In the movie The Hobbit, Bilbo is surprised to see a stranger arrive at his door one morning. Not knowing what to say, he simply says “Good morning.” Gandalf replies in a way that confuses Bilbo. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on? What a lot of things you do use ‘Good morning’ for!” Gandalf is essentially asking Bilbo to clarify what he means by the label “good”, because the word “good” can be interpreted in many ways.
One drill we have athletes do in the Free Mind training is observe their use of language. Athletes observe how they phrase what they say and eliminate unhelpful words. We begin with the words good and bad because these are particularly loaded words. Our attention tends to be biased toward what the mind perceives as good and away from what the mind perceives as bad. This drill is designed so athletes notice when they use these words and rephrase what they want to say without using them.
Here are seven reasons why using good and bad is limiting and antidotes for each:
- Motivation: We tend to use the word good for outcomes that are successful and bad for outcomes that are failures. Equating good with outcomes we desire shifts our attention toward future goal achievement and away from the present moment. We strive for future good states instead of being present.
- Antidote: We can be motivated by both goals and learning. Goal motivation gives us a vision for our future; learning-based motivation helps us pay attention and learn in the present. We don’t achieve goals by focusing on them. We achieve goals indirectly, by focusing on the learning process that occurs in the present moment. Therefore, it’s important to be motivated primarily by learning and secondarily by goals.
- Control: Labeling successful outcomes as good shifts our attention to the future success. We can only control what occurs in the present moment. Therefore, labeling future successful outcomes as good shifts our attention there and causes us to focus on what we can’t control.
- Antidote: Processes occur in the present moment. Identifying what those processes are and focusing on them keeps our attention on what we can control.
- Ego: Our egos tie our identity to outcomes. If we succeed, the ego feels good; if we fail, the ego feels bad. We fail more than we succeed, yet failures hold many opportunities for learning. Therefore, the ego moves us away from failures and learning opportunities.
- Antidote: Diminish the ego’s negative influence by separating identity from outcome. Our self-worth isn’t dependent on how we perform. Making this separation allows us to see outcomes more objectively and helps us learn from our failures.
- All or nothing thinking: The combination of stress and the ego’s desire to feel good causes the mind to think in all or nothing ways. Stress comes from facing a challenging climb. The ego feels good when it doesn’t fail. Combine stress with fearing failure and we think about all the stress, get overwhelmed and fearful, and move away by doing nothing.
- Antidote: Achieving meaningful goals takes a lot of work and time. Therefore, it’s helpful to identify and make many small action steps. Each small step leads to the next one until the goal is achieved.
- Learning: We unconsciously equate good with comfort and bad with stress. For example: good holds are big and comfortable to grab, while bad holds are small and stressful to grab. Yet learning occurs in stress, not in the comfort zone. Equating stress with bad, moves us away from challenges and sabotages our learning process.
- Antidote: Learning doesn’t occur in the comfort zone; it occurs in the stress zone. Don’t sabotage learning by labeling stress as bad. Rather, describe situations objectively. This shifts our focus from stressful bad holds to the actual details of the small holds and helps us grab them as effectively as possible.
- Expectations: Labeling situations good or bad creates expectations. We expect a good hold to be easy to grab and a bad hold to be difficult to grab. Grabbing holds will be different than the mind expects. Therefore, labeling holds this way interferes with our actual experience of exerting effort.
- Antidote: Keep expectations on processes not outcomes. Expect to exert effort, not to succeed. Exerting effort is a process that occurs in the present moment, which shifts our attention to what we can control. We grab the holds that are there in reality, not the holds the mind expects.
- Mind/body connection: The words good and bad create images in the mind that influence the body and affects our actions. The mind imagines a good hold and influences the body to relax. Conversely, the mind imagines a bad hold and influences the body to tense. Good holds cause the body to relax more than may be necessary. Bad holds cause the body to tense more than may be necessary. We allow the mind to influence the body according to its mental image of reality instead of reality itself.
- Antidote: Direct attention to the holds via the senses of sight and touch. See the hold’s size and shape, and feel the way the fingers grasp it. Doing this helps us perceive holds as they are in reality, how to connect our feet and hands with them, and the appropriate amount of body tension we need to stay connected to the rock.
Our attention tends to be biased toward what the mind perceives as good and away from what the mind perceives as bad. Using the words good and bad motivate us toward achievements, focus us on what we can’t control, diminish our focus on learning, and create confusion about what we’re perceiving. Our attention doesn’t flow. It jumps from outcome to outcome. Eliminating good and bad helps us keep attention in the present. This allows our attention to flow freely as the situation changes and develops a free mind. And, by the way: Kind greetings to you this morning.
Practice tip: Let Attention Flow
Don’t keep your attention locked in the prison of the mind. Apply these seven strategies to develop a mind that is free to let attention flow as the situation changes:
- Motivation: Be primarily motivated by learning and secondarily by goals. This means you desire to be in stressful situations.
- Control: Focus on processes you can control. This keeps your attention in the present moment.
- Ego: Separate identity from outcome. You’re not better/worse based on your performance.
- Little steps: Identify small action steps. Ask yourself, “What’s a small action step I can take?”
- Learning: Describe situations objectively. Be precise with the details you see.
- Expectations: Keep expectations on exerting effort. Expect to exert effort on processes.
- Flow: Direct the flow of your attention toward the holds by engaging your senses. See and feel the holds so you perceive them as they really are.