Unintentional Zen Through Autosuggestion
Russian recalibration, susoko-kan rep counting and folding meditational space
Beyond Thinking: The cave monk Tamo is shown enveloped in profound silence. According to legend, after sitting for nine years, he arose, stretched, and left. Asked why he ended his sitting session, he responded, “I grew tired of listening to the ants scream.” There is a fierceness in Tamo’s expression that exemplifies an aggressive alpha-brand of meditation. A spiritual warrior, he imbued his students with a linebacker mentality towards the meditational arts.
I began recalibrating my mind to improve athletic performance in 1964. As a 14-year old, I was introduced to Soviet autosuggestion techniques in a series of articles by iron guru John McCallum. In retrospect, I could not have had a better mind mentor nor a better entry-level brain-train technique. Mac introduced me to this Russian brain-train tactic at just the right time; it was simple enough for a 14-year old to grasp and implement yet it was exceedingly effective. I got an immediate bump in workout performance. I have been a fan of mental recalibration ever since.
I use and teach this fundamental, entry-level mental strategy to this day. The Iron Curtain athletes found that by intensely visualizing themselves in an about-to-happen event or athletic undertaking, performance improved. Regardless if the athlete was running a 100-meter dash, driving a bobsled, throwing the shot put or clean and jerking a world record, intense visualization improved sport performance and workout performance.
Autosuggestion was brought into athletics by Hungarian psychiatrist and fencing coach Aladar Kogler. The communists considered Kogler’s mental recalibration system so important that they labeled it “top secret” and any coach caught sharing the system with “nonapproved persons” was visited by the KGB. The Soviet autosuggestion system came to the West in the mid-1960s with the defection of some high-level athletes and coaches. Mihaly Huska brought a ton of training knowledge with him when he defected and began coaching the Olympic lifts at the Duncan YMCA in Chicago. Under his auspice, the Duncan Y team won the national team title in 1968.
Autosuggestion, like the poker game Texas Hold’em, takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. I should know, I have been practicing autosuggestion for a lifetime. Kogler’s approach is rooted in intense and repeated visualizations: see yourself in action in your mind’s eye. Over and over, the athlete runs a movie in their head. The degree of detail becomes greater, more vivid and real with each repeated viewing. At its finest and most effective, the final visualizations are so intense that the division between real and imagined blurs. For an autosuggestion Master, the visualizations become so real that the athlete must guard against shooting off his adrenaline supply prematurely, confusing an intense internal vision with reality.
As the years rolled by, I utilized autosuggestion in every training session and used it with ever greater intensity and precision. I became proficient at putting myself into an altered state to improve performance. By age 20 I had a mastery of autosuggestion and (unbeknownst) a mastery of a fundamental Zen practice called susoku-kan. By age 17 I had won my first national championships and set my first national records as a teen Olympic weightlifter. This was concrete proof that my training and my mental strategies were working.
In hardcore resistance training, when attempting to exceed capacity, the athlete must meld mind and body in order to cope with the severity of the task: without a total melding of mind and body the athlete has zero chance of succeeding. To keep focused and centered, the conscious mind, the internal voice, is given a simple task to prevent the mind from wandering during a limit set. The iron elite task the mind to keep track of the reps as they are performed. During an all-out 102% effort, the seasoned athlete focuses the conscious mind, the little voice inside your head, solely on the rep count.
Externally, during the limit set, the athlete fixates their eyes on a single small spot, perhaps on the wall, floor, or ceiling. They stare with unwavering focus, using a ferocious, almost X-ray vision to stabilize posture and balance. Wandering eyes have the same detrimental effect on a limit attempt that a wandering mind has. Tamo exhibited a ferocious X-Ray vision stare while deep in the subterranean depths of his meditational bliss-state.
During a past-capacity effort, the athlete’s breathing, amplified and exaggerated, is synchronized with the rep counting. Visualization and autosuggestion are used right up until when it is time to perform. The athlete switches psychological gears: time to actualize visions. If the athlete is performing a limit set of five reps in the squat, seeking to exceed a personal best, the last mental movie is done facing the loaded barbell. Imagery morphs into reality as the athlete opens his eyes. Clear headed, alert, electrified, his adrenaline, purposefully held in check to this point, is now consciously released with a single internal command…
Adrenaline, the electrifying hormone, is sent gushing into the bloodstream. This is the physiological equivalent of hitting the nitrous oxide switch in a 2000-horsepower dragster. The lifter feels the adrenaline burst and attacks the barbell. He strides to the squat bar with a feeling of déjà vu. He snaps it out of the power rack with authority. As in the visualization, the weight feels light. The lifter steps back, sets up and breaks his knees to begin the first of five reps.
He lowers with studied tension, creating coiled eccentric strength. He bottoms out and rockets erect. His mind is blank yet hyperalert. Centered, focused, exhilarated, drenched in adrenaline, as he approaches lockout he yells (internally…)
At lockout, he steadies himself, inhales mightily and unlocks his knees to begin the next rep. He dips to below parallel, reverses direction and blasts the 2nd rep to completion with greater ease than the 1st rep.
He yells. He inhales and tears into another rep.
He screams as he comes erect with rep #3. This rep was harder: mentally he yells louder.
Oh hell! That was heavy!
The thought flashes across his consciousness in a nano-second and in the next nano-second he banishes negativity. “I have come this damned far and will not be denied.” He steadies himself and inhales – for the first time he inhales twice – each time he inhales as if trying to suck all the oxygen out of the room. On his second massive inhalation he feels an additional jolt of adrenaline, his last reserves are now committed.
He is in dangerous, injurious territory. This is big wave surfing. He has, at best, a 50-50 chance of succeeding: dare to struggle, dare to win, he thinks. His fight-or-flight instincts kick as he breaks his knees for an attempt at a new 5-rep personal record. The extra adrenaline, the extra fear, makes the 5th rep easier than the 4th. He smiles as he locks it out. In his mind he screams,
He locks out his knees and stumbles back into the squat rack, racking the weight, triumphant. He hangs onto the racked Olympic barbell to keep from falling. His mind is blown, mentally he spikes the ball. He is completely elated, yet completely drained by the severity of the effort. When dealing with a 102% effort, mind and body must unite to complete the herculean task, a task that is (literally) past (current) capacity. We establish new capacities with past limit efforts. This is the only way in which the body is strengthened and grows new muscle. Why would it be otherwise?
Nuts & Bolts
Once a weight training set commences, elite iron men establish a visual focus point. They drill their eyesight into a small spot and keep fixated on the spot throughout the lift, be it a deadlift, squat, bench press, whatever. This laser-like focus, this unwavering stare, stabilizes the body and acts as an external attention-gathering device. Meditators are often instructed to fix their eyes on a candle flame or a mandala to stabilize posture.
As the set unfolds, breath control is synchronized with rep counting. The rep counting occupies the conscious mind and keeps it from wandering and sabotaging the ongoing past-capacity effort. Use a LOUD internal voice to count reps. An internal scream acts as an attention-gathering device. Decades of empirical data tells us that unless the rep count is shouted, loudly, the count, will not predominate over whatever other thoughts might be bubbling across your consciousness – by YELLING, the rep count dominates, it cuts through and out-shouts all other contending thoughts eager to divert or attract your attention.
If at any point during the past-limit set the rep count is lost, if the lifter becomes distracted, if they space out, if the count is forgotten, the athlete immediately collapses. Without the unification of mind and body, the body alone cannot handle the poundage. Big poundage teaches with a big stick: you learn that to not get hurt you must stay centered, you must stay focused and you must stay zeroed in for the entirety of the set. If you space out, even for a spit-second, the consequences are instantaneous and often disastrous. That which does not kill me makes me stronger, quite literally.
There is a flow to our mental tactics: the conscious mind starts the process visualizing the limit-exceeding lift(s) beforehand via autosuggestion. The visualizations quiet and center the chattering monkey mind. The next shift is into psyche-mode, purposeful arousal mode, this is when the adrenaline is unleashed immediately prior to the set. Once the set is underway, the eyes are fixed, and the conscious mind is tasked with breath-synchronized rep counting.
In the aftermath of a limit equaling or exceeding set, the conscious mind finds itself bludgeoned into blissful silence. Body and mind experience a nirvana-like post-workout afterglow. To exceed capacity, the consciousness must be corralled and controlled: we give consciousness a task - keep the internal rep count. I discovered in later years that concentrating with all our might and all our being on counting reps during past-capacity efforts, we factually were practicing a sophisticated form of Zen called susoku-kan, “Contemplation of counting the breath.”
This is an ancient Zen drill. “The practice of susoku-kan helps achieve the collectedness necessary for zazen.” At age 20, I began formal meditation, unaware that I was already a susoku-kan master. As Zen master Hakuun Yasutani noted, “The value of susoku-kan is that, done right, all reasoning is excluded; the discriminative mind is put to rest, and thus, the waves of thought are stilled, and a gradual one-pointedness of mind attained.”
This is an excellent description of what I was experiencing (and still do) on a regular, repeated, and predictable basis. Zen masters agree that susoku-kan practice and mastery provides the perfect springboard for entering advanced meditational practices. Yasutani adds, “Persistent performance of susoku-kan has proven to be an excellent basis for more advanced practices.”
For me, the great discovery was that intense physical effort, the type I engaged in on a regular and repeated basis, folds meditational space. I use intense exercise to access advanced mediational spheres. Extreme effort is always accompanied by a floodtide of hormones, released only in response to extreme danger or extreme effort. Exercise-induced stress of sufficient magnitude traumatizes the body, silences the chattering mind, releases a flood of feel-good hormones and creates a post-workout glow state that is, in fact, an advanced meditational state.
The glow state is wordless and electric. The senses are magnified. The exhausted athlete sits enveloped in a deep and profound silence characterized by feelings of contentment and timelessness. The trainee basks, serene. Sight, hearing, sense of feel and touch are amplified; the athlete wordlessly observes everything with a quiet detachment and becomes a neutral observer of life. They “sit lightly in the immediate present,” no inky film of thought obscures reality, which always unfolds in the immediate present. The depth of the bliss is dependent on the severity of the effort.
As time passes, the athletic inner astronaut reenters the “real” world of duality and strife. My late-in-life challenge has been finding ways to elongate and lengthen the timespan of the post-workout bliss state. I seek to linger longer. My mission is to nurture the post-workout glow state, the highest and subtlest form of Iron Meditation. Plus, you build a hell-of-a-set of muscles, forestall aging, retain function, and get strong as hell. What could be better?
About the Author - Marty Gallagher
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 for a more in depth look at his credentials as an athlete, coach and writer.