What if you could step onto the mat, the handstand board, the rings, or the weight room, and be mentally “there” each and every time?
There’s quite a bit of misunderstandings and mysticism surrounding Zen and its practice but as I’ve written before, the actual practice of it is straightforward and highly practical for our hectic daily lives.
At its heart you are setting aside the BS of the day and bringing back focus to the here and now.
Now, that doesn’t mean you are going to have a great session each time – only a fool can guarantee you that – but your acquired focus make it better than training with your mind scattered and frazzled.
Learning to train the mind is just as important as training your muscles. And this is especially important when you want to learn skills such as the front lever, handstand, and planche, all of which require just as much concentration as muscle power.
In this article, I’ll be sharing some specifics that have helped me to do my best, in spite of all the varied stresses and less-than-ideal situations throughout my lifetime in fitness and training.
Don’t Create Stress By Trying Too Hard to Eliminate It
When I was younger I was pretty competitive. I wanted to be the best at martial arts, language, and exercise. I put an incredible amount of stress on myself to keep going and doing more and more.
At the time, I was away from my family in the States, and hadn’t met my wife yet. It was just me and only me.
As a foreigner in Japan, I felt I needed to prove myself and the only way to do that was to be better than the other people on the mat, or at least not be out-worked.
There were a lot of times when I had to do something that I really didn’t want to do. In fact, a lot of the time it was that way. But I learned to suck it up and tell myself that it was for my own good and that I would be a better person for it.
I used to sit and meditate every single day in order to zone out and de-stress myself.
Sounds good, right?
Well, not really. In fact, I was actually building more and more stress everyday.
In my quest to be better, I thought I needed to do more, and everyday things were slowly getting out of control. Needless to say I was not a pleasant person to be around and I would snap and get angry at silly little things.
I knew I needed to do something about it but, hey, I was busy getting better and needed to focus on doing more exercise and learning new moves.
This was an ongoing process for years. I remember not wanting to go to training sessions and just got through a lot of those practices by simply muscling my way through.
While I had the techniques of meditation that can induce mental calmness, instead of cultivating this calmness, I was burying the stress and displacing it rather than letting it fade away. It became a sort of “false calm” with the real stress boiling under the surface ready to burst open.
Finding True Calm (It’s Not as Hard as You Might Think)
So how do we reach an authentic place of mental calmness and steadiness? Well just like everything, it takes some practice and awareness.
The techniques of clearing the mind are easy to learn but difficult to apply consistently. It’s easy to meditate for a couple of minutes but as you go past five and into ten…. it’s that much harder to stop the tide of negative thoughts and imagery.
Well, you don’t have to spend hours in a zen temple like I did for all those years, and you don’t need to learn dozens of techniques and esoteric practices.
In fact, after all that advanced training, I realized that the basic “watching your breath” method that everyone learns in the beginning is the one that is the most useful and practical for real daily living.
Elemental Breathing Meditation
This simple technique may be both the easiest and most advanced mental training practice you’ll learn.
- In a comfortable position – choose sitting or lying down, and stay with it for a while before switching around – close your eyes and just observe your breath.
- Some teachers have you count, while others ask you to regulate the breath in some way. I’ve found it’s best just to “watch” your breath and concentrate not on controlling the inhale and exhale but simply to observe it.
- Set a timer and start at 5 minutes, adding a minute every day or so to a max of 15.
- It will be difficult at first, just like everything that’s worthwhile, but keep at it. Don’t do anything but concentrate on how you are breathing. Don’t force it and soon you’ll find that you’ll be “losing” yourself and the timer will ding before you know it.
- The key, and I cannot stress this enough, is to not strain. You can’t force yourself to relax! Keep at it everyday but if in a session you find yourself working too hard to concentrate, it’s best to bag it and try again later.
This is a wonderful technique that can take you very far, but it’s what I’ll share next that will help take you past simple techniques and into the fundamental ways to become mentally clear and strong.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
This is another simple yet incredibly important factor in getting the best out of your training session.
Do you really want to do this?
I mean deep down, are you at all hesitant about your goals and what you need to do to get there?
Training with a purpose is vitally important, not only because it directs your efforts in the right way, but it also makes it easier to get through those tough sessions when you would rather be doing anything else.
Will this be beneficial/rewarding to you?
If so, do it. If not, don’t do it. It’s that simple. It’s your choice.
However, if you decide to do it, go full in. When you wake up and feel tired, or just don’t feel like doing it, too bad! Get to your training space and get to it.
If it’s what you really want to do, you’ll find a way to do it.
How Finding My Own Motivation Kept Me Going
Truthfully, though I’ve made some great strides over the years with skills and improving my performance, it’s these last few months that I’ve really turned the corner and started firing on all cylinders.
I’ve been spending the last couple of years working hard on various projects and tasks for my business and gym. And it wasn’t all training that was necessarily driving me. It’s just the nature of it – I had responsibilities and did what I needed to do to get them done.
But as those assignments got ticked off the checklist, I was able to turn my training towards objectives that were extremely motivating for me. I started having a lot more fun with what I was doing and this allowed me to progress at a very fast pace.
So, cut off the fat and just focus on the meat of what you really want to do. It both clarifies your efforts and allows you to focus all of your mental energy on only that task. Because your mind is clear of the other clutter you start to see deeper into what you are doing.
Also, you’ll truly want to continue to work hard, and you won’t need to psych yourself up to do what you really want to do!
If You Have to Psych Yourself Up to Do Something, You Probably Don’t Want to Do it
Why do you want to psych yourself up anyway?
The image of people yelling at themselves in the mirror or blasting crazy music and popping smelling salts never really made much sense to me. How is that sustainable? And it definitely doesn’t seem to be very much fun.
We have the privilege of training and we’re lucky to be healthy and have the extra time to engage in these recreational activities.
98% of people reading this are not professional athletes, so we’re ostensibly doing this for our health and for fun. Do we really need to psych ourselves up for that?
Since it’s summer I’ve recently tried to get to the ocean as much as I can. Being in the ocean helps me stay mentally calm but I can’t get out to surf every day. That’s okay though because recently, ever since practicing the one arm handstand, my workouts have become like my “surfing” session of zen and meditation.
Just as in surfing, there are so many details and points to concentrate on in handbalance and other body control training. You work incredibly hard to paddle out and jump in at just the right time and then find your balance point on the board.
It’s the same with all the details and coordination on a particularly hard body skill like the one arm handstand.
And just as in surfing when you hit that “zero point” balance and all that effort fades away into a wholistic, full body awareness, what you are doing becomes more of a moving meditation instead of simple exercise where you are mindlessly going through the motions.
The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.
There’s always a guy searching for the biggest waves and complaining when the sets aren’t huge instead of just being able to appreciate the fact that he’s out in the water surfing everyday.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to surf big waves.
But stressing out when the waves aren’t huge takes the fun out of being in the water. And learning to surf whatever comes your way will make surfing (and life) much more enjoyable.
And it’s exactly the same with training and exercise. You can become so goal focused (i.e., bigger and stronger muscles, faster and crazier tricks), that you lose sight of the fact that you are supposed to enjoy this shit!
When we are younger we tend to go through life searching for the newest, biggest, best, more exciting WHATEVER is out there. We create so much mental stress that it’s only natural that something’s gotta give. And that mental stress usually manifests as a physical ailment.
We tend to want to do everything under the sun and get as fast as we can. And it is possible to maybe get a skill faster when you are young since you can muscle your way through it and recover faster than an old guy like me.
The mental attitude of a young practitioner – I refer to a person who practices skills – can be very unstable and quick to anger if their skill work is not progressing at the speed or level that they would like. They might be on top of the world one day and pumped to train and then down the other day due to something that happened in their personal life. And that unfortunately will disrupt their training for that day and all the rest to follow.
You might be able to push through with simple sheer determination. But that won’t last forever.
We’ve got too much crap going on in our lives, our workout, on our computer, in our phone, and everywhere. In our search for the “biggest wave,” we’ve accumulated too much stuff and all that baggage is weighing us down in our quest to just “be”.
Redefining Progress and Success
I am at a very interesting point in my life.
I no longer care about being the best, the biggest, the coolest, or the whatever. Sure, I want to give my best effort in everything that I do. But it’s not about a competition for me any longer. For me it’s about the experience and learning, exploring and constantly working on trying to enjoy the process each and everyday.
I KNOW that I’m going to get the skills that I want because I show up and do the work every single day.
It’s not always sexy and cool like in the movies. There isn’t any Rocky music playing in the background – though that would be awesome… I should hire a guy with a boombox to walk behind me all day – and I don’t have anybody cheering me on.
But actually, I do.
My family, friends, students, and other loved ones that believe in me and count on me to be strong for them are always there with me. And they definitely offer real motivation and keep my head clear and strong.