How to Not Suck at Evaluating Claims

From the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary by Double--M

You don’t need all this stuff to properly evaluate the veracity of a claim.

Most people really suck at evaluating claims.

It’s not their fault – to be honest at least in the U.S. very little in our society or education systems properly prepares us to evaluate claims and make proper reason-based decisions.

The good news is, even if you’ve been awful at it your entire life, you can easily learn how to evaluate claims properly by starting to use some basic guidelines.

But first, why is it even important to have this skill?

Sic Semper in Excretia Sumus, Solum Profundum Variat.

It is staggering at times just how much bullshit there is out there – even more staggering is how willing people are in general to accept it.

Whether it’s Deepak Chopra making rambling, nonsensical claims about quantum mechanics, Dr. Oz touting the latest scientifically unsupported miracle health fad or a pop up ad yelling to you about a guy who “language professors hate” because he came up with the secret formula for easy language acquisition – there are a lot of people asking you to believe a lot of claims out there.

Some of these claims are legitimate, others are not. When the consequences of failing to properly evaluate a claim can range from something mildly annoying like wasting $10 to something dire like serious injury or death it’s vital to separate out the two as best as we possibly can.

While this skill applies across the board to essentially all aspects of life due to the manner in which we’re assaulted with information and advertisements on a daily basis I think it’s extra important for those interested in fitness and looking to improve their health because the fields of health, fitness & nutrition are some of the most saturated with unsupported and potentially dangerous claims.

So what are some easy ways to begin separating out the claims you should probably accept from those you probably shouldn’t?

The Bullshit Detection Kit

I have to give credit to the incomparable Carl Sagan and his excellent book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark for the concept of a bullshit detection kit (sometimes also called the baloney detection kit). The idea is to have a set of tools that can be easily applied to new claims that you come across to help you determine if they are likely to be true or not. Our bullshit detection kit differs a little from his, but the concepts are the same.

A note on the word ‘true’ – ‘True’ here means supported by reality. If you’re the kind of person who vociferously claims there is no objective truth and that everyone determines their own equally viable personal truth I invite you to decide gravity is a subjective truth and step out of a second story window.

The bullshit detection kit is in no way infallible, but it can offer a little bit of guidance in the right direction. As we unpack our kit we’ll apply each piece to a fitness claim that was made recently enough to still be in memory but far enough back that it’s been solidly disproven – the efficacy of power bands.

So let’s get to work.

  • Who’s Making the Claim – The first thing to look at when evaluating a claim is who’s making it and with that do they benefit directly from acceptance of this claim. In other words, if the only people making the claim are the manufacturers and sellers of a product then that claim should be more suspect than one independently verified by a source with nothing to gain by verifying that claim.

    In the case of power bands while companies made claims that the efficacy of their bands was scientifically demonstrable, they never actually released any studies or proof that didn’t come from a place funded entirely by the company that sold them. When the only people making the claim are the people trying to sell the claim to you and they’re only backed up by their own non-independently verified research, you should be suspicious.

  • Has the Claim Been Tested Properly – Whenever possible you should always look for a properly controlled double-blind study on whatever claim you’re evaluating. A proper double-blind study with a control group does the best job of guaranteeing that any confounding factors (variables that affect the outcome of the test and obscure the validity of the claim) are removed and only the claim is being tested.

    Anecdotal evidence or evidence from personal experience is insufficient – people are very easily deceived and we’re always the best at deceiving ourselves. Someone may tell you that a claim is true, someone may tell you that something worked for them, they may even genuinely believe what they’re telling you but the claim still may be false.

    It’s equally important that the claim be tested properly because then other independent testers with no personal stake in the outcome of the testing can run the same test. If they come to the same conclusions and get the same results then that lends credibility to the truth of the claim. If not, either something was done improperly in the testing or the claim is more likely to be false.

    Many power band companies used a kinesthetic trick where they would put the band on you and tug on your arm. You would appear to be much stronger with the band on and, hopefully for the sales person, be so impressed by this ‘proof’ that you’d drop $50 or so on a 10 cent piece of rubber and tin foil. When these same products were put to a double-blind study wherein the participants didn’t know if they had the band on or not, there was absolutely zero effect.

  • Is There Definite Causation – The post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) fallacy is a common misstep in the evaluation of the truth of claims. It’s due to the tendency of people to conflate correlation and causation – or just to see causation where there isn’t any.

    A good example might be that you have a headache. You take two aspirin and spin around ten times. Your headache goes away, but which actually cured you? This can even happen sans the aspirin since sometimes headaches just go away. You might spin around ten times and your headache disappears, but did the spinning actually help or did the headache just go away on its own or for another reason.

    Another good example might be the fact that there’s a strong correlation between having black hair and eating a diet high in rice. Does that mean that having black hair makes you more likely to eat rice or that eating rice makes you more likely to have black hair? Clearly not – it just happens that black hair is genetically more common in Asia and agriculturally rice is a staple food there.

    In the case of power bands they claimed that big name athletes that used them were performing better in games and pointed to statistics of professional athletes who had bought into their marketing to back it up. Even though they pointed to improvements in the performance of these athletes it still didn’t prove that the bracelet itself was having any actual effect.

  • Does the Claimant Rely on Arguments from Authority or other Fallacies – A common tactic for puffing up a claim with little actual substance behind it is the argument from authority. The argument from authority is essentially the argument that because someone smart or important says it’s true, it must be true.

    While in certain cases the support of a knowledgeable expert can add credence to a claim – for example a respected astrophysicist agreeing with a claim about astrophysics – it should not be the sole reason for accepting it.

    Even if a ton of experts agree a claim is true, it may still not be. Even if everyone in the world agrees that a claim is true, it may still not be. A claim must stand on its own merits and not rely entirely on its acceptance by others.

    Power bands companies, either through genuinely convincing them or via large payments, secured the endorsements of a lot of pro athletes. This was a big selling point for most people who thought, “If NBA star X wears one it must work! I’ll buy one too!” Unfortunately for the consumer, just because someone else says something is true doesn’t actually mean it is.

There are a lot more ways people who make false claims will try to convince you of there veracity and many more ways to help sort out the true from the false – but this will at least get you started. If you have any other tips you think people should keep in mind in order to not suck so bad at evaluating claims chime in and share them!

Photo Credit: Double–M

365 Small Steps to Incredible

Interview Schedule by Wenzday01

Are a little better today at something than you were yesterday?

You can be incredible.

I mean that. You can be incredible. You can be the kind of person where people say, “Wow, I have no idea how he/she does it. I wish I could do that.” You can close your eyes at the end of each day reassured that you’re just a little better than you were the day before.

The best part? It’s easy to do and it only takes a few minutes a day.

The Power of Little Changes

Over enough time very small changes will accumulate into very, very big changes. You can see the evidence of that principle everywhere, a tiny bit of erosion every day over millions of years and you have the Grand Canyon. Through tiny, incremental changes single cell organisms diversified into the billions of species we know of and the even larger billions of species that’ve gone extinct before our time.

Lots of little changes add up to a big difference.

When you look at it through that lens, becoming incredible doesn’t look like such a daunting task – it just takes time. Unless you’re undead or some manner of cyborg you probably haven’t got eons to work with, but a year is a pretty long time on the scale of human life so let’s start there.

A Commitment to Improvement

You’ve got 365 days to play with in an average year. That’s 365 opportunities to become just a tiny bit better at something. 365 chances for you to improve yourself which, when added together, can make you incredible.

Imagine if you wanted to get good at playing guitar. Don’t you think you’d be pretty good if you got just a little better 365 times? Don’t you think you’d be pretty fit if you got just a little bit stronger or lost just a little bit of weight 365 times? Even a tenth of a pound of fat loss everyday (less than the 1.5 pound per week average) for a year adds up to 36.5 pounds of weight gone. That’s a big change.

The key is to make a promise to yourself to get just a little better at something every single day. Complete your run a second faster, write one more sentence, lift one more pound, learn one more word, meet one more person, spend one more minute meditating, practice one more parkour technique, whatever. Never ever settle for stagnation.

Paradoxically this is simultaneously easy and difficult. It’s easy because it generally only requires a few minutes per day – it’s not that painful to do just a bit more each day. It’s difficult because as a species we tend to be pretty lazy. We like to do the bare minimum to get by, so reminding yourself to go just that little bit further can get forgotten or ignored.

The best way to get around that is to write your goals down or put up reminders where you know you’ll find them. Stick notes up all over, put alarms and reminders on your phone, tell a friend to punch you in the face if you don’t do it – whatever works for you.

Don’t Worry About the Jones’

The goal here is to be incredible, sure. That definitely comes with a bit of egotism, but your primary drive shouldn’t be to be better than everyone else. That just gets frustrating. Instead you should worry about competing with yourself. If you’re better today than you were yesterday then that’s what’s important, not if you’re better than someone else.

If you stick to your commitment and improve every day – even if by a minuscule measure – by the end of the year you will have made an incredible improvement from where you were 365 days prior.

Are you committed to making yourself a little bit better every day? Do you think all this self-improvement stuff is a bunch of crap? Have any other tips to share to become incredible via incremental improvements? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Wenzday01

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

6 Easy Things You Can Do Today to Live a Longer, Happier Life

Laughing with me by Ucumari

Making a point of smiling more may extend the number of years you have to do it.

Just about everyone wants to live a long, happy life (if you don’t, it may be time to sit down with someone and talk about that).

Thankfully, on the side of things we can control, there are a lot of small, easy changes we can make immediately that will have a huge effect on not only improving our lives in the present, but also ensuring that we have lots of fulfilled years ahead of us. Whether you’re 7 years old or 70 here are six things that you can start doing today that will have a lasting effect on your life.

1. Eat Less Junk

The average diet in the U.S. is atrocious – so statistically speaking yours probably is too. It’s not your fault. Between the oftentimes conflicting, poorly researched and questionably funded dietary recommendations put out by the USDA and media and the aggressive marketing of products as ‘healthy’ it can be difficult to sort out the good from the bad. That’s unfortunate, because choosing the proper diet is probably the most substantial thing you can do to improve your health.

The easiest way to start is by ditching all the processed foods you normally eat. A good general rule is if it comes in a box or with a label, you probably shouldn’t eat it. There are exceptions of course, but food that’s really good for you almost never needs to come with nutritional info – think unprocessed meats, fresh veggies and fruit. For extra credit you can ditch the grains and eat a little more like humans used to.

2. Move More

Stillness is death.

Even beyond the philosophical justification that movement is one of the few unifying properties all life shares – everything that’s alive moves – a sedentary lifestyle really does correlate to higher mortality rates. The top severe medical conditions in the U.S., heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes, are all substantially reduced in people who are more active. In simpler terms, if you spend most of your life on a couch or in an office chair it’s probably not going to be a very long one.

So what can you do to fix it? Move around more! A leisurely 30 minute walk everyday isn’t going to give you a six pack and make you an athlete, but it is enough to lower your blood pressure and extend your life. It’s even a good way to relive stress which will go a long way in and of itself to make your time here longer and happier. If 30 minutes a day is too much time to invest, try 8 minutes a week of high intensity interval training instead.

3. Sit Less

This ties in with moving more. Most people nowadays spend the majority of their time sitting. We spend at the first 18 years of our life sitting at school desk for 8 to 10 hours a day, then graduate to an office desk. After spending all day at work planted at a desk, we sit in the car for an hour on the commute home, walk in the front door and plop down at the couch, computer or dinner table. It’s a lot of sitting.

That might not sound so bad at first, but the fact is sitting down so much is killing you.

If you can, put together a standing desk. Even if it’s just a pile of books you prop your monitor on, getting yourself up out of that chair can be huge. If you’re concerned about getting weird looks, set a timer on your phone or watch to go off every 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes standing up and walking around when it does. Even this little bit can make a big difference – so long as you don’t spend that 5 minutes walking to the break room for a doughnut.

4. Smile More

Being unhappy can have a profound effect on your overall health, not just from a psychological standpoint but from the physical and chemical changes caused in your brain by negative emotions. Stress, depression and unhappiness can genuinely damage your brain.

Now before you get all stressed out or depressed about that, there is something you can do to help. Smile!

It turns out even if you don’t actually have anything to smile about, there’s a feedback loop between the muscles responsible for forming a smile and the release of positive chemicals like serotonin that make you feel happy. When you force yourself to smile your brain releases the hormones that cheer you up, giving you something to genuinely smile about. Doing this even makes other people smile back, which gives you one more reason to be happy.

5. Relax

Of all the things that can really destroy us internally, cortisol is a big one. Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s vital for us to function properly, it wakes us up in the morning and it’s a key player in the fight or flight response, the problem is the more stressed we are the more cortisol gets produced. Given that modern life is excessively stressful most people wind up with severely elevated cortisol levels all the time.

This causes a whole host of problems. The two most common are trouble sleeping and excessive weight gain specifically around the belly and midsection. Sound familiar? Cortisol also directly contributes to the aging process. A quick look at any photographs of past U.S. presidents is a good visual example – in four years they tend to pack in 10 to 15 years of aging.

What’s the best way to fight it? Fixing your diet helps, as does getting the exercise we talked about. Another good option is to start meditating. Even five minutes a day devoted to meditation can begin to cause positive chemical changes in your brain to relieve some stress and improve your focus.

6. Go Play

I firmly support the maxim that we don’t stop playing when we get old, we get old when we stop playing.

Devoting time to play is something everyone of every age should be doing. I’m not talking three hours in front of the XBox or Wii either, I mean getting up and going out to play. Play a sport, play tag, do parkour, race someone, whatever. When we get up and play it hits almost all of the areas we talked about simultaneously. Playing relieves stress, makes you smile, it’s fun and social, it gets you up out of your chair and moving around and it relieves stress. Throw a healthy snack in there and you’ve got the whole package.

These are just a handful of things you can easily do today that’ll have a lasting effect on the length and quality of your life. There are tons more, but the important thing to remember is that every single choice you make in some way or another effects the rest of your life – are you making the choices that are going to improve it or destroy it?

What do you think about these changes? Can you think of any other easy things people can do right now to start living longer, happier and healthier lives? Share them! The more the better.

Photo Credit: Ucumari

How to Build Batman-Like Discipline and Willpower

Roar by Gideon Tsang

Donning a costume and yelling may also increase your willpower.

Batman’s life sucks.

It does. He has nearly unlimited wealth and freedom as Bruce Wayne and he can never enjoy it. It’s nearly impossible for him to form meaningful relationships without the fear or pain of having that person murdered as a result of their involvement with him. His days are filled with rigorous training and his nights with battles that often come very close to being fatal. He’s eternally haunted by the memory of his parents and I don’t know when he gets any sleep.

So how does he put himself through all that hell? He has serious willpower.

Think how easy it would be for him to say, “You know what? Screw this Batman thing tonight. I’m just going to sit around the mansion, watch TV and eat ice cream in my fabulously expensive pajamas.” He doesn’t though. Even when he gets sick and any normal person would take a day off of a job that doesn’t involve getting shot at he still goes out there to do what has to be done.

Beyond the bottomless pool of money that is Wayne Enterprises it’s that discipline that has enabled Bruce Wayne to become Batman.

So how do we develop discipline like that?

Defining Discipline and Willpower

Though you could probably tease out some minor differences, for now I’m going to use the terms discipline and willpower interchangeably. Boiled down to its essence willpower is the capacity to do something you don’t want to do because you know that it’s the thing that needs to be done. In most cases this involves delaying gratification and suppressing or ignoring our instinctual desires.

When you walk by the big box of donuts at the office and don’t take one even though you want to, that’s willpower. When you really want to go watch TV or play video games but force yourself to sit down and get your work done first, that’s willpower. When the alarm goes off and you would murder someone in order to sleep five more minutes but you get up and go work out, that’s willpower.

This kind of discipline is what keeps us from doing the things that we get the instant gratification from in the understanding that we will get a much bigger benefit by avoiding those behaviors. It’s what keeps Bruce Wayne in cape and cowl instead of parked in front of his Xbox.

Willpower Is a Muscle

Whenever you hear people talk about willpower or discipline you often hear people describe it like it were another invisible muscle somewhere in your body. It’s a really good way to conceptualize it – willpower really does work a lot like a muscle.

Everyone has a different strength of willpower, some are more disciplined than others naturally, practice exercises your willpower and helps you build more of it and, like your physical muscles, your willpower can only exert so much force before it’s fatigued and gives up. In fact, like all your other muscles the strength of your willpower is even affected by your health and the foods you eat.

This may sound like bad news but actually it’s really great. Understanding how our own discipline works means we can work within that system to improve it.

How to Strengthen Your Willpower

When it comes to developing a stronger sense of discipline it all revolves around that concept of treating it like a muscle. We need to remember not only to work it out, but also to make sure we don’t wear it into the ground by expecting too much from it.

  • Know Your Limits – Like all your muscles your willpower has a limited amount of energy. Once that energy is tapped your willpower isn’t going to be able to do anything until it’s had some time to rest and recover.

    Since you know this is the case, don’t set yourself up for failure. If you knew you had to move a piano on Monday night would you go do heavy deadlifts and squats Monday morning? No, you’d be spent by the time you got to the piano and you’d be useless. So don’t do the same thing with your willpower.

    If you know you have particularly weak willpower, or are going to be put in a situation where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested, don’t burn it out on little things throughout the day. If you know you’re going to have to turn down dessert later don’t spend all day walking past cookies and donuts. Eliminate the things you can that sap away little bits of discipline so that your reserves are filled for the real tests you know are coming.

  • Do Your Exercises – Studies have shown that purposefully exercising your willpower actually makes it stronger. Just like with your muscles the key is to know how to exercise it properly and to develop a plan to do so. So what are some ways you can do that?

    The easiest way is to set up controlled situations where you know you’ll be tempted by something and then exercising your discipline to avoid it. Start slow here, particularly if you know you don’t have much discipline to begin with. Pick a task you should do but never want to, like meditation, and make yourself do it for a very short time each day – maybe 5 minutes. After a while, build that up until you have the discipline to meditate for 30 minutes each day.

    Another extremely easy way is to consciously force yourself to do some little thing you’re not used to doing. For example make a commitment to not use contractions in your speech, to brush your teeth with your opposite hand or sit up more straight. It may not seem like much, but every time you make the conscious decision to do it your work out your willpower just a little and it adds up.

    Be careful though – just like with your physical muscles overtraining can lead to problems. I also wouldn’t recommend training to failure. Don’t put out a giant plate of cookies to resist all day only to push yourself too far, give up and gorge on them. Always be mindful of your limits and keep at it and you’ll see improvements.

  • Stay Fed – Your muscles need energy to function and so does your willpower. Researchers found that study participants who were put through tests exercising their willpower showed decreased blood sugar and glycogen levels as a result of the exercise. As you burn up energy flexing your discipline muscles it makes it harder and harder to keep up.

    As it turns out replenishing blood sugar and glycogen stores, with sugar water or orange juice in most of the studies, helped mitigate those effects and allowed participants to do better on subsequent tests of willpower.

    That means a couple things. The first is that if you find your willpower waning you might be able to give it a small boost by snacking on something sugary. Now if you’re trying to stick to a strict diet be careful here, that’s not an excuse to go crazy on 10 pounds of candy bars, but a little snack can help.

    Second, it means that things that tend to wear out your glycogen stores – stress, lack of sleep, illness etc. – directly deplete your ability to exercise your willpower. Use this to your advantage by going into situations where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested well-fed and rested.

    Batman of course may be the exception to this – like I said I have no idea how he finds time to get enough sleep. Once you reach equivalent levels of discipline you can skip meals and never sleep while maintaining an iron will too, until then though you should get your eight hours and take care of yourself.

  • Stay Happy – I know it’s easier said then done, but your mood also directly affects the strength of your discipline. When you’re in a good, upbeat mood your willpower is stronger and when you’re feeling depressed, upset or angry it’s a lot harder to resist doing things you shouldn’t or force yourself to do things you should.

    Thankfully, you probably don’t have to worry about maintaining a second identity or avoiding death on a nightly basis. Even so it can be a bit tough to maintain a positive attitude.

    We’ve talked about ways to stay happier in the past. A few easy ways are to consciously make yourself smile more, to learn to follow your dreams, or to give meditation a try.

    Just like with lifting, music can also give you that extra mental motivation to do what needs to be done. If you’re finding you lack the motivation to sit down and get your work done instead of wasting time on Facebook, put on some of your favorite music and rock out or dance around or whatever you need to do to get pumped. Then sit back down and get stuff done.

  • Don’t Think About Elephants – Bruce Wayne is definitely haunted by the memory of his parents. It’s part of what defines him. Instead of running from that fact and trying to suppress his anger he accepts it and redirects it into a positive thing as Batman. If he tried to deny all that hate and bottle it up it would eventually consume him.

    The same thing happens to us when we try to avoid focusing on something unpleasant – or anything really. It’s like when someone tells you, “Whatever you do, don’t think about [blank].”

    You can’t help but think about it. The harder you try to not think about it the harder it is to actually not think about it. Researchers have been doing studies on this effect for a long time and in every case the more we focus on avoiding something, the more difficult it is not to dwell on it.

    How does this tie in to willpower?

    Discipline, like we said, is the ability to either stop yourself from doing something you want to do, or making yourself do something you don’t want to do. Either way it has to do with overriding your desires. A lot of people think the best way to do that is to try to ignore them. They feel their extreme craving for a pint of ice cream and they jam their metaphorical fingers in their ears and start yelling, “I can’t hear you!”

    This doesn’t work though, for the reason we just discussed. The more you try to deny or ignore your craving for bad food or your desire to go watch TV instead of getting your work done the more irresistible it becomes.

    Instead of denying it the best course of action is to acknowledge it, decide what to do about it and move on. When you do that those desires lose their bite. Rather than ignoring your craving say, “Hmm, I really want some ice cream. I shouldn’t though, so I’ll go chop up an apple and sprinkle just a little brown sugar on it. That’ll be a lot better in the long run.”

    Think of it as Batman style mental jujutsu. By redirecting your desire to play video games and avoid work into a desire to roll up your sleeves and dominate that work so you can go play video games guilt free you take that negative emotion’s power away and make it something positive.

Being Your Own Batman

Will these techniques give you the strength of will to live like Bruce Wayne? Probably not to be honest, but I’m not certain any human could. What these techniques will do is help you build up your discipline until you can become your own personal Batman.

Being your own Batman means having the fortitude to get the things you need to get done done. It means having the willpower to stop doing all the things you need to stop and to do all the things you need to do. It means becoming strong enough to make your own life and the lives of those around you as best as you possibly can.

Have you used any of these techniques to improve your own discipline? Do you have any other techniques you’d like to add that have worked well for you? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Gideon Tsang

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

How to Achieve Your Goals by Redefining Your Identity

Fill in the Blank by Darkmatter

Your self-identity is more malleable than you would think.

“If you fall in love with the process, the results come easy.” – Unattributed

I’m not sure who said that first – I’ve heard it attributed to about 50 people including Arnold Schwarzenegger – but it really doesn’t matter because it’s good wisdom. If you stress out over the results too much reaching your goal becomes more difficult, but if you can fall in love with the process that will get you there you’ll find yourself reaching your goal without even thinking about it. So how do we make ourselves fall in love with processes? Easy.

By redefining our identities.

You Are What You Do, And You Do What You Are

I know that sounds like an empty fortune cookie-esque statement at best and self-contradictory at worst, but bear with me for a minute here. The fact is, who you are is largely defined by your habits. What you do in a day really makes up the majority of your identity.

For example, if you spend your whole day in school attending classes and doing homework in the evening, those actions define you as a student or if you spend hours and hours every day playing video games those actions define you as a gamer. Now these aren’t exclusive categories, and I’m not going to go into discussions of stereotypes and self-identification and all that either, but a lot of it comes down to how you view yourself as a person.

Now it should be noted that either the behavior or the identity can come first and they’re self-reinforcing. That is, you think of yourself as a gamer because you play video games all the time, and because you think of yourself as a gamer you do what you think a gamer should do and play video games all the time. Additionally it should be noted there are varying levels of personal choice involved in the establishment of these identities – you have a lot more choice to not be a gamer than you do to not be a student for example due to compulsory schooling.

Alright, so our actions influence our self-identities and our identities influence our actions and there are instances where we can directly influence both via our own conscious decisions.

So why is this important to achieving goals?

Because our self-identities are an extremely strong psychological influence on our actions. If you strongly self-identify as a vegan it would be difficult for you to force yourself to eat meat and conversely if you strongly identify as a meat lover it would be difficult for you to go without meat for an extended period of time.

Remember the quote up top? The best way to achieve a goal effortlessly is to fall in love with doing the small things you need to do to get there. If you love working out, you’ll get fit whether you want to or not. If your goal is to learn to play guitar and you love practicing so much that you want to do it all the time, you’ll find yourself a great guitarist before you know it. Now, forming habits and falling in love with an activity are difficult – particularly if conflicts with our current self-identities. By tinkering with your self-identity you can not only remove this conflict but instill a strong psychological pressure to do the thing you need to do on a regular basis to reach your goal.

Act Like the Person You Wish You Were

So how do you go about redefining your self-image? The best way is to do it gradually.

Using myself as an example, I used to strongly self-identify as a fat guy. To be fair, I was a fat guy – but I let that thinking define a large part of who I considered myself to be. As a result, I did what I thought were ‘fat guy’ things. I ate a ton, prided myself on being able to finish ridiculous portions of things, and expressed a general dislike of exercise.

Now, I also really loved parkour and martial arts. That meant that I really didn’t want to be a fat guy. The problem was it was such an entrenched part of my identity it was hard to force myself to engage in the behaviors necessary to actually be able to do all the things I wanted to do. I needed to get fit, but my habits made it hard for me to train and easy to eat tons of junk.

It wasn’t until I really started thinking of myself as a ‘fitness guy’ that I started building positive exercise habits. From there it compounded upon itself until I got to where I am now – a personal trainer who absolutely loves to train. Being a personal trainer is such a large part of my self-identity now it’s as difficult to not train as it used to be to train when I thought of myself as a fat guy.

Another good example comes from starting this blog. It was extremely hard for me at the beginning to develop the habit of writing on a regular schedule. I had a lot to say and really wanted to write – but I just couldn’t make a habit out of it.

Then I forced myself to start thinking of myself as a writer. What do writers do? They write! All the time, or at least everyday. I kept reminding myself that I was a writer, and that as a writer I needed to write something, that was what I did.

So everyday, being a writer and all, I’d sit down and write something. Maybe a paragraph, maybe a post, whatever. The point was that I wrote every single day because that was just what a writer did. Before long that developed into a strong habit, and then further reinforced my self-identification as a writer. “After all,” I could say, “look how much I’ve written over the past month! I must be a writer.”

The trick is to figure out who you want to be, and then act like that’s who you already are.

If you want to be the girl who speaks ten languages, figure out what that girl would do everyday (study, talk with language partners, watch foreign language TV) and start doing it. If you want to be the guy who’s really great at martial arts, figure out what that guy would do everyday (practice, practice and probably more practice) and then get to it. The sooner you start pretending to be the person you wish you were, the sooner you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s who you really are.

So what do you think? Have you ever tried getting to your goals by changing your identity? Do you think it would be too hard for you to pull off? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Darkmatter

Meditation 101: Meditation for Beginners

At the Feet of an Ancient Master by Premasagar

Though it may help, an ancient tree in the serene wilderness is not necessary for successful meditation.

There are few disciplines that have as numerous and as far reaching benefits as meditation. Beyond the psychological benefits of promoting a sense of centeredness, well-being and clarity of thought it also has numerous physiological benefits – relaxation, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormone release and a lowered heart rate just to name a few. In addition, no one has ever shown meditation to have any negative side-effects.

For all of the proven benefits of meditation, most of them achievable with an investment of only five to ten minutes per day, why isn’t everyone meditating?

The most common answer people give is, “I just don’t know how to get started meditating.” That’s understandable. There’s a lot of mystique in modern Western culture surrounding the practice of meditation and that can make it appear strange, esoteric or even daunting. Thankfully, that’s all just misconception. You can start meditating today with these simple steps and in no time at all be reaping all those great benefits.

Meditation Misconceptions

One of the biggest barriers keeping people from trying meditation is the air of spiritualism that surrounds it in popular culture. While for many people meditation is a genuinely spiritual practice, it doesn’t actually have to be.

Regardless of your particular thoughts on spirituality, the primary psychological and physiological benefits of meditation stem purely from chemical reactions to the induced state of calm and relaxation and the mental exercise of learning how to focus on a single thing without allowing your mind to wander or fall prey to distractions.

In essence, meditation is mental exercise. Much like physical exercise it not only teaches you a skill but also creates physical changes within your body.

The sheer volume of different kinds of meditation also can turn away people who are absolute beginners. We can continue the comparison above between meditation and physical exercise in that the word ‘meditation’, like the word ‘exercise’, can mean a variety of different practices.

Just like the deadlift and the bench press work different areas of the body but with the common overall goal of making you stronger, different meditation styles work on different areas of your mind with the general overall goal of improving your thinking and self-control.

It would take forever to go through all the different styles of meditation, and this is a beginner’s guide anyway so I don’t really think it’s necessary. If you’re just getting started and don’t know what to do, the best form of meditation to start with is concentration meditation.

Concentration Meditation for Beginners

Concentration meditation is probably the most basic form of meditation that still gives you all of the psychological and physical benefits most people are looking for – namely reduced stress, clarity of thought and improved focus. It’s also the easiest to do.

The basic idea behind concentration meditation is to work on focusing on a single thought, sound or object at the exclusion of all other things. This is harder than it sounds, particularly with the demands of modern living and constant barrage of input from technology we’re programmed to always be bouncing around from thought to thought in our heads. Some people call this ‘Monkey Mind’, and this meditation technique will teach you how to fix it.

Bear in mind that, while relaxing, meditation is work. You’re training your mind, so take it slow at first. Starting out with two to three minutes of quiet meditation each morning and working up from there is a good way to ease into it.

So how do you get started?

How to Meditate

  1. Find a quiet, comfortable place to meditate – It’s extremely important that you find a place where you won’t be disturbed for the duration of your meditation. The purpose is to learn to ignore distractions, but that doesn’t mean you want screaming kids, buzzing cell phones or a blaring TV in the background. I’m not saying it has to be beneath a waterfall in the wilderness either, but it should be somewhere in your home where you know you won’t be disturbed.
  2. Settle into a comfortable, relaxed position – Contrary to popular imagery, you don’t need to be sitting in full lotus on the floor to meditate. You can sit however you’re comfy, in a chair, on your bed, you can even lay down if you’d like. I would recommend making sure to sit with good posture and a natural curve to your back – not slouching – but other than that it’s most important that you’re comfortable. I personally prefer not to do it lying down because I tend to fall asleep, but you can try it that way as well.
  3. Choose something to fixate on completely – What you choose can be anything, and can involve any of your senses. If you are a complete beginner an easy one to start with is to focus all your attention on your breathing. Don’t try to control it. Breathe naturally but focus all your attention there as you breathe in and out. Some options involving other senses are to fixate on the flame of a candle, to speak a mantra or make a sound such as the iconic ‘Om’, to listen to the clicks of a metronome or even to just repeat the word ‘one’ over and over in your mind. The idea is to find something that you can focus 100% of your attention on the exclusion of all other things.
  4. When your mind wanders, gently refocus it – Inevitably, your mind will wander to something else. Thoughts will pop up that yell for your attention. You’ll worry about your work, or some other problem. You’ll start thinking about needing to buy more candles. Something will come up. Instead of fighting it, try to acknowledge the thought and then send it on its way. Once you’ve done that immediately refocus on whatever it is you’re working to focus on. I like to think of the other thoughts as little paper boats floating by on a stream in front of me. I acknowledge their existence, then send them on down stream and pay them no more mind.
  5. When your mind wanders, gently refocus it, again – Your mind will continue to want to wonder, but keep at it. If you’re like me you might even have the thought of, “My thoughts keep bouncing all over, this is impossible, I can’t focus at all”, but treat that thought like all the others and keep going. Understand that meditation is a skill and will take practice. In time these wayward thoughts will come less frequently and eventually you’ll have no problem turning on your laser focus.
  6. After your time is up, stretch and shake it off – This step is optional if you decide you prefer to meditate before bed, but I find I prefer morning meditation and this step really helps pull me back to be ready for the day. Either way, when your meditation time is up let yourself come down out of it gradually and naturally with a positive attitude. Even if you don’t feel it yet, you’ve accomplished something by working on your focus and you should end each session with a smile and a well-earned sense of achievement.

The best way to start using this meditation technique is with two or three minutes spent practicing each morning. Like physical exercise it can be difficult to stick to, or more work than you originally thought, so it’s best to start slow.

As you get more used to it and start developing it into more of a habit you can increase your time to five minutes, then ten and so on until you reach a length of practice that fits your needs. Once you’ve mastered this form of meditation you can also start moving on to more advanced forms if you’d like, although honestly I find the concentration meditation to be one of my favorites and one of the most beneficial.

Even if you keep it to five minutes every morning, this routine will go a long way toward improving your focus and drastically reducing your stress – two things I think nearly everyone could benefit from.

Once you’ve tried them, or if you’ve tried these techniques in the past, leave a comment and tell us how it went! I’m also happy to answer any questions or clarifications that might come up. Happy meditating!

Photo Credit: Premasagar

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