Teleology: Can We Change Easier Than We Think?

The Courage to Be Disliked is by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga is a book on individual psychology, a school of thought made famous by Alfred Adler. Adler was a lesser known contemporary of Sigmund Freud and opposed many of his views. One of the most interesting differences is Freud’s view of etiology compared to Adler’s view of teleology.

Much like most of the general population, Freud believed that events early on in childhood had an effect on how the child would grow into adulthood. We see this all the time in documentaries about people that explained how they grew up and how it made them to be who they were: Michael Jordan grew up with two brothers that used to beat him all the time in basketball, so now Michael Jordan is extremely competitive.

Adler, however, believed that human beings choose specific narratives or goals, and use past events that match up with it: Michael Jordan chose to be competitive at some point in time, and we are just using the fact that he had two brothers to generate a plausible explanation (but in reality it makes no difference).

If you think about it, if Michael Jordan turned out to be uncompetitive, the etiological model would say that he was uncompetitive because his brothers beat him at basketball too much and it made him dislike competition. It’s argued that Freud’s etiological stance is deterministic, and it builds up an identity attachment that can be difficult to overcome in mental illnesses.

Adler’s teleological model explains that human beings can choose to change their narrative or goal whenever they want to, and can start living whatever kind of life that they choose. One of my friends once told me that she had a quiet, timid personality when she grew up in Europe, and when moving to USA she decided that she would be outgoing, charismatic and confident. And then she simply just did it! This is an example that people aren’t just a product of their environment over time, and it is possible to change through an instantaneous, powerful decision.

Of course it seems unbelievable to think that people suffering from negative emotions or illnesses are choosing to do so, and this is probably the reason why Adler’s theory is less accepted than Freud’s theory. It could be that the person chooses to suffer because the idea of suffering is attached to their identity, and they won’t change their narrative through fear of uncertainty. They end up choosing the more familiar option of staying stuck.

In summary, teleology can be a useful way of taking control of our lives, and through choosing a empowering goal we can begin a fulfilling journey instead of carrying on with a self-defeating one.

Man’s Search For Meaning: What Viktor Frankl Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Life

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was subjected to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. Once the war ended and he was released, he wrote Man’s Search For Meaning in a nine-day span, describing his experience in the concentration camps and his theory of logotherapy – that meaning was the central motivational force in human beings.

Most of the book describes the conditions that the Jews had to endure in the Nazi concentration camps. I couldn’t help to feel more grateful that I hadn’t ever had to deal with that kind of suffering or torture before. Even as we complain of being locked down in a pandemic, it pales in comparison to the suffering endured in the Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl outlines that meaning is the central motivating force in human beings. The meaning that an individual has doesn’t have to be the same as everybody else’s, and an individual can have multiple meanings for life. The meanings can also change with time and circumstances.

Frankl described three sources of meaning:

The first source of meaning comes from life’s work. Frankl was determined to survive the concentration camp because he believed that he needed to produce academic work on his theory of logotherapy once the war finished. While he was in the concentration camp he was unable pursue that work, so he had to make sure he survived to be able to get back to regular life as an academic and finish his work.

The second source of meaning comes from love. Frankl remembered that when he was on his arduous daily walk to his labour camp during the Second World War, he would picture his wife, the love he had for her, as well as the thought of being able to see her again once the war was over. This was another motivating factor for him to survive the concentration camp.

The third source of meaning comes from suffering. In the concentration camps, Frankl realized that the Nazis could take away everything except for the attitude that he chose to have towards the suffering he was experiencing. Once he added meaning (and sometimes humour) to his suffering, he no longer felt as if he was really suffering. Frankl observed that there was a deadly effect for anyone who lost hope and courage in the concentration camps, as well as those who were overly optimistic about their release dates (to find out eventually that they were not released by the date they had in their mind).

Frankl does note however, that just because meaning can can be found in suffering, you do not need to seek suffering to find meaning (the first and second source of meaning should be the main focus).

In summary, Frankl’s book is a reality check for us. What it also does beautifully is take the pressure off the individual to find their one life’s purpose. We can remember that there can be many purposes, and they change over time. As long as there’s an inkling of meaning in the moment, we might just be okay.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life Rule 9: Assume that the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t

My first response to this rule was “Of course! Every single person on the planet will know something I don’t, this makes a lot of sense.” So why have I found myself listening to people as if they don’t? Stay humble.

I am the type of person that can easily block out people and focus on the task I am currently doing instead. I understand numbers and words easier than I understand people.

Once I started working in the door-to-door sales industry, I instantly found out that I wasn’t understanding people because I wasn’t paying attention to them. After all these years I finally started looking at people’s faces, their eyes, and their feet. I could actually tell what people were thinking because I was concentrating on them and attentive to their tone of voice, volume and syntax.

Even so, you don’t have to make it so complicated if you just listen with curiosity. The more you listen to the other person, the more the other person is willing to share.

If you’re the one doing the talking all the time, you don’t end up learning anything. Everything in the conversation is something you already know! So shut your mouth, let the other person talk, and see what you can learn from them.

Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life Rule 8: Tell the Truth, or at Least Don’t Lie

“If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth.”

Jordan Peterson

It’s the human default to manipulate the world into delivering what you want – to act politically. We all too often see people who are trying to “get ahead” in life. They trample over others, they take credit for others’ work, they want to look competent and be right all the time.

We can also see the same trait in the people-pleaser, always saying yes to the requests that are thrown their way by their boss, family and friends. They cannot say no, and they cannot communicate authentically. So they suffer. But what if they could tell the truth? What if they declined their boss’ request for them to work overtime that evening? Maybe they would feel a little lighter. Maybe they would be living a life that is actually true to themselves. Maybe they could share their problems and concerns and find a happy resolution. Maybe they could have the power to say no to all the other things they don’t want to do anymore.

To live a truthful life is not perfect, but it is far better than living a dishonest life. Instead of thinking of the answer that you think the other person wants to hear, why not just say the first answer that comes to your head? But if they don’t agree with you they might not want to be friends with you anymore. Well, do you want to be friends with someone that doesn’t like your true character anyway?

What’s more, the ones that do like you when you are being truthful like the REAL version of you. What could be more fulfilling, meaningful and authentic than that?

I’ve seen plenty of assholes that are relatively well-liked because they embrace their assholery, while the ones that are assholes but pretend they’re not assholes end up with fake, superficial bonds with their peers (at best). At worst they’re ostracized. People are generally very good and quick at judging the authenticity of others. If something doesn’t sit right with them, they tend to keep them at arm’s length.

Unless you are a clinical psychopath, your body will tell you exactly when you are breaching this rule.

Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

In the last few weeks I have been reading books more than I ever have. So I decided last night that I would write some summaries and thoughts on some of my latest reading material.

I recently read through Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules For Life for a second time. Not only did I find it extremely applicable to everyday life, it also discusses the subject of humanity in the most intelligent and fascinating way. I hope to summarize some of his chapters while adding in my own reflections upon reading.

Jordan’s first rule is “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back”. My response to this title was that although this was a handy piece of advice, this surely could not be so fundamental that it would be in the top 12 rules? For life! I mean, after all there are 10 commandments in the Bible and they tell “Thou shalt not kill”, not “Thou shalt not hunch over once in a while”. So is it really that important?

The chapter starts off describing the behavior of lobsters. Lobsters are primitive creatures that live on the seabed, and often they come across one another as they vie for territory. When they do, the lobsters undergo a series of dominance behaviors until one of the lobsters concedes victory to the other. What’s fascinating about this phenomenon is that afterwards there is a change in the physiology of the lobsters. The winning lobster stands more upright, defiant and triumphant. The losing lobster does not only leave the territory in shame, it hunches over and makes itself smaller. What’s more, the next time the lobsters get in a fight, the one that is on a winning streak becomes more likely to win again, partly due to its new, more exuberant posture. The one that loses keeps losing more, and goes on to live a lonely lobster life. The winning lobster acquires mates, has abundant food in his territory and lives happily ever after.

This captivating story of what goes on in Lobsterland can be translated onto the human experience. In the world of fighting, fighters who lose for the first time are likely to lose again. They’re more likely to give up the sport. The ones who win seem to keep winning, knocking out and submitting opponent after opponent. That’s why a boxer’s manager might keep on accepting fights from weaker opponents, and stalling on negotiating fights for stronger opponents in an attempt to stay off the slippery slope that a loss can introduce.

One of the Bible’s most harrowing lines is “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.” [Matthew 25:29] This is the exact description of what a positive feedback loop is. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The lucky get luckier and the unlucky get unluckier. The happy get happier and the sad get sadder. Although I am not sure how universal or pervasive this biblical wisdom is, it is food for thought.

It has also been said that “when aristocracy catches a cold, the working class dies of pneumonia.” This is all too relevant in today’s issues of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve also heard before something along the lines that “you know things are bad if the rich start dying from it”.

The fact that lobsters are such ancient beings, and that the neurochemicals related to dominance are built so deep into our brainstems shows that dominance hierarchies are older than mankind. They are older than trees in fact. Dominance hierarchies are an unavoidable part of life. There will be dominance hierarchies in the workplace, at social gatherings and at the local sports club. So how can we not fall prey to the system of dominance in society?

Maybe we could stand up straight with our shoulders back. Humans are counter to most of the animal kingdom in that we have evolved to stand upright. This naturally makes our most vulnerable angle of attack (our soft belly and all our organs underneath) open to the outside world. Contrast this to a quadruped that has their soft underbelly facing the ground.

I work in the door-to-door sales industry, and I have noticed time and again that the rejection that comes with almost every sales call can change the physiology of the salespeople. With each “no thank you” the salesperson’s posture gets a little more hunched, until eventually they are just a shadow of their formerly confident selves and barely able to keep eye contact with a prospect. The hunching action is a physiological mechanism that longs to curl up and be warm, comfortable and sheltered. But it also displays to the world that you are scared, that you have suffered, that you have been defeated many times before. People treat others how they think they’re usually treated. If it looks like every person has slammed a door in their face all day, it’s safer just to do the same thing. I mean, there must be a reason they’ve done that, right? Conversely, the successful people in my field maintain a confident posture in spite of all the rejection that may come their way.

If you find one day that you have been surrounded by rude and horrible people, then it’s more likely that it’s something to do with you. Maybe it’s posture. Maybe it’s lack of healthy boundaries getting chipped away by a positive feedback loop, stemming from a incapability of fighting back and standing up for your own values and principles.

Standing up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the responsibility of life, how difficult it can be, and how vulnerable it can feel. It is staring into the face of defeat without flinching. It is the zebra standing up to the lion saying “I’m not scared of you”.

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.”

Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

How Solskjaer Has Used a Navy SEAL Management Strategy To Lead Manchester United to Success

A hero’s return

In the last two months Manchester United have gone from European laughing stock to a team that is genuinely feared by each opponent it faces. On December 18th 2018, Jose Mourinho was sacked as manager after a disappointing run of performances, epitomized by the embarrassing defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool. Former United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed until the end of the season and since then the team have won 11 matches, drawn one, and lost one. This is title-winning form. United have beaten Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea away from home – all formidable opponents.

Pundits from all over the world have speculated on what has happened behind the scenes for this dramatic shift in fortune. Common quotes like “he’s put smiles back on the players’ faces” and “he has got the best out of Paul Pogba (widely considered the best player in the team)” are true, but how has he actually done that? Here is what I think is a key change in the way the team is managed.

Has Solskjaer been studying US Navy SEALs?

Decentralized command has been made popular in recent years by the book Extreme Ownership by former US Navy SEAL Officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It is a leadership and management technique whereby more responsibility is placed upon individuals lower in the chain command to achieve success in a particular mission. On the other hand, centralized command (which Mourinho preferred) places the responsibility on one leader to make sure that everybody does their job correctly. In decentralized command, the team is split into several smaller teams, giving the chance for individuals to take more control and find effective solutions themselves. These individuals become empowered by the responsibility, and the resulting sense of importance adds more drive to achieve success in their mission. Any idea that is believed to be their own will be executed with vigor, conviction and wholeheartedness – nobody likes their idea to result in failure.

Mourinho the control freak

“I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him.”

Mourinho was an egoistic puppet-master while managing at Manchester United. If they won, he would take the credit for masterful strokes of tactical artistry. If they lost, he would simply blame his players for not being good enough to follow his instructions, complaining that he needed more skillful and obedient puppets. The thing that Mourinho failed to understand is that the volumes of instruction and excessive micromanagement he was giving the players was overwhelming and paralyzing them. They played in a confused and fearful manner, unable to see the bigger picture that the overall mission was simply to win a game of football. They were bogged down in whether to attack or defend, press or sit deep, and whether they were in their correct defensive positions. I was alarmed in April 2017 when Mourinho told the press of an example of this excessive micromanagement of left-back Luke Shaw: “I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him.” Mourinho gave no freedom to his players which came back to bite him – there was no-one else to blame for the defeats because he controlled everything his team did. On top of that, his players took no responsibility for their moves on the field because Mourinho gave them no freedom to find their own solutions. “I just did what you told me to do boss”, they would think as they trudged back to the changing rooms after another defeat. The disjointed performances led to lots of goals conceded and not many scored – a recipe for disaster, and a managerial sacking.

Ole’s at the wheel… or is he?

“They are good players and it’s up to them to use their imagination, creativity and just enjoy playing for this club”

What Solskjaer has done differently is give control back to the players. Players are now given the freedom to find their own solutions on the pitch. They now attack each game with enthusiasm, as opposed to the dread which filled the chests of the players each time they took to the field under Mourinho. This is where the “smiles back on faces” quote that every pundit is saying comes from. Solskjaer is giving the chance for each player to be a leader by splitting the team into smaller units. Smaller units like the combination of Martial, Pogba and Shaw on the left side has led to more cohesive combinations on the ball, while the defence looks improved under the new increased responsibility of each player to contribute to the collective mission. With Solskjaer, the mission is clear – win the game simply by scoring more goals than the opposition team. The players are trusted to create their own ideas on how to win the game, and to own these ideas. The players are much more invested in these ideas because they were the ones that created them instead of the manager, and therefore they are trying much harder to make them work – it will be their fault if they don’t. There is no coincidence that Manchester United went from the team with the least to the most distance covered per game in the Premier League once Solskjaer came in as manager. The execution of decentralized command is visibly shown on the touchline at Manchester United matches now too. Solskjaer spends the same amount of time – maybe even less – in the technical area than his assistants Michael Carrick and Mike Phelan, demonstrating that he has used this strategy with his staff too. When United score now, the whole matchday staff team jump and celebrate in unison because they all know that they contributed their own ideas and creativity to the success. Solskjaer has shown humility by looking up to the United Directors’ Box for advice from Sir Alex Ferguson, something Mourinho never did in his two and a half years in charge. Last month Solskjaer was quizzed by the media about the squad at Manchester United – the same squad that Mourinho would publicly criticize with worrying regularity. He said: “They are good players and it’s up to them to use their imagination, creativity and just enjoy playing for this club”. Contrary to the song all the United fans are singing, Solskjaer is letting his players take the wheel.

United have the mentality of a top team now.

Under Mourinho, Ander Herrera was used in matches against Chelsea as a man-marker for the dangerous opposition winger Eden Hazard. His instruction would simply be to follow this player on the pitch for 90 minutes. This strategy was worrying for many reasons. This sent a message that United thought that Chelsea’s players were better, and also it was too simplistic to think that just by stopping Hazard, it would lead to a United win. It would only take one individual duel that Herrera lost to potentially result in a goal too, and the role as a man-marker took away from Herrera contributing more to the game when United were in possession. In the same fixture under Solskjaer, Herrera was an influential member of the team – making tackles and interceptions, passing the ball and scoring a brilliant goal. Now under Solskjaer, it is the United players that are being man-marked. Paul Pogba was marked by Calum Chambers of Fulham recently – Pogba ended up still scoring two goals in a 3-0 win.

No, Paul Ince couldn’t have done it.

It is important to note that Solskjaer has not just simply turned up and told the team to play football, and sat back to watch the wins come in (like a certain ex-United and Liverpool player may think). Solskjaer has used clever gameplans in his various matches in charge. Against Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth his team dominated possession and attacked quickly, mainly on the inside left channel where Pogba is positioned. Against Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea he opted for the counter-attack strategy employing wide strikers and was happy to concede more possession of the ball in order to defend more compactly. He has identified weaknesses in certain areas of opposition teams such as the left side of Chelsea, where the attack-minded Alonso would vacate space in behind for midfield runners like Herrera and pacey attackers like Marcus Rashford. Unlike Mourinho, Solskjaer is not obsessed with details, but places the correct amount of importance to them. The most crucial point of all is that his players have bought into the vision that Solskjaer has championed – winning.

 

How can you implement the above strategies to get more out of your team and your life? Let me know in the comments below!

Skipping one meal a day to keep the doctor away: Intermittent fasting as part of the strategy for a healthier life

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” J. Krishnamurti

We live in a world where the four biggest killers after the age of 40 are cancer, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, and cardiovascular disease. Although the life-expectancy in almost every country has increased in the past century, there seems to be more incidence of these diseases, as well as inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and autoimmune disorders like coeliac disease. As a result, people (including myself) are always trying to find out how they can reduce risk of disease and increase longevity. New bold claims by scientists to increase lifespan include use of drugs like rapamycin, metformin and low-dose aspirin. Other lifestyle changes such as gluten-free diet, low-carb diet and intermittent fasting are also gaining traction in the media as ways to live a healthier life and prevent disease. Consensus is being achieved by the medical world that Western eating habits may be the root cause of the problem. Over 2000 years ago Hippocrates, a classical Greek physician said that “all disease begins in the gut”, and I think he may have been onto something there.

What is time-restricted eating (intermittent fasting)?

Time-restricted eating is type of intermittent fasting method in which uses alternating windows of feeding with windows of no caloric intake (fasting). It has been made widely popular in the last few years, and has been the subject of documentaries, podcasts and articles in recent times. Many sources cite a wide array of health benefits, which was the reason why I personally decided to give it a go. I have now been intermittent fasting for over a year and I will share my thoughts on the method as a strategy to live a healthier life.

I first came across the concept of intermittent fasting, I was confused. The book I was reading by Tim Ferriss named Tools of Titans described intermittent fasting along with terms I had never heard of such as ‘ketosis’. I had an instant aversion to it. Conventional wisdom told me that eating frequent, small meals was the recipe for good health. I had even made it a rule to eat on average every three hours that I was awake. I had never thought of timing of meals as a serious factor to consider when making diet choices. And besides, wasn’t it supposed to be a terrible thing whenever we skipped breakfast?

“Never again”

Fast forward six months and I thought I would give it a go. I would skip breakfast, and wait until mid-afternoon before I ate my first meal. When the time came that my first meal was due, I rushed to the nearest takeaway joint to stuff my face with high fat, high sugar foods. When dinner arrived, I did the same thing again. By the end of the day, I was telling myself that I would never do it again. The hunger I felt was painful, and the foods I ended up eating were extremely unhealthy. A month later, I thought I would give it another try. Over 12 months later, I am still fasting somewhere between 12-18 hours per day, every day.

I decided to persist with intermittent fasting because of the supposed benefits that it achieves. Here they are:

Fat loss and potentially muscle gain

Evolutionarily, storage of fat was useful for humans since during harsh winters where food was scarce, the body could use its fat stores for energy. Now in the 21st century, excess fat storage in the body is causing a list of chronic diseases such as stroke, heart attack, and Type 2 diabetes and the majority of people are now looking to rid themselves of this excess fat. The reason why people find fat loss so difficult is because our bodies prefer to use energy derived from glucose in the blood and glycogen from the liver. Once the levels of glucose and glycogen are depleted, the body will turn to the fat stores and turn it into ketones in our liver for energy. Fasting is considered the easiest way to access the fat storage in our body for use as energy, inducing fat loss. However, some suggest that by fasting, it is naturally leading to caloric deficit, and that the subsequent lower intake of calories leads to the fat loss. Fasting leads to an increase in the release of noradrenaline, which is associated with fat loss, as well as an increase in metabolic rate, meaning more calories would be being burned off by the body at rest. Interestingly, it has been noted that fasting leads to an increase in natural growth hormone in the body, preserving against muscle loss. I know it’s hard to believe, but actors Hugh Jackman and Terry Crews are known for their intermittent fasting practices, and they are hardly lacking in muscle. Female stars like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez have also been reported to be advocates of intermittent fasting.

The longest fast on record was 382 days. The patient weighed in at 456 pounds (~207 kg) and weighted out 180 pounds (~82 kg).

Intermittent fasting can slow down the aging process by activating cellular housekeeping processes, increasing insulin sensitivity and lowering inflammation.

When our bodies are in a fasted state, less energy is available for the cells. This activates a process called autophagy, where the weaker cells are chosen to die while the stronger, more robust cells are rejuvenated upon refeeding. It is possible that autophagy can help prevent against formation of cancerous tumours and has been found to be true in animal studies. Fasting lowers insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which is known as a strong driver of cancer. And since IGF-1 is related to insulin, this could be the link between the sugar and carbohydrates leading to the insulin release from the pancreas and driving the aging process. Spending more time in a fasted state also leads to lower insulin secretion from the pancreas, which therefore increases the sensitivity of cells to insulin, further protecting the body from diseases of the pancreas such as metabolic syndrome or Type 2 diabetes. Inflammatory markers that are associated to cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disease also become lowered from intermittent fasting. Mice who were subjected to intermittent fasting experiments lived 40% longer compared to mice that didn’t fast at all.

Intermittent fasting is easier than dieting.

Skipping breakfast or dinner saves time in our increasingly busy lifestyles. There’s no need to wash up, cook and eat that extra meal. I also found personally that skipping breakfast allowed me to be much more productive in the mornings. I no longer had bouts of “brain fog” shortly after breakfast as a result an insulin spike in the blood. Evolutionarily, it makes sense for humans to be more alert when we are hungry – we are in more desperate need to hunt down our next meal and need to be more productive in an unfed state. Personally, I found that intermittent fasting was really easy to be compliant with and after the first couple of days it was very easy to put into action. It wasn’t restrictive in terms of which food I allowed myself to eat either. Traditional diets are designed to take a lot of willpower (which will eventually let you down) and are short-term. Intermittent fasting is something I can envisage doing for life.

Considerations

Intermittent fasting is not a one-size-fits-all solution to everyone’s health problems. It is important before deciding to partake in intermittent fasting that it is suitable. If meals are being skipped it can lead to nutrient deficiency so it is important to plan meals to get enough micronutrients in the diet. For underweight people looking to gain weight, it is a lot harder to gain weight when intermittent fasting, and fasting could also be a bad idea for people who are prone to eating disorders such as anorexia. In people suffering from diabetes, it may lead to hypoglycemia. In women it could cause disruption of the menstrual cycle. I personally found that high intensity workouts were tougher in a fasted state. And of course fasting for 16 hours at a time can cause a bout of hunger or two, although after the first couple of days it became easy to manage. Intermittent fasting should be used as a method that supplements a healthy and nutritious diet. Eating unhealthy foods while intermittent fasting is not something that I would advise, although I struggle with this myself. Finally, most research into this new field of study is in animal models and clinical data is scarce, so it is important to  take the research findings with a pinch of salt.

How I Went from Nerd-Bod to Ripped in Two Months, and Why Fitness and Health Should Be Your First Priority in Life

Why do we do it to ourselves?

Human psychology is dumb. Why is it that most of us chow down on unhealthy foods, and refuse to exercise knowing that one day this is going to come back to bite us? We really are creatures of comfort, preferring to binge-watch Netflix on the couch instead of actually moving our bodies and looking after ourselves. What would it take to step back, take a long hard look ourselves, and decide to change our poor lifestyle choices? Luckily, it feels to me that more and more people are taking action and taking care of their health and fitness in recent times.
This is my personal story of how I transformed my weak, inactive “nerd body” to something much more athletic.

The back-story

Up until last year I had only been to the gym a little more than a handful of times in my life. I didn’t enjoy it, and it was expensive. Why would I pay to do an activity I didn’t enjoy? It was painful, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would enjoy that burning feeling in the muscles that you get when you lift a weight. Besides, I was playing table tennis regularly, and occasionally having a skateboard session. I even walked around a snooker table for a couple hours a day too. Surely that’s enough physical recreation to keep a 25-year-old man fit and healthy? Evidently, I still had a lot to learn.
I was doing my best to ignore little signs that my health and fitness was declining. I was getting ill more often, my digestion was poor, and my weak body was stopping me from participating from certain activities. For instance, I barely played any tennis anymore since I couldn’t perform an overhead service action without shoulder pain. My knees started aching when I went skateboarding, and my achilles hurt if I ran too much. The funniest part is, I just thought it was an inevitable part of life. At some point in your mid-twenties, you reach peak physical shape. After that it starts declining until you eventually die. Isn’t that the way life works?
This was the way I was living – in a vicious circle of inactivity to avoid pain and injury. Luckily at the time, I was living and travelling with a certified gym nut. He would go to the gym almost daily, and hounded me to go with him for about a month. Eventually, I agreed, under the condition that he would sneak me in for free.

The false start

The first workout, I just blitzed my body. I performed each set to failure, and it was painful, just like I always remembered working out at the gym to be. My body was wrecked and achy and I couldn’t go again for another five days, when I just did the same thing. After the third or fourth workout, the staff at the gym found out that my friend was sneaking me in after hours and said that I would have to buy a gym membership. That was the best thing that could have happened, and since I joined the gym I would have to go more often to get my money’s worth.

Getting up to speed

I started to go five or six times a week. By this point I had honed in on my weekly schedule. Monday through to Sunday I planned my sessions in this order: Legs, Chest, Back, Shoulders, Calisthenics (sometimes), High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This body split allowed me to work around my delayed onset muscle stiffness (DOMS). For example, I knew after doing my leg workout that I wouldn’t have to do another one for at least six days, and I could work out my upper-body during the time I was recovering.
Here are the main exercises I performed in the gym:
Legs: Squat (front and back), deadlift (regular and sumo), dumbbell lunge, leg press.
Chest: Bench press, incline dumbbell press, decline dumbbell press, cable flyes, dips (weighted).
Back: Lat pulldown (wide grip), seated row, bent over dumbbell row, pull-up, inverted row
Shoulders: Military press, dumbbell shoulder press, lateral dumbbell raises.
Calisthenics: pull-ups, dips, L-sit (on a dip bar), back extensions.
HIIT: A mixture of jump squat, box jump, broad jump, sprints, handstand hold, plank, high knees, mountain climber, bear crawl, push up, pull up, burpees.
Rep ranges were 6-8 for most sets, and HIIT sessions would be three sets of a 9-exercise circuit of 45 seconds on/ 15 seconds rest, with three minutes between sets. I would also incorporate about 20 minutes of basic stretching at the end of each workout.
I logged each workout and in the first month I had 12 gym sessions. In the second month I recorded 25 gym sessions.
Here are before and after photos.

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Before: Fat face, flat-chested, weak body.

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After: Same weight, same green shorts, and significantly fewer friends.

What I ate

I made an effort to reduce refined sugar intake. Other than that, I didn’t change my diet much. My go-to meal was roasted chicken drums or thighs with steamed mixed vegetables. Sometimes I added some mixed beans in. When I went out for dinner, I didn’t change my eating habits. I just chose whatever I wanted. My diet was already high in meat consumption so I didn’t consume any protein supplements or any other workout supplements.
Here are some of the lessons I learned during this two-month period.

Sport isn’t the same as exercise.

One of the distinctions I learned during this period is that the effect of sport on the body is not the same as the effect of exercise on the body. I can’t think of any sport (other than weightlifting) that would produce the same kind of body transformation as what this gym program did. That said, participating in sport without gym workouts beats complete inactivity.

Think in terms of body recomposition instead of weight loss/gain.

So many people (myself included) focus on weight goals when they start working out. They want to lose or gain a certain amount of pounds or kilos, and are overly attached to this goal. I kept a close eye on my weight throughout the training period. At the start I was 59 kg (130 lbs) and by the end my weight was fluctuating between 59 kg and 62 kg (130-137 lbs), so there was no discernible weight change. While most people know that when they work out most of the strength gained is the consequence of more muscle mass (hypertrophy), not many people think about the amount of fat that they shed too. As a result, those who are looking to gain or lose weight get frustrated that the number on the scale isn’t changing quick enough. Instead, they should be focusing on increases in strength and endurance that they are making, indicating that there are positive changes occurring in the body.

Write as much as possible.

I found that logging each workout in terms of how many sets/reps of each exercise were done (and at which weight) was really beneficial to getting more out of the workouts. Memory alone would not be good enough to remember these parameters, so it was useful before the workout to see what I had done the previous week on the same body split. That way, I could make sure I progressed in one way or another during the session, instead of trying to work out how much weight I could lift each time.

Almost never go 100% effort.

In hindsight, I know that my early workouts where I went to failure with each set were a bad idea. Not only is it painful, it is really taxing on the body. The amount of hydrogen ions produced in the muscle can get to a dangerous level, meaning that not only could I not work out for the next five days due to muscle stiffness, I was potentially making it very difficult for the muscle to grow too and putting my body under a lot of stress. Not many people would disagree that doing the same workout at 75% effort each day for the five days would achieve a greater result than one session at 100% followed by four days of rest. Another reason I didn’t go 100% is so that I could achieve a progression in weight/reps in the next workout. Nowadays, the only time I would personally go 100% is for competition or testing, which is rare.

Make your workout as fun as possible.

Most people don’t go to the gym simply because they don’t enjoy it, not because they deliberately want their body to lose all strength, function and mobility. I knew that to get the maximum compliance to the program I was planning on doing, I had to make the workouts as fun as possible. I chose to do my favourite exercises in each body split while discarding the ones I didn’t like. I didn’t work to failure, making it less painful and keeping myself fresh for the next workout. I also incorporated new skills like L-sits and handstand holds into my workout to give me the novelty of learning something new.

Exercise for the right reasons.

Before immersing myself into a regular workout program, I knew I needed to outline the reasons to work out. A weight goal or appearance goal would cause impatience and a craving for quick results. I still kept an eye on these things regularly, but I did not base the success of my program on these things. Instead I decided that one of the reasons I would be working out was to be able to learn to muscle up (an exercise on a pull-up bar where a pull-up transitions into a bar dip on the top of the bar), so I would need to increase my strength in order to achieve this goal. Another reason was to remain injury-free and increase my mobility so that I could increase performance while playing sport. In the end, I defined success as simply just going to the gym. Any time I went to the gym, no matter what happened in the workout, I would view it as a success.

Get to know how your own psychology works to destroy your excuses.

How do you hack your brain to want to go to the gym? I realize that everyone is different, so everyone has to think about their own psychology and how they make decisions. Are they more likely to skip gym if they planned to go after work or before work? Do they always bail on leg workouts? Incorporate leg exercises into each workout. Workout buddy always bails on you? Go alone. Personally, I knew that making the workout fun and not exerting myself were keys to getting me to go to the gym. The promise of a nice meal after the workout, as well as living close by to the gym, and having a gym-going roommate were factors that helped to get me to the gym more often. I also followed lots of Instagram profiles of calisthenics athletes who were performing muscle-ups so that I could be reminded of reasons why I should keep to my planned workout schedule.

You don’t need to do crunches and leg raises to get a visible six-pack.

Abdominal workouts are easily my least favourite, so I didn’t do any targeted abdominal work. Even so, I still managed a pretty impressive body transformation and more visible abs. For anyone with a goal of “getting abs”, I would focus on diet. Consider reducing carb and sugar intake, or intermittent fasting (although I didn’t fast during this training period). In terms of actual exercises, I believe sprinting, interval training, and HIIT sessions to be valuable since the rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles) is the main muscle used in a forced exhalation. On top of that, try to engage your core in exercises where most people don’t, like performing push-ups or pull-ups in the hollow body position. However, if training for strength, then core muscles should definitely be trained, since core strength will help with any big lift.

I didn’t know how unhealthy I was until I became healthy.

Looking back at old photos, I did not see how much my appearance was declining at the time. My face was fat, my skin was bad, my muscle tone was non-existent. Only when I started working out did I realise that I was light years away from peak physical shape, and it was no wonder I was getting injured and sick all the time. The good news is, it wasn’t even very difficult to get into half-decent shape. Obviously, everyone is different. Someone who is in worse physical condition than I was may think they’re too far gone so their health and fitness will never go back to the way it was when they were young, but in my opinion it’s never too late to start being more active.

Conclusion: Exercise, have fun, and never stop.

Overall, the I found the keys to successful body recomposition are to partake in focused exercise instead of/alongside sport, and to do it consistently over a period of time. Be in it for the long haul by having fun and not working too hard, as health and fitness is a continuous, lifelong journey and not just a remedy for poor health. Think of the times you have been sick or injured, and how much that affected the rest of your life – work, relationships, self-esteem etc. Why wait for it to happen before you finally decide to achieve the health and fitness you want?

Something between Christmas and being buried alive: Lessons I learned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation course

 

What I would easily consider as the worst ten days of my life ended up also being the best.

I recently completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. For anyone that doesn’t know what it is, it is an intensive, mostly oversubscribed course in which attendees learn this specific ancient Buddhist meditation technique. Courses are paid by donation from students that complete the course, and is the only form of financial backing that the Vipassana centers around the world receive. I had heard of a few friends and public figures that I follow had done this course, and the consensus was that it was a wonderful experience, and everyone gave positive recommendations for it. As a result I decided to do it – I had a free ten days in my calendar, and I thought it would be a good idea to learn to meditate properly. However, I was under no illusion that it would be difficult. In fact I can say it turned out to be the most difficult thing I have ever done. I had only started meditating about three months prior, using the Headspace app on my phone and sitting through very short guided meditations. As the course started I calculated I had probably completed less than three hours of meditation in my lifetime, yet I was just about to add a whopping 110 hours to that tally. Not that I was counting or anything…

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From dhamma.org

The course information I read when I signed up on the website stated that there would be prohibitions. Students were not allowed to speak (or any form of communication), steal, kill any living being (or even physically touch anyone), or partake in any sexual activities. There was no reading, no writing, no cell phones, no contact to the outside world. It’s funny how so many people (most of whom have never done the course) call this kind of thing a “retreat”, as if it would be a relaxing 10 days filled with peace and tranquility. It couldn’t be further from the truth. S. N. Goenka – the late Burmese gentleman who teaches the course over audio and videotapes – describes it as “a surgical operation of the mind”. Another man I spoke to after the course said it was an experience “somewhere between Christmas and being buried alive”, while one of the ladies I shared a ride with who had been to several courses worded it as an “ordeal” while in the car on the way to the course. And she was right. If I had to describe it in a nutshell, I would say it was the best worst ten days of my life. While the ten days felt torturous, the lessons that I learned have led to a positive transformation in myself. Here are some ideas and conclusions I made during the ten days.

Misery comes from too much craving or aversion, and a thing called equanimity is the answer.

I came into the Vipassana course coming from what I thought was a good, happy mindset. I had just completed a volunteering trip in the Dominican Republic which was wonderful, and had also finished a grueling six-month door-to-door sales season in Canada in which I felt had developed me personally to a much greater level. I had also done some cool experiences in the recent months like going to watch Conor McGregor fight in the UFC in Las Vegas, doing a three week road trip of Western Canada, going to an NHL game and various other pleasurable and novel activities. In the recent weeks however, from reading the famous self-help book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” I had discovered that my character had a few ‘minor’ flaws. Of all the types of centers the author describes in the book, I identified most with the self-centered type. It made sense and it was a little jab to my awareness that made me start to ponder a little. And also I realized that I was a tad egotistical. But we’ll get to that part later.

During the Vipassana course, Goenka teaches that the state of misery that most people feel is from the result of craving something and subsequently not getting it. Equally, misery can be elicited from any aversion to unpleasant situations and feelings too. He declared that by practicing a mindset termed “equanimity”, the technique of Vipassana can absolve us from all suffering and misery. Equanimity means to observe things objectively – not wanting pleasant sensations to continue, while not wanting unpleasant sensations to stop. That’s a rather bold claim. As I started to ruminate on this theory, I started to pick holes in it. What if you crave something and you do get it, surely that results in joy? Isn’t aversion a good thing so that we can avoid ending up in nasty situations like homelessness, breakdowns in relationships or injury-inducing activities? And if everyone remained equanimous all the time, then how would anyone ever get anything done in the world? The whole of civilization would cease to advance and we would die off as a species, especially if no sex was permitted. I came up with several other arguments as to why this was bullshit. But as the course continued, I started to deepen and clarify the understanding of this concept. I started to think of situations where I did experience misery or sadness during the last 12 months and beyond, and I could identify that it was an imbalance of the mind, the lack of equanimity when dealing with certain emotions or situations that arose. I could also identify in other people when this occurred. Subsequently, I could dream up activities in my daily life that if I dealt with more equanimously, I could achieve greater success and happiness. In work, in relationships, in sport and life as a whole. I would not be surprised to see athletes incorporating mindfulness practice into their training, while Silicon Valley CEOs like Jack Dorsey have completed Vipassana courses in the recent past. Finishing the course, the concept of equanimity will be a big part of the solutions to any challenges that I will face.

The ego is cunning, reactive and wild. Practicing Vipassana diminishes the ego and leads to a less selfish worldview.

Like I mentioned in the introduction, I came into the course with my ego inflated. But while I knew this, I was sort of okay with it. Ego made me feel good. So when Goenka and his teachings spoke of eradicating ego and living an egoless life, my mind started to attack his ideas. As with the concept of equanimity earlier described, with all concepts of Vipassana teaching I was extremely skeptical of the practice. I now realize that this was the result of the ego. My inflated ego knew that if I completed the course, it would be severely reduced and maybe even eradicated. As with most living creatures, when it becomes threatened is when it unleashes most of its power, like when someone comes between a mother bear and her cubs. So my ego started to reject the teachings, coming up with its own evidence of why Vipassana was not good for me. The longer the course went on and the more the teachings made logical sense, the more desperate I could observe my ego becoming. It was coming up with more and more absurd ideas and theories of why I should leave. This is a cult, they won’t let you leave after ten days, they are using your credit card details while you are here, this is all a set-up, this is a form of torture, you’re in a prison, these people are weirdos, they’re brainwashing you. It was fascinating realizing that my monkey mind was more active than I thought.

During the meditation sessions, my mind would often wander. In the early days of the course, it would constantly be on things that I would do once I go out of the course that would provide me pleasure – sexual fantasies, which foods I would eat, which pleasurable activities I would partake in. As the days went on and my ego began to lose power, the focus switched. Instead of having ideas of how I can make myself look and feel good, it became about how I can serve other people selflessly, and how I can give to the community, how I can have a positive impact on the world. A prime example is that in the early days I had the idea of making a presentation in front of my company in the future. I was dreaming up all the slides, and jokes I would tell, and ways I would talk about myself and so on. As the ego began to diminish my outlook on the idea of the presentation changed. I still wanted to do it, and the slides might even be exactly the same, but the ‘volition’ (intention) had changed. Instead of doing it for egotistical and self-indulgent purposes, I realized that I should have the mindset of how I can provide the most value to the audience, whether it makes me look good or not. One of the most profound impacts of the course for me was the reduction in self-centeredness and ego.

Vipassana meditation can alleviate psychosomatic disorders such as eczema.

One of the most tangible positive benefits I took from the Vipassana course was a reduction in symptoms of a disease I have suffered from for my whole life – eczema. The conditions for the course, including all vegetarian meals conducive to good gut health, to the sittings of strong determination where posture and movement is restricted, all helped to contain the deleterious behavior of scratching the skin. One of the main processes associated with Vipassana meditation is of breaking old habit patterns of the mind. In other words, the practice would help remove destructive behavior patterns that had been learned throughout life. Each time I remained equanimous and non-reactive to certain sensations like itchiness, I knew I was rewriting the programming in my unconscious mind. After day 1 or 2, I barely scratched my skin, and became much more aware of dryness associated with itching. Only on Day 10 did I let it slip and scratched a little in my sleep, but my new learning of equanimity allowed to see the reality of it instead of feeling disempowered.

Physical pain doesn’t have to result in mental pain. Vipassana meditation increases pain tolerance and management.

In the first few days the pain of sitting still in a cross-legged position often became excruciating. My face would wince, and I would feel like screaming out into the silent meditation room or to sigh loudly after each meditation session. Many times during the first few days, I would describe the course as a form of torture, and that I wouldn’t even wish this on my worst enemy, that I would never donate any money to this horrendous organization. During one of the evening discourses, Goenka stated that physical pain doesn’t have to mean mental pain too. Once I practiced this, and remained equanimous with my pain of sitting, the level of perceived pain dramatically reduced. That understanding as well as the reduction of the ego to see myself and my pain objectively and impermanently allowed me to meditate better. Of course pain can be a very useful signal for tissue damage, but more and more people in this day and age suffer from disorders leading to chronic pain, which I am sure that Vipassana meditation can help to alleviate.

Boredom leads to creativity, and there should be no aversion to it.

One of the things I prided myself upon before the course that I very rarely felt boredom. There was always something useful or entertaining that I could be doing, and I was happy to lead an ‘interesting’ life. However, I had also noticed that I was particularly pleasure-centered and all these activities I had been partaking had increased my tolerance for pleasure. I had to keep doing crazier and crazier activities to get my daily fix of dopamine. Not only does that sound unhealthy, it also created a lot of pressure on my bank account. The course and its facilities are devoid of stimulation. There are no strong scents, no interesting artwork, and the landscape of the area was monotonous. Of course without the constant stimulation of blue screens, the mind was craving something to play with. So with no external stimuli, the brain has to create its own entertainment. One man said he played old western movies in his mind throughout the course, while another said that he had solved all the world’s problems in his head within the ten days (with the exception of who should replace Trump as President of the United States). Personally, I had an experience similar to the latter. I had had created whole PowerPoint presentations and websites in my head, as well as designing intricate biological experiments that I could test on myself. I found whenever I did accidentally mutter to myself, I would always do it in a foreign language, whether it were Spanish, Russian or Cantonese. Random songs would play in my head. It turns out boredom is not all bad, it can be very resourceful, and we should be equanimous to this particular state of mind.

Vipassana meditation increased my awareness and sensitivity of my body’s sensations.

The act of Vipassana meditation is to simply scan the body from head to toe and vice versa, and to observe objectively the sensations that would arise, and pass away. Spending so much time on this led me to increase my sensitivity to my body. I could now feel a brush of moving air past my ear, or feel the sebum being secreted out of a pore in my face. I could contemplate the physiological process that would be associated with a particular feeling in any area of my body. I even considered with concepts of brain plasticity that the physical structure and connections within my brain and its sensory mapping may have changed. With so much time spent with our eyes closed, I wondered whether neuron connections of the vision systems in the brain weakened, while those of the somatosensory sections increased in strength.

The male millennial generation is soft.

The Vipassana course elicits a lot of painful sensations in the body and the mind. It is for sure the hardest thing I have personally done in my life, but I am so glad I completed it and saw the positive effects that it is supposed to have. However, I do feel for the people who left midway through the course. While not many of the female contingent left the course, around half of all the men did, including my roommate. That was the one and only time that I wanted to break my silence was when he was walking out of the door. The large majority of people leaving the course after it had started were young males. This probably is not an anomaly and it certainly made me think that young males in today’s society are certainly averse to doing difficult, painful things.

Learning through experience trumps learning through intellect.

The Vipassana course prides itself on being a practical course, leading to learning through one’s own experience. That is the exact reason we were required to remain silent, as well as not being able to read or write. Too much of the world are learning theories intellectually without knowing what it is really like to experience what they are studying. Experiential learning leads to greater understanding of concepts and should be a reminder for those like myself that indulge in self-help and psychology books, learn the theory, but never take action in the real world. Learning is a lot tougher if only done at the intellectual level. One analogy is trying to learn to swim without touching water, it would be a miracle to see that happen.

Western scientific language cannot always explain something that is real, so therefore many eastern beliefs are unfairly pre-judged as incorrect.

I had so many experiences during the course that I could at least partially match up through using existing scientific and psychological models as references. Models such as Pavlov’s classical conditioning dog experiment to explain my behavior re-patterning for eczema, or Professor Steve Peter’s “Chimp Paradox” model to explain the crazy actions of our ego. However, the human experience is so complex that Western science doesn’t know all the answers yet. And just because scientists can’t explain something yet doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

During the course on the third day, I started experimenting with the Anapana (breathing) meditation. The focus was to focus on the sensation inside the nostrils and on the upper lip, just a small part of the body. I already knew from speaking to another friend that there were sessions where it was required that the body remain completely still. So what I did was I tried to remain completely still for two hours while conducting Anapana meditation. About 80% of the way through, I could feel my legs and body starting to go numb. I just felt like a massive, floating face. What happened next surely would be considered psychedelic. As I moved to straighten my neck, the lights in the ceiling felt like they pierced deep into my mind. I felt a huge pressure between my eyes in what some people call the brow chakra area (also known as the third eye), and I felt like my face started floating away towards the ceiling. It was alarming to say the least! The sensation lasted a few seconds and I snapped out of it. One of the people I spoke to after the course told me it is quite a common experience during deep meditation and is related to theta waves in the brain. Neuroscience is such a complicated study, yet it is amazing how humans from ancient times already had so much wisdom and insight. They just had their own metaphors and terminology to explain the laws of nature.

Conclusion

Overall, I would recommend almost anybody to attend a 10-day course in Vipassana if they can. They are heavily oversubscribed, especially on the women’s side and I feel very lucky to have completed one. There are more and more studies published in scientific journals outlining the positive effects on health, well-being and general quality of life of people who engage in meditation.

Goenka teaches that after the course, the student should practice twice a day for one hour each, and the practice is as important as eating, sleeping and brushing teeth. It should be considered as imperative as these other daily activities because it is simply good for the meditator and everyone around them. Overall it has taught me to just try to be a more compassionate, better person.

I would love to know the biggest takeaways of anyone who has completed a Vipassana course, and would appreciate comments on this post!