It's the beginning of “Mental Health Week”, so I thought I'd share the chapter “Mental Health” from The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training. This comes after a chapter on visualising your mental model for training as a tree, with mental health as the roots, physical health as the trunk, and specific attributes as the branches, and is followed by a similar overview of physical health, before we delve into the details of goal setting, how to practice, etc. I am currently working on the audiobook version of The Windsor Method, and have attached the audio for this chapter here, in case it's better for your mental health to listen rather than read. Just click the play button:
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Mental health is the foundation of all your training. If you’re too depressed to get out of bed, or too anxious to concentrate on your striking drills, it will be very hard to train effectively. I’m not a psychiatrist, and if you are struggling I hope you will get professional help. I did, and it works, or at least it worked for me.
If we were talking about physical health, you would agree that there are many things you can do to improve your general likelihood of avoiding disease and injury. Don’t smoke. Eat healthily. Exercise regularly. I think it’s the same for mental health. There are things you can do that will reduce the severity of mental health issues if they arise, or even avoid them altogether. But there are no guarantees, and all interventions carry some risk.
Meditation can reprogramme your inner voice, can reduce depression and other conditions. It can teach you how to control where your attention goes. But it can also make things worse, depending on how you do it and what you focus on.
Breathing exercises are particularly effective at reducing stress levels, and inducing a feeling of well-being. They are excellent for bridging the gap between conscious control and autonomic processes. But they can be frustratingly slow to work and don’t work for everything.
Exercise is a great mood enhancer, and is a simple way to boost endorphin levels which help with mood. But it comes with a risk of injury.
Spending time doing things you actively enjoy (like swinging swords?) is good too – and swinging swords can include meditative, breathing, and exercise components that are a feel-good triple-whammy. But everyone who has trained for any length of time knows that you can have bad training days. Understanding the foundations of mental health will help you figure out why. As I see it, they are:
1. Agency. A sense of control over your life and its direction. In many ways practising weapons drills is an externalised form of this. See! I can control this blade – I am in control. Control is always an illusion (you could drop dead at any moment), but it’s a very useful and necessary one.
2. Meaning. If you feel your life means something, you can tolerate a great deal more stress. Sacrifices you make for a greater good are much more bearable than those that are just taken from you.
3. Connection. We are social animals, and a great deal of our sense of meaning comes from the impact we have on those around us and our connections to them. The pandemic has highlighted this to an extreme degree. We need each other, and we need others to see that our existence has meaning. Believing that nobody would care if you disappeared is perhaps the worst feeling a person can have.
4. Sleep. The one natural process that is most key to your health and wellbeing. It only takes one bad night’s sleep to ruin your day. Sleep is a process and a skill, so I’ll discuss it separately from the other three branches, in Part 2: Practices.
Agency is the feeling of being in control.
It’s often reasonable to be upset, depressed, sad, angry, annoyed, or frightened. But none of those feelings are fun, healthy, or helpful so do what you can to avoid them. This has a great deal to do with what you focus on, and your sense of agency. The one single most important tool in your mental health toolbox is the ability to focus on your area of control. You don’t control the pandemic, or the weather. You do control whether you did push-ups today, or how you speak to the people in your life. Steven Covey popularised the idea of area of control (which dates back to the Stoics), in his 1989 book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He uses the terms “circle of concern” to cover all the things you are interested in or concerned by, and “circle of influence” to cover those things over which you can exert some control. The circle of influence is always much smaller than the circle of concern, but by focussing on your circle of influence, you actually grow it, and become more able to affect the things in your circle of concern.
The key skill then is being able to control what you focus on, to keep your focus within your circle of influence. A great tool for becoming better at choosing what you focus on is mindfulness meditation. As with any skill, it gets better with practice.
One way to focus on your area of control is to make good art. Neil Gaiman was, and always will be, right on this. In his commencement speech on May 17th 2012 at the University of the Arts, he said:
“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.” (Published in The View from the Cheap Seats, 2016).
Over and over again, I’ve found this to be good advice. I don’t know what your art is: writing code, painting, baking cookies, it could be anything. And it may well be that it feels like you can’t do your art right now, but there are related things you can do, to prepare for when things get back to normal. And ideally, whatever it is, share it. Which brings me on to my next thought: for mental health purposes, you’ll get the most profound sense of agency from helping others. There is nothing more empowering. It can be super-simple, such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard himself, deciding at the beginning of the first UK lockdown, to read one Shakespeare sonnet per day aloud . You can find it on the internet. It’s very interesting to compare this shot-at-home Sir Patrick sitting on a sofa in comfortable clothes reading out of a book, with the more polished professionally produced sonnet readings of his which you can find on YouTube. To be honest, I actually prefer the homemade version. You don’t have to be producing content like this. There are a million ways to help people, and there is nothing that is better for your sense of agency, and connection.
Meaning is the story you tell about the things you focus on.
In 2015 my family and I moved to Lucca, in Tuscany, for three months. We spent a lot of that time eating pizza, but also a great deal of time in museums, “looking at old stuff” as my kids would put it. They were aged 6 and 8, and so didn’t have most of the background stories that bring meaning to a statue or a painting. The thing was either pretty, or not. We went everywhere with art supplies, so they would often sit on the floor and draw and paint the marvels around them. My wife and I would take it in turns to hang out with them while the other went exploring.
We learned early on that it made for a much better museum experience if we prepared the kids with some stories, pitched at their level. One very successful example was a YouTube video that dramatised the story of how Michelangelo created his David. When we got to Florence and took them to the Gallery of the Academy, and there David was towering over us, it had meaning for them.
Meaning is primarily mediated through story. The meaning of a piece of art is mostly in the story it tells, and the story of its creation. The meaning of your life is entirely in the stories you believe about it.
Imagine the difference between a scrap of wood on the trash heap, and an identical scrap of wood that a devout Christian believes is a piece of the True Cross. The meaning the Christian brings to the scrap of wood determines the quality of their experience seeing it.
I have a thought experiment for you, to illustrate this. I call it “three broken legs.”
You wake up in hospital in a lot of pain. You have a broken leg. There are three possible stories to explain why.
1. You went skiing/hang-gliding/mountaineering/insert fun but dangerous activity of choice. You had an accident, and your leg is broken. It happens, you knew the risks and took them.
2. You were walking down the street one day, when somebody came up to you with a baseball bat, shouted hate into your face, and broke your leg with the bat.
3. You were walking down the same street one day, and saw a truck about to run over a child. You leap into action, you save the child, but the truck breaks your leg.
One of these injuries is neutral; one is likely to require some serious counselling and may result in long-term psychological problems, and one is a badge of honour that you will draw strength from for the rest of your life. The broken leg is the same in each case.
Your emotional response to the injury is at least as important as the injury itself. The story that comes with the scar determines your experience of the scar.
And mental health is entirely about your experience, your subjective response to external factors.
So how does this apply to training?
From an entirely rational perspective it is absolutely pointless to study most martial arts most of the time. You are never going to use them. I certainly have no intention of ever fighting a duel. My sword training is in that sense a giant waste of time. But it resonates with a depth of meaning for me that every sword person understands intuitively, and no non-sword people will ever fathom. I am wired to see meaning in swordsmanship. I’m guessing that if you are reading this, so are you. Or maybe it’s some other martial art that turns you on. It doesn’t matter which one; it matters that it has meaning to you.
The sword is a sacred object. With its sharp point it pierces the veil of illusion, and with its sharp edge it separates truth from falsehood. It demands balance and justice. It focusses my being on a single point.
But literally every object is sacred, if you see it through the eyes of the right story.
So why are you training? What meaning do you bring to the arts you practise?
It’s perfectly all right if they are just a fun way to spend time and stay reasonably fit. But you need to bring meaning to some area of your life. Endless contemplation of the infinite void in which people are meaningless specks of agitated matter and we might as well not bother might have the satisfaction of being kind of accurate, but it’s not conducive to mental health.
Connection is our relationship to the people around us.
We are social animals. Without our place in society, we are nothing. In every culture banishment is a severe punishment, and in many times and places was equivalent to or considered worse than death. For most of pre-history our place in our tribe was literally how we survived. This is as true for hermits as it is for the most gregarious among us. Having very limited connection is not at all the same as having none.
Loneliness is a plague in our society, at least as damaging as the global pandemic, and of course it has been made worse by the pandemic. It is literally better for our mental health to be hated than to be ignored.
Of course, it’s better to be loved.
But what has this got to do with training?
Simply this: a large component of martial arts training is social, and as with any other human activity, it creates tribes and societies. This is good, in that we need to feel part of a tribe, but comes with the risk of cultish behaviours. Once we are deeply connected to the people in a tribe, staying part of the in-group becomes more important than other factors like rationality, morality and kindness. Martial arts are as vulnerable to becoming irrational cults as any other kind of human organisation. All this means is that we must be mindful of our need for connection, and make sure that we are connecting with the kinds of people who will bring out our best selves. When evaluating a school or club, see how the senior students behave – do you want to become like them? Because if you stay, you probably will.
It goes deeper than our need for social interaction though. Creativity is intimately linked with connection, because we create primarily through connecting previously separate ideas. Great writers aren’t great because they invent a lot of new words – they are great because they connect old words together in new ways. When growing your tree, you need to draw on the ideas of those around you. You can do this through personal interaction, but also through books, videos, and other forms of idea-spreading.
Connection is necessary for your emotional wellbeing, but also for your creativity. I wrote my first book because a friend suggested I should. I wrote my second because a student from my old club happened to complain about there being nothing out there for the rapier. Without these chance connections, I doubt I’d have started writing; I never had “be a writer” as a goal in life. But look how that turned out! Matthew Syed’s book Rebel Ideas explores the relationship between broad social connections and creativity in depth.
During the pandemic I have had a hard rule of at least one social call with a friend every week. Most weeks I have two or three. And if any of my friends contacts me wanting to talk, that takes priority over any work I may need to do. Connection is so fundamentally important to human wellbeing, way more so than any specific project I may be working on.
Our need for connection has many downsides, such as comparisonitis. We compare ourselves to those who are richer, prettier, stronger, luckier, more charismatic, more “successful”, whatever success means to you. My books do ok, but Stephen King probably wouldn’t be impressed by my figures. I find it helpful to be mindful about whom I compare myself with, and the metrics I use for comparison. Most people I know make more money than I do. I don’t care; I have way more free time. And my job description is infinitely cooler. If it comes down to money, I prefer to compare myself to the several billion people on the planet who make less than I do, rather than the much smaller number who make more.
If you are mindful of the categories you compete in, you can optimise for your mental health.
If you are living a life you believe to be meaningful, and have a sense of agency over it, and have strong connections to those around you, then you are in the best position to have solid mental health. If your training feels meaningful, gives you a sense of agency, and fosters connections with other people, it’s likely to help your mental health. This is why it is so very important to train in such a way that you are getting meaning, agency and connection. Because otherwise your training could feel meaningless, reduce your sense of control, and sever your connections with others.
After a session that goes really well, reflect on why. The chances are good that it scored highly in one or more of the three pillars. And if a session goes badly, which pillar did it fail to strengthen? How can you correct that next time?
I should also mention that your mind needs rest too. A bit of boredom is very good for you (see Bored and Brilliant, by Manoush Zamorodi if you don’t agree).
Swords have been a major part of my life since I was a kid and I still have days when my training feels meaningless. It’s normal, and we have ways round it. My own particular fix is having students. They depend on me to have decent sword skills, so on days when I can’t see meaning or value in training, I train for them.
Physical health is important primarily because it impacts on mental health. Would you rather be blissfully happy but disabled, or utterly miserable but physically fine? A great deal of your experience is mediated through your body. To take a straightforward example: adrenaline and cortisol are produced in the adrenal glands, which are connected to your kidneys. The adrenaline rush we get from a roller-coaster or falling in love? You can thank your adrenal glands. The grinding long-term damage from elevated cortisol levels? That’s your adrenal glands too. It is artificial to separate mind and body, they are deeply intertwined. This is why in many cases changing what you do with your body can deeply affect your mental health.
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