There is a place I go once or twice a week. A cold, blank room in a nondescript old building, burrowed deep within one of the darker back pockets of Sydney. A place that provides me with the lessons I desperately need in my life.
The grounding nature of this experience is heightened partly by the solitude I feel while I’m here. I don’t need a connection to any electronic device; there’s no appointments or deadlines, no emails or documents to prepare for the outside world. I leave my bag along with my troubles at the door, bow my head, step onto the mat and the learning begins.
For more than six years now, the martial art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been that place. It has become a quiet ritual I undertake to disconnect in a positive way and relieve the built-up frustrations, anger and anxieties that life brings. It’s a voluntary element of my week, but I know if I don’t go, I’ll be missing out on an opportunity for introspection, challenge and growth.
The art of jiu-jitsu is a powerful sledgehammer for your ego. There are lessons to be learned on the mat that no book can teach. In this place, I’ve been choked to the edge of consciousness repeatedly by a young man who just happens to be blind, I’ve had my arms stretched beyond their normal positions by a man who is a paraplegic and I’ve been crushed on a regular basis by one particularly heavy man who is more than twice my age.
The feedback is instant, weaknesses are exposed and progress is achieved—but only through challenge.
When I leave jiu-jitsu class and reenter the “real world,” I’m quickly reminded of just how valuable this practice of connecting to myself is. It’s a practice that humans have utilized for hundreds, even thousands of years. The legendary 17th-century Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi—one of the most skilled and feared samurai ever to live—delved into the balancing power of introspection in his classic writing, The Book of Five Rings. “There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself,” he wrote.
It all comes down to finding the place of balance. The yin and the yang.
The unbalanced system.
It seems to me that right now—more than any other time in my memory—people are in desperate need of finding ways to disconnect from a world that is overwhelmingly outward-facing. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the key reasons is that the places that force the necessary inner reflection and challenge that promote growth are becoming harder and harder to find.
It’s the result of a society that is out of balance.
Some academics believe the reasons for these troubles started in the 1970s, developing slowly out of failed teaching and parenting strategies that overemphasized the importance of self-esteem and encouraged the “everyone gets a medal” philosophy. The gradual reinforcement of this overprotective attitude, where confidence and external accomplishment are prioritized and the pain of failure, rejection or loss are minimized, has now swamped just about all areas of society. The results of this approach on individuals is what has now been labeled a “crisis of unmet expectations.” People are now growing up in a system which leaves them increasingly unprepared for the disconnect between what they believe their place in the world will be, and what that reality actually is.
Since the early 2000s, social media has been an excellent method of fueling this out-of-balance attitude. Through engaging on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., people now have a tool capable of satisfying their want of external support and protection for any issue or cause. Regardless of how trivial that cause may be.
After nearly two decades of feeding this demand, the calls for greater support and protection have grown significantly more extreme. Today, any cause, from abolishing alcohol-related violence to receiving a lifetime supply of chicken nuggets, can become a viral campaign capable of changing the way governments, businesses and societies think and operate. All with the aim of protecting the individual.
When you look into the psychological effects that this type of system can have on a person, things also become a lot more interesting.
Social media has been proven to create surges in the chemical dopamine and the hormone oxytocin within the brain. Dopamine is a complex chemical connected to pleasurable experiences. While on social media, people’s dopamine levels skyrocket. However, too much dopamine has been shown to cause a number of adverse side effects, including a loss of sleep and an increase in anxiety.
Oxytocin plays a significant role in forming bonds. Levels of this hormone have been shown to rise while on social media—which sounds like a positive effect. However, the problem is that too much of the hormone has also been shown to be responsible for reinforcing distinctions between groups and strengthening prejudices. Sound familiar?
So over the past 18 years, every person with a social media account has had access to a tool capable of strengthening a system which leaves many unprepared for the realities of the real world. At the same time, they are overstimulating their brain’s desire for more validation and potentially increasing their prejudices to an unhealthy level. It’s not hard to see how that combination can degenerate into a back stream of trolls, click-bait and fake news.
The 2010s welcomed the first generation to have emerged from their most significant period of brain development while exposed to these influences to the workforce. Is it any wonder that observations of this generation are that they are increasingly narcissistic, fame-obsessed, entitled and disengaged?
And is this actually their fault?
In trying to protect young people, have we actively been helping them to avoid the things they are capable of overcoming on their own? Have we been systematically preventing them from other paths to growth and self-empowerment that might fuel them toward greater things?
The emperors and philosophers knew.
This topic is not a new concern for human beings. Finding pathways to human fulfillment and exploring ways of engaging the next generation have been contemplated for thousands of years.
Before Musashi, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius gave many insights on finding inner strength and fulfillment through rejecting the external world and focusing on connection to self. He wrote, “Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.” His advice advocates that strength is found by focusing on understanding ourselves, not how others perceive us on a social network. Knowing the difference between these two is an important distinction.
Aurelius was one of the great philosophers of the Stoic movement—a philosophy which emphasizes inner reflection on all things. The Stoic philosophy also focuses on empowering the individual and strengthening their will through cultivating moral and spiritual insight, not participation medals and Instagram followers.
Another famous Roman Stoic named Seneca also gave his guidance on why disengaged people fall into the trap of inaction when confronted by difficult times: “It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.” Seneca suggests that there is a discovery to be had from stepping up to and facing moments of challenge.
These philosophies carried through to influence the thoughts of a number of modern writers and philosophers. Many of their most profound contributions were a direct result of the suffering they were exposed to during periods of significant global challenge.
Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl was one such example. He wrote in his inspirational 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Frankl had witnessed and endured an enormous period of difficulty and suffering on a scale unseen in modern history, but rather than become a victim, he emerged with a greater awareness and willingness to give his wisdom to others, for, “What is to give light must endure burning.” His words are lined with priceless advice for the current generation. Although we cannot change the situation, there is a way to change ourselves.
The longevity of these philosophies and evidence of their practical and inspirational use are proof that establishing a deeper understanding of the self and challenging the self continually is a vital and important lesson. They are lessons people desperately need, and lessons that governments, businesses and societies need to cultivate in their people, not protect them from.
There are many examples of great leaders and thinkers, like Musashi, Aurelius and Frankl, who were shaped by intense periods of suffering and inner reflection—Lincoln, Einstein, Mandela and King spring to mind. But will leaders and thinkers of equal or greater impact emerge from the current system if they are not exposed to similar levels of challenge, introspection and growth?
Perhaps this in itself is our great collective challenge to overcome. To break out from this shell of safety, distraction and noise that insulates us, and leaves many unprepared and unsatisfied. To find a path back to balance.
And where do you even begin to find this balance? Well, it could be anywhere—in a forest, on top of a mountain, or in a cold, blank room on the edge of town.
This article was published in November 2017 and has been updated. Photo by