didn’t want to play anymore. “It’s no use,” he said morosely. “I stink.”

N3S’s frustration with his poor performance and his subsequent depression reminded me of myself until just a few years ago. It scared me to think that he might go through what I went through for 40 years. On the way home, I talked to him about one of the ways I’ve overcome my own tendency to get depressed. Today, I’m going to share that same strategy with you.

When you’re happy, you can move mountains. When you’re angry or depressed, your energy drops, your focus blurs, and your productivity lapses.

Depression can blunt your work skills. It can damage your reputation. It can separate you from your income and your possessions. It can affect your relationships with your spouse, your children and family – even lifelong friends. Depression will rob you of all the beautiful little moments that make life worth living – like a day on the golf course with Dad.

It steals your fun. It steals your time. It leaves you with nothing.

Last week, in my article “Defeating Depression Before It Defeats You,” I told you two stories about friends of mine who fell into deep depressions when they lost their jobs and their income.

Both of them had based their self-worth on their ability to make money – a mistake that many entrepreneurs make. And when, through no fault of their own, they suffered a serious financial setback, they felt like failures. I suggested that the way to avoid falling into that trap is to base your self-worth on things that really matter – on personal values that have nothing to do with your income.

There’s another common mistake that leads many to despair. The mistake that N3S was making during our golf game. I have to warn you that the solution to this one is a bit harder to understand and practice. But stick with me while I explain it. Because once you “get it,” you’ll have no trouble maintaining a positive outlook… even under the most difficult circumstances.

I am talking about developing the skill of emotional detachment. More specifically, developing the ability to set and pursue goals without caring whether you actually achieve them.

I learned how to do this only six or eight years ago, and have been practicing it in fits and starts. As each year passes, I get better at it. I feel happier and more in control of my life. Most important, I think it has helped me pass along some of my newfound happiness to others.

When most people hear the phrase emotional detachment, they think it means indifference or even heartlessness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Emotional detachment frees you from neurotic attachments and lets you focus your energies on other people, other things, and the here and now.

The best example I can give you is the natural love that a mother has for her child. When the child is happy, the mother is happy. When the child is unhappy, the mother instinctively wants to find the cause of the unhappiness and end it, if she can.

When the mother discovers that the child is unhappy because of some physical discomfort, she tries to relieve it. When the cause is an emotional conflict, she does her best to teach the child how to handle it. The mother’s goal is always to prepare the child to become independent. She works consistently to gradually free the child from his natural dependence on her so that he can go out into the world and live a happy and productive life.

When an 11-year-old tells his mother that he “hates” her because she’s imposed some restriction on him, the (mentally healthy) mother does not feel hurt, even though a hurtful thing has been said. She loves the child and doesn’t take his statement to heart. She remains calm. She reminds him that she loves him. And she explains that the restriction will not be removed simply because he “hates” it or her.

In other words, she is emotionally detached from the child’s expressions of anger.

If you are a parent, you understand what I mean. Most parents, most of the time, practice this sort of emotional detachment with their children. But there are some who can’t do it, because they are emotionally attached to their children’s approval of them. These are the parents who want to be “best friends” with their children. They break their own rules the moment their children object to them. Sometimes they go so far as to tolerate risky behavior.

The skill of emotional detachment can be applied to all relationships. It can work with your boss and colleagues at work. It can work with your spouse or parents at home. Detachment can also be applied to almost any challenge or problem. And the result will always be greater calmness and clarity.

This gets us back to my story about N3S…

When I started golfing, I approached the game very much the way my son approached it. That is, I was concerned about the outcome of my shots. When hitting the ball off the tee, I cared about how far it would go. When I putted, I cared about how close the ball would get to the hole.

This made the game very frustrating. Being a beginner, the outcome of most of my shots was disappointing.

But it didn’t take me long to realize that I was my own worst enemy. By allowing myself to be disappointed four shots out of five, I was setting myself up for failure. (How can you learn to play golf well if you are swearing when you are swinging the club?) The trick, I soon figured out, was to detach myself emotionally from the intended outcome (where the ball goes) and focus instead on the experience of the swing.

My goal, when I play golf these days, is to have a good swing. I don’t care where the ball goes. All I care about is whether I achieve my intention of swinging the club properly.

This has made a remarkable difference in my game. In several short months, I have brought down my handicap by about 30 strokes. Before, I was shooting about 130 and hating the game. Now, I am hovering at 100 and liking it, even when the ball lands in a sand trap or rolls over the green.

Anything we do in life – any goal we set, any relationship we engage in – can be done better and more happily by applying emotional detachment.

Let me give you a few more examples.

Emotional Attachment: You want to go on a picnic Saturday afternoon. It rains. You are disappointed.

Emotional Detachment. You intend to have a picnic on Saturday. But, knowing you can never predict the weather, you consciously detach yourself from the hope that the sun will shine. You create Plan B – going to the movies instead. So when it rains, you move happily from Plan A to Plan B without getting upset or upsetting those with you. You are the Zen Master of your Saturday afternoon. You help others feel better by your good example. And that, in turn, increases your happiness.

Emotional Attachment. You want to get a raise. You don’t get one. You are disappointed.

Emotional Detachment. You intend to get a raise. But, knowing you can’t control the outcome of your next performance review, you come up with a Plan B that involves starting your own side business. You make a good presentation at the review, but your boss doesn’t give you the raise. You aren’t disappointed. In fact, you are excited… because now you can initiate Plan B.

Emotional Attachment: You want to marry your college sweetheart. You propose to her. She refuses you. You are crushed.

Emotional Detachment. You intend to marry your college sweetheart. But, recognizing that you cannot control her feelings, you detach yourself from that outcome and settle on Plan B, which is to enjoy the relationship for some months longer while you begin to look for a new one. You propose to her and are turned down. You aren’t sad. You don’t pout. You put Plan B into action. She notices your detachment and likes you better for it. Now it is up to you to continue the relationship or move on.

As I said earlier, the skill of emotional detachment is hard to understood and practice. But if you can master it, you will enjoy a life of unlimited wealth, health, and happiness.

Before N3S and I went golfing for the second time, I had him take a lesson with Larry, the pro I learned from. (Larry understands the Zen of golf. He, like Ben Hogan, understands that the true purpose of golf is not to achieve a specific score but to experience the serenity and pleasure that come with developing a consistently good swing.)

When we hit the golf course this time, I reminded N3S to focus his mind not on where the ball goes but on executing his swing. We played all 18 holes in perfect harmony. And though we didn’t care about our scores, they were better than they had been the time before.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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  • A lot to think about and well illustrated – I guess the idea can be applied to absolutely any goal.

  • Seth Elliott

    A good modern day example, Michael.

    Basically, this is an extension of a current in Eastern thought, embodied best (for me) by the Samurai Miyamato Musashi in his Book of Five Rings.

    My fencing master, way back in university, deployed Book of Five Rings as our text. The underlying message…A Samurai is already dead. Once you accept this death, you can go on with an outlook that allow you to achieve overwhelming success against your enemies.

    In fencing, this became a focus (as in your golf example) on proper form and execution. No longer were we focused on the outcome of “winning.”

    The same is true throughout all of life. In the long run, we are all dead. Nothing we can do will stave off, at some point, that ultimate death. We can accept that death today and adjust our perspective accordingly.

  • Al

    Wow, I think this is one of the best articles you’ve ever written! It’s given me a lot to think about…

  • malinda

    This was one of the most motivating articles that I have read recently.. I work in Healthcare as a Patient Advocate and this will certainly give me an excellent guide to dealing with the many difficult challenges that we face…working with patients and families. Thank you!

  • Great article. I had read it in the ETR email when it came out, and just now read it again, was looking it up to pass to a friend.

    Thank you for sharing that you are still learning this. Gives me hope 🙂 I say that because I have heard or read of this concept several times in the last 3 or 4 years, and every time I read it I’m like “Oh, right, I need to work on that!”

    I appreciate your articles, and have most of your books.

    Thank you
    Carlin
    @carlincomm

  • Yes! Here we have, and finally, someone writing about a genuine spiritual experience, and one that is grades above the basal usual dished to us, or otherwise known as 101.

    Yes, Michael, you’re telling it. Thanks for this!

  • Madhavi Zutshi

    A truly inspiring thought.It occupies a very significant place in Indian philosophy.The spiritual text of Bhagavat Gita expounds the thought in great depth.Thank you.