The Undefeated Mind by Alex Lickerman

The Undefeated Mind

RATING: 7/10…READ: December 2, 2012

Written by a Therapist, this book utilizes principles in Nichiren Buddhism & common therapy principles for dealing with anxiety and fear. Many common principles if you’ve read other self-help books. I’ve found myself skimming several chapters. I’ve found the author’s personal experience the most helpful of all advice in the book.

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Inner strength, Nichiren Buddhism teaches, doesn’t come from the experience of adversity itself but from the wisdom that the experience of adversity has the potential to impart.

We don’t suffer, according to Nichiren Buddhism, because we face obstacles; we suffer because we face obstacles we don’t believe we can overcome.

In Nichiren Buddhism victory doesn’t mean victory over others—no one else need lose for us to win—but rather victory over the obstacles that confront us. Yet victory over the obstacles that confront us isn’t as much about liberating ourselves from adversity as it is about obtaining the greatest benefit possible as a result of having encountered it. Not just passing the Boards, but becoming a better doctor. Not just healing a broken heart, but learning to love oneself.

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.

The more value we create for others, the more value we assign ourselves. Helping others, in other words, enhances our self-esteem.

Once we figure out our mission, then we can turn value-creating activities that interest us into strategies with which we can accomplish it. Thus, sculpting becomes a strategy to fill the world with beauty. Or teaching, a strategy to inspire children to greatness.

-If a sculptor’s focus is as much on filling the world with beauty as on the act of sculpting itself, he’ll have an easier time putting obstacles, like failing to sell a sculpture or an accident that shatters one into their proper perspective. Even losing the ability to sculpt itself—say, from a stroke—though devastating, might then become a potentially surmountable obstacle…How?…Flower arranging? Web Design? The point is that sculpting isn’t the only way to fill the world with beauty.

I found that constantly thinking about what I wanted to do led me nowhere. But when I reframed the question, asking myself instead what kind of value I wanted to create, ideas began popping up.

I think it’s also important to remember that not every value creating strategy has to be colossal. Even a smile can create value.

Research suggests that action creates feeling almost as often as feeling creates action. When we make ourselves smile, for example—or even better, when we make ourselves laugh—we actually begin to feel happier.

People who succeed don’t succeed because they’re necessarily smarter or more creative than people who don’t (that is, their ratio of successes to failures isn’t better than everyone else’s). They succeed because they have an increase tolerance for failure, paradoxically suffering even more failures than people who don’t succeed.

If we pick a positive role model who took a path to success we don’t think we can follow, or if the people with whom we compare ourselves seem endowed with special abilities we think we’re missing, not only won’t social comparisons work, it may leave us feeling more discouraged than before.

Whenever we become discouraged we can encourage ourselves by looking for examples of successful work we consider inferior to ours (however mercenary such a strategy may seem), or by finding a role model who found a path to success we think we can follow ourselves.

In one study of smokers, for example, subjects who rate themselves even moderately confident that they could quit were ten times more likely to succeed than subjects who didn’t.

The reason optimism yields results isn’t that we necessarily tend to try harder when we think a goal is achievable; rather we tend to try more often.

Optimism yields persistence, for nothing seems to keep us going like believing success is possible. And nothing keeps us believing success is possible, even in the face of failure, like overestimating our abilities.

Importantly, though, studies also show that when high expectations for success are warranted—that is when they’re based on accurate appraisals of both our abilities and the circumstances we face—such optimism does in fact become a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the actual likelihood of success. In other words, optimism does help us to succeed, but only when its been earned.

When circumstances change, we may not be able to continue at the same rate or in quite the same way, but the choice to continue itself can never be taken from us.

Studies show that unrealistic goals inspire greater effort than do goals that are more pragmatic.

Distraction is superior to willpower for delaying gratification.

When you want to avoid something tempting, go shopping instead. Or watch a movie. Or listen to music. Something you find genuinely pleasurable. Or if some reason you can’t engage in alternative pleasure, or shouldn’t for some reason, think about doing it instead. For example, when you see a pizza, think about eating ice cream.

Positive feedback, in contrast, helps when it signals a strong commitment (as opposed to sufficient progress). Process focused versus results focused.

The great thing about making a strong commitment is it doesn’t just enable you to accomplish the goal you’re committed to; it engenders hardiness in general.

In Nichiren Buddhism, encountering obstacles is thus considered, paradoxically, the path to a life of “comfort and ease.” For only in facing a strong enemy are we able to become strong ourselves. And only in developing strength can we navigate life’s challenges with a sense of confidence and calm.

Telling ourselves, for example, that we failed a test because we lack good test-taking skills—meaning that we lack inherent ability—may discourage us from preparing for a makeup test, leading us to fail it again. On the other hand, if we tell ourselves we failed a test because we didn’t study enough—meaning we didn’t make the effort, something which we have significant control—we’re more likely to redouble our efforts the second time around and pass it.

What’s also likely contributing to your feeling that you can’t do this is allowing yourself to believe that you don’t have to. Once you decide that you have to do something, whatever energies and focus you’d been bringing to bear on trying to escape it tend to reorient themselves almost of their own accord to overcoming it.

To stand alone is also to refuse to abdicate personal responsibility for solving problems even when other people have the power to solve them for us.

We have the responsibility to fight injustice even if we’re committing another injustice in some other way ourselves.

Fighting injustice when we ourselves have been unjust doesn’t make us hypocrites. It makes us flawed people trying to improve.

My self-esteem, which I’d previously believed had been built on things solely internal, was in fact entirely dependent on something external: the goodwill of others. The Good Guy Contract was simple: I would agree to be nice to you, to advise you, to sacrifice for you, to care about you, and in return you would agree to believe that I was wise, compassionate, excellent in every way, and finally and most importantly, you would like me.

-Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to be liked. Or that I no longer care if I’m liked. But in freeing myself from the need to be liked, in learning to derive my self-esteem from internal sources, I can more easily let go of the dissonance that occurs when I’m not.

When we focus on the benefit of pain (when one exists), we’re actually able to reduce its unpleasantness.

The more familiar we are with a painful task in general—meaning the more times we’ve experienced it—the less pain it seems to cause us.

The key to making distraction work wasn’t just doing something that riveted attention, but doing something that aroused emotion.

MEDITATION: Focus specifically on attending to your breathing and on acknowledging any and all negative internal reactions without judgment, thinking the latter will help you accept your pain.

Attempting to suppress emotional pain may paradoxically increase it. In contrast, being accepting of emotional pain, being willing to experience it without attempting to control it, has actually been found to decrease it.

Though we might think we need to control our emotions when facing adversity—to feel brave when fighting cancer, for example, or stoic when losing a loved one—we might do better if instead we give ourselves permission to feel what we actually do. For if we fail to give ourselves that permission and instead aim to be something we aren’t, we’ll be more likely to experienced suffering not only at the hands o four pain, but also at the hands of our failure to live up to our expectations. Approaching painful internal experiences with an attitude of acceptance, in contrast—accepting that sometimes we’re weak—paradoxically may be the key to our becoming strong.

Some attempt to attach to nothing. Though this is a strategy frequently promoted by other sects of Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism considers it a foolhardy one. Desire is ingrained in all living things if for no other reason than to ensure survival. How, for example could we live if we weren’t attached to eating or breathing? Further, how can we create value if we refuse to attach to goals? And how would it serve our friends, our spouses, or our children to limit the degree to which we care about them simply to be able to diminish the force of the blow that losing them will one day bring?

Studies suggest that attempting to make sense of loss might increase one’s suffering without offering any benefit beyond that gained from avoiding the attempt altogether.

We forget the crucial difference between building our happiness out of our attachments and building our happiness out of a strong force that enables us to enjoy our attachments.

The more we think about something, the less our thinking about it arouses emotion.

GRATITUDE: Like an actress summoning up real emotions to play her role as convincingly as possible, you have to convince yourself that something you love—some elemental part of your life—might soon be gone. We can best do this by vividly imagining specific ways an attachment might be taken from us, playing out scenarios in our mind in which some entirely believable event snatches our attachment away.

-Write a list every morning how you will lose your attachments

A compassionately wise person cares about his own happiness as much as the happiness of others—no more and no less.

We may think our advice represents the most valuable thing we have to offer those who suffer, but it pales in comparison to the power of our encouragement.

Are we not most clearly defined in the minds of others—even in our own—by what we do? Doesn’t our behavior most accurately reflect our most deeply held beliefs, beliefs that make us far more unrepeatable than our own internal sense of uniqueness?

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Theory of social interaction argues that the way we expect other people to behave alters our behavior in such a way that causes them to fulfill our expectations.

If we want to be our best selves—in other words, the selves we like the most—we should aim first to pull the best selves we can out of the people around us.


Despite my surprise, I understood the reason almost immediately: being alone was the strategy I used to protect myself against the demands placed on me by others. I’d learned from my relationship with my first girlfriend that I didn’t need a woman to love me to be happy, but conflict, I realized now, still made me uncomfortable and anxious. So how did I manage that anxiety? By preventing it from occurring in the first place. By reserving private time and space in which no one could demand anything of me.

I needed to learn to take care of myself, of my needs, in the midst of a relationship, not apart from one, so that not only could I actually have one but also so I could enjoy it.