There’s a phrase in modern gold mining that I find profoundly poetic: clearing the overburden. Practically speaking, it means moving dirt with giant machines to reveal the gold-rich bedrock underneath. Move the worthless dirt, find the worthy dirt. I’ve adopted this phrase for my own evolution as a fighter and development through mental training. There’s a lot of useless dirt to dig through to get to the meaningful bits, the valuable bits, the core morals of your being. A lot of what we do, for years and years and with great effort, really just amounts to moving dirt.
Yesterday was a really shitty day. I’m stressed and fatigued from a multitude of different sources and I had to spend the entire morning not training in order to ultimately fail the driving test which was responsible for keeping me out of the gym. I never recovered from that embarrassment and took it with me to training in the afternoon, which was a disaster. Pi Nu was wrecking me on the pads, perhaps not even more so than usual but I wasn’t dealing with it well. Almost as if I could see myself from outside my body but couldn’t get myself to respond to the observations. I could feel that all this stress and self-criticism was painted over my face like a mask, but I could not get my fucking face to change…my literal face. In my mind, the whole day was a loss and I just wanted to grind it out to get to tomorrow.
That’s not how it works, though. I buried myself in the overburden, in all that useless dirt. Intellectually, I knew that I had to change my thoughts and feelings now, not tomorrow, but like the expression on my face I just couldn’t do it. It’s hard to just stop feeling one way when you don’t have another way to feel instead. I know I need to build a shelter to get out of this pouring rain, but I don’t have the tools or skills to do it. That’s a very real difficulty. The author of “Joy on Demand” (I book I cannot recommend highly enough), Chad-Meng Tan, describes this perfectly in an example about being able to “let go.” Meditation teachers will make a comparison for holding on to pain or stress or suffering to holding a hot coal: let go of the coal, stop burning your hand. That’s great, Meng says, so long as you have the ability to open your hand. Part of my difficulty with yesterday is that I could not open my hand to drop that burning coal. The hand was cramped, frozen in place, I could not let go.
As I was moping around the internet, looking for exercises in mental training that I might be able to access immediately in order to at least nudge myself out of my depression, I came across a video on YouTube, titled “How to Be Confident in 1 Minute.” Within the first minute of the video I suddenly remembered something I already knew, but wasn’t able to access prior to the memory. The memory was a core value, it was bedrock full of rich gold, and this video was basically a giant dozer scraping 6 feet of overburden off the top so I could see the pay dirt. What I knew already, because I’ve read it before and accepted its truth, is “confidence is not a feeling, it’s an act.” Too many of us wait to feel confident, like it’s something that happens to us. To be clear, you can feel confident – it is, in fact, something you can feel; but the argument is that it is not primarily a feeling, you need not feel it first. We are passive to joy as well, something which Meng’s book meticulously does away with by teaching the techniques and skills required to access “joy on demand.” I know we can have confidence on demand; I even know how to do it, I just forgot that I know it. Like, “oh wait, I do know how to work a hammer!” Or, like my driving test, I know that I know how to drive – I’m a good driver – but when put to it I struggled to parallel park a strange car – hey, I don’t do a lot of car parking in my current life. Having failed to parallel park and feeling embarrassed about it doesn’t mean I don’t know how to park. It means I need to practice and wear deeper grooves into those muscle memories.
How to be Confident in 1 Minute
I sat in a hunch, as I often do, while watching this video. But within the first minutes my back straightened, an immediate response to that first bucket of useless dirt being cleared off the top of my memory. In the video, the guy references the famed Russian-American theater actor Mikhail Chekhov, who posits that characters must be “anchored” in some part of their body. He gives the example of a knee being the anchor part of a physical character and I immediately understood exactly what he meant. Think of Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects.” His entire character is expressed through his awkward hunch and his limp. Even if he doesn’t say a word, that character is anchored in a lame leg and hunched shoulder. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t an Oscar nominated actor, but the stiffness with which he holds his neck as the Terminator is that character. Here’s the pay dirt: I know what confidence looks like in my body. Sometimes I like to imitate my favorite fighter, Karuhat, as he struts around the ring. It’s his physical manifestation, the way any celebrity impersonator can nail that actor with a single physical position or facial expression (how easy is it to make the DeNiro face?), you can do that with whatever your confidence looks like. Personify that shit!
The guy in the video goes on the explain why this works, which is that so many of us as athletes put that anchor in our minds, which isn’t a physical place. Athletes are physical, find a physical center and anchor your confidence there. Picture a dog, his confidence is anchored in his tail – you can always tell whether a dog is confident or cowardly at any moment by his tail position. Where is your tail? Is it in putting your shoulders back? Your hips forward? You chin up or down? When I realized that I already knew the truth of this physical manifestation tool, my mood shifted immediately. I still was aware of those feelings that had been sinking me, burying me, all day, but they became a kind of background noise – a pile of dirt to the side rather than layered over me. The problem was, I was waiting to just feel confident, passively – maybe because I “just felt” shitty in a passive response to a very difficult day. But regardless of how I feel, neither feeling nor thought is “real,” one is not more true than another. I wrote about this in another blog post, “Losing Confidence and Losing Streaks – Mental Solutions and Values.” It’s a fucking good post, my Sport Psychology PhD brother said it was his favorite. It’s proof that I already know this stuff, but you have to rediscover things sometimes. If the storm blows tree limbs down over the driveway you can clear it off; you haven’t lost your ability to park your car unless you decide to just passively leave those limbs where they lie. The main lesson of that older blog post is that confidence is an expression of your core values, it’s an act based on value, not feelings (or at least not feelings first). In that blog post I liken it to being polite, which is an action based on value. Even if you don’t feel like being polite, because someone is being a jerk, you choose to act according to manners and ethics because you value politeness. It doesn’t make your manners fake or inauthentic to act accordingly, neither does it make your confidence inauthentic or fake if you’re not “feeling” it – it’s not a feeling first, it’s an action first; then you feel it.
There’s a way to clear that dirt, the overburden, in a more lasting way. You can shovel the dirt off and occasionally have the sides collapse back in on you, covering all your hard work. It happens and mental training is cyclical, repetitious and not always linear in progress. But plowing that dirt farther off to the side is a better method than flinging it haphazardly to the lip of your site. There are realizations which change our lives because they change our perspective. I learned that confidence is an act, but I didn’t come to know it; so I had to revisit the lesson, and likely I will again. Returning to Meng’s book, he gives an example of how these deeper understandings and reframing of actual knowledge can change our lives forever, because they change our perspective. He gives the example of a Lunar Eclipse. In Chinese traditions, the moon is being swallowed by a demon dog and firecrackers or other loud noises are utilized to try to scare away the demon during these events. Gradually, it came to be understood that it’s not a demon dog but rather the shadow of the earth passing over the moon. The event looks exactly the same – a Lunar Eclipse appears no different once you understand what causes it – but the actions and responses, the interpretation of that event changes. No more trying to scare off the demon dog, unless you’re a hardcore traditionalist in which case your actions carry a different meaning, a different value, than if you were literally fearing a moon-swallowing demon. It’s the same with your self-doubt, your fear, your lack of confidence. Getting my ass kicked by Pi Nu looks exactly the same regardless of how I interpret it. But how I respond, how I act, changes everything. If I interpret it as something other than an indication of my unworthiness or that I suck, I can carry on learning what I can from that experience and getting rich on the pay dirt. If I take it as a sign that I’m horrible and unworthy, and as a result I act like I am those things, then I’m just kicking useless dirt back over those values that I’m trying to uncover at my bedrock. If I need to impersonate Karuhat in order to personify confidence, that’s a start. But the goal is to anchor that personification into my own body, to impersonate myself. Ultimately, I want to be able to do a really great Sylvie impression.
I wrote the above today before heading to training. When I returned after the evening session I decided to add this thought that was running through my head, after a much better session than yesterday:
To return once more to the false notion that our feelings or thoughts are “real” or “authentic” just as they are, this does a lot of damage. I think it’s very normal for those of us brought up in western cultures, to cradle our individuality and the notion of self as this precious thing that must be accepted “as is.” I’ll use myself as an example. I’m naturally quiet and keep to myself mostly; I’m naturally introverted, self-critical, and hear negative comments or thoughts far more easily than positives. I am “naturally inclined” toward the negative, something my husband reminds me of frequently. I kind of guard this quality and defend this disposition, partially out of laziness because it takes a lot of work to change, but I protect it under the dismissal that this is “just the way I am.” That’s true, but it isn’t meaningful. My inclination toward negativity is as “natural” to me as a car that pulls to the left. It’s not the car’s “nature,” it’s just a warp in the alignment. If your car pulls to the left you have to create a little bit of constant, or at least frequent, correction in order to drive on a road. Sometimes that effort will be perceptible, sometimes the pull to the left will make curves easier; but if you just let the car be according to its “nature,” without making these small corrections, you will eventually end up in a ditch because roads aren’t open deserts. The solution isn’t to over-correct to the right, it’s just managing the misalignment in accordance with the road you’re traveling, all the while also putting the hard work in which involves a basic re-alignment itself.
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