In a Nutshell:
- Fitness is an interconnected path. It touches and affects every aspect of life. Like any far reaching path, it can lead to it’s own wisdom.
- Fitness goals / motivations can be considered as Gates along its path.
- There are quantitative and qualitative elements to the Gates.
- Release. The mental and physical release of exercise. Fitness catharsis.
- Change. Change is seeing, counting, or feeling an external change in your body (aesthetic).
- Ability. Ability is experiencing or measuring improvements in your physical capacity (athletic).
- Tribe. Tribe means moving away from an entirely internal fitness motivation: “how does my fitness help myself?”, toward an external fitness motivation: “how does my fitness help others?” The social–and ultimately selfless–element of fitness.
- Identity. Your Identity is your filter for interpreting the world and engaging it. This is learning who you really are and how well you both affect and accept who you are, and how you put yourself into the world. This is the realm of mastery.
- Getting stuck at some Gates is a concern (“revolving doors”), though there are strategies for avoiding getting trapped.
- Recognizing the Gates does not mean that you (or I) have (or are finished) passing through them. It’s not about achievement; it’s about being present, honest and walking your path.
The 5 Gates of Fitness
What motivates us to step toward our fitness goals? What makes us walk in the door (or out the door)? What makes us (want to) do the work? What does fitness look and feel like? What do we need? What makes our hearts sing? What do we really need?
Fitness is an interconnected path. It touches and affects every aspect of life. Like any far reaching path, it can produce its own lessons in wisdom. But to earn that wisdom takes work and no small measure of reflection. Both are key. Only working hard at fitness is most definitely not enough to earn wisdom, unless maybe it’s delivered through oldest of teachers: suffering.
In my own fitness, and attending daily to that of countless others, I’ve come to see motivation and goals as gates along the path. It’s a useful metaphor. A gate is both a beacon to strive for, and a thing to actively achieve or pass through. Imagine a temple at the top of mountain, and all the steps that must be walked before walking through the main gate. And then all, actual and personal, that await once in the temple. More concretely, think of the mile markers along a race.
Those who know me, know I’m a fan of the classical mind. The ideal of following big questions through life appeals to me. Today, statistics rule our understanding of the world (or our confusion about it). But with all of our knowledge and achievements, our collective wisdom for what to do with it all hasn’t increased. The classical masters knew this. In their day, much heed was paid to the individual mind–what its experience and meditations could uncover. Though the world around us has changed dramatically, the questions of internal understanding (knowing thyself) and external action (how am I to live?) haven’t changed. Not at all. These questions will always be required work, deeply personal work, for anyone looking for completeness and dare I say it: wisdom.
Back to how this relates to the fitness path. There are two categories of goals: Quantitative and Qualitative. Quantitative goals are measured by numerical change, qualitative goals are measured by feeling or perceiving change. People often focus on the former (statistics!), but the latter are the most profound (wisdom!). In fitness, what we all can achieve falls roughly into the same handful of things. For all our variations, we’re a pretty similar lot (statistics again! Or is that wisdom?). If you aren’t familiar with it, look up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to see where I found specific inspiration.
One note of caution. Some Gates, especially the lower / quantitative ones, can become revolving doors. That is, people become stuck, spinning around in place, perhaps blinded by one goal, and forget that there’s more further down the path. This sounds trite from the vantage of a blog post, but take a closer look at your own fitness path. You may surprise yourself. I continue to delight and disappoint myself whenever I pause to reflect. That’s the key. It’s not about achieving the right track and maintaining it indefinitely–that’s impossible.You won’t and you can’t. It’s about recognizing that there is a path, and more lies in wait further down along it. A little honest meditation will always remind you of what’s really what.
There are mountains of useful fitness statistics floating out there, growing exponentially with research, and the devices and apps to track more and more of it for yourself. There are countless people and gurus who’ve compiled that information into knowledge. And then there are the rare folks who’ve taken their path all the way to wisdom. I am not one. But I believe in my path. And every once in a while I come to footsteps that remind me to keep going.
So, let’s get going. Why do you get fit?
The 5 Gates of Fitness
The first three Gates have a ready mix of quantitative and qualitative attributes. The last two are mostly qualitative, most profound, and so are the most difficult to achieve.
- Release. To physically work hard, to release calories and stiffness, to earn some soreness. To emotionally work out negative emotions, to feel your body alive, and reset yourself. Release is the catharsis of fitness.
- Change. Change is seeing, counting, or a feeling an external change in your body. It’s reducing fat, adding muscle/tone, and shifts in your physical shape. This is the aesthetic element of fitness.
- Ability. Ability is experiencing or measuring improvements in your physical capacity. It’s being stronger, more powerful, having more stamina, more grace, more awareness, more usefulness. This is the athletic element of fitness.
- Tribe. Tribe means moving away from an internal fitness motivation: “how can I help myself”, toward an external fitness motivation: “how can I help others?”. This is the social–and ultimately selfless–element of fitness.
- Identity. Your identity is your filter for interpreting the world (internal) and engaging it (external). Identity is learning and accepting who you are fully–your strengths and weaknesses and how well you affect and accept them. It’s understanding that some elements will remain unchanged, and others can and will change. Your own identity is nothing short of your fortress or your prison. Here be mastery.
Release (Quantitative / Qualitative)
Release is the catharsis of exercise. To physically work hard, to release calories and stiffness, to earn some soreness. To work out negative emotions, to feel your body alive and reset yourself.
An emotional release can be seen in practitioners of many stripes of movement who are motivated by the positive feeling they get or the head space they escape into while doing their thing. The Yoga Cloud one floats out on after a great session or the so-called runner’s high (psst: it doesn’t only belong to runners!) are perfect examples of this.
The Sticking Points
- You can be clouded by the emotional release and seek that high or feeling, even at a high cost to your body, very much like an addict.
- You can get stuck chasing burned calories and soreness (and stretchiness) as though the value of your fitness path is entirely defined and judged by achieving these situational rewards.
How to approach this gate: Shift your mindset. A low-value practice is about what you get rid of. A high-value path is about what you gain. Enjoy the catharsis of vigor, but don’t get lost in it.
Don’t rely on exercise to chase your emotion tail–you won’t catch it, or you will have to keep trying, endlessly. Turn your workouts into a practice of mastering movement. The experience shifts away from an errand of intensity, performed for the sake of a feeling, or calories burned and body parts taxed and toward learning and growing. Every practice can still deliver a good, useful sweat, and shake off some life-weight by session’s end. But know that these are the beginning, not the end.
Change (Quantitative / Qualitative)
A body change is the number one aim for starting a fitness program. It’s also what many consider to be the end of the road. Most folks begin with a fitness vision set firmly in their mirror. They want to be smaller, bigger, more toned, or more or less something other than what they are now. Even if you are generally satisfied with your body, you aren’t upset when your body changes in ways that make you proud and confident.
The Sticking Points
- Some people actually achieve (or are genetically blessed with) a wonderful physique! And then continue chasing or scrambling to hold on to a vision of perfection until that vision blurs into something else altogether. Bodybuilding, modeling, plastic surgery are all perfect examples of this. Of course everyone “knows” that if you wrap up too much identity into your physique, you will end up disappointed. But many don’t realize it until it happens.
- If you don’t achieve the changes you want, or invest too much emotion and expectation into that change, you can get frustrated and stop trying to do anything. Or you’ll get hung up on your changes and try mnay drastic or haphazard things to achieve this kind of change (crazy diets, pills, workout everyday, etc.). Too often, people run circles around arbitrary weight and aesthetic goals that don’t have anything to do with their actual, current body.
The truth is that we all do this to a degree. The moment we notice (or someone else notices) a subtle change we worry (or freak out) about it, see it as evidence of decline (or an existential threat). Do people really love their 4 different bicep curls, toning routines, or endless hours of machine work? Or are they addicted to the emotional Release those things provide and the temporary escape from their fear of change? As with most things, maybe it’s somewhere in between love and fear. It’s up to the individual to be honest about which side holds the most weight.
How to approach this gate: We’ve seen over and over again that external changes often happen faster, and are more enjoyable, when they are a result of other achievements. This Gate is best when it’s celebrated as a side-effect. The higher order Gates can be great replacements for this one, especially if it’s doing more to harm motivation than support it.
Another aspect to Change is recognizing how you feel in your body, not the number on a scale. Are you more energetic? Do you feel different in your clothes? Do you carry yourself differently? Are you sleeping better? Do you have less stress? Do you have new friends at your training space ?
Ability (Quantitative / Qualitative)
Doing a little more than you did last time is rewarding. Doing something you never thought possible is a powerful. And both can be readily quantified. Once someone notices their rising ability levels, they often forget about the scale, or at least let go of the meaning it once had. Because fitness is ultimately a definition of ability, this is the top of the quantifiable measures. (But note that it’s still not the end of the road.)
Ability is often associated with athletic performance and athletes become intensely focused on this. PRs, team sports performances, competitions and races of all stripes. These can be very rewarding experiences. Have you ever seen an Olympian cry? Or how about someone complete a race they never thought possible? Deeply moving stuff.
Ability can be subtly profound when engaged with other activities outside the actual training–your running legs feel stronger, lifting common objects takes less effort, or you notice your favorite activity has become easier and more enjoyable. You might stand taller, walk lighter, stumble less, or jump and catch a pencil as it rolls off a counter. You realize your child flies up into your arms with ease. Ability most certainly also points to regaining movement or activity lost to injury or disuse.
Many common fitness activities make you adept for specific outcomes (running for example). I prefer a path that has it’s own intrinsic value and extrinsic value. It will connect to and make you better at many things, not just The Thing. This is both an important distinction to make and a tough balance to strike. And our powers of rationalization are unsurpassed.
The Sticking Points
- Placing too much emphasis on numerical measurements of success. As identity gods, they are just as false as the aesthetic ones.
- Getting so lost in your training, so focused on progress or competition, that you lose sight of the broader horizon. Of your health, youractual fitness, and even of your broader life.
How to approach this gate: Have some useful numbers in your practice because it’s a direct means of seeing your ability change over time, week to week, and cycle to cycle (you do cycle your training, don’t you?). It’s externalized truth. Numbers hold yourself accountable to moving your needles forward. This is the highest quantitative gate for a reason and should be part of every path.
Don’t see Ability as something that happens in a particular moment, or a specific athletic venue or circumstance. Ability happens as an ongoing process–step-by-step, day-to-day, moving forward across the horizon of your life. If you pour your heart into short-term achievements, you may or may not accomplish them. But even if you do, they may be all you accomplish. Your peeling medals and fading PRs will be all you have once you are burned out or broken down.
I used to believe that to be a high-caliber mover, you just train hard and never let yourself slow down. Thank goodness suffering finally taught me otherwise! It’s a mighty hard Identity pill to swallow. But really, what athletic glories remain? Do you remember who won the Super Bowl a few years ago? Does it still matter to anyone but the fading stars who played in it? Athletic virtues, whatever they may be, are fleeting. Are kids really taught teamwork and perseverance through athletics, or are they taught to put their head down and specialize their skills into one sport, or one position in one sport. To will to win. To accept that a broken body is the price for maybe getting a scholarship, or just an accepted part of the athlete’s path. The athletic mind is not the way. Glory is not a path to wisdom.
Truly awesome Ability happens incrementally and continues to unfold, and change, as you grow and change, too. True athletes are marvels you’ve never heard of. People who glide gracefully and powerfully through many chapters of their entire life. Maybe in a basement dojo/weight room somewhere, maybe on a farm, maybe on a hiking trail, maybe living in the deep woods in a log cabin, maybe walking everyday around your block with groceries dangling from a strong hand.
We are social beings. We are hard-wired for it. We need to know there are others who think like we do, who want to be around us, who celebrate our victories and help carry us over failures. Facebook took over a significant portion of modern human life for a reason. In fitness, a sense of tribe is the thing that makes you show up when you don’t feel like it and to even try to achieve more than you did the last time. It gives you context and purpose. For an intensely social animal like we are, Tribe is one of the most important things in the world.
The other side of Tribe is not just that people support you and therefore you achieve your own goals more effectively (though that’s true), but that you support their goals and needs. Tribe is passed when your realize that their well-being is tied to your own well-being. When you train alongside others, you are forced to share your weaknesses and trust each other as you work on them. It’s vulnerable space. You can gain a lot from the camaraderie of working together, but you can gain even more by helping someone feel better about their workout, their body, their day. This is the deeper side of Tribe.
The Sticking Points
- In a word: cult. We are programmed to seek and form powerful social connections. These connections help us find our best self, but they can also lead us away from our better selves.
- Focusing entirely on what you, personally, gain from the shared path. Truly approaching Tribe takes time, empathy, and deep caring. If your workouts are a personal escape from stress and pressure, there’s more to be gained.
How to approach this gate: Tribe really means that you are no longer practicing solely for your own sake. You are building ability, knowledge, and capacity to be of ready help to others. It’s helping a new person next to you get over their fear of pushups, or an aged family member with their housework; it’s helping a friend move or plant a garden; it’s just having enough energy and strength to keep up with your kids (grandkids!) and work. It’s helping a stranger walk over an icy patch of parking lot, or another out of a ditch.
At it’s deepest, Tribe is about that realization when your fitness means what you can give back to world around you.
There’s a saying in Chinese martial arts that the longer you practice Kung Fu, the more it becomes a reflection of you. Movement is a powerful path for a direct, transformational experience. For an understanding of yourself from the inside out.
Your most powerful life hinderance and accelerator is your perception of yourself. People commonly see themselves through their weaknesses, not their strengths. Their hang-ups, guilt, and discontentments. This is especially true among folks who are primarily motivated to make a Change. Many who put on a self-assured front do so because they are hyper-aware of what they perceive to be their weaknesses.
With fitness, one’s sense of Identity can shift dramatically once you begin to pass through all the other Gates. Once you create a rhythm to regularly release your negative emotions and heightened energy levels, once you notice that your clothes wear differently, once you recognize an increased physicality, once you create new connections with people, and once you experience the unique presence that comes with confronting and taming your own mind demons.
This all takes time, effort, awareness, presences. This all takes consistent work. But when you’re forced to make room for all of these new strengths in your self picture, awesome blossoms. When the filter through which you engage and interpret the world shifts, look out.
The Sticking Points
- Getting stuck on a single, unchanging sense of yourself. If you only value one static version of yourself, you are destined for disappointment.
- Getting stuck on a narrow vision of yourself. If you handpick a couple elements of yourself to value, and not the complete and forever changing picture, you are destined for disappointment.
How to approach this gate: Your sense of self must start by recognizing your strengths first. Your weaknesses matter, and deserve attention and work, but not at the expense of forgetting your strengths. It’s from them you can get to work on your weaknesses. And it’s on them you lean when you realize there will always be weaknesses.
A shift in self-perception is the most powerful gate one can pass through, and like anything of value needs to be approached for a long time. This is what makes this Gate so rare. This Gate takes on another level of significance for someone who has lost a sense of identity or has had theirs shaken deeply.
The Gateless Gate
Many of the classical polytheistic visions of Truth held that there are many paths to wisdom. That may be (who am I to say?), but just because there are many, it doesn’t mean that every path is destined for it. Just because I wrote a blog, doesn’t mean I have passed through all of these Gates. Pausing to reflect on my experience is part of the work. I also believe that the highest Gate is not a gate at all. It’s the path itself–not anything that can be achieved along it. I have a long way to go and if you are human, I suspect you do, too.
This kind of meditation helps to define your compass, to get a handle on where you are and where there is yet to go. Your life will take reflection and work for the rest of your days. Here’s to hoping your path will take you there.
In Strength and Movement.