In roughly 900 CE until its outlaw in 1905, the Chinese developed a method of execution called Lingchi. This form of execution served as torture, public embarrassment, and punishment that continued well after death. The practice was reserved for severe crimes - treason, patricide/matricide, and mass murder. Its continued use is reported through the Vietnam War, even after it was outlawed several years earlier. While it may conjure images of just 1,000 cuts, the practice of Lingchi was a brutal and drawn-out process. Executioners would deliver justice through a series of cuts to the skin, removing pieces of flesh intended to see how many cuts a person could withstand before dying. The practice was generally followed by amputation, a stab to the heart, or decapitation.
While these details may seem grim, bear with me as I explain their relevance to the topic - ourselves. I know for many of us, this is a hard topic to discuss, but I promise to make it all tie together in the end with a lesson on the self-abuse so many of us continue to bring on ourselves on a daily basis.
As we move through our daily life, living in the moments, changing your path, or even standing in the explosion, we have a sense there is something missing - one short cut at a time. But one short cut becomes two, and two becomes three, and before we know it, we’re rolling down a hill of self destruction at 100 miles per hour with no way of stopping. No one starts at the bottom, and we will often times go out of our way to create excuses, even working harder to NOT work than it would have been to simply do the work from the get go. We cheat ourselves out of sleep, fitness, family time, proper nutrition, and even forget who we are at times. And we do all of this willingly, and sadly without much remorse. That is, until we find ourselves at the bottom of a deep, dark hole with only the shovel we used to dig it with, and no memory of how we got there.
Just like a single rock on your chest won’t kill you - even after they’re thrown on over and over, and even as you ask for more - the weight will eventually catch up and knock you down. These choices may seem trivial or minor, but they shape the pattern of your life. Just one unhealthy snack, hitting the snooze button one too many times that morning, or that latest excuse for skipping the gym for the third day in a row. They add up. And it’s a dangerous pattern to get into, because once you’re in it, it’s infinitely harder to get out of.
I don’t want to make it sound like you can never take a mental health day, because you can and you should, when you actually need to. But don’t deny that it’s going to take a lot of work to get to the point where you deserve one rather than thinking you need one or making excuses for one.
Without adversity, we never see glory or the other rewards our spirits crave.
There is always the easier option, hanging in the wings, waiting for that voice in the back of your head to take over and convince you to take it. Before long, the only way you know is the easy way. You stop taking on the challenges because it got hard, it seems hard. But you can still remember the good old days, and they seem recent, but you have long since worn your path smooth and without challenges. This series of events happens day in and day out, oftentimes without us even knowing or realizing. Without adversity, we never see glory or the other rewards our spirits crave.
The local gym I work out at has a path that, on run days, takes you out the parking lot and down the street. In between the concrete driveway and telephone pole is a spot about six feet wide of grass. Or, I should say, what used to be grass. I’m sure if you’re following along with even an ounce worth of deductive skills you can guess where I’m going with this. That small swath of grass is damn near a mud bog at this point. Every time people run past it, they take the simple shortcut. Now we’ve hit the point for the lingchi reference earlier - death by 1,000 shortcuts. Well, if we’re being honest, that and how much I hate running. But no matter what, I will not allow myself to take that dirt shortcut. And it’s not like the people at this gym are out of shape, or not used to adversity. The folks at this gym are in great shape, and the atmosphere is one filled sarcastically with love. But I never see anyone call each other out on the grass shortcut, and I can tell you there is a lot of people calling each other out during these workouts.
That six feet of grass isn’t going to make or break someone in the WOD. And it’s not going to cause enough pain to make a difference or give you enough time to win in a meaningful way. It is subconscious sometimes. Losing the drive at the end of a run, even when it’s not a challenge, yet our subconscious takes over for that little “win”. That first, or second, or third cut. And maybe it’s a conscious effort to take the easy way out, thinking that six feet gets us out of the challenge.
Maybe it’s my programming from the old Army, where if you stepped on the Sergeant Majors grass they would pop out of spider holes and kill you with razor sharpened knife hands. I would like to think it’s more reflective, that I know I’m suffering from the cuts I’ve already given myself, but I’ll take what I can get. Kids, work, injuries, etc. They all add up - the little excuses for cuts we do to ourselves every day, week after week, month after month - that eat at our longevity, our physical health, and even our mental stability. And the worst thing is, we often don’t even realize we’re doing it.
They all add up - the little excuses for cuts we do to ourselves every day, week after week, month after month - that eat at our longevity, our physical health, and even our mental stability.
I’m a firm believer that when you stray from who you are, it impacts your all-around health. So much of our society is struggling to find a place where they can belong and it has created a resurgence in the old snake oil salesman mentality. The struggle to find the places you belong is as old as the tribal creatures we are.
When we talk about working out and beating the self-defeating steps we take, it doesn’t just apply to the physical aspects of our lives. I know I’ve never been big on sleep, but it’s only gotten worse over the years. Ensuring we devote the time needed to rest and recovery is key, not just for development, but also our health in general. You want to keep hitting PR’s at the gym? Great. Are you sleeping enough? Do you want to be able to walk on your own when you’re 95? Cool. Me too, but that requires we take care of our bodies now.
More and more we see scientific studies telling us how important sleep, nutrition, and fitness are. But rarely do we do more than laugh as we scroll by. Sleep may not be what you need if you’re like me, but what I do need is to be surrounded by people who allow me to relax and be myself. My teammates and my friends are the same to me as family. That tribal need is fulfilled when they’re around, even if all were doing is sitting in the same room together.
If we’re going to spend so much time and energy on living this life, why are we going to continue taking short-cuts and performing cuts on ourselves? Is it because we want whats easy? We’re afraid to fail? We don’t know how not to? Whatever the reason is, we’re better than that. So let’s surround ourselves with those people who have the same drive as ourselves. They don’t need to, and they shouldn’t, think the same way we do. Because adversity is a good thing. And we shouldn’t stop chasing it.
Let’s cut to the chase. Food is not a reward; food doesn’t need to be fun. Let me repeat that, food is not a reward. One of the most common ways we seem to take short cuts in our lives is in our nutrition. It’s just too easy to swing through the drive-thru of *insert fast food restaurant here*. Our lives are busy, we have work, kids have practice, and forget trying to fit the gym into that. How can we expect to take the time to meal prep or eat healthy? It’s a lot of work.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who can eat whatever you want and be fine. Not me. We’ve heard all the cliches - “abs are made in the kitchen”, “fat is bad”, “you can’t out-train a bad diet”, etc. Plus all the different diets out there - paleo, keto, if it fits your macros, low carb, high carb, weight watchers, atkins, I could go on.
So how do you avoid taking that shortcut? Start small. Skip the McDonald’s or Chik Fil A run this week. Add in an extra veggie at dinner. Skip the $10 Starbucks mocha-frap-a-latte thing. Avoid the morning donuts and sweets at work. When that becomes more tolerable, add another small step. Keep the challenge going. It’s not going to be easy. Understand that.
Addictions are real, and many of us suffer from them unknowingly when it comes to our nutrition. Artificial sweeteners are only going to lower our inhibitions to eat real foods. We’re creatures of habit, and we like what we like. Eating healthy means eating enough; it means eating until we’re actually full. So if we can get on whole foods, and stay on whole foods, its going to get a whole lot easier. But it’s going to take a hell of a lot of time and work.
We’ve already addressed the gym a little. Don’t be that person running through the grass when there’s a perfectly good paved path six feet away. Six feet isn’t going to do anything but make it easier to make that next cut. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you look at the big picture, the cuts add up.
You don’t need to be a fire breathing CrossFit hero. You just need to do something. Find what you enjoy - swimming, running, biking, martial arts, weights, hell, jazzercise even if that’s what floats your boat.
What the gym does for me is more than provide a physical outlet - it forces me to find a deep, dark place mentally too. The mental struggle endured in the last 2 minutes of a 20 minute AMRAP does so much for me than the physical work in the entire 20 minutes.
But whether you go to that dark place or not, any workout you do will provide an opportunity to avoid those cuts. It’ll help us avoid the pattern of self-abuse we’ve become so accustomed to.
What is mental toughness? And why does it matter? Why should we care about the thoughts running through our heads day in and day out? What do they matter? Those thoughts are often the 1st, or 500th cut. The negative self-talk, taking the dirt path instead of running on the pavement, eating the cookie after a hard day. Mental exercise is hard. It takes self-awareness to know we’re doing it, then the tenacity to stop. So back to that mental toughness thing. One way to look at is “the ability to continue according to plan in a way that is in line with your values, even though negative thoughts and emotions are pulling you in another direction”. Or in plain English, the ability to get present and move forward in a stressful situation.
When life gets tough we can’t rely on motivation to get us through. When the cards are stacked against us and we aren’t quite sure how to take another step forward, the easy way out - that first cut - is going to be pretty darn tempting.
So how do you stay motivated when the, pardon my language, shit keeps adding up? You need to be able to do what you’re supposed to do, especially when it’s hard. That’s why this isn’t a quick fix, stopping those cuts isn’t a quick fix. There’s no get rich quick scheme that’s going to work here. It’s building your tolerance and your toughness to stay on the path forward.
Show up. Work hard. Do good things.
Special thanks to the rogues who helped proof and flesh this out for me.