The Obstacle Is The Path

All week I’ve been in a running battle with myself, facing an almost existential despair over my (in)ability to play baduk. I’m becoming discouraged by my apparent lack of progress. While it sucks to admit this, it’s the truth, so it must be faced.

On Tuesday I fell 0-5. Although not my worst streak, it stung in a particular way because my play was rubbish. Time and again I put good money in after bad, and the result was consistent: Resignation. The aspersions I cast on myself intensified as the board situation worsened. I know. How could I win with such an attitude?

But I don’t think it boils down to attitude. My frustrations, my anger, my disappointment were all justified by an abysmal performance, or so I feel. They did not spring from nothingness, but were born out of a genuine dissatisfaction with my abilities, which it is safe to say are not what I’d imagined them to be.

Are my expectations out of line? Perhaps. I know that investing in this effort would be costly. It is natural to expect rewards from hard work, yet I know that when it comes to baduk these positive effects are non-linear – that is, I can’t expect a 1:1 relationship between input and output. So, yes, in a certain sense, I have misled myself.

If only it were that simple though. If only I could tell myself that it’s only transitory, so shrug it off and move on, but I can’t, at least not right away. The temptation to despair is stalking me. I know what is right but I struggle to do it.

So I distracted myself all Wednesday and I barely did anything Thursday. Sure I played a game, but it was work! I’ve been procrastinating. Heck, writing this post is part of my procrastination.

In my reflections, though, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions:

  1. The obstacle is the path: Leo Babuta explains, “[W]hen there’s an obstacle, don’t go around it. Don’t run from it. Go into it. Work with it. Explore it. Learn how to be with it and deal with it, and you’ll have a skill for life.” If I want to get stronger at baduk the only choice I have is to advance. Resistance points the way to go, march to the sound of the guns. Pick whichever expression you like, this feeling leads to an inescapable conclusion: I must work or otherwise abandon my pursuit, there is no alternative. Reflection: In exploring the obstacle I must question my method. How do I study? Can I do something better, or different? What are the feelings or thoughts that inhibit me. What should I add, what should I subtract?
  2. Strength is earned, not given: You could slap a 1-dan rank next to my profile name but I wouldn’t feel accomplished. Why not? Because I didn’t earn it. I revisit this thought constantly while reviewing my games and solving life & death problems. I cannot check the answer key while playing a game. The end result is my answer key! The only abilities I have are those which I can utilize while playing against my three opponents: myself, the clock, and the opponent. Reading means nothing if it cannot be done in an accurate and timely fashion. The same is true with my resilience. If I hate on myself mid-game that is a sort of mental capitulation, which has in-game effects. Sun Tzu advises the successful general to encourage the arrogance of his opponent. What he means is to use the psychological weakness of the enemy against him. Well, I do that very successfully against myself. If I want to get stronger – authentically better – I have to earn it through my own effort.
  3. Strength cannot be earned like money: Effort is not proportional with result. The relationship between my passion/effort/devotion and my rank (as a measure of strength) is not linear, it may not even be positive. Lately I’ve been thrown back almost to the starting point of Project Dan. It sucks. I’ve got to go back over the same ground again. There is some evidence that my effort will help me get ahead, but I cannot think of this as a truth or a sure thing. Strength is a mystery to be contemplated, not a paycheck to be earned.
  4. Flexibility is key: When I started Project Dan I adhered to a strict regimen. This worked until it didn’t. Like the Constitution, my program isn’t a suicide pact. If I’m breaking down something’s got to give, and I should adjust accordingly. Benjamin Teuber recommends two things: (1) Playing, playing, playing and (2) Tsumego done right. He leaves out lectures and ‘book learnin’ almost entirely (although he does make some allowance for these). Lately I’ve gotten more value out of playing/reviewing and life & death problems than Guo Juan’s lessons. I think I’ll give the Internet Go School a break for the time being and see what happens. It’s good to have discipline, but my focus should be on getting the most value for my effort, and my reasoning has led me to put a higher value on playing/reviewing games and tsumego than on lectures. I also find that doing tsumego in books is more conducive to reading than digital alternatives, because I have to think about the solutions rather than ‘bash’ my way to the answer. Watching YouTube streams like Dwyrin, Lightvolty, and Haylee is also conducive to my learning, so I’ll rely on these more.
  5. Perspective is necessary: I’m 29 with (I hope) many years ahead of me. That means I can enjoy baduk for decades and it is not necessary to rush myself. This doesn’t mean slackening my effort, rather it puts it in the context of my whole life. I’d love to teach my son to play baduk, but he won’t be able to learn for another three or four years at least. Project Dan is one year, it’s a step along the path, not the destination.

Don’t run from the obstacle, go into it. Work with it. Explore it. I’m learning how to do this, how to deal with my obstacle. I know the path, now just have to walk it!

Clearing Away Distractions

Back in October I wrote about the changes in my life that had taken precedence over baduk studies. And while I’m still struggling to find my stride, I am happy to report that I’ve made progress in that direction even if it’s proven difficult to gain yardage. As the Stranger in The Big Lebowski would say: “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you.”

All of the changes that I’ve experienced have been positive – in family, work, and housing. That’s not a situation to complain about! Instead I must adjust to these changed circumstances and find a way to instantiate a habit of deliberate practice. I’m not going to “should” on myself.

So what am I doing?

I commute into the city each day, and it takes about an hour each direction. That means I have two uninterrupted hours that I can put to use. Of course there are limitations. Being on a train means I can’t play games, at least not on OGS or any other server. Between the tunnels and poor reception this just isn’t a realistic option. So I bring along my tsumego books and other study materials, such as The Fundamental Principles of Go by Yilun Yang (7D).

Practicing tsumego without a baduk kit forces me to concentrate on the problems and read out the different possibilities. This is mentally taxing, and I struggle with flagging attention. Nevertheless I have experienced breakthroughs many times when faced with a particularly vexing problem. I close the book for a few minutes, clear my head, and then return the problem. It amazes me how often this helps me see the solution. It can also be a struggle moving slowly through the problems because I like the sense of accomplishment that comes with solving dozens per day, but I have begun to accept that on some days I won’t make significant headway. Besides it’s the techniques that matter, the ability to read shapes and the like which will ultimately benefit my game.

As life assumes more routine in coming weeks I aim to make daily games a habit. I currently have significant gaps in my playing schedule, and life has not held any punches when it comes to the amount of leisure time I have on evenings and weekends. That is to say, I have had almost no time for playing baduk. This is, again, all part of the adjustment to new life responsibilities and routines, and I will play when and where I can.

Clearing away distractions is okay if these are unproductive habits or other consumptive activities that hinder learning baduk. When, however, life injects real change into your situation, it is immature to think that these can (or should) be wished away. There are advantages and disadvantages in all circumstances, which we must confront in order to achieve our ends. The greatest lessons that I’ve learned so far are to use the time and materials available to me to their maximum extent, not to long for a non-existent ‘ideal,’ and to always keep moving.

Learning baduk is a challenge, and so is life. We should relish both! Embrace the suck and push forward.