Breath is a deep subject and a major area of exploration for me. In lieu of writing an epic piece about some of that exploration, for today it'll be an anecdote about breath from training earlier this evening.
I had driven out to the UNC campus with the plans to teach, but it was one of those nights with no students. When this happens I make a point to practice rather than head straight back home—a habit that I created when I was teaching multiple nights every week as a means to maintain my own practice, otherwise at risk of becoming forgotten. These sorts of training sessions are more spur-of-the-moment than usual, as I had students' training plans in my head, not my own. The upside is that I'll often default to working on the basics or exploring some movement(s) that are currently piquing my interest.
Of the basics the one movement I always practice when I'm out, even if just once, is the climb-up. Even after seven years of practice I still have improvements to make on it, and greasing the groove makes for steady progress over time. As I walked up the hill towards my practice spot for climb-ups I was reminded of a challenge: do 25 of each movement you know within a single training session...Completing the whole thing was out of the question today, a combination of recovering from a long weekend of contact improv workshops and needing to return to finish some work (this writing included!) meant I knew immediately I wasn't going to attempt it, but I could modify it to suit my current constraints.
The wall I headed to, a frequently visited spot, has a set of stone walls, one at chest height set at an angle, and a taller wall about seven or eight feet high. While I wasn't going to do every movement I knew, I came up with a sequence of three I could do using these walls: a jumping grab from the low wall to the high, doing a climb-up to get on top of the higher wall, and executing a drop jump back to the lower one; a good mixture of physical and mental challenges— climb-ups are always physically taxing and drop jumps are one of the skills I have the worst flinch responses to, regardless of the size of the gap involved.
I got started without planning to focus on anything in particular during the challenge. After about ten repetitions though I was beginning to feel a combination of minor fatigue and the slight jitter of adrenaline from working through the flinch on the drop jumps each time. To manage both I shifted my focus to my breath, taking care to have full slow breaths between each round especially as I stepped up to my takeoff point, setting my sights on the edge of the wall I wanted to grab. When I succeeded at doing a full inhale, without excess tension or anticipation, right before beginning the jump I noticed two unexpected changes. The first was that my first go success rate was higher. Many of the 25 rounds of this jump, climb-up, drop jump sequence included getting caught at the last moment by a fearful hesitation to begin the jumps—which from experience I use as a signal to abort the attempt rather than half-ass it. But if I maintained steady and full breathing and kept my body relaxed until the exact moment I exploded into motion that fear stayed out of the way of clean execution.
The second was a change I'm surprised I hadn't noticed before. I've known and advised for ages that you should exhale as you begin explosive movements. Yet it's one of those tidbits of knowledge that's easy to preach, but also easy to forget to practice. The exhale as you take off aids relaxation of the body in preparation for landing. In this case I was landing on the side of the wall, with the goal to use the force of the landing to rebound into a fast climb-up onto the top of the wall. When I wasn't attending to this breathing pattern those climb-ups often had a slow transition from the landing on the wall to the pull to get over it, making for an okay but clunky feeling technique. When I had the breathing dialed in, with a full exhale on the jump, I would make contact with the wall, spring immediately out of the landing, and casually end up standing on top as if I'd floated up.
Practicing breathing might not seem exciting or sexy, but the benefits of doing so certainly are.
I’m not a fan of rigid. codified, systems especially for movement. I may just be echoing Bruce Lee's idea of “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own,” but that concept is worth remembering and applying beyond the martial arts. Because systems are packages of knowledge that the creator(s) found worked for themselves and those they taught. Systems can be wonderful pathways towards mastery when they work for you, but you can just as easily get stuck in them, unaware of the knowledge and experience you're missing out on by not exploring beyond their bounds. After all, you're a unique individual and it's up to you to find what moves you. With access to the internet and global connectivity we have unfettered access to immense knowledge. With that access comes the ability to explore just about any movement art, seek out communities, and discover what works for you and what doesn't.
From my experience it isn't the what portion of any given art or system that matters, but instead the approach each has to movement, and whether (or how much) that approach aligns with your own. Why is this important? Well, first, if you find a system that suits you then by all means, stick with it. At the same time I encourage you to experiment with other arts to see how it can improve your main focus. If there’s anything that has become increasingly clear to me, it’s that everything is connected. While we can codify a system with a set of movements, nothing makes it so distinct an art that you can’t draw parallels and find links in other movement arts.
For fun and to provide more concrete visuals here are a couple recent examples I've noticed in my own practice of connections between arts:
- The Thai kick, a powerful sweeping kick aimed at the thighs is best executed with ballet-esque posture. The standing leg is straight, with the foot turned out as maximally to open the hip, and as the kick begins the whole body is held tall and open, from kicking leg to the head.
- Watching a Martha Graham style modern dance piece I saw lots of circus style acrobatic lifts.
- Belly dancing's standing posture resembles that of many of the Chinese internal martial arts: knees bent, tailbone tucked, and upper body kept relaxed and stacked on the hips.
Thus for myself I've become less and less interested in picking a system or defining myself as any one type of movement artist (a traceur, a ninja, a modern dancer, a t'ai chi practitioner, a climber, circus performer, yogi, etc.) the more time I spend learning about movement. Instead the new approach I find myself attracted to is simple: improving my physical intelligence. I do have several core practices that I maintain, those that align best with my preferences and philosophy, but I'm now remaining open to learning movement from anywhere. In the past I'd rejected learning from gymnastics or ballet, yet now I'm exploring both and finding that they're improving my body awareness and control, in addition to proving useful to my parkour, martial arts, and other dance practices (the non-ballet styles). Exposure to different viewpoints and ways of moving keeps you open to breakthroughs, improves your movement vocabulary, and often can deepen your core practice(s).
And we're back to Bruce Lee's idea again, craft your own approach to movement: "Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own."
A few months ago, I began receiving mentorship in modern dance. As someone who’s been dancing, in the raw expressive sense, for only about three years, and started learning correct technique and form a year and a half ago, I was expecting the most difficult part to be developing the techniques and positions of the style until they were automatic. I assumed that the layers of movement patterns from martial arts and parkour would likely block progress in a style where movements are optimized with consideration for aesthetics, rather than pure efficiency in mind—the need for straight legs and a straight back when landing and squatting with turned-out feet and legs (called a plier in ballet and modern) being the clearest differences.
I was off the mark by miles. The hardest thing didn't turn out to be the moves, but instead the presence. It’s an openness and vulnerability combined with a full awareness that permeates the space, and the effect is palpable; with it, a performer can hold the attention of the room without overt action. For me, presence is the deliberate choice to not hide, in any manner, from the unfolding moment. Presence is about the choice to see and be seen.
My first practice with Tony started with a warm-up and plenty of dance technique: laboriously slow sit-ups (which I’m just now beginning to do cleanly); rounds of footwork practice consisting of brushes, small leg lifts, and others common to both ballet and modern; and short modern dance phrases executed with a deliberate languidness—being so used to moving with speed and power that slowness, even if effortful, continues to be a challenge to do...I’m regularly reminded that I can stretch the movement out further and “make it a journey.”
After technique work we moved from a focus on movements to the moment, to presence. Now, this change wasn’t stated directly. What was presented was that we were going to practice walking, around the studio space and towards each other. But with an important requirement: I had to stand tall and open, keep my head up, with eyes looking ahead while making eye contact with Tony. Simple...
...but not easy. Something in me was actively resisting this task. I was constantly feeling a pull to look at anything but my mentor: the scene outside the large bay windows of the studio; some more-interesting-than-it-should-be spot on the otherwise uniform grey of the dance floor; the DIY ballet barres, constructed from iron piping. Sounds I could have filtered out in another setting would tug at my attention, demanding I look towards their source. Or a stray thought would catch me and pull me out of the present moment—I might be looking ahead, but I wasn’t fully there anymore. This resistance made the exercise into a distinct challenge where I had to continuously check in and re-commit to the correct orientation: stand tall, head up, and maintain eye contact.
As these weekly practices have continued it’s become clear to me, that there’s a fear in me that wants me to hide, to not risk being seen, and to avoid any discomfort in the moment. That hiding is most evident in the eyes. In an earlier conversation with Tony, prior to working together, he said to me that “dance is communicated first through the eyes.” It’s also, secondarily, about movement and how I occupy space. In one of the earlier practice sessions, I was working on a movement phrase where I’d take one arm in a long arc over my head, letting my head drop but (when done correctly) maintaining eye contact with Tony during the motion. After I completed the phrase once, he asked “Why do you hide yourself?” I was confused and not sure how to answer. I didn’t think I was hiding...or was I? Inevitably the answer was yes, I was. While it wasn’t deliberate, I could sense, in later attempts during that session and in the many practices afterwards, that I would in subtle ways subdue my movements—I wouldn’t fully open my chest, or fail to extend my arm as far as it could reach, or not take the risk of as large of a step as I knew I could pull off. In so many small and insidious ways, I was hiding the fullness of my movement and of my expression.
Once I realised that propensity, I would explain that hiding to myself as the consequence of habit. In the past, when I’ve been learning a new movement or needing to tune into some subtlety of technique, my habit has been either to close my eyes or to cast them off to the side and down. That pattern is universal; it shows up whether I’m working on martial arts or parkour; whether I’m dancing solo or with a partner. It’s a habit I thought had served me in the past—but did it really?
During one session, while practicing a sidestep into a single-leg balancing pose, my gaze kept drifting off to the side as I focused on trying to feel the full extension of the balancing leg. I mentioned to him how that habit helps me tune in to a new movement. He scoffed, laughing, and saying that I didn’t need that habit, and that I had the physical ability to tune into the smallest details while still keeping my head up and maintaining eye contact. I was hesitant—after all, this habit had served me well in learning movement arts for so long, and everyone’s different, right?—but he was sure enough that I had to challenge myself to see if he was right. To my surprise, he was: I didn’t need to avert or close my eyes, and in fact for many movements it improved balance and alignment, which I shouldn’t have been surprised by because as I’ve told students hundreds of times “the body goes where the head goes.”
Well before that moment, I had known that I had to confront this tendency to hide and to let the fear of being seen win. Within the context of the mentorship, eradicating that justification was an absolute requirement. At the end of the second day of practice I was challenged to do the phrase I had been learning that day—a series of long steps with my arms held out to the sides the whole time, followed by shifting to a single-leg balance with a drop of the head to the side—all while never breaking eye contact or otherwise losing focus. I succeeded, but only after several attempts. Obviously it was going to be a long road to becoming comfortable with maintaining a strong physical presence, and even longer if I was only practicing once every week. I set myself the challenge to practice this challenge of presence—to stand tall and open, looking ahead and around, and most importantly making eye contact—throughout daily life, though especially during social dances. The goal was primarily to acclimate to that stress in the studio so that it didn't become overwhelming during a performance, but I realised I needed to expand that: I don’t want to have my default orientation towards the world to be one of hiding or muting my presence.
As I’ve worked to carry the practice of being upright and engaged from the dance studio to the rest of the world over the past weeks, it's become clear to me that the tendency to look down and away or otherwise tune out from the present situation is a way to hide, a means of pushing away uncomfortable parts of the moment because we’re afraid.
I often felt uncomfortable, and sometimes afraid, during practices. That fear would manifest as a feeling of tightness in my abdomen, a subconscious holding of excess tension (especially across my shoulders), and shortened breathing. My balance would be off, and I found it harder to stay focused when I was especially nervous. In the studio I had no choice but to face that fear and learn to dance with it; facing it in the outside world was harder, as I had clearly established a habit of avoiding it more often than not.
I can see now why I'd chosen to hide by dropping my gaze or otherwise reducing my presence around others. Knowing that others see you and that they may be judging you is terrifying, and it’s not bound to being physically seen. A wonderful example is my friend Birdie’s response to recognition for her writing. When I chose to look up and to be fully aware of Tony—someone whose role was specifically to watch and judge me—a cascade of fearful, anxious, questions would pass by: "Shit, he can see me." "What does he think of my movement? He must think it's terrible, I just messed up again…." "Does he accept me?" "I failed at keeping eye contact again. Why can't I do this right?"
That process of untangling the tendrils of the old habit is ongoing. When I got started, I failed far more than I succeeded at keeping my gaze up and my awareness open, whether that was walking across town, talking or dancing with a partner, solo dancing within a group, or otherwise. And it wasn't easy to do this regularly, especially within the context of dance, where you're expressing yourself creatively. In partner dancing there was a reflexive habit to flinch away from eye contact after a few moments. In ecstatic dance it was even easier to tune out, close my eyes, and sink into the music than to hold to my challenge of keeping my eyes open and aware of the whole room, making eye contact with the others dancing there, as I would for a performance.
It took a few weeks for the success-to-failure ratio to shift in favor of the former. As that happened I noticed at ecstatic dances that it was emotionally challenging to remain in that open awareness. On one exceptional occasion I felt odd, the feeling was blunted by dancing, but there was a shakiness and desire to retreat into myself. I needed to step out after one song to sit and feel into the physical sensations that were arising. Dance is always capable of breaking feelings loose, and with the addition of connection to the whole of the dance, feeling the presence of every individual there instead of just your own, that seemed to add a layer of acceptance and connection that was bizarrely challenging to receive in the moment.
And it was exactly that acceptance that, despite the initial stresses, has made the challenge of looking up and being fully present worthwhile. Though I'm only a few months into this practice I've noticed huge shifts in how I interact and how I'm received. There are more positive interactions, conversations and unexpected meetings than I’d experienced in the past. Now the average experience within a dance is one of a more solid and sure connection and flow. I'm able to notice more details in the world in general when I stay fully present—when I’m not distracted by my phone or some internal self-deprecating diatribe I free up my mind to notice what's actually going on around me.
I'm beginning to see that the belief that I “need” to tune out in order to focus on my movement or feeling is bullshit. I can be both aware and connected to myself and to my surroundings and still be executing the movement to the best of my abilities.
It's simple, but not easy. Still, of all the changes and experiments I've done in recent memory, this one has been the most impactful, making every moment where I hold that awareness richer and deeper. As someone who's often thought of himself as a lone wolf, both through choice and circumstance, and often felt isolated or misunderstood, the shift towards both seeing and accepting that I’m being seen has been immensely healing. A rootedness, a solidity of connection both to myself and to others, has appeared and deepened as this practice has taken hold.
It may be a difficult choice, but choosing to look up has been worth all the discomfort. I’m not blithely assuming that the hard part is over, either—I can tell that this practice will be continue to be challenging, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright painful. It may prove to be a lifelong practice of returning to looking up, returning to full awareness. And I know it'll be worth it.
Following from the idea of movement snacks, movement can serve other purposes beyond improving fitness. There is growing recognition of the benefits of meditation (whatever the style) on our cognition, reduced stress, and overall health. But while the benefits are clear, sticking to a practice of seated meditation for long enough for the gains to acrue is difficult. It's not impossible, and there are a multitude of methods of seated meditation, and even handy apps that can help you create the habit, so if you're looking to create a practice of meditation in stillness it's worth trying out a number of methods to find one that works for you (as is true for movement). Yet in saying that I may seem to be implying that meditation needs to be done while seated or still. It doesn’t have to.
Meditation focuses on tuning into the present moment and attending only to what your senses are telling you—letting idle thoughts and the chatter of the conscious mind slip away and fade into the background. The aim is a feeling of deep embodiment: using and focusing on our senses, all of them. Pulling away from conscious thought has so many potent benefits to creativity, productivity and calmness that it’s always worth having at least one meditative practice.
Movement can be used as a meditation in this regard, and it has for centuries. From t’ai chi, to yoga, to stealth walking, to surfing, any form of movement which calls you to attend to the moment, your environment, and how your body is moving can be a form of meditation. You don't even need a specific practice, just exploring how your body feels as you move it is sufficient and powerful on its own. Likewise a quiet walk through the woods can have similar effects—attending to the sights and sounds while stepping around stones and roots as you go.
Whatever the particulars of the practice I find the act of moving in this meditative way to be rejuvenating, calming and and often a wellspring of ideas.
I’m often a perfectionist. And downright obsessive about moving in an optimal way. For myself, in my own practice, this feels like a wonderful thing (most of the time) as it gets me hyper focused on refining little details and gaining deeper understanding of how a movement works, and more often than not all on understanding all the little mistakes.
But that’s also why this is a double-edged sword. Striving for “perfect” technique can seem like a wonderful and lofty goal, but worrying about perfect technique can blind us to our improvements and our progress in the moment. Further, defining what constitutes perfect movement is near impossible in many contexts, especially when you’re outside and moving in a complex and shifting environment. Often the “right” technique doesn’t look the same on a different day, if it's wet out today what works will be different from when it's dry, and what works for you may not work at all for someone else.
Movement is too complex to have a blanket black and white answer for what is perfect movement and what isn’t. All one can do is try to be better at it than you were last time, yesterday, or better than last month. Don’t aim for perfection, just go for better than yesterday. Cumulatively better than yesterday will lead closer to perfection than an actual focus on perfection.
Don’t worry about right, just move better. Every day.
Word choice is important. Most words you can choose have a long life before you plucked them from your mind for use this time around. Within that word's liftetime it has picked up connotations and assumptions about what it's telling the reader or listener when it's used.
This may seem trivial, but it's so simple to pick a word without consideration for the potential assumptions it carries with it. You don't want to end up violating someone's assumptions because of the word choice (of course if you're doing it intentionally, then by all means, proceed!)...or creating a dichotomy when there isn't a need for one.
I'm thinking in particular about how we relate to our being, and the use of the phrase "the unconscious mind."
By referring to our minds as split between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind—as a means of describing and labelling brain function— we may be inadvertently creating a disconnect.
Labeling the part of our mind that acts outside of our awareness as the unconscious conveys the sense that we have little control over it, and possibly that it isn't really even us. I have been quite busy with Alan Watt's books lately, along with others focusing on Eastern philosophy (I highly recommend Trying Not To Try), and a major theme is shifting from a worldview of separateness, of I and the world as separate entities towards one where you and the world are the same; where there is no separation between the you and it.
That same separateness is cultivated in our relationship to our being by distinguishing between the conscious and the unconscious, between our mind and our body. Consider this excerpt from Become What You Are:
Popularly it is believed that psychoanalysis teaches that man has an unconscious mind; this is not strictly true, for the unconscious is not to be understood as an entity or mental organism having definite location and identity. There is no actual division between the unconscious and the rest of the human organism, for it bears somewhat the same relation to the mind as the glands, liver, kidneys, etc. bear to the body: they are integral parts of the body, but we are not ordinarily conscious of them. The only difference is that the unconscious has no specific boundaries. It consists rather of the condition of being unaware of certain desires, impulses, tendencies, reactions, and fantasies in our mental and emotional makeup. It has its physical parallel in the condition of being unaware of various bodily organs and processes.
And if the unconscious is just a condition then it's not "a sort of individual with secret, dark designs, and an unfortunate habit of wanting and thinking in direct opposition to the conscious. For the unconscious is not an individual; it is simply that about himself which man does not know. As such it is a purely relative term, because some people know more about themselves than others."
Yet we do talk about both the body and mind as if they do have dark designs that we must wage war against. I'm know that I'm still prone to creating that false battle or separation—though I'm slowly excising that language from my speach and thinking— with phrases like "my body is demanding ice cream right now," or "my mind wants me to run, but I'm fighting the urge." That feeling that you're battling parts that aren't entirely you makes for an adversarial relationship with your being.
The alternative to battle isn't surrender though, but rather more of a listening to the urges, thoughts and feelings as they arise. When you're tuned into your whole being it becomes easier to sense when a thought or feeling needs to be acted upon, or if it can just be observed, acknowledged, and then allowed to pass through.
Take the feeling of fear as an example: if I'm looking across at a new jump, or often times when revisiting an old one, I feel fear. The fear often sounds like "Wait! I don't think we can do this, it's dangerous" or "you're tired, didn't sleep enough, aren't warmed up enough." Dismissing or pushing those thoughts aside doesn't make them go away, and sometimes too that fear is actually right. Maintaining a dialogue with the fear allows you to grow; to ignore it risks either pushing too far beyond your edge or staying too deep within your comfort zone. In this process you're experiencing and listening to your whole being, and acting from an informed position, rather than a reactive one.
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." —Viktor E. Frankl
The journey from fighting your thoughts and feelings to establishing a healthy dialogue within yourself is a lengthy one, perhaps life long, but one can start by simply changing how you express, through language, what's going on inside you.
Good movement begins with an awareness of your body. How you’re feeling today, sensing how your joints and muscles feel as you move them, and especially an awareness of where you weight is and how your body is positioned.
If you've got a good coach, they can cue you to get into good positions and bring your awareness to weaknesses in your form, but only a lucky (or perhaps unlucky) few have someone around us all the time to act as our checks and safeguards of posture and technique. Awareness of our movement doesn’t stop being useful or necessary when the class hour is done. Changing your movement patterns, whether removing bad habits or inculcating new ones, is a long-term process. Whenever you’re correcting something to preempt, or fix, an injury or to optimize your technique for maximum force, lasting change requires consistent attention to staying in and returning to good position throughout the movement(s).
The problem is that we have both our environment, which isn't designed for optimal human movement, and layers of habitual movement patterns resulting from living in that environment (plus other factors, of course). An hour spent moving with great posture and technique is incredibly useful, but for those changes to stick that posture needs to translate into your daily posture, into your daily movement.
...make your everyday stance your combat stance. — Miyamoto Musashi
But how can one do that? By gradually learning to sense what good position feels like in the body, without needing to either check a mirror, video, or have a coach point it out. Learning how to use your felt-sense to detect, and correct, old habits you're working to clear is a constant journey.
A few personal examples: a few years back I became aware that when standing my feet would be rotated out, I spent the next couple days switching my feet between the old pattern, rotated out, and the pattern I wanted, feet pointing straight ahead. With a feel for what being in each position was like I was then able to do quick check-ins throughout the day to see if I was in good position. After a few months those check-ins became automatic. The old pattern still hasn't completely been removed, but it's losing its hold. An older one that is gone, outside of certain contexts, is favoring my right hip while standing. My current project is learning how to keep the neck relaxed.
Why spend all this time on improving your position in the first place? Practically: to prevent injury and to move more efficiently. If you've trained your body to know what good positions are, then even when you're tired or fall out of awareness of your movement the body will continue to move well, without compromising your structure for the sake of some short-term goal.
From a holistic perspective these gradual improvements in your daily movement patterns will make for a more joyful experience of moving your body.
We spend so much time comparing things. Trying to decide if one is better than the other. When it comes to fitness and the myriad movement arts it trends toward dogma and moral superiority (I’m as guilty as any, sorry Tae Kwon Do and other sport martial arts).
Frankly all this debate is a waste of time. It does not matter what is objectively, if we could ever make such a strong claim, better. Why? Because even the ultimate art of supreme domination (and sexification) doesn’t work if the person practicing isn’t enjoying it enough to keep on coming back to practice for years. Consistency is key to both improvement of skills and health. If it’s awesome but everyone quits after a few weeks or months then it isn’t the “ultimate art.” There are none, not for everyone.
But for any one person there might be that one special art (or two, or three…) that they absolutely love.
The reality is that everything is connected. This is true of the universe and it’s certainly true when it comes to systems and approaches to movement—whether it’s dance, martial arts, navigational skills, hunting, you name it. Everything is connected.
Each art is dealing with the same raw material, the human body. There may be tens of thousands of movements, and an infinity of variations upon those, but when you take a high level view there are far more similarities than differences. Most differences come from a difference in context and the purpose for the movement. That is also why what I stated earlier, that there is no “ultimate art” rings true, because context is king.
And context includes the all details of your life: your situation, your preferences, etc. I find capoeira and climbing interesting, as well as modern dance, but I’m not as attracted to the approach of gymnastics or ballet*. Still, I do make use of many of their movements and apply them where they are useful to me. Systems are helpful until they get in the way of growth. Don’t get too attached to one approach.
(I wrote this a while ago, and amusingly enough both gymnastics and ballet are now becoming relevant and interesting to me. Just more evidence in favor of avoiding dogma and deciding you don't like something before first gaining a deeper understanding of it.)
So I encourage you to experiment with different arts, it’s hard to say what one may you may like from the outside looking in. Regardless of your choice you’ll be moving and challenging yourself to grow and become more skilled over time. I find that it’s the progressive climb to mastery that offers the most rewards, rather than a adhering to a specific system or set of techniques. So get out and move. Don’t worry about what’s better or best, just find what resonates with you. As you keep practicing you may find that if you venture into new territory that your existing skills will help you climb all the higher, on whatever mountain(s) you choose to ascend.
Because connected everything is. That’s my yoda-ism for you today.
Sugar has a pernicious influence on emotions and willpower. I hadn’t pinpointed the cause to sugar until very recently, because it’s in a colossal percentage of our food–even after ditching soda entirely I still had a metaphorical sugar IV hooked up, consisting of anything from (“healthy”) granola bars and snacks to desserts. It takes a lot of work to escape the clutches of sugar, especially the more refined kinds, but man oh man is it worth it. I’m not here to tell you about all the health benefits, because you’ve heard them all plenty. Instead what I’m here today to look at is the impact sugar has on your mind and your emotions.
I stumbled onto these demons during one of my long-term personal habit experiments. After months of traveling and spending time with family, where I ate most of what was in front of me (still avoiding wheat when possible)—which meant plenty of sugary things—I decided to do an n=1 experiment of cutting out sugar almost entirely. Aside from small amounts of honey in tea and chocolate (dark as sin) from time to time I consumed no sugar, not even from fruit. I started the experiment with the intention of getting food related willpower under control, as eating anything with some refined sugar in it earlier in the day would wreck my ability to not eat whatever I was within reach when I was feeling hungry, and I felt hungry all the time. A dangerous problem to have when baked goods were in the house, especially those little cookies from Trader Joe’s, nom nom.
And thus the experiment began and quickly proved to do have a huge positive impact on said willpower. I felt hungry almost only around mealtimes within a few days and didn’t have any control issues with snacking or not snacking. On that subject it helps massively to not have whatever the offending food(s) is in the house if you’re going to do something like this (also cook more, eat out less). I’m pretty sure this experiment leaned me out too, but I wasn’t tracking that, so I can't say for sure.
In general I felt great for the couple months that I was sticking 100% to the no sugar experiment. Aside from the food related changes above I noticed a general ability to focus more often, stay focused, and to take care of tasks immediately that I’d much rather avoid (dishes, I’m looking at you)—under normal circumstances procrastination would win out at least 50% of the time, now it was (conservatively) under 20%. I noticed these changes, but I wrote them off as improved self-discipline at the time. It’s a challenge to observe changes and attribute them to the correct variable in the midst of the experiment, with so many factors present.
And thus, while not intentionally, I ended the experiment one day when I had some fancy, and quite sugary, chocolates, then the demons surfaced. That’s when I finally connected the dots, years of dots.
Immediately after that dose of sugar I felt so many old and familiar emotions—ones I had previously attributed to random fluctuations in mood...or maybe they were just normal parts of my personality? I found myself getting agitated and irritated at the smallest slights. My irritability threshold, typically spectacularly high, plummeted and it was trivially easy for me to get annoyed, frustrated and otherwise bothered by mine and anyone else’s actions. Sugar was making me grumpy person and bad human being.
As expected my willpower also drained away, both with food and any activities important enough to activate resistance. I also became easily bored and distracted, even flighty, and found it hard to stay with any one activity/task. Back when I played video games heavily the flightiness would manifest as an inability to play any one game for more than 20-30 minutes at a time. I’d get frustrated with my performance or get bored then switch to another one, hoping to drop into a focused state and failing over and over.
There’s one anecdotal story I have that illustrates how much sugar wrecks focus: for years I played a competitive online game, League of Legends, every day. I was a competent player most of the time and usually was regarded well by teammates, including an old five person team I played with regularly. In some games though I played terribly: getting myself killed in stupid and avoidable ways, farming poorly, working sluggishly with my team and displaying a general inability to stay focused. For the most part I thought I just had occasional cases of the derps, but even then I noticed a trend: my worst performances tended to coincide with eating some sugary granola bars or some dessert before playing. I thought that sugar might have something to do with my lapses in skill, but I was eating it regularly and thus had no way to verify my suspicions.
From that same anecdotal experience it was also those same times that I was snappy, mean, and otherwise dismissive to my mother when she would try to get my attention while I was playing. In general having my focus broken irritates me a bit, but my reactions to being distracted were more severe with fresh sugar coursing through my system. Sorry mom.
And now six plus years later I finally do this no sugar experiment and it all became clear, sugar was the culprit in destroying my focus and bringing forth negative emotions and making them harder to manage at the same time. As seductive as treats are, I’m glad to now avoid them 95% of the time. I’m a better person without sugar, more focused, more disciplined, more calm, and just generally a nicer person to be around.
I got into this no sugar experiment testing for health benefits and they’re there, yup. But the emotional and psychological benefits of a sugar free* existence have been what clinched it for me. I choose to avoid sugar because it helps me be the best human I can be in my relationships and interactions; and because I can more easily choose to do and focus on the work that matters. Those are worth more to me than anything else, and thus the decision is simple: don’t let the sugar demons get the light of day.
This isn’t absolutely a cut and dry thing, as nice as that would be to explain. The small doses of honey and chocolate I have sometimes don’t seem to trigger the problems. And sometimes desserts, perhaps because they’re accompanied with a heavy meal, don’t seem to have the same impact either. Fruit also seems to be generally okay in this context. For myself it’s typically the heavily refined kinds of sugar (high fructose corn syrup and its ilk) that have the greatest impact, doubly so when wheat is in the picture. While this specific experiment ended years ago, I'm still testing these ideas to see what creates problems for me and what I can consume without some miniature Jekyll effect.
Fear is a tricky. Ultimately unavoidable in any meaningful endeavor, whether we're talking business, creative, relationship, or life.
We learn from culture and personal experiences to treat fear as bad, a purely negative experience. Feeling fear is treated as unwelcome, unwanted, and absolutely not a feeling to solicit or risk intentionally.
Yet fear shows up before the most important challenges and worthy objectives we want to conquer. One way to tackle fear is to "feel the fear and do it anyway," which is an aspect of a good approach to handling fear. Simply by acting in the face of fear you do improve your ability to do the same again the next time.
But even with that it's possible we're still treating fear as a negative experience, something to push and suffer through to get to the good stuff.
What if it wasn't all negative? If experiencing fear was an integral part of the experience? Treating fear as your friend who tells you when something is worthwhile, or where your current boundaries lie—and whether you're pushing too far or not pushing enough.
Flipping fear from a negative sign to a guidepost for growth is an incredible way to shift the feeling in the moment from discomfort you just want to run away from to a feeling to dance with. Fear may be a challenging dance partner, but that's the type that forces you to grow the most. By letting go of your need to feel strong, utterly in control, and confident but acting anyway you open up the possibility for the highest experession of yourself. Going with the flow, instead of resisting it can take you to places you would never imagine.
My route into this experience, one which I'm still learning to embrace, is by putting myself in the path of physical fears. When you step up to a jump, try a movement that risks you falling flat on your face, or anything else that triggers a "whoa now, that looks like a bad idea, let's maybe not do this" response from your lizard brain (the amygdala) you've entered a dialogue with your fear. That fear is an adversarial ally, and now it is your task to ask it whether what it's telling you is a bad idea is just a bad idea because you're uncomfortable...or because it is genuinely beyond your current abilities or capacities? Through repeated practice the answer each time becomes clearer.
Do that often enough and your fears shift from loathed adversaries to welcomed partners in the process of pursuing your best life.