The Undefeated Mind

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Over the last twenty years, I’ve watched thousands of patients struggle with a variety of ailments, from minor colds to life-threatening cancers. And though the majority of them eventually found relief from their suffering, the suffering of some of them left me breathless: the pilot who became so vertiginous he couldn’t sit up for two years without vomiting; the mother who died of a rare cardiac tumor knowing she was leaving three small children behind with no relatives to care for them; the elderly man who donated a kidney to his son only then to watch him die of AIDS.

Watching these patients—caring for them—has taught me what I consider to be the most important lesson I’ve ever learned: that our capacity to suffer may be immense, but so is our ability to endure it—if we’ve taken effective steps to develop our strength. The things we may be called upon to do may not be easy; they may not be what we want to do; they may not even do much. But if we’ve actively prepared ourselves to withstand adversity, there is always a way to victory over suffering.

Sometimes such a victory requires a single dramatic intervention fraught with risk; at other times, a series of multiple, small interventions whose individual effects may be minor but whose collective power is vast. This latter thing, in fact, is what I’ve most commonly observed among my patients. Learning to accept pain, for example, really does make pain easier to withstand, yet sometimes only slightly. But when added to a fierce determination to accomplish an important mission, as well as to an expectation that accomplishing that mission will require the feeling of even more pain, strength often appears that makes large problems seem abruptly small. Though the effort required to maintain a high life-condition often seems great, in reality it only needs to be wise. As when the crippling anxiety that one of my patients was experiencing resolved in the moment he discovered the contribution he most wanted to make with his life, sometimes we only need to pull a lever a few degrees to move our lives in a radically different direction.

On the other hand, sometimes no matter how hard we pull, our lives don’t seem to move at all. Some struggles, in fact, take years or even decades to win (one of the titles bestowed upon the Buddha was “He Who Can Forbear”). But as long as we refuse to give in to despair and resolve to continue taking concrete action, some kind of victory is always possible.

This is the reason I wrote my new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, which will be published on Tuesday—for as melodramatic as its subtitle sounds, the promise it makes is real: resilience really can be learned. As amorphous as the concept of “inner strength” often seems, our ability to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity, our ability to push on through disappointment and discouragement when obstacles arise in the pursuit of our goals, is as measurable a quantity as is the strength of our biceps. And like the strength of our biceps, it can also be increased.

But also like increasing the strength of our biceps, increasing our ability to withstand hardship requires real work. And by real work I mean specific work. There are strategies whose pursuit will make us stronger and strategies whose pursuit will not (if we spend our lives golfing and expect our muscles to become as strong as they would if we instead spent our lives lifting weights, for example, we’re going to be sorely disappointed).

No one is exempt from loss. No one will forever avoid the sting of failure. But more than anything else, how we respond to these things is what determines how happy our lives will be. If we want to be happy, then, free to enjoy the things we have and avoid being broken by the things we will inevitably lose, we must make strength our primary goal.

This, then, is what it means to possess an undefeated mind: not just to rebound quickly from adversity or to face it calmly, even confidently, without being pulled down by depression or anxiety, but also to get up day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade–even over the course of an entire lifetime–and attack the obstacles in front of us again and again and again until they fall, or we do. An undefeated mind isn’t one that never feels discouraged or despairing; it’s one that continues on in spite of it. Even when we can’t find a smile to save us, even when we’re tired beyond all endurance, possessing an undefeated mind means never forgetting that defeat comes not from failing but from giving up. An undefeated mind doesn’t fill itself with false hope, but with hopes to find real solutions, even solutions it may not want or like. An undefeated mind is itself what grants us access to the creativity, strength, and courage necessary to find those real solutions, viewing obstacles not as distractions or detours off the main path of our lives but as the very means by which we can capture the lives we want. Victory may not be promised to any of us, but possessing an undefeated mind means behaving as though it is, as though to win we only need wage an all-out struggle and work harder than everyone else, trying everything we can, and when that fails trying everything we think we can’t, in full understanding that we have no one on whom we can rely for victory but ourselves. Possessing an undefeated mind, we understand that there’s no obstacle from which we can’t create some kind of value. We view any such doubt as a delusion. Everyone–absolutely everyone–has the capacity to construct an undefeated mind, not just to withstand personal traumas, economic crises, or armed conflicts, but to triumph over them all.

Attaining this state may seem impossible, an ability granted only to an extraordinary few like Viktor Frankl or that great champion of freedom, Nelson Mandela. But the tools those luminaries used to achieve their goals are available to us all. Extraordinary people may be born, but they can also be made. We need only look around at the number of people in everyday life who demonstrate the same resilience as a Viktor Frankl or a Nelson Mandela for proof that an undefeated mind isn’t nearly so rare a thing as we think.

Next Week: The Magical Power Of “Safe” Words To Prevent Harm

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  • Bicycling in rural Southeast Ohio last year I saw words written on a garage that seem relevant here: “Your life is God’s gift to you. What you make of it is your gift to God.”

  • As always, thank you Alex for your sharing your beautiful belief in our ability to develop resiliency, regardless. I look forward to purchasing your book on Tuesday, after I vote.

  • I found your post interesting and valuable. Every day I work at improving my thoughts and how to see obstacles as opportunities. Then I ordered your book.

  • Excellent, Alex—”not just to withstand … but to triumph.” Our expectations are often too low; a million societal messages beat us down via comparison to some out of reach ideal.

    I am reminded of Kipling’s wonderful poem, “If.”

    Lisa: One of my favorite poems.


  • Am looking forward to reading your book very much. I often feel a bit worn down, worn out by motherhood… it’s such a noisy state of being! Always good to read more on resilience.

  • It is so true that we cannot give up and that we all have an undefeated mind within us to withstand anything. Great read.

  • Things are difficult right now for me and I am feeling depressed and uninspired to fight on—seems like your book is arriving at just the right moment for me. Congratulations on its publication!

    Tara: Thanks! I hope it helps you.


  • Holy Cow,

    Oops, sorry maybe wrong wording? 🙂

    Alex, your book description has simply (though complicated) given me a strong platform (NO, not political—though I suppose appropriate for tonight) or perhaps a “jumping board” to find courage, strength and most importantly the ability to seek solutions for my {own happiness in this world}. Just reading your description is exciting ~it makes ME feel worthy~ if your book is as inspirational as the post above I’ll buy it!

    Well done!

    001mum: I hope you find it so!


  • I meant YOUR post. (No disrespect meant to “post above.”)

  • Ordered. And if I may crib, shipping costs as much as the book. Superb lucidity in the sample chapter. Neat!

  • Pardon my nitpicking (I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s genetic in my case), but your use of the word “victory” somehow strikes a dissonant chord.

    Unless I’ve missed your entire line-of-reasoning, is the ultimate “victory” a death by natural causes? Would assisted-suicide be a “defeat” in your opinion?

    Or perhaps there is no “ultimate” victory, but instead a series of victories over “obstacles” (genetic or otherwise) that prevent people from achieving the goals they define for themselves.

    Or maybe I should just read the book?

    Steve: I spend the entire first chapter defining “victory” so at the risk of sounding self-serving: yes, just read the book. If that chapter doesn’t clarify it for you, please come back here and ask again.


  • Congratulations on the release of your book. I very much look forward to reading it.

  • Your writings on learned resilience hold such meaning for me. I know it is possible to learn resilience for I am someone who has come from a very dark place in which recovery from my depression and anxieties seemed impossible to a place of light, strength, and peace. We are infinitely, wonderfully capable of growing, yet many of us do not believe it possible. I look forward to reading your book and learning even more. Thank you. Your blog continues to inspire me.

  • My copy of the book’s traversed the seven seas and swept past the mountains (ah for some poetic liberty) and reached me today.

    I shall read it slowly.

    Mira: I hope you enjoy it quickly!


  • I’ve read about half of the book. I’ve found it eye-opening—learning how to see things differently even though I study a lot and have been practicing 19 years, studying daily. I look forward to reading the rest.

    Diana: I’m so glad you’re finding it interesting and helpful.


  • …and I have been underlining certain phrases and sentences and marking pages, as I have always done with articles in SGI-USA’s weekly newspaper and monthly magazine.

  • What a horrible post, especially to read after the “True Cause of Depression” one, which is what brought me to this site. In that post, you (correctly, IMO) identified the main cause of depression in the feeling or perception of being powerless to solve one’s problems. Here, you try to make it sound like being powerful is a matter of pure choice—you wake up one day, decide that now you do have enough power to solve the problem that up until yesterday was insoluble, and voilá.

    The only thing this post does for me is to accuse me of being the creator of my own depression, due to the character flaw that makes me simply not want to break the laws of physics and pull myself up by my own bootstraps—a flawed, anti-winning, anti-competition, anti-capitalist mindset, which then makes me a flawed human being, which makes me deserve to feel bad.

    The rationale is that I’m depressed because I’m a loser, and I’m a loser just because I refuse to adopt the right thinking—not because I’m irremediably ill-equipped for the competition, not because other people cheat and get away with it (actually get rewarded for it), not because the whole game is inhumane anyway. But because I commit the sin of refusing to deify the competition and accept those who win at it (due to having had access to the primordial tools that they then take for granted, or sustain that everyone gets the same tools) as superior beings.

    I don’t even know why I’m writing this, since you’re probably gonna delete my post, so as not to allow negative comments in the main publicity page of your site. (Hint: your book can already be downloaded for free in pirate sites anyway.) But you should be ashamed to call yourself “Buddhist” when you so clearly espouse capitalistic values and the homicidal competition intrinsic to them, when the Buddha would have clearly advised not to compete.