If You Commit to Nothing, You’ll Be Distracted By Everything

In 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.

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.

48 Comments

    • Thanks Stephanie! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The “Marathon Monks” are pretty incredible.

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

  1. James, I’d never heard of these guys. That’s an amazing journey.

    I have to admit, to keep myself from having to “complete or kill” projects and ideas, I made a Someday/Maybe file. I write out just enough of the idea to remember it, then it goes in the Someday/Maybe. A couple times a year, I go through it to see if I’m still interested in the ideas. A lot of them are things I know I won’t get to for at least two or three years, but because I haven’t started them, it’s okay.

    Thanks for another great post.

    • Darin — thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the “Marathon Monks” … they are pretty incredible.

      I like your idea of coming back to ideas. I often remind myself that if something is a good idea, then I’ll keep coming back to it. Of course, it’s also nice to have a system for recording those ideas so that you don’t forget them. I like that you have built that into your process as well.

      Keep up the good work and thanks for reading!

  2. Hi James,

    Exactly one month ago, I have subscribed to your email post. I find myself lucky that I found you over the internet. Every article has something to offer. I believe, I have learned a great deal out of it.

    Keep up the good work. :)

    Best wishes,
    Rahul

    • Glad to hear you’ve been enjoying my work, Rahul. I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way! Thanks for reading!

  3. Hi James,

    First, our intentions for all to live in freedom and unity is an extraordinary desire. We are the beginning of the intelligence of peace in our world, and so it is.

    Second, let me thank you for the sharing of your growing wisdom. Your insight is a gift which you are choosing to share.

    Third, our ability to complete a task is rooted in our desire to focus on what is truly important to us. As we change our focus will change, as Darin has indicated. Our ability to be in awareness of what matters to us is what drives changes.

    Thanks so much, I appreciate you!

    Joan

    • Joan — thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  4. Thanks for sharing this story James. Its really helpful. I’ll try this kind of approach in my life… And if I got the chance… Maybe I’ll try that marathon too.

  5. This gives me a new idea…

    I want to replace ‘the suicide’ with tattooing my self. I hate tattoo & tattoo is permanent. Quite analog to death.

    Thanks James!!!

  6. Excellent post James and an excellent way of storytelling drawing a personal development canvas around historic events. I love your approach. Even more though, reading your post I had 2 instant recollections from the historic period of Japan, that also signified the same principles (I’m a long and ardent student of Japan’s History, Strategy, culture and martial arts). Namely the Forty-seven Ronin as an example of the mental discipline of keeping the Bushido code and the discipline of Miyamoto Musashi (as expressed in his book of the five rings) of become the most skillful swordsman in Japan of his days.

    Thank you for remind us these important principles and for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks for sharing, Takis! It sounds like you know far more about Japanese culture and history than I do. It’s great to have you sharing your ideas in our little community.

      Thanks for being here!

  7. Great piece James, yet again.

    Rahul’s comment above suffices for me too.

    Like they say where I am from — “nothing do you”!

  8. James:
    I’m one of those guys who reads a lot of blogs and intends to comment, to at least show some level of appreciation. But this time I HAD TO RESPOND since I’ve forwarded the link to this post to several people I know already. I’m 45 and just recently took up CrossFit. It’s a great test to your physical strength, but to your mental side as well. To that end, I’ve been looking around for several sources to assist me including sports psychology and self improvement methods. And then I find this post. Few of us are in a lose/die scenario, if any. But as our food choices and life choices add up, that number grows. Had some of my family focused on their own health and realized it was a lose/die scenario, surely the decisions would’ve changed. So I find great strength in this post from a health perspective.

    I also find great strength applying this post to the workplace. Many times we mistake activity for achievement, as Coach John Wooden said, and in that activity, the distractions pile up. Before you know it, we’re caught in a trap that has little impact on real productivity nor moving the needle forward.

    At whatever stage of life you are in, this is powerful stuff. No doubt a book could be written just about this story and the impact.

    As I re-read this, there are so many great lessons in addition to your bolded lines. One of my favorites – “You won’t die if you fail. You will only learn.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting this out there.

    • Jeff — thanks for saying hello and taking the time to read. It sounds like you’ve made great progress with your own health and that you’re building a lot of momentum in the right direction. Keep up the good work!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. You may also like this one, where I mention the same Wooden quote that you put above: http://jamesclear.com/taking-action

      Feel free to share your thoughts anytime! It’s great to have you in our little community!

  9. James, loved this…thank you for sharing it! Immediately reminded me of our founder’s experience 10 years ago when he was ready to quit a new business venture and prayed for direction. Part of the answer that came to him in the moments that followed was an Old Testament verse (2Samuel 22:35-37 to be specific). He didn’t know the verse, so he looked it up and read as David praised God for training his hands for battle, making him strong, giving him his shield of victory, and broadening the path beneath him [paraphrase]. The first thing Mark realized was that David’s battles were life or death and that he hadn’t taken that approach to the business. He became intensely focused on mastering the fundamentals…at all costs…and broke through within 6 months. Perspective matters!

    • Travis — you’re right. The perspective we bring to life and the challenges we face can make a big difference.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  10. Hello James,

    I have subscribed to the mails that you send and this one on the Tendai monks is the best I have read. Thanks for writing this inspiring article.

  11. Wow I love learning stuff – OMG (Goodness) that’s amazing! And so enjoyable a storytelling to imbibe. Thanks James and all who commented – I’ve enjoy reading all, contemplating and action-ing. Today, I assert in myself & to you, the main change I want to see in me & my life in the next six months: combine journal/ drawing & de-clutter to organise my home with energetic dance/ exercise in between cleaning up to make my home, my life and my ‘stick to it’ identity committed to maintaining order, creativity & joy :) Braeden First job – put up the Christmas Tree & lights ready for a wonderful clear, home beautiful Christmas Day. Tinsel going on large indoor plants soon as that Christmas box is awoken.

    ie. a six month clean up/ furnishing new house (no curtains – no furnishings yet) for Christmas Day with fun physical exercise while continuing my daily spiritual practices. (the journaling/ drawing bit is to give a voice & to draw out the different parts of my psyche around de-cluttering. For example I am really angry with myself and part of me is resentful and continually glues my ass to inaction and TV, Facebook, couch, coffee – very stubborn two year old! Now next thing I am going to do right now – Label “Maybe/ Another Time” and cut a small slit in a big box to fill with all my designs, old & new dreams, plans… and open twice a year. Followed by 10 min of energetic electric Reggai Rock :)

  12. Hi James,

    Don’t know how to start appreciating this article of yours. Again if I dont do it TODAY, I will be late. This is an eye opener for me. I have read it 5 times, but everytime i find a different perspective.

    Thanks a lot. Please keep sharing.

  13. Hi James,

    Thank you so much for this amazing article! I just stumbled on your blog a couple weeks ago, started reading and got hooked because your insights on mental toughness and discipline really inspired me. You’re helping me make positive changes in my life. Thank you so much.

    • Happy to help, David! I’m glad you enjoyed the “Marathon Monks” and my other articles on mental toughness. I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  14. Wow…this is an amazing article, also the comments that have been posted. The whole perspective changes when life is at stake and the only option is either to win (or complete it) or lose your life. Most of us just never face such a situation.

    I have read this so many times since I got the email…after reading it again…felt a new sense of urgency to get my ass of the couch and do something. Please continue what you are doing…this is amazing work.

    I am actually looking forward to your writings…good work!!!!

    • Glad to hear it, Nat! I’ll do my best to keep writing valuable articles.

      Thanks for reading and good luck with your own quest!

  15. Hi James,

    Thanks for sharing, i have signed up for your article since yesterday & i have being reading/download your stuff. Every articles have its stories and lesson to learn. Am surely looking forward to read more & i have being sharing some of your thoughts with my staffs.

    Thanks a lot…you are like a candle in the dark.

  16. Hello James,

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, every word is worth reading.
    I’m actually applying it to my Management display in college.

    Cheers,
    Fernando

  17. My understanding is that these monks are NOT runners they are walking meditations. Not that, that devalues their achievements but they are not ‘marathon’ monks as often described…

  18. Hi James,

    Great post… I’m wondering if any of the monks that decided to end their life, did so for their own personal reasons rather than failure.

  19. thanks for the article james. I feel so very inspired i can’t get myself to go to sleep :) this is exactly the motivation I needed to propel myself one step closer to my goal.

  20. Many thanks again my great Mentor of our time discovering your articles is by no means a regret but a wonderful opportunity for me to explore and share my views and ideas with other just as you always do for me.

  21. I approve everything you share in this article! Thank you for helping me recollect in giving more importance to the value of order. Keep it up!

  22. Thank you so much for coming up with this awestruck-ing article… The gravity of those monks mental commitment is really unimaginable to the modern mankind. This is and should be an eye-opener for all those people who dream of utilizing their own untapped Human potential.

    I really feel like saying “These Monks are as inspiring as BATMAN, right there, or probably even better.”

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