Zen and the Art of Manning Up!
When I was asked to look into something called “Zen Warrior Training,” a personal growth program led by Sam Morris, a T-12 paraplegic, I was a little worried. This is LA. There is a Tony Robbins life-coach-in-training on every corner, 10-step soul-enhancing program in hand. Would I be entering a room of true believers and be grilled about my deepest secrets? Would I be asked to walk on hot coals, especially hard to do in a wheelchair? Is this how Scientology recruits its converts?
I’m happy to say, having been around Morris—a kind of accidental life coach cum motivational speaker—and watching him work, my fears have abated. Sam’s advice and mental training come from the heart and from the crucible of experience —the experience of paralysis.
At 24, Morris had just biked across the entirety of America with a group of teenagers when, two months later, he got into the wrong car one night and ended up in a wheelchair. He was very athletic—loved skiing, biking and snowboarding, among other sports—and was even contemplating a career in outdoor leadership. His identity was crushed. “My whole living revolved around using my legs,” he says.
He went from marathon cyclist to a man who felt as helpless and dependent as a child. Then, over a two year period, he spent almost a year in hospital beds because of pressure sores, including a seven-month spell at Rancho Los Amigos undergoing five different surgeries on one intractable wound. He had a lot of time to think about his life and especially how to think about it differently. Out of this came “Zen Warrior Training.”
“Zen,” in this context, means trying to live in the present and affect your life right now. “Warrior” means to attack with warrior-like commitment the ways you think and act that block you from moving forward. This is not about bumper sticker slogans. It’s about self-mastery.
Most of us who become paralyzed go through some kind of transformation, however imperfect, and get back to our lives. The difference with Morris is that he carefully watched what was happening to him, or more importantly, how he could in some way take charge what was happening to him. Because he was initially embarrassed, ashamed and without sexual function, it was for him “difficult to feel like a full male.” How to deal with male expectations, sexual or otherwise, became a principal focus. One of his regular group sessions is called “Zen for Men,” where men of all stripes, disabled and non-disabled, deal with their own paralysis of mind, spirit and circumstances.
The epiphany for Morris came when he realized, well into his recovery, that two things were happening at once. First, he felt completely cut off from his own signposts of personal power—physical prowess and the ability to support himself and his family, two defining aspects of being a man in this culture. At the same time, he realized that he was slowly acquiring a form of power he had previous lacked: the power of resiliency. His focus made a 180-degree shift. He could see, in his words, “the opportunity within the challenge” of paralysis. He no longer mourned his pre-injury self. He embraced who he now was.
The reality of being paralyzed didn’t change, his attitude did. As he developed his training program, he realized that “attitude is 95 percent of what I do.” And not “attitude” in some “snap out of it” quick fix. He is talking about the unnoticed assumptions we often make in our instant reaction to things. Someone pushes your buttons, and you respond without thinking, then realize afterward you had no control over that reaction. Learning to see and control those reactions is at the heart of Morris’s work.
It’s a tough thing to be able to note how you interpret some event or encounter— your attitude towards it—and then interpret it in a different way that isn’t self-defeating and maybe even illuminating. It takes a huge amount of awareness to be on top of this, and awareness requires mental discipline. Once you begin to develop this discipline, you can gradually take control of your life, paralyzed or not.
“Attitude,” says Morris, “is a muscle. It takes regular training or else it goes weak.” Having the ability to detach yourself from destructive attitudes is not something you are born with. Nor is it divine magic. It takes practice. Probably thousands of hours of hit and miss practice. It’s, in other words, a big damn challenge.
In Morris’s view, challenges are good things. Challenges are tests and demand a disciplined response. If you think, like many Americans, that a challenge-free life is Valhalla—no money worries, no one bossing you around or passing judgment on your worth—then you may be headed toward a life of impotency and regret.
Here’s a quick example from Morris’s life: Lying in that hospital bed, he was overcome with despair. His life had come to a complete stop. He knew he had to escape that attitude and shift his intention. His new intention was to use this time to build his relationship with his wife and build a new system of thought. As he says, “I stuck with that attitude as strongly as I could through the next four months and miraculous things happened as a result.” He and his wife worked through some major problems, and he used the entire mental exercise to formulate his training. “It was my own next level of training for myself in the power of intention and attitude.”
Morris has a set of seven principles that he uses to find his way back from his own missteps and dead-ends. That’s too much to deal with here, so I’ll focus on one difficult one: Be accountable. Rather than blaming others or “fate” for your situation, own up to your own part in the proceedings. Morris: “Every time I’ve missed the mark and blamed someone else, it’s like giving away my own power to change. Accountability is necessary to feel like a free human being and in charge of my life.”
None of this stuff is easy and may even sound like feel-good, you-can-do-it gobbledygook to some. But Morris’s thinking is grounded in the reality of his own post-injury experience and the benefits, really, of the enormous challenge he faced. When he talks to high school kids about how their attitudes can direct their lives, his wheelchair speaks volumes.
“I’m not just making this stuff up or regurgitating something I read in a book,” he says. “These ideas have been thoroughly road-tested…by me.
In addition to coaching private clients and businesses in Zen Warrior Training, Morris hosts bi-weekly classes in Santa Monica, and leads community talks and workshops throughout the country.
Visit zenwarriortraining.com for more information.
Challenges are man’s greatest ally in disguise, and by learning how to conquer them, we develop power, vitality, influence and a greater connection to our authentic selves.
True success is the result of a disciplined mind, a balanced personal life, healthy relationships and fulfilling work.
Our thoughts are simply thoughts, our feelings are simply feelings, our experience is simply our experience. When we let go of trying to change things and embrace what is real in each moment, this simple yet profound truth will reveal our true nature.
Warriors know that each obstacle in their lives is another opportunity to grow stronger and more resilient as human beings, and, thus, contribute in more powerful ways to the betterment of themselves and the world.
Article by Allen Rucker © The Hub SoCal Magazine published by Style Media Group.
Photography by Xander Mozejewski.
Article appears in the Premiere 2015 Issue of The Hub So Cal Magazine.