The barbell pressed into my shoulders and spine, choking my trap muscles, waiting for them to quiver and die and for my spine to shred and disintegrate. Like a simple-minded ancestor of the Terminator, it felt no pity or remorse. Gravity pulled it toward the center of the earth, but my body stood in the way.
I wrenched my lungs open for a breath. Then another. A third. I let the barbell get a taste of what it wanted, as I bent my knees lower and lower until my thighs reached the magical parallel level, where I felt the pressure spread to my hips and calves. Then I fought back. I pushed with my heels, my back, strained up, exhaling, spittle flying, until I locked out my knees and gasped. The barbell kept pressing.
One breath. Two breaths. Three. Back down again.
I made rules to prevent myself from wriggling out of the torture. For the first ten reps of the exercise, I allowed myself three breaths in between reps. Just three. For the next five reps, I allowed myself ten breaths. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, going back down soon, eight, nine, ten, go.
My body shook, my lungs felt like a pair of scorched, sopping dishrags, and the barbell pressed hard enough to cleave my shoulder girdle in half.
I came to the final five reps. Fifteen down. Just five to go. I allowed myself as much breathing as I wanted – but the barbell had to stay on my shoulders.
You’re doing great. You’re close to the end. Just five more to go. You cruised through the first fifteen.
Down. Up. Four more to go. Just four.
Now I gasped as if trying to fan a forest fire with more oxygen.
My mind screamed for mercy after getting pushed so far, yet I still had a few reps left. My body pulsated with every beat of my heart, as if my muscles had formed a full-body pressure cooker. My thighs engorged with blood, stagnant like a swamp of molten water.
Down. Up. Three more to go. You got 17! Just three more! Take your time. Breathe deep. Down. Up… up…
Two more. I pummeled the air with my breaths.
Ha! You’re basically done. You got 18. Just two more lousy reps and you can rack the barbell, collapse, and bask in your achievement. Don’t you dare stop now. Go.
Down. Up. One more to go.
You did it, 19 reps. Just one more to go. You know you can get one more, you can feel it. Enjoy it. You’re at the end.
I almost wanted to stay there forever.
The barbell didn’t even realize it was moments away from defeat.
The gym was silent except for my breathing and the plates occasionally nipping each other and ringing like heavy, gentle wind chimes. My fatigue, like a worn-out army, gets overrun and disperses. A bright buzzing sweeps through my body and mind. The barbell presses into my shoulders, but the weight feels distant, like a muffled conversation behind a solid door. I’ve drawn back into myself. Everything is still. Ahhh.
Inhale. Down. Up. Slowly. Push. So awful. Yes.
Standing back up. Knees lock. I guide my body like an unfamiliar car, easing toward the metal rack, making sure the barbell hovers just above the claws that’ll catch it, let my body sag, the clang of the bar sliding home, the weight gone, shoulders inflating, falling, falling.
I roll onto my back. Panting, panting, I’ll never get enough air. But I did it. The soft rubber floor, cool.
For at least an hour, my brain will gush pleasure hormones. In a television interview, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his mix of Austrian accent, surfer drawl, and his own strange way of enunciating, described the muscle pump from bodybuilding as, “cumming all day.”
Anyone who has busted their ass in a worthy cause knows he’s right.
Five minutes pass. Maybe ten. With the barbell gone from my back, time has left the building. The rubber floor mats smell more comforting than any family recipe cooking and bubbling from a childhood kitchen. Soon, I roll over and sit up, fresh sweat squelching, cold mixing with hot. I’m a crashed test dummy come to life, reborn.
It’s my senior year of high school.
I hated my scrawny body and searched for a way to change it.
I found a workout routine that promised to transform skinny guys into hulking bodybuilders. The secret was what I’d just done, the 20-rep squat.
You load a barbell with a weight so heavy you could squat for only ten repetitions with it. But you allow yourself to take breaths in between reps – near the end, as many as you need – and force yourself to do 20 repetitions. It’s the weight-lifting equivalent of the ancient Spartans, when mothers told their sons before they marched off to war, “Come home with your shield or on it.”
Once you get 20 reps, you rest, eat a ton of food – including a gallon of milk per day – and come back to do it all over again. Except this time, you add five more pounds to the barbell.
When I learned this routine, I did the math in my head, like counting up lottery winnings.
If I started with 135 pounds, in a year I’d be lifting almost 400 pounds. Was that possible? Well, that’s what the math says. Let’s say I only do half as well as I plan. That’s still 270 pounds.
So, I began. Every week, I marched into the gym and did my 20 reps. The rest of the week, I dreaded how awful the next workout would be — probably the most painful thing I voluntarily pushed myself through in my high school life, but also the happiest.
I grew bigger and stronger. I never reached the crazy weights I fantasized about, but I got something better. I proved I could change. I also learned what change requires and how it feels.
A couple years later, I dropped out of college, moved to Boulder, Colorado, and pushed myself to be a success in business.
I studied marketing, copywriting, and persuasion. I took action. I failed. I watched Dr. Phil on television. I grew frustrated. Bitter, lazy, confused, dogmatic, arrogant. I drank vodka and an energy drink every morning. Eventually, I went bankrupt.
During these years, my life split into two parallel rail lines for a train. One rail was my business life. The other was my spiritual development.
With business, I pushed myself forward like with my 20-rep squats. But much like someone wrenching their back and jerking their body to lift the weight, I sacrificed stability and long-term growth for short-term profits and bright, shiny distractions. I obsessed with search engine optimization when it was wrong for my business model, partnered with unethical people, and barely balanced my checkbook.
Then I let my checkbook capsize like a broken ship in a storm.
With my spiritual life, I dabbled, like someone who putters around a gym, wondering which machine to use and asking random questions about which diet to follow. The 20-rep squat routine isn’t fun. It doesn’t feel good. And it’s definitely not perfect. But it forced change by being unreasonable. In my spiritual life, I didn’t push myself to unreasonable levels.
I played with deep breathing exercises, then forgot about them. I put myself through some guided visualizations, but my efforts were casual. I never told myself, “Come back with your shield or on it.”
I’ve never met anyone who’s journeyed deep into the spiritual realm who put in reasonable effort. Never. They always put in unreasonable effort.
The Daoist lineage I’m training for has a meditation you need to practice for an hour per day. One hour is the minimum. You also need to make several changes to your life. Men can’t ejaculate. You need to clean up your diet in specific ways. You must maintain this strict lifestyle for 100 days, but you can’t simply check off 100 days and declare victory. The number is a guideline. You finish when your body changes in a specific way. If you don’t get the change after 100 days, you keep going. It took me roughly 120 days.
One of my teachers, not satisfied with an hour of practice just on this single meditation, would do it while he worked. Another of my teachers did the meditation while driving for hours.* My wife used to meditate in the woods for several hours.
They practiced spiritual discipline.
The second word doesn’t allure as many people as the first. People flee from discipline like extras in a Godzilla movie. They often turn to spirituality as an escape from pain, hard work, and gritty reality. But spirituality isn’t a punch clock you can hit to check out of responsibility – not if you want to get anywhere with your practice or your life.
Make an unreasonable commitment to your practice. Block off a portion of your day – the same time every day – to train. Don’t have time? I understand – reasonable people never have time. Be unreasonable. Toss your TV in the garbage, give it a kick for good measure, and put the screws on your social media usage. Going by the statistics of the average use time, those two actions will save you a couple of hours per day. Congrats. You now have time to be unreasonable.
Am I saying you need to turn your life upside down? Probably.
Unless you love your life so much you need to give yourself a daily pinch to verify it’s not a dream, doesn’t it make sense to turn your life upside down? To be unreasonable?
Does just putting in time and effort guarantee you get the result you want? No. It’s just your entry ticket fee. You’ll still encounter setbacks, bad luck, unfairness, and who knows what kind of cruelty. To quote Will Smith’s character Captain Steven HIller in the movie Independence Day after he punched an alien, “Welcome to earth.”
Measure your results and make changes where needed. When I did 20-rep squats, I had the effort part nailed, but I got too dogmatic. When I stopped getting stronger and my lower back, shoulder, and knee started to hurt, I didn’t seek guidance.
Whatever spiritual discipline you practice, as long as it’s not total horse feathers, you’ll feel results.
Negative emotions will fade away. Energy will increase. Intuition gets sharper. You get happier. Those are just the initial results. If you’re working hard and you don’t get them, adjust your routine.
Manage your expectations. A starving, secret part of me wanted my weight training to make me more attractive to women. Yes, like millions of other teenage guys, I pumped iron to get laid. It didn’t work – I had other issues I needed to resolve, much like the other guys who hoisted weights to meet chicks. No matter how hard I pushed myself, no matter how many plates I added to the barbell, no matter how much stronger I got, no matter how my muscles grew, I had set up my heart to shatter.
When I dove deeper into spirituality, I repeated my pattern.
If a spiritual discipline didn’t bestow me with duffel bags of large-denomination bills carried by buxom vixens demanding I de-pants and earn my money, damnit, the spiritual discipline must have all been BS.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Spiritual discipline doesn’t free you from challenges. It gives you the tools and the power to face them. It doesn’t hand you everything your ego demands within the hour, like a wine delivery app. But the spiritual practice does, to paraphrase a famous song, give you what you need.
Those 20-rep squats didn’t get me laid and meditation didn’t make me rich. But the squats taught me to be unreasonable. The meditation shattered my life and made me a better man. And that opened the door for whatever fulfilled my soul. Souls don’t bother with being reasonable.
*And if this concerns you because he’s combining meditation with driving, keep in mind he was doing a very “jing” meditation, to use the Daoist terminology. It wouldn’t distract him from the road like a “shen” meditation would.