This is the first part of a series I will be posting on changing habits, motivation, goal setting and the idea of self-actualization through movement.
In this digital age it is easier to become a passive observer of life; we live vicariously through the actions of few. Our participation in sport is through a screen, our support of friends and family through “likes” and “tweets”, our fight and revolt through digital signatures of petitions. Obviously not all of us can be athletes, scholars, or activists and while some see technology as shackles there are strong arguments for otherwise. I’m not suggesting that we have become complacent in intent; I am proposing that the kinds of action we take are getting easier and do nothing to support our own development. Our ability and addiction for constant communication does not necessarily cater to building dynamic, fruitful knowledgeable selves. But it is a great distractor. We are comfortably entertained and thoroughly involved, but less and less in concrete, self-actualizing behavior. The more you talk the less you are listening, and you will learn very little hearing only the words from your own mouth.
The enormity of information and entertainment, be it positive or negative or neutral, splits our mind. We are spread thin in our opinions and our fervor for specific ideas because we have been given too many. When our attention is split our mental and physical capacity to accomplish is diminished. This is true for the larger endeavors of life such as education or marriage and It’s true for smaller things such as preparing a dinner, competing in sport, or writing an article. As a frustratingly perfect example, I just checked how my on-line chess game is going on my phone before I completed the previous sentence. It drew me away from my goal and scattered my attention from my task at hand, and both activities probably suffered. This might explain why I am losing the chess game I just looked at.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about a phenomenon he calls Flow. It is a state of consciousness that allows for optimal experience. It can be experienced while climbing a mountain, sailing a boat, working on a hobby, during a monotonous work task or even while caged in a prison. Flow requires your complete attention on the task at hand, which is both a focus on what you are doing and a filtering of the clutter of information that may distract you. People who experience flow describe a harmony of the body and mind; of thoughts, feelings, movement and sensations as well as a harmony with the world and the people around them. They experience true enjoyment of what they were doing and of life in general once that thing is accomplished. Each accomplishment builds them up; preparing them for the day ahead of them and the next challenge they need to overcome.
One of Csikszentmihalyi’s subjects, a mountain climber, speaks of how his moments of flow expand throughout his life: He says; “It’s exhilarating to come closer and closer to self-discipline. You make your body go and everything hurts; then you look back in awe at the self, at what you’ve done, it just blows your mind. It leads to ecstasy to self-fulfillment. If you win these battles enough, that battle against yourself, at least for a moment, it becomes easier to win the battles in the world”
I have experienced moments like this, through martial arts, playing music and through some athletics training and sport. You most probably have experienced them too, but maybe have not put it into words. A lot of these experiences happen when we are young and have less responsibilities and anxieties. It is these moments that help build our confidence and inspire exploration and intrigue. The mountain climber says that these experiences make it easier to win battles in the world but they also make it easier to lose them. I am going to resist directly quoting the Batman movies here, but essentially, the more flow you experience the more capable you are of managing doubt, disappointment, frustration, anxiety, etc. Your ability to pick yourself up and try again is enhanced and this is a key component in getting good at anything in life. If you know the Batman quote I was going to mention, good for you, and if you don’t, also, good for you.
Among other things, I am a fitness coach, and I try and help people lose weight, get stronger, recover from injury, etc. When dealing with major weight loss goals, I set the bar low from day one and try to explain the process as clearly and truthfully as I can. I explain that it normally takes a couple of weeks to see results, and then the weight will start to drop significantly and fluidly, until it doesn’t. At some point, almost everyone hits a plateau, and the weight stops dropping. With a proper, evolving exercise plan, these plateaus can be dealt with quickly but are rarely avoided completely. This is when people stop coming. They had a month or so of steady results and then, even though they are still working hard, the weight is not coming off. Why bother? That’s what they say to themselves and to me, and I remind them of the warning I gave them a couple months back; that when they get past this first hurdle, any hurdle afterwards will no longer be followed by the question “why bother?” They will know the answer: because it works and because I can do it. It is amazing how empowering it is to get over the first hurdle. This moment is so important, because, as with anything worth doing; each hurdle will get harder than the last. But again, challenging oneself is what builds character, inspires us to try new things and to get past our fears.
I recently went on a trip to Costa Rica, it was beautiful and relaxing and a welcome retreat from the 45cm of snow that had just blanketed Montreal. But while I was there, I confronted two major fears of mine; heights and the ocean. My fear of heights is a relatively new and surprising feeling; I used to love being on top of skyscrapers, bridges, etc. That one was easily (ish) overcome with a 2 hour zip lining tour of the cloud forest in Monteverde. My fear of the ocean, specifically sharks, rip tides and the crushing power of waves was a different story. My first surf lesson was a test of balance, strength, stamina, focus and my will to overcome this 30 year old fear of everything I was wading out towards. I was nervous about it for days and completely terrified the day of. One of the great things about surfing, at least as a beginner, is that there is very little opportunity to think about anything but the task at hand. If you want to succeed in simply standing up, your complete attention is necessary. Time to prepare was short and yet timing was everything. Don’t get me wrong, I was still terrified of the waves, but as soon as I thought about it I was distracted by the resistance of the exiting current, the placement of my board or the list of things I was trying to remember in order to properly stand up. I barely succeeded in the most basic goal, but I was more confident the next day and while I am not quite enamored with the sport, I can see it as a perfect example of an activity that can bring absolute enjoyment to one’s day, and for many, their entire lives.
When you choose to take time out of your life to pursue a goal and achieve success doing so, the mental and physical acuity that was required to succeed is reinforced. We become a stronger self by trying and succeeding, but the challenge must be real and the effort must be for something that we really enjoy, and just for the sake of it. This is why a lot of us hate our jobs, because the challenge is not enough and because we are simply doing the work for the monetary compensation. Money is too abstract, so we save up for trips, cars and gadgets to create more concrete goals. But trips come and go and most tech items become almost worthless after purchase. The void is perpetually reopening and we become desperate and depressed as we are unable to fill it with real purpose in our everyday lives.
Remember how people described the feeling of “flow”: as true enjoyment in what they were doing and of life in general once that thing is accomplished. Imagine having an activity in your life that you enjoyed so much that it resonated throughout the rest of your day. Something that made you feel at peace with yourself and in harmony with your surroundings. It would be ideal if this activity was your job, but it doesn’t have to be. Look how many people are yoga teachers these days. It speaks for how enlightening regular practice can be, but we only need so many yoga instructors.
Many motivational speakers suggest that you find your passion and make it your job. They propose that if your employment is bringing you down, then the best plan would be to quit and find something that brings more joy to your life. I’m no motivational speaker, and I’m tempted to say the same thing, but it’s not realistic, and as appealing as a sentiment that it is, it’s not something the majority of us will take seriously. But finding an activity that requires your attention, demands you to be tranquil yet focused and can evolve to consistently challenge you is a lot easier to do. You might not get paid to do it, but you may find that the act itself will encourage you to be more attentive and productive in your other endeavours. It may drive you to find new sources of inspiration in your career, or it may get you to focus less on earning money and more on prioritizing time to enjoy life in different ways. I am perfectly happy working less if it allows me more time to play music, lose at chess, play tennis, or practice martial arts.
In Baguazhang, an internal style martial art that I practice and teach, we recognize the balance of yin and yang in every movement. In yin there must be a bit of yang and in yang there must be a bit of yin. As a student this should hold true in the way you learn as it holds true for a teacher in the way they teach. You must be quiet and patient, soaking in the words and movements, yet you must also be determined and fierce in your practice, but never too fierce and never too quiet. I think this can be translated into a way of life and expressed in almost any activity.
A mainstay of Baguazhang practice is something called Walking the Circle. And yes, we walk in a circle, our feet gliding, specifically placed to straddle the imaginary loop, our weight fluidly shifting forward, our center of gravity staying low, knees bending at the same angle every step, our hands still, relaxed but ready, outstretched towards the center of the circle where our gaze is focused, our hips constantly but unseeingly shifting to hold our fixture on the center. If you were to watch a video of a bagua practitioner’s upper body as he walks the circle, it would appear as if he were simply standing on a track, smoothly gliding about, as if carried by wheels. The balance, strength and focus it takes to master this exercise can take years. It is quite difficult but at the same time, it doesn’t take mastery to be able to lose yourself in the motion, to be able to quietly meditate as the Taoist yogis did before it was assimilated into bagua practice.
Making changes in your life is like walking through a spider’s web. Your old habits will stick to you as you try and brush them away. The multitude of distractions we are subjected to may seem flimsy but the trap is efficiently made and purposefully set. Like a web, even when you escape from it, don’t be surprised if you find fragments firmly attached as you are walking away. These are harmless though, just keep walking and hold your focus.
Stay tuned for part 2!