The releasing of insight

Brad Stulberg has a simple equation for growth: stress plus rest. Exert yourself, then allow yourself to recover. Repeat till better, or till you’re the best. It reminds me of a metaphor a friend taught me about strength and conditioning: training stimulus is debit, rest and recovery is credit, and the aim is to stay liquid. He also taught me a related lesson: there’s no such thing as over-training, only under-recovery.

All this brings a smile to my face. But it seems domain-dependent. Outside the realm of physical performance, how can we make use of these ideas? Simple. These concepts cast physical training as a constant alternation between pressure and relaxation. But such a method doesn’t only yield benefits to physical performance. It’s also capable of releasing insight.

Recently, I’ve become interested in Zen koans. A “koan” is a mental puzzle which has no proper solution. The point of a koan is not the answer, but the effort invested in contemplating the question. For example, it’s said that those studying Zen can spend years focusing on a single koan, and that doing so eventually yields enlightenment. But how does mere contemplation lead to the state of satori? It happens like this: the student of Zen strains, seeking an answer, but it comes to him only when he stops searching, when he stops grasping, when he stops thinking and allows himself to respond without effort. 

Zen koans yield enlightenment via the same method as physical performance training: the alternation of stress and recovery, of exertion and rest. Think about jumping into the air. To do so, it’s necessary to lower yourself, load your muscles and drive upwards. But you only lift off the ground when you release the tension. The same methodology can be applied to our methods of thinking, exploring and creating.