What Tibetan Monks, Olympic Runners, and Navy Seals Have in Common | The Importance of Self-Observation6 min read

Published by Zach on

This was one of my weekly newsletters, but people enjoyed it so much I decided to post it here as well!

A navy seal, a Tibetan monk, and an Olympic athlete walk into a bar, what do they all have in common?

They all are observers of themselves. Let’s start with the navy seal.

Jocko Willink has written books, recorded podcasts, and commanded navy seal teams (SEAL Team 3 Task Unit Bruiser). He spent much of his career training leaders for navy seal teams. He practices self-observation, or, as he calls it, detachment.

On the Tim Ferris podcast, Jocko talks about the exact time he realized how important detachment is,

I call it detachment. That’s one of the things that early on in my leadership career, I actually remember when it happened. I was probably 22 or 23 years old. I was in my first SEAL platoon. We’re on an oil rig in California doing some training. We come up on this level of this oil rig and we’ve never been on an oil rig before. They’re very complex. There’s gear and boxes and just stuff everywhere on these levels, and they’re see through. You can see through the floors. It’s a complex environment. We come up and we all get on this platform on this level, and everybody freezes. I’m kind of waiting, and I’m a new guy so I don’t really feel like I should be doing anything. But then I said to myself, somebody’s got to do something. So I just did what’s called high porting my gun. I lifted my gun up towards the air, like I’m not a shooter right now. I took one step back off the line and looked around and I saw what the picture was. And I just said hold left, move right. And everybody heard it, and they did it. And I said to myself, hmm, that’s what you need to do.

Jocko Willink

He goes on to describe how this epiphany plays into everything he does, he even talks about how it’s playing into the interview he is doing at that moment with Tim Ferris,

It sounds horrible but it’s almost like sometimes I’m not a participant in my own life. I’m an observer of that guy who’s doing it. So if I’m having a conversation with you and we’re trying to discuss a point, and I’m watching and saying wait, are you being too emotional right now? Wait a second, look at him. Because I’m not reading you correctly if I’m seeing you through my own emotion or ego. I can’t really see what you’re thinking. But if I step out of that, now I I can see the real you and if you are getting angry, if your ego is getting hurt, if you’re about to cave because you’re just fed up with me. Whereas if I’m raging in my own head, I might miss all of that. And so that detachment that takes place as a leader is critical.

Jocko Willink

Jocko used this criterion to pick the best leaders. The best leaders could detach themselves from the situation and analyze it. They analyze not only what’s going on around them, but what is going on in them. What am I thinking? What am I doing? How is this affecting my decision making and how I am acting?

Be the outsider looking in, observe yourself, and practice detachment.

Detachment applies to monks and meditation. Specifically, Vipassana meditation is often practiced by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Some monks may even meditate up to 24 hours in an attempt to reach satori, or, “seeing into one’s true nature.”

Vipassana, which translates to, “seeing things as they really are,” is exactly that. It is observing yourself, and your surroundings, and being aware of everything around you. Meditation encourages this kind of thinking. There must be some reason there are so many monks, there must be some justification for meditating up to 24 hours in a day.

What is the temperature of the air going in and out of my nose? What thoughts are in my head right now? Am I scrunching my eyebrows together? What does it feel like in my stomach when I breathe in?

As you are doing this, or thinking about these questions, you are observing yourself. It is difficult. It is easy to be distracted. But that’s ok, it’s a meditation practice. I have been meditating every morning for about two months and have seen benefits already.

The real benefits come, I think, from when you are not meditating but applying the meditation practice to everyday events.

It might be as simple as noticing how nice a day it is when you are outside, or as advanced as tracking the anxiety-thought-runaway-train to its core. Often, when you observe a thought, it loses its power.

The thought does not define you.

If you are depressed you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Lao Tzu

Finally, we get to the Olympic Athlete. Kara Goucher is an American long-distance runner who has competed in three Olympics and placed third in the Boston Marathon.

There are moments in time when running allows you to see how wonderful your life is.

Kara Goucher

Many runners share this same feeling. This is not the “runner’s high.” This is what happens after you do the same thing over and over again. It’s meditation. Instead of watching your breath, you are watching your feet plopping on and off the ground. The best runners are constantly focused, they are focused on how they feel in the moment. They notice the way their ankles bend, the location on the foot they are striking, and their breathing.

It’s even been shown practicing aerobic exercise in combination with meditation reduces depression.

The next time you are walking, try noticing the pressure of the ground on your feet. Just think about that. Don’t be listening to music, on the phone, or thinking about where you have to be, just focus on your feet and see how you feel.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how big an impact our internal dialogue has on ourselves. Imagine you are coaching someone you care about, a loved one, how would you coach them? It doesn’t have to be running, it could be for another sport, or about business, or on studying for school. You would, I’m sure, want them to be happy and also for them to do the best they possibly can. You would be encouraging and provide positive words to drive them forward. Why then are we so mean to ourselves?

We constantly tell ourselves we are not good enough, is that how you would coach someone you really care about? By telling them they are not good enough? I doubt it.

Nike’s global head coach, Coach Bennet, describes this as being nice to yourself.

Observe yourself, identify your thoughts, especially the ones about yourself. Once you identify those thoughts, those feelings of self-doubt and negativity, you begin to see how silly they are. You realize, hey I’m a pretty cool person, I do cool things, I deserve to be cared for and loved. Happiness can be a decision.

The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself

Bertrand Russel

What are you thinking about right now?


5 Comments

Jessica · February 19, 2021 at 2:48 pm

Thanks for sharing this post over here as well!
Approaching an idea from differently angles really helps to clarify the concept. Although many people encourage others to practice meditation, I personally believe that only few really manage to get the point across. I think this article does explain the concept without overselling or overcomplicating it.

Btw, thank you so much for your youtube video about “30 days of running” and recommending coach Bennet! Although I’ve tried several times in the past to create the habit of running, I never really enjoyed it and ended up quitting after some time. However, your video encouraged me to try it one more time and I’ve been actually enjoying running! I didn’t think that could be possible for me!! And as this article explained, changing my negative dialogs for the positives one which coach Bennet teaches made a huge impact!

Thank you so much for your amazing, useful and encouraging videos 🙂 and good look & success in your upcoming exam!

Greeting from Germany!

    Zach · June 2, 2021 at 2:16 pm

    Isn’t coach Bennet great? I never thought I would like running either until I started using those sessions.

Amanda · August 5, 2021 at 2:36 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this article.
Check out Meditation, the only way, for a nice and brief introduction on how meditation is taught and practiced by monks in Sri Lanka.

Amanda · August 5, 2021 at 2:41 pm

Oops I forgot the link

    Amanda · August 5, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    Oh no, apparently I can’t share a link 🙁 Sorry for the spam
    Author is Ven K. Sri Dhammananda btw

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