In my previous article, The Weight Lifts You, my point was to make a reversal on people’s expectations. It was to provide a new way of thinking, to reverse the paradigm and allow for new perspectives on lifting to emerge. The intent of the article was to allow us to see from the point of view of the object, and thus realize the foolishness of our own perspectives on mastery and strength. This week I want to take that a step further and put lifting in perspective with my philosophical belief in Taoism.
Taoism is ultimately the doctrine of doing less. In opposition to the western, domination-centric view of the world, Taoism proposes that it is only by minimizing oneself, one’s ego, and one’s impact on the world that one can truly be satisfied with their life and thus lead a fulfilling existence. Taoist writings are filled with stories which emphasize the foolishness and unwanted downsides of positions of power and status, and instead focus on the beauty of simple lives lived with great satisfaction. When Taoism and Buddhism came into contact, the result were the Zen Buddhist schools which so intrigue modern westerners looking for an alternative lifestyle.
One such story is that of the perfect ideal of the Taoist ruler. The ruler who possesses the Tao, it goes, is the one who never lifts a hand or gives a single command. Instead, this ruler sits the throne passively while the entire world revolves around him, moving in perfect harmony. It is because the ruler refuses to give orders that the world is happy. It is because laws are not made that they cannot be broken, and because no effort is made to control others that no conflict can be found.
It would initially seem strange that Taoism and lifting would go hand in hand, and yet I would argue that this isn't the case. Many of our ideas about lifting are related to the western-dominated mindset out of which the sports have emerged. Particularly bodybuilding, as a theatrical expression of self-creation, has created a culture of ignorant acolytes who like to imagine that lifting is all about dominance and control. But lifting is simply the action of picking an object up and putting it down. Even in bodybuilding, culture is an unnecessary supplement which can change over time or be discarded as unproductive when the right mindset comes around.
In reality, lifting is, for elite performers, a very taoist experience. In order to be a world-class lifter, one has to sacrifice one’s life to the sport. Diet and training has to be carefully regimented, and in order to do this one has to shape one’s life decisions around these structures. Adherence to them becomes, not an ego-producing event, but an ego-destroying one. When you find yourself telling your friends that you can’t go out for drinks because you have to get your workout in, are you really the one in control? No, because it’s the workout which is in control, and that’s not a bad thing. When dealing with the subjectivity of human interaction, dominance is a valid method of interpreting the world, but when dealing with the objectivity of nature (in the form of the classic lifting object, the weight), dominance is a stupidity. We spend hours each day lifting, eating right, studying effective programs and constantly tweaking our workouts in order to get the most out of our bodies. We do not control the weight, but rather we submit to it, and order our lives around it. It is only by submitting to the laws of nature that we can come to understand them and use them to our own advantage.
Further, what is strength? Strength can be considered on one hand an innate quality, the ability to lift a certain amount of weight as if it were simply one’s muscles which do the lifting. But there are so many more factors than this, the slightest failure of any one of which can cause massive trauma to the body or even death. A man may be able to bench press five hundred pounds, but if he grips the bar the wrong way and suddenly drops it on his neck, that’s not going to mean anything for him. Strength is also highly circumstantial, and strength in one lift may not even carry over very much into lifts which use similar muscle sets. Strength, then, is a circumstantial quality which arises from a long combination of very carefully constructed variables. Strength arises not simply from the building up of one’s muscles and neurological adaptation, but also from the removal of one’s weaknesses and the destruction of one’s ego relative to the weight. As Bruce Lee put it so well: “It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
There are numerous stories in Taoist literature as well of masters of their respective crafts who are considered to have the Tao. This is not because they have constructed their ego and their skill, but because they have torn down their ego and submitted themselves to their art as supplicants in order to be gifted with great talent. Having the Tao is to have a certain sort of effortlessness, a certain way of doing things without thinking. There is the story of two archers, one of whom considered himself superior because of the speed with which he could fire his arrows. Yet when the Taoist master took the two to the top of a mountain to shoot, this man was also frightened by the height and was thus unable to strike at a target. In contrast, the second archer had no words to say about his talent, yet when he arrived at the mountaintop he continued to hit targets unfazed. The Taoist master praises the second archer as having the Tao. It is not the skill in archery that is mocked, but rather only the way of looking at it, the way of exaggerating one’s own effect on the equation. Only by taking oneself out of the equation, removing one’s prejudices, fears, and emotions, does one attain the Tao, and thus true skill.
We lift not necessarily to build our bodies up, but also to tear them down. The bodybuilding cycles of bulking and cutting are similar in this way to the yin and yang, the increase and the decrease, the balance of which provides perfection. Likewise strength is not built by one’s ego, but rather by one’s submission to the bar and to the training patterns most productive of strength. Lifting is, in many ways, like a religious experience. One prays daily, supplicates oneself to one’s god, and goes through the elaborate rituals required of worship. A lifter lifts daily, goes through the elaborate patterns of diet and training, and submits oneself to the weight. In doing so, many other factors are removed - unhealthy patterns of living, unnecessary relationships, unnecessary acts. What is left after all the weakness has been peeled away is strength, and this is very Taoist indeed.