“As you think, so shall you become.” — Bruce Lee
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Riley Holland. Riley has created a distinctive self-transformation approach by leveraging the connection between athletic performance and personal development.
For several years, Riley has been assisting athletes in developing a championship mindset and mental resilience, conquering anxiety, and achieving flow states using powerful mind-body methods that have a profound impact on the nervous system.
Today, he imparts his system, known as the Bionic Mind Method, to individuals worldwide, including CEOs and stay-at-home parents, enabling them to realize their individual objectives and attain higher levels of confidence, energy, and mental serenity.
Without further ado, here’s Riley…
Bruce Lee’s Greatest Lesson for Transforming Your Mindset
There are a lot of Bruce Lee quotes that I love.
But my favorite was told to me by my first jiu jitsu teacher.
I haven’t been able to find the exact quote, so it may be somewhat apocryphal. But this same coach also taught us Jeet Kune Do — the system created by Bruce Lee — and worked with Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s right hand man. So there’s a connection to the lineage, and at the very least, some definite wisdom there.
And as I’ll show you, that wisdom goes way beyond martial arts.
Overcome the Impulse for Self-Preservation
Anyway, here’s what he said:
“Martial arts is about overcoming the impulse for self-preservation.”
Sounds counterintuitive, right?
That’s what I thought at first, too. In fact, it seems like the exact opposite of what martial arts are about. Especially practical self-defense oriented martial arts like the ones Bruce Lee taught.
But once I started to see it in context, I began to understand.
How Beginners Get Beat
Take this common jiu jitsu scenario for example:
You’re on your back, and someone is on top of you, pressing all their weight onto your chest. They’re looking for a submission — a choke or an arm bar or anything that’ll get you to tap out and surrender — and you’re struggling to push them off you.
You’re struggling so much that you end up spending all your energy, tensing up, losing your breath, and putting all your strength into a fruitless attempt to force this person off of you from a weak position.
After a couple minutes of that (at most) and you’re so exhausted you get easily beat.
That’s a common scenario for beginners in jiu jitsu.
It basically describes my first three months, and the reason I almost quit. I just couldn’t figure out how not to panic and wear myself out.
So what’s happening there?
The Impulse of Self-Preservation Can Be a Recipe for Defeat
When your body gets into a dangerous situation like that, it flips into fight-or-flight mode.
You get a shock of anxiety, start tensing and breathing shallowly, and doing everything you can to get out of the situation.
That’s the impulse for self-preservation.
And while it may have done our ancestors some good, as you can see, it’s the last thing you want to happen in jiu jitsu. In fact, it’s a recipe for disaster and defeat.
Stay Relaxed, Breathe Deeply
Now picture this:
You’re on your back, and your opponent is on top of you, but instead of freaking out, you stay relaxed, breathing deeply, and conserving your energy.
You realize that even though the person is on top of you and pinning you down, they’re not doing any damage, and you’re not in any real danger.
You stay sensitive to their movements, waiting patiently for just the right time, and when they leave an opening, you move quickly, getting into a new position, getting a submission, and winning.
Much better, yes?
That’s what it can look like when you overcome your impulse for self-preservation.
The Instinct for Self-Preservation Applies Broadly to Life
And lest you think that only applies to martial arts, consider the following everyday scenarios where that same instinct for self-preservation cause a similar (and unnecessary) panic response:
- Losing a job
- Fighting with your significant other
- Feeling weird physical symptoms and looking them up on WebMD
- Being rejected romantically or socially
- Facing what feels like an impossible deadline
I’m sure you can think of plenty more on your own.
From Fleeting Thought to Fight or Flight
Now imagine you’re going about your day, feeling pretty good about things, and suddenly a thought enters your head.
It’s something you’ve been worried about, and now, for no particular reason, it’s taken center stage.
And once that thought enters your head, you start thinking about all the ways it could go wrong, all the possible bad outcomes, all the potential disasters.
Your cortisol spikes.
Your breathing gets shallow as you start to hold your belly tight.
Your muscles get tense.
And your whole mood is now shifted into a place of doom and gloom.
In just a few seconds, your whole body went from feeling good and chilled out, into a full on fight-or-flight state.
And all because of a thought in your head.
Your Worst-Case Fantasies Can Hijack Your Senses
Sure, the thought is related to something in reality. But how much of it was just pure fantasizing about worst case scenarios that probably will never happen?
Still, your mind invades your body, and completely hijacks it.
And once that loop starts, it’s very hard to get out of it.
I’d guess this happens to the average person hundreds of times per day. And most of it is totally unconscious. You don’t necessarily notice it, you just end up feeling weird, stressed, and awful and you can’t tell why.
You Can’t Just Decide to Override Your Fight-or-Flight Response
In each scenario, it can feel like you’re on your back and someone is pressing their full weight onto your chest.
And in each case, if you let yourself freak out and tense up, you’ll end up exhausting yourself pointlessly, becoming much more vulnerable to bad outcomes.
But if you manage to stay relaxed, realize you’re not in any immediate danger, conserve your energy, and stay sensitive to potential solutions, you’ll be much more likely to come out not just unscathed, but victorious.
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
And you can’t just “decide” to override your fight-or-flight response.
As I said, it took me about three months of jiu jitsu just to get to a point where my impulse for self-preservation wasn’t completely sabotaging all my efforts.
And it can be even harder in those more day-to-day scenarios.
Because as long as those dark mental fantasies are triggering a physical stress response, they’re going to feel as real as anything.
That’s why it can be so hard to let them go at first. It feels like you’re letting your guard down when you should be protecting yourself.
But there’s nothing in reality to protect yourself against, so the cycle goes on.
What You Can Do In the Moment to Break the Cycle
Here’s a simple but powerful technique you can use in the moment to break that cycle, and stop your mind from hijacking your body’s stress response:
As soon as you notice yourself worrying or stressing about some mental scenario, simply turn your attention to your physical sensations, and start naming them, starting with the phrase, “There is.”
“There is itching on the nose, there is soreness in the hip, there is tightness in the belly, there is tingling in the hands.”
Simply label each sensation without interpreting it, verbalizing whatever you notice as rapidly as you can.
If a thought or emotion comes up, simply say, “There is a thought,” or, “There is an emotion,” and bring your focus back to sensation.
You can do this out loud if you’re alone, or silently in your head, even if you’re up in front of a group of people about to give a presentation. I used to do it in my early days of teaching, where I had to overcome massive stage fright.
It worked almost miraculously, without anyone knowing I was doing it.
How “Sensing and Feeling” Works to Transform Your Mindset
This technique, which I simply call “sense and feel,” is deceptively simple in theory, but immensely powerful in practice.
The idea is to shift your focus to the physical environment and keep it grounded there, instead of in an endless mental negotiation with your worries and worst-case-scenarios.
Once you demonstrate to your body and brain that your immediate, physical environment is actually perfectly safe—which it almost always is—they’ll relax on their own.
By leveraging your verbal mind to label sensations (instead of fighting with it like in many forms of meditation), you can quickly “hack” into a type of meditative state that usually requires prolonged practice to achieve.
The details are important, too:
By using the specific phrase, “There is,” instead of “I feel,” you’re cultivating more of an “observer” consciousness, keeping yourself from identifying too much with whatever you’re feeling.
This is important, since the first thing you’ll often say is, “There is anxiety.”
If you can switch into seeing anxiety as just another phenomenon in your awareness, much like the weather, then it’s possible for your mindset to transform dramatically and suddenly.
All it takes is practice.
Practice Makes for a Permanent Transformation
At first, it may take a few minutes of “sense and feel” to notice a real shift in your mental and emotional state.
But it can also have a surprisingly instantaneous effect, like suddenly breaking a trance you didn’t know you were in.
And the more you do it, the easier it will be to notice stressful thoughts, and stop them before they even take hold.
If you practice it often enough, it can even start to happen automatically, transforming the whole baseline functioning of your mind.
At first, that transformation can feel like stepping off a cliff, into an abyss, since you’re weaning yourself off the worry that’s always been a part of your life.
It can feel like the exact wrong thing to do, like you’re letting your guard down when you should be protecting yourself.
But once you learn to take the leap?
You realize you can fly.
It’s like being reborn into an almost permanent flow state.
Where to Go to Learn More
Riley’s “Self-Transformation Manifesto” teaches how to make that transition in your own life. It’s different from what most self-improvement teaches, but it works.
You can get a free copy of the ebook here:
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