Self-Mastery 101

You cautiously open your eyes. It’s 5:27am, three minutes before your alarm goes off. “I’d rather sleep all day than go to work,” you think to yourself. You yawn, flip onto your stomach and grunt a few times, all in the hope of changing the inevitable. It’s Monday and you’re not so pumped about going to work, that line up of meetings, sports and mundane activities, which will keep you busy for the next five years. You try to be perfect, wear the right clothes, say the right words, do the right workout, but it’s inevitable; life catches up. We battle to attain perfection; we struggle to survive.

For the average person, this feels more like damage control than bliss. And, that’s partly true, as self-mastery can be seen as self-reflection in its most refined form. A healthier version of you is only a few moments of reflection away.

To live happier and healthier lives, we must first observe how we function individually and with others, becoming more conscious of our surroundings, feelings, thoughts, and most importantly, our reactions to circumstances. Our response to the natural flow of a changing universe is ultimately what determines our level of self-mastery and, therefore, our capacity to live a life of mental, physical and spiritual freedom.

1. Masters-of-self learn to navigate chaos in the most graceful, healthy ways. Perfection can be illusive in a naturally chaotic universe. They separate the need to be perfect from the desire to love fully and become fully present in their actions, wants and needs.

2. Masters-of-self treat their body with respect and dignity. They listen to the body acutely, in order to provide the proper amount of rest, movement, nourishment and love.

3. Masters-of-self continuously empty their mind of unhealthy thoughts that drain willpower (anger, fear, doubt and greed) and replace them with positive and productive thoughts (courage, passion, love and peace).

4. Masters-of-self are emotionally honest, factually truthful, and precise in their actions. They strive for self-development and services to others. Living beyond selfishness and ego, they adopt higher values that support personal growth and developmentin order to help others. This means not doing things for status, power and attention.

5. Masters-of-self allow others be as they are, without condition. Dogmatic reasoning and the need to control others can often lead to a battle of egos. Finding peace in stressful moments, masters-of-self work diligently to diffuse tensions and create stable relationships.

6. Masters-of-self have a strong sense of Self; they understand their identity and purpose. They see the importance of honoring the divinity within, as well as beyond. This includes behaving with reverence and respect towards past and future generations. Without our past, we have nothing to learn from; without our future, we have nothing to work towards. Masters-of-self welcome the arrival of chaos, for it keeps them grounded in their purpose and life path.

7. Masters-of-self take ownership of their actions and thoughts, becoming responsible, dependable, trustworthy and enthusiastic about their life. They bring energy and vitality to their environment, relationships and career.

8. Lastly, masters-of-self know independently when they have achieved self-mastery; no person or being can tell them. They continuously tweak and adapt their masterful approach to new scenarios and adventures, forever. Life becomes a never-ending process of self-realization and demystification of the unknown. They learn to welcome surprises and new experiences that lend to the soul’s growth, and simply discard what doesn’t belong.

One can never fully achieve self-mastery, for it is illusive, like perfection. But, through the process of arduous growth and experience, one becomes the master-of-self: honorable, trustworthy and committed to the art form of self-mastery.

Master the Cycles of Nature

Understanding how the body grows is a lot like understanding how a garden bears fruit year after year. At certain times of year plants receive continuous sunlight while at other times they don’t. At the end of the harvest season most plants shed their leaves to prepare for another year of growth. My point is that just as plants follow a natural cycle to grow, be strong, and produce fruit year after year, the same can be said for our bodies.

When we begin a workout regime we often forget that we need to work in cycles to maintain our progress. At times we need to push ourselves to the limit and also rest and recovery. In Taoist philosophy this balance is referred to as yin and yang, stillness and action. Each action phase is followed by a rest phase so that harmony can be maintained. When our bodies are in harmony we feel more relaxed, heal quicker, live longer and have more strength.

Listed below are some exercise activities that represent the ACTION phase and the REST phase. Listen to your body, alternating phases when you feel that a change is needed.

ACTION:

  • Weight training
  • Running, sprinting
  • Power walking
  • Power yoga
  • High intensity interval training
  • Kickboxing
  • Karate
  • Fast dancing

REST:

  • Restorative yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Qi Gong
  • Slow walking/hiking (especially in nature)
  • Stretching
  • Pilates
  • Corrective/mobility exercises
  • Foam rolling
  • Slow dancing

The Importance of Deep Breathing

As it turns out, deep breathing is not only relaxing, it's scientifically proven to benefit the heart, brain, digestion and immune system. 

Studies show that a few mindful tweaks to the way we breathe can improve health and reduce stress.

Consider the profound difference in the benefit of a deep breath versus a shallow one. Slow, deep breathing that engages the diaphragm causes one’s heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure to drop. Quick, shallow breathing that fills the upper chest alone, does not.  

Oxygen is good. More oxygen is better.

Deep breathing promotes healing. Studies have shown it promotes recovery for a host of conditions, such as chronic pain, asthma, digestive issues and depression.  It’s worth considering that last condition. Deep, steady breathing is a simple way to glide into a state of calm and relaxation.  

Traditions as varied as Zen Buddhism, martial arts and yoga, all teach a variety of breathing techniques to boost strength or cultivate inner peace. Almost all of these methods begin by simply becoming aware of one’s breath. Here’s the good news about deep breathing or breath work. There’s nothing to buy. Air is free. You can do it anywhere. And you don’t have to take it on faith. Breath deeply, fully and mindfully for as little as 5 minutes and see if you feel a difference.

Sure, breath work can be done lying down with incense lit in a hushed room with a playlist of tunes by Enya. It’s brilliant to do this from time to time, because you may discover that while 5 minutes of deep breathing works, 20 minutes of it transports you into a state of nirvana. The other thing you may find compelling about full, mindful breathing is you can do it anywhere, especially to regain your composure after a stressful situation. 

A quick how-to guide

Lying down or standing, allow the diaphragm and rib cage to expand as your lungs fill with air. Sip the air. No need for big gulps. Then exhale, allowing— but not forcing— the air to completely leave the lungs. 

Rinse and repeat. 

Deep diaphragmatic breathing requires focus. It’s a bit like riding a bicycle; get used to it and it becomes natural. 

Why Negative Talk Doesn't Cut It

We all experience some form of self talk. Lock yourself out of the car and the inner voice pipes up, “Idiot!” Catch yourself naked in the mirror the morning after a few too many trips to the all-you-can-eat buffet and you’re inner critic is likely to cry out “Fatty.”

What we tell ourselves matters! It effects not only our mood but many would argue it effects our cells and our body’s well-being.  Here are three ways to defeat negative self talk and turn your inner chatter into an ally.

  1. Flip the negative insult, into a positive statement
    1. Rather than tell yourself I’m training “So my butt doesn’t look fat” or because “My gut’s too big” craft a mantra that states your goal rather than the problem.  You might say: “I love feeling strong and full of vitality."
  2. Acknowledge the good choices you made today
    • It’s easy to fall into the trap: “I’ll feel good about myself, when _________.” Instead, compliment yourself about the mindful and healthy decisions you made today. “I’m so pleased I did cardio for 30 minutes.” “I’m glad I passed on the pizza and had that healthy salad and bowl of soup for lunch.”
  3. Be where you are
    • If you are just returning to working out after a long hiatus, be patient with yourself. Instead of doing Zumba till you drop or bench pressing so much weight you can barely raise your toothbrush in the morning, allow yourself to progress. Tell yourself: “I feel great after today’s workout. I’m keeping at it.”

The Light You Seek is Already Yours

“I feel I’m learning the importance of suffering” I told my friend at 6:30 am while watching the sunrise over the silhouette of mountains at Black Rock Desert, Nevada. We had been up all night, at Burning Man 2016, and I was having a moment of reflection. It was cold; I was tired, hungry, dusty, dehydrated and my body ached from our 9 hour dancing marathon. Nonetheless, I was in a positive mood.

I said to her, “When we feel we aren’t enough or don’t have enough, we seek out the very part of ourselves we already own. Much like pinning our nametag on everyone else’s shirt. We may feel better about suffering if we emulate the supposed good feelings of others.” The sun rose higher above the mountains, heating the morning chill.

“For the unconscious, emotional mimicry can feel like a great way to regain short-term emotional confidence and even physical strength. But for the conscious individual the identification of another’s emotional state is a poor reflection of his or her own state. To reflect is to observe, not respond. When we are more conscious of our internal/external world, we can quickly shift our perspective from lack to abundance. Pain and awkwardness vanish; self-acceptance and love appear.”

“How do you do this?” she asked. By this time the sun had fully appeared and the crowd around us cheered with excitement as a new dawn pierced what seemed like forever darkness. Our conversation continued on the playa. Seventy-five thousand people gathered on a dry lakebed, a pop-up city of sorts, complete with a DMV and town hall, art installations and non-stop music from sunrise to sunset.

“See that woman over there?” I pointed to a middle-aged woman dancing joyfully, smiling with her hands in the air. “Observing her excitement is enough for me. I don’t need to be her to recognize that the joy she exudes is inherently mine. The key to unlocking suffering is ownership of one’s life, one’s choices and one’s responsibilities. It keeps the body grounded and the mind clear. You see, the light we seek is already ours. The answers to life’s biggest challenges are buried within our own psyche, gifts ready to be explored, and passions ready to take hold. All it takes is for us to show up, get behind the steering wheel and be responsible for our emotional, physical and mental states. The rest is experiential, and that’s why I love Burning Man. It’s a challenge to stay focused and present among the seventy-five thousand different experiences one can have. I couldn’t possibly explore each one of them, nor do I want to. My experience is enough. I am enough,” I said with a slight smirk. 

“It’s a funny thing to feel the switch in perspective. All of a sudden, your needs are met. I was cold, and now I am warm. I was tired, and now I am awake. I was thirsty, and now I am satisfied. I was tender, and now I am recovered. Life is flavorful when we own it; it just takes our participation.”