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June 5th, 2019
No one enjoys feeling weak. At least not without a rigorous understanding, either through trial and error or through a strong intellectual foundation, that feeling weak is a solid path to increased strength.
The most natural example to illuminate this intuitively is the physical one, specifically with regards to exercise.
To use one’s strength to it’s limits in the gym paradoxically makes a person feel the most weak. We can easily compare bench-pressing 225lbs to lifting a cup of coffee. Lifting a cup of coffee is no problem – totally within our capabilities, but if we’ve only ever bench-pressed 220lbs, finally lifting 225lbs is going to bring us to the limit of our strength, where strength fails to perform the task well. And this is perhaps a good local definition of weakness: not being able to perform a task well. However, the natural anti-fragility of our body’s systems reacts to this feeling of weakness and creatively imagines something even more difficult and begins to reorganize and prepare for that circumstance. This is how we build muscle and get stronger.
But this strange interplay between strength and weakness extends far beyond the physical realm of our muscles and their capacity to fight gravity.
If we do not occasionally feel very weak in our ability to do any given thing, even something we are very good at, something which we have practiced, then we are not extending our strength and mastery of the task at hand. Increased strength lies beyond this experience of weakness.
The general mental version of this weakness is confusion. Only by embracing what we do not understand can we forge a path towards understanding, and this means entertaining things that are confusing, and continually engaging with this territory of confusion until we experience a sensible fusion between the parts that do not seem to connect.
Anyone who has travelled to a foreign country with absolutely no knowledge of the local language knows just how debilitating the experience can be. We feel weak in this new environment because we are not able to perform the task of communication well. We inevitably resort to old child-like forms of charades, an ability that we often only have a slightly greater command of compared to a totally unknown language.
There is, at this point, an extremely dangerous thought that can wiggle it’s way into our world view. Perhaps we hear it quite often:
Don’t know, don’t care.
This might be an acceptable strategy for some things, such as how big the largest star in the Milky Way is, or not knowing a local language during a layover, or even a couple days, but this strategy is something we should be extremely wary of adopting.
To ignore weakness is not to stay at the same static level of strength. To ignore weakness allows our strength to decline.
This is again most obvious in the physical sense. Without constantly testing the limits of physical strength, our muscles atrophy to the level of exertion that our body is accustomed to predicting.
Use it, or lose it, is a pithy and helpful guide here.
Whether the issue is physical strength or some sort of mental strength, what becomes clear is that we are either moving forward or we are drifting backwards. There is no comfortable middle ground where we can coast.
If we feel as though we are coasting, chances are we are subtly degrading in some way, and the change is slow enough that we do not notice the day-to-day changes.
This is even true of something like meditation. If we do not mindfully invoke the practice and technique, our ability to do so fades. But to consistently confront the challenges of meditation on a daily basis is to slowly unravel the benefits and skill through embracing -simultaneously- the limits of our strength and the beginning of our weakness.
The greatest mentor we can take in this kind of endeavor is time.
It marches forward without mercy nor pause.
Our willingness to embrace weakness should likewise follow suit. This is perhaps what the pop culture adage is referring to when we are prescribe to do something everyday that scares us.
The quick and superficial assumption here is that we should have a roller-coaster-like experience everyday.
But if we give this just a moment’s more pause, we can see a deeper conclusion:
what is scarier than feeling weak?