Strength of mind:

Mark Williams on harnessing the power of the brain


Mark Williams looks just like any other Boulderite on this cool fall evening. Fit and athletic, he’s sipping a microbrew and talking about breathing. About how to breathe, about calming your inner self. About clarity of mind. Nothing really out of the ordinary, particularly when you consider that he’s a graduate of Naropa University and currently a partner in a company called Dynamic Human Solutions, which offers coaching and seminars “that improve the capacity of the individual and their contribution to the team.”

But then he starts talking about other things. About fighter jets and tough camaraderie, about dancing with death at Mach 3 high in desert skies. And that’s when you realize that Mark Williams is not your ordinary Boulderite and certainly not what you’d expect at all from a Naropa University grad.

Williams’ interest in Naropa, mediation and mind training stems directly from his experiences as a combat fighter pilot in the first Gulf War. A thoughtful and intense individual, Williams was a member of the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the most decorated air-to-air combat unit of that war, responsible for 16 kills, half the tally of the war.

As a F-15C pilot, Williams was the best of the best. An elite warrior who devoted countless hours to training, honing “situational awareness” until his reactions became unconscious and plane and man merged into one, without conscious thought, into a threedimensional dance in the sky.

“In combat it is going down, and you can’t fixate on coulda shoulda” says Williams. “It is a dynamic environment and you need to have a mind that can float freely and which isn’t fixated.

“There’s a mind-state that is special any time you are flying airplanes,” Williams adds. “It is not natural to fly, and if you are not paying attention you will kill yourself. The faster you go it is more likely. If you go into combat it adds the right touch of vermouth to the martini, the stakes go up and the mind is more present.”

For Williams, this combat experience launched a process where he became interested in how his brain worked. When you come back from combat, he says, “you hunger for that sense of clarity.”

The process in finding and understanding that clarity, and training his mind to reach it, started to evolve with martial arts after his combat flying days ended.

“I was training Aikido and some guys were Zen practitioners,” Williams recalls. “And they were like, ‘You have to come and practice Zen.’ The first time I sat at a Zendo and I started staring at the wall, I clicked into that same state as flying.”

For Williams, Zen was a revelation. “I didn’t think you could get this or train for this or gain some capacity to have his level of mastery,” Williams says of the way Zen and meditation worked on his brain. “I thought, ‘If I can take this and don’t need to be in combat, gain this clarity of mind and take it to my martial arts, take it to my relationship with my wife and bring it to everything I can do, my life will be so much richer and so much fuller.’” 

And thus combat and Zen led to Boulder: “When I connected those dots, and saw that was the way, I wanted to learn it with the guys who have really been down the rabbit hole, and the Tibetans have mapped it out the most,” Williams says of his decision to pursue a master’s degree in religious studies at Naropa.

With his degree in hand, Williams then turned to sharing the lessons he’d gleaned from his diverse experiences, working with top level executives and elite athletes on how to train their own minds to improve performance. And the results are impressive.

“When you take the top five guys in a peloton, for example,” Williams says, “they’re all elite athletes. They have the same level of physical conditioning and physical ability. What separates the top guy from the other four guys is his brain. If his girlfriend dumps him or something happens with his family, then all of a sudden he’s a mess and he’s out of the top five. That’s where the mental training comes in.”

“Performance is a hook for type A people,” Williams adds. “What we see with the kind of folks we train is that they are super performance oriented. But it is not just about performing in a professional role. That inner sensibility starts translating into our personal world.”

Williams adds with a laugh, “the cheap hook is dangling performance, but the transformation is not just in terms of ‘I can do this better than other people,’ people start discovering that they are transforming as human beings, not just as an athlete. The mind training you use to push through the pain on a marathon allows you to turn the lens inward. And more and more that same sensibility flows into everything in your life. Now there is the possibility of something different instead of the shit you always do.”

Does it work? Well, given the fact that Williams’ clients include some very big names, including UFC fighter Brendan Schaub and Olympic hopeful slopestyle skier Colby Ward, Williams has a track record of success.

But it’s not just elite athletes who benefit from training their minds, Williams says. According to him, everyone can benefit, especially weekend warriors.

“The key to working with athletes who live with high level stress is to teach them how to manage adrensee aline,” he says. “If you are completely adrenalized then your game plane is out the door. You want the ability to be able to manage that stress on the spot.”

“For people who are not world class athletes, you are in the middle of a training regime and maybe at your 8 to 7 job, the stress level is high. If you are not managing that stress, you will not be able to take your body to where it needs to be,” Williams adds.

“When someone is training, their mind needs to take them to the next level as well as their body. When I go run I’m not just running for the physical, I am also dialing in my concentration level so I am working my mind as well as my body. As you reach your max, your mind wants to check out and not deal with the pain. When you learn the basic meditation point awareness of where your mind is and make that second nature, then I gain the capacity to make [my body] take me where I want to be.”

Sure, that’s easy for a guy with combat experience and a background in Zen meditation to say, but, according to Williams, the process is surprisingly simple. “This is not hard,” Williams says. “It’s simple with the techniques we have.”

The end result? Better performance for athletes and a richer and fuller life, all due to a state of mind.

Three First Steps

Training your mind is a lot like training your body, Williams says. Regardless if you are an elite athlete looking to compete at the highest level or trying to set a new personal best in a marathon or even tackeling an expert ski run for the first time, training your mind will allow you to reach and exceed those goals and is equally as important as training your body. Here are three steps in getting the process started.

1. Learn How to Breathe 

“Breath from your belly and just focus on your belly rising and falling,” Williams says. “If you can’t figure it out, watch an 8-monthold sleep.”

2. Turn your shit off!

“That means get off the media junk, the mobile device, the TV, the computer,” Williams says. “Turn it off and find silence. The constant barrage of information non-stop, all it does is keep you jacked on adrenaline. If you stay jacked on adrenaline, no matter how you want to perform from the office to athletics, all you are doing is draining your resources. Pro athletes don’t train 24-7 and those of us who aren’t pro athletes think we can burn the candle 24-7.”

3. Find Silence 

“It doesn’t matter where you are,” Williams says. “You can stop for a moment. So stop for a moment and practice that. If you want to be hardcore, I set the beeper on my watch and every hour, on the hour, I stop. Take a couple of breaths, find the silence for 15 to 30 seconds. That’s good self care and you will be a better person to everyone around you.”

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