(View this article with pictures, on the TAM Blog where it debuted in July 2012, here.)
Walking The Razor's Edge
By Nick Baxter
Introduction: The Terrain
Imagine walking a tightrope stretched high above the ground, a wire so taught and thin that to slip to either side would result in certain injury, like traversing the edge of a razor. Behind you lies the wreckage of your former limitations—no turning back! On the horizon awaits the realization of all your life’s goals and dreams. To either side, nihilism and oblivion. Slowly, surely, forward is the way…the only way.
Just the thought of this perilous situation could spell fear for a great many people. But for others, the shaky uncertainty of this balancing act is a desirable mindstate, one that exposes new opportunity and potential. How do those folks get to that level of comfort and resolve in spite of such seeming danger?
What I’ve come to term “walking the razor’s edge” is, quite simply, a life strategy for harnessing your natural, inherent growth potential—a practice that can profoundly transform your attitude, perception, and way of life. It can be used in the most momentous of occasions and traumatic upheavals, or deployed in small daily doses, as part of an ongoing strategy for effective living. It can be found spontaneously in life’s trying moments and put to unexpected use, but I feel it has the most potential when used in continuous, intentional efforts.
Though I have by no means completed this journey nor perfected its practice, thankfully I’ve experienced enough of these moments and efforts firsthand to be able to share some concepts and suggestions. In the spirit of what is possible when we uncover all that lies within us, I offer this writing as an invitation to the horizon.
What It Looks Like
Before a person can walk the razor’s edge, they need to find where their personal edge is in the first place. This takes a clear mind and a dedication to knowing yourself, to maintaining awareness and a vibrant curiosity about what lies beyond your normal everyday, baseline state of existence. We all know what comfort and pleasure feels like, and we all know what discomfort, nervousness, and fear are like. But the question behind this whole practice is: how close can you get to those uncomfortable or fearful places, and how long can you maintain your focus and poise while you’re there?
This is the life of the explorer—always seeking, searching for what else might be out there, dancing with uncertainty while simultaneously allowing for contentment and enjoyment of the present moment. It’s about balancing the comfortable or pleasurable moments of life with the difficult or uncertain ones—and most importantly, gaining something from each. Finding that balance can be easier said than done, of course, but as long as you don’t get carried away by either extreme, your efforts for overall growth will be more fruitful.
These efforts toward finding your edges or limits can take many forms, and have the potential to be practiced anytime, anywhere. For example, some days I find the edge of my physical stamina or strength during an intense workout; other days this could be accomplished on a mental or spiritual level during a meditation session. It could also happen in the emotional realm during a difficult conversation with a loved one, helping a friend through a stressful life challenge, negotiating a resolution to a conflict with someone, confronting my self-righteousness in order to offer an apology, or by stepping outside my normal routine to donate my time, money or energy to a charitable cause. Other days I find my edge by reading a particularly dense philosophical text, or listening to a podcast about a challenging topic while simultaneously working on a challenging painting. In fact, working to solve any artistic problem to bring a piece of artwork to a place I can call “finished” is a constant endeavor, since that’s my chosen occupation. But in other moments, instead of being bored on a long flight I may attempt a crossword puzzle, or try to organize my thoughts (as I’m currently doing) into a coherent, insightful essay, challenging myself to help others through my words and the lessons life’s taught me. These seemingly insignificant tasks, often cynically dismissed as “nerdy” and considered trite in today’s culture, become the fuel for personal achievement and transcendence.
The unifying thread woven through all of the above examples is the intentional, mindful habit of challenging oneself in all areas of existence. This is built on an understanding of cognitive and behavioral research, which has shown that when habits are formed, it actually feels uncomfortable and unsatisfying to not complete the habitual action or behavior (William Glasser, Positive Addictions, Harper, 1985). Runners and other athletes become used to the endorphin high felt during their daily training session and may feel sluggish and irritable without it. Dedicated meditators and other spiritual practitioners might feel a lack of fulfillment and completion without their accustomed daily rituals.
Research has also shown that habits may take anywhere from one month to almost one year of daily repetition to become automatic and instinctual, depending on the complexity and difficulty of the action (European Journal of Social Psychology Volume 40, Issue 6, pages 998–1009, October 2010). Simple, pleasurable tasks may ingrain themselves in your psyche relatively quickly, but the most difficult challenges could take a while, which is why incorporating this self-challenge practice into your routine, in some small way each day, is so important.
The Path Of Resistance
Another way of explaining this practice is through the concept of physical resistance. All weight training, bodybuilding, and other fitness modalities are built upon this one inescapable law of physics. For example, a person’s muscles may reach failure and soreness after their first attempt at lifting a designated amount of weight. After the proper sequences of rest and further attempts are followed, the 20th attempt at lifting this same amount of weight may feel effortless, and the weight must then be increased so that the muscles can be challenged to grow stronger once more. In essence, if you undertake some type of challenge enough times in a controlled manner, the task will eventually become easier. Apply the weight resistance metaphor to anything difficult you’ve worked on in your life, and you’ll quickly see a correlation.
More than just a metaphor, physical training of any variety is an immediately accessible, concrete way to engage in a self-challenge practice, for those able or inclined. Moreover, there’s a degree of mental challenge incorporated into all physical challenge, which makes those types of activities doubly beneficial. Of course, not everyone is inclined towards physical or athletic pursuits, but what seems to be so overlooked in our modern convenience-based lifestyle is that we can challenge our minds in the same structured and intentional manner as a bodybuilder or athlete, in order to make them stronger and more adept at meeting the challenges of living.
The bottom line is that learning occurs in both the body and the mind, simultaneously or separately. Not to mention, learning also occurs in animals, plants and all forms of life as a matter of survival and beyond that, surthrival. Learning via resistance is quite simply a primal, universal force that drives all life, and we can tap into it as much as we’d like.
Expanding the Circle
A great way to picture all of this visually is to represent yourself or any person as a circle. Since a circle has no beginning or end, and no corners, openings or angles, it’s perfect for representing the psychological concepts of wholeness and growth. As previously discussed, repeated challenge leads to self-expansion, and we know that when a circle grows, the outside surface area, or circumference, increases. This allows more surface contact with the outside world and thus more opportunities for learning and success. And of course, a larger circle also allows the inside area to include and possess more: more knowledge, experience, feeling, etc. A timeline depicting this growth would look similar to a cross-section of a tree, containing a series of concentric rings. In short, the growth of the circle leads to a more self-actualized person who “transcends and includes” their former self or former mindstate (Ken Wilber, A Brief History Of Everything, Shambhala Press, 1996).
In contrast to this holistic or overall expansion, a circle becomes distorted when only a few parts of it experience growth—its perfect shape becomes irregular and lumpy—a great metaphor for mental illness, neurosis, or any lifestyle imbalance. But we can attempt to maintain our self as close to “a perfect circle” as possible by finding many avenues for personal expression, and by accepting challenges in all areas of life. The circle is an interconnected, unbroken whole, which means that all of its parts are related. By maintaining a mindset that looks for connections and capitalizes on correlations and relationships between seemingly disparate elements, your growth in one area can have indirect benefits on all the other areas of your life.
Going Against The Grain
One important distinction becomes apparent sometime after embarking on a personal challenge program: that you are suddenly at odds with the prevailing cultural attitude of convenience and pleasure craving. Someone obsessed with meeting and mastering challenges easily develops a counterintuitive yet healthy relationship to discomfort. The uneasiness of this feeling becomes a signpost letting you know you’re following the correct path, rather than a warning sign to turn around or shut down. Suffering (in appropriate amounts) becomes a valuable commodity, a friendly companion in a sometimes-lonely quest for betterment.
This has a profoundly transformative effect on one’s relationship to culturally reproduced meanings. It turns these meanings on their head, empties them of their prior significance. Suffering, discomfort, anxiety, displeasure, even failure—these demons of the cowardly—cease to be the dreaded indicators of personal shortcoming that our culture seems to indoctrinate us into believing. What this means is that you’ve taken an active role in your own mind, in the very production of meaning, rather than simply accepting it from outside sources, as a passive and helpless recipient. Quite simply, your self-challenge has resulted in a stronger and more capable mind.
Every day we are surrounded by people not yet comfortable with their edges, who protest and complain, whine and sulk, always denying or projecting their own fears. These projected fears become the imagined limitations of a harsh world around them. And it’s a scary place because it’s largely based on meanings and concepts they haven’t yet repurposed and reclaimed as their own. Think of the personal freedom for action and experience that exists outside of these traditional meanings and the excuses they engender! The great poet Rumi described this place in her poignant invitation, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
The great spiritual teacher and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has made this reversal of cultural attitudes toward pain the hallmark of her personal teachings. She sometimes calls the practices of inviting challenge or exploring discomfort for personal gain “leaning into the sharp points.” She writes in books with titles like The Places That Scare You and When Things Fall Apart that “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest” of comfort and familiarity. She continues by explaining, “To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.” Concepts like this, though perhaps uncommon in modern times, have been put to the test and proven through the ages. They’ve lent an invaluable depth of understanding and much-needed encouragement to my personal mission of discovering my fullest potential, as well as to many others across the world on similar journeys.
Down the Road
Living with these concepts begins to have another, more subtle transformative effect: you begin to embrace doing things now for the benefits you’ll reap later, like an expert chess player who thinks 5 moves in advance. Lifting weights once doesn’t guarantee an Olympian’s physique, nor does one meditation session result in total liberation of the mind. But small daily challenges and rational, calculated risks, repeated over a long enough span of time, help cultivate patience and an unshakable trust in yourself that helps you stay focused on your larger goals.
Anyone who’s heavily tattooed, such as myself, already has tremendous experience with this concept. We all know that getting tattooed can be painful, yet that doesn’t stop us from diving in, again and again, in order to get entire arms, legs, bodies covered…and then re-covered! The vast majority of us don’t do it because we enjoy physical pain or discomfort, but rather, because our sights are set on the lasting image we’ll be left with at the end. With trust in our own judgment, we’re willing to take a gamble and learn just how much we can endure.
Managing the Breakdowns
The effect of all this dedication and exertion in your life, ironically enough, is often an energizing sense of accomplishment rather than a draining sense of exhaustion. Especially when you’re exerting yourself in pursuits that you genuinely value, where you enjoy the process regardless of the end result. But like all aspects of life, energy levels and mental fortitude can ebb and flow, which leads to some inevitable low points. These lulls in the growth process require an appropriate strategy: one promoting rest, groundedness, and balance. For incredibly driven or focused people, this downtime can indeed be quite a challenge—it can take members of that personality type to a different part of their edge. But as the perfect circle example illustrates, this perhaps less familiar part of the self needs exploring and expanding just like all the others. Luckily for these people, periods of healing, relaxation, and recalibration can be worked into the system and viewed as yet another challenge. Thus, with the right approach, benefits can still be gained from aspects of living or self-exploration that might have initially seemed unproductive or less valuable.
Thomas S. Cowan, MD sums up this concept with the following explanation. He beautifully re-interprets the negative cultural view of illness into something positive, invoking ideas of personal growth and challenge:
“The word ‘health’ comes from the word ‘whole.’ In this holistic view, we can experience illness as an opportunity to generate spaces for transformation, create supportive rhythms and move towards balance. Symptoms of illness, then, are not enemies but friendly movements that guide us again towards wholeness. Healing involves re-balancing that which takes place in the spaces between formation and annihilation.
“Illness should not be viewed as a curse, but as a challenge to the human spirit, a stepping stone in the process of soul evolution, a crack in the door that, when opened, reveals inspiring vistas of the mysterious workings of the universe. The doctor can give potions and guidance, but each patient must make his or her own pilgrimage.” (The Fourfold Path to Healing, New Trends Publishing, 2004)
Conclusion: New Horizons
So what would our society look like if everyone wholeheartedly explored their personal limits, found their edges, played with them, gracefully forgave themselves for inevitable shortcomings and learned to remain steadfast in that shaky, uncertain, sometimes excruciating inner territory? My guess is that the resulting paradigm shift would have vastly positive effects on both the collective and personal levels. Individuals ready to take on challenges rather than shun their own edges and forfeit responsibility can produce a social and cultural environment of vast possibilities. Naturally, this collective effort would reciprocate back to the individual level by providing an environment continually supportive of mentally healthy behavior. This is once again the metaphor of the expanding circle, applied on a mass scale.
And for every tightrope walk along a razor’s edge that ended prematurely in recklessness, injury or disaster—as is bound to happen in any challenge-focused program—there’d be dozens more who made it to the other side, beyond expectations, into triumph and true transcendence. Perhaps you’ve experienced the magnetizing presence of these individuals: fully self-actualized, always willing, aware and compassionate in the face of any insult, chaos, or tragedy around them, inspiring others into action with their weighty words and deeds. There are always a few in any large group, and these are the much-needed leaders who will surely be ready to soften the landing for others suffering through premature falls and disasters.
The world could use more such leaders, but it stands little chance of seeing that happen until more of us begin the necessary work in our own lives, in small daily increments, whenever and wherever we see opportunity. Thus begins the process of moving towards fear rather than away from it, of reorienting ourselves along the path of resistance, inviting challenge and learning from struggle. Living against the grain by questioning socially reinforced meanings and cultural norms. Thinking of the self as an ever-expanding circle and striving towards holistic growth. A life fully lived, exploring the outer reaches of experience as well as the inner depths of consciousness. Barriers transcended, goals reached and dreams fulfilled.