How To Win At Billiards (Or: Is a Meaningful Life Just a Bank Shot Away?)

I know squat about billiards. I offer the game as a metaphor to help you navigate a few issues that can greatly impact the quality of your life: free will, interdependence, deliberation, and acceptance.

In billiards, a ball is launched with a cue stick, causing it to crash into a bunch of other balls, which shoot off in different directions, colliding with each other and bouncing off a cushioned perimeter until finally coming to rest in various configurations, some balls converging in groups, some resting alone, and, if you’re in an American bar (and have some skill or luck), some resting in pockets. The important activity in that scenario is the caroming – objects impacting other objects in a string of inevitable impacts.

See how that works as a metaphor for life? On a meta-level, the break occurred at the Big Bang and the balls of existence, from quarks to stars, continue to collide, with no final configuration in sight. The break in our human game occurs at the time of conception (following a smaller, but hopefully satisfying bang), and the countless constituents that comprise human life, from genetic predispositions to family dinners to broken hearts, carom off one another until last rites.

Free Will

A philosophical assertion that has become popular of late is that, despite our feelings of agency, humans have no free will. Sam Harris, my favorite philosopher-neuroscientist, asserts this position quite persuasively in his book Free Will. According to Sam, it is a simple matter of cause and effect: “Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions – and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.” In other words, we do not choose to think our thoughts or to act our actions. Rather, our thoughts, feelings, and actions derive from unconscious mental activity that results from prior causes and effects, which have been caroming like billiard balls since before our cells began dividing.

I suspect that many of your heads are now flooding with the most common anti-determinist objections. If there is no free will, then why try to achieve anything? If criminal acts are the inevitable consequences of prior causes and effects, rather than the product of malevolent choices, then why punish criminals? If everything is predetermined, then why try to change anything?

There is a reason we instinctively rebel against a determinist model. Each day, each of us experiences processes we call deliberation, decision, and effort. To be fair, Sam acknowledges the existence and value of effort. To me, however, that concession dilutes his position on free will. I contend that deliberation, decision, and effort are examples of our brain's ability to interrupt the deterministic predictability of cause-and-effect and to change the course of events. There is no way for me to prove that statement without a time machine, since, in retrospect, all that has occurred could not have been otherwise. Yet, it does not follow that all that has occurred was somehow fated to occur exactly the way it did and could not have been willfully altered.

Sam bases his denial of free will primarily on neurological studies that show that our thoughts and actions begin in the brain before we are aware of them. (See Free Will for a wealth of cited studies related to readiness-potential, subliminal motivation, working memory, and an assortment of other neurological phenomena). This pre-conscious impetus for thinking and behaving, he argues, proves that we are not choosing anything, but rather are simply responding to prior causes and effects. Sam’s argument appears to depend on two presumptions: (1) that no mental activity constitutes an act of free will unless we are aware of it; and (2) that because our thoughts and actions originate in our brains prior to our awareness of them, we cannot consciously affect those thoughts and actions. The first presumption relies on a definition of free will that is overly narrow and that fails to account for our multi-layered mental abilities, which involve both conscious and unconscious processes. As to the second presumption, if our ability to pause, deliberate, and act – to metaphorically chalk-up and take another shot – were not real and effective, then learning, skill-building, innovation, and trauma recovery would be impossible.

Interdependence: Living Amidst the Banging Balls

Whether or not our will is free, there is no denying the impact of our unique experiences on our subsequent thoughts, feelings, and actions. If my father beats me daily as a child, my adult thoughts, feelings, and actions will be distinctly different than if my father provides me with daily hugs and praise. Similarly, if I happen to contract polio early in life, my thoughts, feelings, and actions will likely be quite different had my body and the polio virus not been set on a collision course. Every particle that touches or comprises our bodies has caromed off innumerable other particles stretching back to the beginning of time. Every encounter we have with another person was preceded by countless encounters between countless other people. I ordered a venti drip with coconut milk at Starbucks today. How many existential carom impacts preceded my first sip?

The point to appreciate is this: the universe is an intricate process of endless interactions, and human life is an incredibly complex system of physical, mental, and social encounters. Even if you accept my premise that we have free will and that we can impact our personal and global destinies, it is helpful to remember that our free will is a fledgling evolutionary skill and that our impact on the whole of life is minuscule. Still, intervene we can and, if such intervention increases our well-being and the well-being of others, intervene we should.

Pause-Deliberate-Act: How to Wield Your Own Cue Stick

One method of conscious intervention is a simple, three-step cognitive process called PDA: Pause-Deliberate-Act. In billiard terms, you (1) pause to chalk-up your cue stick, while (2) analyzing the table, and then (3) take your best shot. Pausing – taking time to chalk-up – is key to a successful shot. Practice is also key. I have outlined a four-week PDA plan below. I highly recommend that you use a journal during the four weeks to record your reflections, insights, strategies, and successes. Whether your journal is a bound book, a computer file, or a note on your phone, try to jot down some reflections about your practice every day.

Here is your four-week PDA plan:

  • Week 1: Practice noticing the character of your responses to various events or situations. Perhaps you notice that you become anxious every time you go shopping, or that you feel angry after eating a big meal, or that you feel shame when using a public restroom. Perhaps you notice that you flinch when you hear an airplane, or you discover that you never have felt completely comfortable wearing a wrist watch. Just notice. Your purpose this week is to develop your witnessing mind. Simply pause (either before, during, or after your experience – whenever you catch it in your awareness) and take note of your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Note, too, what you see happening around you. What are others doing? What emotions are they expressing? Write it all down in your journal.
  • Week 2: Identify a response, behavior, or situation that you would like to change and focus on practicing your pause in connection with that issue, this time with a deeper deliberation. For instance, suppose during your first week of witnessing, you notice that you become overwhelmed and angry every time you receive an assignment at work. This week, pay particular attention to that phenomenon. Here comes your boss. What do you feel? Anxious? Where? In your chest? In your stomach? What are you thinking? ‘Shit’, or ‘why doesn’t she call first’, or ‘I hate her stupid glasses’? What do you notice about your boss? Does she look angry? Is it possible that she dislikes this kind of exchange as well? Take your deliberation a bit deeper – to the why of things. Why do you respond to the sight of your boss his way? Do you feel disrespected? Do you feel like a fraud at your job – like you are not as capable as you should be? Do you fear that you will not complete your task on time? Write it all down in your journal.
  • Week 3. During the third week, continue practicing a meta-awareness of your targeted thoughts, feelings, or actions, but begin to challenge the whys and strategize new responses. For instance, if you have observed that one of the reasons you feel anxious when your boss gives you a work assignment is that you fear not finishing it by the deadline, why is that fear so intense? Do you miss deadlines often? What will happen, do you think, if you do miss the deadline. Do you believe you will be fired? Or, is there something else going on – something related to your confidence or your relationship with perfection? Write it down.
  • Week 4. During week four, formulate and implement change. You may find that you have already started to respond differently. This often happens as people experience insights that result from the kind of meta-attention you have been practicing. This week, formulate a plan for a different response. From now on, when you see your boss and you feel anxiety begin to rise, pause, recognize your anxiety as an old habit – a reflex born of your previous feelings of inadequacy and fears about being judged – and then smile and greet your boss with “hello Ms. Spitzmonkey, what can I do for you?” Give it a try. Then, write it down and high-five yourself.

Acceptance: You Can’t Always Run the Table

We humans are control freaks. We want to control everything from the weather to our neighbor’s party habits. Consequently, most of us find it difficult to accept the fact that our destiny is mostly out of our hands. Regardless of how skillful you become at PDA or any other mental hacking technique, the results of your efforts will rarely, if ever, match your expectations. The balls of existence continue to carom throughout time, causing bad weather, traffic accidents, genetic abnormalities, earthquakes, cheating spouses, and unthinkable electoral outcomes. Those bouncing balls can derail your most earnest PDA efforts.

Not meeting expectations can lead to suffering, including anxiety, depression, poor school/job performance, toxic relationships, and self-harming behaviors. All of those conditions stem, at least in part, from our resistance to circumstances as they are and as they unfold, craving instead for things to be as we want or imagined them to be.

Acceptance does not mean giving up your desire for change. It also does not mean liking or condoning a situation. I can accept that I have an addiction without giving up my efforts to recover. I can accept that my loved one rejected me without denying my sadness and disappointment. Acceptance means giving up your desire for things to be different in that moment. Ironically, if you can accept things as they are in each moment, you have a much better chance of changing your future for the better.

Like PDA, acceptance also takes practice. Each time you become aware of your resistance to a circumstance, pause, remind yourself that ‘it is what it is’, take a breath, and then either use your free will to make some changes, or just finish your venti drip with coconut milk and get on with your day.

Much love.