Easy is static. Safe is stalled. Comfort is a constraint.
The road to uncertainty is painted with doubt and lined with characters aimed to convince you that you are ill-prepared, wrongly suited or lacking in strength or mental fortitude for a journey down its path. Without preparation, this noise will infiltrate with a vengeance to distract, deter and discourage the noblest of missions.
The obstacle is the way … the mountain unclimbed, the bridge not built, the words not said, the idea unexplored and the life unlived. We are far more capable than our minds give us credit. Don’t believe me? Unfortunately, there is a good reason that you may have doubts. Our belief is seeded and reinforced by the perception of our environment, and if we constantly introduce negative signals that foster unproductive feedback loops, we will never access the potential that lives within each of us.
Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is The Way, was a wonderful tiptoe into the world of Stoicism, which sent me immediately into the writings of Marus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Holiday brings the principles of Stoicism forward in an approachable and digestible manner.
One lesson that I pulled from the book involves the Discipline of Will.
Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul. The will is the one thing that we control completely, always. We can think, act and finally adapt to a world that is inherently unpredictable. The will is what prepares us for this, protects us against it, and allows us to thrive and be happy in spite of it. It allows us to stand undisturbed while others wilt and give into disorder. Confident, calm, ready to work regardless of the conditions.
Ryan Holiday – The Obstacle Is The Way
From our most humble beginnings, we learn to train and develop various skills for our survival from infants learning sign language to communicate hunger or discomfort to ten-year-olds adding fractions and differentiating quantities through units of measurements to young adults selecting and building an intimate knowledge of a particular skill or discipline. We are built to learn, but is what we learn and how we learn it building that best version of ourselves? Can we train the discipline of will? What about challenging our mind, body, and spirit with conditions that our brains believe impossible?
Meru – Photo credit: Jimmy Chin
One of the most courageous illustrations of the discipline of will was captured by climber and filmmaker Jimmy Chin, who documented a journey with fellow climbers Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk on their ascent of a mountain that many mystics call the center of the universe. Meru is a 20,000-foot peak in the Indian Himalayans that, at the time, had never been summited. Five months before their historic attempt, Ozturk suffered a near-fatal fall near Jackson Hole that threatened to close the door on his journey to the heralded mountain. After a depressed skull fracture, two broken vertebrae, and brain surgery, Ozturk charged down the road to uncertainty, silenced the naysayers and harnessed his discipline of will to join Chin and Anker on the ascent of Meru.
Only then did the true test begin.
If your will needs a stiff kick in the pants, this film is your medicine.
While the majority of us are not going to scale 20,000-foot monstrosities with the risk of death at every corner, we can certainly benefit from training and testing our will. Finding safe ways to prove to our mind that our body is capable of feats stretching far beyond our imagination will translate to every facet of your existence.
Nearly a decade ago, I was introduced to CrossFit. My first response was no different than most. Those guys are crazy. I could never do that. A combination of Olympic lifting, strength training, and metabolic conditioning, CrossFit takes the idea of treadmills and dumbbells through an alternate universe testing every aspect of strength, stamina, and will. Last weekend, I participated in a competition with my friends and fellow athletes from CrossFit Alpharetta, and I was reminded of the power of an experience with five barbells, four minutes and my will.
Photo credit: Jennifer Gideon
As a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, I am constantly blown away by the breakthroughs that I witness in our athletes. When many come in for the first time, they are frightened and doubtful travelers on the road to uncertainty. With little or no exposure to CrossFit, it can be rather intimidating, but the great gyms and responsible coaches always focus on foundational movements and safety for every athlete no matter their experience or fitness level. Every class is a commitment to an active presence and the acknowledgment of the road of uncertainty. There is nothing more powerful than watching someone enter a challenge or test and go from a timid, negative mindset to full-body confidence on the other side. I am thankful that I can watch athletes discover and harness the power of their will while embracing the obstacles in front of them. By doing so, they are acknowledging that these physical conditions are not necessarily in their control, and they are willing to drive forward in full acceptance with their complete effort. These tests carve new neural pathways that shape our ability to accept our next challenge no matter how uncertain, uncomfortable or frightening.
The action of overcoming a physical obstacle can deliver tremendous residual effects that translate to every aspect of your life. With each test, we are engraining into our subconscious a new positive vocabulary where feedback loops serve as self-fulfilling prophecies on our path to greatness. From the days of running from saber-tooth tigers and velociraptors and defending our homes and lands from neighboring tribes, our nature is survival. In the modern world, we find reasons and excuses to accept and even perpetuate our internally manifested limitations.
By testing our will we are connecting to our true nature.
A small enough first step is never out of reach. One foot in front of the other. Inhales follow exhales. Showing awareness and gratitude for the small wins provide clarity and confidence on the road to uncertainty. How often do we miss out on an experience or opportunity because we are scared or uncomfortable? If we are okay with being uncomfortable and understand the foundation of fear, we can conquer anything.
Many of the concepts from Holiday’s book come from the world of Stoic philosophers, including Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
When circumstances force you to some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself. Do not stay out of rhythm for longer than you must; you will master the harmony the more by constantly going back to it.
Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
Mastering harmony requires training as well. I connect to will through silence and the space between my thoughts. The quickest path to returning to myself is through breath and meditation, and, for me, twenty minutes a day for the last four years have produced transformational effects. Breath is the foundation for our existence and returning to breath is the purest connection to will.
(I’ve been asked on numerous occasions for advice on meditation, and I’ve included some of my favorite tools in the links section. Drop me a line if you have more specific questions.)
We are built for experiences that far exceed our brain’s ability to represent them clearly to our consciousness. Neural pathways house limitations of our own creation placed there by genetics, historical accounts, perceptions of our reality and our environment. If we constantly seek to harness and test our discipline of will and find ways to return to the power of our breath, we will find comfort in uncertainty. With a commitment to consistent practice, these cumulative effects will lead to exponential transformation.
We can train our will through our breath … and breathe, we must.
Jeremy’s meditation suggestions: