Developing a Strong Mind, Body, and Spirit: Creating a Better Tomorrow Right Now
Alright, so what I’m about to say might be a bit lengthy, but I think it will be worthwhile and hopefully speak to some people and maybe, just maybe, help someone in some way shape or form. It’s certainly something we can ALL relate to in some manner that does not get talked about enough. While our generation is pushing to change that, I thought I would offer some of my own insights brought about by some of my own experiences and recent reflections. A lot of my ideas are taken from some books I’ve read recently and things I’ve heard at leadership/ethics conferences. I am in no way trying to reinvent the wheel here. Some of my ideas might seem super cliché and others might seem a little out there. I just encourage you (if you’re brave enough to read all this) to keep an open mind. My goal here, I guess, is to help people realize how similar we really are and how important it is that we take down the façade of “I’ve got my shit together” that we all create so we can truly unearth our intrinsic sense of humanity and peace. So here it goes:
Our society, for a long period of time, has stigmatized the concept of mental health and mental illness. Talking about our mental and emotional well-being openly has been considered taboo and often frowned upon. Admitting your own mental and emotional struggles was, in many forums, viewed as a sign of weakness. People suffering from mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD, in our parents’ generation, may never have received proper help in dealing with and healing these issues. And so, they self-medicated through alcohol and other unhealthy means. People with more severe mental issues, i.e. psychosis, mania, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc., were in many cases, deemed “less than” and institutionalized or disenfranchised in many ways. Thankfully, our society has evolved well enough overtime to better understand these disorders and give people the proper respect, dignity, and treatment they deserve.
That said, I think we all need to do a better job of putting our mental and emotional well-being at the top of our priority lists. What many people fail to consciously recognize, is that our mental and emotional well-being is at the epicenter of what allows us to reach our fullest potentials and be the best people we can be. Our minds, which control our mental and emotional states, are incredibly powerful. We MUST take care of our minds in the same manner that we would take care of any other body part. We must consciously and deliberately endeavor to have a sound mind, body, and spirit. The same minds that put man on the moon, get Navy Seals through their grueling training, push people to beat physical ailments, and help us reach incredible heights can be horribly destructive if we do not take care of them.
The key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, I’m starting to realize, is to practice something that many psychologists and spiritual leaders would call mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of staying completely centered; not getting to high on the highs and not getting too low on the lows. It’s remaining equanimous to what is and surrendering to THIS moment. It’s not getting too wrapped up in the internal and external inputs in our daily lives. It’s recognizing that our thoughts and emotions are no different than external stimuli such as saying hello to someone or watching a car drive by. It’s being able to sit in the driver’s seat of our mind and be in control of our psyche and our thoughts. When you have a negative thought, a fear, or a doubt (“I suck”, “I’m an idiot”, “Nobody likes me”) it is the ability to recognize them as simply that and not follow those thoughts or fears down the rabbit-hole of negativity that they are. When we fail to recognize this, we are consumed by the cacophony of our own negative thoughts. We inadvertently cause our own neurosis. It’s the ability to be completely present in the moment; not wallowing in the past or having anxiety about the future. It’s enjoying every second, every minute, and every hour of every single day. It’s realizing that we are not our thoughts or emotions or self-image. Our souls, our consciousness (which is much deeper than the experiences and descriptions of our day to day lives) is who we are. We are the one’s experiencing those thoughts and emotions and external inputs. We must not ever embody a static mindset. We must always remember and embrace the growth mindset: we are all capable of learning, growing, and developing from every single situation (positive or negative). When we practice mindfulness, we can develop something that the Dali Lama refers to as “mental immunity.” Mental immunity is something greater than mental toughness. It’s the ability to eradicate feelings of fear and anger (two extremely detrimental emotions that impede our ability to experience happiness). We develop mental immunity by spreading, utilizing, and living with COMPASSION.
Compassion is something that we are all capable of exhibiting. Compassion is, in fact, our most natural human sentiment. Our ability to care for and connect with other people is what allows us to be happy. We are social creatures and we need human connections to be happy. To be compassionate is to see the humanity in every single person. To treat every human being with the utmost respect and empathy. To realize that we are all humans, brothers and sisters, all the same. In a time of incredible division, compassion is something we need more of. It’s being able to change your perspective and not assume anything about anyone. Compassion allows you to be non-judgmental. We are all one and our humanity trumps any external differences that we have (race, religion, political views, etc.). Unfortunately, our brains are hardwired to see other people not in our “group” as threats. We fail to empathize with the “other” when really, these differences are entirely superficial. We are hardwired, especially today, to compete with one another. We have begun to view other people as obstacles to our own success and subsequent happiness. We are all, every single one of us, capable of so much GOOD. We all, whether we really realize it, yearn for purpose and the ability to do good in our lives. Light exists in all of us and we are all capable of depicting God in our actions. By spreading love, kindness, and exhibiting compassion, we are proving that God does in fact exist. Sadly, external and internal distractions sometimes misguide people from the path that’s laid out for them. At the end of the day, we are merely visiting this planet. So why not leave it in a better place than before? And so, warm-heartedness and lightheartedness are essential. What’s also essential is that we stop constantly using words like “I”, “me”, and “mine” on a personal level, and stop stereotyping large groups of people into mental boxes (male, female, gay, straight, Black, Hispanic). We need to use words like “us” and “our” and “we.” We must describe and address other groups as “brothers and sisters” and “fellow-humans.”
*Side note: Being spiritual and having a sound mind does not mean you have to always be serious or stoic, however. It’s quite the opposite! Be silly, be dumb, josh around with your friends, be obnoxious, have FUN; that’s what joy is about!*
So, what I’m saying is that we, as a society, need to retrain our minds to change how we view ourselves and how we view others. This comes from the old saying, “If you want to change the world, change yourself.” Through mindfulness and compassion for others, we can not only experience lasting happiness, but we can make the world a better place. I know what you’re probably thinking though… the world is not all sunshine’s and rainbows: Bad stuff happens. Bad people do bad things…
But it’s how we react to those rare occasions that depicts humanity’s underlying strength and inherent compassion. Take 9/11 for example. Yes, it was a horrible event carried out by men that were horribly misguided in their beliefs that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. But now look at how we responded: Compassion and love pushed people to incredible lengths to help others, to rescue victims, and rebuild the lives of families affected by this atrocity. People all around the world united in solidarity and love for each other. Another example, that I can personally attest to in some regards, is the Rwandan genocide. This atrocity, amongst others, has always drawn my heart towards Africa and the injustices prevalent throughout history there. “How were humans capable of such egregious acts of inhumanity?”, I always thought… But after my trip there a couple of summers ago, I left wondering “How are humans so capable of such forgiveness, such internal peace, and such love and compassion?”. See, in the aftermath of the genocide, the battles that many Rwandans faced were internal: overcoming PTSD, depression, and attempting to heal their minds and spirits. So, what did they turn to? Forgiveness, love, and acceptance; God. They are some of the most spiritually equipped people on this planet. They love each other, they forgive each other, and they seek God in everything that they do. Through compassion and hope and the growth mindset, they have learned to live alongside the perpetrators of the genocide, and in some cases, find love for those whose parents had killed their own… This is what I mean by our unwavering, internal sense of compassion. It’s acceptance, its love, its kindness, its FORGIVENESS (first, forgive yourself) that allows peace to prevail.
Something else I want to talk about is our ability to lead others. Every single person is capable of being a leader. It starts with making a choice; a choice to lead, to positively affect others, and to always do the right thing and expect the same of others. And at the foundation of good leadership, is the mental and emotional intelligence that mindfulness creates. When we are emotionally intelligent and self-aware, we are better equipped to take care of ourselves. When we can take care of ourselves, we can take care of other people; you CANNOT take care of others if you do not first take care of yourself. By having faith, holding tight to hope, and committing ourselves to an unwavering sense of realistic optimism and empathy, you can lead anyone anywhere. Something I cannot stand, which is a part of being in the military (I get it), is the inclination for leaders to hide behind formalities and the artificial and arrogant barrier of “I can do no wrong, I don’t experience fear, I’m so ‘mentally tough’”. This type of leadership creates a toxic environment. Leadership is about humility, honor, and empathy. It’s being able to pick people up when they are down and remain positive, always. It’s about being able to take a step back, to look past cooperate structure or military rank, and recognize that we are all HUMANS and our humanity is paramount to any type of structure or division.
But here is what I’m trying to get at with all this Zen and leadership and compassion mumbo jumbo: Our generation can do (and is already doing) amazing things to impact our planet. But if we do not take care of our minds and our emotional and mental well-being, we can squander this opportunity. We are living in age of unprecedented distractions and pressures. Things older generations will likely never understand. Every time we look at Instagram, or Facebook, or snapchat, we are diverting the focus of our minds away from what’s in front of us at that present moment. We are diverting our minds away from the here and now. We are so caught up in how many likes we have, what people are doing, what other people have that we don’t, that we are forgetting to live our lives. Our desires and attachments to these materialistic objects and expectations for what we want or the image that we want to create for ourselves is deteriorating our mental health. We live our lives trying to prove that we are happy, that we are killing it, that we have all the cool things and clothes and go to all these cool places (Trust me, I’m guilty of this too). We compare ourselves and we try to prove ourselves to others. We then feel envy and become discontent with our own lives. We want more, more, more. We think, “When I get this many followers or have this new car or get this new tattoo or have this pretty girlfriend that I will be happy.” But it’s an illusion that we create to mask our own internal pain. We are, by the Buddha’s definition, suffering. We are suffering, and we don’t even know it. We worry, we compare, and we let these negative emotions overcome us. We are literally altering the chemical balance in our brains without even realizing it. Older generations criticize us for not being hard workers, wanting money and success without doing the work, not being “tough” and for being lazy. But this is simply not true (for the most part). We are having to deal with distractions and pressures that they never did in a world that is changing exponentially fast. There is so much pressure to be successful, to get a job, to make MONEY, that we are losing control of our minds and we don’t even know it. So, I offer this to you: STOP. Stop worrying, stop comparing, stop wanting, stop expecting, stop overthinking. Just be YOU. Put down your phone. Use your social media for a tool for good, compassion, human connection and nostalgia but nothing else. Meditate, pray, read, follow your passions, find your PURPOSE. Spread compassion and seek internal and external peace in everything that you do. Help and serve others in some capacity; it will build joy. Money is merely a bonus to the happiness that you will feel. And remember how powerful our minds are. We can literally overcome ANYTHING through the practice of mindfulness and mental immunity: physical ailments, mental illness, financial troubles, heartbreak. One thing I’ve certainly realized is that we ALL face some type of internal or external battle. Whether or not this battle is internal or external (or both) does not change the fact that it is an obstacle that we are all capable of overcoming.
With that, it is important to realize and remember that nobody is perfect. It is okay to not be okay! What is not okay is to live in denial about it! We all have the power and choice to overcome whatever difficulty lays before us. Overcoming this struggle is all about perspective. If you are suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction or any other mental disorder, remember that you are not alone. You are not weak, and you are not weak for seeking help. You are strong, and you can overcome and achieve anything. It is up to you to find purpose in your struggle. It is easy to give up and wallow in your suffering. But again, you have the choice, to decide to turn your struggle and your suffering, into a mission statement. To decide that you can learn and grow and be BETTER, not despite your struggle and adversity, but BECAUSE of it. No matter how low you get, no matter how dark of a place you find yourself in, you are never out of the fight. Build a tribe of support around you; family, friends, mentors, WHOEVER. You do not have to struggle alone. Just remain mindful, open your heart, and have faith. By opening your heart, you allow yourself to see others as your brothers and sisters and trust in them. In the Bhagavad Gita, this is the concept of nonduality: we are all ONE, there is no such thing as duality, only non-duality. So, you trust in their compassion and their innate instinct towards good, and as a result, they trust in and believe in you. Have a light and warm heart and TRUST the fact that we are all inherently POSITIVE beings. That is what faith is about. TRUSTING that there is positive in every situation and keeping the hope that you will find it and the people around you will guide you there. With this mentality there is literally nothing to stress about irrationally. When you find yourself worrying and stressing about something, ask yourself this: Can I do something about it right now? If not, stop worrying. If you can, then JUST DO IT and have fun doing it. Do not stress about every wrongdoing, every horrible injustice, or crime. There is no point… At the end of the day, as MLK said, “The arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”