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Lessons from the Tao athlete: What does it all mean? What is physique transformation for?


I get it. I’ve been there.

I started where you started: working out to develop my physique, not even sure why it appealed to me so much. I was just a kid who did all sports growing up and excelled at them. Now I wanted to be in the iron game – even though I sucked at it.

But if you devote yourself to something the right way for a long-enough time; something wonderful can happen. The process can change you for the better – not just your body – but your mental fitness, your emotional fitness and your spiritual fitness as well.

These lessons are reflected in the lessons of The Tao Archer that Chuang Tzu lectured about thousands of years ago. The lessons of “authentic process” are just as valuable today.

The Tao Archer: Chuang Tzu

In the days of Chuang Tzu “archery” was a very common and popular sport. He talks about the spiritual connection of the archer to archery – the way I talk about a spiritual or self-connection to exercise or any undertaking a person may pursue. Here is his quote on “The Tao Archer”

 “When an archer is shooting for nothing he has all his skill. He is self-connected. If he then shoots for the reward of the brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he then shoots for a prize of gold, or 1rst place, he goes blind or now has two targets; one is the bull’s-eye and the other is the prize. He is now ‘out of his mind.’ His skill and ability has not changed. It is the prize that divides him. He cares. He cares more of winning than of shooting. And the ‘need’ to win drains him of power.”

So I ask you – when you do an undertaking like exercise or diet to develop your physique or “to lose weight” are you also similarly disconnecting from yourself and disconnecting from “being who you are” within that pursuit? Does the “prize” also divide you – and do all the tools of measurement you use continue to reduce the activity to being less than your own form of self-expression – till over time it becomes something you will mentally, emotionally and spiritually rebel against? –> which is the constant self-measurement replacing self-expression. I see this burnout all the time in what we so ironically label “the fitness industry.”

Remember the “authentic” Tao archer does not see the bull’s-eye as separate from himself – when he does he is now “separated and divided” and as Tzu said he is then “out of his mind” because the perceived reward has taken him away from himself. There is no better potential self-connecting activity than the personal individual involvement of the physical activity of your choice. So why do so many of you end up tortured and burned out by your own physique and diet pursuits? I look at experts like myself – and so many others – who have transformed beyond the self-connected passion of the doing of the thing in our younger years – to becoming an expert still emoting and expressing the passion for that thing: a deeper level of understanding that comes from being connected to what you do and not just self-interested in the results you can get from it.

Remember you are meant to be connected to your activities – activities that are meant to empower you, invigorate you, rejuvenate you. You should be able to feel yourself and connect with yourself in a self-nurturing way through your chosen activities, not just constantly judge yourself through them. And it doesn’t matter what that activity may be – running marathons, working out with weights, gardening, ball room dancing – anything where the human spirit can be touched and exercised from within.

Spiritual Realm: For instance – Are you the result of the application of your workouts? No! Your workouts are the result of the application of you. Is how you feel about yourself reflected in the outcome of a diet undertaking? No! – A diet-undertaking is a reflection of how you feel about yourself. And this is what will determine the sustainability and success of that activity. The Tao archer sees himself as part of the target; it represents him, it is not separate from him as a form of self-expression.

To continue -> Is intensity an experience of the expression of your workouts? No! Intensity is what you bring to the experience of your workouts. You become the process and the process becomes you: it is not something you merely ‘follow’, but something you ‘feel’ as well. It’s not just something “you get” – it’s something that “gets you.”  This is the Tao athlete.

You need to understand the value of Process.

And to do that in a pure way – for now – you need to let go of the attachments you have to the long-term outcomes and achievements and goals associated with the process and just embrace the process as a vehicle of self-expression. If you always think of all of this only as some long distance goal to achieve, you will likely fail and this is why and how you have been failing.

Now fast forward to the modern era away from Chuang Tzu. I am not the only one who practices the spiritual principles of The Tao athlete. As an example from another sport –  In his book Your First Triathlon champion Ironman Triathlete Joe Friel  said on p 176, also referencing “The Tao Archer”

“The Tao triathlete exercises and trains to be a better athlete, not to go faster. Faster comes with following the path of complete devotion and unwavering focus. The Tao archer spends hours completely focused on sending arrows at the target, not to see how many bulls-eyes he can make, but rather to better understand himself. The target is not an object related to scoring. It’s a part of who he is. […] Many triathletes try to win the workout. They do it to beat their training partners or push themselves to their limits- and then check it off in their training logs as one more daily “mission accomplished”. […]The Tao athlete is different. The Tao triathlete allows the workout to happen and see the pool, the bike path, and the road merely as extensions of his or her life, to be accepted and enjoyed for what they are. Focusing externally on the clock or on other people for every workout will eventually detract from the fun of exercise. Enjoyment and longevity in the sport come from making triathlon your lifestyle, not a mission to be accomplished.”

AMEN: Can you see how this is the difference between those of you who constantly measure yourselves within some pursuit of outcome or reward, but at the same time you fail to attach the essence of who you are to that undertaking? This makes any process arduous and complicated rather than freeing, liberating and stimulating and empowering as a form of self-expression: If you pursue exercise, physique-transformation, diet, or weight-loss from the standpoint of only the long-term outcome of changing your body – you are now like the Tao archer who is blinded by the notion of rewards and outcomes. You miss the spiritual connection to yourself – that all of this is meant to have for you. And hence that disconnection leads to a failed outcome. This is why we say in Zen “the process is the goal – and the goal is the process.” You must become part of the process and the process must become a part of you. This is what we term in modern day culture as “lifestyle.”

The absence of this nurturing self-connection is where and how you go off track. You must go from looking at exercise and diet-strategy as something “you have to do” – and see it as something deeper – and something you “get to do” that so many others do not get to. And you can only embrace the “spirit” of that – when you stop all the self-measurement and self-judgment.  Training can be so much more than a bigger arm, a smaller waist, a smaller dress size, a heavier bench press or another title. If you are lucky enough as I have been to be so self-connected to all you do, then your training and exercising of your body can become something so much richer than merely a better physical reflection in the mirror.

To be able to have the experience where you both lose yourself and find yourself at the same time. That is to know the human spirit connected to any worthwhile pursuit – whether in music, art or sport. To have that place to go to where for the time you are doing the activity – everything else in your life becomes nothing – and for the duration of the activity, that nothing becomes your everything: That is to know an experience far beyond “going to the gym to workout.” I hope you get to experience it someday. And if you do – hold on to it. It’s what Arnold was famously trying to describe in the movie “Pumping Iron.” If you don’t know what I’m referring to – look it up!

There can be far more to the physique enhancement game than garnering second glances from strangers or first place trophies or happy weigh-ins. As the title of one of my books says “Go Deeper to Live Better.”

As usual, I suspect.

Some of you will get it.

Some of you will not.