Mental Alchemy: 7 mindsets for psychological transformation and peak performance
Most of the time, we respond to life without taking a moment to choose the way we want to think and feel about a particular event or situation. It takes work to make the choice. A deliberate mental effort is needed to pause, reflect on the situation, remember the goal to be happy, consider the other choices, then choose to feel happy about whatever the situation is, knowing it will ultimately be to our benefit – Chris Prentiss, Zen and the Art of Happiness, p. 138
Today I heard a car alarm outside my office. It would not shut off. It just kept going… I got annoyed. I became irritated. So here’s what I did:
I recorded it.
When I got home, I plugged in my headphones and listened to this recording of the car alarm. I listened to it for 15 minutes straight. I listened to it until it no longer bothered me. I listened to it until my mind stopped adding to the noise. Until the commentary of my dissatisfaction faded into the distance. I listened to this car alarm until the space between subject and object melted away. There was no longer the car alarm and the annoyed, unhappy self. There was only the car alarm. I was pure awareness. I smiled. I listened to this car alarm until it became enjoyable.
See, I concern myself far more with my internal world than my external. The inner is primary, the outer is secondary. After all, the inner usually determines the outer. We color the world with our own perceptions. Our own beliefs.
The inner world is where all fulfillment exists. It’s the end result of all goals: how we feel. Because of this, there is nothing I want that I cannot give myself right now. The same is true for you.
What a beautiful instrument the mind is. We can transform life with thought alone.
Our experience of life is usually the commentary we have about life. Think about it (see what I mean?), everything is flavored by our interpretations. Our mind has chatter about almost everything that happens. Events happen throughout our days and our minds talk about these events. Our minds label them as good or bad. Our minds form an opinion. They evaluate. Our minds are constantly answering the question: “What does this mean?” So meaning we make. And that meaning determines our experience.
This is why I pay close attention to the meanings I construct, and I encourage others to do the same.
I know, for many of us, our thoughts can be our worst enemy. Our minds can be a scary and dark place, indeed. This is mainly because 1) we don’t love ourselves enough, 2) we accept our thoughts as facts, and 3) we do nothing to change them. So we just let them sit there, these stale thoughts. We keep repeating the same stories. Over and over and over again. Broken records. The story of me, directed by me, starring me. The problem is that we are often the victims in our stories, rather than the heroes.
Allow me to show you how to be the hero.
This is about changing the way you construct meaning.
If our thoughts about life determine our experience of life, this is great news. That means that through a shift in thinking, or the way we make meaning, we can change our reality.
Welcome to Mental Alchemy.
My definition of mindset is simply a mode of meaning-making. A healthy, resourceful mindset leads to empowering meanings that lead to better states and better decisions. An unhelpful mindset leads to disempowering meanings that lead to harmful states and damaging decisions.
This is not about right or wrong. This is about determining whether a meaning serves us or not, and acting accordingly. This is about changing your mindset for a better life.
With the right mindset, you can be the alchemist of your reality, effortlessly transforming mundane or negative experiences into extraordinary events and fuel for growth.
Here the top 7 mindsets I use to transform my life on a daily basis:
1) Replace judgment with curiosity
I find judgment of others to be entirely unhelpful. I no longer allow it within myself. Whenever I find myself judging someone, I always remind myself of this one. I replace judgment with a genuine interest in understanding the forces that are shaping someone’s actions, no matter how much I might disagree with them or how much they might bother me. This helps me be more effective with others and more compassionate, both of which lead to better outcomes and interpersonal effectiveness. This has also helped me develop fascinating insights into human behavior that have improved all of my relationships and my work with others. I believe everyone has something to teach me, so I stay curious.
2) All growth happens outside my comfort zone
“Stress isn’t just harmful; it can also serve as a stimulus for growth and adaptation” – Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, p. 43.
Like many people, I used to avoid the things that made me uncomfortable. Today, I welcome those things. I invite them into my life (see: listening to a car alarm for 15 minutes). There’s something called eustress or “good stress.” Growth comes from resistance. Skills are born out of struggle. Whether it comes to exercise, cold showers, fasting, or public speaking, I understand that discomfort leads to improvement. Today I seek out many uncomfortable situations, knowing that they will give me the opportunity to prove to myself how much I am capable of.
3) There are no failures, only lessons
I used to fear failure in a huge way. And for me, failure used to mean any error, no matter how small. I struggled with perfectionism for many years. This would prevent me from trying new things and making mistakes, which ironically was the biggest mistake of all. I no longer believe in failure. I call failing learning, because every “failure” provides an education. I walk away with a new understanding and an opportunity to try again in a different way. Approach life with this mindset and you will appreciate the failures just as much as the successes. At that point, nothing can shake you.
4) Everything is an opportunity
This is one of my favorite mindsets that I’ve developed recently. I try to look for the opportunity in everything. Sometimes I have to get creative, but I believe that every single thing that comes into my life is a chance to improve in some way. For instance, a long line is a chance to practice patience. An irritating person or situation is a chance to experience acceptance and equanimity. A stressful project is a chance to improve my skills and abilities. Difficulties and setbacks are opportunities to develop resilience and perseverance. Challenges are a chance to prove myself. Problems lead to solutions. This applies to all things. Every situation is an opportunity. You just have to find it.
5) Emotions are action signals
I believe that emotions communicate information. When I feel an emotion, I immediately enter problem-solving mode and think about what I need to do. I treat every emotion as a call to action. The action always involves changing my state in some way. If I’m feeling down, I exercise, spend time with a loved one, laugh at something silly, or dance to some awesome music. If I’m anxious, I meditate, read, breathe through my diaphragm, or approach what is causing me anxiety, such as by preparing or taking action to resolve it. If I am feeling angry or upset, I write down all the things I have to be grateful for. It’s hard to be grateful and fearful at the same time. If I’m happy, great. I keep doing what I’m doing! I embrace it fully. The point is, I no longer focus on the negative emotion and the story that’s fueling it. Instead, I turn my attention toward a solution. I figure out what I am going to do about it. Then I take action. As a result, I have developed the ability to enter a peak state on demand.
6) Every moment is a chance to start new
In meditation there’s this phrase: “begin again.” The phrase is intended to help you recenter when you inevitably get distracted by thought. Rather than become frustrated or resist the fact that thought took over, you gently return to your breath or any other object of meditation. I carry this idea throughout all aspects of my life. If I make a mistake or something doesn’t work out, I simply begin again. If I am trying to quit a bad habit and I give in to impulse, I begin again. Every moment is a chance to begin again, regardless of the moment that came before. Regardless of the past. It’s an opportunity to start down a different path. To choose. To change the trajectory of your life. To eat better, to exercise, to stay calm, to love, to appreciate, to give, to laugh. With every breath, comes an opportunity to begin again and live to your fullest potential.
7) Amor Fati (Love of Fate)
I learned this concept from a bartender in Poland, a remarkable man who shared with me invaluable wisdom. Then I read about it in an incredible little book called Zen and the Art of Happiness. One of the favorite passages reads:
Concentrate your mind, focus your attention on the great promise of the Universe, and say to yourself:
“Everything that happens to me only happens so that I can be benefited to the maximum amount possible.”
Or say the short version:
“This is for my benefit.”
Allow yourself to wonder, with expectancy and excitement, “What good will come from this?”
Treat unfolding events on the basis of the promise of the Universe and you will find yourself living in a world that is marvelously, miraculously better than you have ever imagined it, and you will achieve the goal of abundant happiness. (p. 141-142).
Amor Fati is echoed throughout many spiritual and philosophical disciplines. It is Nietzsche’s formula for human greatness and a major component of stoicism. This is the belief that life doesn’t happen to me, it happens for me. Embracing all that comes into your life as if you had chosen it. Amor Fati is a love of what happens. Not to wish for anything to be different, but exactly as it is.
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” – Epictetis.
This might sound ridiculous to some; I know it did for me at first. We are quick to counter this with all of the tragic events that have happened throughout our lives and the lives of others. We are so quick to defend our unhappiness. Of course, there are things that are entirely unexplainable. There are events that cause massive, undeniable pain and suffering for human beings. Don’t start here. Besides, if your complaints were truly limited to only those events alone, you would still be infinitely more joyous.
Rather, l suggest starting with the little things that happen each day. The things that throw you off. The things that bother you or cause you stress and disappointment. Love these things. What other logical choice do we have? Would it be better to resist and complain about what comes into our lives? Would it be better to cry out, “Why me?” Of course not.
After something happens, there is no other logical option but to accept it. That’s peace. But the real power comes from not only accepting it, but embracing it. Rejoice in it. Feel deeply that the universe has your back. Act as if the universe is organizing itself in your favor. Believe that everything in your life was chosen for you. Selected for you. All that happens is the best possible thing that could happen. Believe you are guided.
With this mindset, everything becomes fuel for greatness. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”
Adopt this belief and watch life transform before your eyes.
That’s true alchemy.