By Matthew L. Moseley
I first met ex-fighter pilot and Naropa graduate Mark Williams on a political campaign years ago where he was our foreign affairs advisor. Mark now runs VUMind and is a much sought after mental conditioning and meditation consultant. For professional development, Mark and I began working together in the summer of 2012.
Not long after, I hurt my leg in Moab and had 17 screws and four plates holding my ankle together. Suddenly mental conditioning took on a new purpose and importance in those hard times after surgery. It was during the recovery when I conceived of doing three world record swims as a goal and a way to bring my body back from convalescence.
In a period of thirteen months last year, I completed three swims that had never been done before: 25 miles across Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans; from the island of Culebra to Puerto Rico for 24.5 miles and down the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park for 47.5 miles. All the swims were nonstop with no assistance or floatation and followed World Open Water Swimming Association guidelines.
These adventures took years of physical training, putting together an experienced team and the right coach. However, mental conditioning became a critical part of my training and was a key element in the swims when the going got tough.
What do I mean by mental conditioning? The way Mark explained it to me, this wasn’t going to be sitting back on cushions blissing out. He gave me “sets for the mind” in the same way an athlete might do sets in a gym. These mind sets were no less difficult or exhausting.
Think of the mind as a giant mag light. Sitting in a chair with a straight back and palms down, bring the focus of the mag light in tight as a laser. Focus all energy and attention, coming through the breath, on one single point on the floor about eight feet away. All distractions and thoughts begin to fade, and when the mind invariably wanders, recognizing and simply re-turning to the practice.
Now bring the mag light as wide as possible. The eyes gaze up to a single point with hyperawareness of everything around including sound, taste, smell, touch and sight. Aware, but still intently focused on the breath.
Now, practice going between the two. Bring the mag light of the mind tight and then wide with about three sets of 20-30 breaths each. This exercise is ultimately about harnessing awareness—our strongest and most important muscle.
In this state of heightened awareness, our practice would move to detailed visualizations of the swims: waking up, feeling my toes in the water, feedings every 25 minutes, my stroke and the joy of the finish. We didn’t always visualize bright sunny days when everything went correctly. We thought of various scenarios when everything went horribly wrong: stormy weather, choppy waters, vomiting and getting attacked by an alligator.
And the going did tough, especially on Lake Pontchartrain. After swimming for 13.5 hours, I began to get disoriented and very fatigued. I started thinking of a laser from my heart extending into the water. I was riding the breath and blocking out the distractions of pain and severe nausea. Just focus on the breath and each stroke. Be present in the moment and think of nothing else. We had visualized and trained for this moment and I was ready.
I still vividly remember those clarion moments where my mind transcended my body. As long as I intently concentrated on my breath and stroke, everything faded. I repeated the mantra from my coach Randy Soler: Less than before. I was driving the chariot of my awareness.
These techniques can be applied to every aspect of life and not just endurance sports: Dealing with difficult people, remaining calm in stressful situations and making better decisions.
A person can train their body to swim for 15 hours straight. But after a while, it becomes much more than a physical endeavor, it becomes a mental game. In adventure sports, as in life, success isn’t just training the body, the most critical element could be in training the mind.
Find out more on the ability to train and change your brain and about Mark Williams’ new program on Gaia TV.
For more from Matt Moseley, join us tomorrow night in Boulder (1/28/16) for a special evening inspired by water with David Amram, Matt Moseley and American Rivers. The event will be a celebration of recent efforts in water protection and conservation as well as an opportunity to discuss how to to improve the health and vitality of water in Colorado and beyond.