On Mindfulness and Victory
Both men stood in hesitation, blood dripping and bruises forming as thousands of spectators held their breath. The event was UFC 65 on November 18, 2006. The up-and-coming Canadian star Georges St-Pierre–“GSP,” his adoring fans call him–was the top contender set to take the welterweight title from mixed martial arts champion Matt Hughes. Hughes had lost only once throughout his previous 19 bouts. He was the first to bring in more than $20 million from one fight, and he is still considered to be one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the history of the sport. Some commentators thought the belt could never be taken from him. GSP had the right to be nervous, but he was more determined than ever to become the new welterweight champion of the world.
Fighters refine their place in the art of combat in a variety of different ways, and no two fighters do it in the same way. One practice has been around since ancient times, however, and it has recently made a resurgence in popularity. This is commonly known as mindfulness, and the most elite performers in everything from martial arts to business ventures recognize its importance and capabilities.
What we now think of as mindfulness can be traced back thousands of years to advanced civilizations in Europe and Asia. Mindfulness was central to the ancient samurai bushido, which formalized their code of conduct. The bushido called for total self-discipline, and the result was the remarkable precision samurai possessed throughout their actions. Samurai were not only masters of war; they were masters of art, academic study, and ethics as well. Mindfulness more than anything made them effective persons both on and off the battlefield.
Ninjutsu, or the art of the ninja, is similar. While samurai were placed in the grandeur of a battlefield, ninja had to master the same self-control and precision but apply it to stealth and secrecy. They were elite athletes–running, jumping, swimming, climbing, throwing–and often worked on improving their acting skills to perfect the art of impersonation. Their mastery of both
the mind and the body allowed them to exist as an unparalleled mercenary force.
The benefits of mindfulness, however, have never been limited to just combat practitioners. Mindfulness as a philosophy began with ancient Indian theology and took hold all around the world. Buddhism regards mindfulness as part of the Eightfold Path which leads one to Nirvana (Enlightenment). Along with right conduct, right understanding, and right concentration, among others, right mindfulness promotes an awareness of one’s own conscious perception of oneself and the world. The Pali term sati denotes a sense of holding one’s mind upon a certain detail. Think of meditating while focusing on the breath and taking note of when the mind has wandered.
Around a century later, Confucius and his disciples in China regarded mindfulness as a rectification of the mind. To be mindful is to put one’s self, thoughts, and livelihood back into their proper place and order. This emphasis on alignment with natural order has become more synonymous with the popular conception of Daoist and Zen philosophy, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. This
alignment brings about an organic sort of fulfillment and enables one to live a life without worry.
Across the continent in Hellenistic Greece, the Stoic philosophers conceived of mindfulness as an orientation of the self toward those things which can be controlled. Put simply, don’t worry about the stuff you can’t change. Don’t place yourself in the approval of others, fear the natural, or harbor negative emotions. Instead, perform your actions with focus and clarity for its own sake and for the sake of being a benevolent social creature. Many stoic disciples have become some of the most renowned figures in Western history, including Lucius Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
The irony is that people who conduct themselves in this way are often more revered and “successful” than those who don’t. There are many reasons for this and it would take a book (or perhaps a whole library) to explain. What can be said here is that mindfulness improves the qualities that make good people and good work while reducing inhibitors to that success. Along with focusÂ and concentration, mindfulness contributes to self-belief and feelings of confidence, determination, and motivation. Precursors to mental illness including rumination and worry are confronted in a way that promotes tranquility rather than in a way that shames or neglects them.
Taking control of your feelings, concentrating only on the things that matter in the present moment, and performing your actionsÂ with precision and clarity are valuable qualities in today’s world, but can difficult to master. Utilizing these ideas to gain new skills and improve upon your strengths can set you apart from the crowd at work, at school, and even at the health club. Being able to recognize some of your feelings and actions as natural stress responses gives you the permission to accept and understand them rather than feel guilty about them. Awareness leads to empowerment.
What are some ways that you can practically employ mindfulness in your own life right now?
First, take a moment to close your eyes, relax, and focus on your breathing. The beauty of this exercise is that it can be performed at almost any time and place; just don’t do it while driving! It doesn’t matter how noisy and distracting your surroundings are. The more you practice, the better you will become at honing in on a particular point of focus–sati, remember? When your Â thoughts wander to something else, don’t feel like you’ve failed. Recognize it, take note of it, and gently redirect your mind back to the pattern of your breath. Take a few minutes right now to give it a chance.
Second, take some time to reflect on the past few days, on the present, and on the possibilities of the future. What have your feelings been, both in general and regarding specific topics in your life? Have you been stressed about a deadline at work? Do your finances have you worried? Were you truly happy for your friends when you heard that they were getting married? Did you feel that you let yourself down when you couldn’t quit smoking? It is important that you become aware of your feelings as well as their sources. It’s okay to feel negative emotions, and it’s certainly okay to feel positive ones, too. How many of them were natural reactions? How many of them can you take steps to improving? Think first, then take action.
Third, observe your immediate surroundings and take note of your bodily experience and interaction with them. What’s going on around you? What can you see (and what can’t you see)? What are the smells in the air around you like? Which sounds stand out and which do you take for granted as background noise? Breathe. Take it all in. What can you find to love or appreciate about the world you’re currently experiencing? Always find something to love. Is there a way that you can add value to the people you’re with? Can you do your job in service to others? Always find something to love in other people, and the world will naturally reciprocate.
Lastly, focus on your goals. I don’t just mean your five-year plan. Focus on even the smallest ones! Do you have a difficult time sitting still and reading long content? Congratulations on making it this far in the article. Do you need to be on time for a meeting soon? Forget about how much you don’t want to go; just take the steps necessary to ensuring that you meet your goal of arriving in a timely manner. The purpose of focusing on your goals in the present is to clear your mind of the things that don’t matter so that you can be excellent at the things that do matter.
Completing even these small tasks can yield big results, some of which you’ll readily notice and some of which others will have to tell you before you realize them. When we look at ourselves in the mirror, it’s easy to see the person we were in the past. The reality is that we’re always changing, a different person from one moment to the next. Mindfulness is one way to make sure that we are constantly becoming a better version of ourselves than the last. Yes, your hard work at the health club is paying off. I promise that there are people who think you look great today. Yes, your kindness toward others is reaping benefits. People are forming images of you in their mind which they respect and admire. Over time, you’ll begin to see these phenomena for yourself. Mindfulness is what sets the elite apart from everyone else, whether it be in the weight room, in the office, or in your household. One final note. Like all good things, the term “mindfulness” nowadays has been absorbed by our consumer culture. It’s been billed as a way to boost your productivity at work, even if it’s for a job that ultimately damages your health or a company which teats its employees unfairly. Always keep in mind that mindfulness is intertwined with ethical considerations and personal mastery. Be mindful about the type of world in which you wish to live, and focus on that which you can control–yourself. With a renewed sense of clarity and care for ourselves and others, our community will have everything it needs to live wonderfully.
Both men had fought with all they had from the very first second of the fight. Hughes and GSP were exhausted by the second round, but the crowd remained at the edge of their seats. What the crowd couldn’t see was how much GSP had trained his mind for this fight. He was alert, aware of everything that mattered in the moment. His focus was razor-sharp. The fight had been excruciating, of course; he knew it was going to be that way and prepared for it. His body was resisting, telling him to give up, but he had come here to win. The fighters took a moment of hesitation. They stared each other down, looking for an opening. A moment of clarity cut through the noise, the fears, the pain. GSP took a step to the left and threw a kick to the head. The greatest pound-for-pound champion of all time fell to the canvas. “And now,” there was a new welterweight champion of the world.