Back to Basics: Surface Appearances and Structural Integrity

Print This Post Print This Post July 24, 2008 on 7:57 pm | In Creativity, Exercise, Fitness, Health, Integrity, Physical, Spiritual, Truth | Comments Off on Back to Basics: Surface Appearances and Structural Integrity

Enough talking about the process of assimilation and the role of elements such as failure and setbacks in redirecting and informing the creative process – time to dive in and explore a specific example!

It has been several months since I first posted on my intent around manifesting changes in the physical aspect of my being (The Creative Approach to Weight Loss), and as my subsequent posts have intimated much has transpired since then that has caused me to reconsider my original plans.  You may recall that my original intent was to manifest a physique similar to Bruce Lee’s – a physique that I have always admired.  

Just to relieve the tension (I am sure you are sitting at the edge of your seat!) let me confess that I have not manifested that intent yet, and I doubt that anyone is likely to confuse my physique with Bruce’s at the moment!  Indeed, my failure to achieve that goal has precipitated a fundamental re-thinking of my approach towards improving my physical fitness and health.  Given the amount of time that has passed between setting that original intent and this post, not to mention the many unrelated (but significant) events that have transpired, it may be a bit difficult for me to provide a perfectly accurate rendition of the process I have been undergoing but I intend to give it my best shot.

My initial focus when I set out to manifest this change in my physical appearance was on body fat reduction (through diet and aerobic exercise) and upper body muscle development (through weight lifting).  You may recall that I overdid the weight lifting in my initial enthusiasm, and as result spent a couple of weeks out of commission due to back pain.  Although I have been back to normal for quite some time now, that period of limited activity gave me plenty of time to read up on Bruce Lee’s approach to physical development and martial arts training as well as to reconsider my plans for transforming my body.

Perhaps the most concise way to describe my initial approach is that it was an “outside-in” approach, in that my focus was on manifesting the desired end result – a physique that looked like Bruce Lee’s.  As a result of this focus, my effort was on sculpting my body’s appearance by reducing the body fat percentage and by improving my upper body muscular definition.  The focus was on surface appearance – how my body looked – using as “direct” as possible an approach to achieve the desired end state based on what I had directly observed or read about Bruce’s physique.

My intent was to take a direct route from where I was (elevated body fat percentage and poor upper body definition) to my goal, with a minimum concern over the other elements and physical traits that accompanied that physique – flexibility, agility, poise, fluidity, balance, and strength.  As it turns out, that approach was a huge mistake, and no doubt the root cause of the numerous interventions that the universe made to redirect my efforts.

When I first strained my muscles and pretty much ended up flat on my back due to fairly severe lower back pain, I had plenty of time to re-examine both my motives and my strategy for achieving this goal of improving my physique.  One of the first things I did was to re-examine my motives for wanting to change my physique.  Was I the “victim” of a poor self-image or body-image, mindlessly buying into cultural stereotypes of what a male physique should be?  Was the goal I was focused on something genuine within me, something authentic, or was it an unrealistic ideal foisted on me by a culture that celebrates physical beauty and youth at the expense of genuine personal development?

Now as convenient as would be to say that I had mistakenly bought into cultural stereotypes of what the male body should look like, and thereby get myself off the hook for not achieving this goal, that is not the truth.  When I really feel into the truth about my desires it is clear to me that I truly do desire to have a body like Bruce Lee’s (regardless of whether or not it is possible at my age), and that offering a self-justifying argument pointing out the “shallowness” of this desire would simply be a “sour grapes” story: comforting to my ego perhaps, but not the truth. 

However, as I examined what it was about Bruce Lee’s physique that really inspired and excited me it became clear that many of the traits that I had initially considered peripheral – flexibility, strength, speed, poise, balance, and fluidity – were actually central to what I admired about his physique, despite the fact that I had initially marginalized them in favor for making my body look like Bruce Lee’s.  With a little bit of reflection it became clear that I didn’t simply want to look like Bruce Lee – I also wanted to be able to move like him.  Just as I admire the agility, strength, and fluidity of my cats when they move, a large part of my selection of Bruce Lee as the role model for my physical development was tied up in the dynamic qualities of his physique in motion.  So my first two insights were that my goal was at least in a general sense something that I genuinely desired, but that I needed to broaden and deepen that goal by including the dynamic properties of motion as well as the static characteristics of upper body definition and body fat percentage.

Since I was on my back for almost a week, and limited in my mobility and range of motion for several more weeks, I had plenty of time for reading.  To begin with I decided to go straight to the source – Bruce Lee – and spent several days re-reading his Tao of Jeet Kune Do, a classic text that outlines his approach to the martial arts, including a good deal of material on training and physical development.  As I re-introduced myself to this material it became clear that Bruce’s overriding focus was on functionality rather than form, and that whatever qualities his physique and movements exhibited were predicated on effectiveness and functionality rather than appearances or abstract aesthetics.  Interestingly, Bruce wrote this book when he himself was forced to remain flat on his back due to an injury he sustained while performing lower back exercises!

I also consulted John Little’s The Art of Expressing the Human Body which provides an exhaustive review of Bruce Lee’s training and exercise methods, including a huge number of specific training routines that he employed at various phases in his career.  Again, it was clear that Bruce’s emphasis was on functionality and effectiveness, and that the key to achieving these qualities in the martial arts was a strong foundation – core strength and flexibility, balance and agility – and that the beauty of his form and movements flowed from this foundation rather than from a focus on form or appearance itself.

So what appeared to me to be the most direct path to outcome I desired – a physique and physical presence similar to Bruce Lee’s – was in fact way off course according to the very person that had manifested that physical presence!  It took some fairly unpleasant experiences to get me back on course, but in the end the message came through loud and clear. 

And what was that message?  Remember my seemingly tragic encounter with Max, the Bull Boxer, that brought his journey on the Earth to and end?  What was his message for me?  Two words: “dig deeper.”  Indeed.  Look beneath surface appearances to the underlying structure – focus on building that foundation and the physical presence and appearance that you desire will follow as a natural consequence.  Focus on the physical appearance only and you are building a structure without a solid foundation, and therefore a structure without integrity that cannot last.

Since my encounter with Max I have done my best to heed his advice and have dug deeper into the underlying structures that govern my life.  On the physical front, I have most recently turned to a book that really addresses the underlying causes of my back injury in the first place.  That book is The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion by Pete Egoscue.  The central premise of this book is that a majority of our physical dysfunction and muscular and skeletal pain is the result of our sedentary lifestyle, which robs our body of the range and variety of motion that it needs in order to maintain its structural integrity.  As a result of this lack of motion our bodies lose both strength and flexibility, which in turn causes them to become mis-aligned, such that our load bearing joints no longer support and distribute our weight as they were designed to.  

The goal of the Egoscue method is to restore the structural integrity of our body by performing exercises that allow our muscular and skeletal system to get back into its proper alignment, as illustrated below: 

Structural Integrity - Front View

Structural Integrity - Side View

In assessing my own symptoms of structural misalignment I have discovered that I exhibit two conditions that compromise the structural integrity of my body.  The first of these, known as Condition 1, involves a forward pelvic tilt and arched lower back due to weak calf and thigh muscles and overly strong and inflexible hip flexor muscles.  The second condition, not suprisingly known as Condition 2, involves a rotation of my upper torso as well as a rotation and elevation of my hip.  In order to correct these dysfunctions I am currently undertaking a series of exercises designed to address Condition 2 (which must be addressed and corrected before Condition 1 can be tackled).  From my reading of the book and my own observations, it will probably take me a couple of months to address this issue, after which I can proceed to address my pelvic tilt.

Now there is no doubt that this revised strategy for achieving my physical goal of an improved (and more functional) physique is going to be very challenging.  This program takes me way outside of my comfort zone, as I have never been very diligent in pursuing exercises such as stretching or strength work.  I far prefer aerobic and cardio-vascular exercises that work up a sweat, but Pete Egoscue recommends forgoing a number of these exercises until the postural mis-alignments are corrected.  For example, the Egoscue Method explicitly warns against physical activities such as running and boxing until one’s structural misalignment has been corrected.  Unfortunately running and cardio kickboxing are my two main methods of cardiovascular / aerobic exercise, and forgoing them is going to make it difficult for me to achieve significant weight loss at least in the short term.  Indeed, the only exercises that are recommended given my current lack of structural integrity are cross country skiing and weight lifting! 

Despite the fact that this path does not offer an easy quick fix it is clear to me that this is a much more optimum path for me to follow than my original plan.  So the course that I have now charted is to first build a strong foundation and then expand my range of exercise options after I have achieved true structural integrity and alignment in my body.  While this is not a quick fix I feel confident that this approach will yield far superior long term benefits than my original plan of reducing my body fat percentage and increasing my upper body muscle mass without addressing any of the functional issues in my body.

As I mentioned earlier due to the passage of time it is difficult for me to clearly illustrate how insistent Spirit has been in delivering me messages that have guided me to this path.  From my lower back pain, to my car accident with Max, to finding right books at the right moment, Spirit has been unerring in its guidance.  Indeed, even when I am pursuing seemingly unrelated goals the message has been clear and unequivocal.  Just this past week as part of my spiritual practice I was reading in the gospel of Matthew and came across the following passage:

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.  Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the wind beats against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock.  But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds his house on sand.  When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”

Talk about synchronicity!  So it is back to basics for me – a solid foundation and structural integrity will the bedrock upon which I build my new and improved physique.  Wish me luck!!!

Embracing Setbacks: Harnessing the Power of Failure

Print This Post Print This Post July 19, 2008 on 6:30 pm | In Creativity, Diet, Emotional, Exercise, Failure, Fear, Fitness, Health, Physical, Spiritual | Comments Off on Embracing Setbacks: Harnessing the Power of Failure
Harnessing the Power of Failure

Harnessing the Power of Failure

If you are anything like me, the idea of failure conjures up all sorts of negative images and feelings.  Indeed, one of the hardest lessons for me to learn (and one that I must admit that I am still in the process of learning) has been understanding the fact that failing at a particular task does not mean that I am a failure.  

I am not sure where this tendency to identify myself with the outcome of my efforts originally came from, but there is no doubt that it is a deeply ingrained, habitual pattern of evaluating myself and the world.  For as far back as I can remember I have always had a sense of needing to “earn” love and acceptance – by getting good grades in school, merit badges in Boy Scouts, and later in life through promotions and salary increases at work.  Within this worldview my value as a person was not something intrinsic; rather, it was tied to my achievements, and as a result there was a strong sense that success made me a better person and failure made me a worse person.  Given this habitual perceptual frame, it takes persistence and an almost stubborn optimism to remind myself that I am not my outcomes!

When you step back and examine the premise of this worldview, it becomes apparent that there is something insidiously self-sabotaging in the agreements that support its structure.  In what way could failure – whether at school, at work, or even at play – cause me to be a worse person?  And for that matter, why would success cause me to be a better person?  What linkage is there between my ability to perform a task or achieve a goal and my worth as a person?  When you give it a bit a thought, it becomes clear that this premise is absurd.  My value as a person has nothing to do with whether or not I succeed or fail at a particular task.  Certainly from a spiritual perspective my worthiness is an intrinsic property of my existence – my value lies in the fact that I am a unique manifestation of the Divine (or in more traditional terms, a child of God) – and is in no way dependent on what I do or do not achieve.

The absurdity of the idea of earning value through success becomes particularly clear if we apply it to very specific examples.  Am I a better person if I am successful at badminton, and a worse person if I fail to hit the birdy?  Am I somehow a better person if I succeed at making a souffle’?  If it is clear in these instances that the entire premise of the statement is nonsense, why would we buy into this worldview when the subject is the grades I get in school, the level of income I earn, or the job title I have at work?  Yet how many of us, particularly success-driven self improvement nuts like me, have bought into this worldview?

It is not a coincidence that I am writing about the topic of setbacks and failure after my long hiatus in posting to this blog.  This website is my primary creative outlet at the moment, and the frequency of my blog posts is a fairly accurate indicator of how well my creative endeavors (and indeed my life in general) has been going.  Without going into all of the gory details right now, let’s just say that it has been a very challenging few months, with significant setbacks in a number of areas: my physical condition and health, my emotional equilibrium, my career, my relationships, and even my spiritual foundation.  Yet in spite of these numerous failures and setbacks, it has also been a period of intense growth and transformation.  More precisely, because of these failures and setbacks it has been a period of intense growth.

My experience has been that failure and setbacks almost always precede significant personal growth.  In this respect our personal growth mirrors a phenomenon that we are all familiar with in nature – punctuated growth.  Perhaps the most emblematic example of punctuated growth is the dramatic transformation that a butterfly undergoes through the process of metamorphosis.  During the majority of its life as a caterpillar its form remains more or less constant, with the only change being a gradual increase in size.  But as the seasons change the larva undergoes dramatic transformations from caterpillar into a pupa and then from pupa into a butterfly.  Although the emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis occurs in response to changes in the environment and the passage of time rather than failures or setbacks, the pattern of growth that it undergoes exhibits many similarities to what I have experience in my own personal growth.

Perhaps an even better example from nature is captured in the theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology.  This theory posits that the emergence of new species is the result of a small segment of a population being isolated at the periphery of the ancestral range.  Because these isolated populations live at the outer fringes of the ancestral range – regions that mark the edge of ecological tolerance for the ancestral form – they are subject to intense selective pressures.  The combination of isolation and intense selective pressures means that favorable variations spread quickly, and thus under this theory the development of new species is much more likely in these fringe populations than in the much larger, more stable central populations.  Indeed, these central populations exhibit a strong homogenizing influence by virtue of the sheer size of the population coupled with the fact that these central populations are located where the ancestral species adaptation best match the ecological conditions that favor survival.

In the realm of personal growth, my experience is that failure and crisis tend to stimulate growth whereas success tends to limit the opportunity for growth.  When we succeed there is little pressure to examine our ideas or behaviors, as the fact that we are succeeding indicates that our current strategies and tactics are working.  As a result, when we are on a roll – succeeding – we tend to repeat our behaviors in an effort to maintain the status quo.  As a result, while these periods may exhibit incremental growth and improvement they very seldom precipitate radical breakthroughs or transformation.  Rather it is failure that is the harbinger of dramatic growth and transformation.

When we fail we tend to ponder – to re-examine our strategies and tactics – and in so doing we are often forced to question the core assumptions and beliefs that are the foundation and basis for our current life strategies.  Failure urges us to question the foundational concepts of ourselves and our world, and in so doing encourages us to expand our perspective.  And it is in this questioning of our preconceived views that miracles and magic occur.

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