This series, curated by Brian Johnson, founder of PhilosophersNotes, features big ideas from leading thinkers on a wide range of personal-development topics. Find his summary video and full PDF of “The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self” (free!) below.
In this great book, Alex Lickerman, MD, draws on the tenets of Nichiren Buddhism and Western science to argue that resilience isn’t something people are born with — but it is something we can all develop.
Lickerman outlines nine principles of constructing an indestructible self: finding your mission, making a vow, expecting obstacles, standing alone, accepting pain, letting go, appreciating the good, encouraging others, and mustering your courage.
Here are a few of my favorite ideas from this book, which is chock-full of wisdom on developing the inner strength necessary to enjoy our lives — even in the face of adversity.
Let’s kick it off by taking a quick look at the core of Nichiren Buddhism. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, which argue that the root of our suffering is our attachment to our desires, Nichiren Buddhism teaches that suffering stems from our mistaken belief that we cannot powerfully meet the challenges we face in our daily lives.
For instance, Lickerman says that one of the most extreme examples of suffering — clinical depression — is essentially a complete sense of powerlessness.
In order to overcome our suffering, we must create an undefeatable mind. That is, one that is absolutely resolute in the knowledge that, although we cannot control what happens to us, we can obtain the greatest benefit possible from each -obstacle we encounter.
Discover Your Mission
Step one in creating an indestructible self is finding your mission. Lickerman argues that all humans share the same life purpose — to be happy — but adds that we all have unique manifestations of what we’re here to do as individuals. This distinct reason is our mission.
In order to determine our mission, Lickerman advises us to consider how we can serve others profoundly. He writes that “we need a why to live that in some way involves contributing to the well-being of others.”
He also offers a cool, simple exercise to help us articulate our mission. First, identify the 50 things that you’ve done in your life that have given you the most joy. Then identify which of those things have helped other people.
Finally, he encourages you to imagine that you’re 90 years old and are receiving an award from the president. Ask yourself: What do you want to be honored for a lifetime of doing? What do you give your life to that gives you joy and involves creating value for others? The answer is your mission.
Having an indestructible self is about being resilient. One way to build resiliency is to get back up after falling and to shift your definition of failure. Success isn’t about never failing: It’s about knowing that you have the mojo to get back up. This knowing is essential to crafting an undefeatable mind.
Failure is the new awesome! It shows that you’ve put yourself out there and that you’re striving to create value. Getting back up every time you’re knocked down, working harder to master yourself, and making the most of your obstacles are the essence of the second principle to crafting an undefeated mind. They’re the key to ultimate victory in every aspect of our lives.
View Obstacles as Opportunities
Lickerman introduces the notion of “changing poison into medicine” (as it is known in Nichiren Buddhism) in the context of the third principle of creating an indestructible mind: Expect obstacles.
“Believing in your ability to transform poison into medicine when you don’t know how, and often won’t except in retrospect, is difficult,” Lickerman admits. “But, that’s the confidence you have to find. That’s the confidence that represents your greatest defense against discouragement.”
We need to stop thinking that we’re going to somehow cruise through life without any hiccups; when we encounter them, we need to stop seeing it as a sign that something is wrong with us.
In order to be resilient, we need to expect obstacles, or “poison.” Then we need to believe in our ability to turn that poison into medicine — to take the stuff that we’re afraid might kill us and, through force of character, transform it into stuff that makes us stronger.
The eighth principle of creating an indestructible self is to encourage others. Lickerman argues that people aren’t looking for advice; they’re looking for encouragement. They want to feel that others believe in them. They want someone to see their unconquerable spirit even when (-especially when) they don’t see it themselves.
“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,” he writes. “Encouragement, at its heart, represents an attempt to make others feel that they have the strength, wisdom, courage, and ability to solve their problems themselves; it aims not to provide specific solutions but to make others believe they can find those solutions on their own. With encouragement, we express our belief in the indefatigable power of the human spirit to make what appears to be impossible possible, all in the hopes of awakening the same belief in those we’re trying to encourage.”
Encouraging others is generous and kind. Make it a practice. Next time someone comes to you for help, pause on giving advice and let her know that she, too, can turn her poison into medicine.
May we never give in to despair, and resolve to continue taking concrete action. May we create an indestructible self!