Watching the movie Braveheart has given me a glimpse of an ideal that has the potential to transcend Arete- Freedom.
If you look closely, just behind every form of greatness lies the idea of freedom. Braveheart and Martin Luther King Jr. sought freedom from political oppression. Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee used his fluid movements as a way to ‘honestly and freely express oneself’. Great musicians and poets eventually transcend the conventional knowledge in their field to bring out art with no limitations. Scientists constantly seek freedom from the current limitations of human knowledge. The greatest fashionistas stray from the restrictions of what is considered ‘in’ and freely set their own fashion agendas. The greatest among us are the freest. And the freest among us are worshiped by the unfree masses.
So my philosophy has been adjusted from merely striving after Arete to going one step beyond it and reaching for freedom. It is not that I am abandoning the pursuit of Arete, since the pursuit of true freedom includes it. In my physical training, I will strive for a balanced and functional physique that is not limited in mobility or movement through inflexibility, excess muscle or fat. In my intellectual pursuits, I will read broadly and voraciously so that I am free to synthesize different perspectives and ideas instead of being limited to a set pattern of thought or knowledge. I will also work to increase my vocabulary so that my thoughts can be expressed freely. In my finances, I will strive to established multiple passive sources of income so that I am not trapped or dependent on one source. Socially, I will work to break away from the social conditioning and condition myself to behave as my true self always regardless of who is watching. Spiritually, I will use meditation as a tool to avoid unnecessary attachment to material possessions or relationships that ought to expire.
The paradox of attaining these freedoms in my life is that in the moment I cannot be free to do whatever I will. To achieve physical freedom and mobility I am not free to drink as many Coca Colas as I want. To achieve intellectual freedom I am not free to slack on Sunday afternoon to watch mindless YouTube videos and must pick up a book instead. To achieve financial freedom I am not free to splurge on things I don’t need and must be rigidly disciplined with my expenditures. Discipline and self-restraint paradoxically leads to freedom.
Meditation, or rather the state of presentness you achieve through meditation can make you rich. I know, you’ve probably heard something similar before and you’re rolling your eyes by now, but hear me out- I am not setting myself up for some “to be truly rich is to be spiritually rich” type conclusion, I mean that it will make you money rich.
When speaking on the topic of becoming rich, we must first explore what money actually is. Money as we know it has three functions- store of value, medium of exchange and unit of account. The paper cash in your wallet is merely simply with a number and some historical person’s face drawn on it if it does not serve these functions. For our purposes we will focus on one of these functions; medium of exchange. This simply means that the money that you have can be exchanged for various goods and services such as a haircut, car, dinner, watermelon etc. Another way to see it is that the money that you pay is exchanged for the value that you receive. ‘Value’ can differ depending on what kind of service or good you are purchasing. It could come in the form of convenience provided by a taxi driver or in the form of gastronomic pleasure and good ambience from purchasing a fine dinner. So when we say we want to be rich and have lots of money, it is not the money that we want but the potential value that we will receive in exchange for that money. In this sense it is not difficult to see that money = value and that if this equation is broken there is no point to having money at all.
The strange thing about the money = value equation is that it is subjective. Even for the exact same item some people are willing to dish out more cash for it because they subjectively perceive the value of that item to be higher. A common example would be a billionaire dying of thirst in the desert who would pay 100 million for a gallon of water vs. someone by a freshwater lake who isn’t willing pay $1 for the same gallon because he has abundant access to fresh water. This also means that if two people buy the same meal, one starving from an intense Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class (usually me) and the other barely hungry, the one that just did BJJ will subjectively gain more value from that meal than the other even though they’ve both paid the same amount.
If we accept the two suppositions that money = value and that value is subjective to the individual who is receiving it, we come to a loophole which we can use to ‘hack’ the equation. This is where meditation comes in. The various meditation practices around the world all share the emphasis on being present to each moment without being regretful of the past or worried about the future. It forces the monkey mind to calm down and observe the world as it actually is instead of looking at it through tainted interpretations and biases. When you are purely in the moment and open minded to everything, the subjective value of the good or service purchased goes up. Have you ever had the experience of watching something on your phone while you are eating and realising that you were so distracted by your smartphone that you didn’t taste the food at all? Or going on a date to a beautiful place with your significant other, getting into a small argument and then not registering the scenery at all because you’re angry? Remember that when you pay for the delicious meal or the plane tickets to a scenic destination you are paying for the value and pleasure that you will derive from those experiences. If you are not present enough to enjoy what you’ve paid for, aren’t you technically throwing money down the drain? On the flipside, if you are able to become present through meditation and fully enjoy the deliciousness of the meal or the experience of travelling, aren’t you technically richer? If you are present a $5 meal can taste like a $500 dollar meal, and if you are distracted and worried, a $500 dollar meal can taste like a $5 meal.
Tim Ferriss in his book 4-Hour Workweek speaks about the concept of relative wealth. In short, he says a strung-out managing director who makes 2 million dollars a year in expensive New York but no time to enjoy is less wealthy than a restaurant owner in Thailand who makes 500 thousand dollars but has all the time in the world to enjoy a great lifestyle with no stress. I would agree. The absolute amount of money that you have is not as meaningful as the value that you can get from having that money. Being rich in value and enjoyment IS being rich in money. So cut out distractions, ground yourself in the moment by meditating and feel the richness life has to offer. Who knows, it might be on sale today.
If I told you that a lion who was born and raised in a zoo is not a TRUE lion, would you agree?
I imagine that many of you would, and this is because the lion in captivity would lack many of the things that we see as being definitive of a lion — such as its ferocious submission to its instinct to kill and it’s ability to lead the pride. The same goes for a bird which cannot fly. Is it still TRULY a bird?
For a lion to become a TRUE lion, he has to be in his own element — in the state of nature. Only there can he learn to truly express himself as the king of the food chain. This is impossible to simulate within the cages of a zoo.
And is it better for the lion to be a TRUE lion rather than a semi-lion eating slabs of meat off the ground? Definitely. To be connected to and in communication with what you TRULY are is a virtue regardless of man or beast.
So it naturally follows that it is better for animals to be in their rightful place in nature where they can be what they were born to be instead of in captivity. But how about us, human beings? Does this mean that we should also return to nature and abandon our cities for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle?
No. There is something that is fundamentally different between man and beast, and that is our ability to be creative and develop ourselves in whichever way we choose. A lion can never be more than a lion, however majestic its place in nature. A human being has unlimited potential, and we can create our own reality. The cities and the technologies that we use everyday is the very evidence of this.
But I would say that although there is no need for us to roam the prairies and hunt for game, at this stage of our evolution our our creative realities have moved so fast that our physical bodies have not yet had the time to catch up. In other words, at birth our bodies are still built for the state of nature, but our urban lives have so far disconnected us from it that it brings us health issues and unhappiness. Perhaps advancement of medical technology an augmentation technology such as human exoskeletons will come to the rescue in the future and artificially reconcile this disconnect, but I have a much better solution — martial arts.
In the state of nature that our bodies are built for, our operating system revolved around three things — Fight, flight or freeze. When we come face-to-face with a TRUE lion, our response will always be one of the three. You could almost say that these responses lead the way for the evolution of our neurology and physiology.
The latter two are quite simple. We all know how to run (although not very fast for most of us- just being honest), and we don’t need to do much at all to ‘freeze’ in fear. Procrastination is a form of ‘freezing’, and I’m sure that a lot of us are very familiar with this phenomenon, myself (definitely) included. But it is very often the case that we haven’t the slightest clue what to do in a physical fight. But how can we truly be connected to our TRUE selves — at least in the physical sense — if one of the options, the one that requires the most complex movements and physical ability, is completely unavailable to us?
“But I know how to punch, kick and bite. Isn’t this ‘fighting’?” you might ask. I say no. If a lion that was bred in captivity is suddenly released into nature and it makes a pathetic attempt to catch a gazelle out of desperation, is that a TRUE hunt? A lion can only TRULY hunt after training for it by playing with other cubs since birth, learning from the pride, and eventually chasing game with all his might and going through a gruelling process of trial and error.
So this means that unless fighting and training becomes a regular part of your life, you do not know how to TRULY fight, and you are not in full connection with your TRUE physical self. You need to watch masters fight, practice your movements and engage in physical sparring to learn how to TRULY fight. Otherwise you will just be flailing your arms and hoping for the best if you are put in a physical altercation.
Incorporating fight training and martial arts into your life does not mean that you have to actually go out and pick street fights to be connected to your TRUE self. Perhaps you will be put in a position to physically defend yourself, perhaps not. But imagine two birds resting on a tree branch — one that can fly away anytime and one that doesn’t know how to fly. The bird that can fly away is a TRUE bird even though it is choosing not to fly at that time. Merely knowing how to TRULY fight is enough, even though you may not use it.
Martial arts also introduces a relationship with the sensation of pain and discomfort into your life, one that is largely missing in our padded urban lives. There was a period of a few months during high school where my priorities were shifting and I had not engaged in any kind of heavy physical exercise. Then I suddenly realised that I had not gotten a even SINGLE bruise, cut or injury, however slight, during that time. I remembered that when I was a kid, and perhaps the closest to my TRUE self, I had often scraped my knees and bruised my heels while playing with the other kids on the playground and fully expressing myself. I had a positive relationship with pain that made me stronger and feel more alive and connected to the world. The absence of this relationship felt very strange to me, and I quickly went back to the boxing gym, the martial arts choice of mine at the time.
But integrating martial arts will do more than introducing you to your TRUE self physically — it will also connect you to your TRUE spiritual self (there is nothing woo-woo about this, I will explain in a minute). Our urban lives have created many comforts, but it has also created many distractions. Our lives have become much more complicated and complex when compared to the hunter-gatherer days, where to-do lists were simplified down to eating, surviving and reproducing.
As a result of this, we have lost touch with the present moment. While eating, we are worrying about the meeting. While in a meeting, we are texting our friends. While hanging out with our friends, we are emailing our parents, et cetera. We are rarely fully HERE, in the moment. But HERE is where our TRUE spiritual selves are. I have never spoken to a hunter-gatherer, but I imagine when things were simpler and there were less distractions, they were more present to the moment. When they were eating, they were eating. When they were having a meeting to plan the next hunt, they were planning. When they were with family, they were with family.
But regardless of whether you are an urban dweller or a hunter-gatherer, you are never more present to the moment than when you are put in a fight-flight-freeze situation. When you are across a TRUE lion, you have no mind-space to remember last weekend’s party or worry about tomorrow’s meeting. You are THERE. In this way, the practice of martial arts, regardless of the discipline, yanks you back into the present moment and reestablishes the connection with your TRUE spiritual self.
This is not an appeal for any specific discipline of martial art. But I wanted to encourage you to think about how most of us have lost touch with our natural, TRUE selves and gotten lost in the modern reality that we collectively imagined and created. But unlike the lion in the zoo, we can choose to break out of our urban cage of comfort at any time and fight to revive our TRUE selves through the discipline of martial arts.
We all want to be the best that we can become during our given time on earth. Nobody wants to be less than what they could actually be. And what is the key to breaking through the habits, old thought patterns and logistical barriers to become our best selves? We need a big enough WHY, a compelling REASON that gives us no tolerance for anything less than our full potential. Nietzsche said that “He who has a WHY can endure almost any HOW”.
So what is your WHY for reaching your potential? The emotional WHY seems quite obvious- we want to be happy. No matter who we are, where we live or what we believe, we all want to live a life of happiness. Becoming rich, famous, enlightened, masterful- the end result of all these aspirations is happiness. While this WHY is compelling enough for some, for others this emotional WHY becomes obscured by other distracting emotions in the moment such as the temptation to procrastinate, laziness, fear and doubt. Although emotions have a more powerful influence over our behaviours than logic, when our emotional WHY becomes short-circuited by these lesser emotions sometimes we need a clear and self-evident line of logical WHY to back up the emotional WHY. Here is the line of logical reasoning that I’ve recently discovered and have found helpful so I wanted to share it with you guys.
First, you must begin with the end in mind. Project yourself to the end of your life in your mind and visualize what it would look like. Who are the people around you? What would your professional legacy be? Did you live a life that mattered? Most importantly, how much of your potential did you realize and how much of it are you taking with you to the grave? My friend Andrei once told me something that left an impression on my mind:
The definition of hell is this: On the last day you have on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.
How painful would it be to go to your grave knowing that you could have been so much more? Even if your life was filled with relaxation, fun and laughter, if that is all you did and you know you could have created and become so much more, could you die with a restful heart? The answer for me would be no. The most important priority for me is to have no regrets at the end of my life. And to have no regrets I would need to live a ‘good life’, not a comfortable life.
And how do I achieve that? To find out, I turned to the wisdom of the ancients. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that to live the ‘good life’ and have no regrets at its conclusion, you need to live with something he called ‘Arete’. Arete is a concept that can be translated into ‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’ but has a closer meaning to ‘flourishing’ or the ‘full realization of potential’. Arete is a concept that he applied not only to people but to objects and animals as well. To have Arete or to be excellent, the thing, animal or person has to realize the potential specific to itself. For example, as the function and purpose of a knife is to cut, it has Arete to the degree that it is sharp, easy to use and can perform that function. Similarly, a bee is considered to have Arete if it performs to the fullest what a bee must do- pollinate, create honey, bravely defend its hive, etc. As for me, I am a man. So it follows that to express Arete, I must live with Arete specific to a man. But unlike a knife or a bee, the Arete of a man is much more complex and multi-faceted. What does the ‘excellent’ man look like? What are his thoughts? How does he conduct himself within our society?
After some contemplation, I found that at the basic level a man with Arete must be manly, just as the excellent bee must be bee-like. For a man to be manly seems an obvious requisite to his pursuit of excellence. But what does it to be manly, to possess the quality of manliness? Manliness is a concept that has been challenged, questioned and modified in our modern gender-neutral society. The word ‘manliness’ seems to conjure images of masochistic beer-chuggers with big muscles on the way to a UFC bout. But does this image truly represent manliness? To find the answer to this I did what everyone used to do when they needed answers- read.
In the book “Manvotionals” by Brett and Kate McKay, (the team behind the popular website ‘The Art of Manliness‘) 7 essential qualities of manliness are listed. To procure this list they delved extensively into the literature of men who were almost universally thought of as ‘manly’ throughout ancient and modern history such as Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt, Seneca and Samuel Smiles. Although their sample has an admitted Western bend on manliness, they examined these men and deduced qualities that they seemed to share and were admired for. They are:
Manliness (this to me seems closer to the concept of self-sacrifice)
You might be asking if this list applies equally to women. I am no expert and although there might be some slight differences, I believe that the quality of manliness and womanliness have significant overlap just as excellent tigers and lions will have much in common.
Therefore to possess these qualities is to possess manliness, and only a manly man can be an excellent man. And if I live in harmony with the 7 manly virtues above, I can live a truly ‘good’ life that I will not regret at the end. James A. Garfield once said:
I mean to make myself a man, and if I succeed in that, I shall succeed in everything else.
It must also be remembered that these virtues need to be practiced every single day. Every day is a mini-life, and if you do not practice these virtues every day then it is inconceivable to say that you lived according to them at the end of your life.
Let me summarize the logical WHY here:
You don’t want to regret your life at the end -> to have no regrets you need to live with Arete -> A man’s Arete requires the 7 virtues -> Live the 7 virtues every day.
I’ll call this technique ‘Linear Self-Motivation’, or LSM. Whenever you catch yourself about to procrastinate, snooze or bail out on something you know you should do because of your internal emotional motivation was highjacked, remember the LSM technique. Take a second, close your eyes and think of the logical reason you must do what you know you should do. The line of reasoning will always be consistent and never change like your emotions do. Who knows? Logic might just rescue your own life from regret and misery.