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

I’m Fine, Thanks – A Short but Meaningful Look at Complacency

I’m Fine, Thanks trailer.

“I have a good life. I have a beautiful wife and two healthy, mischievous boys. We have a nice house in the suburbs and good friends in the local community and we’ve done the things that we’re expected to do and we have the things we’re expected to have. But somethings missing. I feel guilty even admitting that. But I feel trapped.” – Grant Peelle.

It’s taken me a while to write this review. Even though I first saw it when it was just released to donors, the message and meaning of the documentary have been floating around in my mind for the past two weeks and it’s been a bit of a challenge for me to sort out my resulting thoughts.

The premise of the documentary is that there is this ‘life script’ in which we’re told by society that we have to go to college and get a degree, get a secure job, get married to the best looking person we can get to agree, buy a big house, buy two cars, have 2.5 children and then work until you’re 65 when you can retire and finally do what you want. Millions of people follow this path each year and while none of these things are bad in and of themselves, it is a convenient template that few take the time to question. Instead they follow the path of least resistance. After all, we’re told that these things are guaranteed to lead you to happiness.

But does this script lead to happiness?

People get caught up in a desire for success and tend to acquire things as markers or visual representations of achievements. It’s something that even Adam and I began to follow despite knowing before we started that it wasn’t what we wanted. I can’t even tell you why – I have no idea what was going on in my head at the time.

I’m Fine, Thanks, directed by Grant Peelle and produced by Adam Baker, discusses this life template and the complacency many have in following it. I’ve often heard in reference to the template that “this is just life, suck it up and accept it.” I and others have accepted jobs that didn’t make us feel fulfilled, because that’s just what you do. And, to be unhappy was like saying you were ungrateful for the job, money and life you have.

The documentary opens with Grant recounting his own feelings of uncertainty and unhappiness, and guilt that he even had these feelings in the first place. Then he realized the only way to be happy and to show his sons about following their dreams was to follow his own. He then sets off with his rag-tag group to find and share the stories of others who have also had this realization, and how it’s changed their lives. They had just a couple of months, absolutely no experience, but were overflowing with passion.

We were so inspired by the sensational trailer for the documentary we chipped in on the Kickstarter campaign to help ensure it got completed and because it would give us early access to the film. While the cinematography and sound were wonderful, I will admit I was a bit disappointed in the brevity of the movie. It’s only 68 minutes and because of the timing doesn’t go quite as in-depth on the interviews. Nonetheless, the message of the movie is still prominent, important and told very well. For their first time making a movie, Grant and Adam did a fantastic job. As one person says in the preview: “Sometimes you just need life to shake you and say ‘WAKE THE F**K UP!’” For many this movie is the wake-up call.

Complacency and Fulfillment

“You’re climbing the ladder and you get to the top and you realize you have it leaned up against the wrong wall… And, I didn’t even know what the right wall was.” – Vanda in I’m Fine, Thanks

The interviews center around people who’ve realized they were unhappy with the status-quo, and how that effected the choices they made after the realization. As Grant conducted these interviews he relates throughout the film how he began to realize how complacent he had been in his choices and priorities and his growing determination to follow the career path he had always wished for. For many of the interviewees once it was clear that what they were doing was wrong for them often feelings of desperation or sadness began to creep in. Some knew what they wanted to do, some didn’t have any idea. Even if they knew what they wanted, could they follow it? How?

Matt and Betsy’s story particularly resonated with us – nearly everything they said had me and Adam looking at each other yelling, “that’s us!” From not questioning what we were doing, to getting jobs we thought we’d enjoy but turned out not being what we thought they’d be, hating the alarm every morning, that sinking feeling in your stomach on the way to work and then coming home admitting “I can’t do this anymore” every single day.

The Road to Happiness

Is what you’re doing making you happy? What legacy do you want to leave for your kids and society?

The most important message of I’m Fine, Thanks is to seek happiness over checking the boxes off of some socially-approved list. Don’t get a job because you felt pressured or because it was easy – find a way to do what you love. It may not be easy but you’ll actually be fulfilled. If you don’t enjoy law, don’t be a lawyer. Sure they make a ton of money but isn’t there more to life than what amount of money you have?

I believe that it is by pursuing what we love that we can also make our greatest contributions to society. I’m not content with just humming along through life. I want to have fun, have adventures, but most importantly I want to have an impact – however small or big it may be – and to make the world a better place. I can’t accomplish any of these by having a convenient job doing something I hate.

In addition to this theme of happiness there is the theme of not seeking this happiness through stuff. In the documentary many people told of how they felt trapped by their possessions. They had to keep the job that made them miserable because they needed the income from it to support their things – house, car and so on.

Possessions aren’t the problem. Jobs aren’t the problem. It is living someone else’s dream that’s the problem. It’s letting society handle the tough decisions for you. What this leads to next, is all up to you.

You’re Not Alone

We’ve already realized what was going on and have been actively working trying to change our lifestyle to be more in accordance to what we want. The biggest value I found in I’m Fine, Thanks was reassurance. Reassurance in that we weren’t crazy and that we aren’t alone. It doesn’t matter what other people think of what I’m doing – it’s my life, not theirs. The choices are mine to make and I’ve got to do what makes me happy, not what makes them happy.

It’s good to know we’re not alone in following our own path. The roads may be different, but we are united in our following the way that’s best for us instead of taking the easy route that so many feel pressured in to. The ‘American Dream’ is someone else’s dream – live your own dream. Do epic things. Don’t be okay, don’t be fine. Be freakin’ great.

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

The $100 Startup – Equal Parts Motivation and Instruction

The $100 Startup - Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create A New Future by Chris Guillebeau - Photo by Caroline Wik

“There’s no rehab program for being addicted to freedom. Once you’ve seen what it’s like on the other side, good luck trying to follow someone else’s rules ever again.” – The $100 Startup

What if you spent your life doing the things you wanted to do, working only on projects that you want to, going where you want to go, and having a happy, meaningful existence?

For many people living life on their own terms is just a dream. A fantasy they don’t even consider because it doesn’t seem possible. After all, who actually does that?

The truth is, lots of people.

Chris Guillebeau is one such person. He always knew he didn’t want to work for someone else, and worked very hard to ensure he never had to. He also wanted to visit every country before turning 35. He has only eight countries left.

I first learned of Chris when I was a senior in college through his blog, The Art of NonConformity. He challenges people to live unconventional lives and obtain the freedom to control their own lives by doing what they love. It was then that I realized my dreams of traveling and owning my own business were actually possible, and not just a dream completely out of my reach.

I knew I would never be happy working for someone else. I had tasted freedom and had experienced an intense rush and happiness from traveling and knew there was no other way for me. What on earth happened that we got sidetracked and bought a house and got “real” jobs, I don’t really remember. All I know is that I woke up one day and realized we made a terrible mistake, then have been working since to correct course.

Last Saturday I was feeling kind of de-motivated. Although I’ve had great success in pursuing greater health and fitness, we haven’t been doing so well as entrepreneurs. As I opened our front door to go out, a package fell on my foot.

What?

Yeah, Chris had surprised us with a free copy of The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future, and it proved to be just what we needed. Thanks Chris, I’m pretty sure you read my mind.

An extension of his blog and previous book, The $100 Startup is dedicated to helping people figure out a business idea they can start for relatively cheap – guiding the reader from idea to launch and beyond.

After having just read the first page the excitement was already starting to build in me – the book is instantly motivating and helpful. Chris explains how to find the convergence between something you are passionate about and what others care about. Then, goes more in depth on ways to actually build, launch and grow your business, particularly without much startup capital. Several examples from varying industries are used in the book from bloggers to yoga instructors to artists and even consultants.

The advice given is practical, thorough, and geared for efficiency. Fears and doubts are crushed but he also gently reminds you of reality and what is reasonable to expect.

Does everyone want to travel? Does everyone have to be a nomadic entrepreneur? Certainly not, and they don’t have to. The point is to have the freedom and control to decide how you spend your time, rather than being a slave to someone else’s machine. There are even plenty of cases in the book of people who have their own businesses and earn a good income from them, but also have some other “normal” job they still do – because they enjoy it.

Even if you chose to continue working at your job, wouldn’t it be nice to have a backup source of income you enjoy? Or just something you like that brings in some extra income?

If you’re unhappy with your work situation, want to gain freedom and control over how you spend your time or just want some extra income for peace of mind you need to read this book. Not should, need. Anyone can start a business – and it doesn’t have to be an expensive venture.

“It’s not an elitist club; it’s a middle-class, leaderless movement. All around the world, ordinary people are opting out of traditional work – usually without much training, and almost always without much money. These unexpected entrepreneurs have turned their passion into profit while creating a more meaningful life for themselves.” – The $100 Startup

What are you waiting for?

You can pick up a copy off Amazon here: The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau [Full disclosure – we do get a small percentage of sales through that link so by buying through it you’ll be helping us out too. If you’re not cool with that we still highly recommend Chris’s book and you can get a copy by doing a normal search through Amazon.]

Lessons from the Master: Be Like Water

Tranquility by Sean Rogers

Water is not only essential to life, it makes a pretty good role model.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” – Bruce Lee

Being like water is a fairly common goal within the world of martial arts, regardless of style. Students of everything from gong fu to karate to muay thai have sought to improve themselves by emulating its fluidity, force and formlessness. Not only martial artists can learn lessons from it though. So what does it mean to be like water, and how can doing so help improve our lives?

Formlessness

Another quote by Bruce Lee that’s often tossed around is this one:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” – Bruce Lee

Technically that was him reciting lines he wrote for his role on the TV show Longstreet, but I think it still reflects both his thoughts on the matter and an essential property of water that can seriously help people in their day to day lives.

Water, as he says, is shapeless. It doesn’t fight when it’s put into a new container, instead it adapts and changes to perfectly fit its new home. If an object is dropped into the water it doesn’t fight back it just moves out of the way and swallows it up. This formlessness and adaptability is a quality that everyone should strive to achieve.

So how are some ways we can practice this attitude? Think of all the times you’ve been forced into a new situation. Maybe it’s something benign like going to an unfamiliar coffee shop or maybe it’s something more serious like losing your job. What have your reactions been like?

For most people change, no matter how small, is at the very least uncomfortable if not completely terrifying. The natural reaction when people are forced into a new situation is to flee or to fight to get back to the way things were. Instead, try to be more like water. Let go of all that energy you’re wasting trying to cling to the old way things were and let yourself reshape to fit your new surroundings.

The key to achieving water-like adaptation to new situations is understanding the concept of formlessness. The reason water doesn’t fight when it’s placed into a new environment is because water doesn’t have it’s own form. There is no one ‘shape’ of water, it assumes the shape of whatever its container is.

The best way to achieve a similar lack of form is to work on letting go of your self-created identity. I’m not saying you should completely abandon your personality, but rather that you should come to accept yourself as a malleable being. Once you understand that, like water, your defining aspect is that you are constantly changing you can easily adapt to any new situations that may arise.

Fluidity

Ok, I understand that fluidity and formlessness are essentially the same thing since formlessness is a general physical property of all fluids, but bear with me here because fluidity as a concept for our purposes has a slightly more nuanced meaning that separates it out.

When water is flowing, like in a stream or a river, it’s difficult to stop. You can try and push it back but it will slip around you and continue on its way. Like all currents it finds the path of least resistance automatically and follows it without effort or hesitation. If there is even the slightest crack or weakness it will find its way through and keep going.

You can apply this principle to your own life through the practice of wei wuwei (爲無爲) or action without action also sometimes referred to as effortless action. The idea of wei wuwei is central to Taoism and is characterized by releasing conscious control of your actions over to the flow of the infinite Tao.

In more Western terms – go with the flow.

As I said this may sound a lot like the above point of adapting to your surroundings but it’s slightly different. Adapting to your surroundings means changing yourself to become as comfortable as possible in the situation that has presented itself to you. Being fluid, or practicing wei wuwei, deals more with how you deal with obstacles.

Traceurs will understand this concept well. The idea is that when faced with an obstacle you react instantly and naturally taking the path of least resistance around it and moving on. Rather than slam into obstacles you let the natural order of things take its course as you glide around them.

Here obstacles doesn’t necessarily mean physical things. These can be any blocks to your progress tangible or not. When manifested into your general attitude it can also be an effective way to overcome mental blocks. When you hit a block in your thinking or creativity don’t dwell on the problem, just accept that its there and move on.

Dealing with problems this way is not only more effective, it keeps stress to a minimum as well.

There are likely other lessons that you could learn and apply from observing the properties of water, the way when it’s focused into a single stream it can cut through steel, the way a tiny trickle of it can dig out the entire Grand Canyon given enough time or maybe the way it’s nearly incompressible. Can you think of any other good additions? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Sean Rogers