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 Mental/Emotional Fitness & Peak Performance: Natural Laws 

Nature's way is simple and easy, but men prefer what is intricate and artificial
    -Lao Tzu

For fifteen years I trained with great energy in the sport of gymnastics. Even though I worked hard, progress often seemed slow or random, so I set out to study the process of learning. Beginning with standard psychological theory, I read current studies of motivation, visualization, hypnosis, conditioning, and attitude training. My understanding grew, but only in bits and pieces. Extensive reading of Eastern philosophy, including perspectives of the traditions of Taoist and Zen martial arts, expanded my knowledge, but I still lacked the understanding I sought.

Eventually, I turned to my own intuition and experience for the answers I was looking for. I understood that infants learn at a remarkable pace compared to adults. I watched my little daughter, Holly, at play, to see if I could discover what qualities she possessed that most adults lacked.

One Sunday morning as I watched her play with the cat on the kitchen floor, my eyes darted from my daughter to the cat and back again, and a vision began to crystallize; an intuitive concept was forming in my mind about the development of talent—not just physical talent, but emotional and mental talent as well.

I had noticed that Holly's approach to play was as relaxed and mindless as the cat's, and I realized that the essence of talent is not so much the presence of certain qualities but rather the absence of mental, physical, and emotional obstructions experienced by most adults.

After that discovery I found myself taking long walks alone, observing the forces of wind and water, trees, and animals—their relationship to the earth. At first, I noticed only the obvious that plants tend to grow toward the sun, that objects fall toward the earth, that trees bend in the wind, that rivers flow downhill.

After many such walks, nature removed her veil, and my vision cleared. I saw trees bending in the wind and understood the principle of nonresistance. Visualizing how gentle running water can cut through solid rock, I grasped the law of accommodation. Seeing how all living things thrived in moderate cycles, I was able to understand the principle of balance. Observing the regular passing of the seasons, each coming in its own good time, taught me the natural order of life.

I came to understand that socialization had alienated me (and most adults) from the natural order, characterized by free, spontaneous expression; my young daughter, however, knew no separation from things as they are.

Still, such insights seemed more poetical than practical, until, all in a single moment, the final piece fell into place: I was taking a warm shower, enjoying the soothing spray. My thoughts were quiet; then, out of nowhere, a realization came and left me stunned: "The laws of nature apply equally to the mind and the emotions!" This may not seem like a great realization to you, but I dropped the soap.

Realizing that nature's laws applied equally to the human psyche, inseparable from the body, made all the difference for me. My world turned upside down; no longer would I view the principles of my training as merely physical. I would see them as a psychophysical challenge. My perceptions of the world changed; where once I viewed the world and my body as physical things, they now danced in a realm of flowing energy, to a movement of more subtle forces. This new way of seeing reaffirmed my essential connection to the laws of nature. My inner training had begun.

All that remained was to put this understanding to use—to apply it to a new way of training—in order to reawaken my innate abilities so that the fruits of training would spill over into daily life. Training became a way of life. The game of athletics had become a perfect model for the Game of Life.

The Chinese sages, in talking about the River of Life, the delicate, ephemeral existence of the butterfly, or the sway of trees in the wind, were painting pictures, drawing metaphors that pointed to the natural laws, the source of all human wisdom. All the great teachers have pointed to the same thing: that growing personally means integrating the wisdom of our life experience with the laws of nature and the open-eyed innocence of childhood.

Pursuing a natural way of training, I sought to align myself to the following lessons and laws of nature:

Principle 1: Nonresistance

There are four ways to deal with the forces of life:

  • Surrender to them fatalistically. Rocks, since they are inanimate, have little choice but to surrender passively to the natural laws.

  • Ignore them, and in ignorance have accidents. Creatures who lack man's perspective are relatively helpless in their ignorance and are guided only by simple instinct.

  • Resist them and create turmoil. We tend to resist or struggle with the natural flow of life. Resistance wastes energy and results in various symptoms of dis-ease.

  • Use them and blend with nature. Like birds that ride the wind, fish that swim with the current, or bamboo that bends to absorb the weight of fallen snow, we can make use of natural forces. This is the real meaning of nonresistance. Natural law has been expressed in many ways: "Don't push the river." "Let it be." "Go with the flow." "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." "Turn problems into opportunities and stumbling blocks into steppingstones."

Inner athletes, on days that physical progress lags behind, make the best of time by working with mental and emotional issues that arise.

Nonresistance, then, is more than dumb passivity. Flowing with the natural currents of life and making use of whatever circumstances arise requires great sensitivity and intelligence.

The priorities of the inner athlete make outer accomplishments less important than internal transformations and alignment with natural law.

Inner golfers, for example, make intuitive use of the wind, of the direction the grass grows, of the moisture in the air and the curves of the land. They make use of gravity by letting the club swing in a natural, relaxed rhythm. Inner gymnasts learn to blend with the unique forces and circumstances in their environment. Inner tennis players learn to use the texture of the court to their advantage. "Conquering" is the opposite of nonresistance; the combative mind projects its own turmoil onto the world.

In daily life, those of us who resist change also inhibit growth. Bob Dylan reminded us that those who aren't busy being born are busy dying.

What a caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly.
    —Richard Bach

Inner athletes have dissolved any thought of resistance. They see opponents as teachers or sparring partners who challenge them to bring out their best, and they do the same for their opponents.

Opponents' movements can be used to your advantage through nonresistance. This principle is well-known in the martial arts of Judo, T'ai chi, and Aikido. "If pushed, pull: if pulled, push." Apply softness in the face of hardness absorbing, neutralizing, and redirecting force. Use this approach to daily life.

The Martial Arts Principle of No-Collision

Test 1. Stand squarely in front of a friend. Tense your body. Have the friend push you with one hand as you resist. How does that feel? What happens? You are likely to experience opposition and loss of balance or control as your friend pushes you backward.

The next time he or she pushes, take a smooth step back under control; just let your body flow backward at the same speed as your partner's push—give no resistance at all. What does this feel like? Do you feel the cooperation or harmony you have created? Since you are centered and in control, you can "allow" your partner to go where he or she "wants" to go.

Test 2. Stand with your right leg and right arm extended toward your friend, with both feet rooted lightly to the floor. Breathe slowly in your lower abdomen; relax. Cultivate a feeling of peace and goodwill. As you maintain this spirit, have your friend come toward you rapidly from a distance of about ten feet, with the intent to grab your right arm, which is extended toward him or her at hip level.

Just as your friend is about to grab your hand, you whirl around and behind your friend by taking a smooth quick step slightly to the side and beyond your partner as he or she lunges past, grabbing for the arm that's no longer there. If you do this smoothly, facing your friend as you whirl around, you'll maintain equilibrium and control as your friend totters on the edge of balance.

Test 3. This Aikido approach can also be applied to potential verbal confrontations. On such occasions, instead of verbal tussling—trying to prove a point, win an argument, overcome another with reason— just sidestep the struggle.

Simply listen, really listen, to your opponents' points; acknowledge the value of what they are saying. Then ask gently if there isn't some validity to your view also. In this way, you can learn to blend and apply nonresistance not only to "attackers" but to al1 of life's little problems and difficult situations. Remember that you create the struggle in your life; you create the collisions. You can dissolve struggle through nonresistance.

Nonresistance: Psychophysical Applications

In Judo, he who thinks is immediately thrown. Victory is assured to those who are physically and mentally nonresistant.
    —Robert Linssen

Stress happens when the mind resists what is. Most of us tend to either push or resist the river of our lives, to fight circumstance rather than make use of things as they are. Resistance sets up turbulence that we feel as physical, mental, and emotional tension. Tension is a subtle pain and, like any pain, signals that something is amiss. When you are out of your natural pattern, you will feel this tension. By listening to your body, you can take responsibility for the turbulence in your life rather than blaming the circumstances or other people for your upset.

Athletes commonly resist the natural processes by trying. The word "try" itself implies a weakness in the face of challenge. The moment we try, we are already tense; trying therefore, is a primary cause of error. In more natural actions, we omit to try. We simply walk to the refrigerator, write a letter, or water the flowers; we don't have to try to do these things, and we perform them easily and naturally. But when faced with something we consider an imposing challenge when self-doubt arises—we begin to try.

When competitors feel they are under pressure and begin to try, they often fall apart. Chuang Tzu, a Chinese sage, observed that "when an archer is shooting for enjoyment, he has all his skill; when he shoots for a brass buckle, he gets nervous; when he shoots for a prize of gold, he begins to see two targets."

To illustrate the effect of trying too hard, I ask you to imagine yourself walking across a four-inch plank of wood that is suspended a few inches from the ground. No problem, right? Now transport that plank to a height of ten feet over a pond filled with alligators. Suddenly you begin trying harder. You feel tense. We have the same plank but a different mental state.

Whenever we start to try, we set up internal opposition to what we want to accomplish. You can measure this opposition in your own physiology; when you try to keep your arm straight, you end up tensing both the extensor muscles (triceps) and the flexor muscles (biceps); you fight yourself. Athletes who try to stretch can feel the muscles tensing in resistance. Dieters who try to diet only get stronger urges for food—or gain back what is lost. Golfers who try to wallop the ball only end up topping it into the rough.

Inner athletes recognize that less effort can create more results. Even while engaged in intense competition they have a sense of "letting it happen" without any sense of strain, This may seem like idealistic fantasy, but numerous descriptions of the lives and duels of martial arts masters testify to the existence of this kind of grace under pressure. The higher the stakes, the more calm, clear, and relaxed these masters became, and they were unbeatable—peaceful warriors like Morehei Uyeshiba, the founder of Aikido, who, when more than 80 years of age, could easily evade an attacker wielding a razorsharp sword, tapping the attacker on the nose with a fan while smiling, relaxed, breathing deeply.

(Excerpted from The Inner Athlete ISBN: 0913299979)
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 About The Author
Dan Millman Dan Millman is a former world champion athlete, university coach, martial arts instructor, and college professor. After an intensive, twenty-year spiritual quest, Dan's teaching found its form as the Peaceful Warrior's......more
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