We are into the new year and while many people set lofty “new years resolutions”, the fact of the matter is that this mindset is lame. The truth is, most, if not all, grand visions of conquering these resolutions result in nothing more than ashes and dust of disappointment and another year of failed goals and progress.
Why is this? It’s due to a lack of a solid foundation: a lack of mental, physical and spiritual preparedness and health. There’s many ways of attacking goals and making them more “actionable” but without a proper foundation, we fail to take action and achieve our goals. To endure and overcome adversity, we need a strong mind and a strong body – both of which are interconnected. This is why I want go over 4 simple “life hacks” or actions, that will help us develop the hardiness and resiliency necessary to take action and follow through with whatever we choose to endeavour.
1. Mindfulness Meditation:
In order to have the discipline and will to achieve your goals, we need to first develop our minds. Why do most people fail? They give up at the first sniff of hardship. They let their emotions and thoughts yank them like strings on a puppet. It’s easy to become lazy, to fall into bad habits or to quit and seek fleeting comfort when the going gets tough. In essence, they have a weak and unhealthy mind. Mindfulness meditation is the simplest and easiest way to shore up our mind’s defenses against the constant internal and external storms that we as humans face regularly. I’ve previously mentioned some benefits of meditation in my ultimate guide:
- Changes in grey matter regions in the brain involved in higher level brain processes such as learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.
- Buffering against brain aging and cortical thinning by increasing pre-frontal thickness of the brain.
- Increases volumes of the brain involved in generating positive emotions and emotional stability.
- Increases immune function in the body.
In short, mindfulness meditation strengthens both the mind and the body by enhancing the efficacy with which we handle stress. One large benefit that I’ve recently encountered from meditating regularly is my increased capacity for compassion and understanding. I mean this not in a “woo-woo” bleeding heart type of way, but in a way that eases my mind and helps to extinguish feelings of judgement and contempt.
As I’ve mentioned before, I work in the ER and often encounter the “dredges” of society: the people who OD on various drugs, act in uncivilized manner and are often rude, demanding and often times violent. Because of my ethical obligation (and desire to keep my career), there’s no other way of reacting to their assailments but to turn the other cheek and my job. As a result, mentally, I would find myself being judgemental while internalizing their toxicity which certainly adds unnecessary stress to my life. Meditation has given me a barrier to better deal with this. Not only have I not let their toxicity affect me as much, but I feel an overall greater sense of gratitude. I feel more compassion for their situation, but I am also grateful that my life circumstances has not ended up like theirs.
Meditation gives you a buffer to not only increase your resiliency against external stressors, but also increases your capacity to deal with your internal emotions, judgements, and negativity. These abilities allow you to stick to the actions necessary to reach your goals despite a bombardment influences plotting for your failure.
How do you start meditating? I’ve written one of the most comprehensive and easy to follow guides on mindfulness meditation which I encourage you to check out.
2. Read Stoic Works
Stoicism has produced some of the greatest works on the mindset that one needs to cultivate to live a happy, meaningful life. With its roots in Hellenisistic philosophies, the teachings of Stoicism are best known from different walks of life from an emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius; Seneca, a wealthy mentor of the tyrant Nero; and a physically maimed teacher of the philosophy, Epictetus.
A common misconception with Stoicism is that it means to have no emotions. Instead, Stoicism focuses on the following notions related to self-mastery which they believed, is the only way to live a meaningful life with joy and tranquility:
- To be in control of our emotions
- To only be concerned with matters within our sphere of control and to disregard things outside of our control
- To not fall prey to the vices of life
- To enjoy the present moment and life, but not cling
- It is not objections or actions that make our life bad or good, but our interpretation of them
The common denominator to living the Stoic virtues is to tap into what makes humans special: the ability to use “reasoned choice”. It is the ability to use reasoned choice which lets us recognize our emotions and to not let them dictate our actions. It is the ability to use reasoned choice which allows us to determine what is under our control and what isn’t. Perhaps not coincidentally, this makes mindfulness meditation and Stoic philosophy the perfect 1-2 combo. We now know that our ability of reasoned choice comes from our brain’s pre-frontal cortex. As mentioned before, mindfulness meditation is a direct way for us to develop this area in the brain.
Mindfulness meditation and Stoic teachings work synergistically to help you develop a healthy, resilient mindset. This is because meditation helps develop the prefrontal cortex which helps you more easily adhere to the Stoic advice. The Stoic teachings act as a set of guiding principles whereas mindfulness meditation increases your capacity to internalize and utilize them. It’s a beautiful feedback system that builds upon one another.
What I find most enjoyable about reading Stoic teachings is that they are beautifully written, and provide advice that is simple to understand on a superficial level, but can be analyzed into deeper layers.
Epictetus On happiness:
“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night – there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune” – Discourses, 4-4.39
Epictetus on anxiety:
“When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” – Discourses, 2.13.1
Seneca on negative emotions such as anger:
“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane – since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself” – On Anger, 3.1.5
Of course, you can read the direct translations yourself but some of the works can be quite heavy and without historical and contextual background, you may miss the nuances of the teachings. Two intro level books that help guide you along as well as give you a taste of different Stoic teachings are A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by philosophy professor William B. Irvine and the source of the translations listed above, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday. Both books have roughly the same structure: they group different Stoic teachings into chapters and use various Stoic sources (and sometimes non stoic sources) to flesh them out.
Each book provides a different benefit. William B. Irvine’s book provides more historical context and as a professor of philosophy, he breaks down the Stoic teachings using logical arguments. Ryan Holiday’s book is structured into an analysis of a different Stoic passage a day under an over-arching theme. The benefit of Ryan’s book is that full passages are given allowing you to interpret the works to a greater degree. As a novice to Stoicism myself, I recommend both books to be used in conjunction with one another.
3. Mind your Gut
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is intimately connected with your mental and physical health. Now referred to as the “second brain” due the gut’s intricate nervous system filled with neurons, the health of your mind and body is directly affected by your GI health. The GI tract has the following roles in our overall health:
- Muscle regulation
- Immune cell function
- Systemic inflammation control
- Emotional regulation
As our previous review of Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – for Life mentions, the use of probiotics in a study lead to better emotional control by decreasing areas involved with emotional activity.
So what actions can we take to improve our gut health and improve our emotional regulation and mindset? Easy. Eat fermented foods and yogurt. I eat about half a cup to a full cup of either saurkraut or kimchi daily and on most days, I’ll eat plain, moderate fat yogurt mixed with protein powder. What about probiotic pills? Not necessary. Fermented foods actually pack a great number of probiotics in a small surviving compared to a full dose of probioitic pills.
4. Hit the Sauna
Another way to restore our body and mind is to through regular use of a sauna. I first heard of this idea from Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a PhD of biomedical science. There is substantial evidence showing that subjecting the body to extreme heat stress actually illicits multiple body responses that produce the following:
- Increased cardiovascular/endurance performance
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increased red blood cell count
- Increased O2 transfer to muscles
- Induction of “heat shock proteins” which repair denigrated/damaged cellular proteins
- Increased levels of IGF1 (insulin like growth factors – a growth hormone)
- Increase protein synthesis
- Increased insulin sensitivity
- Prevention of muscle atrophy
- Improved memory
- Increased (mental) stress tolerance
By using a sauna, we’re actually repairing and strengthening our bodies from the damage it endures through every day life – which of course gives us extra reserves to accomplish our goals and deal with the life’s challenges.
Generally speaking, to reap the benefits of sauna, use, you should aim for 15-20 min sessions and go to the point of near exhaustion for the body to illicit its stress response. For more info, I’ve covered the details of sauna use and how to deal with the challenges in a previous article.
Unless we build up our mental and physical capacities, our goals will never be reached and we will be at the mercy of the torrents of challenges that come our way. I’m far from a sage or an “enlightened” individual but I have grown wiser from the mistakes made in the past. I have been lucky enough to come across various teachings and techniques that have increased my capacity and helped make me better one small step at a time. I am certain that the life “hacks” will be of benefit to your life as well.
Here’s to staying fit!