Mind Fitness Skills For Challenging Times
Part 2: Living Brilliantly With Uncertainty
Fitness Cycle Review
Last week, we explored the three phases of the Fitness Cycle:
To build physical fitness, we have to stress our bodies through exercise. A well-designed training program prescribes the type of stress, as well as the intensity and the duration of that stress.
But after the stress, we need adequate recovery to adapt and improve. If we fail to recover adequately before the next training session, we don’t gain fitness. Instead, we lose fitness from overtraining. We have to balance stress with recovery if we want the improvement of adaptation.
Stress is the essential vector for building fitness. This is true for the strength, health and endurance of physical fitness, and it is also true for life fitness, for growth in every area of our lives. We grow and mature, we gain insight and wisdom through the same cycle of stress, recovery and adaptation.
No stress: No growth.
Our health and happiness is contingent upon a healthy and functional relationship with stress.
From Physical Fitness to Mind Fitness
Beyond strength and endurance, a daily practice of physical exercise can also help us to develop mind fitness skills. This is a way to really maximize the return on your aerobic investment. These mind fitness skills empower us to respond and adapt to the stressors we experience in our daily lives. Every challenging situation in our lives offers an opportunity to build fitness, if we are capable and willing to respond to the stress we experience, rather than reacting to it or trying to avoid it.
The stressors we experience in our daily lives can be physical, mental and emotional. Each of us is unique in our capacity to respond and adapt to each type of stress – physical, mental emotional. And the mind fitness skills we are exploring in this series are not just for mental stress. They function in our relationship with emotional and physical stress as well.
Last week, we looked at one of these mind fitness skills – Beginner’s Mind.
Sounds absurd, yes? In these challenging times, we need knowledge, facts, expertise. We need answers!!
As a Mind Fitness Skill, Beginner’s Mind does not ignore or refute knowledge, facts, or expertise.
But remember: All knowledge, insights and expertise were built on the foundation of a Beginner’s Mind. All knowledge, all discoveries began with a quest. All solutions began with a question.
That is… they began with not knowing!!
To gain wisdom and insight, we start with curiosity and complete engagement of our senses, our observations and our feelings. Knowledge begins with an open and curious mind.
Curiosity, questioning, the willingness to not know the answer – these are all courageous qualities of Beginner’s Mind.
This passage from Zen says it all: “In the mind of the beginner, there are infinite possibilities. In the mind of the expert, there are very few.”
In these challenging times, we do absolutely need to rigorously engage our scientific knowledge and our common sense. Just remember though, each discovery in science began with not knowing.
To live brilliantly, we need to fully engage all of our senses in each moment so that we accurately perceive what is arising here and now. The curiosity of Beginner’s Mind stimulates and piques our senses. The assuredness of the Expert’s Mind diminishes our present-moment experience. The expert is constrained by assumptions. The beginner is free of assumptions.
Let’s turn now to something that is quite challenging for us to face, something in the forefront of everyone’s experience right now:
Uncertainty is often synonymous with fear. What’s going to happen to us? What does the future look like? Fear is a natural reaction to uncertainty. Uncertainty is a prevailing source of stress and anxiety for us.
And right now, all of humanity is sharing a common source of uncertainty – this pandemic. From war-torn Syria to the “stable” US, we are all in this one together. The people in unstable countries, the refuges, they have more experience and more skills for responding to uncertainty than we do!
Our health, our financial well-being, our daily activities and lifestyles are at stake. This pandemic does not favor or discriminate.
We are isolated and physically distant from one another. Some of us are not even allowed to go outside and exercise.
When we experience change and uncertainty, we naturally seek security and comfort. We look for ways to distract ourselves.
Is there another way to engage with uncertainty?
On the flip-side of the unknown and the insecurity, uncertainty is also a gateway to opportunity. I want to share with you an athletic example from my life:
In May of 1999, I qualified as a local Big Island resident for Hawaii Ironman. It would be my third triathlon ever. From the moment I qualified, I felt the dread of uncertainty: One hundred and forty miles? How is this going to turn out? Am I going to finish this?
I wanted the comfort of reassurance. So I began to train as much as I could, along with the 50 hours a week I was working as a coffee farmer. But no amount of training brought me comfort and reassurance. Every Saturday, I rode the bike course just to convince myself that I could still do it. I ran and biked and swam as much as I could. With no rest days. And then…
Thirty-five days before the race, I woke up on a Sunday morning. Something was terribly wrong with my body. I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was about to die. My chest hurt. I was terrified. I had inflicted severe damage to the endocrine system of my body in my attempt to get beyond the uncertainty.
Now I had just thirty-five days to recover enough so that I did not die, yet train just enough to possibly finish the event. I’ve never felt so scared, so vulnerable.
This experience exposed the part of me that wanted to “solve” uncertainty to eliminate it from my life. In hindsight, I realize that I had created a strong link between uncertainty and fear. I realize now that, for me, uncertainty and fear were synonymous.
But there is more to uncertainty – and change – than fear and insecurity. If I had avoided facing the uncertainty of Ironman, I would not have completed that quest. I had to be patient and trusting to stay with with the quest of ironman long enough to get to the answer – the finish line.
All of us have committed to do something in our lives that we felt uncertain about. All of us have experienced the quest before. As we approach that day, that event, that duty, we have a choice:
- We can let the fear run us out of control; let it grip us and paralyze us. When it does, it distorts our perceptions and limits our capacity to respond.
- Or, we can be present with the fear. We can channel the fear to stimulate and pique our senses.
In times of uncertainty, fear can be a powerful resource. A fuel to awaken and stimulate and direct our awareness and attention to what is arising here and now. Certainly we can and should consider, anticipate and prepare for what may occur in the future. But we can only respond in this present moment.
We can’t know ahead of time how things will turn out. We have to give up that hope.
We cannot conquer or stop our fears. And we cannot eliminate change and uncertainty from our lives. Really!
Uncertainty is Vital!
If you knew right now exactly how the rest of your life is going to unfold so there is no uncertainty, no surprise, how much would you actually invest in your life today? Why bother?
With Beginner’s Mind, we find a way to approach uncertainty as opportunity. Young children seem to be more comfortable with uncertainty than adults.
They are much more familiar with the unfamiliar.
Their senses are wide open. They learn and respond quickly. Granted, they don’t have the wisdom we distill from past experience as we grow. But they are not constrained by ingrained patterns of behavior we may develop as adults that won’t help us to respond with innovation and brilliance to the change and uncertainty we experience now.
These challenging and uncertain times require brilliant response, not old patterns.
Let’s look at another skill that can empower our relationship with uncertainty:
Flexibility is an essential part of physical fitness. Flexibility gives us a greater range of motion, fluidity and ease. Ah, freedom of movement!
We can train flexibility for our minds, just as we train flexibility for the muscles, tendons, ligament and joints of our bodies.
Mind flexibility also gives us a greater range of movement, of adaptability. With flexibility of mind, we are less rigid and we can respond more articulately to uncertainty and change.
Train Body and Mind Together
You can train body and mind flexibility together. Devote 15-30 minutes to some calm and mindful stretching. Turn off the media for this – no podcast or netflix in the background. Just you in your body, and your mind. Calm, soothing music is fine.
Find static stretches – that is, stretches that you can hold for at least 30 seconds – that are appropriate for your current flexibility. Choose stretches you can relax into.
Slowly ease into each stretch until you feel tension in the muscles and connective tissues. Now, close your eyes and hold that stretch as you focus on the sensations you feel. Breathe slowly in and out. If you can, breathe through your nose, with your tongue resting just above your teeth along the gum line.
With your eyes closed, direct your breathing to the stretching tissues. Stay with the sensations you feel and relax into the stretch. With practice you can use this breathing technique to relax the tension in the muscles and connective tissues and lengthen them.
Obviously, your breath is not going directly to the muscles and connective tissues. However your mind-directed breathing is a technique to direct signals through your neural pathways to relax the stretching tissues.
When you do this for your body, it does affect your mind. You can use calm physical stretching to become more flexible in how you respond to the tensions and anxieties of uncertainty. When we tighten up mentally, we loose fluidity, agility, and range of mental motion. Our range of motion for making decisions is limited. We are limited and stiff. Often, a tight mind leads to tight circulation and higher blood pressure.
This body-mind connection isn’t limited to just flexibility. I have use mindful exercise training of my body – including flexibility, balance, stability, strength, endurance and even speed training – to also enhance the fitness of my mind.
You can affect change in your mind through your body. This is the essence of yoga. In fact, the word yoga means yoke or union. The union of body and mind.
Flexibility training gives us greater freedom, agility and articulation as we respond to uncertainty – physically, mentally, emotionally.
We can be less tense and more fluid. We can be less stiff and more agile.
This blog and the interactive webcast series I offer each Sunday are derived from my book series “Kaizen-durance, Your Aerobic Path to Mastery”, especially Book Three.
I acknowledge Jon Kabat-Zinn, Founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction as a source of inspiration and guidance in this webcast and blog series on Mind Fitness Skills for Challenging Times.
I wish you and your family health, well-being and brilliance.