Building a Forest: How To Improve Mental Resilience
There are so many things you know you should do but it’s so much easier to put them off until tomorrow. If you gave 10% more effort you could finish that thing, or reach that goal, but ufff, you’re tired and want to watch Netflix, or have some other excuse. Excuses are everywhere.
The bad news is that excuses will try to stop you no matter what your goals. The good news is that every excuse speaks the same language. So in order to overcome excuses all you have to do is learn to recognize when excuses are speaking and then increase your mental resilience in order to beat the excuse in an argument.
In order to arrive at the technique that taught me how to do that let’s first dive into the basic world of mindfulness, meditation, and then ultimately Zhan Zhuang, which is the one practice that has completely changed my life and can change yours from the first day you start.
What Is Mindfulness and Why Is It Important?
Mindfulness is the ability to be aware. In order to be aware you have to be in tune with the present moment. In order to be in tune with the present moment you need to stop thinking about the past or the future. That’s much easier said than done.
So much of our world is mental. If our minds aren’t right it will not only affect our attitudes and perceptions but also affect our physical body. While there are definitely physical causes for certain ailments, practicing mindfulness may even increase your libido. We need to get out of our heads.
At any moment, if you step back and watch your thoughts as if they are on a movie screen you will find that you are worrying, planning, scheming, dreaming, fantasizing or fretting about one thing or another. It is extremely rare and difficult to be in the here and now. So rare that scientists, governments, and elite athletes put billions of dollars into discovering how we can force our minds into the present and become hyper-alert to the task at hand. A common term for reaching this state of enhanced performance and perception is called the “flow” state.
When we are in the flow state we are performing to the best of our capabilities because our entire conscious attention is focused on achieving a certain outcome. This ability to block out external distractions is particularly helpful when performing a task under pressure. For instance, maybe you have to learn to sing to perform in front of a large audience or go on a black ops life or death mission. For either of those, you need to keep your focus and ignore the social dangers / literal dangers around you. You need to perform.
You’ve likely experienced flow state before. Has there been a time you were so enwrapped in a project you didn’t even notice that it had gotten dark and you forgot to turn on the lights? Time just flew by because you were in the zone. You were inflow.
Maybe that hasn’t happened to you, but at least you can relate to the idea that if you need to write a paper, or do some sort of task, that it will take at least twice as long if you do it while watching a movie or talking with a friend than if you just closed yourself in the room, set your mind to it and got it done. It’s the act of blocking out distractions and only listening to the thoughts in your mind that matter.
Meditation teaches us how to block out the distractions of our own mind and watch the thoughts that occur. It enables you to better recognize excuses.
I have practiced seated meditation on and off for quite some time. There have been year-long stretches where I won’t miss a day, and even when I fall out of practice, I still at least pop on and off the zafu at least once or twice a week. For me, meditation is a life saver. It is like online therapy only it’s free and self-administered.
The basics of mediation revolve around sitting down closing your eyes, placing your attention on your breath and simply watching your thoughts. There are many articles on how to meditate that you can check out.
That is why I want to move into Zhan Zhuang, “standing like tree”, a standing meditation that has been around for thousands of years and is popular in Kung Fu, Qi Gong, and a variety of other Martial Arts.
The basics of Zhan Zhaung are quite simple. You stand there with slightly bent knees and your arms up as if hugging a giant imaginary ball.
I personally have been doing this for 21 minutes every day for the past 5 months or so and plan to continue. Now to be clear, you can do this pose for a few minutes or a few hours and see results. I just personally like to practice for 21 minutes. I set a timer on my phone, take 1 minute to get settled in and then 20 minutes of “stand like tree” benefits.
In terms of duration, you should choose what is best for you. We will get into the particulars of the pose, but first, here is why I practice Zhan Zhaung, the theories and ideas behind it, and my personal results.
Why “Stand Like A Tree”
Zhan Zhaung is a practice that benefits you mentally, physically, and spiritually. A three-for-one win.
Today more than ever there are distractions for our monkey minds at every turn. We hold the entire database of entertainment and friendships in the palm of our hands. No matter where we go we’re bombarded by ads, viral videos, friends, or the stresses of society and work.
Taking time to close your eyes, cut yourself from the distractions and simply lend your attention to your breath and watch your inner thoughts will work wonders for you.
In this aspect, Zhan Zhaung has the same benefits of a seated meditation. However, I’m seated all day at a desk — and we can double up on that time with some physical and mental strength benefits.
Zhan Zhaung helps you physically in 2 ways. 1. It will strengthen your legs, core and shoulders. 2. It will help your posture and help to straighten your spine.
The idea behind both is simple.
Your legs are bound to get stronger if you are standing with them slightly bent, weight slightly back in your heals for a long period of time. It isn’t as intense as a wall sit, but it’s getting there.
Your core will get stronger in that you want to make sure your spine from your tailbone to the crown of your head is as long as possible.
Your shoulders will get stronger because you are holding your arms out in front of you in a rounded position for an extended period of time.
As for the posture improvements with Zhan Zhaung, essentially your body wants to do work with the least amount of effort. You, or your inner knowledge, will find it a lot more difficult to stand still and strong when your spine is not stacked in alignment. Too many muscles will have to be used to hold yourself up.
Therefore, your body will begin naturally correcting itself so that your bones stack, one by one, on top of eachother in perfect alignment. Your spine in alignment makes standing still easier and as you practice this your spine will develop muscle memory and your posture will improve in general.
This benefit may be colored by whatever beliefs you currently hold, but the idea behind Zhan Zhaung is that it unlocks your Qi, the circulating life force in your body. It will unblock any chakras that are holding that energy back from you and it will further call in that energy through a quiet mind, diaphragmatic breathing and a straight spine.
No matter if you believe this or not, you will find that standing like a tree will give you more energy and mental strength when approaching tasks. If you can learn to stand in your discomfort and breath through it comfortably – you can apply that practice to any thing you are doing. Practicing Zhan Zhaung will make you more confident and better able to find your voice.
It is really amazing how much I can push through tasks since I have started this practice. It has awakened my inner warrior. Now, let’s get into how you can practice Zhan Zhaung and awaken your inner warrior as well.
How To “Stand Like A Tree”
First put your phone on airplane mode, make sure your volume is on and set a timer. I’d recommend 11 minutes to start. That gives you 1 minute to get situated and then 10 minutes to be in the pose. You can increase the time with practice.
To get into Zhan Zhaung, you want to stand with your knees slightly bent and your weight mainly in your heels.
Tuck your tailbone down and under. Make sure your head is held high and in perfect alignment over your torso. Stretch the crown of your head up to the sky. Your spine needs to be as long as possible and your vertebrates should be stacked directly on top of one another.
Lift your arms to shoulder height and act as if you are hugging a huge ball. Keep your shoulders tops down and away from your ears so that your neck is long. You can even slightly roll the balls of your shoulders forward to maximize the space between your shoulder blades.
When you raise your arms, be sure to not lean forward at the waist or put all your weight into your toes. You want your weight down and back through your heels.
Close your eyes and begin to breathe into your Diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing means deep belly breaths. Slow and steady in through your nose, down into your belly and then out through your nose.
As you go through this pose, focus your attention and energy right below your belly button. That is where your center of gravity is and it will leave you feeling grounded after the practice. Pay attention to your breath circulating through that spot and pay attention to your overall body position.
You will notice throughout the time that your body will be tense in certain spots or you will start to pitch forward, fallback, scrunch up your face. Whatever it is, don’t get mad at yourself. Breath into it and try to soften everything so that you are in perfect alignment and relaxed as possible in the position.
Furthermore, throughout this practice you will hear your mind start chattering. Maybe you just start daydreaming, that’s fine. When you lose focus just bring your attention back to your breath, back to that spot right below your navel.
Most likely you’ll start making excuses. “My shoulders hurt, this is a waste of time, this is stupid, I’m probably not doing it right, I have an itch, I need to re adjust, I probably look stupid, I forgot to set the timer.” There will be a million excuses your mind makes to try to get you to stop doing this stance. Push them aside and breath.
You know you set the timer, you can push through any pain or any itches, you know your body is going to naturally find the right balance with practice. Keep going. Stand like a tree. You can do it. Don’t complain.
As you do this, you will begin to better understand that part of your brain that tries to make excuses and stop you. Now when you go out to perform any task, you’ll notice when your brain tries to trick you with its excuses. You’ll be used to hearing them and used to beating them back. Just give it a try for a week. You probably won’t notice too much as you’re actually in the pose, but you will notice an improvement in your work ethic and overall attitude throughout the days.
Hopefully, this has convinced you enough that Zhan Zhaung, “standing like tree”, is worth it and you will join me in a daily practice. With mental health on a global decline, I hope to “build a forest” of people “standing like tree” so that more of us around the world are mentally strong, calm and productive. Thanks for reading and may your tree be tall and mighty!