Usually, I loathe inspirational quotes with a passion reserved for the drivers of Priuses doing 60 in the far-left lane during rush hour. Words of wisdom? Piffle. If life were that simple, we’d all have it all figured out.
Still, there are some moments in life that have that kind of clarity. I’d like to share one of mine, so please indulge me.
The morning after I was admitted to the hospital with a brand-new cancer diagnosis, I asked my wife to write something on the room’s whiteboard. We couldn’t think of anything appropriate, until we landed on Winston Churchill’s words, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Yet when I talk to other people going through the same hell, I never say “keep going.” It never occurs to me. I remind them instead, “We Fight!”
The Way of the Warrior
The Warrior. No one can live up to the image. It’s a cool archetype, oozing with street cred, machismo, and the empty victories of a thousand action movies. To face have faced death and lived? Everyone wants a piece of that. It’s the path to getting there we don’t like.
If only there were a way to know (not hope and dream – and brag – but know) that we could hold up in the face of the inevitable. If only we knew that we wouldn’t break. If only we knew that we were not cowards.
Yes, there will come a time when you will face death. Hell, even writing that is scary. If it scares you, too, then there are things that can be done – and good reasons to do them.
“Knowing yourself” has gotten something of a bad rap lately, as if it were an invitation to navel gazing and daydreams. In the eyes of the common man, knowing yourself has gone from being the foundation of whole philosophies to wasted lotus-eating. Self-knowledge is decried as something that takes people away from the pursuit of, well, whatever it is the merchants are selling.
So let me put this another way: push! Push hard against the world. Push hard against your limits. Push so hard that you break the very “truths” you stand on. Push so hard that you have to find your own deepest core to hold your ground.
If you push so hard that the world breaks, you will find something more beneath it. It’s only through self-knowledge that we can truly free ourselves.
Self-knowledge isn’t a panacea, but it’s a good first step, and it will serve you in every struggle in your life. Remember, self-confidence isn’t self-knowledge any more than ignorant surety is education, or being a bully is the same as being a warrior.
“If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” –Sun Tzu
ProTip: Belly breathing is a useful first step on the path to self-knowledge. This is truly the navel-gazing your momma warned you about (or if you’re lucky, taught you). It will help you retreat from thinking about who you are, and focus on becoming that person.
Sit quietly somewhere and simply breathe comfortably into the area below and behind your navel. Don’t do anything else. When (not if!) you get bored and distracted, double-down. Should this practice bring up strong emotions, ease off and do some rigorous exercise as best you can.
When courage falters, people say, “take heart!” Maybe that seems like a silly way to put it, but there is a deeper meaning to this. Cowardice is not a failure of the mind; it is a failure of the spirit. A person who breaks in panic is truly possessed by fear.
Your heart, not your head, is the seat of courage. It is only by learning to rest easy in our hearts that we can master overwhelming fear. Not dispel it, but master it.
The common man believes that fear only comes from inside. But fear can come from anywhere. It can lie in wait. It can be cast by our enemies. Fear can trap us, ensnare us, infect us, and tear us apart. But we do not need to defeat it; we only need to take heart.
ProTip: The only way to purge that fear from yourself is to bring your awareness to the center of your spirit – to your spiritual heart. While it is a fulcrum that exists in your spirit, you can find its real-world analogue on your breastbone, about three finger-widths below the hollow of your throat. Hold your awareness there and perform heart-breathing just like the belly-breathing.
Fear isn’t some strange thing. It’s a part of life we all face. Yet we have been taught to fear everything, especially fear. Feeling fear is fine, but it is one thing to feel fear, and another thing to be controlled by it.
In the end, we can master our bodies and our spirits one breath at a time. When it comes time to face the worst life dishes out, your whole self will be there at your side – a trusted ally and not some long-ignored and half-mad stranger.
Protip: Now is the time to test against fear. Train your spirit by standing up to your fears in a controlled way – speak in public, ask for a raise, befriend someone you normally wouldn’t. Dance.
We like to think of death as the final destination of the (hopefully!) long journey of life. We imagine it as something in the far distance, an unknown land to which we’re drawing ever closer. That is wishful thinking.
When I learned to see my death approaching, I discovered that it had always been there. It had been just out of reach and just out of sight. Every moment of our lives, we hold it back by the strength of our wills and the light of our souls. All the rest is dross and detail.
The way of the warrior is to live life between those two moments: the moment when we sense our deaths, and the moment when we can no longer hold it back. In the end, we don’t train to fight because we want to be warriors. We train to be warriors because we understand, somewhere deep down, the fragility and precariousness of life.
In any fight for our lives, the useless falls away. Each decision can be weighed against one simple measure: live or die. And on the way to the foregone conclusion, the best we can do is transmute this choice from “live or die” into “live and die” – and do both well.