If You Commit to Nothing, You’ll Be Distracted by Everything: Lessons from the “Marathon Monks”

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Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 8.06.40 AMIn the northeastern hills outside Kyoto, Japan there is a mountain known as Mount Hiei. That mountain is littered with unmarked graves.

Those graves mark the final resting place of the Tendai Buddhist monks who have failed to complete a quest known as the Kaihogyo.

What is this quest that kills so many of the monks? And what can you and I learn from it?

Keep reading and I’ll tell you.

The Marathon Monks

The Tendai monks believe that enlightenment can be achieved during your current life, but only through extreme self–denial.

For the Tendai, the ultimate act of self–denial — and the route to enlightenment — is a physical challenge known as the Kaihogyo. Because of this challenge, the Tendai are often called the “Marathon Monks.”

But the Kaihogyo is much more than a marathon.

The Kaihogyo

The Kaihogyo is a 1,000 day challenge that takes place over seven years.

If a monk chooses to undertake this challenge, this is what awaits him…

During Year 1, the monk must run 30 km per day (about 18 miles) for 100 straight days.

During Year 2, the monk must again run 30 km per day for 100 straight days.

During Year 3, the monk must once more run 30 km per day for 100 straight days.

During Year 4, the monk must run 30 km per day. This time for 200 straight days.

During Year 5, the monk must again run 30 km per day for 200 straight days. After completing the fifth year of running, the monk must go 9 consecutive days without food, water, or rest. Two monks stand beside him at all times to ensure that he does not fall asleep.

During Year 6, the monk must run 60 km (about 37 miles) per day for 100 straight days.

During Year 7, the monk must run 84 km (about 52 miles) per day for 100 straight days. (52 miles per day!) And then, he must run 30 km per day for the final 100 days.

The sheer volume of running is incredible, of course, but there is one final challenge that makes The Kaihogyo unlike any other feat…

Day 101

During the first 100 days of running, the monk is allowed to withdraw from the Kaihogyo.

However, from Day 101 onwards, there is no withdrawal. The monk must either complete the Kaihogyo … or take his own life.

Because of this, the monks carry a length of rope and a short sword at all times on their journey.

In the last 400+ years, only 46 men have completed the challenge. Many others can be found by their unmarked graves on the hills of Mount Hiei.

3 Lessons on Mental Toughness and Commitment

The mental toughness of the Marathon Monks is incredible and their feats are unlike most challenges that you and I will face. But, there are still many lessons we can learn from them.

1. “Complete or Kill.”

The Marathon Monks are an extreme version of the “complete or kill” mentality. But you can take the same approach to your goals, projects, and work.

If something is important to you, complete it. If not, kill it.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably have a bunch of half–finished, half–completed projects and ideas. You don’t need all of those loose ends.

Either something is important enough to you to complete, or it’s time to kill it. Fill your life with goals that are worth finishing and eliminate the rest.

2. If you commit to nothing, you’re distracted by everything.

Most of us never face a challenge with the true possibility of death, but we can learn a lot from the monk’s sense of commitment and conviction. They have clarified exactly what they are working toward and for seven years they organize their life around the goal of completing the Kaihogyo. Every possible distraction is rendered unimportant.

Do you think the monks get distracted by TV, movies, the internet, celebrity gossip, or any of the other things that we so often waste time on? Of course not.

If you choose, you can make a similar decision in your life. Sure, your daily goals may not carry the same sense of urgency as the Kaihogyo, but that doesn’t mean you can’t approach them with the same sense of conviction.

We all have things that we say are important to us. You might say that you want to lose weight or be a better parent or create work that matters or build a successful business or write a book — but do you make time for these goals above all else? Do your organize your day around accomplishing them?

If you commit to nothing, then you’ll find that it’s easy to be distracted by everything. Learning to say “no” is a skill that’s easier mastered than often thought of!

3. It doesn’t matter how long your goal will take, just get started.

On Day 101, the Tendai monks are thousands of miles and 900 days from their goal. They are setting out on a journey that is so long and so arduous that it’s almost impossible for you and I to imagine. And yet, they still accept the full challenge. Day after day, year after year, they work.

And seven years later, they finish.

Don’t let the length of your goals prevent you from starting on them.

Never give up on a dream just because of the length of time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.
—H. Jackson Brown

What Makes You Different From the Marathon Monks

There is one very fortunate difference between you and the Tendai monks. You won’t die if you don’t reach your goal!

In the words of Seth Godin, you literally have the “privilege of being wrong.” You won’t die if you fail, you’ll only learn.

Furthermore, you can always change your mind. If you commit to a goal, work on it for a year, and decide that this isn’t actually what you wanted … guess what? You’re free to choose something else.

This should take a burden off of your shoulders! You don’t have to worry about committing to the right thing. If you’re debating between choices, just choose one. You can always adjust later on.

You have the opportunity to choose a goal that is important to you and the privilege of failing with very little consequence. Don’t waste that privilege.

Where to Go From Here

The biggest lesson that the Tendai monks offer for everyday people like you and me is the lesson of commitment and conviction.

Imagine the sense of commitment that the monk feels on Day 101. Imagine what it feels like to embrace the final 900 days of that challenge. Imagine what it feels like to accept a goal that is so important to you that you tell yourself, “I’m going to finish this or I will die trying.”

If you have something that is important to you, then eliminate the unrelated and unimportant tasks, get started no matter how big the challenge, and commit to your goal.

Every big challenge has a turning point. Today could be your Day 101. Today could be your Day of Commitment.

PS: For more posts on developing stronger willpower, you might also like “The origin of the 8 hour work day and why we should rethink it” and “8 Things You Don’t Know Are Affecting Our Choices Every Day: The Science of Decision Making

This post originally appeared on JamesClear.com

About the Author

James Clear

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavior science to help you master your habits and improve your health. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free newsletter. Or, download his free guide: Transform Your Habits.

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  • Bruce McCarthy

    “Complete or kill,” great advice for anyone working on a roadmap.

  • Jeff Payne

    Great article! It inspired me to clear some things off my plate that aren’t important to me and add some things that are important. Thank you.

  • Acaspita

    Great Post James, as usual…, Congrats!

    I would just point out on something very particular with your permission, and it being the first time since I read your posts. I think you do should worry about committing to the right choice. Just choosing one of the options and adjust later on is equivalent to going back to our previous procrastinating practices. (Or at least, has to do with those patterns of behaviour)

    You do should worry about the option, and you do should commit with the core essence of the option you took for a specified lenght of time until the turning point moment arrives (For example, the turning point of working in a team is considered to be three months).

    Thanks for your commitment on these Posts and Cheers!

  • http://www.davidlanger.co.uk David Langer

    This is the #1 reason I like CrossFit, triathlon and other extreme sports. By regularly committing to physical challenges that require a lot of mental strength, your fear of similar commitments in business and the rest of your life reduces.

  • Sanum Jain

    This was really interesting to read and great analogy of the Monks. It has made me think about the things I commit to and the things that I should let go off.

    Brilliant read.

  • HerHealthySelf

    Excellent reminder of the power of focus, commitment, and stripping away the unessential. (And no, I can’t imagine those monks spend much time worrying about Miley Cyrus and twerking!).
    Thanks, James.

  • Serdar

    This profound but utterly nonsense tradition can only be DISPROOF for whatever lesson you intend to give about self bla bla matters.

  • pjdavies

    A small point – the monks actually don’t run they walk. Still amazing mental and physical achievement though

  • KairosVision

    This is an excellent post that many people should read :)

  • Vitalii Varbanets

    Thank you so much! I’m thinking about taking this challenge to see how many days I will withstand

  • Alex McKellar

    I love the points you’ve pulled out of this, but really? This is a sadistic, cultic tradition and shouldn’t be celebrated in any way as some kind of achievement. The need to take their own lives if they fail is an awful degradation of humanity. Great points though :-)

  • DennisWilliams

    fair point, but how many apps have these monks built?

  • Woon Chin Yeong

    Feels like you just ‘spoke’ to me about commitment (for work). Thank you!

  • Pol Dej

    You write that “Every big challenge has a turning point.” I recently returned from Lisbon, a small report here http://djanga.ru/2013/09/lisbon/ and so there is a ruined monastery Carmo, a reminder of the earthquake that completely destroyed Lisbon. I think it changed the world view of the entire nation. So this monastery seemed to me a kind of turning point for the Lisbon …