Make an Attempt

In a powerlifting meet, a lifter has three attempts at three lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), each attempt becoming increasingly heavier.  The lifter must successfully complete an attempt before she progresses to the next heavier attempt.  So, for example, if she does not make her second attempt on squat, she repeats that same weight for her third squat attempt.  Coaches employ different strategies in determining the weights to submit for each attempt, but generally the third attempt (if not the second also) is heavier than the heaviest completed training lift, something usually reasonable, but often not yet attained.

Part of what interests me in all of this is the language: a lifter makes an “attempt”; she does not “try”.  Louise and I often debate the use of the word “try” in relation to coaching and habit change. Louise is Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try”. She likes to illustrate her position by holding out her open palm with a pencil balanced on it. She then says “OK. Try to pick up this pencil”. Point being that either you do or you don’t. I understand this position. When working with a client to instill a sustainable habit change, it’s generally advisable to start with a small enough step that the client is virtually assured of success; this helps build confidence and encourages adherence. I also understand that sometimes people use “try” as a cop out when they don’t feel like doing something, when they aren’t fully committed to the change or the process or the training session that day; in which case “try” is just a half-assed effort.

There are plenty of other situations, however, where I believe “try” is entirely warranted.  I will always take an “I’ll try” from a client instead of an “I can’t”. Frequently I get the two together, as in “I really don’t think I can do that, but I’ll try”.  Yoda’s directive seems to present us with a binary outcome: do or do not, succeed or don’t.  When immediate success is not assured, or sometimes when an individual really doesn’t believe success is possible, “I’ll try” affords another alternative, an entry point.  “Try” can be the foothold for a wholehearted effort in the face of an uncertain outcome.  “Try” can act as a linguistic bridge that transports a person outside of their comfort zone, to the place where they can experience change and growth.

But “try” has its limits, which are highlighted in the subtle differences between the word “try” and one which we often use as its synonym, “attempt.”  I think the difference gets down to one’s investment in a process and how one deals with a fail.  “Try” requires nothing more of an individual aside from an initial effort; no prior commitment or training and no further assurances to continue when things get tough.  “Attempt”, on the other hand, indicates a deeper level of commitment over time.  One who is making an “attempt” has a clear goal in mind and is invested in a process designed to ultimately get her there, despite setbacks or failures.  So our powerlifter has fully committed to a training program, has dedicated months to building strength.  She will make nine attempts on meet day, aiming to get them all (to go “949”) and to put her highest score possible up on the board.  This may not happen, but if she misses a lift, the expectation is that she steps back up onto the platform for another attempt the next time her name is called.

So at the end of it all, if something interests you, go ahead; give it a try.  Get past that self-limiting fear.  But if what you’re “trying” to do is reach a goal, trade your “try” for an “attempt” and then be prepared to make many.

Squatters Rights: Fear and Self-Talk

A few weeks before my first meet in October, Emily had me test my squat to figure out what weights to enter as my three attempts at the meet.  We started with a weight not too much greater than my working weight at the time, therefore not too far outside my comfort zone.  I knew where we were headed with this though, so I knew I’d be in uncharted territory pretty soon, and considering that squat is a mentally challenging lift for me, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  As I wedged myself under the bar for the first of those heavier squats, braced myself, and un-racked it, I was caught a bit off guard by the thought that sprung up into my mind, “Wow!  This bar feels light.”  Two steps back, great squat, re-rack, add ten pounds, go again.  “This bar still feels light!  Tight core.  Nice!”  Another great squat, another ten pounds, and a feeling of incredible confidence as I continued this process and hit what remains my 1RM for squat.  I couldn’t reproduce it during the meet.  Conditions were different during the meet – different location, spectators, nerves.  My form broke, my head popped up, my chest followed, and as a result I didn’t drive up with my hips.  All part of the learning experience, but almost without me realizing it, a different set of thoughts started establishing squatters rights in my mind – more doubtful thoughts, and the “squat script” in my head changed as a result.

The language that we use, the way we define for ourselves our circumstances, has a great deal to do with the outcome we achieve.  Put me under a bar for squat, and my sympathetic nervous system is going to be tapped.  That triggers a hormonal response, commonly known as “fight or flight”, in which the body produces an increase of adrenaline and blood sugar, faster breathing, increased body temperature.  All this in an effort to prep the system for a difficult task at hand.  Whether we experience these sensations as exhilarating or terrifying, manageable or chaotic, frightening or exciting, is entirely due to the way we interpret our circumstances, and our interpretation of the situation affects the outcome.  Smart trainers and coaches use this knowledge to their clients’ advantage.  At several recent training workshops and continuing educational programs I have completed, the presenters devoted a good bit of time to breathing drills to allow the athlete to manage some of these physical responses; one presenter, Lisa Lewis, specializes in helping athletes to create performance scripts to mentally frame the “fight or flight” response most advantageously.

The same process also applies to the way we understand pain.  Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Lisa Manning, CST, CHt address a group of youth and adults about mental health and self-care.   She gave the example of a bullet wound in drastically different circumstances to illustrate the point.  A study looked at the seemingly unusual response of many soldiers in WWII to bullet wounds.  In contrast to what one might expect, they largely remained calm and generally refused morphine to help control pain.  Why?  Because they knew their wound was their ticket off of the battlefield; they were already thinking of home, of what they were gaining from the injury, and as a result they weren’t experiencing the wound as painful.  Consider this in contrast to a wounded civilian whose thoughts are likely to immediately shift to what he or she stands to lose: time off from work, a disruption of daily life, inability to do things.  A perfect example of Louise’s oft repeated statement that “words are drugs,” sometimes literally numbing the body to pain.

I’ve noticed that recently, as we have been rehabbing my squat and as I’m gaining back some of the confidence in it that I had lost, those more affirmative thoughts have started reclaiming territory in my mind again.  Just the other day after a set which Emily said was solid, I told her I knew it would be from the moment I unracked the bar, because as I did so, “this bar is light” popped into my mind.  I’ve been playing around with that thought, adding to it, trying to script it as a regular part of my set up, trying to force the words even on days when I don’t really believe them, because I have learned that to a certain degree if I can control the language, I can affect the outcome.  What would happen if you chose one challenge, one small area of your life, and began rescripting the thoughts around it?  Certainly worth a try.

Habit, Change, and the Low Bar Back Squat

The change from high bar to low bar back squat was a difficult one for my left shoulder to adjust to. At some point years ago, it received a good bit of impact from a skiing injury, and since then I have piled ample other unknown insult and abuse to the area.  For a low bar back squat, the bar sits just below spine of the scapula; sometimes for me this feels like it’s on bone.  I’m luckier in this department than a lot of women because, as Emily says, I’ve already got “some meat back there”.  Nevertheless, Emily encourages most women to wear an extra t-shirt for back squat to provide a little more padding.  One of the cues that is given when setting up for this exercise is “elbows up.”  This is to create tightness in the upper back, a shelf of delt on which to trap the bar so it is secure.  Somehow in the process of trying to keep the bar off of bone and keeping my elbows up, I ended up turning the proper position into something else that my shoulder didn’t appreciate.

Louise has been working on this shoulder.  And as with anything related to the body, I have found the process to be fascinating.  Long story shorter, my humerus was being pulled further forward on the left side than on the right, the result of tight pecs and lengthened upper back and neck muscles.  Louise says the connective tissue on my left pecs was bound down all the way to the sternum.  The first day Louise worked on that shoulder, she released those bound tissues, and as my scap almost miraculously relaxed down far enough to touch the table under me, I took a deep breath that filled my entire lungs, bottom to top.  It was only then that I realized that the shallow breathing I had been experiencing and attributing to stress was actually also related to a physical cause.  In releasing that bound muscle, Louise allowed me to find increased range of motion in the joint, more space to move, the ability to breath deeper, and greater relaxation.

As my shoulder relearns its original position, the whole experience of lifting keeps changing. I imagine that Louise is like an archeologist digging through layers of bound connective tissue, excavating and sifting through years of assorted pains in the shoulder, unearthing them and clearing the area. As this happens I’m experiencing new sensations in my shoulder as my tendons find different ways of tracking and my body relearns some of its original ways of moving, rather than using the altered movement patterns that it discovered over the years to compensate for weakness and avoid pain.

Our brains work in a similar fashion to our bodies in this regard.  Just as our bodies compensate for weaknesses or injuries by recruiting muscles for jobs that are not their prime purposes, and just as our bodies often find the path of least resistance allowing our dominant muscles to hijack movement patterns, we develop intellectual and emotional coping mechanisms to help us get through our days and our difficulties.  We find shortcuts to help us save time and energy and compensations to make aspects of our lives less painful.  Sometimes these shortcuts are relatively harmless, like always taking the same route to work; potentially some are helpful, like establishing morning routines to ensure that nothing gets forgotten in our rush out the door.  Sometimes these shortcuts are in our thought processes, stereotypes or outdated views of ourselves and others that prevent us from recognizing change or potential or that keep us from truly seeing what’s before us because we are bound down by our views from the past.  Sometimes the compensations and habits we develop are detrimental to our health and well-being, causing more pain for us in the long run than the initial issue: addictions to food, work, substances, shopping, exercise, technology – the list is endless.  Often we irrationally hang onto these compensations long after they have outlived their usefulness and even though they cause discomfort or pain in other ways.

habit-change-650x425At one extreme these compensations can be destructive, but at the very least they limit us; they constrict our ability to fully experience individual moments or appreciate individual people, and they limit the degree to which we fully engage in our activities; they restrict our range of motion as we move through life.  It is important to be aware of our habits and our fallback patterns, of the ways in which we shortcut and compensate, and it is even more important to consciously decide if the trade off is worth it.  Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no; either way it is a question that only we can answer for ourselves.  Then we must decide if we are willing to act upon our answer, to make a change for the better.

A conscious decision inspired by our own desire for change, not based on someone else’s need for us to be different, is the strongest motivator for establishing new habits.  Change is not always easy; it can be a messy and uncomfortable process of wrestling with the memory of old injuries.  But change will not happen by masking all that with compensations and habits that no longer serve us well. And just as with my shoulder, by releasing some what binds us down, we can find relief, a greater range of motion and a renewed ability to move through life more effectively.

Faith, Focus, and Movement

Most people recognize that it is through our hard-fought struggles that we learn the greatest lessons; the easy lessons of success often have much less impact and are more quickly forgotten.  With encouragement from Louise and Emily, I learned a couple of significant lessons from my recent back pain.  Louise encouraged me to pay attention to the way my own body processed the pain, to focus inwardly to find my own specific answers to what brought relief or further discomfort, before putting my faith in the generalized answers I might find by googling something like WebMD.  Emily introduced me to the concept that movement is medicine, a necessary part of the healing process that allowed me to reframe the painful mind-body conversation that my injury had begun.

It was while I was in the process of writing about these lessons, that I heard two separate sermons on a difficult passage in Luke where Jesus says he brings division, not peace, to this world.  (Luke 12:49-56).  Not an easy passage, and not one that many people like to focus on.  Both pastors, Pastor Glenn Schoenberger from Our Savior Lutheran Church and Pastor Earl Janssen of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, recognized that this is not the way we usually like to think of the message of Christianity.  As Pastor Glenn says, we prefer the Jesus of Christmas, the Prince of Peace; “the Jesus who invites us to come to him and he will give us rest, because his yoke is easy and his burden light.”  We are far less interested in the Jesus who promises to turn family members against each other.  Yikes.

Instead of giving us what we want, Jesus offers us some “edgy” stuff, as Pastor Glenn said.  Pastor Glenn acknowledged that the early history of Christianity was one of near constant confrontation with authority and established structures, and that to follow Jesus at that time required “all of the passion and commitment and courage [His followers] could muster” because it was likely that they would “be divided from loved ones who [didn’t] understand or believe in [their] choice.”  While this was the situation during the early days of Christianity, “the practice of our faith holds far less danger and challenge for us in American society today than in Jesus’ time.”  While he recognized that this isn’t the case everywhere, Pastor Glenn suggested that perhaps we lose something of the original intent when we become comfortable in a certain place in our faith where nothing is risked and nothing is challenged.

For another take on this reading (along with a warning that paraphrasing Jesus is dangerous), Pastor Earl summed the passage up like this:  Jesus says to those who were following him, “Really? What did you expect when you started to follow me? Did you really anticipate that I’d make your life easier? I’m proclaiming justice, I’m proclaiming selflessness, I’m showing you what being a child of God means. The powers of this world don’t accept that without a fight.”  From either sermon, it’s clear that this text offers us something challenging, something potentially painful, something we might rather avoid.

conversation-bubbles-2Like the lessons I learned from my painful back, Pastor Earl suggested that the way to engage with this challenging and divisive passage is to turn our focus inward and then to move.  First we need to find our answer to the question, “How does my faith inform my decisions?”  This is not always an easy question to answer, and we can’t expect our answers to square up neatly with those around us.  These differences in response might seem odd, since we “would think that the teachings of Jesus would lead us all toward a single definitive decision”, but instead often we find potentially painful division.  But just as I learned from my back, that pain is not necessarily something we should shy away from; it is something we should move through: “… the reality is that faith informs each of us differently. That’s why … conversations are so important. Faith isn’t some kind of static thing. It is living, breathing, dynamic and so deeply influenced by the witnesses who have surrounded us.”  So we first look inward, and then we put our answer into motion by engaging others in conversation: “How does my faith inform my decisions? Ask yourself the question often. Share your process with others. You will learn about yourself, deepen your faith, and serve as a witness to life in the faith for others.”  And just as movement helped me reframe a painful mind-body conversation during my back episode, having respectful and open conversations about faith allows us to gain a greater range of motion in our relationships and an expanded ability to engage in life effectively, maybe especially when those conversations are “edgy” or challenging.

Initial Steps in Understanding Pain

As a culture we seem to be somewhat conflicted in our views of pain. Many of us believe that pain is a part of exercise, an indication that we are working hard.  We confuse the discomfort of pushing ourselves in a workout with actual pain.  When we feel real pain in our training, many of us ignore it and push on.  We wear T-shirts with catchy slogans like “no pain no gain”, as though being in a state of pain is praiseworthy. And even while many of us almost glorify pain in the context of exercise, we mask the signs of physical pain in other areas of our lives with ibuprofen, and we hide emotional pain from ourselves in busyness and addictive behaviors, possibly viewing pain as weakness.

When we actually do take the time to investigate our pain, we often do so through our intellect rather than through our bodies. We research, Google, and read what others have to tell us about our pain rather than listen to what we are actually experiencing.  We are more inclined to trust what someone else tells us about our condition than we are to actually experience our own pain to learn what our own bodies have to say about what makes us feel better or worse.  We focus our attention outward rather than on what’s happening within us.

I am no different.  When I hurt my back recently my first reaction was to email my experts, Louise and Emily, asking them to decipher my pain for me from three states away. I wanted answers: What did they think I had done?  Pulled muscle?  Slipped disc?  Which specific muscles were involved? How should I fix it?  Louise tried to explain to me that really I would need to answer my own questions and that I would not find those answers through my intellect: “You can not think your way out of your back pain,” she told me.  Instead she suggested that I would be able to find the answers I really needed, what made it better and what made it worse, by listening to my body not my mind.  That I would be able to find the initial answers I sought through breath and feel and movement. Once I had those initial answers, I could go from there with better understanding.

This first step of understanding through our own bodily experience, rather than through intellect or through an expert opinion, is one that I was trying to by-pass, in my impatience to be better.  And as Louise and I discussed later, it is fairly typical of the way most of us function.  We often first look externally for a diagnosis, for generalized expert advice about how to deal with our specific situation.  This is often less helpful than learning how our particular bodies respond to our particular situation; as Louise says, it is like “putting duct tape over your crying child’s mouth without any conversation about what the matter is and what can be done to take care of it, both in the immediate moment and for the sake of preventing it in the future.”

It seems like many of us try to by-pass this initial step, not wanting to take the time to learn what our bodies might have to teach us.  While I’m definitely not advocating for people to walk around in constant physical pain, certainly not sudden or acute pain, without seeking treatment, what I am suggesting is that pain is neither a sign of weakness nor something that we need to fear any more than it is the hallmark of an effective training session.  It is really just our body’s way of asking us to pay attention, to turn our sights inward, to be aware.  Perhaps if we take some time to find our own answers first, to pay attention to what makes our pain more or less intense, to trust our own bodies, than we will be better able to advocate for ourselves and provide useful feedback if we do need to seek medical attention.  Perhaps if we try to understand first through feel and then through intellect we can be more active participants in our recovery.

Breath as Prayer

Louise is a big proponent of the healing and restorative power of breath. When we are stressed out, a deep breath helps restore a sense of calm. When we are injured, a deep breath helps relieve muscle spasm and pain. Technically what happens is that stress and injury activate the body’s sympathetic response system, the fight or flight response.  There are evolutionary reasons why this was an advantage; increased adrenaline, increased blood sugar levels, higher heart rate all prepared us to battle or escape a physical threat. But today in a high-pressure culture, we spend a lot of time prepared to fight or run from perceived threats and stresses. This can lead to a whole host of health problems. A deep and full breath activates the parasympathetic response system and allows our bodies to get back in right relationship with our minds and our surroundings.

Prayer serves a similar purpose. While many of us approach prayer as a way of presenting a “to do list” to God, a request list of blessings and healing for ourselves and our friends and of punishments for enemies, Pastor Earl explains that the real purpose of prayer is quite different. Prayer is meant to change us, to help us re-establish a right relationship with God and his creation. At various points in confirmation classes and sermons, Pastor Earl has gone through the six segments of the Lord’s prayer detailing how each section helps us to re-establish a proper relationship with God.

Pastor Earl has preached on prayer in the past, and years later one of his sermons still stays with me. I heard the sermon at a time in my life when my kids were all very young, and I was overwhelmed. I was constantly running on a sleep deficit and always stressed out. I have never thought of myself as someone who is good at prayer. And while I was struggling through what some might have termed postpartum depression, I was annoyed that I couldn’t even find the energy to pray about it. That was when Pastor Earl delivered a sermon detailing the many ways that prayer can look for people. The example that struck me to the core was one of a new mother letting out a sigh of exhaustion. If sighing out of exasperation and a sense of inadequacy counted as prayer, I figured I was doing pretty well.

The language is different, but the concept is the same. Prayer/breath helps to re-establish right relationships and has the power to change and heal.

Breath and Sky

We all have our Achilles heels, chinks in our armor.  Sometimes those are physical: old nagging injuries, pain from use or disuse, structural weak spots. Sometimes those are mental: too much or too little self-esteem, illusions of perfectionism, inability to ask for help, and so on. One of those physical chinks that Louise and I have in common is occasional, but sometimes debilitating, low back pain.

In the midst of one of my recent back episode, I emailed Louise to ask her how she usually coped. Here’s her response:

“My answer bounces right off most people that ask me how I manage back pain, but here goes:  I breathe and meditate. …that’s the short answer.  I used breath and meditation to get me through two 24 hour labors/births of big babies with no meds.  I used it most recently when my body literally stopped moving. I used it because breathe was all I could do: I could not move anything without excruciating pain.  I use it now at the first whisper of discomfort.  Deep, diaphragmatic breathing both guides me to the source of the pain and simultaneously starts my healing.”

It seems too simplistic to be the answer and yet physiologically amazing things happen in our bodies when we consciously breathe a little deeper. We stimulate the parasympathetic response which begins to counteract some of the negative effects that stress from both injury and life has on our bodies.  The parasympathetic response slows the heart rate and improves digestion, which is how it gets nicknamed the “rest and digest” response.  It allows the body to find homeostasis, to balance its systems.  It encourages us to find and then function from a place of relaxation and calm and from there to begin to repair and heal ourselves.

From my own experience, I know that when my back hurt and I breathed more deeply I was able to relax through the pain and get to the other side of it. I know that when I stress out my friends tell me to “just breathe”. I know that when I get spooled up with anxiety, a deep breath starts to settle me down, keeping me grounded in the present moment rather than careening forward into a feared and totally imagined future.

Kinder sky

I suppose that Louise’s recognition of the need to breathe is somehow connected to the fact that she collects sky pictures. Recently I became one of her “sky buddies”.  (Yeah, Sky, not Skype. It’s way better.)  Whenever we see a particularly beautiful sunrise, a stunning sunset, or big billowy clouds we take a picture and text it. There’s something about staring up at the vastness of the sky, the power in a thundercloud, the elusive beauty in a rainbow, and really seeing it, that allows us to see ourselves too, to view ourselves through a different and clearer lens. Somehow that vast expanse above us makes it ok to be small and broken and to not have all the answers. Somehow looking at the sky puts us in our proper place. And you know what happens automatically and almost miraculously at that very moment?  A deep, full, and healing breath.

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Alternate Vision

We live in a culture that values sight more than any of our other senses.  I’m sure you’ve experienced the power of imagery in advertising; you watch a commercial for some gooey dessert, and suddenly all you want is sweets.  We see the importance of vision reflected in our language too (reread that sentence); we use expressions like “I can see your point” and “I need to see it to believe it.”  However, in order to lift heavy weights, you need to learn to move away from that kind of sight-based vision and learn to “see” without using your eyes.  Real weightlifters never use mirrors; they have learned to see through their bodies.  I’m still developing this skill, and learning to trust that sight has been a fascinating process.

No Mirror, So You Can SEE!
No Mirror, So You Can SEE! Squat Rack at Fivex3Training.

Alternate ways of seeing are not exclusive to weightlifting; weightlifting just made me more aware of the possibility of understanding my place in the world differently.   Both my surgeon and Louise, when she is working as a massage therapist, have an amazing ability to see through their hands.  Having had a hernia repair last year, I went back to check in with my surgeon this past winter when I developed something he’s calling “an abdominal asymmetry”.  One day after a sloppy hanging toes-to-bar, I looked down and saw a small lump on one side that concerned me, so I made an appointment with my guy.  He spent a fair amount of time “looking” at that spot with his fingers, his eyes focused thoughtfully on something indeterminate out in space.  Then he concluded, “I don’t really know what to tell you that is.  It’s not a hernia.  I could send you for imaging, but that wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t just learn.”  How awesome is that?!!  This man has refined his vision through his touch to the degree that the downside of imaging (pumping me up with radiation) outweighs the upside (a slim possibility of seeing more).

Of course at that point in my visit, I totally geeked out on him: “Oh my gosh!  You can see through your fingers!  How cool is that?”  I gushed.  “That is one of the things I love most about weightlifting; it teaches you to see through your muscles,” I said as I backed up to demonstrate a deadlift.  “When you get set up in your deadlift, you need to be looking about 2 feet in front of you.  You can not look into a mirror.  Looking into a mirror interferes with proper form.  So you have to learn to see differently, without your eyes.  I’m still working on that,” I said envying the confidence he had in his “finger vision”.

Louise has a similar, enviable ability to see with her hands, and like my surgeon, she has developed it enough to have a solid confidence in her skill.  She has told me about a massage workshop she attended where the instructor presented a subject whom everyone first looked at.  She stood outside of the conversation of her peers who could visually identify imbalances and bound muscles, but once she laid hands on the subject, she could see.  I asked her what that’s like for her, and she described the feel of bound up fascia as being like a dry sponge, rigid with no movement in the area, whereas unbound muscle has a feel more like that of sinking a hand or finger into wet sand; there is a degree of movement.  Vision through feel and motion.

I think we all have the potential to develop alternate ways of viewing our world, to “see” through different senses or to “visualize” ourselves from the inside out.  The difference for many of us though is the climate in which we live.  If we are lucky enough to surround ourselves with people who value the ability to see things differently, we learn to develop and more importantly trust that skill.  Unfortunately for most of us, we get caught up in the messages of our culture that teach us to see ourselves from the outside first, messages that emphasize external appearances, initial impressions, and sound bites, that discourage us from taking the time to dig below the surface for a deeper and more complete truth.  I wonder what the world would look like if we all did the work of unbinding ourselves from a limited and rigid way of understanding and instead developed alternate ways of “seeing” and then, more significantly, actually trusted ourselves enough to believe in that vision.  Even more, I wonder how living in such a world would feel.

Near Perfect Form

We’ve all heard that nothing’s perfect.  Experienced it.  Yet, isn’t it funny that often we expect it from ourselves anyway.  One day near the start of this heavy lifting project, as I was just beginning to feel like I didn’t need Craig with me coaching me all the time, I loaded up my bar solo for my working weight deadlift.  As I stepped up to the bar to set up my pull, I ran through all the appropriate cues in my head.  I was feeling autonomous and self-sufficient and good.  Then as I gripped the bar, I overheard Louise’s client ask her if I was really going to lift “that heavy weight”.  Maybe she was worried for me.  Maybe she thought she was next.  I don’t know.  Louise answered with the usual amount of calm and confidence that she carries in her voice, “Yes!  Yes she is going to lift ‘that heavy weight’ – and she’s going to do it with near perfect form!”

That was not the answer I wanted.  It was encouraging, but it was realistic.  I suppose I was hoping for something along the lines of “Hell yeah!  That girl is strong!  She could deadlift a truck.”  Louise’s actual response struck me, distracted me, and I recognizing that my head was in the wrong place; I had to step back from the bar.  In that moment, perhaps I even felt a little offended.  I’d been working hard at perfecting my deadlift form.  I was proud of my effort and I wanted Louise to say I was going to lift ‘that heavy weight’ with perfect form, not near perfect.  But as I’ve noted before, Louise uses words with precision.  She aims for truth in her language, not to puff up someone’s ego for ego’s sake.  And although I’m sure that her primary intent was encouragement, with her words, I felt my ego deflate.  And truthfully that’s not a bad thing.

I remembered a prior conversation with Amy about form.  She explained it like this: “When we work on form in lifting, we are all working on an asymptote.  We work towards perfect form.  We inch right up next to it, but we can never really reach it.”  Perfect form in lifts, as with perfection in life, is elusive.  It is never really attainable, the golden ring always just outside our grasp.  Certainly we should strive for it, and often we get close.  That is how we improve; that is how we will accomplish our best.  But we should never expect to achieve it.  I know this, and yet it is a lesson I continually need to relearn.

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for, Perfection is God's business. ~Michael J Fox
I am lucky to have good friends to remind me that perfectionism is an illusion, to help me push ego out of the way, to help me get my head straight.  I hope you are blessed with honest friends who remind you of similar truths.  Liberating ourselves from illusions of perfectionism allows us to work from a right place in our minds in our attempts at excellence, in our attempts to reach PRs.  It allows us to better stay in the moment, to focus on the the present – on our set up and lift – and not be distracted by an imagined and perfect outcome.  Once we’re clear on all that, it’s safe to step back up to the bar and aim for something near perfect and totally beautiful.

The Great I Am

When I wrote my first draft of the “I am” post and sent it to Louise for feedback, she commented that her use of this statement varies from person to person. Initially I had interpreted the “I am” statement as a bold declaration of an imagined future self, and I didn’t feel confident enough to make a statement like that. The friend who had originally relayed the story of the “I am” statement tends to be a bit impatient and this may have contributed to how I was hearing it.  Louise, on the other hand, often aims for something more immediate, for something rooted in the present.  Her goal was for individuals to allow themselves permission to perceive themselves as something different or unexpected, whether that be in the past, present or future, but she also is keenly aware of the value of the present, because that is all we really have. In working through the idea the first time, I settled on different wording, “I am training to be …”, which for me shifted my focus from a future goal to something a little more present, the process. Now that I think about it again though, I realize that even still, focusing on the process is not the same as staying in the present.

We live in a culture that values becoming (working towards goals) over being (finding contentedness within the moment). So I think it’s really not surprising that focusing on the present is something I find challenging, and I also think I’m not alone in this. The difference between goal, process, and present, sometimes can be vast, and other times it can be subtle. It’s easy to miss the value of our present self when we focus intently on the goal or even the process; it’s even easier to do when the present self is the one we have come to a trainer to help us change.

As I was thinking this all through again, it occurred to me that in Christian terms God is often referred to as the Great I Am. He reveals himself to Moses as “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:13-14).  I Am – that’s present tense. God is not the Great I Am Working on Being or the Great I Will Become. The power of God is in the present moment, in being able to see ourselves right now in the way that God does, with compassion and love despite our imperfection and brokenness and understanding that this is enough.starfish

Pastor Earl has been working to simplify the message of the Gospel in a recent sermon series. In a world where so many voices have loudly misrepresented the message of Christianity, perhaps from honest confusion, perhaps out of fear, he feels this is necessary. He says that the radical message of the Gospel distilled to its essence is that “I am enough”. He has used a variety of methods to help drive this message home. One Sunday he had us all repeat after him: “I am enough”.  Another Sunday he used question and answer format to help us identify which popular statements were Gospel (“God loves you in spite of who you are and what you do.”) and which were not Gospel (“God loves us most when we do what is right.”).  It was kinda cool listening to him bust Gospel myths like Artemis had busted myths about women and strength training.

We need people like Pastor Earl to remind us of the Gospel, to remind us that, despite our desire to be different or our attempts to change, we are loved and we are enough just as we are. That truth gets muddled when we translate it into the chaos of our daily lives, into the incompleteness of our to do lists, into our attempts to achieve our goals. We forget about the power that is accessible to us when we are willing to see ourselves differently, to love who we are in the present moment, despite the brokenness we might feel. And we need good friends and coaches like Louise to remind us of this too, because any attempt to make a meaningful change to our health and fitness that is rooted in a place of self-acceptance is bound to have more lasting impact than one initiated out of feelings of inadequacy and shame.