Sunday, June 23, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron, Part Seventeen

The book begins with a description of what flow is and is not. Flow is defined as a person's total absorption into an activity. While it is always a peak, satisfying experience, it is not necessarily associated with peak performance on every occasion.

Most of the book delves deeply into the key factors leading up to and accompanying the flow experience. The authors also recommend certain actions on the part of the athlete or coach to optimize the conditions in training and performance that allow flow to occur. The book is full of vivid examples, captivating quotes, and revealing research findings that enhance the authors' clear and insightful text.

For more than a decade, New York University President John Sexton has used baseball to illustrate the elements of a spiritual life in a wildly popular course at NYU. Using some of the great works of baseball fiction as well as the actual game's fantastic moments, its legendary characters, and its routine rituals—from the long-sought triumph of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, to the heroic achievements of players like the saintly Christy Mathewson and the sinful Ty Cobb, to the loving intimacy of a game of catch between a father and son—Sexton teaches that through the game we can touch the spiritual dimension of life.

Baseball as a Road to God is about the elements of our lives that lie beyond what can be captured in words alone—ineffable truths that we know by experience rather than by logic or analysis. Applying to the secular activity of baseball a form of inquiry usually reserved for the study of religion, Sexton reveals a surprising amount of common ground between the game and what we all recognize as religion: sacred places and time, faith and doubt, blessings and curses, and more.

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For thousands of years, men have believed that breath is the essential link between body and mind, energizing a subtle body which connects the physical and mental aspects of our being. In this book, the author and two noted American physicians explore the science of breath as one of the keys to both physical health and the attainment of higher states of consciousness. Basic yogic breathing techniques are explained so that one can immediately begin.


The Internal Dialogue

In this second part of the book I want to offer some of my insight and understanding as to how psychological knowledge and techniques can be used to enhance the lifting endeavor. These techniques, when understood and appropriately applied, can improve one's lifting performances considerably. Through my personal experimentation and exploration of the techniques which I am offering, I know how effective they can be. At the outset, however, I want to emphasize that there are no shortcuts and there is no magic. There is no substitute for persistent, proper training. Given that one is training appropriately, then these techniques can add to the effects of that training.

The first topic for us to explore is the internal dialogue. Most of the time we are talking to ourselves. While we are awake we are constantly carrying on conversations in our heads. This is the left-brain activity of words. Given the volume of this private dialogue, its effects can be profound. Much of the dialogue is chatter, the utterances of inane verbiage. At the very least this pointless chatter is background noise which uses energy and detracts from incoming sensory signals. So, this chatter cuts down on one's efficiency in living. The situation is analogous to listening to a concert while the people sitting next to you are talking. In the case of the internal chatter, however, the voices are inside one's head.

The quiet mind can be likened to a calm pool of water. With a placid smooth surface, even the smallest object which falls upon the water will make a ripple. Any impingement on that calm surface will be noted. This is very different from a pool of disturbed water. Even large objects can smash into the turbulent waters without being noticed for the water's own roiling. And, so it is, with the mind. A calm mind will notice the smallest of sensory signals. But a mind turbulent with senseless chatter will miss all but those signals which are so strong as to stand out even above the mind's own chatter.

The various meditative techniques have as their purpose the quieting of the internal chatter. They are methods which aid one in the practice of being quiet. Since I am the one who speaks inside my head, I c an choose not to speak. As simple as this is, it is not easy for most of us. So, there are many techniques of meditation, some ancient, some modern, which make that simple task somewhat easier to practice. In time, one can develop the skill of quieting.

To be able to come to a state of mental quiet, at will, is a marvelous skill. Its value is immeasurable. For the lifter it has some specific benefits. When tired and in need of sleep, the ability to quiet oneself quickly allows one to go to sleep without delay. It also makes it possible to calm down when overly excited and to get a refreshing break from work and concerns, in a matter of a few minutes. This skill will also have applications in the use of imagery, which I will discuss later, and in producing the concentration and the "lifting trance" to be presented further on.

[Note: For some lifters, the idea of meditation may seem a bit flaky, somehow leaning toward the 'why bother with this crap, just lift it' side. It's not a bad idea to use our reasoning powers before diving headlong into a short and sweet conclusion about any concept.

Even if by reasoning we cannot fully settle an issue, we may nevertheless by reasoning come to understand the issue much better. The various answers may become clearer, we may be able to construct a kind of "conceptual map" of the intellectual territory, we may unmask certain tempting errors, and we may be able to see that one or more answers really do not stand up well under scrutiny. In short, we can make progress in our thinking even when we cannot settle an issue.
 -- from "Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God" by C. Stephen Layman, 2007]

Of the myriad ways of meditating which exist, I have chosen two which I see as especially suited to those in the world of iron. The first is a simple mantra meditation, the second is a form of muscular relaxation.

The mantra meditation which I am suggesting is done as follows. Sit or lie in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. This is to be done, of course, in a quiet, private place. Breathe comfortably and naturally, allowing each inhalation to move into the lower abdomen. Allow a slight pause after each inhalation and after each exhalation. (If this way of breathing is difficult or does not seem natural, just do it as best you can, for now. I will discuss breathing, itself, in great detail in chapter nine.) As you inhale, say inside yourself, "Re-." And, as you exhale, say inside yourself, "-lax." So, with each breath cycle (inhale-pause-exhale-pause) you will say the word "relax," internally. Continue doing this, without hurry, until you feel ready to stop. With practice, you probably will find that this meditation becomes more and more effective in quieting your mental chatter.

Because of our holistic nature, we manifest our being on the mental and the physical planes simultaneously. Mental chatter and muscles held in tension are most often found together. So, as we quiet a tense (chattering) mind, we are quieting a tense body, and vice versa. We can choose to use a technique which focuses primarily on the mental chatter or on one which focuses primarily on the postural tension. Many mantras have traditionally been used, some exotic, some more common. For our purposes I chose "Re-lax" for its simplicity and for its pointing to the connection between quieting of mind and relaxing of body.

A meditation focusing directly on the musculature, and
questioning the the validity of our internal critic.


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