Osher Günsberg On The 'Mental Burpee' Everyone Needs To Do

Osher Günsberg on the mental burpee everyone needs to do

One of the hardest but most beneficial things you can do to balance your mental equilibrium is start taking notice of the world around you. Like, really noticing

AS SOMEONE WHO was once on the cover of Men’s Health with my shirt off, I can safely say that in comparison to that photo, I am out of shape. Compared to where I was mentally when that photo was taken, however, right now I’m in way better shape.

That’s not to say that recent local and global events haven’t put a strain on that. When it comes to mental fitness, the recent weeks living in my city of Sydney has been like trying to play first grade footy with no preseason warm-up. I’m sure you feel the same way. There’s been a lot going on and it’s a lot for anybody.

My mental fitness had been pretty good, however, just like when I find myself puffed at the top of a flight of stairs or my “good t-shirt” is a little too tight, I came to understand that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I needed a bit of mental strength and conditioning work to get into better shape.

If you’ve ever done a 10-week challenge at your gym you’d be familiar with the most bastardly of all exercises, the burpee. I hate them, you hate them, we all hate them. Why? Because the burpee is possibly the best total-body strength and conditioning exercise you can do in a confined space. It doesn’t do everything, but it does a lot in a short amount of time.

There’s no doubt if you were to do 100 burpees a day for 30 days, it would transform your aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility. It would change your physical fitness. Luckily there’s an exercise I can use to improve my mental fitness just as profoundly. Mental fitness being the ability to make healthy choices that are not influenced by strong reactive emotions. If I’m mentally fit I’m able to feel all those powerful feelings and pause long enough to think, is this the right thing to say or do? More often than not, it isn’t.

So, what’s a really powerful, really efficient technique that if you can perform on a daily basis would transform your ability to be less reactive and more deliberate about your day? What’s the burpee of mental fitness?

Before we get there, it’s important to know what it is we’re hoping to improve. The Zen Buddhists say we all have two minds.

The “thinking mind” and the “observing mind”. Our thinking mind is an excited Labrador chasing a frisbee. Our observing mind is sitting on a park bench watching that frothing Labrador about to run straight onto a busy freeway. Yet if the Labrador runs onto the freeway, the observing mind also feels the consequences.

When we’re flooded with emotion, we can get stuck in “thinking mind” and it’s almost impossible to see that the frisbee isn’t the best thing to be focusing on. So, how do we build up the strength of the “observing mind”? For me, it’s noticing.

You can get into it in a couple of ways. Try putting the words “I’m noticing” in front of a physical feeling. For example, right now I’m noticing that my left ‘sit bone’ feels a little heavier on the chair than my right sit bone. Just that is enough to get me out of my thinking mind and into my observing mind. Set a timer on your phone and try just noticing sensations in your body for one minute.

Another way to use ‘noticing’ is to enquire about the emotions we’re feeling. Right now, I’m a little nervous I won’t make the deadline to write this column. If I notice a bit more, I discover that nervousness comes from wanting to do a good job for the people at Men’s Health, and that I don’t want to come across too sincere when you’re reading this. And once I’m aware of the fact that I’m feeling a bit nervous, a bit tense in my stomach, and my body’s feeling a bit stiff and sore, I know that when I’m like that, I tend to not make great choices. But now I’m aware of it, I can carry on typing this alongside those sensations and emotions, instead of letting that fear change what I write here.

“Noticing“ really helps my observing mind get used to jumping into emotionally intense moments and taking a look over things. Noticing can also be used as meditation. When I meditate, I can get extraordinarily frustrated that I can’t not think of stuff. So instead I just close my eyes and notice the things I’m thinking about, watching the thoughts go by me. Sometimes the thoughts are like slow boats on a river, usually the thoughts are a waterfall. What kind of SUV is Blaze from the Monster Machines? What did that bloke who paddled a Pumpkin down the Tumut River like it was a canoe cook with stuff he scooped out? Does my dog remember songs? I try to just watch these thoughts go by, and not get trapped under the weight of the thought waterfall.

Other times I’ll put a five-minute timer on my phone, and just notice the different parts of my body as I breathe in and out. Going clockwise from my left big toe all the way around my body down to my right big toe, spending a breath on each part. So – left big toe up through my foot, ankle, shin, knee, thigh, hip, all up my torso, back down the other side. All I’m doing is training my observing mind to get used to getting involved automatically.

You can even do it walking. When you walk, just walk and notice things. Notice the different hubcaps on the cars. Notice the different species of grass on different people’s lawns. Notice the different kinds of trees. Name them. It’s not a tree, it’s a eucalypt. It’s a Melaleuca. It’s bottlebrush. It’s not a bird. It’s a magpie. It’s a currawong. It’s a Channel Bill Cuckoo, if you’re unlucky enough to live next to one of those noisy bastards. You’d be amazed at what just ten minutes of that can do.

If you haven’t got time for any of these, try a tactic that is way harder than it sounds. See if you can notice just three times today when you go from sitting to standing. What you’re doing is you’re getting your observing mind involved in these otherwise subconscious or automatic behaviours. You’re getting your observant mind used to just being there in those spaces where sometimes you’re just on auto-pilot, or worse automatically reactive. The more sets and reps you do, the more you’re building up that neural pathway to that observing mind, getting in the habit of noticing your thoughts.

And when those peak moments come, for example, I’m noticing that I’m getting really frustrated at what’s my partner is doing here. I know that sometimes when I get really frustrated, I say things I regret. When I’m mentally fit, that tiny moment helps me take a breath and perhaps make a better choice, which serves me and my partner, than I otherwise would have.

If you’ve never done it before, just try it yourself for a couple of minutes. Just try noticing. Noticing how your body’s feeling. Try to notice when you feel happy or sad or anxious or bored or joyous or excited or horny or dull. Just notice. Soon enough, that observant mind starts to show up a bit more and help you make better choices that are aligned with the kind of person that you want to be in the world, and the kind of person you want to be to the people you love and the people who love you.


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By Osher Günsberg

A fixture on prime-time TV for two decades, Osher Günsberg is Men’s Health’s growth and personal development expert. Having carefully navigated his own journey of self-discovery and sobriety, Günsberg knows how difficult it can be to make the necessary changes in life that can facilitate inner peace. Now, he wants to help you make transformative changes in your life. For more of Osher’s insights listen to his bi-weekly (every Monday and Friday) podcast, Better Than Yesterday.

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