Zen and the Art of Powerlifting.
This is an article I wrote and published a few years ago for Patheos. As I start the journey of opening Gorilla Pit once again with a modified business approach, I thought it a fitting article blending mind and body into the current embodiment of Gorilla Pit. I hope you enjoy.
I wrap my hands around the iron bar. The knurling digs into my palms and I squeeze harder. I take a step and bow under, guiding it onto my back. I squeeze my traps together, creating a platform where the weight and I meet for a few moments, and it sinks into me. I fill my lungs once and breathe it back out, wiggling into just the right position—left foot just a little more forward. One more breath and I stand tall, the weight comes off of the J hooks and together we step back once, twice, and stand in union.
The weight pushes me into the earth and I press it into the heavens. In tandem we find balance and pause. I breathe out and back in, filling my belly until it pushes taut against my belt. Everything stops. The earth is quiet around me; no thoughts arise, no sound gets in. We sink down, down, and down until I feel my hamstrings connect with my calves. My chest opens up, my collar bones widen and I stand, knees pushing out and muscles pushing up. The bar dances on my back at the top.
I walk back into the rack, one step, two steps and I give the weight back to the J hooks, sighing. I bow back under the weight and step out, hands still clutching at the knurling, knuckles white, hands flushed, and then I let go. I feel the thick leather belt in my hands and tug it tighter to undo the latch. It comes off and we seem to sigh together in release. It was a perfect moment of Zen.
These silent moments, empty of goals and notions, were not always a process in my life. I was and am, tragically flawed. Instead of a rake in the Zen garden, I was a four wheeler making a mess. I chased the goal instead of finding the experience. My life was a process of any means to an end. It was like a great Shakespearian tragedy where everyone dies, almost— including me.
I am a powerlifter (or used to be). I no longer compete but still hold a passion for the training. So three days a week, I make the short trip into my garage and enjoy the silent grace of training with weights.
I know the common conception about larger men and lifting weights; neanderthals who do little more than make monosyllabic grunts, chase women and say obnoxious comments like, “Bro, do you even lift?” Sadly, I used to be one of those stereotypical men. I was lucky enough—or unlucky, I suppose—to have an intimate chat with my mortality. This awakening changed my life.
As I sit here now, years later, I still hold a passion for the sport, but on the other side of my awakening. I find the process of connecting body and steel to be life affirming instead of my own personal quest to prove my manliness to a population of people who could truly care less. Now, it is a practice of being simply there, aware, and in touch with the moment and my body.
Much like the art of Zen archery, the aim is not the target. The aim is letting the mind and the body act in unison, without the notion of a goal or outcome, but rather a shared experience of the moment and the action. I no longer chase a set of numbers or goals, but take simple pleasure in the ability to train.
There is no dialogue needed, no proving ground or sense of competition, because I am always alone with my mind and the weight. We speak without speaking. I load and unload each plate, I breathe in set cadence with each set and rep, and when I am able to forget the goal and simply act in accordance with the moment, I find myself hitting the proverbial target without trying.
I, of course, still remain a person that is flawed and attached to my ego. I find myself comparing current strengths to past strengths, and hoping for a day when I am able to do just a little bit more. Yet, when I am quiet and alone, the past and the future fade into the awareness of now and I am just grateful to still be alive. I am grateful for having learned to be awake to simple moments, regardless if they are perceived as positive or negative. Grateful that each short march to the garage becomes less and less about chasing old numbers and more and more about a process of open mindfulness.
I feel my heart pounding, my breath coming in and out in a faster pace, and see the veins in my arms and hands swell as the extra blood flows in them. I know that there was a time when all of this seemed like a dream I would never experience again. I come back inside after I finish, my daughter stirs from her nap, and I hear her call out, “Daddy, I awake!”
She opens the bedroom door and runs to me. I lift her with my arms, legs, and back that are still sore from training, but filled with gratitude in another moment of Zen. There is no thought—no goal—just a shared moment when I am able to lift her, to hug her, to love her, and we giggle together. She looks at my sweaty face and with a gentle voice asks, “Daddy, you exercising?”
Still panting from the workout I answer, “Yes sugar bear, I was exercising.” She looks at me and I look at her and in that split second, we both know that we can speak without speaking. I know what she wants, and she knows I already know and in a funny way, learning to be mindful with these weights has taught me a little bit about how to also be mindful with her.