In this article, BBZ Poker’s Mental Performance Coach François Hamel tells us what he learned regarding poker and life from meditating for 1,000 consecutive days.
You might be asking yourself, why should I meditate?
Well, the type of meditation that I have just practised for a thousand straight days is called Vipassana meditation, and it’s primarily an exercise in awareness. Awareness of your mind in a calm and detached manner, so you can gain insight into your own behaviors and become more attuned to your own emotional changes.
Imagine being able to play poker in that state of mind. Looking at every hand with clarity and precision. That’s something that can be trained and learned through meditation.
Many people believe meditation is about clearing the mind completely. But emptying the mind is not as important as being mindful of what the mind is doing.
Curiosity is the key. Don’t take anything for granted. Observe everything with the lens of a 5-year-old. This is really helpful when practising meditation as it can give you more perspective when you’re playing poker. You can ask yourself: what am I not seeing in this situation? What am I assuming about the situation that could be wrong? What are we missing here? what might the opponent know that we don’t?
Let’s be curious about our opponents’ decisions and our own personal experiences.
Here’s what I learned after 1,000 straight days of meditation.
If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience.
Imagine you’re at the end of a poker session and you have just one or two tables left. The hopes of winning big have turned into a day saver, you’re card dead, and the only thought you have in your mind is to punt your stack so you can finally call it quits and go on with your day. In this precise moment, awareness and patience will be your best friends.
When meditating, we use our breath as the anchor to focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. The secret is in the ability to notice when you get distracted and bring back the mind to the breath.
The same applies to playing poker. It’s unrealistic to think you’ll never get distracted. A much more realistic goal would be to quickly notice when you get distracted and bring back the mind to what’s most important at that moment: making good poker decisions.
If you observe unpleasant experiences mindfully, they will eventually go away. If you fight with them or resist them, they gain strength, and they become true. A common misconception is that if we allow those unpleasant thoughts and feelings in our minds, then they become true (i.e., I suck at this, I’m so bad, I’m worthless, I’m unworthy, what’s the point of doing this, this is unfair, I’m so frustrated right now).
But they actually lose all their power if we simply manage to observe them with curiosity. A thought is just a thought. I can observe my poker hand just like I can observe my thoughts.
CONCENTRATION AND MINDFULNESS
When getting started with meditation, you’ll notice how incredibly active the mind really is. At first, put your efforts on concentration at the beginning until the monkey mind phenomenon has cooled down. By this, I mean focus on one object of meditation (the breath, a physical sensation, an object in front of you). As you get distracted, refocus on the object of meditation.
As your concentration deepens, you gain the ability to see thoughts, feelings and sensations arising slowly, like separate bubbles with spaces between them. That’s mindfulness.
They bubble up in slow motion out of the unconscious, they stay a while in the conscious and then they drift away.
This actually happened to me personally recently. I was taking care of the baby while my mind was full of things I needed to get to. I started to feel impatient and as the sensation of agitation arose in my body, I quickly noticed them and the word “impatient” came to mind. As I labelled the experience of impatience, it literally dissipated leaving me in a peaceful state of mind. I was then much more available to attend to my daughter.
As you improve this ability for mindfulness, you will no longer accumulate harmful/unproductive thoughts and emotions. You will be able to perform in a calmer, clearer state of mind.
Meditation has given me an increased awareness of my experiences. The greater your understanding of your experiences, the more flexible and tolerant you can be towards yourself and others. You can be more forgiving and compassionate towards your mistakes, setbacks, mishaps, etc.
You’ll also be able to accept the uncontrollable aspects of life–such as long stretches when you’re card dead. You can’t change what “is”.
I’ve found that meditation is great for flushing away unproductive thoughts. You can stop harmful narratives before they take control of your decision-making abilities. I assume you would much rather make decisions from a place of confidence, sense of control, and belief in your abilities than from a place of unworthiness, i.e. that you don’t deserve to win and that you suck at poker.
SITTING WITH DISCOMFORT
Notice and observe with curiosity and without judgment. Whatever unpleasant experience is arising, let it surface and look at it mindfully.
If you sit with it and observe it, you will allow it to pass, but if you fight it or avoid it, it will create an accumulation in the back of your mind. If you’re feeling frustrated and disappointed when playing poker, recognize that you feel this way and those feelings will pass. Ignore those feelings and you could be on tilt for the rest of the session.
Practice labelling your experiences, so you don’t attach a judgment to them.
As you name/label your experience as they arise, you’ll notice that you’re looking at them far more objectively. A thought is just a thought, an emotion is just a signal at the moment.
Rather than saying “I’m angry” (which automatically leads to a reaction), think “I notice anger” or simply “anger” (there’s no judgment, no attachment to the experience). As you feel more agitated or stressed, label the sensation: “stressed”, “hot”, “tight”, “loose”, and “agitated”.
I’m talking about surfing the urges and impulses. Seeing through the hollow shouting of your own impulses and desires.
Meditation allows us to look within and watch the stuff coming up (restlessness, anxiety, impatience, pain). Just watch it come up but don’t get involved (this is the hardest part, not acting on an impulse).
Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises and then passes away (impermanence). The secret here is in the ability to “sit with it”. Sit with the discomfort and unease and not act on it.
That skill alone can save you a lot of money at the poker tables as you will avoid a lot of impulsive mistakes.
RESPOND > REACT
With the help of meditation, you learn to better respond to a situation as it arises rather than react impulsively as you get caught off-guard. You have a much more objective lens toward what is happening to you in the present moment.
MENTAL TOOLS AND SKILLS
Detachment from results: if you practice meditation, one thing you will quickly learn is that it can cause a lot of frustration at the beginning. Typically when we do an activity (input) we expect some sort of results (output). Meditation is the best tool to practice an activity without having concrete results attached to it.
Don’t expect anything, take an active interest in the process itself, but don’t get distracted by your expectations about the results.
Don’t rush, patience is key. You can’t outrun the treadmill; you can’t force yourself into winning every pot.
Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it all mindfully. You can’t resist something that is happening in the present moment. It’s much better to take it in and react accordingly. Assess your situation, take in the information, and choose/act wisely.
Let go, learn to flow with all the changes that come up. Loosen up and relax. Everyone who has played MTT poker knows how quickly you can go from chip leader of a tournament to busting out, as well as how you can turn 1bb on the final table into a win. So take every situation with humor and perspective.
Be gentle with yourself. The process of becoming who you are will begin first with the acceptance of who you are. To be more compassionate towards yourself use this strategy: what would you say to your best friend in a similar situation?
View all problems as challenges, as opportunities to learn and grow.