Why You Need to Go Out And Fail

Sad by Kate Alexanderson

If you never even try you’re worse than a failure.

I used to have a serious confidence problem.

It shouldn’t really be surprising, I was fat and awkward and nerdy and shy. Alone those attributes tend to not contribute to being bold and self-confident, combined they made for the perfect cocktail of personality traits to absolutely destroy any chance of committing myself to anything.

As a result of that, there were tons of opportunities I missed out on my whole life because I was too scared to fail.

Honestly there are too many to count, but one that comes to mind from when I was really young is Space Camp.

Remember Space Camp? If you grew up in the early 90s and watched TV at all you ought to. As a kid it looked amazing. You got to fly off to this camp to do incredible astronaut stuff and go through all this learning and training. It was like nerdy Disneyland.

I begged my parents to go, but it was really expensive. After a while though they gave in and said if I really wanted to go, they’d save up a bit and send me that next summer. I was ecstatic at first – I’d finally get to go after what was probably months of begging – after a few days though I started to worry.

I’d be surrounded by new people in a completely unfamiliar place thousands of miles from home. What if I did something stupid in front of everyone? What if no one there liked me? What if the training was too hard or the people running the camp were mean?

The day after I realized all that and freaked out I told my parents I’d changed my mind. I didn’t need to go to Space Camp anymore, they shouldn’t bother saving for it. I can’t remember the excuse I made up to explain away their confusion over my sudden 180, but I couldn’t admit to them that I was too much of a coward to even try.

More Despicable Than Failure

Thankfully I’ve gotten over those issues since becoming an adult, but I’ll always regret all the opportunities I let pass by because I was scared of being a failure. The most frustrating part of it is, I was much worse than a failure.

That idea might be a bit strange at first. There’s such an enormous amount of negative stigma attached to the concept of failure that some people consider it to be the very worst thing, or at least consider being a failure the worst thing you can be.

As bad as failure might seem to you, never even trying is far worse.

You can learn from failure. You can’t learn from never doing anything. On top of that when you try seriously, really commit yourself, and still fail then not only do you grow from the experience but that failure will generally come from some factor outside of your control.

In other words if you try your hardest and fail, the blame for the failure (if there even should be any) really shouldn’t fall on you. If you never try you’ve already failed and you’ve failed for a reason that was completely and entirely under your control and of your own volition. It’s your own damn fault.

When ‘I Tried’ Is Bullshit

Not everyone is so brazenly cowardly as I was in my youth. Some people are just as terrified of trying as I was, but are too embarrassed or scared to admit it so they pretend to try.

Imagine someone who wants to be a published author. They have some ideas and they write a couple short stories and maybe even a full novel. They send them all out to a handful of agents or publishers and they all get turned down.

The ‘aspiring author’ says something to the effect of, “Well, I tried. I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” and promptly abandons their path toward author-dom. In my book this basically amounts to mental masturbation – you tell yourself you did the best you could and it feels good that you ‘tried’ and you get a little boost of self-satisfaction and move on.

You feel like you’ve accomplished something when in reality you’re just giving yourself a convenient excuse to give in to your fears while saving face and not looking like a coward to others or, possibly even worse, yourself.

Nine times out of ten, the phrase ‘I tried’ is bullshit.

People who’ve genuinely earned the title of failure, people who have committed themselves fully but couldn’t make it, almost never say ‘I tried’. The reason for that is that ‘I tried’ is what people say when they give up.

When people who commit themselves fully, who really try, fail at something they don’t quit. They learn from that failure and try again.

Why People Choose to Be Worse Than Failures

I’ve found in all the examples I’ve come across of people giving up before they’ve started or half-assing things so they can feel good and say they tried the motivations for such behavior boil down into two categories – fear and laziness.

In my opinion fear is the more common one, though I’ll admit it may just be easier to recognize because it preyed on me for the better part of my life. This can be fear of consequences (not asking out someone you like because they might reject you), fear of uncertainty (not changing careers to one you think you’ll enjoy more) or fear of some other aspect – the uniting thread is that there’s something that scares you and it’s easier just to avoid it.

When it comes to laziness it’s usually tied to a sense of complacency – things are just fine the way they are so why commit to something that’s going to shake everything up? This can also be expressed via a sense of defeatism. If you say to yourself, “Why bother? I’m not going to be able to do it anyway,” then you might as well be honest with yourself and admit you’re just too lazy.

Seeking the Epic Fail

So you recognize some of these things in yourself, maybe in an opportunity you passed up you wish you’d taken or maybe in an endeavor you took a dive on in order to say that you at least tried. Now that you know it’s a problem, what do you do about it?

Learn to chase after the huge, epic failures.

It sounds strange at first, seeing as how we should be chasing success rather than failures, but chasing success is what everyone else does and when you don’t get it encourages you to be depressed and discouraged and quit. Given that we’ve established you’re a quitter, that’s just not going to work.

People who have earned success did it by first earning hundreds and thousands of failures. Sure statistics dictates you’re going to have a few lottery winners, but you shouldn’t base your actions on the anomalies. When you look at the stories of people who have made it starts sounding a bit repetitive after a while. They all fail, adjust, fail some more, keep adjusting and don’t quit until they’ve got it figured out.

If you think Angry Birds was Rovio‘s first game, you are likely extremely deluded as to how the world actually works.

Instead re-frame your approach so you get into things totally expecting some manner of enormous failure. Not in the sense of pretending to try and setting yourself up for failure, but in the sense of going all in knowing that if you fail you’ll have earned that failure and you’ll learn from it.

Understand that when you’ve really thrown everything you have into something failure is a wonderful thing. It’s a badge of honor. It’s something you should be proud of.

When you start to back out of something before you’ve started stop what you’re doing and devote yourself to going all in and failing. When your subconscious says, “Don’t do that, what if it doesn’t work out? What if we fail?” Slap your subconscious across its incorporeal face and shout, “Fuck that. I’m going to go out and fail like a hero. I’m going to earn that failure, and like slain foes I will pile those failures against the wall between me and success until I can march right over and take what I’ve earned.”

Then go forth and be incredible.

Do you have a trick for getting over your fear of even beginning? What are some things you regret never doing because you were too scared to commit? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Kate Alexanderson

The Basics of Mindfulness & Moving Meditation

A Crossroads by Ornoth

Mindfulness may have links to Buddhism, but there’s really nothing ‘spiritual’ about it.

Mindfulness has been becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ over the last few years and I think in many ways is becoming one of the next new buzzwords.

I’m conflicted in how I feel about this – on one hand I think mindfulness applied properly is an extremely useful tool in improving people’s lives and is genuinely something I feel everyone should practice, on the other hand I’m concerned about the corruptive process of becoming a fad.

Given the new interest in it, I thought this was as good a time as ever to explore the basics of mindfulness and introduce one of my absolute favorite techniques for cultivating it – moving meditation.

What is ‘Mindfulness’?

Mindfulness, put simply, is a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of your experiences occurring in the moment.

There are at least two key parts to this. We’ll start with the end and work our way back. Mindfulness occurs in the moment. That means that when you’re being mindful you aren’t thinking about things in the past or the future. In fact, true mindfulness means not even recognizing at the time that the past or the future even exist.

This is probably the hardest part for most people to master – the majority of people dwell heavily on the past (regrets, nostalgia, & what-ifs), on the future (hopes, worries, goals & fears) or both that existing completely in the present is a big change. This isn’t to say thinking about the past and the future is inherently destructive, just that most people take it to the extreme.

It is important to learn from your mistakes, but once you’ve learned from them you need to let them go – not chain yourself to regret over something that is long gone and beyond your control. Similarly it is important to plan for the future and to anticipate problems that may lie ahead, but once you’ve planned for them continuing to worry or fear things that haven’t yet and may never happen only wastes your time and makes you miserable.

Regardless to be truly mindful is to recognize that that neither the past, which is gone forever, nor the future, which may never come at all, don’t really exist for you – only the moment you are occupying right now.

The second key part is a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of your experiences. That means not only being completely aware of as much as is occurring to and around you, but also not making any kind of judgement of that experience – simply acknowledging it as it is.

This is not as easy as it sounds either, particularly since we are fairly well wired to make some kind of value judgement of every single experience we have. From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense, we tend to immediately categorize things at the very least into positive/pleasant or negative/unpleasant stimuli.

Mindfulness lets go of this instinct to judge. When practicing mindfulness you aim to be aware of as much as humanly possible occurring around and within you, but to not categorize anything as positive or negative. When mindful you become aware of something, acknowledge it and move on.

In many ways this makes mindfulness very similar to standard meditation. The main difference being that in standard meditation you want to acknowledge thoughts and feelings then dismiss them until your mind is empty – when practicing mindfulness you want to do the same except to hang on to the thoughts about what’s occurring in the moment and to dismiss thoughts of the past, future, or those straying from what’s around and within you.

The very best example in my opinion of someone who is completely in a state of mindfulness is a pro athlete who is in ‘the zone’. Being ‘in the zone’ or in a state of Mushin means that the person’s mind is not thinking about the past, or the future – they’re really not even thinking too hard about what’s going on around them- they’re simply aware of it and their actions flow freely as a response to stimulus with no decisions or judgment going on.

Imagine a professional boxer in a fight. She isn’t thinking about her next career move, she isn’t wondering if she picked the right coach, and when she sees a punch coming she doesn’t deliberate what would be the best thing to do or think, “Oh man, that’s a good hit, didn’t see that coming,” – the punch comes and she moves. Instantly. Instinctively. There is no decision to move, it just happens. She doesn’t think about striking back, her fist moves of its own will.

That is an expression of mindfulness.

Why Practice Mindfulness

You might be saying to yourself, “Ok, that’s cool and all, but why should I care? This mindfulness stuff seems really hard.”

It Lowers Stress – Practicing mindfulness (and meditation in general, actually) helps reduce stress in a handful of ways. The first is that the clarity of thought existing in the present moment brings helps you think through the things that would normally stress you out and let them go. On top of that, mindfulness practice actually helps you perform better at everything you do – when you aren’t distracted by everything else and can focus on each task as it comes it’s a lot easier to give 100% on each one.

Being able to perform better means less worries, failures and problems to stress you out. On top of all that, you don’t just feel less stressed – mindfulness practice reduces cortisol levels meaning you’re less chemically stressed too. Your hormones, particularly cortisol, can make or break your efforts to change your body composition.

It Rewires Your Brain – In a study by the University of Oregon researchers found that mindfulness practice actually resulted in physical changes in the brain. Not only was axonal density improved meaning there were more signaling connections formed in participants’ brains, but also increased development of myelin sheaths around the axons in certain brain regions.

What does that mean in plain English? It means mindfulness practice physically changes your brain to work more efficiently and be better protected from mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. You think better, more clearly and are at a significantly reduced risk for illness – sounds worth it to me.

It Improves Sleep – How many times have you been stuck tossing and turning because you just can’t shut off your brain? That kind of insomnia can shave more than a few hours off your total sleeping time, which adds up to a lot. In one study as little as two fewer hours of sleep in a night led to an average of a 20% reduction in a maximal bench press test. It also pushes your cortisol up and causes havoc with the rest of your hormones making it extremely difficult to put on muscle, lose fat and recover from exercise. Sleep deprivation is also linked to depression, reduced immune function and lots of other unpleasant things.

Sleep is really important.

Mindfulness training teaches you to master your thoughts and where your attention focuses. Combine that with the reduced stress levels and that means no more monkey mind and a much, much easier time slipping off to sleep when you actually want to.

It Increases Mental Control – The journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reports that mindfulness training actively increases your conscious control over your mind’s cortical alpha rhythms. The reason this is important is that your alpha rhythms are largely responsible for determining what it is you’re paying attention to.

Increased control over your alpha rhythms means practicing mindfulness brings a heightened ability to ignore or tolerate pain, control emotions and make more rational decisions. It also helps serve as the ‘off switch’ to dismiss any thoughts that might be worrying you, keeping you up at night or making you depressed.

How to Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is simultaneously easy and difficult. It accomplishes this contradiction by being an extremely simple process that anyone can learn that is so contrary to the standard mindset that almost no one ever actually does it.

Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways. The first that most people think of is zazen, or seated meditation. If you’re a complete beginner to meditation then zazen may be a good place to start if you want to be a bit more traditional or just think it looks cool to sit on a pillow in the middle of a room and burn incense.

Another option though that I honestly find to be a much better expression of applied mindfulness is moving meditation.

Moving meditation, also sometimes called active meditation, entails entering a state of mindfulness while engaged in an action. That means being fully engaged in the present moment with a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of what you’re experiencing as it pertains to the action you’re taking. It means being deliberate and purposeful in everything you’re doing.

A good mental image is to picture a tai chi master flowing through a set of forms or a yogi going through a set of asanas. They aren’t thinking about something that happened yesterday or worrying about what they’re going to do tomorrow, their thoughts are focused entirely on the precision of their actions, the smoothness of their movements, the reaction of their bodies and the tempo of their breathing. They are fully and totally engaged in that single action in that single moment.

The reason this is so difficult for a lot of people is it’s the direct opposite of what I consider to be a standard of distracted half-assery prevalent in modern culture. We multi-task as a rule, we’re constantly distracted by our phones, checking social media, planning for tomorrow, thinking about a thousand other things that we’re rarely completely focused on the thing we’re actually doing.

An easy introduction to active meditation is to practice a little mindfulness with your next meal. This is most easily done when eating alone, you can certainly do it while carrying on a conversation but it will add a bit more difficulty.

Sit down with your meal, with no other distractions, and really focus on eating that food. Do not turn on the TV. Do not touch your phone. Experience your meal. Take the time to smell it, to pick out the different scents of the ingredients. Chew slowly and deliberately. Pay attention to each of the separate flavors and how they combine and contrast with each other. How does it feel to chew it? What’s the temperature of the food like? What are you hearing around you? You get the picture.

In essence, savor your damn meal.

You’ll find that this attention to the task at hand, being fully present in the moment, really enhances your experience of the meal. Even if that meal is cold McDonald’s take out in a back alley.

Once you’ve mastered this process with meals – which I find to be the best way to start for most people – extend that same frame of mind to other tasks. Even if it’s something as mundane as walking out to the car to go to work, be all in about it. Are you stomping out or dragging your feet? How much noise do your footsteps make? How do you feel at that moment? What do you see, and smell and hear?

This type of mindfulness practice can be applied to any action, or even every action throughout your whole day. It makes everything you do feel deliberate and purposeful and, through reflection and refinement, eventually it will make every action better.

Do you practice mindfulness? Have you tried any types of meditation, active or otherwise? What’s been the biggest challenge for you in becoming more mindful? Share it with us in the comments! We love hearing from everyone.

Photo Credit: Ornoth

What’s English Prime and Why Does it Matter?

Optimus Prime by El Dave

No, E Prime doesn’t have anything to do with Transformers.

English Prime, or E Prime, is a constructed variant of standard English developed in the 60s in order to provide a form of English that reduced or eliminated any difficulty of the listener or reader to distinguish between fact and opinion and make the biases of the writer or speaker more evident.

Like most languages created for the purpose of promoting sweeping social and cultural good (cough, Esperanto, cough) it never really took off beyond a small group of hardcore devotees.

While it’s merits as a clearer form of English are debatable, the premise behind it and the form of it can actually teach us a lot about the way we perceive things in the world and help us be more mindful in our thinking.

How Does E Prime Work?

In it’s essence, E Prime works by eliminating all forms of the verb ‘to be’ in English. The idea behind this is that by removing the copula it removes a speakers ability to make value statements about a thing or event as if they were objective facts.

In general, people do tend to abuse the use of ‘to be’ in English. This does cause some faulty reasoning from time to time, so the premise at least has some merit in that regard.

Take for example the assertion, “That movie was good”. We can’t use ‘was’ in E Prime since it’s a form of ‘to be’, so you have to reword that sentence as “I enjoyed that movie,” “That movie made me laugh”, etc. This changes the structure in such a way that you are no longer describing the movie itself but instead are describing your own experience of the movie. It makes clear that you are making a subjective value statement rather than an objective one.

Now I don’t think everyone should actually start speaking like this – there are too many linguistic issues with it in my opinion to make it viable large scale – but I do think we can learn a lot about how we approach things by the way it works.

E Prime and Mindfulness

Even if it isn’t valuable as an actual means of communication E Prime is valuable as a tool for reflection on mindfulness and the way we think about things.

First of all it helps us notice that many times things expressed as absolute facts are really opinions. When you remove the absoluteness of the copula it reveals the fact that everything we express is a reflection of our own experience.

When someone says, “That’s a bad idea,” they may really mean “I dislike that idea,” “That idea won’t work,” or another similar sentiment. Rather than just dismiss it as ‘bad’ they have to elaborate at least a little bit to explain what their problem is. When people make a hard assertion like “[blank] is [blank]” that assertion should always be understood as being colored in some way by their subjective experience.

If you say something like “Earth is the center of the universe,” E Prime makes it clear that what you really mean is “Earth appears to be the center of the universe.” This exposes more clearly that you’re just relating the experience of a fallible observer and not making an absolute, infallible statement.

That’s not to say you can’t make statements like that in E Prime. “The Sun orbits the Earth,” is a good example of an authoritative sounding E Prime compliant sentence that doesn’t really reveal that it is colored by the perceptions of an observer.

That’s fine. The point is really just to recognize that whenever people express a value statement or report actions they are always heavily colored by their own subjectivity.

The reason this is important for increasing our mindfulness is that it reminds us constantly that when you’re talking to people the things they discuss are always filtered through the subjective lens of their world view. Being aware of this in the moment helps us make better judgments based on the reports of others and helps us better understand the thoughts and motivations of those around us.

Similarly it reminds us of our own subjectivity and fallibility in the statements we make. It discourages us from making hard, absolutist statements about things as we recognize that we can only report our own experience. This understanding makes it much easier for us to be open to changing our views on things which is an important part of growing as a person.

If you only think of your statements and opinions in terms of absolutes, it makes them harder to change. Someone who says, “He’s wrong,” is less likely to reconsider than the person who says, “I don’t agree with that.” The second person, in some small way at least, recognizes that their own thinking may be incorrect.

Now a quick note on subjectivity – it’s important to understand that people’s statements are influenced by their own subjective experience, but there are still things that are objectively true. I don’t buy the whole “That’s your Truth but not my Truth,” idea. However, if you think I’m wrong and that there’s no such thing as objective truth, I encourage you to decide gravity is no longer part of your subjective truth and then to step out of a second story window.

E Prime, while not really useful as a communication tool in my opinion, can help us be more mindful about our own thinking and the thinking of others by reminding us that everyone’s statements pass through the filter of their own experience before being expressed into the world. Are there any other lessons you’ve learned from the way E Prime works? Have you actually tried using E Prime on a day to day basis? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: ElDave

Shut Up and Do Something

The Gnome in Somebody's Front Yard by B Tal

Please don’t be an Underpants Gnome.

This may come across a bit as a personal rant, so I apologize in advance, but I’m sick to death of people who whine about their situation or talk about improving it but never actually do anything.

I call them Underpants Collectors – inspired both by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness’s excellent article and the hilarious South Park episode that inspired it. Underpants Collectors are people who want to accomplish something, lose weight, learn a new language or maybe start a business and quit their 9 to 5 but never actually do anything to get there. These people feel like they’re working hard, but they never actually reach their goal.

If this sounds like you, keep reading – we can fix it.

Two Examples of Voracious Underpants Collectors

Here are two examples, pulled from real people I know whose names have been changed to avoid embarrassment. Keeping with our South Park inspiration, let’s call them Stan and Kyle. Stan and Kyle are Underpants Collectors – people who, like the gnomes in the episode, have a starting point and an ending point but nothing in between so they just sit at step 1.

Stan is severely overweight. I’m talking obese. He knows it too, he’s been trying to lose weight for years. He picks a plan he likes or starts an exercise routine and sticks to it for a little while then quits. He talks about how he knows he needs to eat better while simultaneously cramming a fast food burger into his mouth. Stan gives every impression of knowing what he needs to do, and he knows that he has the knowledge to lose the weight, but he’s never successful.

After a while Stan starts to get whiny. It’s so hard to lose weight, he’s been trying for so long. Nothing ever seems to work. He talks at length about how great it would be to lose weight and how much he wants it, then skips his scheduled workout to catch American Idol. Internally Stan’s started to cast himself as a victim in all this and is steadily building an enormous collection of underpants.

Kyle is in a similar boat. He really wants to quit his job and start his own business. He has dreams of being self-sufficient, maybe not independently wealthy but able to make a comfortable living while setting his own hours and working from home.

Kyle talks endlessly of this goal. He obsesses over every scrap of information on starting your own business or making money online. He recommends get rich quick (and slow) books to all of his friends and family. Hour after hour of every day are devoted to reading and researching and learning about starting a business – and that’s it.

His obsession with figuring out what the best thing is to do means that he never actually does anything. His days are spent pouring over blog posts and growing a formidable pile of underpants.

Embracing Action

Do you see what the shared problem is between Stan and Kyle?

Both of them need to shut up and do something! They need to stop worrying about getting everything perfect or talking about what they need to do and just do it. Sometimes this is also called paralysis by analysis, but what it’s called doesn’t matter – it’s a waste of time and will never get you anywhere.

The fact is when it comes to accomplishing something, anything at all, the person who does something completely wrong is still going to get farther than the person who does nothing at all. I don’t care if you’re doing something as moronic as the Shake Weight – that’s still better than doing absolutely nothing.

Even if you fail it’s better than inaction. I love to fail. Failing is probably the single best learning experience you can have and if you never try you can never have the opportunity to experience it.

So if this sounds like you, if you’re the kind of person who reads tons of books and blogs and tutorials on how to do something and you talk about your goals all the time but never actually do anything about them – shut up and do something. Don’t collect underpants, go accomplish something.

Have any other advice for Underpants Collectors? Are you a former time-waster who’s taken charge and actually gotten things done? Think I’m being too mean to the whiners who never actually do what they want to do? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: B Tal

Why You’re Stupid (and What You Can Do About It)

Most Studious Senior Superlatives by North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

You’re stupid.

Don’t take that the wrong way though, I’m stupid too. We’re all stupid. It’s not insulting, it’s not even something to be upset about, and best of all it’s something we can all work on fixing.

No one knows everything. Regardless of who you are there is some area of life in which you’re completely stupid. You don’t know the first thing about it. I know there are tons of things I’m completely stupid about, from complex things like astrophysics to relatively mundane things like the rules of cricket. In general I’m ok with that. Being stupid in certain areas doesn’t bother me.

You may at this point be saying, “Wait, you mean to say everyone’s ignorant not stupid. There’s a difference.”

I don’t make a distinction between the two, because I honestly don’t see a difference. I think everyone has the same capacity for learning (including those with learning disabilities, though it may be more challenging) so if you don’t know about something than you’re stupid when it comes to that topic. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and read ‘ignorant’ every time the word ‘stupid’ comes up.

So we’ve established that there are tons of things that I, you and everyone else are completely stupid about. Isn’t that kind of a downer? Now what?

You Can’t Know Everything

You could certainly see it as depressing, but you shouldn’t. The scope of knowledge is infinite, or near enough as makes no difference, so no one can be reasonably expected to ever know everything – we’re only human. Being stupid about things isn’t in and of itself a bad thing it’s just a part of the human condition. There will never come a time when you aren’t stupid about something.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on becoming less stupid.

Sure, you can just accept that there are lots of things you’re stupid about. You can own it, internalize it and move on. If that’s the way you feel about things, you’re on the wrong site. Go watch cat videos on YouTube.

We only get so much time here, and I’m not inclined to waste any of it. I always want to be improving myself and I think you should want to improve yourself too. I recognize that I’ll never know everything, but that doesn’t matter – as long as I learn something new everyday then I’m a little less stupid. That’s progress.

Becoming Less Stupid

The best way to start becoming less stupid is to make a commitment to learn one new thing everyday. It doesn’t have to be anything big – I don’t expect you to wake up tomorrow morning and memorize Pi to 30 digits – just something new. Everyday take a little bit of time to reflect on what things you are completely stupid about and go learn a little something about one of them.

It’s better to start with things you have a little bit of interest in.

The point here is to make a commitment, a real solid commitment, to improve your knowledge just a little bit every single day. Go watch a short educational video. Go read an article about a topic you don’t know very much about. Go learn a new skill. If you’re reading this I know you have Internet access and, while the Internet can at times be a dark and perilous place, it can also be an infinite resource for expanding your understanding of the universe and everything in it.

So which will you choose? Do you want to knowingly remain stupid – or do you want to work just a little each day in order to be just a little better, a little smarter, than you were yesterday? I know my choice.

Think I’ve got it right? Annoyed I called you stupid? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Photo Credit: North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

Weaving Zen: A Life Lesson Learned from Knitting

Knitting Together by Kalexanderson

I too only knit in full Stormtrooper armor.

Have you ever been so frustrated, so infuriated, by a task that seems to be absolutely impossible that you want to hurl something heavy through the nearest window and put your fist through the wall?

That was me the first time I tried knitting.

Every loop, every stitch, I fought for tooth and nail. I’d struggle and push and work the needle in just to have it poke through the center of the yarn. No matter what I did I couldn’t get the needle through the right loop. When I finally did, the whole thing was too tight for me to pull the yarn through to make the stitch.

After probably close to an hour of fighting with those cursed needles all I had to show for my struggles were a few inches of hideously woven yarn and sufficient amounts of rage to boil water on my forehead.

I was beginning to think I was just not cut out for knitting.

That’s when I made the best decision I possibly could. I gave up.

Learning to Relax

Not gave up like quit, but gave up like quit caring. I remembered what I’d learned a decade ago playing Mario Kart. I relaxed.

It made an incredible difference. After unraveling the unholy abomination I’d previously crafted I started over, this time not caring so much that I did everything so perfectly.

Chaining on was a piece of cake. Actually knitting and purling was even easier. Within ten minutes I had a square of woven yarn twice the size of my previous creation and it actually looked nice.

Relaxing made all the difference in the world.

It made me realize that our moods and attitudes have a profound effect on our performance of day to day activities, even things that we wouldn’t expect. I was so frustrated and uptight about my difficulties knitting that I was making every stitch super tight – which just made everything exponentially more difficult for me. When I loosened up, so did my knitting.

I’ve heard other people describe similar situations with other skills. For example, while I’m not a shooter I’ve heard plenty people tell me that the biggest mistake most people make when they’re learning to shoot is being way too tense. They don’t start improving and doing well until they learn to relax.

This principle applies to the rest of our lives too. If you’re too uptight and stressed all the time you make everything you do exponentially more difficult. Conversely, everything you do will come a little bit easier if you learn to do it with a relaxed, mindful attitude.

Practicing Mindful Relaxation

The first step in applying this principle to the rest of your life is to learn how to be relaxed and mindful in the first place.

The easiest place to begin is by finding something that you can focus on in a simple, calm and mindful way. As it turns out, knitting works very well. There is a basic zen aspect to knitting in its repetitiveness, and if your mind starts to wander or you begin to become to frustrated it will quickly be reflected in your work.

Knitting well demands you be attentive but relaxed, mindful of what you’re doing but not rigid. It’s essentially like doing kata in a martial art, practicing yoga or lifting weights.

Incidentally, those are two other very good options for things you can practice to help learn the skill of mindful relaxation. Anything that you can do that requires your full, alert and relaxed attention is a good choice.

Once you’ve chosen your activity, you need to start practicing it!

Not just mindlessly though. The goal here is to strengthen your ability to be calm, relaxed and present. How do you do that?

To start with, you need to be happy. At least a little. If you’re finding that hard, force yourself to smile a little bit. Even if it’s a fake one, it can help cheer you up a bit.

Second, you need to be focused. Don’t let your mind wander. Don’t think about what you have to do later. Don’t worry about all the bills. You are doing one thing right now and nothing else. All of your focus is on that thing, nothing in the world exists but that thing.

Be careful, because some people tend to get a little tense when they focus that hard. Don’t think of it like concentrating, this isn’t like cramming last minute for a test the next day. You just want to let all the distractions and worries fade away until all that’s left is what you’re doing right now. Practicing a little meditation may help.

Get comfortable in that mindset and let it stay as long as you can. As distractions or other thoughts come up, brush them away again. Maybe smile a little more. At this point you should be feeling not so much a sense of fun, but a sense of peace.

Hold onto that feeling. That’s what you want to cultivate.

When you’re finished with your activity, wrap up comfortably and go about your day, but remember that feeling.

All throughout the rest of your day try to call that feeling back up. When you’re at work, or doing the dishes, call that feeling back up. Smile a little, and let yourself be relaxed and peaceful and in the moment.

Pretty soon, you’ll find that you can call that feeling up at will. Once you can do that, learn to bring it up as an automatic response anytime you feel yourself getting frustrated or angry.

Once you can do that, you’ll find day to day tasks getting easier, life won’t feel quite so stressful anymore, and you’ll likely see a gigantic boost in productivity.

All of that, just from knitting.

Have you tried any of these mindfulness techniques in the past? What did you think? Do you agree that things come easier when you’re relaxed, or do you succeed more when fueled by stress? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Kalexanderson

Defining Minimalism

I want to be where your heart is home by Janine

Minimalism isn’t about empty space, it’s about full experiences.

When I mention to people that we’re minimalists the responses tend to fall into one of two categories. The first category involves people giving me looks like I just told them I habitually stomp on kittens and wondering aloud how can I live without item X, usually television.

The second group involves haughty scoffing and being told that we’ll never be True Minimalists ™ until we can fit all our worldly possessions into a single carry-on bag.

Both of these groups suffer from the same problem. They just don’t know what minimalism really is – at least not to us. I’d like to fix that.

Minimalism as a Tool

Minimalism is not a doctrine, or a club. You can’t apply for a minimalist card and there aren’t rules you have to follow to call yourself a minimalist. Minimalism is a tool.

Sometimes minimalism is a razor that you use to carefully cut the excess things from your life, other times it’s a lens through which to view the world in order to better make decisions, other times still it may be a fire hose to blast away the grime and muck years spent in a materialist culture have caked onto your lifestyle.

I already know this is going to surprise some people and anger others, but it’s a misconception to believe that you have to own very few things to be minimalist. For reasons we’ll touch on shortly most people do go down that road, but it’s not in any way a requirement. It’s entirely possible to own a car, a house, a TV and lots of other stuff and still be a minimalist.

Defining Minimalism

So if getting rid of all of your stuff isn’t necessarily a requirement for minimalism, how do we define it?

Minimalism to us is an attitude. In a society that tries its hardest to make us define ourselves by our possessions minimalism makes us take a step back and ask if the things we own are genuinely necessary to leading a fulfilled life.

At its core minimalism is a way of focusing on quality over quantity and objectively determining priorities.

That means that it’s not a competition. You’re not getting any points for being ‘more minimalist’ than someone else, and being minimalist for minimalism’s sake completely defeats the purpose. If you’re doing it for any reason other than to improve your own life, you’re doing it wrong.

That also means minimalist living for me is going to look different from minimalist living for you which will look different from minimalist living for someone else.

Minimalism doesn't have to look like this.

Minimalism doesn’t have to look like this.

How to Apply Minimalism to Your Life

The easiest area of life to improve – and consequently the area most people get hung up on when talking about minimalism – is that of your possessions.

In most developed countries and particularly in the United States there is an enormous amount of societal pressure to acquire more and better things. We’re encourage to rank and judge each other by what kind of car we drive, how big our house is and whether or not we’ve got the latest clothes and gadgets.

For a lot of people this system doesn’t exactly lead to a fulfilled, meaningful life. In fact for all the cool stuff we have nowadays one of the complaints most people have is a general feeling of purposelessness.

Minimalism can help you find your purpose by removing all the things that aren’t adding any real value to your life so you can focus more on the things that are.

A good way to start is to look at each thing you own individually and ask yourself if you really need it. You have to really be honest with yourself here, particularly since the fear of losing something is a lot stronger psychologically than any pain of its absence and it will be easy to convince yourself you might die if you throw out that CD collection you haven’t touched in ten years.

Once you get used to looking at everything you own and asking, “Do I really need this?” You can start applying the same principles to other areas of your life.

Advanced Minimalism

That minimalist razor isn’t just for use on your possessions. You can apply the same attitude to your habits, your goals, your work and just about every other aspect of your life.

We’ll start with your habits. Look at your daily routine and ask yourself with each thing you do, “Is that really something that will make me happier?”

It’s easy to spend hours and hours each day watching TV, paying video games or aimlessly poking around the Internet but is there something else you could be doing that would add more overall enjoyment to your life?

What about your goals?

I know one of my personal faults is I tend to be overly ambitious. There are so many things that I want to accomplish I frequently get tied up in knots trying to work toward all of them all at once. By going down your list of goals and ruthlessly paring away the ones that won’t have the biggest impact on your life you leave substantially more time to focus on the ones that will make the most difference.

Some Pitfalls to Avoid

The biggest problem I see is a lack of self-honesty.

The many faces of minimalism means that, even though I may not see the value in it, if you honestly would lead a less fulfilled life without your extensive collection of My Little Pony memorabilia than so be it – you are free to continue your Brony ways.

We get into trouble though when people delude themselves into thinking that way around things that aren’t really making them happier. Distinguishing between the genuine personal necessity of an item and the extreme fear of losing something can be very difficult.

Another problem I see a lot is people pursuing minimalism for the wrong reasons. Sometimes these people are well-meaning, other times they’re pompous jerks who just want another reason to assert moral superiority or compete with others.

Regardless of the motivations if you get into minimalism for the wrong reasons it can easily make you more miserable instead of more happy. While I think applying minimalist principles can make most people happy, I recognize it’s not for everyone. Some people are really happier surrounded by stuff they don’t need.

The key again (this should seem like a recurring theme by now) is to take the time to consider what would really make you happy and then follow that path – minimalist or not.

Do you agree with our definition? Do you think we completely missed the mark? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Janine, Practical Owl

6 Excellent Reasons Why We Don’t Own a TV

Garbage Day by TJDewey

Sorry TV, we just don’t need you anymore.

When meeting new people most aren’t that surprised by our desire to travel the world, few are daunted by our outspoken rejection of the broken corporate lifestyle and most aren’t put off by the fact that we eat like cavemen – but there is one thing about us that consistently shocks people.

We don’t own a TV.

I guess it’s telling of the hold that television has on us culturally that, of all the ways in which we lead our lives down the path of non-conformity, it’s the absence of a flashing advertisement box that most people find inconceivable.

So why don’t we own one? I think Jonathan Fields Milburn of The Minimalists answers that question best saying, “Because I’d watch it. A lot.” Just in case that isn’t good enough for you though, I’ve put together a list of six reasons why we think owning a TV is a terrible idea.

1. Time

I have to credit my friends Jason and David for making the time thing click in my brain. In high school they were both crazy about the show 24. At the time it was considered really clever that it was one full day of 24 one hour episodes. When they explained it to me, I realized that meant that if you never miss an episode, you’re losing an entire 24 hour day to vegetating in front of the television.

That realization was a wake-up call for me, but as it turns out it gets much worse.

According to Nielsen in 2010 the average American watches five hours of television per day. Five hours. If you add all of that together that means you’ll spend 35 hours in front of the TV each week, about 150 hours each month and 1,825 hours each year.

So if you’re an average TV watcher every year you lose 76 full days to TV. About two months out of every year go solely to watching TV. Assuming an average lifespan that comes out to at least 12.5 years of your life sitting in front of the TV.

I’ll understand if you just threw up a little.

Twelve and a half years is a complete lifetime for some people. To think that sheer amount of time could be spent on something as wasteful as TV is mind-boggling.

2. Money

Having a TV is expensive.

Beyond the initial cost of the actual television itself – which can be substantial if your ego demands you have the latest greatest HD flatscreen – there are all the ancillary costs to think about. There’s cable to pay for, premium movie channels, DVD or Blu-Ray players, a theater style sound system, movie rentals and purchases, even the electricity cost of having all those things (made words by the fact that TVs and cable boxes are notorious vampire appliances sucking up power even when turned ‘off’).

Add to that the fact that according to another report by Nielsen the average household had more TVs than people and you have a substantial initial investment followed by nearly as substantial recurring costs. Is it seriously worth it?

You could easily save $5,000 on the initial investment (I’ve seen people spend more than that on a single TV or sound system, so it’s a reasonable estimate) and then a good $1,000 or so each year on those incidental costs. Cable alone here in Cincinnati can run around $600 per year, and that’s not counting movie rentals premium channels or electricity.

I can think of tons of things I would rather spend an extra $600 a year on than something that wastes all my time.

3. Freedom from Advertising

In 2011 $72 Billion was spent on television advertising. That’s more than was spent in Internet, radio, newspaper and magazine ads combined. You might say they don’t affect you, but they do.

With an average of 8.5 minutes of commercials per half hour of television, that means you’ll spend twenty two days of your life, nearly a month, just watching advertisements.

Now I’m not necessarily saying that all advertising is evil, but in most cases it’s not necessary. It’s not meaningful. Though they are trying to persuade you otherwise, advertising is not going to substantially improve your life.

So why spend almost a month of your existence watching it?

4. Increased Creativity and Intelligence

Doing creative things or being exposed to creative activities directly correlates to being more creative overall. That means that engaging in a passive activity like watching television is likely to do little to nothing to help make you a more creative person. If you have goals like ours of pursuing a life based around achieving freedom by creating something meaningful and helpful to others, than damaging your creativity is like shooting yourself in the foot.

You may argue that some TV shows themselves are creative enough to be inspiring, but let’s be honest – 90% of what’s on TV is just a regurgitation of the same old tropes and themes. That’s not even counting the countless hours of reruns people sit through on a regular basis.

TV may also be causing you to miss out on the opportunity to be more intelligent. Studies (1, 2) suggest that reading has a direct positive affect on your intelligence. When you read a lot, you become smarter.

Conversely, other studies (1, 2) suggest that TV watching correlates strongly with decreased intelligence and poor educational performance.

In other words, people who read a lot are on average significantly smarter than those who watch a lot of TV.

Why spend five hours each day damaging your mind when you could be improving yourself?

5. Improved Sleep

Even though it’s frequently repeated that the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to stop any form of electronic entertainment at least an hour before bed, around 75% of people still report watching TV right up to when they go to sleep.

Is it any wonder than that terrible sleep quality, and all the physical problems associated with it, are a common woe in our society?

People who shut the television off more than an hour before bed consistently report an easier time getting to sleep, feeling more rested upon waking and having deeper, uninterrupted sleep patterns. That’s not even counting the habit of many to stay up late and sacrifice hours of sleep every night just to watch a specific show.

Considering most people already suffer from a severe lack of sleep it’s ridiculous to compound the problem with TV.

6. Higher Quality Relationships

When you’re not spending most of your family time silently transfixed on your flat screen an interesting thing tends to happen. You actually have conversations.

When you remove TV from the picture you have five more hours everyday to actually connect with your loved ones, or even to go out and meet new friends – something you can’t do sitting on your couch watching American Idol.

Don’t argue that you have to watch TV to be able to discuss all the popular shows with friends and coworkers. People have been having conversations just fine for all the millenia that preceded the invention of television. You’ll manage. Besides, the thought of spending five hours everyday on something that adds no value to my life just so I can spend more time talking about that thing that adds no value to my life makes me want to slam my head into the wall.

It’s better to spend time creating meaningful, valuable relationships than it is to sit in front of a box and drool.

Common Excuses

As I mentioned before, TV is deeply ingrained in our cultural identity. As a result, suggestions to eliminate it are often met with fervent opposition or even, on one memorable occasion, genuine outrage.

That knee-jerk reaction tends to cause people to scramble for excuses for why a television is an essential part of their existence the loss of which would render their lives bleak and meaningless. Let’s look at some of the more common ones.

  • TV entertains me / makes me happy / relaxes me, therefore those 5 hours each day are not wasted. – At first glance this sounds like a valid argument, particularly because who am I to say what you should judge as a worthwhile expenditure of your own time. The thing is if you take an honest look at some of the other things you could be doing, you’ll find there are plenty of activities that are equally entertaining, joyful or relaxing that have genuine positive benefits for your life and none of the damaging effects of constant TV viewing. While I can’t make the decision for you I’m certain if you made an effort you could easily find better things to fill that time.
  • I only watch educational programs / documentaries. – Nice try, but even prolonged exposure to educational TV in children had an overall negative correlation with intelligence. Comparatively reading, including fiction, had a strong positive correlation on intelligence. Honestly, while there are some quality educational programs out there, the majority is Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, Doomsday Preppers and similar drivel.
  • I have to see what happens on [insert popular show here]! – You don’t. You really don’t. I understand that people often form extremely strong psychological bonds with characters on TV. That’s what the show’s writers, producers and actors are going for. In reality the world is not going to end if you miss your favorite show. Your life may actually improve because of it.
  • I need it for the news. – Television is easily the worst medium for getting the daily news. Even excluding the fact that some national news networks have shown to actually leave people less informed than people who don’t watch news at all (*cough* Fox *cough*), it’s an overall inefficient medium. If I want to know what the latest developments on the Syria massacres are I can either sit through four hours of banal election coverage and punditry until they decide to run the story I’m waiting for, or I can just get online and find it. TV news forces you to sit through all the fluff for the stories you want, if your goal is to become informed it’s the very worst way to do it.

How to Kick the TV Habit

So you’ve come around and decided I have a good point, but aren’t sure if you’re ready to sell your flatscreen yet? The best way to do it is to ease into it. Commit to a full week with all your televisions unplugged and stashed away in a closet somewhere. Once you see a week’s not so bad, try thirty days.

Before long, you’ll find not only do you not miss it, when you do go back you’ll miss all the great things you did in its absence. Few things make you feel like you’ve got no time to get anything done than wasting that time on TV.

Honestly, once you’ve kicked the addiction you don’t have to completely swear off TV or media altogether. TV and movies done right and treated as a social experience can be a great way to connect with people. One of the best movies Caroline and I ever saw was the second Twilight movie – not because the movie was actually good, but because we went on a Wednesday on a school night to the 10:30 pm showing and had the theater to ourselves to play Statler and Waldorf.

For all the reasons I gave here, I really don’t think TV is pure evil. I like TV, just like everyone else. It’s the addiction that causes most of the problems.

We do subscribe to Netflix, and watch occasional things on Hulu for free (with AdBlock turned on mind you). Now, before you cry hypocrite, it’s an extremely rare thing. We go to great lengths to make sure that our TV time doesn’t cause a detriment to the rest of our lives and average about a single half hour show a night and the occasional movie ever other weekend or so.

They key is finding the right balance.

If you are going to try to kick the habit I would suggest going a full month with no TV – including things like Netflix – before slowly reintroducing it in moderation. We’ve fallen victim to compulsive marathons of shows we really like in the past, and it doesn’t help if you’re replacing five hours of TV with five hours of Netflix.

Do you think you can toss out your TV? Have you actually done it, or tried to do it? Do you have any other suggestions, or do you think I’m out of my mind? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: TJDewey

How Mario Kart 64 Taught Me the Key to Success

Mario Kart! Let's Go! by Pixteca

A wise guru indeed...

For me growing up there were three games that formed the Holy Trinity of the Nintendo 64: Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, & Mario Kart 64.

Ok, so Starfox 64 and Super Smash Bros. 64 also deserve honorable mention, but Holy Quinary just sounds like a shrine to Sliders so we’ll stick with the Trinity.

Out of all those games, Mario Kart 64 easily had the biggest impression on me.

Why?

Because it taught me the secret to leading a happy, successful life.

Wisdom from the Road

Jump back a decade or so and there I am sitting in my room with friends racing full tilt around the Rainbow Road.

I was Yoshi – because we all know that Yoshi is the best – and I was losing. Badly.

Every lap I’d fought my way up to the front of the pack, and every time some catastrophic slip up had plummeted me back down to last. You should know, as an aside, that I did not handle frustration well as a child. By this point I was absolutely furious.

With each stupid turtle shell, each accidental hop off the edge into oblivion, each star-powered buffoon that blasted me out of the way I became increasingly agitated. I didn’t even notice that the more angry I got, the more I wanted to hurl my controller through the TV, the worse my racing got.

Finally, on the very last lap, something snapped.

Rather than give in to the substantial rage that had built inside me, I just let it all go. Maybe you could call it defeatism, but I think that sounds too negative. I realized at this point that I was at peace with whatever happened. I just didn’t really care anymore.

And you know what? My racing improved.

When before everything that could go wrong had been, now everything aligned perfectly. I was untouchable. I was in the zone.

I rocketed up to first like it was nothing and won the race. At first, I considered myself lucky. As time went on though I began to wonder if there was more to it than that.

I tested my theory out through more and more races and it held. The more agitated I got, the worse I played. The more detached I got, the better I played. At first I just thought learning to detach myself from worry and frustration over the outcome was just a handy trick to rock my friends on Mario Kart. Then I learned to apply it to the rest of my life.

Embracing Relaxation

When I made a conscious effort to do in the rest of my life what I did in Mario Kart – stop worrying and let things flow – I found that everything I did came easy to me.

No matter what it was, even things I had formerly had a really hard time with, everything always just seemed to work out in my favor. On the rare occasion things would still go wrong, it always seemed like it wasn’t so bad and some other opportunity would present itself as a result of the problem that was even better than the original.

The more I taught myself to relax and not worry, the more successful and happy my life became.

Everyone called me lucky, but I knew I was making my own luck.

How it Helps

This isn’t just anecdotal, studies have shown that people who are considered ‘lucky’ often are just benefiting from being more relaxed and mindful.

In Dr. Wiseman’s study referenced above participants were given newspapers and asked to count the number of photos in them. The group who considered themselves lucky correctly completed the task in a few seconds while the group who considered themselves unlucky took an average of two minutes.

What was the difference?

The people who considered themselves unlucky were almost always too stressed out and focused on the task of counting the photos to notice the headline inside that read “Stop Counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”

When you learn to let go of your worries you allow your relax and be observant. When you’re observant, you miss fewer opportunities.

Relaxing in this way also opens up the doors to intuition. It taps into a process akin to the Taoist concept of Wei Wu Weiaction without action.

Wei Wu Wei in very simple terms is being so attuned to the current moment that without effort you automatically take the most correct or beneficial action. It’s a topic that deserves volumes all on it’s own, but the best example is if you’ve ever been in ‘the groove’ or ‘the zone’ while playing a sport.

That feeling where everything is going right, when you’re no longer thinking about what you’re going to do you just act, that’s Wei Wu Wei. Most people that get pegged as ‘naturals’ in some activity or another are just people who are intuitively good at putting themselves in this state.

Being able to consciously put yourself in ‘the zone’ makes you act like you’re a natural at everything you set out to do.

How to Relax

Now some of you might be saying, “Wait, I am stressed all the time. You can’t expect me to just decide to not be stressed!”

It came naturally to me, but some people are just naturally high-strung. Caroline’s been learning how to de-stress and not worry so much ever since we met. Luckily, there are some techniques you can use.

  • Take a long deep breath – I know it’s kind of stereotypical, but that’s only because it works. Stopping to shut out the world long enough to take a deep breath helps get your attention off of whatever is stressing you. Breath control also triggers physiological responses that produce a calming effect.
  • Exist in the moment – When you’re taking that deep, slow breath focus all of your attention on it. Nothing else exists, there is no past, no future, there is only the experience of that breath. Understanding that the past is gone and the future doesn’t yet exist helps you focus on the present moment. When you do that, you find there’s no need to worry about the future anymore.
  • Accept the stress – If you’re still feeling stressed after doing some controlled breathing, confront that feeling. Acknowledge the fact that you’re stressed, and dismiss it. Tell yourself that you understand why you’re so stressed, but you don’t need to be anymore and let all those feelings drift away. It sounds like hippie stuff, but trust me – it works.
  • Face your fears – If you’re stressed out from worry or fear, and the realization that the future doesn’t exist and is nothing to be scared of hasn’t helped, play through the worst case scenario in your mind. Chances are, unless you’re going to literally die as a result of failure, the worst case scenario isn’t the end of the world. Once you see that even if everything fails you’ll still be fine, you can brush away the fear and be present enough in the moment to succeed.

These are just a few ways, there are even more involved methods like meditation, the point is just to get you started.

The more you teach yourself to let go of worry and stress and be present, mindful and relaxed the more successful and happy you’ll become. All because of a particularly enlightening game of Mario Kart.

Do you have any other tried and true methods for learning to let go of stress? Have you stumbled upon any other great truths while playing video games? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Pixteca

The Four Zen States of Mind

Zen Circle 1 by Triratna Photos

The circle is a common representation of the idea of mushin.

As much as Caroline picks on me for being a Zen master and never getting stressed or concerned about anything, the fact is I am not one. Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from finding ways to apply Zen principles to my everyday life.

I’ve always had a love for the martial arts and a side passion for philosophy, Eastern, Western and everywhere in-between. I’ve found that the parts of philosophy I really love are the parts that you can directly apply to life. Maybe that’s just a reflection of me following Bruce Lee’s philosophies, who knows. Either way I think the real meat of philosophy is in practicalities, not pontificating or postulations. As a result I’ve collected four states of mind from Zen teachings and the martial arts world that you can work toward to make you a happier more effective person.

Shoshin

Shoshin (初心) is the first state of mind we’re going to talk about. Shoshin means “Beginner’s Mind” and is characterized by an attitude of eagerness and openness when beginning an endeavor. When you are in a state of shoshin you should be feeling enthusiastic, creative and above all optimistic. Think about a time when you were getting ready to start something new that you had always wanted to do. You were fired up and ready to go, you knew it would be great and you were open and ready to do or learn whatever it was you were about to start. That’s shoshin.

When can you use shoshin?

The most obvious use for assuming a state of shoshin would be whenever you’re about to start something new. Working to approach every new endeavor, even ones you may be nervous about or dreading, with an attitude of open eagerness helps to make most situations that you once thought were unpleasant much more enjoyable. One of the key aspects of shoshin is an absence of preconceptions and a general sense of optimism. When you are in a state of shoshin you shouldn’t be thinking too much about what you think is going to happen, you should just be eager to accept whatever comes and assured it will all be for the best.

This release of preconceptions and attitude of viewing everything with fresh eyes is one of shoshin’s most valuable qualities. You can work on placing yourself in a state of shoshin even when doing something you’ve done before to keep each experience fresh and to ensure that you aren’t making poor decisions based on preconceived biases. It also helps train you to keep a positive and eager outlook about everything that might come your way.

Fudoushin

Fudoushin (不動心 also Romanized as fudoshin) means “Immovable Mind”. This state of mind is characterized by a steadfast determination and absolute control over oneself. It should be noted that this doesn’t mean one in a state of fudoushin is being stubborn, or angry. Rather a person in fudoushin is calmly resolute and cannot be swayed, tempted or concerned. A man sitting peacefully in the eye of a tornado would be a good mental image to exemplify the idea of fudoushin.

When can I use fudoushin?

Fudoushin once cultivated can best be used in situations where you are under stress. These might be genuinely dangerous situations like a house fire or they may be fairly benevolent ones like car trouble or problems at work. The idea of achieving fudoushin in stressful situations is, I think, one of the quintessential stereotypes of the Zen master here. Most people picture the old monk reacting serenely in the face of extreme or mortal danger and that is essentially what you’re looking to emulate.

Now, I certainly hope you never find yourself in a situation where your life depends on you keeping a calm, collected head. Even so normal day to day life can be seriously stressful. A pursuit of fudoushin can go a long way to keeping you sane. You may never need to react calmly in a disaster, but being well versed in the art of taking a deep breath and letting the stress go could keep you from hurling your computer through the window when it crashes without saving your work.

Mushin

Mushin (無心) means “Without Mind” and it is very similar in practice to the Chinese Taoist principle of wei wuwei (爲無爲). Of all of the states of mind, I think not only is working toward mastery of mushin most important, it’s also the one most people have felt at some point in time. In sports circles, mushin is often referred to as “being in the zone”.

Mushin is characterized by a mind that is completely empty of all thoughts and is existing purely in the current moment. A mind in mushin is free from worry, anger, ego, fear or any other emotions. It does not plan, it merely acts. If you’ve ever been playing a sport and you got so into it you stopped thinking about what you were doing and just played, you’ve experienced mushin.

When can I use mushin?

Always. Honestly, I have yet to find any task where my performance was not improved by getting my head out of the way and just doing. Our thoughts wander, they bounce around through our heads and distract us, cause us to worry, cause us to over think things or become overconfident. When you quiet your mind and exist in the moment as an entity that has no concerns about the past or the future but is fully present and acts intuitively you can perform without distraction.

Beyond all of that worries, doubts, regrets and fears serve no purpose other than to cloud your judgement and make your life worse. By learning to live only in the current moment and let everything else go you can lead a much happier more peaceful life.

Zanshin

Zanshin (残心) literally translates to “Remaining Mind” and really has two parts. The first aspect of zanshin is a general and constant state of relaxed awareness or perceptiveness. This state means that although you’re not actively watching out for things you are constantly aware of your surroundings and situation. The second aspect of zanshin is a concept of follow through. In martial arts proper expression of zanshin is your actions and mental state after you have performed a technique or defeated your opponent.

When can I use zanshin?

The awareness aspect of zanshin is useful always, and can easily be cultivated along with mushin. In fact, learning to develop a state of mushin also helps cultivate zanshin as zanshin is best achieved by always being present in the moment and not letting your mind wander with distractions.

The awareness aspect of zanshin doesn’t have to just relate to your physical surroundings though. True zanshin means constant situational awareness. That means being present enough to notice when someone might be upset with you, or recognizing when your financial or career situation may need some improvement as well as being perceptive enough to identify the opportunities that arise to make positive improvements.

The follow through aspect of zanshin will also make all of your endeavors more successful. Proper follow through ensures that even if you fail at something you attempt, you can see the results of what you did and learn from those mistakes leading you to a success on your next attempt.

There are other states of consciousness, as well as various techniques to help train one to achieve them, in Zen Buddhism and in martial arts, but I think these four are the most powerful for improving people’s day to day lives. Do you have any others you would add or good ways to practice these? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Triratna Photos

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