I used to put the game of ping pong in the same category as Tic-Tac-Toe chalked onto the sidewalk. It was a game you played at a youth center while waiting for your ride: fun, but definitely more recreational activity than sport.
I was wrong.
My husband, who happened to be the First Runner-Up in the University of Calcutta Table Tennis Championships of 1993, suggested that we stop by the Lahaina Civic Center for its Tuesday night gathering of ping pong nerds aficionados.
These were serious athletes.
Three tables, surrounded by a netted fence, were set up in the center of the gymnasium, with a doubles match already underway when we arrived. The coordinator, a very friendly, older surfer-type (whose name sounded like “Armadillo”), greeted us with a smile and an offer to use the club equipment.
We’d brought our own thrift store paddles, still-in-the-package, which bore the unfortunate inscription, “BALLS OF FIRE,” after a movie of that name.
Please don’t show him the paddles, I thought.
“We brought our own paddles,” my husband said innocently, as he showed our host. Armadillo nodded respectfully and, smiling, gestured for us to use the far table.
So, kicking off our dark rubber slippers, we proceeded barefoot to the far table –which is very pleasant on a smooth gymnasium floor, by the way– and we showed them what we were made of.
Let’s just say, the paddles were prophetic.
For a couple of jerks who hadn’t played the game in years, we held our own. While I suspect that my husband held back a little for my benefit, we had good fun, and it was pretty late by the time we stumbled out into the night.
It made me wonder about the martial art of ping pong –if there are spiritual or at least psychological benefits one might get from engaging in it. My conclusion is that practically any engagement, while not taking the place of one’s regular practice, can bring us back to ourselves.
It all depends on our state of mind.
Take, for example, the golf game in Steven Pressfield’s novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, a retelling of the Bhagavad-gita on the green instead of the battlefield. In it, the caddie Bagger Vance (Bhagavan Sri Krishna) counsels his player/disciple, R. Juna (warrior, Arjuna) in the mystical way of finding his “Authentic Swing” through the processes of action, knowledge and, ultimately, devotion.
In layman’s language, here are a few things I took from the game:
- Think fast and trust your intuition.
- Keep your eye on the ball, not on your opponent’s paddle.
- Don’t be intimidated by the awesome players at the next table.
- If your backhand is stronger than your forehand, use your backhand.
- Don’t keep score. It’s more fun that way.
And if you still think table tennis is not a sport, take a look at this incredible video of Bruce Lee playing ping pong with nunchucks. While there are conflicting opinions as to its authenticity, I think the exhibition itself was entirely plausible.
Bruce Lee certainly “had a pair,” and few would question they were afire.