I recently got to sit down and interview a good friend of mine, Kasper van der Meulen, founder of mindlift.com. An inspiring guy and fellow Wim How Method instructor, he used a few simple tools to pull himself out of a dark place that many people I speak to (including myself at one point) are in. I asked him to share his experience in the article below. If you want to view the full interview. you can find it at the end of the article.
How I Lost My Mind, Took It Back, and Lifted It Up
Written by: Kasper van Der Meulen
“This is what going crazy must feel like,” I remember thinking as my anxiety slowly turned my stomach upside down and sent a tidal wave of dark thoughts into my consciousness. My mental space used to be clear and orderly, with everything correctly in its place, but now it’s like I’m being terrorized by a rampant monkey that’s opening up the cabinets, tossing around my files, digging up old junk, and placing all of it into the front of my mind, all while screaming, “Look, this is wrong! So is this! Remember this? That’s wrong too!”
A few years ago, flashes of anxiety like this would come upon me regularly, and would seriously make me doubt my sanity. It turns out that this question of sanity is rooted in the wrong mindset, however; sanity had nothing to do with it. You see, it’s easy to feel like we are alone in our struggles, like we are somehow inherently different, inherently not good enough. In my experience, our inherent worth is out of the question, and our daily choices, habits, and behaviours are the things that shape our mental and emotional states.
Interestingly, in that period of mental and physical distress, I had not linked my collection of bad habits, including some popular favourites like smoking, drinking, overeating, binge-watching, and anything else I could use to escape reality, to my eighty pounds of excess weight, heart arrhythmia problem, back and shoulder pains, migraines, low energy, and poor concentration, or to the way that they led to feelings of anxiety and depression.
After some internal struggle, I finally went to visit a therapist, who was really a meditation teacher. He gave me a few mental exercises to get a grip on my thoughts, and I learned to work with the instant gratification-seeking, anxiety-producing monkey in my mind. Instead of trying to suppress and fight the monkey, I started studying it like a wild animal by simply paying careful attention to it and testing how it reacted to certain things.
Training the Monkey
I now had clarity to observe how my mental intention completely changed every physiological state in my body in a split second. That’s when it hit me — maybe my mind, my physiology, and their connection were tools that I could learn to work with. In that moment, a subconscious change of mind made the difference between feeling okay to feeling absolutely miserable. But what if a conscious change of mind could have a similar effect, just in a constructive and positive direction? If the mind is just a tool that I can learn to use, maybe I can decide how to use it, in a similar way that one can use a hammer to build a house or to bash someone’s head in. The hammer doesn’t care — it’s just a tool. The owner of the tool decides its application. That’s when I decided to become the owner of the tool that is my mind and lift myself into a new way of living.
This was not my first attempt at getting a grip on life, but this one was definitely different. There are three stupendously important mindset changes that caused me to finally make it happen:
- I used to blame external circumstances. Now I took full responsibility for everything in my life.
- Instead of trying to change who I was, my inherent identity, I set out to change what I did, my behaviour.
- I started to see my health and happiness not as a fixed state, but as a skill that I could practice.
As a science teacher and an education innovator, I was used to plowing through research papers and studies, so I looked for ways to translate the scientific literature into simple applications that I could use right away. This personal study took me to the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and biohacking, but also to ancient esoteric philosophies such as Zen and different types of breathwork. Science can be great for qualifying and quantifying things, but it can also develop a blindspot for the unquantifiable. Esoteric practices can be great for delving into deeper states of consciousness, but can also be clouded by ‘woo woo’ concepts, mystique, and tradition. I decided to apply a semi-scientific, personalized approach to testing it all, stripping it down to the core and
just keeping what worked for me.
The first game-changers I found were:
- Meditation: It trains the monkey mind to not react to every single thing.
- Mindful running: It strengthens the mind to stay focused, keeping the monkey busy.
- Nutrition: In my case, sugar and dairy feed the monkey, so I took them out.
With every lifestyle change I felt better. My concentration skyrocketed, my heart palpitations and deep anxieties almost disappeared, I lost weight, and cut down substantially on smoking and all-night video game and junk-food binges. I was out of my immediate mental and physical distress and back to a “normal” level of health. Still, I felt the need to continue. If I could move from bad health to normal health this effectively, what else could I gain? I decided to continue to optimize my development, both personally and professionally. I had already climbed out of my hole, so why not keep climbing to the top of the mountain and see what the view is like?
My insight into the role that focused attention and mental fitness plays in our lives inspired me to continue to study, experiment, and apply everything that could improve my mental and physical fitness. In the following years, I lost eighty pounds, quit smoking, fine-tuned my nutrition, and adopted a host of helpful habits and practices. I started to hunt down and challenge any and every limiting belief that I had about myself. Soon enough, all the “impossibles” I had learned to believe melted before my eyes.
The second set of game-changers I found were
- Breathwork: It taught me how every breath I take influences the state of my physiology.
- Cold exposure: Extreme environmental stress acts like a mirror of the ego and allows one to deeply train focus, effectively shutting up the monkey.
- Re-wilding: A daily practice to get in touch with nature, human nature.
Just a few years earlier, I had days when I was bedridden with migraines, back pains, and bad knees. I would spend weeks battling anxiety and stress and was so unfocused that I could hardly finish a sentence. By now, I’ve run multiple marathons on my bare feet, can lift twice my body weight dead off the floor, have climbed freezing mountains in just my shorts, created a successful business, wrote a bestselling book about focus in 30 days, and am travelling the world, teaching others these principles. The main difference between then and now? A series of conscious decisions and the willingness to put in the work.
Why am I telling you all this?
Here are a few things you should know:
You Are Not Alone
You either are or know someone who is dealing with (or has dealt with) burnout, depression, addiction, obesity, anxiety, etc. It seems to be a natural part of life. What’s unnatural is suppressing the truth about it and wearing an armour of fear-based conditioning that’s keeping you from truly living your life. Let’s start standing up, telling our stories, and seeing that we’re all not so different.
I Am Not Special
In this phase of my life — being a bestselling author travelling the world to teach people about these things — it’s easy to think that I have some kind of talent or special ability that allowed me to go from that unhealthy and unhappy past version to this current, more optimal version of me. I don’t. It’s abut doing the hard work day in and day out. That’s something you can do, too.
You Can Do It
The statement “you can do it” has lost a lot of its power due to overuse in the motivation industry. I’m not saying this to motivate you. I’m trying to say that this actually can be done. Once you start disconnecting your behaviour from your self-worth, learning about how your brain works best and what you really need to function optimally, it can be done. But it takes time, discomfort, and a lot of practice.
It Is As Simple As You Make It
The process of taking charge of your life can be very simple — hard, yes, but simple. In my book I have described the process of mental fitness. What is the mental muscle you want to train? What is the minimal amount of training you need to start to strengthen that muscle? If you can boil it down to just five minutes a day, you will be amazed at what you can do in 30 days, let alone a year. Here are some of my favourite five-minute practices for lifting your mind:
- Start breathing: Box breathing, 4,7,8 breathing, belly breathing, or just sitting down and watching your breath happen can all be super powerful. But if you really want get into it, check out the Wim Hof Method.
- Cold showers: It’s a little get-out-of-your-comfort-zone practice to start the day. If you do what is hard, life will become easy, and the cold shower is a great way to start (again, check out the Wim Hof Method).
- Learn to run barefoot: Jogging for just five minutes on your bare feet will strengthen your feet and improve your proprioception (spatial awareness).
- Sit down and shut up: Step back and watch the monkey mess around without interrupting or judging it. That’s it. Just 5-10 minutes a day. Another word for this is meditation.
Below is the audio and video of a full interview I did with Kasper where he shares more about his personal journey and some of his experiences.
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