The Marine, the Dalai Lama, Overcoming PTSD, and Overcoming Fear

Article by Joshua Spodek of Inc Magazine

If you haven’t heard of Akshay Nanavati, you will soon, when his book, Fearvana, hits the shelves.

When he contacted me to say his travel prevented him from attending one of my talks, his humility belied the experience, sensitivity, drive, empathy, and compassion that underlie everything he does.

I learned that he skied across Greenland. He fought and suffered as a Marine in Iraq. He was diagnosed with PTSD. The next I knew, the Dalai Lama endorsed his book.

He also transcends all of these experiences and accomplishments. Akshay lives and embodies what Inc. readers know creates success by whatever your measure. But we don’t all know how to do.

I spoke with him to find what we can learn from him. Akshay shares what he’s been through, how he turned his greatest challenges, which were internal, not external, into his greatest allies, and how we can too.

Joshua Spodek: You’ve been through more challenges than most. Can you share a few?

Akshay Nanavati: After overcoming a lifestyle of drug addiction that killed two of my friends in high school, I enlisted in the Marines despite two doctors warning me that boot camp might kill me because of a blood disorder I was born with.

Since then, I have battled altitude sickness climbing mountains in the Himalayas, dragged a 190 pound sled 350 miles across the world’s second largest icecap, and spent 7 months fighting in Iraq. One of my jobs was to walk in front of our vehicle convoys to find explosives before they could blow us up.

After coming home I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and struggled with alcoholism that pushed me to the brink of suicide. I then spent years researching neuroscience, psychology, and spirituality to not only heal my own brain but also figure out what does it take to live a happy and meaningful life.

That search led to my upcoming book Fearvana: The Revolutionary Science of How to Turn Fear into Health, Wealth and Happiness. Writing it was one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

I have also built a business that allows me to work from where I want, when I want, and started a non-profit foundation.

JS: You’re a Marine, but you’re talking about emotions. Is that unusual? How do you make that connection?

AN: Many people believe that expressing emotions is not “manly” or is a sign of weakness. I did.

One of the reasons many veterans struggle after war is because they restrict themselves from feeling emotions and try hard to eliminate them, which only makes it worse. As Carl Jung said,

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves to fully experience the depth, intensity and range of our emotions, we can channel them into something meaningful, and create our own fates.

For example, before going to Iraq I lost a close friend to the war. We were in the same unit and used to volunteer to go together. One summer, while I was on vacation, he found a unit to deploy with. He never came back.

To this day, I wish I had not taken that vacation and gone with him instead, so I could have been in his seat and he would have come home to his fiancé.

When I survived the war and came home, the guilt worsened. I felt I hadn’t done enough out there. Why did he die and I live?

Suppressing that guilt was one of the reasons I struggled with alcohol and got to the brink of suicide. When I allowed myself to feel it and accept it, I was able to choose what I wanted to make it mean. So maybe that connection is unusual, but I’m trying to change that.

I now have a poster up on my wall of my friend that says “this should have been you, earn this life.” Today my guilt has become my greatest ally–it helps me stay sober and drives me to make a positive impact in the world.

JS: Few Inc. readers face such extremes, but still face challenges. Is perceiving emotions a problem for business people too?

AN: Business people definitely struggle with this too.

A lack of awareness about our deeper emotions often shows up as procrastination, perfectionism, or some form of inaction. Almost always, a hidden fear lurks beneath these barriers.

The problem is that we are all conditioned to believe fear, and its counterparts, are “negative” emotions. I constantly hear things like “don’t be scared,” “be fearless,” “give up negative self-talk,” “let go of self-doubt,” “don’t worry,” “live a stress-free life,” “don’t compare yourself to others,” …

People are constantly being told they should not feel what they are feeling. This leads to a downward spiral that then makes people feel like something is wrong with them when they experience instinctive thoughts or emotions.

Neuroscience has proven that we don’t control the brain’s reactions. Instead of wasting precious mental energy fighting forces we can’t control, it would be far more efficient to allows ourselves to feel whatever shows up, accept it, and then choose what we do with it.

Our power lies in that choice, not in the emotion itself.

As Sir Richard Branson said,

It’s important not to fear fear, but to harness it, use it as fuel. After all, fear is energy.

For example, I worked with someone who told me “I just need to wait for the fear to go away so I can quit my job and start my business.”

Quitting a job is risky. Fear then is normal. His problem was not fear. It was that negatively judged himself for feeling it. He thought it meant he was weak.

Accepting fear, and any other emotion, allows you to understand all the forces causing it, and better prepare yourself for the inescapable challenges that stand between where you are now and where you want to be.

JS: That’s what to do. What about how? Can you describe how you handle your challenging emotions?

AN: Along with turning my guilt into an ally, I now intentionally watch scenes from war movies, knowing they make me cry.

They have become fuel for me to find courage, especially when I am afraid, or when I get so caught up in the day to day grind of running a business that I forget what it’s really about “the men next to you.” (and women, of course 🙂 )

I will always have demons. We all do. The war scenes I watch remind me of our divinity and courage to rise above them. They help focus me on my mission to unleash that capacity for infinite greatness in myself and others.

War movies used to drive me to drink, so I stayed away from them. But now that I am more present to my emotions, I allow myself to feel the full impact of these movies. Ironically, they now drive me to stay sober.

I balance this intensity with humor by watching comedians like Bill Burr and Louis CK. It’s not all intensity ;).

I do all of this consciously to choose how and when I want to experience the range of human emotions so I can leverage them in all areas of my life.

I also have a practice where I sit with my eyes open staring into a wall, with no TV, no music, no paintings even–no stimuli. I remain still with myself to experience what shows up in my head, embrace it and channel it into something meaningful.

JS: Can you connect those views and practices to what we business people can do?

AN: Most important is that there are no “bad” or “good” emotions. There are only emotions and it’s up to us to decide what we do with them.

The more you become aware of these emotions, especially the so-called “negative” ones, the more you can make them your allies as you walk the challenging path of building a business.

A simple emotional awareness practice is to set an alarm for every hour. When it beeps, just notice what you are feeling and label that emotion.

Another practice is to write down a goal you are working toward, and write down everything stopping you from achieving that goal.

Then use Toyota’s 5 Why’s technique for each barrier to dig deep and unearth all those hidden fears.

For example, you could start with the question, “Why am I procrastinating?” Whatever the answer, follow it up with another why question. Do this at least 5 times. Once you are aware of your fears and stressors, write down actions to address them.

For example, to address my fear of not writing a good book, I studied from bestselling authors like Jack Canfield and Tim Ferriss. As a result, I trashed about 100,000 words of work.

But I ended up writing a book about which the Dalai Lama said

Fearvana inspires us to look beyond our own agonizing experiences and find the positive side of our lives.

Fear propels you to prepare, but only when you become aware of it.

Next, write down the rewards waiting for you beyond those fears and the consequences of inaction. I used to procrastinate on writing, imagining myself dying without having shared Fearvana with the world. That terrifying thought drove me into action.

Tim Ferriss has a great TED talk about an exercise he calls “fear-setting” that I also recommend. My exercise is a variation of his that I learned from him.

JS: Is experiencing such depth and intensity of emotion too intense for most people? Or is it healthy?

AN: I think experiencing such depth and intensity of emotion is beautiful.

It allows you to feel life in a more powerful and meaningful way. That doesn’t mean you have to take it to the level I do. Perhaps because I have experienced life at such extremes, it requires more for me to continue feeling things at that level. Like when you build tolerance for a drug.

There is no right or wrong level of intensity to experience the range of emotions. However, I recommend actions that push you to feel in a more intense and profound manner than where you are now.

When you push yourself to experience more of life and stretch beyond your limits in every way, you will find more joy than you could have ever imagined.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said based on years of research in one of the largest studies on happiness,

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. They happen when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

JS: How do we put that advice into practice, specifically?

AN: One practice is the stillness exercise I mentioned earlier. It’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.

Another is to carve out time in your calendar to consciously experience emotions you might be suppressing. Movies and music are a great tool to tap into such emotions.

Another is to write down times in your past where any seemingly “negative” emotion worked for you. This will help ingrain the mindset that there are no bad or good emotions.

For example, this exercise led a teenager I worked with who was struggling with stress in school to remember times when her stress over an assignment due the next day helped her get more done in less time. She realized stress can be her ally.

Another exercise is to frame your goals through the lens of emotional triggers that target the two driving forces of human behavior – the need to avoid pain and the desire to gain pleasure. These triggers can then become leverage to fuel your business growth.

For example, instead of just thinking about how much money you will make (a rational goal) think about the lives you could impact or what it would do for your family. Similarly, you could think about the people who have said you can’t or won’t succeed, and use that as fuel.

Early in her career, entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was told that women could not manage or run a company. That became fuel for her to become a self-made billionaire and one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful women in the world.

Thank you!

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