In life we are faced with decisions all the time whether it is to workout or not, what to eat, to work hard or procrastinate, to go after a dream or just keep dreaming, to talk or not to talk about something that is bothering us, to introduce ourselves to someone important or not, to help someone out or not, etc.
In most situations there are essentially 2 paths we can take:
1. The Easier, Comfortable, Conditioned Path: it is what we are accustomed to doing or often times not doing. It is the 1 step quick fix solution, that doesn't require much of us physically, mentally or emotionally upfront. In fact it rewards us with immediate pleasure from money, to sex, to exhilaration, or just the simple pleasure of leisure or remaining in the comfort zone, but there is rarely any long-term improvement or big payout. Even if this path is aligned with our strengths, it has been well traveled and has diminishing returns. These are our effortless, fast, downhill moments.
2. The Challenging, Uncomfortable, Unfamiliar Path: it is unfamiliar and hence feels like the riskier choice at first. It often takes a bigger, more sustained effort to gain the rewards as it requires a more complex, multifaceted solution implemented over time. This path requires hard work physically, mentally or emotionally, as well as stepping outside of our conditioned behavioral patterns. The benefits are greater accordingly, although they are not guaranteed and motivation must be continually re-energized as the pay out is over a longer time horizon. These are our longer, slower, thigh burning hills.
Looking at these two options why would anyone in their right mind ever pick the second, more challenging path that requires an uphill battle?
In fact, most people don’t choose it, hence the well-known saying “the road less traveled”. Most people live well within their comfort zones which hinder them much of their life. They stick to what they know, what they are already decent at and justify it via a hardened identity “this is just who I am” or a view that the easiest solution must be the right one. When I say easy vs. challenging paths I do not speak about the external resistance you might come across that we need to flow with as a guide along our path. I am speaking of the internal weaknesses or uncomfortable areas for growth that hold us back from greater success. For the people that pick the easy path 90% of the time, they see work as a bad thing that they don’t enjoy, they don’t value the growth or results from the work and have to be highly motivated to do it by big pleasurable rewards, coercement or punishment. The major pleasure rewards of cash, cars, career, power, partying, laziness, and gluttony can be great if they are received as a gift for your achievements or positive reinforcement for your work, but they are so very temporary and material that in and off themselves they cannot provide deeper fulfillment, happiness, growth or love which come mostly from inner work. When we choose to focus on the pleasure path instead of the challenging work and growth path, these rewards act as cheap fillers of the real voids we might be feeling and get us nowhere.
What all humans truly want is safety (physically, financially and emotionally), a healthy body and mind and a deep connection to other people to enjoy and share our life. To some extent many of us have grown up with voids in some of these areas, which creates fears, insecurities and anxieties around our issue(s). This is the heart of the matter; what can make the challenging, uncomfortable path that much more terrifying to us, driving us to act crazy at times, to run from a challenge, seek shelter in temporary pleasures, to tell ourselves we can’t do it, or don’t want to do it. But somewhere down deep, when we return to our calm, intuitive mind via exercise, meditative activity, therapy, etc. we know the easy pleasure path won’t get us what we need. Even if we don’t know exactly what we need to take action on to fill our personal voids, to get to the next level of our being and find a more solid, lasting happiness, we can learn to recognize the challenging path and take it when it presents itself and let the rest fall into place.
If we can come clean with our voids and past poor choices, behaviors, etc. then we can begin to see the two paths in a new light, with motivation to start selecting the challenging, uncomfortable path going forward. Start with smaller choices with shorter timelines that are clear to you but you have simply been unmotivated to do anything about them. This will be different for everyone based on our strengths, weaknesses and upbringing. With our first small successes on the challenging path we will start to literally feel the difference in our body and mind: the light heartedness (no guilt) and pride of doing what is right for us, the continuing accomplishment of hard work and the genuine fulfillment of the results. Ultimately we get to a new level of being which drives our confidence to take on the next bigger challenge and we continue to on our growth path. Sometimes you’ll take on a challenge purely to get that emotional/spiritual lift from the accomplishment back again. It feels that good because it took courage to step outside our old self and face our fears to reinvent ourselves, and because it required real, continual, committed work/practice to achieve it. There are few emotions in the world to rival it, just ask any mountain climbers. The view from the top is that much better when you hike up vs. helicopter and what is meaningful and memorable afterwards is the actual hike up. Everything you learned, all the effort and emotion you put into the climb.
There is no fun, excitement, or depth in stagnation or apathy. Embrace your hills, embrace the idea of discomfort and work, so that it is not something being done to you but yours to take on and conquer on your growth path. In this view work becomes practice. The first thing to think when you come across a challenge or a situation that makes you feel insecure or uncomfortable is, “this is exactly the opportunity I need to get to my next level.” It is that sense of discovery, learning and enjoying the journey with the ups and downs that makes life interesting and worth living.
So when you face your daily decisions, think about which path will lead you somewhere new, teach you something, make you better in some way and with that view take it on with enthusiasm, welcome it and when appropriate make a longer term commitment to see it through to its end. A related Buddhist teaching states that we might choose to see your enemy as our greatest teacher because they provide the opportunity to learn and practice. In this case the enemy is what you see as a personal weakness or challenging situation. In fitness terms, this could mean: trying a new type of healthier food you previously made fun of, learning to prepare meals for yourself instead of ordering take out, signing up and training for a distance race that frightens you, or committing to a structured program to get back to your ideal weight/body fat. This premise expands beyond fitness to anything meaningful to you: finding training to address a job/personal skill gap (computers, sales, etc.), acknowledging recurring behaviors that negatively impact you and your world and committing to therapy, being more open and caring in conversation with your partner/friend and setting your ego’s need to be right aside, reaching out and apologizing to family/friend for your part in a falling out, etc. The more challenging path is not universal in nature, it is personal, so what is the easy vs. challenging path for one does not hold for the next so you have to be honest and in tune with yourself. The true litmus test for knowing the difference between the easy vs. challenging paths is the emotions experienced along the way, which you can visualize; from the time you start weighing options (guilty relief vs. virtuous dread), to the actual experience while on the path (emotionally closed apathy “zombie” vs. emotive perseverance “alive”) to the reflection after it has taken its course (shameful regret or defensive justification vs. joyous fulfillment). We cannot go back and change the past but we can use any of the negative resulting emotions (regrets, guilt, pain, etc.) to motivate us to learn and choose the challenging, uncomfortable path today knowing it will pay off in meaningful ways in the future.
The past few months I’ve been focusing on some deeper life lessons that have been very present for me because I believe there is a direct connection to be drawn between them and the fitness process of taking care of our bodies and minds. I feel strongly that fitness can provide the perfect outlet to start you on your challenge path, get comfortable with discomfort, begin to embrace the hard work, tackle your weaknesses head on and feel the confidence of achieving your goals. When I talk about client transformation this is the experience I am actually talking about with the body pictures and numbers as simply the outward rewards representing the deeper transformation and fulfillment. What we both feel as coach and client is the change to empowering beliefs, the stronger character, the glow of confidence in their face, and the drive to take on the next challenge. That is what makes both the challenging path and the fitness career path worth all of the tradeoffs.
So I encourage us all to make a habit of choosing the less familiar, challenging paths towards personal growth daily and using the external feedback (resistance and opportunity) to guide but not stop or distract us on that journey. Enjoy your practice and practice all the time.