Imagine awakening to horrific pain.
Now imagine the pain being coupled with a pain beyond imagining — where your memories, history and foundation once resided there is nothing but blackness. A complete and absolute void.
What would you do? I had this experience in 2002. I was 14 years old, living in rural Germany. I fell (or jumped — to this day I don’t know) from a third-story balcony onto a metal railing and landed on solid stone.
By some miracle, I survived. One vertebra shattered; another completely pulverized. Left foot severely fractured. Spinal cord damage.
But whatever my life and experiences held and whatever occurrence had brought me to that fateful moment I may never know.
This gave me a blank slate upon which I would need to create the life I would live from that moment forward. Assuming I could survive the injuries and the unfathomable pain.
I am now 31. I have few physical possessions — I can carry it all in a backpack. I live each day simply but with the kind of intensity that perhaps comes more naturally from viewing each and every day as if it were my last.
Perhaps the loss of my prior life was a gift. And perhaps the bigger gift, as I am steadily learning, is the ability to share the lessons I’ve learned with the hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of people I’ve interacted with since as a speaker, a writer, and through hundreds of conversations.
Perhaps my experiences hold some insights for you.
Take tenacity, for one thing. The extreme kind.
The key to enduring the worst of the worst is to bring your mind to an internal place of emptiness. A place separate from where all hell broke loose.
I call it the Void.
Bruce Lee called it the same thing.
Whether you know it or not, you always have an internal refuge to retreat to.
One thing about the Void: within it, there is no meaning. Nothing matters… which is why nothing can harm it. You can’t stay there forever — because to do so would be to give up on your journey. But as a refuge, a retreat, and a source of power, there is no equal.
This is why suffering breaks some and makes others. Those who grow from it have placed their conscious mind in the Void, where they are immune. Their bodies and much of their minds will suffer damage, but their true self does not. And when they return, their recovery begins. And they return with an awareness of a new inner power.
Such transformations have occurred since the dawn of our species. Today, we call it post-traumatic growth.
What about those whose suffering breaks them? They remain in the real world, outside the Void. The sheer force of physical and psychological pain tears and scars their true self. It rips them apart.
Then they carry their nightmares wherever they go. And sometimes even inflict their pain on others.
You don’t need to make this mistake.
Your body may break. Even your mind may suffer damage. But if you stay in the Void until the storm clears, you will emerge not just unharmed, but transformed. You gain a new source of strength and confidence. You realize how even such horrific ordeals ultimately did not harm you.
How do you enter the Void? How do you find an internal place of rest? One way is to start with gratitude.
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more.” – Melody Beattie
You can focus on what you’ve lost or on what you have. When I woke up on that hospital bed, my whole left leg was paralyzed. And the pain was beyond reckoning.
But weeks later, when the pain became easier to anticipate, I had a choice. I could either dwell on the apparent fact that I would never walk again. Or I could detach myself from the need to walk — just for a moment — and then see what could be done with what I had.
By focusing on an internal place of emptiness, I was able to feel nothing at all. Neither sadness nor joy. Tranquility. It gave me the clarity I needed to make the second choice.
And after great struggle and training, the paralysis slowly subsided. Just enough.
Seemingly impossible things start with gratitude. Because gratitude transforms what we have into enough. I did have one fully functioning leg left.
Enough to walk — a few steps, at first. Then more steps. Fast forward through hard years of trying and eventually I got to the point where I could walk indefinitely, carry heavy loads and even run. The list of things I can’t do has decreased every year since.
There is nothing very special about how I was able to do this. The secret to unreasonable tenacity is within every human mind. Hidden in plain sight.
Simply put: it’s not that enduring bad things lets you endure more bad things. Many people suffer horrendously and it never gets easier for them. They never find an inner center from which to act. Instead, the key is to bring yourself to an internal place of emptiness. Your internal origin. Because doing so makes your psyche indestructible. Knowing this, you can gain an inexhaustible source of energy and optimism.
That’s the key realization. The real world can’t touch the Void. Only you can.
When you realize how ultimately nothing can harm you — the phenomenon that is your conscious self — you will be at peace when all you have is your own mind.
You won’t need to lean on anyone else to get you through the worst.
And so you will dare to take on far greater challenges. As Marcus Aurelius would say, you will be able to observe the motions of your own mind.
True human potential lies far beyond what our culture expects of us. Your mind and body can endure and accomplish indescribably more than they ever had to.
When the world inflicts hell upon you, bring your mind to the Void. Start with a blank slate. Move on to gratitude. And then focus on what you can do.
Special thanks to Cheryl Snapp Conner, Ryan Westwood and Eliot Peper for their kind help on this article.