Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

At The Edge

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Zen Habits. It's specifically about practicing "at the edge" in running, but I think it applies equally well to martial arts. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

I’m not the world’s greatest runner, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to stay at my edge.

As I was running at my edge the other day, it occurred to me that this is a useful practice in many areas in life. Learning to play at your edge is a challenging practice, but pays off in so many ways.

If you learn to play at your edge, you learn to stop shying away from discomfort. You grow and learn in new ways. And you develop a confidence in yourself that is hard to do when you stay in your comfort zone.

Let’s explore this challenging practice.

How I Stay at My Edge with Running

Let’s use running as a concrete example of this, so you know what we’re talking about.

First, I should say that I don’t do all my running at my edge. I run about three times a week, and typically only one of those runs is at my edge. The other two are at an easy pace.

But that one run a week at my edge typically looks something like this:

  • Warmup: I start out running easy, warming up. Then I walk for a minute. This has me fully ready to run.
  • Easing in: I start running and ease myself into a faster pace.
  • The Pace: I run about as fast as I can run if I were running a 5K race (which is a fast pace for me).
  • The Edge: At some point, I feel like slowing down — this is the edge of my discomfort, and it makes me want to back away. At this point, I try to stay here at the edge and not back off. Note that this is not an all-out sprint, but a sustained strong pace.
  • Staying at the Edge: If I stay at the edge, it usually gets more uncomfortable. If I can stay here, I do. If I have to rest, I do so, but then try to come back to the edge.

I repeat this, staying at the edge as long as I can, then backing off, then going back. If I can stay without resting, I do it, but resting and then going back is often a part of the process.

As you can see, this isn’t about never backing off. It’s about staying at the edge for as long as I’m able. And using rest as a way to get back to the edge.

By the way, this has been a really effective way for me to get stronger at running, though that’s not the only point. The main point is to learn to stay with the discomfort.

Where Else Can We Practice at the Edge?

Running is a pretty concrete example, but there are lots of other examples:

  • Strength training: Similar to running, I practice at my edge with lifting weights or bodyweight strength exercises. I don’t have a fixed weight or number of reps to lift, but feel what I’m capable of that day. If I can lift heavier, I do. If I can lift more reps, I do. It’s about finding the edge of my discomfort and hanging out there, which always makes me stronger when I do it.
  • Learning: If you’re studying something, it’s pretty uncomfortable to be learning something that you don’t really understand yet. You’re in the unknown, and our instinct is to get out of there as soon as we can. But if you can hang out in the unknown for longer, you’ll learn more. Stay with the learning even if you feel lost.
  • Creating: If you’re writing, making music or art, creating content online, etc … it will bring resistance. That’s the topic of Season 1 of the Zen Habits Podcast — how to hang out with that resistance. If you can stay there in that resistance, you’ll be able to create, but if not, you’ll be stuck in your comfort zone.
  • Focusing: If you want to get better at focusing on work (or reading), the practice is to stay for longer even if you’re a bit uncomfortable. We feel some overwhelm, stress, anxiety … and so we want to run from it. But what if we could stay here for a bit longer?
  • Relationships: The most delicious part of intimacy is when we’re in the unknown together. We learn more about the other person, and ourselves, if we can hang out here. But most of us want to be in the known — where we’re right, or we control things. When you find yourself wanting to be right, or to control things, see if you can let go of that and step into the discomfort of the unknown for a bit.

There are lots of other areas you can practice at the edge – meditation, healthy eating, adventures, public speaking, finances, etc. — but I hope you can see that this is where the deepest learning, growth, intimacy, and creating takes place.

The Benefits I’ve Noticed with Practicing at the Edge

If you can practice regularly at your edge — not all the time, but sometimes — you’ll see lots of benefits. Here are some:

  • Greater growth — you’ll grow faster as a person, and in the particular area (like running or learning) you’re practicing, than ever before.
  • Greater confidence — you’ll learn to trust yourself, that you can stay for longer than you previously believed, and this will have you feeling more confident in all areas of your life.
  • Expansive life — your life will be less held back by discomfort, and you’ll be able to expand to new areas of life that previously felt impossible.
  • Less stress — very often our stress is about our worry about not being able to handle something. But with this greater trust an confidence, and greater sense of expansiveness, we actually feel more fully alive and less worried about not handling things.

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