Squat with Fear

Meditation And Powerlifting

Brilliant Friends,

No matter how many times I’ve done the squat, I feel fear and hesitation as I step up to the loaded bar.

I used to try to pump myself up and shake it out of my head. Beast mode blinded me to the fear most of the time. But when I just didn’t feel psyched, I would get stuck in my fear of heavy weights.

I’ve found the most beneficial way to deal with fear is to acknowledge it.

“It is so. It cannot be otherwise.”

Dale Carnegie recalls this 15th century Flemish inscription on a cathedral wall in Amsterdam. In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, he emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that which cannot be changed. This is especially difficult for those of us who refuse to accept anything short of success.

On a miserable night in December of 2012, I moped around my apartment entryway, gym bag in hand, not wanting to go outside. For an entire week I had been dreading the upcoming squat session. I had eventually dragged myself off the couch, pulled on my shorts, and laced my Chucks.

NL 22 Stepping Into the Cold Night The Brilliant Beast Blog V2.JPG
Stepping Out Into the Cold, drawing by Steve Ko

I was due for a 3×5 squat set at 340 lbs., the heaviest ever for me at that point. Just as I had celebrated my previous week’s session at 338 lbs., I lamented that I would have to lift even more the next time. I had never lifted more than 315 lbs. prior to this new progression powerlifting program, let alone doing three sets of five reps at 340 lbs.

After days of avoiding the gym, though, I had to go.

I couldn’t think straight as I drove through traffic. My throat tightened and my jaw clenched at the thought of being stapled under the weight. What would I do if I got stuck? What if my knees blew out? I was terrified. The thoughts kept crashing down on my mind in merciless waves.

I had a heavy heart as I parked in the lot and grabbed my duffel bag from the trunk. I checked in at the front counter and started to warm up.

The work weight sat on the ends of the bar, and I stood in the power rack in front of it.

“A good supply of resignation is of the first importance in providing for the journey of life.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

 

NL 22 Arthur Schopenhauer The Brilliant Beast Blog
Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th century philosopher

Three hundred forty pounds.

I closed my eyes. I could not change the weight in front of me. I had to try to lift it. I couldn’t go back to a previous training level to ease the situation. This is where I was in my journey of strength.

I resigned myself to the challenge. I steadied myself, accepted that I was scared.

I started to breathe in and out. On the in breath, I visualized the failure of my squat, the pain of being crushed under the bar, the embarrassment in front of everyone at the gym.

Felt the fear, let it fill me, and allowed the heavy feelings soak into my mind, soul, body.

Then I let go of my breath, released the fear. Let the darkness flow out of me. Breathed it in again, then breathed it out. The tension in my gut released a little.

Three hundred forty pounds. I accepted it. I invited the fear without being overcome by it. The opposite of beast mode.

Pema Chodron describes Tonglen in The Wisdom of No Escape. It’s the Zen practice I was using in front of the bar. I was “seeing pain, seeing pleasure, seeing everything with gentleness and accuracy, without judging it, without pushing it away, becoming more open to it.”

 

NL 22 Pema Chodron The Brilliant Beast Blog.JPG
Pema Chodron, Tibetan Buddhist monk

By balancing the fear with the lighter side of things, I got comfortable with it.

“…the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply…”  – Seneca the Younger

My mind was not my own when lost in abstract fears. But I took it back as I breathed. Cut through the fog, saw the fear, saw clearly what was scary.

“… fear has to do with wanting to protect your heart.” – Pema Chodron

I realized that I didn’t have to do what I couldn’t do. The point was not to complete the set. The point was to become stronger and better for myself. I had been focused on the false requirement that every set and rep of the session had to be completed. That completing this session would prove to the world I was strong.

Thus I opened up my heart to growth. I breathed in the fear, burden, failure, the chance that the weight crush me or that I drop it. I let it all come.

And I breathed it out! I relaxed. I felt the ease and self control in my out breath. Created space for myself.

Fear can suffocate, stifle us into paralysis. And this is how we develop fearlessness and move again. Tonglen. Take in the fear, then let it go. Walk the line on the edge of danger. Look death in the eye.

The fear lost its power as I finally became sober in mind. I opened my eyes and grabbed the bar. Ducking under, I set my shoulders against the bar and prepared to lift it off the rack. I still felt the fear, but I knew what it was and moved ahead with calm and focus.

I didn’t finish all the reps that night, but I did most. On the next session a couple of days later, I completed the sets! And yes, it was on to the next weight. Growth!

Months earlier, I had breezed through the weight progressions. But then the fear became heavier than the weight, and it became essential that I familiarize myself with it.

This was growth. It was real training.

Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations “… for he who has preferred to everything else his own intelligence and daimon and the worship of its excellence… will live without either pursuing or flying from death”.

I’m learning to focus not on the standards of the world, but on the development of my own excellence. The more I pay attention to my own self, the less I worry about comparing myself to everyone else. Consequently, I keep control of my own trajectory.

As Seneca puts it, “None of [the mind] lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control…”

To powerful living!

Steve

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NL 22 Seneca The Brilliant Beast Blog.JPG
Seneca the Younger, 1st century philosopher
Books
  1. Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher, 19th century. From How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie
  2. The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness by Pema Chodron
  3. On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) by Seneca
  4. Meditations (Dover Thrift Editions) by Marcus Aurelius
Images
  1. Arthur Schopenhauer
  2. Pema Chodron. Photo by Robin Holland
  3. Seneca the Younger

 

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I will only link to tools that I have used, found meaningful, and that I believe could benefit my brilliant readers.

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