The Flow of Lifting Weights... and Life
I’ve always enjoyed activities that had a sparse, Zen-like quality to them. My first love of this kind was martial arts. I was nine or ten when my father agreed to let me take Karate – Okinawan karate-do to be precise (Isshin-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, Goju-Ryu). At first, I think he was reluctant. This was probably on account of the fact that I had quit other “sport” activities that I was involved in. I could hit a baseball hard, and had a good arm, but I hated the monotony of America’s pastime. I played football some, but didn’t care much for it either. But when I encountered martial arts, I encountered something entirely different. Although I trained with others, and fought with others, the only real competition was with myself. Okinawan karate-do focuses on very basic movements, but they must be done with precision, perfect technique, and impeccable timing. And the only way to achieve that is with a lot of practice. And the practice allows you to enter into flow, what I would best describe as a present moment thisness, where there is only the movement(s) being done, and you lose (to a certain extent) sense of time and space.
A few years later, when I was a teenager, I was an avid skateboarder for several years. At first, perhaps I was drawn to the world of skateboarding because it seemed something of a rebellious activity. But you don’t stick with an activity just for the sake of being a rebel. It didn’t take me long to realize that skateboarding often had the same quality as martial arts. You practice the basic moves over and over, and then you just let go – there really isn’t any thinking involved. There is only flow.
Which brings me around to the third love of my active life: lifting. Lifting – and primarily Olympic lifting and powerlifting, but I suppose bodybuilding, as well – is the most “Zen” of all activities I can think of outside of martial arts. When you lift properly, you don’t need a whole lot of exercises. A few movements will suffice: squats, deads, benches, power cleans, power snatches, high pulls, overhead presses, and barbell curls can pretty much cover it. You “practice” these movements frequently, which not only makes you stronger and bigger, but it also allows you to reach the point where there is no point of thinking – in fact, “thinking” can get you in plenty of trouble, allowing you to miss a lift by over analyzing or by intimidation.
And here’s the thing – the whole crux of the matter, if you will – as you repeatedly practice lifting weights (and martial arts and skateboarding, if you are at all interested in either of those things), the flow you experience and that you encounter while under the bar becomes a part of the rest of your life. Even the mundane – washing dishes, folding the laundry, driving back and forth to your place of work – begin to have a certain flow to them, a certain of ease of being. But it’s more than the mundane. You will probably notice it first – if you are aware enough – in your relationships; with co-workers, with parents, siblings, and children, with spouses. As you learn to let things simply be in your training, and as you begin to see great results from this being, you realize – whether consciously or not – that you can let the people and the things in your life just be too.
One thing does need to be done, and that’s the simple cognition that you need to take your training, your practice, and bring it into the rest of your life. (Because, probably at this point you are thinking to yourself that you don’t exactly see a lot of lifters behaving as if they’re Zen masters.)
I could at this point, I suppose, explain to you just what I mean by “bringing it into the rest of your life” but I don’t think I will. Part of the joy of lifting and practice is discovering it for yourself.
 On a side note, I am glad that I chose karate-do over the other offerings in our town, primarily tae kwon do. Good, true karate-do (besides simply being tougher) allows one to enter into a freedom of mind because it’s direct, relatively simple (although this doesn’t mean easy), and to the point. (For more on why karate is the most Zen of the martial arts, I recommend the book “Rhinoceros Zen. Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom” by Sensei Jeffrey Brooks. Awesome read.) Also, I was lucky in that at the dojo I selected, our sensei always made us sit zazen for 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each session.
 I still love authentic, traditional martial arts, but I hung up my skateboard many years ago.
 I realize that there are a lot of surfers who would disagree with this statement, but I’ve never been a surfer, so I’m sticking to my guns.
 Of course, I’m not sure what a “Zen master” even is, or if such a person actually exists – at least, not the ones that behave as if they are Yoda. Besides, all you have to do is google some such thing as “Zen behaving badly” and you will find plenty of examples of sorry-excuses-for-Zen-masters in the world. But maybe that’s for another piece. (And on another, albeit slightly separate note, I think there are higher forms of “spiritual” practice than Zen, but where Zen excels is in the mundane, the simple act of living your life from day to day.)
 I will say this: It helps to have some form of “spiritual” practice. Your spirituality, your lifting, and your life must settle into one seamless whole. At least, that’s the goal.