Unless you’re a psychopath, you have probably already experienced a multitude of emotions today, ranging from feeling mildly irritated at having to get out of bed early to bursting with excitement about the day ahead. How you feel and what emotions arise are matters of perspective, and yours will be determined by a variety of factors that add context to your current situation; past experiences, what lies ahead of you, your physiology, and many others.

Depending on the approach we take, emotions are sometimes hailed as what makes us human and the best thing since sliced bread to almost being the enemy – psychological entities that need to be chained up, dampened, eliminated, or ignored. I take a slightly different approach that can embody any of those things: either our emotions are there to serve us or we are there to serve them.

It is not what you feel that counts but what you do with it. Although the process starts internally, it is your actions that will determine your outcomes, so if things are consistently not going your way – poor health, an unfulfilling career, dysfunctional relationships, financial difficulties – it may be time to take another look at the choices you are making.

What part do emotions play in shaping our behaviour?

An easy emotion to explore, which most people experience, is fear, and how we respond to this feeling can significantly affect the decisions we make and our outcomes. You have probably already heard of the flight-fight-freeze response to fear, which describes the three main ways that we respond to real or perceived threats. How this works in practice, however, is more complex because the threats that we face in the twenty-first century – certainly here in the first world – tend to be more subtle and psychological than the attacks from wild animals that our ancestors would need to worry about.

Many discussions around the flight-fight-freeze response are related to how it feels to experience an adrenaline dump. It is something I have often covered as a vital component of self-defence training, and I have developed adrenal stress drills to help prime others to function more optimally in high-pressure, dangerous situations. Along the same lines, adrenal stress is often mentioned in relation to mental and physical health. With no immediate physical threat to fight or run away from and many of us doing jobs that involve sitting at a desk, any adrenaline our bodies produce will raise our heart rate, increase our blood pressure and lead to the release of harmful cortisol into our bloodstream. All of this is bad news in the long term and will increase the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes and, of course, poor mental health.

But what about our decisions? What are modern humans afraid of, and how do these things affect our behaviour. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of success, and fear of being exposed for ‘who we are’ inside are just a few I can mention from the top of my head. Putting physiology aside, these fears will affect how people behave:

  • Fear of failure – perfectionism, quitting before the journey’s started, underperforming, disengaging from a task, procrastination.
  • Fear of rejection – self-isolation, anti-social behaviour, sabotaging relationships.
  • Fear of success – self-sabotage, seeking the easy route, selling out, underachievement.
  • Fear of being found out – self-doubt, lack of confidence, hesitation, avoiding progress, ‘imposter syndrome’.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg in a sea of other huge icy monoliths. What about anger, for example? Anger covers another plethora of complex feelings from resentment and frustration to blame and even guilt (anger aimed at oneself). When emotions choose your path for you, that’s a sure sign that you are serving them instead of being served by them. Never mind how damaging unresolved emotions can be to our mental and physical well-being; if we don’t get a handle on them, they can ruin our lives and stop us from doing the things we want to do or should be doing.

‘Make your mind your friend’

The first time I heard this phrase was when I was learning about the feared samurai warriors of feudal Japan. One of the most powerful aspects of the samurai mindset was their unquestioning acceptance of whatever situation they were faced with – without complaint or judgement – along with their determination to act fearlessly. Unconstrained by the fear of death, they were formidable in battle; highly trained and fully committed to taking the most effective action for the conditions. They were expedient in all that they did.

The samurai understood that the only world they could genuinely control was the universe within; and by controlling their internal world, they could make great things happen in the outside world. They recognised the link between mindset, actions, and results.

In his classic book, The Book of Five Rings, the renowned sixteenth-century samurai, Miyamoto Musashi wrote, ‘there is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.’ At this point, it is worth considering the ‘Samurai Creed’, also known as ‘Bushido’ or ‘The Way of the Warrior’, which was written by an anonymous samurai sometime in the fourteenth century. The text is overflowing with wisdom and oozes emotional intelligence and practical hacks to daily life while giving us insight into the mental processes that made the samurai so invincible as warriors.

The Samurai Creed

I have no parents; I make the Heavens and the Earth my parents.

I have no home; I make the tan t’ien my home.

I have no divine power; I make honesty my divine power.

I have no means; I make docility my means.

I have no magic power; I make personality my magic power.

I have neither life nor death; I make A Um my Life and Death.

I have no body; I make Stoicism my body.

I have no eyes; I make the flash of lightning my eyes.

I have no ears; I make sensibility my ears.

I have no limbs; I make promptitude my limbs.

I have no laws; I make self-protection my laws.

I have no strategy; I make the right to kill and the right to restore life my strategy.

I have no designs; I make seizing the opportunity by the forelock my designs.

I have no miracles; I make righteous laws my miracle.

I have no principles; I make adaptability to all circumstances my principle.

I have no tactics; I make emptiness and fullness my tactics.

I have no talent; I make ready wit my talent.

I have no friends; I make my mind my friend.

I have no enemy; I make incautiousness my enemy.

I have no armour; I make benevolence my armour.

I have no castle; I make immovable mind my castle.

I have no sword; I make no mind my sword

A lot of the creed needs no explanation, but I am going to add context to some of it. The ‘tan t’ien’ refers to a point around three inches beneath the navel. This is considered by many to be the body’s true centre, and by focusing their attention on this point, martial artists can remain centred, balanced, and strong as they move.

The word ‘docility’ is used to mean openness to learn and to be taught. A willingness to learn paves the way to continuous improvement and adaptability – essential tools for dealing with life. If you were thrown in the deep end tomorrow, how would you cope? Sadly, even now, people find themselves having to start again with nothing, often as refugees in countries they know nothing about. The ones who are most open-minded to their environment will adapt the quickest and thrive.

‘A um’ refers to the eternal soul. This is the awareness we are all born with; it bears witness to all our thoughts and deeds, and it is the only part of us that is unchanging. The samurai understood that only life could be experienced. Once the brain and body are dead, who is there to experience that? Contemplating the A um was an excellent source of wisdom and strength for the samurai warriors. On the other side of the same coin, they practised death meditation, which focuses on impermanence. We are all destined to die from the day we are born, and therefore we should not fear it or even run away from it. Death is inevitable, and we won’t taste it anyway.

Zen and the no-mind state

‘I have no sword; I make no mind my sword.’

‘No mind’ is a Zen concept, known as ‘Mushin’ in Japanese, which is not to be confused with ‘mindlessness’ or even ‘absent-mindedness’. Here, mind is referring to the pre-programmed default positions we accumulate and carry with us – attitudes, beliefs, and expectations. In the no-mind state, we still have access to all the knowledge we have acquired, but can act in a fluid, spontaneous and intelligent way, perfectly matching the needs of the situation. As Bruce Lee’s character said in the iconic movie, Enter the Dragon, ‘When the opponent expand, I contract. When he contracts, I expand, and when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.’ [SIC]

If I had to summarise the samurai mindset in a sentence or two, I would say its primary focus is on seeing the world as it is, right here, right now, without the filter of conditioning and unconstrained by man-made rules; and on cultivating a readiness to act most appropriately to that reality. Again, Lee’s character puts it perfectly when he is asked to state the most advanced technique he would like to learn: ‘to have no technique.’

One of the most powerful aspects of the samurai mindset is their willingness to accept the world around them without complaint or judgement. How many of us can do that? Reflect on the last time someone bumped into you, or stuff didn’t go according to plan. Can you honestly say that you focused all your energy, and I mean one hundred per cent of it, on adapting to the change in circumstance, or did you burn mental calories on feelings of frustration, anger, or blame?

In Takuan Soho’s The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman, which was written in the seventeenth century, Soho points us towards a mindset that allows us to act in constant harmony with our surroundings. This ‘unfettered mind’ empowers us to expand when they contract or contract when they expand as Bruce Lee’s character said in the movie. If we let our minds settle on any one thing, no matter how momentarily, we interrupt the flow and for a swordsman in a dual, that moment could be the difference between life and death. As soon as the other person begins to draw the sword, we should be acting with the minimum amount of lag.

So, where do emotions fit into the no-mind state?

Do you remember your most recent or intense near miss? I do. It happened the other night as I was driving on a country road at a speed of around 50 mph; a fox darted out from the bushes, noticed the car, panicked, and started running in circles, unable to commit to any direction. It was only around 10 feet in front of the bonnet so, given that I had neither enough space nor the time to swerve around it, our best hope was for me to keep the fox directly in front of the car. That way, at least, it would not be squashed under the wheels.

As I squeezed the breaks to slow down the vehicle as swiftly and safely as possible, I had to alter its course to match the fox’s movements. In what seemed like milliseconds, it was over, and I was clambering out of my seat to see if our friend had survived. He was nowhere to be seen and then, my son explained that he had spotted the fox’s tail disappearing back into the wilderness on the passenger side.

It was only after the event that I had any conscious awareness of an emotion – relief, primarily, and some bewilderment. While the drama had been happening, it was more of a no-mind experience; they expanded, I contracted, and the car almost drove itself. My son congratulated me, telling me I had ‘F1 skills’. I wonder what the fox would have said if it could speak.

Emotions don’t belong in the present

The difference between my fox encounter and the everyday stresses and challenges that we all usually face is that there was no time for me to cast my mind back to a previous situation or imagine a future scenario. Action needed to be taken. I had to be fully present until the situation was resolved. By remaining present, no emotions were experienced because emotions are self-generated. They are the result of a cognitive equation that depends on reflection and/or imagination: what did we want to happen or what do we want to happen versus what has happened and what seems to be happening. That kind of cognitive appraisal can only happen by allowing the mind to time travel. Everything else that goes on is physiological. The heart rate can go up, adrenaline can rush through our bloodstream, and the hairs can stand up on the back of our necks, but there can be nothing going on between the ears or in the heart space.

Facing the toughest challenge

I am now facing the toughest challenge of my life, but it’s my eldest son, Mathew, who has been experiencing it first-hand. My stress is the kind any parent feels when they see their loved ones threatened. It is secondary.

Just over a year ago, a chance visit to the hospital following a minor head injury led to the discovery of a brain tumour in my son’s frontal lobe. Within a couple of months, my otherwise perfect, six-foot, three-inch, gentle giant of a son underwent brain surgery to remove the tumour. After enduring weeks of the most incredibly intense and unimaginable pain, he got to ‘celebrate’ his twentieth birthday drugged up in a recovery ward, barely out of intensive care. Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t all plough into the ward to be with him, but he managed to sit on a chair by the window and watch us all waving at him as we held up a banner in the front of the hospital.

What struck me about Mathew was how well he handled the news at the time, and how he has conducted himself since. Without a shadow of a doubt, being told he had a brain tumour must have been a kind of near-death experience. Most people equate brain tumours with a death sentence, don’t they? When his mother called me to let me know, while she was still deep in shock, I truly believed I was being told he was dead. After all, I knew he had been kept in hospital overnight because of a brain injury. When I found out it was ‘only’ a brain tumour, and he was still alive, I felt relieved. This hits home the point about cognitive appraisal; anything is better than being told your son is dead!

While a brain tumour is life-threatening, there is still plenty of time to think and reflect on things, to worry about the future, to feel afraid, to question why it is happening, and to look at one’s life and ask if there were any clues as to what was coming. This is human nature. Therefore, there is plenty of time to feel the whole gamut of emotions: anger, bitterness, resentment, confusion, fear, regret, worry, curiosity, etc.

And yet, Mathew has remained calm, balanced, and grounded through it all; even now, having found out that the tumour has returned and is growing rapidly. In many ways, through his words and actions, I can see the samurai mindset in operation, and I couldn’t be prouder of him. I believe the impact of the news last year was so shocking, so final – you can’t argue with an MRI scan and a highly trained and experienced brain specialist – that it completely reframed his outlook on life and death.

Focus on constructive action

Mathew’s not a psychopath, and I am quite certain he has experienced plenty of emotions. I don’t believe he has repressed them or denied them, but he hasn’t allowed them to consume him. He is not serving them. They are serving him.

Since his diagnosis and subsequent surgery, Mathew has focused on taking the right actions – learning about nutrition, sleeping patterns, mental and emotional health, personal development, and generally taking care of his mental and physical well-being. Now that he has started a six-week course of daily radiotherapy, which is going to sap him of most of his energy (and his hair), he has to stay as strong as he can, and everyone is giving him as much support as possible; however, although he is bound to be feeling battered, I believe he is the beacon of light, the tower of strength and the inspiration for the rest of us.

I am sure there have been days when he cried, and there are bound to be many more. Emotions are not the enemy and letting go of tears is an important form of release. Who doesn’t feel better after a good cry? It is constructive.

How are emotions serving me?

As Mathew’s father, I have had a stack of emotions of my own to deal with – powerlessness, helplessness, fear, and a sense of injustice. This isn’t like dealing with the school bully or teaching someone how to swim. I cannot take any personal action against the tumour growing in his skull. As a 50-year-old man, who has indulged in plenty of self-abuse over the years – illegal drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, plenty of prescribed medication, copious amounts of coffee, and a terrible diet – of course I have wondered why this has happened to my son and not to me; however, as I explained in a previous article, life is not fair and it is foolish to expect anything because anything can and does happen. Feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, or being unfairly treated by the universe serve no purpose at all. They are pointless emotions that will drain you. What counts is action. That is the path to freedom.

I can’t dive into Mathew’s head and go hand-to-hand with the tumour, but there are lots of other constructive things I can do. He has been fortunate enough to be treated by world-class specialists, and those people wouldn’t have been able to do what they did without the tremendous leaps in technology that have emerged from research and development. That’s why I am focusing my energy on raising funds for Brain Tumour Research.

Even though I couldn’t have a fistfight with the brain tumour, I am a very energetic person, and I needed a physical outlet for my emotions, so I have put myself in for a full-contact kickboxing bout in September. Admittedly, it won’t be my first time in the ring; I have fought twice to raise funds for another charity, but this time I will be fighting as a quinquagenarian, at the grand age of 51. My opponent is likely to be around my son’s age! That should be enough to grab attention and help raise awareness about brain tumours and raise funds; however, I am not getting in the ring to get beat. I have to give myself the best chance of winning, so how am I going about that?

A winning mindset

When you are up against a daunting challenge, the first step is to believe that you can beat it. When you look at the amazing feats of the world’s best athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics, do you think they achieved such excellence without having a sense of conviction in their hearts and minds? So, ‘Can I get into the ring for a full-contact kickboxing fight against someone so much younger than me?’ becomes ‘What kind of training do I need to do to fight someone who is so much younger than me?’.

With that in mind, my focus has been on improving my fitness, agility, and technical ability. Realistically, I must think more like Mayweather than Rocky and make sure I stay away from the punches rather than trade blows. The smarter strategy is to use my opponent’s youth against him, by encouraging him to waste energy while conserving my own. There is always a route around any obstacle.

Training for a fight affects every aspect of day-to-day living, dictating what I can and can’t eat and drink, and acting as the foundations upon which everything else is built. My life revolves around my training, at least, until 19 September! This morning was traditional Karate training and running around a 400-metre track. This evening’s session will be a one-to-one with my boxing coach to improve my footwork and hand speed. I have also discovered the almost mystical power of Wim Hof breathing and cold-water therapy for promoting rapid muscle recovery and reducing inflammation. The results have been nothing short of miraculous. My body feels better than at any time over the last two decades!

Emotions are energy: recognise them, listen to them, but don’t let them boss you around


Every moment presents you with an important crossroads. Even the smallest decisions you make will contribute to your future outcomes. Most actions you take will be seemingly trivial, but they all add up, so you have to adopt the right mindset and make a conscious decision to live purposefully. That empowers you to recognise emotions and understand why they arise but not to be controlled by them. Let your mission be the master of your actions. Every choice you make is either aligned to your bigger purpose or it isn’t. It is either working for you or it isn’t. And while you are focused on action, right now, emotions become bit-part players in the background. They are there to serve you.

I will be fighting in Sheffield on 19 September. There are still some tickets available, and £5 from every ticket I sell will go to Brain Tumour Research. Contact me for details. If you would like to donate to the charity, please visit my GoFundMe page, which is here.

August 19, 2021