THE BLOG
06/18/2010 02:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

There's Something About Manny

How will fans react to Manny Ramirez's return to Fenway? Will they forgive his flakey behavior, unseemly exit, and steroid use, and warmly embrace the slugger who helped deliver two World Series titles in four years? Or will he instead be showered in boos?

Although there is no shortage of punditry on the matter, chances are that Manny hasn't even given the matter a thought. In fact, he was surprised to see a Boston reporter in his clubhouse this week, innocently asking, "What are you doing here?" and then making an abrupt about-face when questioned about the upcoming series.

Classic, clueless Manny. Yet, as inscrutable and frustrating as is, Manny Ramirez has something to teach us all about happiness and the meaning of life.

There is no denying Manny's gravitational pull. He may be reviled or loved, but, particularly in Boston, he was seldom ignored. Some of the allure lies in is his extraordinary talent, which, despite recent steroid allegations, followed a steady trajectory from high school through Boston. And Manny's swing just looks natural, as if his power is derived from technique more than muscle.

But the source of the sports world's fascination with Manny has also been his unconventional style and what can seem like dual personalities outside and inside the batter's box. His very mortal weaknesses and his idiosyncrasies outside the batter's box -- along with his apparent indifference to them -- make him one of the more interesting and controversial personalities in professional sports.

Yet, at the plate, Manny has always been as attuned as an orchestra conductor. There's no sense of urgency or panic. He approaches the plate in the same relaxed state whether the bases are empty or loaded. He never lets one at-bat affect another, nor does he dwell on the team's record or the import of a particular game or series. Each time he comes up it's with a clean slate -- a mind as oblivious to a previous home run as it is to a slump.

This relaxed, clueless attitude, which is the source of so much trouble, is also his greatest gift. It helps to account for his uncanny ability to enter his own private, focused universe in the batter's box.

To be gunning for a game saving hit, to be irritated by booing fans, to be psyched out by his return to Fenway, is also to be prevented from fully relaxing. Released from such concerns, Manny routinely enters what psychologist Mihly Cskszentmihlyi calls "flow," a state of deep concentration, sharp focus, and, paradoxically, deep relaxation that enables peak performance.

This parallels what is going on within the brain, where the most challenging tasks are done with a minimal expenditure of mental energy. Neuroscientists have found that, although the brain can absorb millions of pieces of information in a split second, only a small fraction can be processed. When we are fully engaged in what we're doing, there is less brain arousal and conscious interference and, ultimately, better performance.

From this perspective, Manny isn't all that different from an absent-minded professor, whose mind is so specialized and consumed by his craft that he is as helpless as a lamb outside the lab. And, this sort of absorption is only possible when people feel they have the skills to meet the challenge -- when every ounce of their attention is focused on the one task at hand, and actions can become intuitive. Getting to such an experienced and transcendent state takes hours and hours of practice. Although Manny's work ethic often comes as a surprise to fans, teammates are well aware of his appetite for hard work and his uncanny ability to enter the flow state.

Researchers have noted that the experience of flow is so engrossing and exhilarating that it becomes its own reward, a vital source of happiness, and a driving force for achieving greatness in life. And the health and psychological benefits of a purpose-driven life have been well established.

Tonight, as Manny enters the box at Fenway, go ahead and cheer or boo to your heart's content -- he won't notice.