There is no reason to be alive if you cannot do the deadlift. -Jon Pall Sigmarsson
Whenever I teach my dharma students, new and old, about the path, they often find my analogies amusing, unorthodox, and sometimes, crazy. That being said, I am from a crazy wisdom tradition and teaching in unusual methods is what we do. We take the everyday, the unusual, the off center approach in order to reach people where they are, both emotionally and physically.
When I was approached by a few powerlifters about Buddhism, I decided a great analogy would be the deadlift. Seemingly the most basic strength movement but one that requires immense fortitude, concentration, and emotional/physical synergy.
The deadlift is simplicity in focus and strength. The bar rests—zen like, unmoving—without purpose or drive, until we walk up to it. Shins barely touching, knurling eating into the soft flesh of our hands, belly full of air, we sit into it, tighten our backs, and pull with all of our might. The weight breaks free from the floor, at first slowly and then with increasing speed as confidence builds. We stand, push the hips through until they meet the bar and we smile at the top.
Like the deadlift, the core of Buddhism is simple. The Buddha said, as I have quoted often, “I teach suffering, its causes, and freedom from it.” Much of what we get wrapped up in on the day to day, is the regional, cultural, religious additions to Buddhism. We obsess over the latest, most popular teachers, such as the next “great lama” or whatever cult of personality may pop up.
In the fitness industry, we see very little difference. People tend to forsake the basics. The foundational barbell movements that have been tried and true for decades. They chase instead, the latest trends and fads. All the while, the barbell, like basic dharma practice, waits stoically in the corner, strong, simple, and firm.
When we look at the old timers, those great lifters and teachers who have stood the test of time, without controversy, without career ending injury, we see time and again that they reaffirm the basics. Like Thich Nhat Hanh, “breathe in, breathe out, there is no need for more.” When it comes to strength, we use a barbell; there is little need for more.
There is no more primal, pure and simple lift than the deadlift. LIke the ridiculous fitness center commercial mocking the strongman, “I pick things up and I put them down.” That is the deadlift. Taking a static (dead) weight from the floor and standing up straight until the hips lock out.
The dharma is not a teacher, a group, a temple or a Buddha statue. The path of Buddhism put into two words is simply, being mindful. It is a path of self awareness where we engage, mindfully, each moment, instead of being lost in the past or obsessing over the future. It is a path of simple openness to the reality of here and now.
The dharma needs no robes, no temples and no beautiful trinkets in order to make it useful. The back, in order to get truly strong, needs little more than the barbell deadlift. Each path is simple, pure, straight forward. If others tell you otherwise, they are selling something.
It Creates True Power
In the mainstream, most people associate power with arms and chest. In the strength community, we call these glamour muscles. There is a great old saying that goes something like this, “I have met many men with huge arms and chest that were weak. I have never met a man with a big back that was.”
The basic barbell movements—especially the squat and deadlift—are fundamental for building true, overall strength, bone density, resilience and fortitude. The deadlift is the king of these lifts. It is the most basic. It engages everything from your calves to your neck. It creates true body power.
The dharma, opens our eyes to the real truths of life. It shows us the benefit of letting go of our obsessive thinking and grasping at control in order to sit into a state of constant compassion and awareness. This leads us to a state of freedom and hence, power over the ever running mind. This power is not the power over others that we usually associate power as. It is a sense of gratitude, of great compassion that allows us to go from moment to moment without a sense of bondage and fear.
It Supports Everything Else You Do
Another quote about the deadlift states, “a strong back supports everything else that you do.” Your back is the foundation of your physical health. Ask any great bench presser and they will say, a bigger back equals a bigger bench. We live in a world where seemingly everyone suffers from bad back. A bad back is usually a sign of a weak back. A strong back keeps us upright, active, mobile and as 65 year old strongman Odd Haugen once said, “just hitting puberty in your 50’s.”
The dharma is the foundation that we build our lives on—not in the sense like faith based traditions do, where we hope our belief will support our attitudes and stances but in the search for absolute truth. Buddhism is widely unique acceptance of the findings of science and reason. It is not a path of faith and conviction but of truth in action.
We see every obstacle, every doubt, every encounter whether positive or negative, as a chance to take a deeper look at ourselves and the world around us. To put this into perspective, famed Crazy Wisdom teacher Chogyam Trungpa said, “If work becomes part of your spiritual practice, then your regular, daily problems cease to be only problems and become a source of inspiration. Nothing is rejected as ordinary and nothing is taken as being particularly sacred, but all the substance and material available in life-situations is used.”
In his seminal work Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe notes how we would like to think that issues of mind and spirit take precedence over physical pursuits, but yet, how much happier men and women of wisdom are when their squat gets bigger. He is basically reaffirming that physical strength is an evolutionary sign of general health.
While the Buddha never spoke of lifting, we do know that he was not in favor of asceticism and noted the importance of keeping the body in good health in order to have a sound mind. Like in all things, he took a middle path view, favoring neither neglect nor obsession over topics. Seeing this, strength and health afford us a chance to seek higher pursuits with fewer of the physical ailments that plague those who lack more concern for their physical tools.