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Four Lessons from Misogi

You'll learn: Why doing hard things can transform us, and how to navigate challenge better.

Four Lessons from Misogi


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I spent last week in Costa Rica with an incredible group at the 2% x GORUCK Misogi retreat.

As a reminder, a Misogi is a radically hard, nature-based physical challenge we do every year for the sake of growth. (To learn more, read this post or chapter 6 of The Comfort Crisis.)

We were on the Osa Peninsula, which National Geographic deemed “the most biologically intense place on earth.” Picture an impenetrable, dark, misty mountain jungle abutting the sea.

We spent two days doing a range of hard things in nature and discussing the importance of Misogi.

  • Why it’s an ancient practice that’s critical for human potential.
  • How we’ve lost it.
  • And how, if we’re willing, we can rediscover it.

So that’s what we did on day three—rediscover it.

We set off on our own Misogi, the details of which will remain on the Peninsula.

Watching the group face the supreme highs and lows of Misogi—and ultimately leave the Peninsula better—taught me a lot about the human spirit.

Today’s post covers four general observations from the event:

  • Why embracing the unknown is important for transformation and living well.
  • How covering the basics can pull you out of a mental rut.
  • Why not sharing the details of Misogi is critical for growth.
  • Why the final phase of the Misogi is vital.

1. Embrace the unknown …

In short

The uncertainty embedded in Misogi is what makes the practice so powerful.

The details

The artist Nelson Parish once told me a wonderful line about Misogi:

“Misogi is an emotional, spiritual, and psychological challenge that masquerades as a physical challenge.”

The unknown is a powerful way to tap into the emotional, spiritual, and psychological elements of Misogi.

The participants didn’t know what the Misogi would entail or how long or far it would be.

Setting off to do an unknown task for unknown times and distances across unknown terrain is an absolute mind-f*ck.

We can no longer plan and control. We have to get our minds right and focus on the present moment. The military leverages this same technique in its Special Forces selection camps.

Consider a study in Nature Communications. It discovered that humans hate the unknown so much that we’d rather experience punishment. In that study—which I covered in Scarcity Brain—participants had to click rocks on a screen.

Once they clicked a rock, it would overturn and reveal whether a virtual snake was hiding underneath. The participants received a painful electric shock if the rock hid a snake.

Along the way, the scientists altered how predictable finding a snake was.

The main finding: the participants became most stressed when they were least able to predict whether a rock hid a snake.

They became the sweatiest. Their eyes the most saucer like.

But the wildest and most important aspect of this study was this: When participants were more confident they’d be painfully shocked, they were less stressed than when they felt like getting shocked was a coin flip.

The unknown is more stressful than the known—even if the known involves punishment.

Most of you will know the details of your own Misogi. But this is why you should have a 50/50 shot at finishing whatever your Misogi is—a coin flip. Finishing becomes unknown.

The takeaway

In life, we can never know and predict everything. We sure try—but it’s often a delusion.

Encountering and dealing with the unknown in a semi-controlled setting like Misogi gives us a playbook for facing the unknowns of life and living it. We can stay calm in the storm and walk away with profound new insights about our capabilities.

This is exactly why many cultures performed nature-based rites of passage. They helped build competent, confident people who could better contribute to society.

So try a Misogi. Remember: 50/50.

2. … But control what you can

In short

People often quit Misogi or make bad life decisions due to problems with a simple and immediate solution.

The details

Embracing the unknown is critical. But you also want to control what factors you can.

In Friday’s AMA, I talked about mental toughness and how it’s often misrepresented as simply not quitting.

It’s much more complex than that. It’s more like a series of stories and practices that lead us to keep progressing despite adversity.

An important way to avoid quitting is to control the factors you can. I.e., Make sure you’ve covered the basics that lead to success.

We often go to a dark place in Misogi when we:

  • Haven’t drank enough water.
  • Haven’t eaten enough calories.
  • Are low on electrolytes.
  • Haven’t taken care of our feet.
  • Etc.

When you find yourself in a tough spot on a Misogi, going through a mental checklist of the basics can often fix your issue.

For example, a few people wanted to quit midway through the Misogi in Costa Rica. They’d convinced themselves they were done and told me it was time to tap out.

But they really just needed some water, electrolytes, and calories.

Twenty minutes later, they were back to life and hammering.

The takeaway

If you find yourself in a dark place during a Misogi and want to quit, make sure you’ve covered the basics.

You can also apply this idea to any situation in life.

Pause when you’re struggling in the metaphorical dark jungle of life, business, or relationships. Is there any easily fixable issue that would improve your situation?

For example, drug and alcohol recovery groups use the acronym HALT.

It stands for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.” Those conditions are when addicts are most prone to relapse. The acronym is a simple reminder that fixable conditions often lead us to make bad decisions and undersell our potential.

3. Don’t share the details

In short

The point of your Misogi is to reach your edge so that edge expands. How you get there doesn’t matter.

The details

Different people have different definitions or descriptions of “the edge.”

I define the edge as the interface between what is known and what is yet to be discovered.

The point of Misogi is to explore the edge of what you’re capable of. Once you get to what you think is your edge, the edge expands. You went from one idea of yourself to another—and that changes you.

We’re all capable of more than we think—but we only learn that through exploring the edge.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton put it like this:

For perfect hope is achieved on the brink of despair, when instead of falling over the edge, we find ourselves walking on air.

The details of how you get to your edge are irrelevant. That you get there is what counts.

This is why we don’t advertise the details of Misogi. It’s not a competition.

Marcus Elliott explained the guideline of not boasting about your Misogi this way:

Everyone today has such outward facing lives. They do stuff so they can post on social media about some bad ass thing they did to get a bunch of likes.

Misogis are inward facing. A big part of the value proposition is that I’m going to do something that’s really uncomfortable. I’m going to want to quit. And it’s going to be hard not to quit because no one is watching.

But I’m not going to quit because I’m watching. And then I can reflect back on how I was the only person watching myself and I still rose to the occasion in a big way. There’s some deep satisfaction in that.

Did you really do what you think is the right thing when you were the only person watching? Or do you need an audience or a big pat on the back for that? Are you not important enough to do it for you?

The takeaway

This is also a good lesson for life. We’re all on our own journey of growth.

How we grow doesn’t matter. That we grow does.

The more we factor in what others might think—doing things for reasons involving others—the more we stray from our path and lost we become.

4. Process the event

In short

After a Misogi or big life event, review what you learned.

The details

One evening early into the event, we did a deep dive into the mechanics of Misogi. I broke down the various phases of Misogi.

One of these phases occurs immediately after the Misogi. And it’s just as important as what happened during it.

It’s the point at which you return and then analyze and assimilate everything you learned from the experience.

The evening after the Misogi, a handful of participants shared some truly profound realizations they came to during the event. Realizations about themselves, their relation to others, their limits, and more.

Most cultures who performed Misogi-like tasks as rites of passage included a phase where the person returned and had some sort of debrief.

You need to process and assimilate what happened in order to use it and grow from it.

A related example: Soldiers used to have long travels back home from war. This allowed them time to think and process their experience. But the speed at which soldiers now return from war and return to normal life, some psychologists believe, factors into the higher rates of PTSD from modern warfare.

The takeaway

Our group shared what we learned out there. This was a forcing function to figure out how we’ll leverage those insights moving forward.

Many of our group planned to journal their thoughts that evening and as they traveled home.

You need to do this anytime after you do a Misogi. It’s also useful for processing the insights of any significant life event.

Have fun, don’t die.


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