Mental Toughness

This post is based on Chris Dorris‘ workshop at the Information Technology Alliance’s Spring 2019 Collaborative, called “Mental Toughness.” This was a deep-dive session that challenged participants to strengthen the mind-body connection and heighten our awareness of our own abilities to reje unproductive emotional states.

Here were some of the interesting takeaways.

“Your life unfolds according to the way you think”

This sentiment, a quote by the Buddha, was the underpinning thesis for our work. Instead of letting your undisciplined mind run amok, strengthen and discipline your mind and recognize the power within to guide your thoughts, and therefore your emotions and mental state – and therefore, your lived existence.

One exercise to illustrate the intrinsic ability to control your state through the power of thought was to take time to deeply remember your “best performance.” This could be a recent high, or a career achievement in the past. Put yourself back in that place mentally. What was your emotional state?

I (Arline) recalled a recent Sage CRM software demonstration I gave that was particularly effective in meeting the prospect’s needs. It was remarkable how quickly I could get back into the mental state of flow, focus and calm that I was in when I was delivering the demonstration and serving the prospect. The fascinating thing about this exercise was that it was not difficult to be immersed in that prior state within a few seconds.

By the same token, it can be equally easy to get into a very upset or agitated state by fully focusing on an unpleasant event. There is an actual physical feeling that accompanies that tension. So, with that exercise, participants learned that it’s fully possible, within several seconds, to influence your own state by “imagining” yourself into it. Research shows that our brains do not differentiate between real and deeply imagined events. So it’s possible to improve at something just by exercising mentally.

How do you get into that state in just a few seconds? This is where the element of mental discipline comes in. In Dorris’ words, to do this is to become a “thought warrior.” Ideally you can return to a mentally tough state whenever the situation calls for it.
Dorris cautioned participants against allowing the outside world to govern internal states. Allowing this fosters a mindset where things happen “to” you instead of you acting upon them. Instead of being in a reactionary state, use a mantra (which is a Sanskrit word meaning “protector of the mind”) to get yourself back to where you need to be if you notice yourself slipping into that unpleasant mindset. With this thinking, the outer world is a reflection of your inner world. The more you work on your inner world the better the outer world feels, because you’re actively influencing the state in which you navigate your life’s events. So, your life unfolds according to the way you think.

The Power of Mental Toughness

mental toughness

You choose your thoughts, they don’t choose you.

From your thoughts, you create your emotions.

With this logic from Dorris, we understand that we are responsible for what goes on in our own brains. So potentially, every circumstance can be a lesson, every experience can be leveraged if we can view it masterfully. If we can choose our responses, we can respond with grace and love instead of responding with fear.

Being aware that if you have the ability to influence your own feelings and body response by guiding your own thoughts. If this supposition is true, you can think your way to certain feelings. So- your response is influenced by how you think.

Owning It

Dorris posits that we always have the ability to alter our states. So- pay attention to, and label, your moods. This is called existing in a state of perpetual self-inquiry. “How am I feeling now? What is my state?”

An exercise Dorris suggested to strengthen mental toughness was: catch yourself feeling unpleasant. Own it and label it. Then, create a more thoughtful interpretation of the event and decide how you’d like to respond.

For example, when something bad happens, you could train yourself to say, “Uh-oh. This is a problem…unless it’s not?” This gives yourself the opportunity to re-label situations and discover if there is an opportunity for growth or surprise that you wouldn’t have considered if you were just in a “reactionary” mindset.

A mantra for this might be, “ I’m not feeling this way because of what’s going on. I’m feeling this way because of the way I’m choosing to think of it, which can be totally manipulated.” You have an opportunity to create something- so it’s reasonable to ask what opportunities you can create from this problem that wouldn’t even be possible without it.

Whatever is rehearsed is easy. It’s harder to create a new pattern than to follow an existing one. But bad habits and unproductive patterns are fragile and can be disrupted. The key is to practice mindfully creating the ideal state, and intentionally occupying the state.

Giving Credit

This was a really interesting workshop with some useful exercises. The work that Dorris is doing is seems to echo work from Deepak Chopra and Victor Frankl, who both believe deeply in the power of our minds to govern our own outcomes.

Have you done any exercises like this? What has the merit been in your experience?