There is something spiritual about the connection that is forged between body, mind and soul when pushing yourself beyond the boundaries you think exist. But when you run that extra mile, the mind steps back for a moment, suspended reality-bending shock.
During that post-experience moment, the mind has to scramble to make sense of what’s just occurred. How could the body possibly have done that? It’s in these split seconds that we temporarily escape the mind, and locate the true versions of ourselves beyond perceived limitation. We feel weightless, powerful, and truly alive. We feel high.
You may have experienced this feeling before, if only for an instant. It might have happened while running, in the midst of a sports match, or during that sacred moment when you lift a new personal best. Whatever incredible effort or sacrifice you had to make to get there, at that exact moment, you knew it was worth it.
Then there’s me.
The guy who for 6 years alternated between 3 month stints of focusing my ass off in the gym, and focusing on saving the candy crumbs I spilled down the side of my couch in between episodes of The Office (hey, 2008 was a different time).
The first week I ever spent at a gym I used 4 machines. No, I wasn’t trying to ‘really work on my chest’ – I was literally too anxious to try anything my friend didn’t demonstrate on day 1. The mental and emotional hangover from years of being teased for my weight through primary school had nurtured a ‘minimum practice, maximum expectations’ methodology, in which the key focus with anything was to look as cool as possible to survive the social landscape.
I lasted about 6 months of gym workouts the first time before my results started plateauing, energy levels dropped and excuses got the better of me. I stopped looking good. So of course I stopped.
When I’d finally had enough of cycling in and out of motivation, there were six years worth of evidence to suggest what the problem was. It didn’t take an astrophysicist to work out that everything holding me back revolved around my thoughts. The mind had been defining me all my life.
Getting back inside the body
I was so irritated that I immediately got to work reading and consuming everything I could get my hands on to learn how to change my approach to exercise. Piecing together ideas from science, psychology, bodybuilders and zen meditation, I began a new gym membership and started putting theories to the test. What I discovered not only changed how I approach my exercise, it also got me back writing, reading and creating – something I’d spent the last three years trying to change – in the space of a few weeks.
The message was simple, whether it was to motivate yourself to get to a work out, get your ass on the running track, or write better blog posts: get out of your mind, and into your body.
Here are the four most powerful lessons I learned through this process, which will turn the gym into a spiritual experience, a sacred playground where the mind is not invited and your soul can run free.
1. How to teach your body ‘autopilot mode’
To master the gym, you need the foundation – getting to the gym, or your workout, regularly. This is the part we struggle with the most. It’s much easier to talk yourself out of getting on the treadmill if the treadmill isn’t standing next to you, judging your choice of candy and Netflix ‘recently watched’ list.
You need to get on top of your mind’s pre-gym chatter, and the best way to do this is by teaching your body autopilot. When your body can run on autopilot, it will take you to the gym during a hurricane.
It’s often been said that building a new habit is hardest in the first three weeks. This is because your body itself has a highly intelligent memory, which can be trained like Pavlov’s dog, or a computer. Ever wondered how your body instinctively knows what time to wake up in the morning? It’s because you made it do that. Over and over again.
What you probably don’t know is that every time we perform something we’ve attempted before, our brain matter physiologically gets stronger. In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Boyle describes how every time we perform a task, the action fires a unique network of nerve fibres in the brain, insulated by a substance called ‘myelin’. The more we repeat that task, the bigger the myelin grows, creating stronger, faster nerve connections. More fibre = faster connection, like broadband Internet. What does this mean? That with every repetition of an action, the body gets more awesome at it.
If I had made a video for this post and placed it right here, it would be of me in cool glasses and a lab coat, saying ‘to summarise, the body builds up an autopilot mode every time you force it to the gym.’
Once the autopilot program is complete, your body will be waking up and pushing you out the door in the morning to jump on the bike or get out on the track. And as a bonus, it will even start pumping blood around the body faster in anticipation. Whenever you start hearing all of the excuses coming from your mind, zone out and let the body do what it was trained it for.
2. How to focus using just your body
I spent most of my six year gym stint either in the weights room texting friends and browsing Facebook, or running while actively sabotaging my output by telling myself how much everything hurts. Then after I had a bad workout, I’d blame my energy levels, or the food I ate earlier, or the stress I’d been under. Of course, they were never the problem.
To make your work out count, you have to focus. Really focus. Not Facebook focus (I should trademark that).
To get the most out of yourself you have to control your mind. I don’t mean control what it does, because it’s always going to be beyond your control. What you can do, however, is turn it up or down like a radio, and turn your focus away from it, leaving it ‘waiting in the wings’. That allows you to channel your energy into the body.
Take a moment next time you have a barbell in front of you, or you’re out running the park, to check in with each sense and pay attention to the feeling. Feel the cold, steel bar in your warm palms. Notice how it feels when the wind touches the skin. Centre your energy on the breath that’s happening right at this moment. Make the in breath and the out breath the most important event to your attention, right now. Then, lift. Use the body’s memory, and intelligence, to complete it. Feel the full rush of blood as the lift reaches its peak.
In Zen practice the art of existing in the present moment, completely inside the body and outside the realm of thoughts, is called ‘no-mind’. It’s the zenith that meditators aspire to. And if you’ve ever heard a bodybuilder describe the feeling of lifting, you will be surprised by the similarities. That place we casually call ‘in the zone’ is a place of meditation, where your mind is left behind.
Find that place by turning down your own mental radio, and you’ve found your focus.
3. How to motivate yourself (and make it stick)
In order to motivate yourself long-term you need to be emotionally invested in your goals. Your body needs to feel something about the vision it’s working towards, or it simply won’t stick.
The greatest self development speakers talk about this all the time. If you’ve ever seen Tony Robbins speak, you will know how he addresses feelings often, trying to elicit a physical response while describing a concept. It’s not a coincidence, he does it to active your motivation emotionally.
The mistake I was making over the years is the same most amateurs make – repeating affirmations, looking at images, but trying to connect with it all mentally, without the body, without emotions. In reality, the mind only needs about 10% of the attention. It’s your subconscious where the beliefs are mostly held, and they can be accessed through your emotions. So spend 90% of your energy shifting them instead.
The best motivation I’ve learned is this – use whatever the hell works for you. Just do it A LOT. I’ve used a mixture of things to master the gym workouts over the years and have found that a combination of music, quotes and a vision board work best for me.
Whatever it is, if you’re not feeling like it’s working, it’s not. Move around, breathe faster, anything it takes to motivate your body as well as your mind.
4. Change your relationship with your body
Have your muscles ever screamed at you to stop lifting something, and you’ve obediently listened? Of course, because that’s how our brains work. They’re conditioned to send us danger signals when our bodies are put under stress.
Guess what? these signals can be changed.
Not changed completely – the body will always tell us when we’re in trouble, and that’s a good thing. But they can be played with. The notoriously motivational (and sweary) bodybuilder CT Fletcher inspired a generation of kids to hit the gym by describing how he talks directly to his muscles – commanding them to grow because he controls them, and reminding himself how much he loves stress because it leads him directly to his goals.
It’s taking your body’s intelligence, the shutting out of mental activity, the addition of emotional motivation, rolling it into one, and smoking it. It’s not easy to do, but it can be done, and sports psychologists out there help athletes do exactly that. Just with less smoking.
Accordingly to Fletcher, you can wiggle your toes, and move your hand whenever you want. Your mind tells the toes to wiggle. It commands them, and they listen. So why can’t you command everything else?
Put simply, you can learn to love what you’re doing. When you’re in the gym, remind yourself constantly how each extra rep directly places another brick in the wall of your dreams.
Here’s what to do next
Something I started to love about working out is how simple the actual movements are, leaving the entire game to be won inside. What you’ve just read are tools you can use to start turning the tide in your own mental tussles.
Your next move is to consider everything I’ve said wrong until proved otherwise. In other words, go out there and apply these tools. Test them. Find what works for you, and start building your own internal toolbox.
Now go master the gym, and get yourself high.