Dr. Joe Parent, Zen Golf

Dr. Joe Parent, Zen Golf

Living in Ojai seems a foregone conclusion for Dr. Joe Parent, best-selling author, keynote speaker, executive coach, and golf instructor, renowned worldwide for his master work “Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game,” with more than a million copies in ten languages.

His revolutionary blend of Western psychology and Eastern wisdom has helped countless students and readers achieve presence, balance, and peace of mind. He’s a natural fit for the Ojai Valley and its magnetism for those seeking spirituality, scenery, and serenity.

Dr. Joe trained in Mindfulness Meditation and Buddhist Philosophy with the famous Tibetan meditation master, Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, while earning his Ph.D. in Social Psychology (received from the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1980). He was also on the faculty of Naropa University and the Maitri Center for Buddhist Psychology.

Wait a minute — how did Buddhist meditation and social psychology lead Dr. Joe to teaching golf? Taking the WayBack Machine to summers in New Jersey in the 1960s,we learn that he was a four-letter athlete in high school — captain of the wrestling team and standout in football, track, and tennis. But summers were time off from organized sports, and that’s when he developed his love for golf. Fast-forward to the late ‘70s, as he completed his doctoral studies in Boulder. Paired with a young golf professional for a round at a local course, Dr. Joe tells the story: “He asked me to tell him what his mind was doing when he was on the golf course. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what your mind is doing, if you’ll tell me what my body is doing!’ That was the start of a lifelong friendship. When the pro finally started his own golf school, he invited me to teach some clinics with him, and that was the start of my golf coaching career.”

Fast-forward again to 1989 for Dr. Joe’s first experience of Ojai. He came to visit and care for one of his Buddhist teachers who had moved to Ojai for his health — both for the hot, dry climate as well as the pervasive spiritual atmosphere of our valley. His teacher passed away after only a year and a half, inspiring Dr. Joe to devote himself to deeper practice. He entered and eventually completed the traditional three-year, three-month, three-day meditation retreat in a Tibetan monastery, receiving the degree and title of Master of Study and Practice (the equivalent of a Tibetan lama). Then, since several other students of that teacher had remained in Ojai, it was natural for Dr. Joe to return to make his home here.

Not long thereafter he was introduced to a literary agent by his sister, who was a writer herself, working for Disney. The agent was intrigued by his background. “Buddhism and golf?” she asked. “That sounds really hot! Do you have a book?” At that point, though he intended to eventually write a book, he had only written a few articles for golf magazines. “Working on one,” was his answer. Using those articles, she got him a book deal from Doubleday, and it was time to really get “working on one.”

His approach to writing “Zen Golf” was not the usual step-by-step golf instruction manual. From his notes, he gathered a collection of lessons and stories from his experiences on the golf course, combined with iconic Zen parables and instructions in mindfulness and awareness practices. Arranging the order of the chapters was an interesting challenge, since all were related but could also stand alone. Its final assembly was done in what’s now Byron Katie’s School for The Work at the corner of Aliso and Montgomery. As Dr. Joe recalls, “We had all the chapters printed out and stapled separately. We placed them on the floor of the great room and then shifted them around for hours until we found the most appealing order.”

Although he began coaching on the PGA TOUR in 1998, the publication of “Zen Golf” in 2002 attracted Vijay Singh, already a major champion, as a client. Within three years, Singh had won more than a dozen times and supplanted Tiger Woods as Player of the Year and No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings. Cristie Kerr then signed on for coaching from Dr. Joe on the LPGA Tour, and within two years became the first American woman to reach #1 in the Rolex Women’s Golf World Rankings.

Another top client was local product Beth Allen, who grew up playing golf at our very own Soule Park. (Ironically most of their coaching sessions went halfway around the world via FaceTime and Skype as she played in Asia and Australia.) In 2016 Beth achieved the #1 Ranking (Order of Merit) and Player of the Year awards on the Ladies European Tour. Coaching these illustrious golfers, and many other top tier players, it’s no wonder that Golf Digest magazine named Dr. Joe to their list of top mental game experts in the world.

Now, back to Ojai. In 2004 Dr. Joe was asked to offer his Zen Golf mental game coaching as part of the Golf Academy at the Ojai Valley Inn, led by his friend and Director of Instruction, Jeff Johnson. Over the years he’s taught many mental game programs, and remembers one he co-hosted in 2006 with Michael Murphy, founder of Esalen, and Deepak Chopra. A special event during that Golf in the Kingdom program was “midnight golf,” played on one of the infamous “lost holes” at the far end of the championship course. He recalled, “We used glow-in-the-dark golf balls, and had marked the flagstick and ringed the green with glow-sticks. Amazingly, a hole that is usually regarded as one of the most difficult on the course, with out-of-bounds and hazards abounding, was being hit by almost every shot. An unexpected but delightful surprise for all of us!” What happened that night? “When you see and worry about all the trouble surrounding it, the green looks tiny. When you don’t see the trouble and all you see is the green, you realize that it’s actually HUGE!”

Tour professionals and average golfers are very different in terms of expertise, though he says they have surprisingly similar mental game issues. “My lessons are about freeing yourself from fear and doubt and activating confidence. No matter how sophisticated their equipment or their knowledge about the swing, all golfers encounter common mental obstacles — performance anxiety, emotional reactions, and a multitude of distractions. Overcoming such obstacles is the key to breaking through to lower scores”

Dr. Joe explains the secret: “People think that if they played better, they’d enjoy the game more. It’s the other way around. If they enjoy it more, they play better! I teach players to turn their mind into an ally instead of enemy. The secret isn’t to add more on, it’s to get out of your own way and get the most out of your abilities.”

There’s a traditional Zen story about a teacher who fills a student’s teacup to overflowing, then explains, “You can’t learn when your mind is full of preconceptions, like this cup is full of tea. No more will go in. You can only learn if you empty your cup.”

That’s why Dr. Joe loves working with junior golfers — they tend to come with an ‘empty cup,’ just bursting with the desire and willingness to learn. And when any student, at whatever age, is receptive, ready, and willing to learn, he says, “That’s my favorite kind of student!”

In addition to coaching golf at the Ojai Valley Inn and teaching weekly Mindfulness Meditation classes at their Mind-Body Studio, Dr. Joe is often requested for keynote speaking, executive coaching, and/or corporate workshops for visiting companies and associations. Top executives from international companies have traveled from Germany, Japan, and other countries to tap his experience in business relationship building and applied mindfulness.

Dr. Joe Parent with a selection of his books.

Dr. Joe Parent with a selection of his books.

Dr. Joe is a born storyteller, as with many great teachers. His most recent work, “A Walk in the Wood: Meditations on Mindfulness with a Bear Named Pooh,” commissioned and published last year by Disney Editions, is already in its third printing and garnering much praise. Filled with newly written stories and poems featuring the Beloved Bear and his friends, it teaches mindfulness, kindness, and core values for readers of all ages.

He reflects, “My life’s mission has been to bring the gift of mindfulness to as many people as possible. My first books brought it to golfers. My newer books take it to a more general audience, which is very satisfying.”

His message: “All the aspects of life — work, play, relationships, and everything else — are more fulfilling and successful when we synchronize body and mind in the present moment. That is what mindfulness is all about: promoting the personal and interpersonal awareness, increasing emotional stability and capacity for empathy, and engendering greater resilience to handle the challenges of change.” Gifts that are welcome and worthy for us all! ≈OQ≈

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