The Dharma of Lifting
I have a confession to make. I used to be a 98 lb weakling and, later, a fat computer slob. That isn’t literally true, just a bit of hyperbole on my part. What is true is that I never made much of a point to exercise and I sat on my butt all day. I’ve been an introverted (really!) geek for my entire life.
When I was young, I was skinny and walked a lot but I only did a few sports-like activities ever. As a teenager, I did foil fencing (as in sport swordsmanship) for a couple of years in lieu of attending mandatory gym in my high school. I did brief stints in a couple of martial arts (Kenpo Karate and Aikido) as a teen. All of this ended by the time I hit college and full-time geekdom. I ran a bulletin board system (BBS) and hung out with computer geeks, goths, and other social malcontents for my social group. There was nary an athletic type among them. In my early 20s, I actually did spend several years in a modern karate-like art but even then it was becoming clear that I wasn’t fit enough to really keep up with that. When my daughter was born (16 years ago), I quit even doing that.
Fast forward to 2008, when I was 37. I had steadily been getting fatter over the previous decade. I had no fitness activities whatsoever. I remember going to the doctor and having the assistant ask me what fitness I engaged in and I had to say, “None.” That Fall, everything changed for me. I went to Egypt with my wife for vacation and started showing flu-like symptoms when I returned home. If you go back to my late 2008 and early 2009 blog posts, you can find far too much detail on it. I came down with a still unknown virus. In the course of a three month illness, I lost 35 lbs due to…well, being ill and not eating much. The illness stressed my system, spiking my blood pressure and taking my heart rate up to 98 beats a minute. Once it was all over, the doctors wouldn’t stop the heart meds until I began some sort of cardio routine to counter the rebound from stopping. So, reluctantly, feeling like something near death, I began to do cardio three times a week, and then up to five times. This was in mid-Spring 2009. Strangely, it became a habit and I managed to do regular cardio for the next year, improving my blood pressure and getting my heart rate into a happy place. In Summer, 2010, I happened to notice that a number of coworkers at Mozilla were seeing trainers near work so I started to do the same. He showed me how to use kettlebells and I spent much of the next six months going all out with the kettlebells several times a week.
That’s when a strange thing happened. My trainer, Dan, is a competitive powerlifter. He’s a big guy, needless to say. One of my uncles, Karl, had been a weightlifter when I was a teen but it had always been such a jock thing in high school that I never felt the urge to even do it. That Fall, I asked Dan to begin showing me how to lift weights. We began with classic Olympic lifting forms, the barbell squat and the deadlift. Then we started doing standing overhead presses and, by the following February (of 2011), I started bench pressing. Since that time, almost a year and a half, I’ve lifted between three and five times a week (settling into an every other day pattern now). I can safely say, without hyperbole, that it has been a life changing event for me.
I was a 39 year old, 230+ lb computer geek when I started. After the illness, my weight had climbed back up pretty quickly, though topping out lower than before. Yesterday, at almost 41 years old, I weighed in at 208 lbs. I’m still heavier than I should be (strangely, weight lifting does not cause weight loss) but I’m immensely stronger and feel physically better than I did at 30, with the exception that my lower back is a lot more sore than 30. That said, it hurts a lot less now than it did before I started lifting and I exercise it a lot. I notice this when I sit for meditation, where my back used to always ache after 20 minutes or so. Now, I can sit for hours and my back is no worse off.
The reason why I write about this here, other than to promote the virtues of fitness, is that I’ve found exercise to be a Dharmic practice. So much of what we often do as Dharma is very head focused, even when we try to have it not be. We’re thinking about the Buddha. We’re thinking about Sutras. We’re pondering the Eightfold Path and other teachings. Thinking thinking thinking. Then we sit and try not to think so much or, rather, to not focus on the inevitible thinking and to be present in this moment, as it is. Maybe we’re simply being present or maybe we’re investigating phenomena of the body and mind. For most of us, it is often a lot of thinking and we tend to fall into that. Compound that with the kind of people who are often drawn to the Dharma (introverted intellectuals) and it is easy for us to ignore the body in favor of our thoughts.
The thing is, Buddhism and Dharma practice have never been about those thoughts. I think most of us who practice know this, intellectually, but the habits of our lives cause us to go back to the thinking thinking thinking. The Buddha taught practices, such as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that have a physical component. Much of the meditation instructions that people work with, in their attempts to be present, have to do with breathing and the feeling of breath. Heck, Reginald Ray wrote a whole book on body practice. That said, it is still a constant fight, I think, to incorporate the body as a somatic basis of meditation.
With my teacher, Rev. Myo Gak, there has always been an encouragement to have a body-centered practice of some sort. For some, this is martial arts. For one fellow priest, it is a daily yoga practice (to the point where she’s a professional yoga teacher). This acts as a counter for all of these head-centric tendencies that we often have. For myself, I really haven’t had a good somatic practice in previous years. I kept wanting to make time for it but (you know how it goes…) I never did. I still thought that I hadn’t gotten around to it until the realization hit me this evening while lifting weights that this was my practice.
When you lift, even if you’re listening to music or other people are around, you are present in a very concrete way. You learn very quickly that you must be present or you will hurt yourself! If you’ve never lifted or watched someone lift, you think something like, “Oh, they pick up heavy things and then they put them down.” This is actually very true. The thing is that you must pick them up in a particular way or you will rip/tear/destroy various tissues in your body. People injure themselves all the time and, in fact, I’ve injured my back fairly solidly once to the point where I couldn’t do much of anything with it in workouts for almost a month. There is a union of your body, the weight you are moving, the way in which you move (the form), and your mental focus. If you aren’t focused, your form will suffer. If you rush things or are goofing around and your form suffers, you get feedback from the weights and your body. Sometimes it is gentle feedback (“What the hell are you doing?!”) and sometimes it is feedback when you feel something go bad and you realize that you just hurt yourself, possibly badly. If you’re careful and not a macho idiot, this is unlikely to happen but weightlifting, as a practice, requires immediate and focused attention on the very moment you are in, what the body is doing, and how it feels in response to things. For lighter weights, you can get away with some inattention but when you are pushing towards the limits of what you can lift, there is no room for inattention.
The result of this is a punctuated focus. You will be extremely present in the moment as, for example, you manuver your body under a barbell for a squat. You position yourself, you remove the barbell from the rack holding it, and you squat and rise back up repeatedly. You are focused on the now, the feeling of the motion, of the weight on you, and how you turn your feet, your hips, etc. You correct for the defects in your form or just for how tired or weak your muscles may be. Then you finish, returning the barbell to the rack. At that point, you mentally relax and can return to your normal thinking until…you do it again or go to the next exercise.
During this whole process, you are present and aware in a way that I’ve found simply not to be there normally. I’m not talking about Flow states or the like. I’m not that good at this and don’t have tens of thousands of hours of practice. I’m just talking about an immediate presence in your physicality. Side chatter in the mind recedes to the background and you’re just there, going through what you need to do in order to get through moving that weight and putting it back.
I thought that this might be a perspective worth sharing. I know it has to apply to so many other physical activities, like yoga, that require sustained focus as the body is pushed against its limits. The fact that I’m writing a post on the meditative qualities of weightlifting means that I’ve definitely gone around some sort of bend into the weird union of both geekiness, jockdom, and the Dharma. I can’t be sad about that though.