From early childhood, we’re taught that exercise is good. Outdoor play and physical exertion is built into every school curriculum from the minute we’re conscious. Exercise is our body’s way of developing, of building muscle, of growing. We’re taught to lean into the soreness, to relish and nurture the pain because pain means our muscles will be rebuilt stronger.
The problem is that many of us don’t exercise our physical bodies. We’ve become lazy, sedentary. Worst of all, we’ve allowed that lazy and sedentary mindset to carry to our mental and emotional lives! This trend is creating not just physically unhealthy humans, but mentally and emotionally unhealthy ones.
Our physical bodies need exercise. So do our mental and emotional ones.
Many of us make New Years resolutions to exercise more, to go to the gym, to eat healthier, and to snack less. It’s a well documented reality that gyms and other physical fitness institutions see an annual surge in memberships and attendance at the start of the year. We know that it is in our own best interest to physically exercise and to keep our bodies healthy.
So how do we carry this through to our mental and emotional lives?
No pain, no gain
This is true not just in the proactive sense (ie you have to work for something that you want) but also in the reactive (ie when life gives you lemons). Building the body is obvious pain - physical discipline, eating well, lifting weights, physical exercise.
In the realm of the mind, pain is a little less obvious. Frustration, mental struggle, embarrassment, shame, failure - these are all pains of the mind, and are things that we need to lean into.
I remember when I learned how to snowboard. My instructor would cheer each time I fell because it meant that I was pushing my limit. Then he’d come over and reflect over what caused the fall with me so I that I could hone in on that feeling and identify it next time so that I could adjust how my body responded to it.
If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits. If you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential.
Reflect rather than avoid
As humans, we have a tendency to avoid pain. From an early age, we’re taught that fire = pain, so we avoid fire. While this may be a perfectly reasonable and rational philosophy for the physical world, our minds naturally extrapolate this concept to the mental and emotional world.
This is a mistake.
We need to train ourselves to develop the habit of being reflective of pain. Just as we exercise our physical bodies and grow from the pain, we need to grow from the emotional and mental pain too. Whether we’re talking about a bad breakup, failing a test, or being embarrassed publicly for some piece of incorrect knowledge which you were certain of, we need to lean into the pain and reflect on how it has impacted us.
When we reflect on our pain, we’re able to examine several things.
- Why was this painful?
- What happened that didn’t meet my expectation?
- How did I react?
By regularly thinking through these things, we’re able to evaluate whether we’re happy with our responses, and from there build a desire for change. And just like we build exercise plans like doing crunches and planks for strengthening a targeted physical area, so too do we need to build a plan for dealing with our emotional and mental pain.
We should note explicitly though, that this is contradictory to our base animal instincts. Evolution tells us that over the past several millennia, human beings have survived due to our evolutionary instinct of fight or flight. This goes against both of those!
Learn to be mindful of your responses
Human beings are instinctive and reactive. This is frequently a praiseworthy trait. We pay athletes millions of dollars because they have above-average reaction times and have honed those reactions to be favorable. However, this too is a trait that can cause us as much harm as good when applied in the emotional and mental realms.
Anyone who has been in a relationship, be it familial, platonic, romantic, or otherwise, knows what its like to react negatively to someone else. Often those reactions come out as anger, irritation, aggression, avoidance, and a myriad other self-preserving and negative things.
Instead of reacting automatically to stimuli, we need to train ourselves to mindfully respond. Mindfulness doesn’t just give us the ability to acknowledge what’s going on, but also gives us the space to thoughtfully respond. It doesn’t mean we’re passively allowing the world to just happen, but instead gives us the room and the tools to decide how we respond instead of reacting out of instinct.
By injecting a brief pause in between our brain’s decision to act vs our body’s reaction, we can rewire our actions despite our initial internal reaction. This allows us to respond in a way that is congruent with our beliefs and our values. It creates the space for us to do that by training our emotional beings to identify the feelings and impacts of a given situation and to give us but a breath of space before taking action.
That breath may well be the most invaluable space in our lives.
We value people who are able to respond well under pressure and are able to stay calm. Mindfulness helps us choose our response so that we too can take actions that are honorable, noble, and consistent with the people that we want to be.
My sons, in this life you will have pain. And while I wish I could take that pain in your stead so that you can live pain-free and happy lives, I know that it is in that pain that you grow. And so my prayer is not that you would live a painless life, but that you would be reflective in that pain, that you would have people in your lives that can share those pains with you, and that you can learn from those experiences so that you can mindfully live your best lives possible. Love you boys!