Friday, 20 December 2013

Self-forgiveness and the power of doing nothing

 I was recently watching a Youtube video by Elliott Hulse on the whole concept of anabolism and catabolism.  In it, Elliott says some really wise stuff about the cyclical nature of training (and life in general), and it reminded me a lot of some of the things that have been occupying my own mind of late.

 This past week, I’ve gotten back into my ‘typical’ exercise regimen after basically a month of doing f#ck-all.  My personal life over the past month or so has been a real mess and I haven’t had the least bit of motivation to do much of anything in the physical realm.  Aside from a little bit of fairly easy bodyweight stuff here and there (chins, push-ups, etc.), I basically did no serious lifting, no serious running or anything else for about 4 weeks.  I was thinking about it the other day and that constitutes the longest time off (by a long shot) from training that I’ve taken in 17-18 years!  And the whole time, I felt incredibly guilty about it.  I felt I was going to lose all of the strength gains I had made over the past several years. I felt like my body (such as it is) was going to go to shit.  But I just could summon up the reserve to do much about it.

But you know what? After now being back into it for about a week, here’s the kicker: No discernible difference. My poundages on the major lifts are basically unchanged.  I just did a set of 22 strict chin-ups today, which is a PR for me.  Following a squat/deadlift workout a couple days ago, I snapped a few pics with my phone to see if I could actually ascertain any aesthetic changes.  And I have to say that those are pretty minimal too.

This is probably (sad to say) close to as good as I’ve ever looked:

Potentially, my arm development has been a bit better in the past.  Maybe I’ve been a little leaner in the lower abdominal area (although my lower abs have always sucked!), but it’s a drop in the bucket.  By and large, these are only changes that I myself would notice, not anyone else.

Back to Elliott’s video, I realize that by having a ‘forced’ break in training – in this case from personal stress and life events – it was a way of ‘allowing’ anabolism to occur.  I was viewing my break as catabolic – i.e. my body was going to break down from lack of training.  But it was really the opposite.  If I would have tried to train through all of that stress and depression, I would have created more catabolism and done myself a bigger disservice than doing nothing at all.  Maybe somehow, the body subconsciously knows.

The thing is, I already knew all this stuff, in theory.  Growth (anabolism) occurs during rest and recovery, not during actually training.  Training is inherently catabolic, in the sense that it breaks down tissue and resources.  But knowing something in theory, and applying it practically are not always one and the same.
I don’t sleep as much as I should.  I don’t take as many days totally ‘off’ as I probably should.  I get greedy.  When I set up training cycles, I don’t always follow the advice I should.  For instance, I’ll start a 12-week cycle to increase my deadlift numbers, for instance.  If I’m consistently adding 5 pounds to the bar each week I know that at the end of that 12 week period I should de-load and start another cycle, lowering the weights substantially (to something a bit higher than what I started with 12 weeks previously) and working slowly back up again.  Rookie Journal has great templates for these types of training progressions or periodizations.  But often the temptation to keep going, to push the ‘gains’ just a little bit further, is just too great.  We assume that linear progress, ad infinitum, is possible.  Just one more week of adding 5 pounds….my PR will be even higher.  But that’s when injuries and burn-out are bound to occur.  And then you’re left worse off than if you’d taken a step back.  The universe reminds you of the myth of eternal progress.  What you thought was a straight line is actually all wavy.

That temptation to keep progressing, to keep growing – bigger, faster, stronger, louder - never wanting to off-cycle, makes me think of a great speech by Alan Watts.  I referred to him as well in my last post, I know. I tend to read and listen to a lot of Alan Watts when I’m feeling bad about things – it cheers me up (esp. his voice and laughter) for some reason – and this past month was no exception.  In this particular talk, he notes that in many human endeavours, there is a habit of privileging the Yang at the expense of the Yin. (At around the 27:00 mark of the clip above).
We’re so set up to value the Yang side of things and to disparage the Yin – be it death, sleep, dissolution, decay, weakness (~19:00), that we fail to realize that the negative is the source of the positive” (~21:30).  We fall into the trap of thinking we can have one without the other. Elliott talks about the exact same thing in his video (~ 7:00 mark) – about the misguided desire to have good without evil, light without dark, summer without winter.  It’s a compelling dream, but a dream nonetheless.

What I find interesting, especially from a training perspective, is that allowing the rest and recovery is actually the Yang, insofar as it’s building up - anabolic.  But we tend to think of it as the Yin, because of some deep-seated Western association of rest and inactivity with passivity, with weakness, with the effeminate in a sense.  But from another perspective, the active exercise phase is actually the Yin part of the equation because it deals with a breaking down, a dissolving of sorts.  It gets very hard to separate out the distinction between the two – and I suppose that’s part of the point.  One only makes sense in the context of the other.

In painting, the empty (white) space in the painting is as important as the black ink, or perhaps even more so.  This is especially evident in the following sumi-e works of Miyamoto Musashi:

At around the 16 minute mark of the Alan Watts clip, he quotes Lao-Tzu who used the analogy of a pottery vessel – it’s the empty space within the vessel that is the important part. The same can be said of music. Often, the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves - the building up (or release) of tension – the calm before the storm.  The best heavy metal musicians know this intuitively.  The most viciously heavy riffs sound that way because they’re preceded by or enveloped within softer, more melodic passages.  A constant barrage of overdriven, detuned guitar soon becomes just noise – the object becomes the field, and seems boring.  Too much Yang.  As Rumi said, "Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation." Great symphonic music is sensitive to this need for relativity, this oscillation between heavy and soft, light and dark, sound and silence. Sibelius, Arvo Pärt, Górecki, Rachmaninov – all masters of this:

 As always, the natural world is a great teacher of this concept – the cyclical, oscillating pattern of all things.  Plants can’t keep growing all year round. Looking out my window as I’m writing this, the branches on the trees are bare, perennials are covered in heaps of snow, and everything has a look of sleep and death.  But look past the obvious appearances and, even in the depths of winter, even on this shortest day of the year, there are leaf buds already formed for next year, just waiting to burst into new growth in the spring. That potential is already there, slumbering under the veil of snow and frost.

In his video, Elliott discusses the concept of ‘micro-seasons’ within a particular time in a person’s life, and these of course translate into physical training.  As much as we’d like it to be summer all the time, in the words of old Eddard Stark, know that Winter is Coming. The gains only last so long.  The real trick is becoming attuned to your own physiology to the point that you can surf that wave, without being overwhelmed by it. One has to develop a sensitivity to know when to push it and when to relax, and all of the interdependencies of stress, sleep, nutrition, recovery that influence that matrix.

One can develop a sensitivity and awareness of this, but at the very root of it, it must be realized that you can’t beat the game. No matter how hard you try (and actually in spite of it), you can’t win all the time.  For every up, there is a down...but conversely for every down, there is an up.  Alan Watts sums this up (~29:00) in the futility of trying to get rich.  Many people strive and strive for that next little rung up the ladder.  If only I work a bit harder, then I’ll be able to buy that larger TV, that flashier car, that newer cell phone...then I’ll truly be happy.  But of course it’s all a mirage.  There’s a fleeting satisfaction that comes with the acquisition, but it quickly vanishes into the new ‘normal’, the new point of reference.  The object becomes the field again and boredom ensues.  There’ll always be someone with more - an even larger TV, an even flashier car.  It’s all a matter of relativity. The cycle repeats – Get a big Yang (success/acquisition), temporarily feel better, but then comes an equivalently big Yin (worry/jealously). Mo’ money mo’ problems.

Translated to training/nutrition, one reaches a new level (of strength, body composition, etc.) and then suddenly starts to worry about some new and minute detail that hitherto was not an issue.  The new achievement feels good at first, but then one starts to see new flaws, new weaknesses to be overcome.  It’s so easy to become obsessive over details that previously were irrelevant. Instead of focusing on the achievement, on the positive, on how far you’ve come – the Yin side comes right along with the “But what about this....what about that?”  What if I tried this exercise variation?  What if I tightened up my diet just that much more?  Maybe that would bring out that last little striation...that last bit of vascularity.  Maybe then I’d be satisfied.

So what’s the solution – stop playing?  Give up?  Who am I to say? But I don’t think so.  There nothing wrong with striving, but one must be cognizant of the fact that it’s only a big game.  In the end it’s just a dance.  There’s that great quote that humanity is miserable only because we take seriously what the gods made for fun.  Keeping that sense of fallibility and vulnerability allows you to laugh at yourself and, ultimately, to take it easier on yourself.  To forgive yourself when you slip up or fail.

Elliott’s video contains great advice to be aware of the ups and down and, when things are going really well, be generous (not only to others but also to yourself), because it won’t stay that way.  And when things are going bad, be grateful (because it’ll get better).
I’m not a religious person, but the New Testament (Luke 6:27-36) says something very poignant in regards to loving one’s enemies:

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.”

This might seem like excessive navel-gazing, but it seems to me that we’re often our own worst enemy – our biggest critic.  We mistreat ourselves far more so than other mistreat us.  I see flaws in myself that no one else even notices or cares about - even my wife, who knows me better than anyone.  No one else besides me cares if a vein on my abs disappears.  No one else cares if I miss a muscle-up or fail on a deadlift.  So why should I beat myself up for it.  My long-winded advice then is just to love yourself more, to do good to the one who (self) hates....To see your failures and flaws, and forgive yourself for them.


  1. In the spirit of what you said regarding the balance between Yin and Yan, I recommend ''The Antidote: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking''.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I'd never heard of that book but I just found it on the Ottawa Library catalogue and have reserved it. From the reviews, he draws on Stoicism and Buddhism quite heavily. I loves me some Marcus Aurelius, so I'm looking forward to reading it!