Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

The Undefeated Mind

Why becoming strong must be our primary goal

Over the last twenty years, I’ve watched thousands of patients struggle with a variety of ailments, from minor colds to life-threatening cancers. And though the majority of them eventually found relief from their suffering, the suffering of some of them left me breathless: the pilot who became so vertiginous he couldn’t sit up for two years without vomiting; the mother who died of a rare cardiac tumor knowing she was leaving three small children behind with no relatives to care for them; the elderly man who donated a kidney to his son only then to watch him die of AIDS.

Watching these patients—caring for them—has taught me what I consider to be the most important lesson I've ever learned: that our capacity to suffer may be immense, but so is our ability to endure it—if we've taken effective steps to develop our strength. The things we may be called upon to do may not be easy; they may not be what we want to do; they may not even do much. But if we've actively prepared ourselves to withstand adversity, there is always a way to victory over suffering.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Sometimes such a victory requires a single dramatic intervention fraught with risk; at other times, a series of multiple, small interventions whose individual effects may be minor but whose collective power is vast. This latter thing, in fact, is what I’ve most commonly observed among my patients. Learning to accept pain, for example, really does make pain easier to withstand, yet sometimes only slightly. But when added to a fierce determination to accomplish an important mission, as well as to an expectation that accomplishing that mission will require the feeling of even more pain, strength often appears that makes large problems seem abruptly small. Though the effort required to maintain a high life-condition often seems great, in reality it only needs to be wise. As when the crippling anxiety that one of my patients was experiencing resolved in the moment he discovered the contribution he most wanted to make with his life, sometimes we only need to pull a lever a few degrees to move our lives in a radically different direction.

On the other hand, sometimes no matter how hard we pull, our lives don’t seem to move at all. Some struggles, in fact, take years or even decades to win (one of the titles bestowed upon the Buddha was “He Who Can Forbear”). But as long as we refuse to give in to despair and resolve to continue taking concrete action, some kind of victory is always possible.

This is the reason I wrote my new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, available Tuesday—for as melodramatic as its subtitle sounds, the promise it makes is real: resilience really can be learned. As amorphous as the concept of "inner strength" often seems, our ability to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity, our ability to push on through disappointment and discouragement when obstacles arise in the pursuit of our goals, is as measurable a quantity as is the strength of our biceps. And like the strength of our biceps, it can also be increased.

But also like increasing the strength of our biceps, increasing our ability to withstand hardship requires real work. And by real work I mean specific work. There are strategies whose pursuit will make us stronger and strategies whose pursuit will not (if we spend our lives golfing and expect our muscles to become as strong as they would if we instead spent our lives lifting weights, for example, we're going to be sorely disappointed).

No one is exempt from loss. No one will forever avoid the sting of failure. But more than anything else, how we respond to these things is what determines how happy our lives will be. If we want to be happy, then, free to enjoy the things we have and avoid being broken by the things we will inevitably lose, we must make strength our primary goal.

This, then, is what it means to possess an undefeated mind: not just to rebound quickly from adversity or to face it calmly, even confidently, without being pulled down by depression or anxiety, but also to get up day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade--even over the course of an entire lifetime--and attack the obstacles in front of us again and again and again until they fall, or we do. An undefeated mind isn’t one that never feels discouraged or despairing; it’s one that continues on in spite of it. Even when we can’t find a smile to save us, even when we’re tired beyond all endurance, possessing an undefeated mind means never forgetting that defeat comes not from failing but from giving up. An undefeated mind doesn’t fill itself with false hope, but with hopes to find real solutions, even solutions it may not want or like. An undefeated mind is itself what grants us access to the creativity, strength, and courage necessary to find those real solutions, viewing obstacles not as distractions or detours off the main path of our lives but as the very means by which we can capture the lives we want. Victory may not be promised to any of us, but possessing an undefeated mind means behaving as though it is, as though to win we only need wage an all-out struggle and work harder than everyone else, trying everything we can, and when that fails trying everything we think we can’t, in full understanding that we have no one on whom we can rely for victory but ourselves. Possessing an undefeated mind, we understand that there’s no obstacle from which we can’t create some kind of value. We view any such doubt as a delusion. Everyone--absolutely everyone--has the capacity to construct an undefeated mind, not just to withstand personal traumas, economic crises, or armed conflicts, but to triumph over them all.

Attaining this state may seem impossible, an ability granted only to an extraordinary few like Viktor Frankl or that great champion of freedom, Nelson Mandela. But the tools those luminaries used to achieve their goals are available to us all. Extraordinary people may be born, but they can also be made. We need only look around at the number of people in everyday life who demonstrate the same resilience as a Viktor Frankl or a Nelson Mandela for proof that an undefeated mind isn’t nearly so rare a thing as we think.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now! Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

more...

Subscribe to Happiness in this World

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?