Iron Zen: exercise-induced altered states
Meditational awareness. Tibetan Lama Dungse Jampol (above) is the son of a Tibetan meditation master. At a young age he asked his father to explain to him, “What is the nature of the mind?” and “What is "pure existence” and what is the meaning of “enlightenment?” His father sat down and said to the boy, “Come closer.” The boy came within arms-length of the father who gestured him even closer by wagging his finger. When the boy’s forehead was within six inches of the father, the elder lama unleashed a blood-curdling scream that literally sent the youngster reeling. Dungse recalled, “That scream was so loud and so intense and so unexpected that I was paralyzed; shocked, my mind was completely cleared of everything – instantly. My father excitedly said, “See! There it is! There it is!”
It is my contention that intense physical effort, the kind of effort generated during a limit-exceeding hardcore weight training session offers an entranceway; a backdoor into higher realms of consciousness. Athletes have inadvertently, consistently and unknowingly been accessing and experiencing higher states of meditational consciousness.
My friend, “Zen” Ken O’Neil and I have talked long and frequently about this phenomenon and he agrees. I have long sought out advanced meditators to discuss, quantify and qualify this unique experience: the exercise-induced iron Satori. I want to bring attention to this rarified and refined quality of consciousness that is attained during “Iron Zazen.”
Exercise-induced altered consciousness, or, alternatively and more poetically, The Zen of Pure Physical Effort, is a state of higher awareness induced by intense physical exercise. Superhuman effort opens the meditational “heavy door with rusted hinges.”
I have been a hardcore weight trainer for 58 years and a meditator for 45 years. Nietzsche once noted “true greatness requires long obedience in the same direction.” To which I would add, over time and with continual repetition the ability to enter exercise-induced altered states of consciousness become increasingly easier. I also linger longer.
The longer and more often the athlete enters these zones of heightened sensory awareness, the deeper the experience becomes. The more often the athlete visits the easier it becomes to access the wordless vividness and clarity that characterize the post-workout bliss state.
Intense effort, herculean effort, short-circuits the conscious Mind. The thinker, the observer is “slapped” into electrified quietude by the sheer intensity of the physical effort. An effort so profound, mind and body must unite in order to succeed. An element of danger is requisite: a failure with a limit-exceeding poundage can be catastrophic. Real danger causes the Mind to come into crisp focus.
Intense exercise is a “shortcut” method in which the athlete folds meditational inner space.
We can jump the beginning meditator ahead; throw them into the deep end of the pool, metaphorically and meditation-ally speaking. The precise application of intense exercise creates Iron Zen. Intense physical effort shortens the meditational learning curve, depositing the Iron Zen adherent into an advanced state-of-being right away.
We teach the athlete to recognize this wonderful state-of-being, bask in it (they earned it) and seek ways in which to extend their stay in this blissful state of electrified silence. Entry is dependent on the quality of the individual workout: if the effort is deep enough, sincere enough, intense enough, Huxley’s Doors of Perception swing open and the exerciser is predictably enveloped in blissful state of exercise-induced nirvana.
Conscious thought is the enemy, the destroyer of optimal human performance. The elite athlete understands this fact: they embrace and inhabit a wordless state that characterizes optimal human performance. Intense physical effort attacks the human body on a variety of fronts in a variety of ways: we self-inflict body trauma in order to induce beneficial stresses. The optimal workout creates stress. The poison is in the dose.
We embrace struggle. Life is struggle. Struggle makes us stronger and more resilient. Effective progressive resistance training IS struggle. Life is struggle. The intensity of the struggle, the pure physical effort is so devastating and traumatic that the human body creates new muscle in order to cope with the ongoing and never-relenting pounding the hardcore trainer subjects themselves to. This is not ethereal lotus land meditation; this is Vulcan’s Forge meditation.
Our task is to invoke stresses enough to trigger hypertrophy and the adaptive response – this in order to reap all the considerable benefit associated with expertly applied progressive resistance training. the post-workout bliss state is an unintended consequence of traumatic exercise/ Too little self-induced stress and nothing of any physical or psychological consequence occur. What are the stress categories?
- Mental stress
- Hormonal stress
- Central nervous system stress
- Muscular stress
- Internal organ stress
How do we rearrange the contents of the stress box to our physical and psychological benefit? Hypertrophy (strength & power) cannot occur in response to sub-maximal effort. Pushing up to or past capacity – in some way, shape or form – is what creates the requisite stresses.
The elite athlete wills his body to perform past its realistic capacity. This ability is one of the contributing factors to why the elite are the elite. At the highest levels of athletics, regardless the sport, everyone has the genetics, everyone has the work ethic, everyone is fast, everyone is strong and agile – so what separates 1st from 5th place correlates to the mental attributes (or lack thereof) of the athlete. Some athletes are natural competitors and rise to the competitive occasion while others shrink and fall apart at the actual competition.
The elite athlete is willfully able to invoke the primordial fight-or-flight response, the necessary precursor to extraordinary effort. Successfully triggering the fight-or-flight response sets in motion everything of benefit that follows. How does one “artificially” invoke fight-or-flight? The elite create a system of psych. Successful superhuman effort requires a singularity of Mind. A person does not casually exert superhuman effort.
Elite athletes develop individualized mental methods by which they psych themselves up in order to achieve superhuman levels of performance. Athletes do not care one wit about attaining higher levels of consciousness; elite athletes only care about improved performance. The mindset of an experienced, mature, seasoned athlete uses a highly developed psych designed to elevate the quality of the individual workout and elevate performance in actual competitions.
Recalibrating the mind is the necessary precursor to elevating performance. The “Psych” is a conscious, willful act. The athlete executes a mental checklist that they have developed over time. They recalibrate their mindset to prepare for the training session. Once the actual training session is underway, a highly individualized psych-up routine is used, repeatedly, in each exercise, drill or protocol.
By consciously focusing, concentrating and using tunnel-vision focus, the seasoned athlete optimizes their capacities and abilities. This singularity of purpose improves the quality of, and results derived from, the workout. The key to continual improvement is being able to string together a long series of superhuman workouts, like pearls strung together on a necklace strand.
Personally, I would face the other direction
Zen and the art of motorcycle riding
Motorcycles driven fast are attention-gathering devices that carry the rider not just through time and space, but into the present moment itself…How good is it to be alive! Riding in the rain at 70 miles per hour on a motorcycle! Not without cares but without thoughts! With attention, which is what happens when you ride in the rain. It must. Your life depends on it! Everything extraneous to this present moment is pared away. Motorcycling can be the gate to the ancient nameless Zen of “nothing at all.”
Rafe Martin, Dharma teacher
Hormonal Nitrous Oxide
Body-shocking physical effort, maximum effort of a very specific type and kind, births an exercise-induced altered state of pure awareness that elite athletes routinely experience yet fail to identify. Access to this exercise-induced zone of pure awareness can only be attained when the degree of difficulty is sufficient to cross a hormonal threshold.
How difficult is difficult? In hardcore progressive resistance training difficult means exerting to a degree equal to or surpassing whatever you are currently capable of. To enter exercise-induced Nirvana, you must equal or exceed your current physical limit, in some way, shape or form, in some manner or fashion.
Some training days you will naturally be better and other days you will just as naturally be off, depending on life circumstance. Wherever we find ourselves at the time of the actual workout, be it an enhanced day or a diminished day, regardless, your duty as a trainee is to exert to the limits of those enhanced or diminished capacity.
I have been self-inducing this physiological phenomena for fifty years and can say with the certainty that comes with half a century of concentrated practice that 100% maximal physical effort, and preferably 102% or 105% effort, is necessary to gain entry into the post-workout bliss-zone.
I am in athlete in a sport of complete mathematical certainty: I have been a national champion in both Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. My sports are all about pounds lifted. It is a universe of numbers: sets, reps, frequency, duration, time under tension – everything in the elite strength world can and is assigned a numerical value.
The iron elite creates complex training matrixes using cold logic and empirical data; this approach is the apogee of sophisticated rational thought applied to progressive resistance training.
How metaphysically ironic that we utilize the Yang rational left-brain, with its Spock-like coldness, it's numerical and mathematical certainties, it's science and logic - to create the savage training regimens that unlocks the ethereal, intuitive artistic consciousness that lies dormant in the Yin right brain.
The rational goal of powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting is to increase the sheer amount of poundage lifted in the three powerlifts or two Olympic lifts. This can be accomplished by honing technique and/or by becoming stronger.
The way in which we become stronger is to stress the body to such a degree that we invoke an adaptive response. We traumatize the body in a deliberate and systematic fashion in order to elicit a specific and desired physiological reaction.
When the body is purposefully stressed and stressed to a dramatic degree, new muscle tissue is constructed: cells split and divide and strength increases; all as a protective response to the self-inflicted trauma of an expertly applied progressive resistance training session.
If the degree of difficulty is sufficiently intense, a hormonal threshold is crossed and a tsunami of hormones are released into the bloodstream: endorphins, adrenaline, cortisol, growth hormone, dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, serotonin - shot into the bloodstream like a drag racer flicking the switch on hormonal nitrous oxide that instantaneously adds 600-horsepower.
A productive training session is a body-shocking event. The sheer physicality of the effort is so muscularly exhaustive that it completely depletes and drains the human body. There is a concurrent hormonal floodtide. Somewhere during and long into the aftermath, the mind grows silent. The shattered body becomes enveloped in a relaxed and blissful state of pure awareness and contentment. No verbal soundtrack needed.
In this post-workout state, clarity, vividness and cognition are amplified. Effortlessly, without suppression, the conscious observer ceases its endless babbling inside the athlete’s skull. As my mental mentor, Krishnamurti noted, “The caseation of thought is the awakening of intelligence.” When the never-ending unceasing internal dialogue ceases, the athlete experiences the electric crackle that imbues the very atmosphere of the instantaneous present.
As the exhausted yet elated athlete basks in his endorphin afterglow, he looks out at the gym from inside his head without the inky film of thought blurring his vision; everything, every object, every person, every object and color is vibrant and enhanced, visually amplified.
The athlete glows and basks in his centered, peaceful post-workout state of intense quietude: he is content, he is exhausted, he is at peace and centered. This post-workout glow, the beatific state-of-being has exact overt and subtle similarities to the amplified states of consciousness achieved in sitting meditation.
Like Base Jumping, wingsuits, big wave surfing, skydiving or cliff jumping, big poundage teaches with a big stick. Any man that attempts more than he is capable of, via psych and preparation and sheer effort, must learn how to create a totality of effort – nothing less will accomplish a muscular task that exceeds current capabilities and capacities.
On the other hand, dare to struggle, dare to win. No one ever improved by doing the same thing, over and over in the same way. To approach, equal or (optimally) exceed current physical capacity, the athlete must learn how to successfully achieve a synergistic melding of mind and body.
We seek something profound: we seek to perform past all rational and realistic expectations. To do so will require more than human effort, it will require superhuman effort. Superhuman effort can only occur if a mind/body melding has already occurred.
I was already where I sought to arrive at when I took up meditation! It took me forty years to figure I was attaining advanced states of consciousness at age 17. Better late than never.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.