The essence of mindfulness in golf and in life

28/01/22 | By Gavin Lee Davies, Mr


No one Playing

The essence of mindfulness in golf and in life.

by Martin Wells: Published by Mantra Books / John Hunt Publishing

Have you ever heard someone say something that made such an impact it actually changed your life?

’You are not your thoughts!’ said the tall French psychiatrist and mystic during his talk to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Each of his phrases rang like a bell in my consciousness.

I can still vividly remember the impact of his speech even though it was over 15 years ago. His words and presence changed everything including the words for example ‘Intention is in tension’. These teachings freed me up to write the last few chapters of No one Playing which I started writing over 30 years ago. I couldn’t have written the final third back then. Instead, I needed to spend years searching for answers. For some form of enlightenment and ultimately to be frustrated in that search - to find the value of stopping the search, the peace and freedom that is then revealed.

No one Playing is, in this way, a memoir of a seeker, in the form of a psychotherapist, meditator and sportsman. A seeker who discovered that he never had to leave home to find what he was looking for.

The realisation of this non-dual wisdom was liberating. It led to a deep exploration of what it meant to be absent but present: to do therapy without the therapist, teaching without the teacher, writing without the writer. It also led to the notion of no one playing. This realisation took me to the true heart of therapy, mindfulness and sport and the freedom that is possible when we transcend thought, role and our personal story.I became immersed in the timeless teachings of non-dual wisdom within Buddhism, Christianity and Advaita Vedanta.

If I was not my thoughts, my story or a role I played then who or what was I? There followed many years of rigorous self enquiry and along with that, a letting go of familiar patterns of thought and living, of a comforting but limiting structure, of the struggles of ego.

No one Playing describes this journey via the strange encounter on the golf course with someone who, on the face of it, knows nothing about golf but who ends up teaching me about the inner game and questioning my approach to golf and life itself.

Each of the nineteen chapters contains a lesson which I palpably resist for the first few holes. But gradually I come to realise the profound truth in the teachings of the stranger and began to understand the radical perspective of no one playing. The lessons include the power of thought, our connection to Nature, the value of waiting, trusting the process, letting go of ego and the illusion of control, as in this example from Chapter 7:

‘When I’m playing, I’m trying to control my mind,’ I said.

‘Good luck!’ he replied with a grin.

‘What do you mean?’

‘In Buddhism it’s called “monkey mind”, jumping from tree to tree. We won’t control it, the most we can do is observe the mind and accept how it is.‘ he said.

‘A lot of golfers and other sportsmen and women talk about being or feeling in control.’

‘I don’t know much about sport but I do hear many people say they are in control of their lives or want to be. This is an illusion! What do we really control in life? Do you know what will happen to you tomorrow? As we have just been saying, we cannot even control our thoughts!’

‘But sometimes I feel in control.’

‘I suspect these are times when you are in harmony with life, in the flow as it were. This creates the illusion that we are in charge of what’s happening. Remember the child with its plastic steering wheel. We’re really just fully part of what’s unfolding. Just that ego thinks it’s doing it all.’

‘Do you mean I’m not doing it?’

‘No, not really. More the opposite. When you get “you” out of the way you are more connected to the environment. The space between you and your target. The feel of your club in your hands. The strength of the wind in your favor or against you. The moisture in the atmosphere. The lie of the land. Do you imagine you are in control of these?’ he asked me.

‘Many years ago, an American president wrote to a Native American Indian chief asking to buy some of their land. The chief replied that he could try but wondered how he would own the hawk that flew across the mountain or the water that flowed through the river out to the sea.’

‘So how do you get in the flow? I think what you’re describing is what I’ve heard some sportsmen call being “in the zone”.’

‘Ha! There’s a question. I think you call it a paradox? You cannot get in the flow because you are already part of the flow. You are flow! So, you can only be what you are by letting go of what you are not!’


‘Take the notion of control, for example. If we let go of attempts to control life we will, quite spontaneously, be more in harmony with what occurs. Like our breathing. We don’t need to control the breath. It comes and goes naturally. In fact, maybe like your game of golf, if we think about it too much, we interrupt the flow.’

Although on the face of it No one Playing is a story about golf, the lessons contained in it apply to us all: e.g., to anyone who has tried to achieve something, to anyone who’s thoughts and personal story get in the way of living easily and harmoniously. Also for anyone whose performance is interrupted by anxiety and self-doubt.

The freedom that arrived in my consciousness all those years ago planted a seed of responsibility to pass this ancient wisdom on to other seekers in all areas on my life: as a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, author and on the sports field. So radical was the perspective that I wondered whether my NHS colleagues would think I’d lost it but I felt a strong impulse be a voice for these potentially life changing teachings. Although there was some resistance at first, I was amazed how many people embraced this wisdom even though it challenged much of the core philosophy of their professional trainings.

I also started to have conversations with other golfers, found many fascinated by the inner game and even a golf society (that emerged from Michael Murphy’s wonderful book Golf in the Kingdom) dedicated to seeing the opportunity for golf to teach us life’s deepest lessons.

After my first book on this theme Sitting in the Stillness (a collection of stories from the therapy room) was published and lockdown arrived soon afterwards, No one Playing was ready to be completed. The whole process affirmed my love for this very challenging game and for the profound learning that it can offer us. Also, the story became a vehicle, as was Sitting in the Stillness in the field psychotherapy, for conveying the profound and liberating wisdom of non-duality.

No One Playing is available from Mantra Books and from where ever books are sold.

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Mantra Books is a leading publisher of Body, Mind, Spirit books. We publish titles on Buddhism, nonduality, meditation, mindfulness and Eastern Philosophy, working in partnership with authors to produce authoritative and innovative books. Our authors offer wisdom from ancient teachings, with new perspectives and interpretations. Mantra Books aim to enlighten and inspire our readers.


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