Eric Stevens

Fitness Speaker, Author & Personality

Eric Stevens is a health and fitness coach, trainer and practitioner. Eric has broadened that body focused fitness with writing, presenting and acting in order to reach people, change lives, and create dialogue.

Filtering by Tag: Facing Uncertainty

Midlife

“Midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Tearing down the walls that we spent our entire life building is death. Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that, there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth.”  -  Brené Brown

 

We’ve all heard the term “midlife crisis.” Some might associate the phrase with the man who buys the fancy red sports car or leaves his wife for a younger woman. Midlife might also be thought of as the woman, who after decades of raising kids, decides it’s finally time to get her body (and life) back - She joins the gym, hires the trainer and gets plastic surgery to feel the vitality and freedom of youth once again. Though there are countless connotations and instances, these examples point to the stereotypical reaction for many to the midlife crisis – a change of personal or material circumstance.

In some ways, society sees such changes as positives. It’s considered noble to improve your body at any age. It’s thought of as admirable to find new love even if it’s at the expense of your previous love. And in our culture, red sports cars, while maybe a bit douchey, are highly coveted.

But regardless of the changes we make to alter our present material state, deep down we know what eventually awaits us. The truth is, there isn’t a sports car fast enough, a partner young and attractive enough, or a body strong and defined enough to protect you from life’s setbacks and the travails of aging. In the long run, you cannot trade your current ‘model’ in for a better, sexier, or younger one. Facing your aging self, failures, and mortality is something everyone must eventually grapple with. You can’t outrun your shadow no matter how fast you run on the treadmill of life.

Still, many of us desperately flee from the inevitability of midlife and the traumas associated with aging and loss. But midlife isn’t just about physical decline or only reserved for those in their 40’s and 50’s. Anyone who suffers a crisis of identity can feel the burdens of midlife. John Mayer even used the term “quarter life crisis” in his song “Why Georgia.”

How we define ourselves in things like our relationships and professional identities will morph over time. Our physicality will also change like the seasons. Such profound change can spark a sense of crisis in many. Personally speaking (though I am literally facing midlife as I write this) the ‘midlife’ crisis is not a new concept for me. Whether it was traumatic physical setbacks like reconstructive ear and rotator cuff surgeries in my 20’s, a significant career transition in my 30’s or divorce in my 40’s, I’ve learned that the daunting prospect of massive life change is a part of any stage of life, not just midlife.

One of the paradoxes of getting older is that we seek to reverse or slow aging and uncertainty through avenues and material things that we feel we can directly control - our body, money, relationships or professional status. But at the end of the day, the notion of control in any of these arenas is a fallacy. Money can’t protect you from disease, injury or heartbreak. Even the best, most fulfilling job in the world at some point will run its course. Relationships evolve, change and eventually end. And, as the laws of physics and gravity dictate, the race against your aging body is not a winnable one. Try as we might, as Brené Brown suggests, “you’re going down.”

You ultimately have the choice to go down kicking and screaming or you can accept your next chapter with grace and surrender to the notion of rebirth.

As athletes know all too well, defining life by your physical capabilities is a young person’s game. I’ve often wondered what the aging star athlete sitting at the end of the bench thinks as the clock keeps ticking. What questions does she ask – ‘Who am I?’ ‘What’s next?’ ‘How do I start the next chapter?’ These are questions all of us must ask at some point. Each life crisis we face whether quarterlife, midlife or old age all bring forth opportunities for rejuvenation, renewal and reawakening.

In the Bible it’s clear that ‘rebirth’ is a necessary step in spiritual evolution. Yet starting anew isn’t confined by the physical constraints of aging. It isn’t physical strength or abundant material resources that are requirements for a fresh start, but the vitality of a youthful and humble disposition. And when it comes to spiritual rebirth it isn’t by planning, controlling, or seeking new answers that we grow, but by the willingness to ask new questions. Midlife isn’t a crisis we must endure, but an opportunity to evolve our state of mind.

At a recent crossroads in my life a few years ago, a friend suggested reading the book Falling Upward by Richard Rohr commenting that the questions I was asking were ‘second half’ questions. Rohr’s book asserts that there are essentially two ‘halves’ of life - The first half is characterized by worldly pillars of power, comfort and recognition. We spend this first half of life constructing and filling up our “containers.” That is, pursuing status and professional success, establishing defined roles (as friend, spouse, relative or parent) and compiling worldly possessions. Rohr describes such first half actions as “rising, achieving accomplishing, and performing.”

Conversely, the second half is about self-emptying and the willingness to let go of our earthly definitions. The second half is characterized by the actions of contemplation and surrender and by the willingness to wrestle with purpose-driven, existential queries. Though Jung first popularized the term “two halves,” instead of relating the notion to aging, Rohr likens the second half as having the courage to let go of ego. Meister Eckhart captured the essence of the second half eloquently, stating,“To be full of things is to be empty of God. To be empty of things is to be full of God.”

While the search for meaning and moving beyond our ego can be seen as a terrifying downward spiral for some, Rohr actually calls this process “falling upward.” But even if you don’t buy the spiritual notion of the ‘second half,’ anyone can buy into the concept of staying young at heart. While we will all likely encounter physical challenges, loss, fractured relationships and career setbacks, we needn’t suffer lasting mental anguish and an ‘elderly’ state of mind. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, “This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”

Not to completely dismiss the first half mind you. I’ve spent the better part of my life in pursuit of my professional identity, health and a fit body. Certainly, I enjoy the fruits of my labors and cherish my close relationships and my roles as a son, friend, brother, and husband. Filling up our ‘containers’ is natural and responsible. But jobs, possessions, relationships and even experiences don’t define the real essence of us - qualities do.

Facing midlife is about having the courage to let go of material desires and the resolution to replace that drive with a different type of tenacity. As Rohr suggests, the mark of rebirth is to be “grounded, not guarded” in giving our authentic gifts.

Falling or getting knocked down is a part of life and for many, an acute crisis in midlife. Getting back up with humility, an open heart and the desire for rebirth is our true task at any stage of life.

Where is my mind?

“The best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all” - John Kabat-Zinn

One of my acting teachers used to begin each class with the simple instruction of telling us to “feel our feet on the ground.” The request sounds somewhat ridiculous at face value. After all, if you’re standing, where else could your feet be but on the ground?

My teacher wasn’t just making an obvious request though, he was asking us to be present and to genuinely feel our feet connecting to the earth - to breathe and be in the moment. As a physical artist, the only way an actor finds truth is to be wholly present and the only way to be wholly present is to breathe and feel your feet on the ground. That’s where the work begins.

Feeling my feet on the ground has sometimes been an elusive goal. Like many Americans, for most of my life, I’ve continuously drank the Kool-Aid that doing is succeeding. It’s almost as if ‘dream it and do it’ should be inscribed on our nation’s flag.

We are a nation of doers and our culture is predicated on the self-made individual. Making a life worth living in our society means building, climbing, and most of all, doing. In order to sharpen our saws for doing, many of us incorporate the habit of a “practice.” That is, a process of cultivating a skill, craft, or discipline.

Practice helps prepare us for doing more and in turn, succeeding. Or at least, that’s the idea. In fitness, I have been exercising regularly since I was a teenager. As an actor, rehearsal has helped me learn my lines and try new approaches. As a marital artist, sparring kept me sharp and helped me learn to defend myself. I’ve been practicing and doing constantly for much of my life.

Part of why I love fitness are the “laws” associated with the practice, starting with rule number one, effort = success. While you can’t will yourself to be talented or artistic, you can will yourself to be in great shape. Practice doesn’t make perfect with exercise, but it certainly pays off.

But even with well-intentioned effort, exercise isn’t immune from the laws of failure either. The human body often has other ideas than a linear progression of advancement. There is aging and injury to contend with, and life sometimes gets in the way of expressing our physicality.

Fitness is just like any other endeavor from jobs to relationships to daily activities – there are peaks and valleys, waves and calm waters. Our job is simply to be present, learn, and let go.  

The reality is however, that during a setback we tend to stick with our default - staying busy and doing more. When our body breaks down, we seek distractions and new activities. When we lose our professional identity or relationship, we stay occupied by seeking a new one. But what happens when all of our doing, practicing, and trying doesn’t materialize? What happens when doing becomes a distraction from the essential work of observation?

While it’s tempting to double down during failure and keep ourselves occupied, doing so doesn’t necessarily serve us as well. As a wise teacher once reminded me “Eric, you can’t run faster than your shadow.”

At such a crossroads, it’s time to go back to step one – to feel your feet on the ground and know that true ‘success’ isn’t your job, your body, or even your relationships, but qualities and character. A season of change calls for a new form of practice, but not the sort where you count the sets and reps.

We tend to think of the word practice in terms of repetition with the intention of getting better at something. But the practice of mindfulness is simply about paying attention and capturing the present. Becoming more mindful isn’t about doing more or rehearsing more diligently. There’s merely the art of releasing your expectations and allowing the universe to flow through you. As meditation guru and best-selling author John Kabat-Zinn states, “Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.”

In recent years I’ve had to learn how to stop doing and start being. Being mindful isn’t about trying harder or doing more, but mindfulness does require the same qualities that promote successful doing - intention and discipline. With the art of being mindful, life itself becomes the practice of commitment to the present moment. For now, that’s enough.

Riders on the Storm

So apparently, there's a chance I am (or was) Jim Morrison! I came across this realization after experiencing one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had. In my dream, I actually became the figure of Jim, performing “Break on Through” as well as his last ever written song, “Riders on the Storm.” In typical Doors-like fashion, the dream was mysterious, hazy, and very strange. I even forgot some of the lyrics to ‘my’ own song while performing in front of a sea of people in a dark auditorium.

Feeling moved by the experience, I had the dream interpreted with the help of a ‘spiritual director.’ After some research, I realized Morrison died just a few days before I was born. This fact pretty much sealed my assertion and my dream advisor’s hypothesis and half-joking suggestion that I once lived as Morrison in a previous life.

As I took the dream analysis a step further though, the focus became less about the figure of Jim Morrison and more about the two songs featured in my dream. Why these two songs and what do they mean? At the time, “Break on Through” (to the other side) seemed a more prominent theme in my life and somewhat obvious in meaning and application – to break through the noise, clutter, and my shadow self and live authentically. To break through the preconceived notions of how things should be and act truthfully instead of acting in accordance with trying to please others.

Breaking through has been a continual battle in my life, but the song that has ultimately struck a lasting chord with me is “Riders.” At the time of my dream, I had just come out of a storm and a major life change (divorce, move, and professional transition). The timing and metaphor of riding on the storm seemed highly appropriate. After a short time though, my storm passed as did the memory of the dream. It was back to smooth sailing.

The other day, I happened to be quietly sitting at work when “Riders on the Storm” came on the radio. I was immediately struck again by the song and its underlying meaning. Literal storm waters have again been brewing in recent months. As I embark on yet another life shift (marriage, move, and professional transition), the prospect of a stormy uncertainty lurks.

With change again on my mind, I decided to dig a little deeper into some of ‘my’ lyrics and meaning. My initial analysis on "Riders" had much to do with marinating on the storms of life and the importance of riding or surfing on the wave, versus getting swallowed up in the tumultuous waters. But taking a harder look at Morrison’s lyrics have brought additional insight to the meaning. Some phrases seem obvious such as “Into this world we’re thrown” and “like a dog without a bone.” However, one phrase has jumped out at me in particular – “An actor out on loan.”

I took a look at some of the comments online and found the following analysis:

“’An Actor out on loan’ is a metaphor for powerlessness. It’s an old theater and movie term, dating back to the days of the studio system, when many contract actors had no control over their own careers…studio officials could hire them out on a whim to other studios for parts that could be destructive of their own careers. The first thing an actor did when he was in sufficient demand to dictate his own terms was to eliminate that clause in their contracts with the studios."

"An actor goes out there and if he is to be marvelous or even worth his salt he must be naked to the soul, exposed to the core. Vulnerable beyond belief. He must be his most private self in the most public of places. In front of the whole world."

Indeed, we are all ‘actors’ on our own journeys and life’s storms present our biggest stages. This week I spoke with an acquaintance who was recently in Las Vegas and at the tragic concert shooting. In a stormy moment of gunfire and panic, his immediate instinct was to help those who were wounded and to assist others in dragging them to safety. His genuine nature to act with compassion and dignity were apparent even in the very darkest imaginable human circumstances.

Hopefully, most of us can live full and meaningful lives without having to encounter such a horrific tragedy. But it is a certainty that all of us will encounter storms. Some of those storms will be powerful and even beyond our control. But as ‘actors out on loan,’ it is up to us to find the naked vulnerability to rise to the occasion and find our own truth and humility. It is only through such authenticity that we can ride the wave safely to reach the calm waters once again.