One wall of my little basement gym is peppered with pictures and motivational quotes, to help inspire me through my workouts.
“Pain is weakness leaving the body”,
“Somewhere in China a little girl is warming up with your max,”
“Sweat dries, blood clots, bones heal...suck it up princess”
...that kind of stuff.
And while I find that these kinds of words are really motivating in the seconds before a max set of squats, I’ve thought recently that they might be detrimental when carried out of the weight room and into other spheres of a person’s life. And in the grand scheme of things, my little wall of shame is a drop in the bucket. Spend a little time on the more ‘hardcore training’ websites and forums and you find much more extreme attitudes towards anything but a perpetual manifestation of toughness, and a disparaging of anything (be it an attitude, a particularly “sissy” exercise, training protocol) that could be construed as weak or soft.
On my squat cage, I’ve written the words “Better to live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a lamb”. They’re not my words, but they’re ones that have always inspired me to be better and work harder. But what happens when a person tries to live every day as a lion? I think that I’ve inadvertently carried that attitude through to most aspects of my life. I’ve hated complainers, I’ve hated people who make excuses for themselves and for their failures. In a sense, I’ve had no patience for people showing their weaknesses and fallibility. When I ask someone how they’re doing, the only real answer I’ve wanted to hear is “great”, or at least “fine, thanks”. I haven’t actually wanted to know if things weren’t going well for them. You’re sore today? You’re tired? Depressed? Can’t shake a cold? I mean after all, there are kids in Syria getting blasted with chemical weapons...how bad can your shit really be? Suck it up princess! Right?
Well, maybe not. Because I’m obviously not strong all the time...I’m not tough all the time, despite what I try to manifest outwardly. Strength is great for specific efforts, like getting that last rep of weighted chin-ups or outrunning a sabre-toothed tiger, but not when it carries over into all facets of life. And one of the wisest things that I’ve heard in a while is that when you’re always projecting strength (and perhaps optimism, confidence, the sense that everything is fine) you’re subconsciously not giving permission to those around you to be anything but. And of course, because no one actually feels that way all the time, it creates a situation where people can be themselves around you...can’t tell you how they’re honestly feeling. And that creates all sorts of problems.
I had laser eye surgery this summer. I think in large part it was connected to the idea of correcting a weakness. I wore contacts for years to help with nearsightedness. They were great...a miracle really, and hardly an inconvenience. But I think I always saw my myopia as a sign of weakness...an Achilles’ eyeball. So when I got the eye surgery, at first I felt great because I felt that I had eliminated a weakness. But then I started to do some more research and found that apparently the microscopic flap that they create in your cornea never completely heals. It always has a weakened integrity compared to a normal eyeball and that, given sufficient force, the flap can get dislodged. And as stupid as it may sound, I took this really hard. For several weeks, despite having now perfect vision, I was regretful and upset about having the procedure. I ran through all sorts of scenarios in my head. What if I was driving with my kids in the truck and we got into a bad accident? I had heard that sometimes a perfect hit from an airbag could dislodge the flap. What if I couldn’t see and wasn’t able to get my kids out of the truck if it was on fire or something, or if we had landed in water? What if there was a situation where I was protecting them against a burglar or something and I took a hit to the eye that made it so I couldn’t see well enough to defend them? This literally kept me up at night, despite assurances from my optometrist that it would basically take a jet engine’s force to cause a problem, and that anything that would dislodge the flap would be enough to damage a normal eye anyway. But I still had the gnawing feeling that I had somehow weakened myself. Very strangely, what eventually shook me out of this feeling was one day seeing a photograph of a Buddhist monk on a dedicatory plaque at a Zen garden near my office building. The monk was smiling and bowing his head, and he was wearing glasses. Somehow, seeing that photograph made me realize that we all have our weaknesses, no matter how hard we might try to mask them. Despite how strong we might be, how well-prepared, how ‘enlightened’...there’s no way of truly bulletproofing ourselves against it all, against every possible contingency. Better to just accept the flaws and move on.
My five-year-old daughter recently told me that she wanted to keep a dumbbell in her bedroom so that she could exercise in the morning. This was completely her own idea. I figured that it was only 5 pounds and coated in rubber…she couldn’t really hurt herself. And I thought she’d probably end up forgetting about it anyway. But the next morning, I was in the washroom brushing my teeth and she came stumbling in, still groggy from sleep, and the first thing she said to me (before even a “good morning”) was, “I need to go lift my weights”. This isn’t an isolated incident either. She’s recently taken to flexing her biceps at the dinner table and telling me how she has bigger muscles than the other kids in kindergarten. Her favorite bedtime stories, for quite some time now, are stories about Conan the Barbarian. She wants to be a mountain-climber when she grows up. Don’t get me wrong…she still plays with Barbies and loves unicorns, but she’s told me out of the blue that she’s not like other girls because she likes things like adventures and fighting better than princesses (which she finds ‘kinda boring’). And while I absolutely love this uniqueness about her, and secretly think she’s pretty cool, I wonder perhaps if I’ve inadvertently influenced her to feel like she needs to be tough. A five-year-old shouldn’t have to feel tough. And while I certainly want her to grown up into a strong, capable woman, I also don’t want her to be reluctant to show weakness.
Connected with the strength thing, I’ve always tried to encourage optimism in my kids. I try myself to always be optimistic. I remind them (and myself) that no matter what, we have it pretty damn good, and there are so many people out there who are struggling with a lot worse stuff than whatever is getting us down. And while perennial optimism might be good in some ways, it offers little room to feel real sadness. I’ve had a tendency to brush off sadness in both myself and others, with that same excuse that others have it way worse….so stop complaining! And while some of this might be because I generally am quite happy most of the time, there’s a part of me that probably saw sadness as a form of weakness, to be avoided.
Louis CK was on the Conan O’Brien show recently, talking about what a gift it is to feel genuine sadness. The whole thing is absolutely brilliant. I won’t even try to paraphrase it because everything he says is so spot-on:
He refers to the fact that our bodies produces ‘antibodies’ when we allow ourselves to actually experience that profound sadness that exists at the root of human experience. I think there’s actually some scientific basis behind this idea, with hormones like dopamine rather than actual antibodies…I don’t know – look it up if you’re into that stuff. The kicker here is that cell phones, social media, TV and all the other distractions of modern life (and don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the irony that I’m writing this on a blog), have the effect of levelling everything out - moderating the ups and downs so that we’re never able to feel truly alone, truly sad…and conversely we’re never able to feel the profound happiness that accompanies or follows from that sadness
One of my favourite poems is called This is Man by Thomas Wolfe. He was writing in the 30s, so excuse the androcentric nature of it – this applies equally to women:
This is man,
And one wonders why he wants to live at all.
A third of his life is lost and deadened under sleep;
Another third is given to sterile labor;
A sixth is spent in all his goings and his comings,
In the moil and shuffle of the streets,
In shoving, thrusting, pawing.
How much of him is left, then,
For a vision of the tragic stars?
How much of him is left
To look upon the everlasting earth?
How much of him is left for glory
And the making of great songs?
A few snatched moments only
From the barren glut and suck of living.”
Despite the harshness of those last two lines, his ‘tragic stars’ encapsulate a lot of what I’m trying to get at here. How often in the busyness of modern life do people take the time to really look at the stars, not in a scientific sense but in a purely awestruck and revelatory state of mind? Especially now, in the dead of winter, looking up at that infinite expanse of cold space, it’s almost heartbreakingly sad how alone they can make a person feel. The sense of one’s own smallness and insignificance is paralyzing. But almost at the same time, there’s paradoxically a deep sense of happiness that comes from the feeling of being a tiny part of that cosmic dance. Those immutable stars are the same ones that our ice age ancestors looked up at as they trekked across the frozen tundra…that helped camel caravans navigate through the parched deserts ….that guided Norse explorers in ships across the Atlantic. And at a more basic level, they’re a testament to the basic kinship and connectedness behind everything, since all the atoms in our bodies are essentially stardust from whatever giant bang started it all. As Chuck Palahniuk writes, “You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” Or perhaps more euphemistically, we are each the unique manifestation of the universe at our particular spot in time and space – like apples on a tree (to borrow an analogy from Alan Watts) – and in being so we don’t have to do a single thing.
What Louis CK calls that ‘thing’, that ‘forever empty’ feeling that’s always just there below the surface of life, has been described in countless different ways across the centuries - the void, existential angst, Buddhist dukkha. John Fowles calls it, in what amounts to the same thing in my eyes, the nemo:
“The nemo,” he writes, “is a man’s sense of his own futility and ephemerality; of his relativity, his comparativeness; or his virtual nothingness. All of us are failures; we all die.”
Louis CK refers to that profound sadness as poetic and I think he’s right. That feeling of the impermanence and transitory nature of all things is the basis for all great poetry, or at least much of it. It’s there in the haiku of Basho:
“Nothing in the cry of cicadas suggests they are about to die.”
In Homer, the motif of ephemerality is pervasive. Mortal heroes on the battlefields at Troy are described as epi (upon) hemera (the day) – in that their lives are short. Like fireflies flickering brightly in the summer evening, but only for a brief moment. Nowhere is that mood more apparent than in the Japanese concept of awaré, or what I’ve heard called the ‘pleasant sadness’ that arises from painting, poetry or natural scenery that conveys a sense of loneliness, decay, impermanence. It’s an autumnal feeling, and it’s especially easy to feel this time of year, when the tree branches are bare, the last flocks of geese are departing, snow is starting to cover the landscape, and there’s a bleakness cast over all of the muted colours of nature. The pleasantness that arises from this, I think, is due in part to the kinship we feel with the rest of the world in our shared impermanence. We, like the rest of the natural world around us, last only for a short time – and are all the more beautiful for it.
It’s true that there’s so much ferocious sadness in the world. Children being abused, innocent civilians killed in conflicts all over the globe, environmental degradation everywhere (oil sands, floating islands of plastic in the ocean…), homelessness and drug addiction – the list is endless. But how often do we really take the time to feel it fully? It’s so easy to become desensitized. There’s always a convenient distraction to take our minds off things…something to pacify us so we don’t have to think about the real brutal sadness of it all. But without that experience of really dwelling in the misery of it all, really feeling it in our bones, what chance is there to really experience the contrasting feeling of unbounded joy? As that great line from Fight Club reads: It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.
And I’m going to quote one of Chuck Palahniuk’s other books here too:
The Mommy, she used to tell him she was sorry. People had been working for so many years to make the world a safe, organized place. Nobody realized how boring it would become. [. . .] And because there’s no possibility of real disaster, real risk, we’re left with no chance for real salvation. Real elation. Real excitement. Joy. Discovery. Invention. The laws that keep us safe, these same laws condemn us to boredom. Without access to true chaos, we’ll never have true peace. Unless everything can get worse, it won’t get any better. (Choke p.159)
So fuck homeostasis! Fuck distractions that serve to moderate or normalize the ups and downs. If one doesn’t embrace the real failures, the real disappointments, the real sadness, one never experiences the concomitant triumphs and elations. Growth comes from the chaos of failure. From a physical training perspective, Henry Rollins said it well in his essay Iron and the Soul:
It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn't want to come off the mat, it's the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn't teach you anything. That's the way the Iron talks to you. It tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.
There are some trainers and fitness experts out there who say you should never train to complete failure. I.e. you should always leave another rep in the tank, rather than take a set to the point where you can’t physically move the weight another inch. That way, they say, your mind/body registers a victory rather than a defeat. Art De Vany is one of the proponents of this mentality, as I recall. He says that it’s better, from a confidence standpoint, to go out on top rather than to fail to lift a weight. I disagree. I think failure is part and parcel to the whole experience of lifting. It’s what makes it, in a microcosmic way, similar to a religious experience. Again, It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. Failure is the greatest of all teachers. Training to failure is in some small way akin to the ‘dark night of the soul’ phenomenon of religious mystics. It’s like the double bind scenario that Zen masters place upon their students to enable them to snap themselves out of a previous way of thinking...a paradigm shift. To see the futility of it all, and in that sense to be liberated from the barriers and blockages of previously held conceptions of oneself. The experience of taking a set of squats or deadlifts to absolute failure is a lesson in that kind of futility. To exert oneself to the point where any further effort is pointless. The weight will either not budge off the ground or midway through the final rep it comes crashing down to the spotter bars and you’re left as a crumpled, exhausted mess on the gym floor. That’s rock bottom, and there’s only one way left to go from there. The body recovers, forms new muscle fibres, the CNS adapts, and the next time – the universe willing - you will not fail.
The other shared prerequisite of both spiritual experience and training to absolute failure is the obliteration of all distractions. When a lifter is struggling with the last rep of a set to failure, there is no outside world. There are no thoughts of anything but moving that iron the next fraction of an inch. No breath. No sound. It’s akin to the way that zazen adepts are told to focus on their breath until all else drops away...and eventually even the breath drops away. That laser focus on one thing and one thing alone, paradoxically, opens up into a broader sense of communion with everything.
The experience of that lowest point – that futility, whether it’s glimpsed through physical failure, an apprehension of awaré, or tapping into that profound universal sadness, is perhaps the necessary catalyst for the ability to find absolute happiness the most mundane of things. As D.T. Suzuki wrote, “Nirvana is to be sought in the midst of Samsara.” Having been brought low, one is awakened by the smallest of gestures, the simplest kindnesses, the most quotidian of beauties.
No matter what the grief, its weight.
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waits patiently for my empty body to pass through.
-Dorianne Laux “For the Sake of Strangers”
That, I think, is the inherent power in accepting weakness, in acknowledging failure. Our perceptions are rooted in contrast – no up without down, no good without bad, no Yang without Yin. As Alan Watts says, we’re under the strange delusion that we can have one without the other:
We often miss the sense of unity that exists beyond these convenient distinctions
From this perspective, the failures and miseries – the weaknesses, so to speak – are as important as the victories and joys.
I’ve always loved Robert E. Howard’s description of his most well-known character:
Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.
It hints at the totality of the human experience – the ups and downs, the crests and the troughs. No great mirth without great melancholy. No real happiness without real suffering.
Perhaps, in acknowledging and embracing one’s vulnerability to those vicissitudes, that’s where true strength is realized.
“We need you to find a comfortable space,
That’s not only comfortable, but vulnerable...
We want you to just shut your eyes and go there...
and we’ll meet you on the other side.”
- Maynard James Keenan