The Obstacle is the Way: Accept the Misogi Challenge

Roman emperors, stoic philosophers, Japanese warriors, and Greek soldiers all knew this to be true, yet somehow we've forgotten.

The Obstacle is the Way: Accept the Misogi Challenge
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When was the last time you did something truly challenging? A time when you really pushed yourself, found your limits, and learned something about your character? As a child, you probably did this all the time. Kids test themselves constantly. They'll run around until they collapse in exhaustion, jump from heights that scare their parents, and try things just to prove to themselves that they can do it. Why is it that as adults we do this less and less?

There's a book by Ryan Holiday titled The Obstacle is the Way and it concerns his interpretations of the words of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD and a very well-known stoic philosopher. Specifically, Holiday is referencing a quote from Meditations written by Aurelius in his private notes, "What stands in the way becomes the way." It's been nearly 2000 years since Aurelius wrote that to himself, and it still rings true today.

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Let's talk about a few examples of this quote in action before diving into the Misogi challenge. Imagine the obstacles in the way of Winston Churchill as he took office as the new prime minister during World War II. Over 300,000 soldiers are stranded at Dunkirk, Poland and Czechoslovakia have already descended into Hitler's grasp, and his country is facing a bombing campaign that will eventually kill more than 40,000 British civilians. These were dark times for the PM. But rather than staring directly into the abyss and jumping in, Churchill would embark on a mission to teach his country "the art of being fearless" in the words of Eric Larson. He led Britain from the brink of collapse through a stunning resurgence along with other Allied leaders and successfully alerted his Western allies to the expansionist threat that was the former Soviet Union. Despite his many flaws, he showed incredible toughness and resolve in meeting his obstacles head-on, and he was ultimately successful.

This is a classic story of defying the odds, conquering adversity, and rising above the challenge. It's something that is repeated throughout history over and over again. In fact, this idea is so ingrained in our culture that it's become part of a classic narrative archetype known as The Hero's Journey.

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Now, let's talk about Misogi. This concept was introduced to me on The Drive podcast featuring Michael Easter, but I believe the idea was popularized by Marcus Elliot who is a Harvard-trained physician specializing in performance enhancement and the development of elite athletes.

Misogi or "禊" actually comes from Japanese culture and refers to an ancient practice of ritual purification. This purification was performed by washing the entire body in sacred waterfalls, lakes, or rivers. Before encountering misogi, members generally underwent some sort of preliminary purification which often involved physical activity.

The modern version of misogi is meant to challenge you. We used to have rituals like this throughout society, and they were often considered a rite of passage. Think something along the lines of King Leonitus in the movie 300 when he is thrown into the wild as a young boy, which is admittedly an extreme example. In Japan, samurai were required to embark on a journey of self-discovery and martial training, called Musha Shugyo (武者修行). This was a rite of passage that prepared young samurai for the challenges of adulthood and warfare. A more modern military example of this would be BUD/S training for Navy SEALs. Luckily, we no longer have to face such turmoil as non-militant civilians, but it also means that we face far less adversity than we evolved to overcome or had to face historically. With that in mind, you can complete the "misogi challenge" by following 3 simple rules:

  1. There is at maximum a 50/50 chance of being successful
  2. You don't talk about your misogi in public
  3. You're not allowed to die

What you decide to challenge yourself with is totally up to you, but there are some general guidelines. You need to pick something sufficiently difficult, and that means you'll almost certainly get to a point of wanting to give up. There will likely be a voice inside your head telling you to stop, and you'll have to overcome that. This is partially why you don't talk about your misogi on social media or in large public circles. Rather, you keep this mission to yourself or share it with close friends and family only. This ensures that when you do have to push past that voice in your head that you're doing it for yourself, not for fame or fortune.

If done correctly, you'll find that you'll reach your "limit" over and over again. You'll eventually conclude that you massively undersell your own capacity. You'll think that you can't go any further, yet somehow, your feet will take one more step, then another, and then another. Coming to that realization for yourself and not just reading about it might change your life.

Rule 3 requires no further explanation other than to say that the point of this challenge is not to be reckless, but rather to discover something about yourself. This challenge is to be attempted annually either alone or in a small group. Unlike the historical examples above, there's no real consequence to failing these challenges, and that's a good thing. It means you can work on your ability to bounce back, something you'll very likely have to do with a 50% chance of failing. Some examples of a misogi challenge might be qualifying for the Boston marathon, reading 5o books in a year, backpacking a 7-day trail, squatting 405 pounds, walking 100,000 steps in a day, losing 100 pounds, or running your first 5k. These might be good options for you, or they might be terrible. It depends on your starting point, goals, interests, etc... What matters is that it's difficult!

Again, target a 50% chance of success, and really think about what that means. If you limit yourself to something you know you'll be able to do, then you're missing out on growth. Remember, what stands in the way becomes the way and we're all working on the art of being fearless. I wish you luck on your misogi this year, but unless I'm one of your best friends, keep it to yourself.