Eric Stevens

Fitness Speaker, Author & Personality

Eric Stevens is a health and fitness coach, trainer and practitioner. Eric has broadened that body focused fitness with writing, presenting and acting in order to reach people, change lives, and create dialogue.

The Hills Are Alive

I’m not ashamed to admit that my favorite movie is The Sound of Music. While Goodfellas is a close runner up, Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family takes the cake for me. In college, I studied in Austria and on a trip to Salzburg I even dragged my friends Bob and Mike on a Sound of Music tour. I sang all of the songs, danced around the gazebo, and hopped up and down the famous steps from the scene in the movie. Bob and Mike just shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes - when in Austria.

Life has always been a bit of a musical for me as I am known to break out in random song from time to time (ok, every day). While life has a way of imitating art it’s no accident that I have found a home in the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado. But even at a mile high, Denver is a far cry from the day to day reality of jagged peaks and mountain trails. Not to knock the 5280 mind you - Hip restaurants and city culture have been great, but the mountains have been calling.

I recently tied the knot in Steamboat Springs and like a scene from a movie, those hills felt alive. There’s a peace, serenity, and aesthetic beauty that’s hard to quantify when talking about the Rockies. There’s also a spirituality that the mountains symbolize. As I “lift my eyes to the mountains” I do so with an open heart and a spirit of humility and wonder.

But there is also a harsh reality and ruggedness to the mountains that juxtaposes their awe-inspiring beauty. If the ocean brings with it the possibility of rough waters, the mountains have an equally daunting prospect of harsh winters and foreboding storms. The ocean and the mountains are metaphors for life and yet it’s the mountains that are more difficult to inhabit. The air is thin, the winters long and the summers short. And yet there is something beyond compelling about the vantage point from up high. Some even risk their lives for a momentary glimpse from the top of a mountain.

In the Sound of Music Maria couldn’t wait for her chance to escape the abbey walls for the freedom and mystique of the Austrian Alps. Her religion was the natural charisma of the hills and her mantra was to “climb every mountain.” Perhaps the reason why that movie made such an impression on me is that spirit of adventure and wonder that Maria encompassed.

Since moving to Colorado over five years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to live in the mountains versus making the occasional day and weekend trips to take in their beauty. That moment has finally arrived making the dream a reality. I’m sure there will be plenty of ups and downs as is the case both literally and figuratively with being on a mountainside. But it’s time for the next chapter and my wife Patience and I are thrilled to call the mountains our new home.

Next time you’re in the Vail Valley and you hear someone belting out a rousing rendition of “Do re me” make sure you come over and say hello. 

Learning to Fail

One of the more poignant moments I can remember in recent years is getting the crap beat out of me shortly after one of my biggest life failures. Just weeks after signing my divorce papers in 2012, I had to endure a few rounds of hard sparring at a martial arts testing and I got pummeled. Already bloodied and bruised, in the third round I was kicked so hard in the ribs that I doubled over and took a knee. In order to pass my test, I had to make it through all three rounds - I was literally saved by the bell.

In a twisted way, it was actually sort of cathartic to have my body feel the way my heart did – battered and broken. While getting beaten up isn’t something I’d necessarily recommend, I can also tell you that failure is almost a certainty in life and learning to cope with pain is a critical part of progression in anything.

Yet culturally, everything and everyone seems to be telling you the opposite – that success happens by finding your bliss and seeking pleasure. The quick fix is everywhere you look. Get rich quick seminars, crash diets, and fad exercise programs tell you the news your brain loves to hear – that there’s a convenient solution and a comfortable change - it just takes hard work and the right program.

But what if it wasn’t about the program, the right timing, or even how hard you worked? What if advancement was simply about the willingness to face the pain and the certainty of failure.

If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that I may or may not reach my goals, dreams, and aspirations, but I will most definitely fail while trying. The silver lining is that failure brings with it the opportunity to find authenticity and wholeness through introspective work and forgiveness. While more life lessons are surely on their way through my next mess up, here’s what I have learned so far:

o   Ego can take you to the depths of hell. In every major failure I’ve had, ego was in the driver’s seat. You are not your body, your job, or even your relationships, but you become the thoughts you give power to. Ego says you are defined by quantities, while your true self is defined by qualities.

You may lose your job, but you haven’t lost the qualities that got you that job. You may lose your relationship, but you haven’t lost the opportunity to love with your whole heart. Next time your ego tells you that you are defined by what you have, remind yourself that in the end, you will be remembered by your qualities.

o   Honesty isn’t your best policy, humility is. Your failure is an opportunity to perfect your virtue which is simply the opposite of your vice. My vice is pride. When others wrong me, I cast them aside and never, ever turn back. Puffing my chest up may be my default, but when I am at my best, humility governs my thoughts and actions. The problem is that when we fail, we often look for something or someone to blame, even if it’s us. In doing so we can lash out to those who have wronged us, and frequently, that lashing out is self-directed. Here’s the thing though – playing the blame game ultimately proves nothing. What matters is the humility to face the wreckage and move on.

o   Quitting is sometimes your best option. Anyone who’s ever been divorced can attest to the utter devastation associated with such a separation. You don’t get married before friends, family, and God to see it fail miserably. Compounding the effects of a trauma like a divorce are the prospects of acute pain, loneliness, and the loss of companionship. But if love, justice, and truth are worth fighting for, abuse and hatred are worth leaving behind. Leaving a relationship, job, or bad habit is sometimes our best option as something built on a false foundation isn’t worth salvaging, it’s worth tearing down and starting over on the right footing. 

o   Victims don’t heal. One thing I have seen over and over again in my in life both personally and professionally is that no one ever makes a lasting change that they don’t genuinely want to make. People make changes when they’ve had enough and their back is against the wall.

It sucks to get downsized. It sucks to get hurt or heartbroken. It sucks to get sick. It sucks when your genetics aren’t perfect. A lot of life’s setbacks aren’t our fault. It wasn’t your fault that your parents were lousy role models or your boss is an asshole. But it is your fault that you hold on to your pain, anger, and self-justification. True freedom can only come about by releasing negativity and allowing wounds to heal though the natural order of time and forgiveness. The statute of limitations is now – you aren’t a victim, you have the power of choice.

o   You must face the pain. Sometimes you’re going to get your ass kicked and it’s going to hurt - maybe even worse than you think. It’s tempting to run the other way. But the great irony of the things that mask our pain (booze, sex, food, etc.) is that these temporary reprieves only prolong and compound the inevitable pain. One of the best ways to cope with pain is to find support. If your body hurts, treat it gently and get a massage. If your heart hurts, join a support group and seek those who can understand your plight. If your mind hurts, force yourself to sit with your thoughts until they pass.

More than anything though, we have to face the hurt and the trauma. Peace is only found on the other side of it. There’s no way around the storms of life – our job is to face the pain and release its grip by swimming with the current.

Learning to fail isn’t something covered in school. There are no participation trophies in the game of life. We’ll have many wins if we’re fortunate and few failures if we’re lucky. But failure is going to happen and regardless of circumstance, the work is clear – peace of mind and character are forged with finding the resolve to face the mess and the courage to clean it up.

 

 

 

Where is my mind?

“The best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all” - John Kabat-Zinn

One of my acting teachers used to begin each class with the simple instruction of telling us to “feel our feet on the ground.” The request sounds somewhat ridiculous at face value. After all, if you’re standing, where else could your feet be but on the ground?

My teacher wasn’t just making an obvious request though, he was asking us to be present and to genuinely feel our feet connecting to the earth - to breathe and be in the moment. As a physical artist, the only way an actor finds truth is to be wholly present and the only way to be wholly present is to breathe and feel your feet on the ground. That’s where the work begins.

Feeling my feet on the ground has sometimes been an elusive goal. Like many Americans, for most of my life, I’ve continuously drank the Kool-Aid that doing is succeeding. It’s almost as if ‘dream it and do it’ should be inscribed on our nation’s flag.

We are a nation of doers and our culture is predicated on the self-made individual. Making a life worth living in our society means building, climbing, and most of all, doing. In order to sharpen our saws for doing, many of us incorporate the habit of a “practice.” That is, a process of cultivating a skill, craft, or discipline.

Practice helps prepare us for doing more and in turn, succeeding. Or at least, that’s the idea. In fitness, I have been exercising regularly since I was a teenager. As an actor, rehearsal has helped me learn my lines and try new approaches. As a marital artist, sparring kept me sharp and helped me learn to defend myself. I’ve been practicing and doing constantly for much of my life.

Part of why I love fitness are the “laws” associated with the practice, starting with rule number one, effort = success. While you can’t will yourself to be talented or artistic, you can will yourself to be in great shape. Practice doesn’t make perfect with exercise, but it certainly pays off.

But even with well-intentioned effort, exercise isn’t immune from the laws of failure either. The human body often has other ideas than a linear progression of advancement. There is aging and injury to contend with, and life sometimes gets in the way of expressing our physicality.

Fitness is just like any other endeavor from jobs to relationships to daily activities – there are peaks and valleys, waves and calm waters. Our job is simply to be present, learn, and let go.  

The reality is however, that during a setback we tend to stick with our default - staying busy and doing more. When our body breaks down, we seek distractions and new activities. When we lose our professional identity or relationship, we stay occupied by seeking a new one. But what happens when all of our doing, practicing, and trying doesn’t materialize? What happens when doing becomes a distraction from the essential work of observation?

While it’s tempting to double down during failure and keep ourselves occupied, doing so doesn’t necessarily serve us as well. As a wise teacher once reminded me “Eric, you can’t run faster than your shadow.”

At such a crossroads, it’s time to go back to step one – to feel your feet on the ground and know that true ‘success’ isn’t your job, your body, or even your relationships, but qualities and character. A season of change calls for a new form of practice, but not the sort where you count the sets and reps.

We tend to think of the word practice in terms of repetition with the intention of getting better at something. But the practice of mindfulness is simply about paying attention and capturing the present. Becoming more mindful isn’t about doing more or rehearsing more diligently. There’s merely the art of releasing your expectations and allowing the universe to flow through you. As meditation guru and best-selling author John Kabat-Zinn states, “Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.”

In recent years I’ve had to learn how to stop doing and start being. Being mindful isn’t about trying harder or doing more, but mindfulness does require the same qualities that promote successful doing - intention and discipline. With the art of being mindful, life itself becomes the practice of commitment to the present moment. For now, that’s enough.

Question Authority

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."   Winston Churchill

Back in the day when John Cougar Mellencamp fought the authority, the authority always won. And so it seems for many of us – authority appears to hold infinite power. Our mega companies and bosses, our churches, pastors and priests, and certainly the literal authorities seemingly hold all of the cards. Even in the construct of our communities and families, there is a powerful underlying influence of conformity that keeps many of us in check.

America hates a loser and the cultural norm is to hold contempt for failure. Because of such immense societal pressure, many would rather sit down and stay quiet than face the prospect of a lost battle. After all, when you pick a fight, you don’t fight to lose. And if Mellencamp was right - the authority always wins - then what’s the point of fighting ‘the man’ in the first place? With such logic, many of us choose to avoid conflict and stay on the sidelines of apathy, comfort, and complacency.

The predominance of passivity and apathy may seem like trends that are here to stay, but it hasn’t always been that way. America was founded on the ideals of resistance to authority and standing up for the rights of the oppressed and marginalized. That said, the great irony of the American ideal (success at all costs) is that it also carries with it a dark underbelly of oppression, abuse, and violence. ‘Me first’ can also mean ‘you last.’

This ebb and flow cycle of resistance and avoidance has played itself out throughout the history of our nation. In modern history, the resistance movements of civil rights, women’s rights and LBGT rights have also been paralleled by the movements of corporate consolidation and greed, bigger and increasingly gridlocked government, and inequality through the disparity of wealth.

In the hangover of the tumultuous 1960’s, the notion of conflict avoidance gained continuous momentum. Rocking the boat lost its luster and in its place, comfort and complacency became en vogue. If the 80’s was the “Greed is Good” decade, the presiding themes that seem to hold sway in modern times are that of ego, image, and self-preservation.

Pop culture promotes such a zero-sum equation played out salaciously on reality television and in our constant mind-numbing newsfeeds. The end goal is the top of the pyramid (famous, rich, and beautiful) and the way is paved with playing the game, a carefully manicured self-image, and how many ‘followers’ one can amass. I have a dream has been replaced by what’s in it for me.

Greed and selfishness seem to be top American values, but that isn’t what we’re built on. We’re build on resistance. We’re built on fighting for the rights of the little guy. We’re built on the rising tide that lifts all boats, not just the yachts.

As cookie cutter monopolies have come to define our way of business and inept government has become the norm, more and more folks are stepping out to challenge the status quo. And yet it’s evident that in many ways, in the haze of our comfortable slumber, we’ve forgotten how to stand up and resist. It’s time for a crash course:

Resistance isn’t insulating yourself with those that agree with you.

Resistance isn’t simply putting up a hashtag and feeling like you’ve done your part.

Resistance isn’t shouting and screaming louder…it’s letting others do the shouting and screaming and holding a mirror up to hatred and insanity.

Resistance starts with the most important battle you can wage - challenging your own ego and limiting self-serving beliefs.

Resistance is humility, the willingness to listen, and an unwavering commitment to justice and truth.

Resistance is putting your money where your mouth is and putting your ass on the line.

I tend to agree with John Cougar Mellancamp - it does indeed seem like the authority wins a lot of the time. But the pages of history tell a different story. All important and significant political, scientific, and cultural movements start with ideas counter to the establishment. The authority may win a lot of battles, but truth always wins the war.

Corporate America, our news/social media, and the polarizing political landscape can seem like lonely and terrifying places to reside these days. But as the truly great advancements in history corroborate - there are a lot more of us than there are of them. If enough of us resist the forces of ego, selfishness, and greed, then justice will prevail.

 

 

 

Moral Courage

"Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately."  - Elie Wiesel

My mom used to read to me at night…until I was in high school! She read children’s books to me when I was little, sports books when I was in grade school, and as I matured, she read biographies and history. One theme was consistent in the books she chose – moral courage. Moral courage is defined as the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences.

I’m not sure if it was Mom’s intention to instill the virtues of being some sort of moral crusader, but those books made a big impression on me. My main take away from those readings on the likenesses of individuals like Anne Frank, Malcolm X, or Jackie Robinson is that the true mark of success isn’t defined by what assets you have, your resume, or even how long you live, but by your willingness to stand for what you believe in.

How many of us are willing to take such stands? How many of us are willing to truly stand up - to our employer, our church, our government and risk persecution, our job, and even our freedom? To many, the comforts of modern life, validation on social media, and the distractions of technology hold sway over urgent and pressing systemic problems. We are too busy being distracted and seeking comfort to be burdened by life’s inconvenient truths.

Moral courage is seemingly in short supply these days although there are glimmers of hope if you look closely enough. Ishrad Manji is the founder of the ‘Moral Courage Project’’ at the University of Southern California where she teaches students to “do the right thing in the face of four years.” Manji is a Muslim who has openly stood up for the rights of women and minorities calling for reform in her faith in her bestselling book, The Trouble with Islam Today.

A recent example of moral courage is also former NFL player Ed Cunningham quitting his lucrative job as a television football analyst because he believes that football has negative long-term health ramifications. He felt could “no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot” in promoting a game he believes in hazardous to your health. In announcing his decision Cunningham added “I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”

The point isn’t whether people like Manji and Cunningham are right. Personally, I like football and though the studies on football appear to be fairly damning, I have no idea if the science is absolute or conclusive with regard to long-term brain damage and its correlation to football. The point is that Ed Cunningham quit one of the top jobs in sports broadcasting because of his convictions. The point is that Manji stood up to her faith at the risk of being ostracized or worse and has dedicated her life’s work to furthering the movement of moral courage.

The point is also that such stands of courage are notable because they are a rarity in our times. Moral courage tends to be the exception to the rule of the day – ‘me first.’ The mantra of me first is at the root of almost every major problem we face today – disparity of income & wealth inequality, dysfunctional government run by lifelong politicians, the epidemics of addiction, crumbling infrastructure and the failing environment. And it’s not just ego and selfishness that drives these problems, but they are compounded by a modern culture of apathy, indifference, and contempt.

Said Noel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Wiesel goes on to say that “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Elie Wiesel wrote about perhaps the most glaring example of such neglect which occurred in the 1930’s & 40’s in Nazi Germany. Many protected their own self-interest - Their families, their jobs, their possessions. In doing so they contributed to one of the biggest crimes against humanity, not to mention their own countries demise and destruction. Indeed, when we put only our needs first, we neglect the moral necessities of our time.

These days there are also many who want to put their family, country or company first. While in some ways it’s natural and understandable to put you and yours first, frankly the sentiment is misguided and ultimately wrong. 'Me first' presents a self-absorbed narrative that puts blinders on the many extremely important issues of the day – poverty, failing societal health, the environment, education – things that affect us all in one way shape or form.

To right this ship, the single most important question we can ask ourselves is ‘what do you love in life more than you love yourself?’ Said another way, ‘what are you willing to die for?’ It’s a strong question, but one we all need to ask in our daily lives if we have a shot at correcting the sentiments of indifference, selfishness, and greed. Rather than responding to the issues of today with apathy, we have an ethical responsibility to stand up and ask, ‘what is going on here?’

We live in important and tumultuous times where a desperate need exists for leadership and the willingness to take stands. Even at the cost of a job, relationship, or personal gain we must put our conscious and community first. In a world of limited resources, interconnected economies, and common problems, the notion of me or even America first is archaic. As Thomas Paine said, “My country is the world. My religion is to do good.” Our ultimate task is to put the collective needs of the community first and as Paine rightly stated, “to do good.”

 

 

 

Riders on the Storm

So apparently, there's a chance I am (or was) Jim Morrison! I came across this realization after experiencing one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had. In my dream, I actually became the figure of Jim, performing “Break on Through” as well as his last ever written song, “Riders on the Storm.” In typical Doors-like fashion, the dream was mysterious, hazy, and very strange. I even forgot some of the lyrics to ‘my’ own song while performing in front of a sea of people in a dark auditorium.

Feeling moved by the experience, I had the dream interpreted with the help of a ‘spiritual director.’ After some research, I realized Morrison died just a few days before I was born. This fact pretty much sealed my assertion and my dream advisor’s hypothesis and half-joking suggestion that I once lived as Morrison in a previous life.

As I took the dream analysis a step further though, the focus became less about the figure of Jim Morrison and more about the two songs featured in my dream. Why these two songs and what do they mean? At the time, “Break on Through” (to the other side) seemed a more prominent theme in my life and somewhat obvious in meaning and application – to break through the noise, clutter, and my shadow self and live authentically. To break through the preconceived notions of how things should be and act truthfully instead of acting in accordance with trying to please others.

Breaking through has been a continual battle in my life, but the song that has ultimately struck a lasting chord with me is “Riders.” At the time of my dream, I had just come out of a storm and a major life change (divorce, move, and professional transition). The timing and metaphor of riding on the storm seemed highly appropriate. After a short time though, my storm passed as did the memory of the dream. It was back to smooth sailing.

The other day, I happened to be quietly sitting at work when “Riders on the Storm” came on the radio. I was immediately struck again by the song and its underlying meaning. Literal storm waters have again been brewing in recent months. As I embark on yet another life shift (marriage, move, and professional transition), the prospect of a stormy uncertainty lurks.

With change again on my mind, I decided to dig a little deeper into some of ‘my’ lyrics and meaning. My initial analysis on "Riders" had much to do with marinating on the storms of life and the importance of riding or surfing on the wave, versus getting swallowed up in the tumultuous waters. But taking a harder look at Morrison’s lyrics have brought additional insight to the meaning. Some phrases seem obvious such as “Into this world we’re thrown” and “like a dog without a bone.” However, one phrase has jumped out at me in particular – “An actor out on loan.”

I took a look at some of the comments online and found the following analysis:

“’An Actor out on loan’ is a metaphor for powerlessness. It’s an old theater and movie term, dating back to the days of the studio system, when many contract actors had no control over their own careers…studio officials could hire them out on a whim to other studios for parts that could be destructive of their own careers. The first thing an actor did when he was in sufficient demand to dictate his own terms was to eliminate that clause in their contracts with the studios."

"An actor goes out there and if he is to be marvelous or even worth his salt he must be naked to the soul, exposed to the core. Vulnerable beyond belief. He must be his most private self in the most public of places. In front of the whole world."

Indeed, we are all ‘actors’ on our own journeys and life’s storms present our biggest stages. This week I spoke with an acquaintance who was recently in Las Vegas and at the tragic concert shooting. In a stormy moment of gunfire and panic, his immediate instinct was to help those who were wounded and to assist others in dragging them to safety. His genuine nature to act with compassion and dignity were apparent even in the very darkest imaginable human circumstances.

Hopefully, most of us can live full and meaningful lives without having to encounter such a horrific tragedy. But it is a certainty that all of us will encounter storms. Some of those storms will be powerful and even beyond our control. But as ‘actors out on loan,’ it is up to us to find the naked vulnerability to rise to the occasion and find our own truth and humility. It is only through such authenticity that we can ride the wave safely to reach the calm waters once again.

 

 

Pride & Joy

It’s been said that everything in life comes down to two opposing forces – fear and love. Literally every action we take is based in fear, or it’s based in love. But however dominant a role fear and love play, we are often unaware of their subtle...

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No Mas: When is it quitting time?

Following my divorce, I felt like such a failure for throwing in the towel and quitting after making a commitment before God and family. I had never felt such shame and embarrassment, until someone who helped me through the process reminded me that quitting isn’t always cowardly, while fighting isn’t always courageous.

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GET OUT OF YOUR WAY! YOUR BIGGEST OBSTACLE TO REACHING YOUR GOALS.

Perhaps it was his raw vulnerability that made her answer ‘yes’ or perhaps my friend was just being nice and optimistic for the sake of humanity. Perhaps the exchange meant nothing in the end...

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