Nature’s way is simple and easy, but men prefer what is intricate and artificialLao Tzu

Dan Millman: For fifteen years I trained with great energy in the sport of gymnastics. Even though I worked hard, progress often seemed slow or random, so I set out to study the process of learning. Beginning with standard psychological theory, I read current studies of motivation, visualization, hypnosis, conditioning, and attitude training. My understanding grew, but only in bits and pieces. Extensive reading of Eastern philosophy, including perspectives of the traditions of Taoist and Zen martial arts, expanded my knowledge, but I still lacked the understanding I sought.

Eventually, I turned to my own intuition and experience for the answers I was looking for. I understood that infants learn at a remarkable pace compared to adults. I watched my little daughter, Holly, at play, to see if I could discover what qualities she possessed that most adults lacked.

One Sunday morning as I watched her play with the cat on the kitchen floor, my eyes darted from my daughter to the cat and back again, and a vision began to crystallize; an intuitive concept was forming in my mind about the development of talent—not just physical talent, but emotional and mental talent as well.

I had noticed that Holly’s approach to play was as relaxed and mindless as the cat’s, and I realized that the essence of talent is not so much the presence of certain qualities but rather the absence of mental, physical, and emotional obstructions experienced by most adults.

After that discovery I found myself taking long walks alone, observing the forces of wind and water, trees, and animals—their relationship to the earth. At first, I noticed only the obvious that plants tend to grow toward the sun, that objects fall toward the earth, that trees bend in the wind, that rivers flow downhill.

After many such walks, nature removed her veil, and my vision cleared. I saw trees bending in the wind and understood the principle of nonresistance. Visualizing how gentle running water can cut through solid rock, I grasped the law of accommodation. Seeing how all living things thrived in moderate cycles, I was able to understand the principle of balance. Observing the regular passing of the seasons, each coming in its own good time, taught me the natural order of life.

I came to understand that socialization had alienated me (and most adults) from the natural order, characterized by free, spontaneous expression; my young daughter, however, knew no separation from things as they are.

Still, such insights seemed more poetical than practical, until, all in a single moment, the final piece fell into place: I was taking a warm shower, enjoying the soothing spray. My thoughts were quiet; then, out of nowhere, a realization came and left me stunned: “The laws of nature apply equally to the mind and the emotions!” This may not seem like a great realization to you, but I dropped the soap.

Realizing that nature’s laws applied equally to the human psyche, inseparable from the body, made all the difference for me. My world turned upside down; no longer would I view the principles of my training as merely physical. I would see them as a psychophysical challenge. My perceptions of the world changed; where once I viewed the world and my body as physical things, they now danced in a realm of flowing energy, to a movement of more subtle forces. This new way of seeing reaffirmed my essential connection to the laws of nature. My inner training had begun.

All that remained was to put this understanding to use—to apply it to a new way of training—in order to reawaken my innate abilities so that the fruits of training would spill over into daily life. Training became a way of life. The game of athletics had become a perfect model for the Game of Life.

The Chinese sages, in talking about the River of Life, the delicate, ephemeral existence of the butterfly, or the sway of trees in the wind, were painting pictures, drawing metaphors that pointed to the natural laws, the source of all human wisdom. All the great teachers have pointed to the same thing: that growing personally means integrating the wisdom of our life experience with the laws of nature and the open-eyed innocence of childhood.

Pursuing a natural way of training, I sought to align myself to the following lessons and laws of nature:

Principle 1: Nonresistance

There are four ways to deal with the forces of life:

  • Surrender to them fatalistically. Rocks, since they are inanimate, have little choice but to surrender passively to the natural laws.
  • Ignore them, and in ignorance have accidents. Creatures who lack man’s perspective are relatively helpless in their ignorance and are guided only by simple instinct.
  • Resist them and create turmoil. We tend to resist or struggle with the natural flow of life. Resistance wastes energy and results in various symptoms of dis-ease.
  • Use them and blend with nature. Like birds that ride the wind, fish that swim with the current, or bamboo that bends to absorb the weight of fallen snow, we can make use of natural forces. This is the real meaning of nonresistance. Natural law has been expressed in many ways: “Don’t push the river.” “Let it be.” “Go with the flow.” “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “Turn problems into opportunities and stumbling blocks into steppingstones.”

Inner athletes, on days that physical progress lags behind, make the best of time by working with mental and emotional issues that arise.

Nonresistance, then, is more than dumb passivity. Flowing with the natural currents of life and making use of whatever circumstances arise requires great sensitivity and intelligence.

The priorities of the inner athlete make outer accomplishments less important than internal transformations and alignment with natural law.

Inner golfers, for example, make intuitive use of the wind, of the direction the grass grows, of the moisture in the air and the curves of the land. They make use of gravity by letting the club swing in a natural, relaxed rhythm. Inner gymnasts learn to blend with the unique forces and circumstances in their environment. Inner tennis players learn to use the texture of the court to their advantage. “Conquering” is the opposite of nonresistance; the combative mind projects its own turmoil onto the world.

In daily life, those of us who resist change also inhibit growth. Bob Dylan reminded us that those who aren’t busy being born are busy dying.

What a caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly.

    —Richard Bach

Inner athletes have dissolved any thought of resistance. They see opponents as teachers or sparring partners who challenge them to bring out their best, and they do the same for their opponents.

Opponents’ movements can be used to your advantage through nonresistance. This principle is well-known in the martial arts of Judo, T’ai chi, and Aikido. “If pushed, pull: if pulled, push.” Apply softness in the face of hardness absorbing, neutralizing, and redirecting force. Use this approach to daily life.

The Martial Arts Principle of No-Collision

Test 1. Stand squarely in front of a friend. Tense your body. Have the friend push you with one hand as you resist. How does that feel? What happens? You are likely to experience opposition and loss of balance or control as your friend pushes you backward.

The next time he or she pushes, take a smooth step back under control; just let your body flow backward at the same speed as your partner’s push—give no resistance at all. What does this feel like? Do you feel the cooperation or harmony you have created? Since you are centered and in control, you can “allow” your partner to go where he or she “wants” to go.

Test 2. Stand with your right leg and right arm extended toward your friend, with both feet rooted lightly to the floor. Breathe slowly in your lower abdomen; relax. Cultivate a feeling of peace and goodwill. As you maintain this spirit, have your friend come toward you rapidly from a distance of about ten feet, with the intent to grab your right arm, which is extended toward him or her at hip level.

Just as your friend is about to grab your hand, you whirl around and behind your friend by taking a smooth quick step slightly to the side and beyond your partner as he or she lunges past, grabbing for the arm that’s no longer there. If you do this smoothly, facing your friend as you whirl around, you’ll maintain equilibrium and control as your friend totters on the edge of balance.

Test 3. This Aikido approach can also be applied to potential verbal confrontations. On such occasions, instead of verbal tussling—trying to prove a point, win an argument, overcome another with reason— just sidestep the struggle.

Simply listen, really listen, to your opponents’ points; acknowledge the value of what they are saying. Then ask gently if there isn’t some validity to your view also. In this way, you can learn to blend and apply nonresistance not only to “attackers” but to al1 of life’s little problems and difficult situations. Remember that you create the struggle in your life; you create the collisions. You can dissolve struggle through nonresistance.

Nonresistance: Psychophysical Applications

In Judo, he who thinks is immediately thrown. Victory is assured to those who are physically and mentally nonresistant.

    —Robert Linssen

Stress happens when the mind resists what is. Most of us tend to either push or resist the river of our lives, to fight circumstance rather than make use of things as they are. Resistance sets up turbulence that we feel as physical, mental, and emotional tension. Tension is a subtle pain and, like any pain, signals that something is amiss. When you are out of your natural pattern, you will feel this tension. By listening to your body, you can take responsibility for the turbulence in your life rather than blaming the circumstances or other people for your upset.

Athletes commonly resist the natural processes by trying. The word “try” itself implies a weakness in the face of challenge. The moment we try, we are already tense; trying therefore, is a primary cause of error. In more natural actions, we omit to try. We simply walk to the refrigerator, write a letter, or water the flowers; we don’t have to try to do these things, and we perform them easily and naturally. But when faced with something we consider an imposing challenge when self-doubt arises—we begin to try.

When competitors feel they are under pressure and begin to try, they often fall apart. Chuang Tzu, a Chinese sage, observed that “when an archer is shooting for enjoyment, he has all his skill; when he shoots for a brass buckle, he gets nervous; when he shoots for a prize of gold, he begins to see two targets.”

To illustrate the effect of trying too hard, I ask you to imagine yourself walking across a four-inch plank of wood that is suspended a few inches from the ground. No problem, right? Now transport that plank to a height of ten feet over a pond filled with alligators. Suddenly you begin trying harder. You feel tense. We have the same plank but a different mental state.

Whenever we start to try, we set up internal opposition to what we want to accomplish. You can measure this opposition in your own physiology; when you try to keep your arm straight, you end up tensing both the extensor muscles (triceps) and the flexor muscles (biceps); you fight yourself. Athletes who try to stretch can feel the muscles tensing in resistance. Dieters who try to diet only get stronger urges for food—or gain back what is lost. Golfers who try to wallop the ball only end up topping it into the rough.

Inner athletes recognize that less effort can create more results. Even while engaged in intense competition they have a sense of “letting it happen” without any sense of strain, This may seem like idealistic fantasy, but numerous descriptions of the lives and duels of martial arts masters testify to the existence of this kind of grace under pressure. The higher the stakes, the more calm, clear, and relaxed these masters became, and they were unbeatable—peaceful warriors like Morehei Uyeshiba, the founder of Aikido, who, when more than 80 years of age, could easily evade an attacker wielding a razorsharp sword, tapping the attacker on the nose with a fan while smiling, relaxed, breathing deeply.

Dr. John Douillard, in his audio-tape program Invincible Athletics, explains the efficacy of using a non-stressful approach to training as opposed to indulging in chronic cycles of tear down fatigue followed by recovery.

Inner athletes take an easy, relaxed, and naturally progressive approach while working at the top of, but within, their comfort zone. In this way, they make training a pleasure, achieving a kind of “runner’s high” not just in rare peak moments, but every time they train. They avoid the internal resistance or burnout that accompanies a stressful approach to training

If you want a child to follow you, for example take her or him lovingly by the hand and pull very smoothly, very gently. The child will flow along. If you give a sudden tug, the child will pull the other way. Our subconscious minds work the same way. And since our subconscious gives us our vital energy, it seems best, in the long run, to motivate ourselves with the carrot rather than the stick.

If you play golf, don’t try to hit the ball, just let the club swing. If you’re a gymnast, form the intent, then let the body pirouette. If you play basketball, let the ball go through the hoop. In life, form clear goals, prepare, then let things happen naturally, in their own good time.

Every bamboo shoot “knows” how to bend with the wind, but inner athletes have the insight to put up windmills. Understanding the spirit of nonresistance, you create a partnership with nature. You take the first step on the path of the inner athlete.

Principle 2: Accommodation

Life was never meant to be a struggle;
just a gentle progression from one point to another,
much like walking through a valley on a sunny day.

    -Stuart Wilde

Let’s take a look at some key points in the process of learning:

  • Athletics, like life, develops what it demands. Development IS precisely commensurate with the demand. With no demand, there is no development; with small demand, small development; with improper demand, improper development.
  • Demand requires motive. Without internal motivation to energize a demand, there can be no persistent response.
  • Motivation requires meaning. The motivating factor corresponds to your values in life; it must offer an improvement or benefit that you want.
  • Demand takes the form of progressive overload. By repeatedly and consistently asking of yourself a little more than you’re comfortable with, a little more than you are capable of, you improve.
  • Progressive overload takes place in small increments within your own comfort zone. You need to stretch your comfort zone but not ignore it. Most athletes constantly work outside that zone, and they experience extremes of fatigue, strain, and even pain. By staying within (but near the top of) one’s own comfort zone, inner athletes take a little longer to improve, but they improve longer.
  • Development (through overload) requires a tolerance for failure. Development inevitably entails a constant stream of “little failures” along the way to your ultimate goals.
  • Tolerance for failure comes from an intuitive grasp of the natural process of learning. Unrealistic expectations mean a frustrated athlete; realism breeds patience. By understanding natural laws, you develop a realistic, light-hearted approach to temporary failures and come to see them as steppingstones to your inevitable progress.

Training develops you step by step through gradually increasing demand. If realistic and gradual demands are made on the body, the body will develop. If equally progressive demands are made on the mind and emotions, they develop in appropriate ways as well.

Within its natural capacity, the human organism will adapt to demands made upon it. This process of accommodation reflects a law that has allowed human beings to evolve and survive through time.

Even rocks are subject to the law of accommodation. If you grind a rock with a tool, it will gradually change its shape. But if you grind it too quickly, the rock may break. Gradual demand for change, within current capacity for change, gets the surest results. Climbing a mountain is best done in small steps. If you try to do it in huge leaps, the result may be counterproductive.

Words I’ve repeated to many athletes and people from all walks of life are: “Trust the process of your training; trust the process of your life.” In the larger picture, there are no mistakes, only lessons. Let’s learn from every challenge, every success, every failure.

Accommodation: Psychophysical Application
Many of us are so goal-oriented that we forget to enjoy the journey. I’m reminded of an ancient Chinese curse: “May you achieve all your goals.” The paradox is that if we enjoy the process of striving for our goals we are more likely to reach them and to discover for ourselves that getting there is more than half the fun.

Accommodation is a law, as certain as the law of gravity. Yet most of us don’t trust the law because of self-doubt or confusion. We may wonder, “Can I really become good at this?” “Will I be able to accomplish my goal?” “Will I find success?” Such questions only create tension and weaken motivation.

Instead, be resolute. Realize progress is mechanical: If you practice something over time with attention and commitment to improve, you will. Some people may have a unique combination of psychological, emotional, and genetic qualities to become world-class, but anyone who practices over time can become competent, even expert, in any chosen endeavor.

Proof of the Pudding

    Here’s a simple way to see how the law of accommodation works: Choose a physical action that is presently a little beyond your reach. It may be a push-up, a sit-up, a one-arm push-up, a handstand push-up, sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you and touching your toes, running in place for five minutes without becoming tired.

Once you’ve chosen your feat, attempt to perform it several times in the morning and again in the evening. Do this every day. With each attempt, you’re asking your body to change. Ask politely— don’t overdo it. But be consistent.

Set no goals of accomplishment, no time limits, no specific number of repetitions you must do each day. (Some days you may feel like doing a little more; other days, less.)

Continue this for a month, and see what happens. Without really trying, you’ll find your body complying with your “polite request.”

Apply the same approach to any change you’d like to make in your life. Reaching your goal just takes a little time and persistence. The body will adapt. Trust the process; ask and it shall be given.

Applying the law of accommodation generates new levels of confidence, responsibility, and commitment; we know full well that our success depends upon the demands we are willing to make on ourselves. We also achieve a sense of clarity and inner security, because we know that if we decide to do something that is within our capacity, we will succeed. We don’t wonder whether a rock will fall toward the ground if we drop it, so why should we doubt our eventual success?

Principle 3: Balance

Every athlete recognizes the need for balance. Yet balance is far more than a sense of equilibrium; it is a Great Principle informing every aspect of our bodies, our minds, our training and our lives. I call this the Goldilocks principle: “Neither too much nor too little.”

Inner athletes, oriented naturally toward balance, move neither too fast nor too slow, neither too far to one side nor to the other, neither too active nor too passive, too high nor too low.

Balance determines the correct pace, timing, and accuracy that athletes depend upon. The human body itself depends upon a delicate balance of blood chemistry and body temperature; it must breathe neither too fast nor too slowly; it must develop into a unit neither too fat nor too lean, neither too muscular nor too emaciated. Even our intake of water and essential nutrients must be balanced. Everywhere we look, we can see the law of balance at work.

The law of balance is the recognition of natural limitations. It is possible, of course, to go beyond the boundaries dictated by this law, just as we can temporarily resist the other natural laws, but in the long haul we pay an inevitable price: the principle of action-reaction eventually takes over; the odds are “with the house.”

Applying this principle to our training, when we are in balance we become immune to impatience and frustration because we recognize that for every “up” cycle there will naturally be a “down” cycle—and vice versa. It would be wholly unrealistic to expect only “ups.” (“Having it all together” is like trying to eat once and for all.)

Our progress in life tends to consist of two steps forward, then one step back. Some days are high energy days and others are not. We win some and lose some. Seeing this, even when training has its ups and downs, our mind and emotions stay in balance and our spirits remain high, buoyed by higher wisdom of the law of balance.

Balance: Psychophysical Applications
As it becomes more clear that the world—and our training—necessarily involves body, mind, and emotions, balance takes on even more profound significance, because we begin to see that physical problems are symptoms of imbalanced mental and emotional patterns. When we feel physically off, we ask, “What’s going on in my mind and emotions?”

The word “centered” is a useful one to describe a state of inner as well as outer balance to a state of simultaneous physical, mental, and emotional equanimity. In fact, the three centers are so intimately connected that an imbalance in one will affect the others. The martial artist knows that if a person is mentally distracted or emotionally upset, he or she can be pushed over very easily.

Experience the following tests in order to discover for yourself the uses and abuses—of balance.

Your Mind/Body Balance

Test 1. Assuming that you’re relatively calm and happy right now, stand up and balance yourself on one leg. (If that’s very easy for you, do it with your eyes closed.) Make a mental note of the relative ease of this act.

Wait until the next time you feel upset—angry, sorrowful, fearful, or distracted—or you are thinking about a current difficulty in your life; then give yourself this same balance test. You’ll notice that one of two things will happen: If you are “meditating on your upset,” you’ll lose your balance easily. If you are “meditating on your balance,” you’ll lose your upset. Physical balance and emotional upset are like fire and water; they don’t mix well.

Test 2. We can also gain control of an imbalance in body, mind, or emotions by deliberately doing something out of balance, in order to see the imbalance dearly and to control it.

To illustrate: The next time you practice any game, spend a few minutes deliberately off-balance, then back on balance, then off balance, then on. You will see your game begin to improve afterward.

If you’re too prone to act in one way, see if you can play at acting too much the other way. If, for example, you’re too timid in your play, try being too aggressive. If your tennis serves veer too far to the right, make an effort to send them too far to the left.

This practice is going to feel awkward, like wearing a suit two sizes too small; nevertheless, it will do you a world of good, because when you play with both sides, you can find the middle and regain your balance.

Principle 4: Natural Order

Natural order accounts for progressive development through time. In nature, one season follows another without haste in the proper sequence. A tree grows from a seedling as an adult grows from an infant. Progressive development doesn’t work backward, nor can the process be rushed; it’s all clocked into the natural order of things.

Only the human being is in a hurry. Our minds race faster than life. Ignoring the law of natural order, we set time goals for ourselves, then rush to reach these arbitrary goals. It’s true that we must have some goals; they’re essential for movement in life. Without them, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Yet we should not attempt to make rigid goals in time. Time goals are unrealistic, because we cannot foresee the future. The longer-range our goals are, the less realistic they will be. We can foresee the direction of our progress, but we cannot foresee the pace. Life holds too many surprising twists and turns, and it contains too many changes for us to second guess the natural order of things.

Progress is a function of both time and intensity. You can spend less time and more intensity, or more time and less intensity. They must be balanced.

If we overtrain, we may seem to make more rapid progress, even enjoy a short time of glory, but we eventually experience a natural consequence of a life out of balance: burnout.

Whatever cycles we pass through, no matter what our pace, it’s best to trust in natural order—to enjoy each day, come what may, with all the energy and humor at our command. Humor is a good sign that we have a balanced perspective. After all, no matter how magnificent our athletic aspirations or achievements, we remain eternally tiny specks in the great universe; missing a putt or double-faulting a serve is hardly going to shake up the cosmos.

Natural Order: Psychophysical Applications
Everyone of us at one time or another has probably thought, “I should be doing better—I should be achieving faster.” This is often an indicator that we’ve forgotten the law of natural order. Like the word “try,” the word “should” has little place in the mind of the natural athlete. “Should” implies a dissatisfaction with things as they are. It is the ultimate contradiction; it’s the trembling foundation of neurosis. Your time is too valuable to spend stewing over things that are not.

Of course, whether training is too “intense” or too “easy” depends upon your capacity. As a coach, I always set up an organized program as a general framework, expecting the individual athletes under my guidance to modify it according to their differing capacities. They need to trust their inner sense more than an external program.

One good measure of our alignment with the law of natural order is our level of comfort and enjoyment during the process of training. Certainly, we have good and bad days, but in general, if we push ourselves too much too long we may lose the original sense of joy we had as beginners.

One Olympic swimmer stated publicly that she would be glad when the Olympics were over so she would never have to look at another swimming pool. Can you imagine carrying the same attitude about life? “I’ve achieved greatness, but I can’t wait ’till it’s over.” As we train, so we live; as we have reamed to live, so we train. By examining one, we come to understand the other.

We cannot escape the consequences of nature’s laws. There are no tickets for violations, but “outlaws” from nature create their own prisons.

Balance your life between pleasure and pain. Become sensitive to- the natural order of things. Practice nonresistance by making use of whatever you meet on your own path, your own journey. Follow a step-by-step process, and trust what comes. Working within natural law, you will not only find self-discovery and a measure of success, but you will enjoy life more with each passing year.

Alignment with natural laws gives us the first keys to athletic freedom.

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