Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness

It’s a much touted concept, but how much do we really know about it? If you’re a marathon runner you know plenty. If you’re an accountant, I suppose you know a form of it. Whatever your avenue of experience may be, I think mental toughness can be defined for everyone as an inability to let exhaustion, mental, physical, or spiritual, overtake your determination. If you have ever read a thick novel in one sitting, then you have exhibited mental toughness. If you have ever worked a sixteen hour day digging ditches, and then helped a friend move his furniture into a fifth story apartment, you’ve shown extraordinary mental dexterity. If you have ever been to a close relation’s funeral, and managed to listen to and sympathize with a not so close relation’s superficial difficulties, then by God you deserve a medal for mental toughness.

Being strong mentally seems to be a natural thing to some and a coveted prize for others. However, like any other skill in life, it is absolutely essential to realize that mental toughness is something you can acquire. Determination is not rationed out by nature in an uneven and random manner; it is cautiously and continuously constructed through years of experience and diligent upkeep. In essence, it is entirely possible for the weakest to become the strongest by means of determination and grit. If you want to be tough, then you can become tough, but the key ingredient is your own motivation. In other words, you must willfully pursue toughness, and actively seek out the experiences that will build the quality you seek.

You’ve heard the axiom that the brain is a muscle, and this is an indisputable fact. The more you use it the more powerful it will become. Much like your bicep gets bigger if you can manage to do curls a couple of times a week, your mind will become a more potent computational device if you practice mathematics. It will become more articulate if you read the works of great authors. It will gain greater capacity if you do memory exercises. Your brain is by far the most versatile muscle you possess, and what’s more, it is the most flexible and powerful object in the known universe.

Since it has been established that mental toughness is attainable, how then is one to go about attaining it? The answer is manifold. Your brain will grow in any direction you choose. The exploration of introspection is as unlimited as the extrinsic universe in which we live. Just as a meteor can travel endlessly through space, your consciousness is capable of moving in any one direction within you for as long as you have the energy to keep it in motion. Remember that your mind is flexible. It can do pretty much anything you tell it to, so long as you can drown out all of the voices that say it can’t.

What does it take? Perseverance, time, faith, and purpose. With these four simple components, you can learn any skill, overtake any undertaking, and achieve whatever mastery you desire. Perseverance is both the means and the end. It’s somewhat of a contradiction to want to be mentally tough and need perseverance to become mentally tough. Because perseverance is in and of itself a form of mental toughness. Yet any and every single thing in life that you could ever hope to achieve is absolutely impossible without the perseverance to achieve it. However, perseverance is not the natural state of man’s mind. It must be cultivated. How?

In increments. Start small and work your way up. Just like your legs had to develop crawling before you could walk, and walking before you could run, and running before you could sprint; so must your determination grow. This is where the second component comes in. You will need time to become mentally tough. It does not happen all at once. People take somewhere between 18 and 24 years to reach their full size, mental development takes considerably longer. Be patient, and be consistent in everything you do, in every skill you study, in every art you endeavor to perfect. Time will hone your prowess into mastery.

The next thing you will need is faith. This is arguably the most important of the factors for mental toughness. You won’t ever gain any traction if you don’t believe it’s possible. Faith is an integral part of life as a human being. We have faith that the sun will rise, that the wind will blow, and that the tides will surge and fall. We must have just as much faith in ourselves. Allow me to expound upon the nature of faith.

Faith is often defined as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. In relation to developing mental toughness, faith is the fuel we use to keep the fires of our perseverance burning bright. The logs on the hearth, as it were.  It is your unwavering belief that you are able to do what you’ve set out to do. To take it one step further, it is the ability to gamble with confidence on your own life. It is the capacity to stake your life, the most precious resource in your possession, on the value of your own ability. If you are willing to lay everything on the line for what you want, then there is no force on earth powerful enough to stop you, save another human being with the same level of conviction.

Finally, we come to purpose. What is yours? If you have no answer then you have no path to walk. Every man struggles with this question. Many fall by the wayside and give up their answer, either to a cause that is not their own, or to oblivion, preferring instead to live a life of hedonism, devoid of greater meaning than pleasure for its own sake. But truly great men, live dynamic lives of integrity, achieving their highest ideals at their own behest. Without exception these men have goals based on their own moral compass. Steve Jobs changed the world with his belief that aesthetics and art have a place in science and technology. Nicolai Tesla ushered in an age of wireless electricity with the purpose of creating a free and limitless supply of energy. Mark Twain made an entire nation examine its own reflection with the firm stand that language can improve a man’s capacity for contemplation.

A man without purpose is not a man at all. He is a jellyfish floating on endless waves, tossed here and there with no direction, awareness, or care for the world surrounding him. He is the very height of selfishness and destruction. His aimlessness infects those around him, smothering creativity and attacking all achievements greater than his own, by virtue of his envy. There is no state more pitiful, nor one as cunningly malevolent as ambivalence.

That’s all fine and good for theory, but what about practical application? How does an invertebrate grow a spine? Like I said, the mind is flexible. It can be trained in many ways. Physical activity is a powerful tool in this regard. I mentioned marathon runners earlier, and this is a potent example. Start by jogging one mile a day. After a week try to jog two a day. Another week another mile. Slowly increase distance and speed until you feel you can’t do anymore. Then realize that you can. Your body is capable of truly amazing things, much more than you would believe at first. However, if you exceed your limits once, you get a taste for it, and you’ll never look back.

Another good practice is to simply do things that are good for you that you don’t necessarily enjoy, keeping a disciplined diet for example. In American culture, this is one of the more difficult endeavors imaginable. It requires planning, knowledge, discipline, and patience. You have to plan your meals out carefully, know what you’ll eat, know when you’ll eat, avoid the fast food chains, and battle your body’s habits and urges to make this conquest. Once you do, you’ll feel better, perform better, and have that boundless sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something truly difficult.

The two preceding examples are of a physical nature to build a mental quality, and there are many more similar avenues of construction. Martial arts is such a powerful tool, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it briefly. However, there are actually two more paths to the mental toughness that are somewhat intertwined I’d like to discuss in some depth. I’m speaking about Mental and Spiritual modes of discipline.

Mental toughness can be built by mental exercise. Unbelievable, I know. How? The answer is simple. Severe and constant study. If you want to become a good writer, read a lot and write a lot. If you want to become an engineer, start doing math every day. In between commercials construct a poem or solve an equation. While jogging recite a passage from your favorite author or perhaps call to mind a Euclidian geometric theorem. Just like pushups, if you start with a few a day, you’ll soon find your strength growing exponentially.

The spiritual realm consists of study as well. I’m not one to tout the superiority my beliefs, but I recommend Christianity. Not your feel-good Joel Osteen variety either. That positive thinking and happy go lucky health and wealth gospel has a place in the cultural conversation, but for those thirsting for a little depth, it might leave us a little parched. I say take a look at the great thinkers of the Renaissance: Emanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, and Alexander Pope, to name a few. These are thoughtful men with grand ideas and lofty proposals that require great diligence and intense critique to truly grasp. And of course: study scripture. It may be old language and difficult reading, but the knowledge of the ancients is garbed in incredible metaphor, masking intellectual treasures of untold value. Plus, if you temper this study with the powerful aforementioned force of faith, you will find a certain sort of magic happens within your soul every time you open the pages of the venerable good book. However, if you come to the work with skepticism and disdain, no such magic will exist for you. Intention is everything.

While I may be a Christian man, that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize value in other religions. There are many beautiful ideas and solid theological understandings in religions the world over, and all are worthy of at least a curious glance, and in some cases serious study as well. I am particularly enamored with the thought processes of the Far East. Buddhism and Christianity have a lot in common and in many ways are quite syncretic. Even Islam, despite its treatment in the media, has a great deal of wisdom to impart, though I would be careful who you get your information from. As is the case in all religions, any man who claims that God desires the bloodshed of your enemies is not to be trusted.

While spirituality certainly does have a studious side to it, it is the lesser side. The greater side is the interaction that is possible with the divine. An otherworldly connection that can be experienced in a number of ways. Existential awe is a personal favorite. Consider your spot in the universe. You are walking around in a cosmic convertible made of mud and flame spinning at break neck speeds and circling a gigantic and continuous nuclear explosion that in turn swirls around a super massive black hole which is infinitely small and infinitely dense, and is only one in trillions. Everything you see every time you look upwards into the night sky goes on forever in every direction, and you understand only a very tiny fraction of it. Also, what you are able to perceive with your limited vision makes up less than one percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, you can only visualize and conceptualize an extremely limited amount of actual reality. All of this is given to you to attempt to understand and master. Be thankful that you live in a world of such magnitude and beauty, and pray that you don’t waste your time not contributing to it.

So how does this all relate to mental toughness? It is a foundation, a solid rock upon which to stand. It is the fortress we must build for ourselves from which all other strength must flow. One cannot be mentally tough without a strong sense of the spiritual self. When the entropic forces of the world gather against you and batter your mind, body, and soul you must have a serious and stable source of peace and refuge to regroup. Spirituality is this refuge. You must build your keep carefully. Finding your absolutes, the values which you hold to be evident truth in the universe, inspecting them from every angle, even critiquing them yourself. You must use your own will, your own mind, to judge the validity of your beliefs against the sizable amount of resistance you are sure to encounter. A mind grounded in theology is a defensible position.

However, one must always beware the danger of complacency. Spirituality is a pursuit, and like any other pursuit, ground must be continually gained or the chase will be halted forever. Never cease to ask questions of yourself, of God, or of the relationship between the two of you. The moment you become lazy and use your beliefs as an escape from thought rather than another avenue of thought, your cautiously constructed castle will begin to crumble.

Mental toughness is a caveat, an ideal, and a life long journey. It can never be taken for granted or else it will be lost. It can never be counted as a given or else it will abandon you. Mental toughness draws from the triune means of man: the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual. It draws from these disparate yet interconnected facets of humanity to create a shield against adversity. It builds your endurance and resolve to hardened steel. Like a sword smith folds a blade repeatedly in an effort to make a weapon without defect, so must you bend your psyche. Hammer yourself into a level of invulnerability, and thunder against the raging storms of life. Because there will always be trouble, and if you are not prepared for it, then you will be consumed by it. Mental fortitude is the most essential of qualities and therefore the hardest to attain.

Remember that nothing of value will ever come without equal effort put forth on your behalf. Take this statement and hold it close to your heart, remembering it when you are certain you will fold before you succeed. Remember it, and stand up. Rise to meet your enemy’s challenge, and roar with the laughter of rebellion and confidence. Remember that the only thing limiting your ability are the thoughts pertaining to failure. Remember this, and think outside of your ability. Think beyond your own power, and tap into the raw energy of the universe itself. Do all of this, and above all: achieve greatness. For that is the true purpose of every man, to be great. To be sufficient, and capable within the spectrum of his ability. I challenge you, my friend. Exceed your limitations, and excel beyond all probability. When you do this you carry the whole world one step further into the ultimate destiny of all humankind. We are the apex predators, the prodigies of planet Earth, let us step up and become worthy of the mantle.