I fly a lot. There’s nothing like being 35000 feet in the air, and suddenly the plane starts shaking violently like a matchbox. Watching people’s bags fly out from the overhead lockers, one has only three choices. I could begin by freaking out, proceed to run up the isle to the cockpit door, only to realize it makes little difference as I have zero clue how to fly a plane. Or I could have overwhelming optimism (thrown in with some belief in a higher power) that this will end with a positive outcome, no matter what. Or, I can reside myself to my fate and that all of life is impermanent. Here, rather, I seek to control only which is in my realm to control, ‘myself’. While acknowledging what I cannot control. In other words recognising I am not flying the plane. In that moment, I can hold myself steady, take a deep breath, and be ready to be adaptable.
Out of my three options, the first will likely see that I end up being cuffed on the plane. The reality is, no amount of freaking out is going to change what will happen next. If anything, it will make things far worse. Lost in my panic, I will likely not see opportunities to save myself if things do actually go south. In other words, if the plane is going to crash, and I survive, my panic will be the thing that gets me killed.
The second option actually isn’t any better either. In a way its even worse than my panic attack option. At least the panic attack sets in motion a sense of urgency. Think of it like a massive injection of survival hormones pulsating through the body. The problem with panic of course, is that it lacks clarity, and in a life and death situation, clarity is king. Just like a panic attack, being overly optimistic can be a death sentence too. I know this might not seem immediately obvious, because we have been sold a buffet of optimism from every corner of the worldwide web. Nowhere is this more evident than in the West, where being optimistic is seen as key to being liked and successful. We are almost berated to be positive in all of our experiences, or fear being sentenced to the proverbial negativity naughty corner.
But being overly optimistic in all things, is often a sign of insecurity. Just like panic, insecurity leads to inaction, or at worse, leads to taking the wrong action. As Oliver Burkeman notes in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, “Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.” Interestingly researchers such as Oettingen and her colleagues have suggested that public displays of positive thinking may even predict downturns in major macroeconomic outcomes. Said with the Facebook world in mind, the more ‘positive thinking memes’ you see someone post, the more you can be sure that they are not actually succeeding. He who protests the loudest is an apt saying here.
But what about the third option?
The third option is what I will refer to as pragmatism-in-action. This is a way of being that assesses the truth of meaning of both theories and beliefs in terms of their success in practical application. While an eternal optimist, who succumbs to the cult of positive thinking will see it as being negative, it is in fact a level headed approach to living a joyous life. This is the same approach to life that the Stoic philosophers of Rome advocated. Stoics were said to focus on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control. As the stoic philosopher Seneca writes to a friend, “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation, nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.” In this sense, this third option of dealing with the turbulance on the plane I described earlier is actually not at all negative as the eternal optimist would like you to believe.
A Lesson From The Mat
Now you may be asking, what does any of this have to do with martial arts?
Mid August last year I was hit with some real turbulence. I had been suffering sometime with degeneration in my neck, but thankfully had been able to avoid neurological symptoms. That all came to a screeching halt after a Sunday morning roll. By the next morning I couldn’t hardly move, and most of my right arm was useless. I felt the pins and needles surge up and down my arm, with the kind of numbness your only ever experience when your foot goes to sleep. My body had decided it had had enough, and just like those pilots in that cockpit, I just wasn’t going to get in to tell it to change course. As crap (and scared) as I was feeling life was still going on. Bills had to be paid, expectations had to be met, and classes needed to be coached. But it actually wasn’t all doom and gloom.
Pulling a page from the Stoics, I applied what they refer to as Negative Visualisation on my road to recovery. The idea behind the technique is to spend some time each day imagining that I had lost the things I valued most. Trust me, not being able to do what I love most, martial arts, was really one of those things. Now I know this may sound bleak, but the Stoics remind us that everything we enjoy in life, everything we value is simply on loan to us from fortune. As such, all or any of it can be recalled without a moment’s notice.
Negative Visualisation is inspired in part by Seneca’s advice to live each day as if it were our last and paradoxically its rather upbeat. Once I looked at the worst possible place I could be, I began to realize that things were not as bad as I thought they were, or should I say felt they were. While we know from current research that much of our decisions are informed by our emotions, making decisions alone on how you feel is wholly unreliable and inaccurate. Actually, it can be downright destructive. Emotions may distort your thinking and influence your behaviour in ways that may cause you more distress in the end. People who make life altering decisions on a feeling often do so at their own peril.
While it sucks of course when life throws you a curve ball, the truth is those turbulent moments contain some of our most profound lessons (if you allow it). The most obvious of all is you get to know what really matters, what is in your control, and as such, what ‘actions’ you can take now to change course. This is unlike the popular style of ‘Pollyanna Thinking’ we are enamoured with, with incessant postings on social media of narcissistic memes, which penetrates to the self absorbed self, fixated on their own opportunity to the detriment of all others. As such you learn that there is a huge difference between the pursuit of happiness versus joy.
Happiness is actually short lived. Research has shown that chasing happiness isn’t all its cracked up to be. We all have a unique happiness set point, and while you might dream of achieving a certain outcome (pleasure attainment) or avoiding certain things we don’t like (pain avoidance) — even when you do, after a while you find yourself back to that set point. This is also known as the Hedonic Treadmill, and proposes that people return to their level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them (yes, even if they win a million Dollars). Said another way, it may seem the grass is greener on the other side, only for you to realize that once you get there, the grass is pretty much the same as it was where you came from.
Joy on the other hand is realised through meaning and self-realisation. It defines our well-being in terms of the degree to which we are fully functioning. Through Negative Visualisation, contemplating on losing all that I held dear, it reaffirmed the joy martial arts had brought to every aspect of my life. This reaffirmed my desire to get better, but also to be pragmatic about the long journey of rehabilitation ahead. Rather than having wishful thinking, I focused on what I could still do, each day, and only in what I could control. As I close this article off, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that success may begin with dreams, but success always ends with action.