Ghost in the Machine:
Essays on the Art of Coxing

Kevin C. Murphy, Ex-Coxswain,
Harvard Varsity Lightweights '93-97

(Copyright 1997-2013, All Rights Reserved.
(Originally appeared at, 1997-1999)

(originally appeared at Rowersworld, 8/29/98)

All quotations in the following article are from An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by D.T. Suzuki (Grove Press, 1964).

Coxswains rejoice! The long, cold lonely winter of erg pieces and weight training is fast coming to an end, and, barring another El Nino-induced meteorological calamity, Springtime is now upon us. For your rowers, April is the cruelest month, breeding muscle fatigue and interteam tension from seat racing. For the coxswain, however, it is time when a young wo/man's fancy should lightly turn to thoughts of victory. Thus, without further ado, let us cut to the crux of successful coxing: psychological preparation.

As discussed in the last article, it is important to spend time off the water reevaluating your boat's daily performance and conjuring up the next day's calls. However, this alone is not enough: unless your boat is much faster than your opponent come race day, much of your conscious preparation will be quickly stripped away in the intensity of the Arena. Thus, the best coxswains need to go a step further. Not only do you need to make your basic calls almost subconsciously instinctive, you also must attempt to hone the instincts of your subconscious.

Say what? Well, let me put it this way: I've made a case in a article elsewhere for the existence of a Tao of Crew -- That, in rowing's emphasis on mental discipline, acquired through the repetition of one basic act, crew shares much with the martial arts. Moreover, in that crew approaches a profound simplicity, borne of a series of seemingly paradoxical contradictions, the sport resembles the teachings of some Eastern philosophies. Taking as given this tao of crew, I now want to discuss the Zen of Coxing.

Now, let's stop for a moment. To skeptics out there, the last few paragraphs probably seem at best convoluted and at worst psychobabble, a.k.a. "talking out of one's ass." Let me say that I am not particularly of a New Age bent, nor am I any kind of expert in Eastern philosophy (although I do know quite a bit about the Jedi.) However, if you've spent any amount of time in the hot seat, you surely have felt that coxing seems more than just a rigorous intellectual pastime: it can be a full-fledged mindset, world view, and philosophy. Coxing, like Zen, "purposes to discipline the mind itself, to make it its own master, through an insight into its proper nature. (p. 40)" When I speak of the Zen of Coxing, I mean no more than the lessons coxing holds for our daily life, and how, when taken to heart, these lessons can in turn improve one's coxing.

Before we continue, a few caveats from one of the world's foremost authorities on Zen, professor of Buddhist philosophy Dr. D.T. Suzuki:

  • Zen and logic are antithetical. "The reason why Zen is so vehement in its attack on logic" is "to show that we live psychologically or biologically and not logically." (p. 63)
  • "The human tongue is not an adequate organ for expressing the truths of Zen, (p. 33)"
  • "To say that 'This is [Zen] means that Zen is no more there. Zen defies all concept-making. (p. 42)"

    With these in mind, let us go forth.


    In the best tradition of Zen, I'll begin with a tale. Shuzan, a Buddhist monk of the tenth century, once held up a bamboo stick before his disciples. "Call this a stick," he bellowed, "and you assert; call this not a stick, and you negate. Now, do not assert or negate, what would you call this stick? Speak! Speak!" From out the ranks, a young monk ventured forth, grabbed the bamboo, and, breaking it in two, exclaimed to Shuzan, "What is this?" (p.66)

    From this tale, I derive two lessons of import to the coxing ilk (although, as with all Zen proverbs, you are encouraged to discover your own meanings). First, the story illustrates how seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies can obscure a larger unity. In other words, the choice between "stick" and "not a stick" clouds the perception that the bamboo is both a stick (obviously) and not a stick (it's part of a tree, it's a collection of plant cells, etc.). Similarly, crew encompasses many opposites, and the solutions to many boats' problems can lie paradoxically in the other direction than logic would dictate. For example, sometimes the best way for a boat to become stronger is not to pull harder, but to loosen up and relax. Often, the best way for a boat to gain speed is to take more time. Nine together are much stronger than one, but it only takes one for nine to falter. Rowing is rife with such intriguing inconsistencies, and appreciating them will not only raise your game but may have you dwelling on larger truths.

    Secondly, and more importantly for this column's purposes, the tale of the bamboo stick illustrates the necessity of personal experience. The correct solution to Shuzan's question was not yes or no, but how the disciple chose to answer at that moment. As Dr. Suzuki put it, "Any answer is satisfactory if it flows out of one's inmost being, for such is always an absolute affirmation. (p. 68)" Analogously, the best method of coxing is not to recite calls from rote but to seek deep within and find your own inner strength. What made you the person you are now, and what was the reason for your successes? What are the qualities that have propelled you to this moment? I'm talking about the wo/man in the mirror, folks. Or, as I put it earlier, find out what makes you tick, and use it to make the boat tick.

    Now that we've placed a premium on personal experience, let's examine how coxing affects these experiences. What mental skills does coxing hone and temper?. Perhaps the most obvious is command, or leadership: you are responsible for the performance and safety of your crew day in and day out. In this sense of control lies the mindset of a Zen warrior - you, and your crew, are masters of your own destiny. Which brings us to another intriguing paradox: Come race day, no other team can possibly beat you - you can only vanquish yourself.

    Thus, as the boat moves at the speed of your will, erase the possibility of failure from your mind. At the pre-race meetings, view the other coxswains as either irrelevant or lambs for the slaughter. Once you're pushing off the dock before a race, it should be inconceivable that you will lose that day, even if logic tells you it's a distinct possibility. When push comes to shove and your boat reaches that critical point, any doubts you harbor will surface at just the wrong time. Yet, conversely, if you've convinced yourself that it's an affront to reality to cross the line second, you?ll find yourself re-energized when the crisis point occurs.

    Easy to say, you might be thinking, harder to do. How does one achieve such a crazed confidence? For one, recognizing your control over your own destiny should eliminate much of the tension anyway; there's no point in worrying about another boat's race strategy or big move if only you can defeat yourselves. Moreover, I found it helps to cultivate a Zen calm. What's that? Well, think of those fleeting moments of spellbinding natural beauty that every coxswain is privileged to witness: that amazing sunset at the end of practice, the strange damp tranquility after torrential rains and nightmare pieces, puffy cloud formations rotating in a blue, blue sky on a bright afternoon. A million years ago the lake on which you are coxing sparkled under the midday sun, and a million years from now, barring nuclear winter, a dam project, or that pesky asteroid, the river on which you are racing will still meander aimlessly into the sea. All is as it was, and all is at is will be. The past and future elongate and recede, leaving only the present, your niche in which to act. "When Zen is thoroughly understood, absolute peace of mind is attained - What more may we hope? (p. 44)"

    Don't get me wrong - you don't want to be lulled into a Prozac calm, whereby your mind wanders and you congenially smile at the boat moving through you. However, attaining an inner solace and clearing your mind of extraneous tension will help you to distill your focus and concentrate on the here-and-now. Moreover, this Zen calm will help to relax your adrenaline-charged crew before and during a race, which will surely improve your vessel's speed. If you're too worked up, it will show in your voice and disrupt your boat's performance.

    What else can you do to raise your mental game? As in Zen, coxing relies heavily on perception. When you're not on the water, stop yourself occasionally and drink in the scene around you. Count the birds on the telephone wire, note the jacket of the man on the park bench, examine the books on your professor's shelf. It's sometimes helpful to focus on an object far in the distance and train your eyes to see in Cinemascope. Once you've alighted on something to watch, see how many other movements, objects, or people you can keep track of. The coxswain who can multitask effectively: monitoring rhythm, cadence, distance, technique and the enemy simultaneously will have a serious advantage over one who can't juggle multiple assignments with aplomb.

    Finally, when you're not practicing your multi-tasking, you should try to cultivate your single-minded focus. A monk once asked a Zen master, "Do you ever make any effort to get disciplined in the truth." "Yes I do," replied the teacher, "When I am hungry I eat; when tired I sleep." "Doesn't everybody?" queried the student. "No," replied the teacher. "When they eat they do not eat, but are thinking of various other things, thereby allowing themselves to be disturbed; when they sleep they do not sleep, but dream of a thousand and one things." (p. 86) In other words, whatever you are doing at a particular time, be it school, work or play, devote yourself fully to that endeavor. Improving your powers of concentration in this manner will no doubt pay dividends come crew time.

    If none of this seems to be making any sense, don't fret. "How hard, then, and yet how easy, it is to understand the truth of Zen! Hard because to understand it is not to understand it; easy because not to understand it is to understand it. (p.76)" Besides, as coxing is more a mental discipline than an athletic exercise, you have a distinct advantage in training time over your oarsmen. While rowers require a quorum of two, four, or eight to hone their skills, you have opportunities to master your will 24-7.

    One last note: remember, coxing is a form of self-exploration. To paraphrase a Zen proverb, this column is only a finger pointing at the moon - don't mistake my finger for your moon. Derive your own mental touchstones and draw your power from them. In the words of Dr. Suzuki, "Copying is slavery. The letter must never be followed, only the spirit is to be grasped. And where is the spirit? Seek in in your everyday experience, and therein lies abundance of proof for all you need (p. 71)."

    I. The Coxswain
    II. The Eyes Have It
    III. Karaoke Time
    IV. Zen and the Art of Coxing
    V. Back in the Saddle
    VI. Bring Me the Head of the Charles
    VII. 8 Minute Bones: Dieting Tips for Coxswains
    VIII. From the Vaults: Racing Skillz
    IX. From the Vaults: Steering
    X. From the Vaults: Coxing 101 for Novices and Journeymen
    XI. From the Vaults: Dancing Around the Monolith
    XII. From the Vaults: Potpourri
    XIII. The Winter of Your Discontent
    XIV. Staying In the Mix

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