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Shatter Your Entire View Of Health

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July 23, 2023 | Max Jenkinson

Productive Suffering: Seeking Discomfort Is Not What You Think

 

A young man had recently moved out from his parent to study exercise physiology in a new city.

At the same time, he started consuming everything he could get his hands on relating to self-help and health.

He started implementing what he was reading.

For months he woke up at 5:30 AM with a cold shower.

He was journaling and meditating.

Reading for an hour a day.

He trained harder than he had ever before.

He did multiple sauna sessions per week.

Then during a workout, he reinjured his knee.

A setback that he assumed, based on previous setbacks, would make life harder, worse and more boring.

That the loss of momentum would hit hard.

What followed surprised him.

His attention shifted to what was true.

I’ve injured my knee, I can’t train the same way as I have so instead I can focus on what I still can do. I can swim, do handstands, and focus on upperbody strength.

Young Man

In his mind, Jocko Willink’s speech Good was on repeat.

There was no anxiety, no regret, no negative feelings at all.

For him, it felt like a reminder to be grateful that the body is amazing and that it works.

He was happier the day after the injury than the day before.

That young man was me.

 

In Buddhistic teaching, we learn that life is suffering.

But, the translation is closer to unsatisfactoriness.

The idea is that desire and ignorance are at the root of human suffering.

We crave pleasure, material goods and maximal status which will never be satisfied.

Suffering, unsatisfactoriness or unhappiness is the distance between where you are and where you want to be.

Humans derive meaning in the pursuit of better things.

The problem is that there is no easy way to relinquish our desire for better.

But, we don’t have to, there is another way.

If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it. They are enlightened who join in this play knowing it as play, for people suffer only because they take as serious what the gods made for fun.

Alan Watts

We can remove the emotional attachment to the game of life so we don’t take it so seriously.

This is not only what the Buddhists teach us, but many ancient philosophies, including Stoicism.

They all tell us that we can be in the pursuit of higher-order goals without deriving our sense of well-being from the relative distance from them.

The question is: How do we do this?

How do we be happy while striving to be something we are not?

Isn’t the purpose of the pursuit to one day reach the goal and become happy?

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.

Jim Carrey

Now this will get a bit woo-woo.

But, if you stop and think this might change how you view happiness.

All we are is a continual experience. In other words, all that exists is the present moment.

Our well-being is determined by how we experience the present moment over time.

This will be my attempt to explain what, for the past six years, has made the hugest impact on my well-being.

 

Fighting Against What You Are

I like to view things through an evolutionary lens, this is no exception.

We live in an environment that our physiology and psychology haven’t had the time to adapt to.

In the environment we evolved in, the unpredictable was a constant threat to our survival.

This forced us to act (so we didn’t die).

Hunger drove hunting, threat drove flight, and social cohesion drove tradition.

Because of the dynamic environment organisms evolve in they have developed something called antifragility.

Antifragility is a concept that describes the capacity of a system to adapt to external stress.

It adapts by becoming better at handling similar stress in the future.

Humans are not an exception.

We are antifragile. We need stress to develop and become resilient.

Without it, we become weak, sad and fragile.

In the past, external stress increased the likelihood of death.

This drove us to seek what was safe, familiar and predictable.

If we could, we would sit down and do nothing.

This is what most of us do today.

Lack of purposeful action causes mental health problems.

Lack of movement causes physical health issues.

External pressure motivated action and action was a signal to become better at handling similar situations in the future.

What once motivated us to action is no longer a part of our day-to-day life.

If we lose the external pressure that gives rise to actions, we stop doing what we used to.

If we stop doing what we used to, we also lose the adaptation those actions would create.

  • Physiologically that would be a robust and healthy body.

  • Psychologically that would be a sense of meaning, a sense of community, and perhaps even mental health.

In a world where we no longer play the evolutionary game we need to:

Accept that existing well is equally as important as existence itself.

MJ

As a culture, we are evolutionarily naive.

We don’t understand the underlying causes of why health is worse than ever despite living in the best time ever.

Most of us have not made the connection.

Our suffering is in large part due to the mismatch between the environment we live in and the one we evolved in.

Because of this, no one has taught us tools to prevent the symptoms of these mismatches.

Everybody suffers to some degree.

Everybody has problems.

Everybody can be better than they are.

Suffering is real. It is an inevitable part of the human experience.

But, it is not something to dwell over, or get mad about, it is what it is.

Instead, view suffering as an indicator of what you should do.

Less suffering over time is an indicator that you are doing something right.

Suffering is inevitable, but the amount of suffering is primarily up to us.

Life is dynamic, in constant flux.

We go through ups and downs. We have luck and we are unlucky.

Life’s changeable nature implies that we’ll always meet setbacks.

If we do not increase our capacity to handle life’s setbacks when life’s good, then future setbacks will put us on the floor.

You have already met, or know someone that has met such a setback.

A setback that removes the ground you once firmly stood on and causes you to fall into the abyss.

A setback that causes you to question your entire worldview.

Today we come across stress in forms that are, let’s say, uncommon.

Our psychology and physiology are not made for modern stress.

We need to help our body and mind to perceive circumstances in the way we want.

Stress management is something we all should learn to master.

Avoiding setbacks is not a productive strategy.

It will only lead to more suffering when we inevitably encounter one.

 

1) The way we Suffer Less is by Suffering More Voluntarily

The meaning of life is finding the largest burden you can bear, and bearing it.

Jordan B Peterson

We need to voluntarily expose ourselves to things that are demanding, hard and that give rise to negative emotions.

But, these things should also fill a purpose in our lives.

Productive suffering: A demanding activity that we engage in voluntarily, that also fills a defined purpose.

Today the external pressure that once forced us to develop into resilient, stress-resistant and strong humans is no longer here.

Instead, we need to create this pressure ourselves.

The crux is that our programming causes us to avoid external pressure.

We avoid situations that cause any form of suffering.

Paradoxically, this creates resistance to doing the things that would actually make us healthier and happier.

For a biologist, this is not strange.

Evolution does not care about health or happiness.

But, we do!

To be healthy and happy we need to actively fight against our evolutionary programming.

2) Productive Suffering Applied Practically

Most people assume running is good because it is good for our cardiovascular system (which it is).

But, what happened to me when I started running was that the daily stress felt smaller.

As if it could not affect me, as if it had no control over my well-being any more.

I kept running and my base level of well-being increased.

While I was running there was an internal battle going on.

My present self was in a battle with my future self.

My present was suffering and wanted to quit.

My future self wanted me to keep going so I could reach my potential.

This was the first time this internal battle had become explicit.

It was the first time I was sophisticated enough to be able to observe me fight against myself.

One part of me wanted to avoid effort while the other part of me knew I needed the effort because effort is a signal for progress.

During the start of the runs, the voice in my head begging me to quit only came up every ten minutes or so.

As the run progressed the voice came up more and more often.

It was also louder and more persuasive.

It started giving me alternative activities I could be doing instead.

It started giving me logical reasons to stop.

Every time the voice came up I had to win against it.

I had to win against myself.

The more I won, the easier it got not to quit.

I started viewing the runs as sessions of productive suffering.

As a process to develop self-discipline.

The wins were reps and the more reps I did the better fighter I became.

Years after this insight I realized the power of productive suffering.

I understood how it could be applied to all things.

I came to the conclusion that it is the main reason why I am remarkably happier today than I have ever been.

When I went into the sauna I could win against myself.

When I studied, read a book or meditated I could win against myself.

When I went into a cold bath I had to win against myself.

Every win not only made the battle easier but life in general.

The internal battle is in every decision we make.

Do we choose to do something that benefits us in the moment or one that makes our future selves proud?

The explicit internal battle is the gap between the impulse and the action.

The gap is where we can choose if the action the impulse gives rise to benefits us, not only now, but over time.

Productive suffering is the process by which we develop the skill of doing things we say we want to do.

The more often we do this, the more self-respect we gain.

The more often we do this, the better we get a getting things done.

3) Cultivating the Art of Focus

To be successful and happy, we need to cultivate the art of focus.

We do this by applying the concept of productive suffering to focus-demanding activities.

This could be reading, writing, video editing, studying or any mentally demanding task.

Start by setting a timer with a time you know is demanding for you to maintain 100% focus.

Over time increase the time in focus.

Eventually, you will become someone that can get more work done in a week than you did in months before.

Soon you will learn to recognize the internal battle and how it manifests in all things.

This is when things start to get interesting.

You are not only you now, you are also all potential future versions of you.

The choice you make in the moment does not only affect you now but you in one day, in one month, in one year, in one decade.

It affects your entire life.

Productive suffering is how you develop the skill of making the choice that you in hindsight know you should have taken.

 

Productive suffering is purposeful voluntary effort.

We all suffer to some degree.

Suffering voluntarily makes us suffer less involuntarily.

Once you start to implement this concept into your life you will become positively surprised by how you handle setbacks.

Inevitable setbacks will transform into motivation to continue striving for progress.

It will no longer be an excuse to stop pursuing excellence.

I am convinced that seeking out voluntary discomfort will move you faster toward where you want to go.

It will make doing what you say you want to do easier.

It will make you into a person that can and will, do the things that will make your life better.

You will be able to not listen to your immediate conclusion of a situation.

When your mind goes,

“This is hard. This is uncomfortable. This is stressful.”

You can stop and change what you tell yourself.

This is the magic of productive suffering.

You start to train your mind to view things in a way that is more aligned with what is good for you.

Your journey starts whenever you start walking.

So, start walking and don’t look back.

Until next Sunday, do some hard shit (what makes your future self proud).

-MJ

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Shatter Your Entire View Of Health

Join others getting their entire idea of what health is shattered every Sunday while reading Health Decoded.