Mindlessness, a Chinese General, Iron Nails and Long-Term Fitness
In the broader health, fitness, and wellness world, we talk a lot about mindfulness. Surprisingly, the Mayo Clinic has a pretty good definition of mindfulness:
Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.
In the West, what we often do is emphasize being mindful in general, as a counterbalance to the overly mindless every day that defines this society. Instead of wolfing down our food while we drive to the next meeting, we stop, do one thing at a time, and attempt to be aware of what we’re doing. We try to cut out multi-tasking. We write down lists of things we’re grateful for. We simply notice things like the sunset or the beauty of a cloud – or our dang family, for crying out loud.
These are really good things to do – REALLY good. Even Western science acknowledges and studies this.
But that’s not the title of this!
Iron Nails and The Chinese General
It’s often said there’s a place for everything in this world, and in that spirit, there seems to be a place for mindlessness too.
It comes in place of “motivation”, which is one of those things in exercise that gets a lot of emphasis but doesn’t necessarily do a lot of long term good.
When it comes to long term fitness goals, it’s consistency that does the trick, and that means showing up – over and over and over again.
This is the basic lesson in traditional martial arts. As my late teacher used to say, “the iron bar can be thinned into nails”. That’s a reference to an ancient Chinese story about a soon-to-be general and a journey and a woman who is painstakingly grinding away at big iron bars when he first encounters her.
He asks what she’s doing and she says “making nails”. I don’t know what the Chinese for “what the fuck?” is, but that’s what he said, basically. Impossible! He moves on, becomes a famous general, yadda yadda yadda. 30 years later, he’s travelling through again and he finds her – finishing up her nails.
The point is if you work on something diligently every day for long enough, you can accomplish pretty much anything.
That’s the guiding principle behind kung fu training. Keep at it. For a LONG TIME.
Mindlessness As A Tool
As a kid martial artist, I never thought about any of this. I just went to class. As an adult Kung Fu practitioner, I noticed motivation waxing and waning, as if I had zero control over it. I would come to class, miss class, come for a week, miss a week. I would make progress, go backwards.
Sound familiar, anyone on a weight loss journey, or getting into working out for the first time?
When I finally got consistent, the results were amazing. I got strong, I got good, and I got a lot of respect from my teacher. I also got to be a real, important part of an amazing community.
How I did that was I stopped thinking about it – entirely. All I did was show up. Specifically, I was mindless about it. There was no question about whether to go to class, no inner discussion whatsoever. I decided – since my mind wasn’t exactly doing me any favors here – to remove it entirely from the process of showing up.
“Grrrrr rrr mrrrrr” – zombie style, I’d walk into the room – no matter what I might be feeling or thinking (unless I was actually sick – then my body just wouldn’t go).
“Arrr brraaainzzzz” I’d put on my uniform.
“Arrrrrr rraarrrrr” warm-ups.
“Mrrrrzzgggrrrrss” iron arm drills.
On and on. Of course, by the time we were halfway through class, I was sharp, present, and plenty mindful to the thing we were doing. THEN I’d be motivated! Amazing how that works.
Showing Up Is 155,000% of Life
Maybe that should have been the title of this. This is about removing the mind – or the brain – or the thinking – or whatever – from where it doesn’t belong. It’s not about wolfing down burgers in the car as a means to an end – that’s awful.
It’s about showing up for the things you want and the goals you have, rather than having to psych up for it all the time, which is unsustainable.
It works for other things too – like being a touring performer. You can’t possibly be psyched to play the same 15 songs for the 100th time this year (and it’s only March), and get all motivated and have that drive you to the venue. What if you’re not feeling it? Don’t you want to eat tonight?
Same with any job. Or brushing your teeth. Or taking a shower. Do you need motivation for that? Could you possibly maintain that kind of energy output to be excited about every single thing all the time? WAHOO!! LET’S GOOOO!!!! BRUSH THOSE TEETH!!!!!!!
No way! You have to start with showing up.
Fitness is that way. It’s day in, day out. It’s a habit. It’s a way of being. And although being healthier, happier, prettier, stronger – whatever it is you want – are all things to get excited about – the way to get them is to continually grind away at those bars.
Until you’re tough as nails 😊