Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Shawn Phillips - Igniting the Flame of Intensity: The Spiritual Journey of a New Kind of Bodybuilder

This is an older interview with Shawn Phillips from What Is Enlightenment? or EnlightenNext, or whatever it is they call themselves these days.

Shawn is a wise and cool guy - and he has the best abs I have ever seen on someone not taking steroids. He talks in this interview about the spirituality of weight training, something with which I totally resonate. Check out his Full Strength Life website and his blog, Start Strong Monday. The article mentions ABSolution, his first book, but not Strength for Life, his better book.

Igniting the Flame of Intensity

The Spiritual Journey of a New Kind of Bodybuilder

An interview with Shawn Phillips
by Ross Robertson

“My life, while out of the ordinary, does not feel like a hero's journey to me,” wrote bodybuilder, businessman, and fitness author Shawn Phillips in an email to me the day before our interview. But as someone who has seen pictures of Phillips with his shirt off, I reserve the right to disagree. If heroism can be measured by the size of a man's “six-pack,” Mr. Phillips would give Hercules a run for his money. Yet for this truly original yogi of the weight room, a jaw-dropping Olympian physique is but the material reward of a lifetime devoted to the mastery of an inner fire.

“Focus is the spark that ignites the flame of intensity,” he writes in one of his more than seventy-five articles, and he's not just talking about muscle development. Sure, weightlifting is his profession, and he made a name for himself by helping to bring the sport into the mainstream with his brother Bill, founder of both performance-nutrition company EAS and Muscle Media magazine, and author of the New York Times bestseller Body for Life. But in the gym, Shawn Phillips is more sensei than jock. His principles of Focused Intensity Training, which he has developed over the course of the last twenty years, are designed “to deepen the impact of people's training—physically, mentally, and spiritually,” he says. “Simply stated, I'm seeking to integrate the principles and practices of the martial arts into an activity that millions of people already do each day.”

Coming from a man who sees strength training as a legitimate path to spiritual deliverance—and whose generosity and lighthearted humor are every bit as noteworthy as his muscle definition—it's no surprise that the title of his book, ABSolution (2002), is a conscious pun. Founder of (a resource for expert knowledge on performance supplements), Phillips is currently finishing up a new book officially introducing Focused Intensity Training to the world, and he's also developing a complete ITP (Integral Transformative Practice) program in conjunction with Ken Wilber's Integral Institute.

As we began our conversation, this reluctant hero did admit to at least some measure of greatness: “I do accept that in a field that is without the structure and heritage of martial arts, I am considered a 'master' by many.” But nothing could have prepared me for just how innovative, just how limit-smashing, his journey across the inner frontiers of weightlifting would turn out to be . . .

Excerpted from the interview:

WIE: How did you first get involved with the practice of strength training?

PHILLIPS: I took up weightlifting in college, and it soon became my passion. I was getting into intense daily workouts— all-encompassing energy events—and I'd spend hour after hour studying the body. I wanted to be a professional bodybuilder, and although I knew I was never going to be Arnold Schwarzenegger—I didn't have the genetic capacity to be huge—I also knew that I could have a great physique. So I thought, “What about this Frank Zane guy?”* At 180 pounds, he looked amazing, like a living Greek sculpture. And at the center of his perfectly symmetric physique were abs that just pulled your eyes in like a magnet. He had a trademark pose called “the vacuum” where he could literally draw his entire midsection up into his rib cage. His abs seemed to disappear right before your eyes. It was actually a bit on the freaky side, but I was inspired by the power of the connection between mind and body that gave him this amazing ability to control his abdominal muscles. So I decided that's what I would do. I spent two hours a night in the gym for six months learning to independently control every muscle fiber in my abs. I could literally pull up one ab at a time and drop it down again like a shutter.

WIE: That's amazing!

PHILLIPS: Yeah. These days I like to say, “That and two-fifty will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks.” But it did teach me the power of single-minded focus, and the clarity that comes from that. For those times, I was free of the stresses and concerns of a young life. You know, an intense workout could cure my ego ills for two or three days. It was just like armor plating. When I would leave the gym, it was with all the confidence and ignorance of a warrior. I mean, I felt like there was nothing I could not achieve. And that was a lasting sensation—a tangible, incredible, deep state of ecstasy. When you train like that, it makes you feel so strong and powerful that you can walk into a room and your little tiny fear-based self actually recedes far enough into the background that there's space for you to be present. I didn't have to be aggressive physically and I didn't have to be outspoken. I didn't have to be anything, because my presence alone made its own statement.

WIE: How did you develop such an unusual intensity of focus?

PHILLIPS: It was mostly an intuitive thing. When I was nineteen, I had to drive twenty minutes to the gym, and on the way there I'd go through a preparation ritual—snacking on a baked potato, meditating on the challenge, setting my intention for the day, and visualizing the result. I also developed breathing rituals—I was very specific in how I would breathe and engage the weights. At the time, it wasn't unusual for me to squat 750 pounds, and when you're pulling that kind of weight, it absolutely demands a ritual level of focus. You have to pull every bit of energy from everywhere you can in the world. And you know that if you allow anything to come into your head other than what you are doing, there is no way you will be able to do it. You will be crushed.

I was very fortunate to engage and ingrain this depth of intensity and focus early on, because now I can access that space at will. When I give lectures today, I tell people it's not about the amount of weight you lift—I can take a five-pound weight and just fire every single cell and fiber in my bicep. It's about developing and mastering a mind-body neurological connection. From the beginning, what I was connecting with in the gym was a universal energy source. I would just feel it flowing. Even when I was twenty years old, I called the gym my church. When I was there, it wasn't about being social; it was about doing my practice. I was in it. I was in the zone. I remember being so tuned in to people's energy levels, I could read the emotional state of every person who walked by me. If I traveled to New York City, I'd have to go in and out of the stores because I couldn't handle being on the street too long.

WIE: Do you mean that through your physical practice you had developed some sort of psychic capacity?

PHILLIPS: Yes. I could sense body energies—good, bad, and otherwise—and I would get overwhelmed by them. I think it was a natural result of that deep connection and clearing of the mind. From the time I was eighteen until I was probably twenty-three or twenty-four, I was in the gym every day practicing for two hours or more. It wasn't unusual for me to go three hours, because I didn't have as much to do in those days, and I just got into a state of such ecstasy and flow that it was like, “Who the heck wants to leave that?” Kids these days go to raves and dances. For me, this was the rave culture sans the drugs—an environment for creating some incredibly heightened states.

WIE: You've said that it took twenty years of weightlifting for you to realize that what you were doing was spiritual practice. How did you come to that recognition?

PHILLIPS: Well, I was raised with absolutely no background in anything spiritual. And looking back, I can see that through my late teens and early twenties, the feeling of strength and power I got through the weightlifting kind of served that purpose. It was essential support for an evolving self that was still very tentative; it provided the confidence and courage to explore in the face of fear, to push the limits.

I did eventually check out the world of professional bodybuilding, spending about a year in Venice, California, moving and training in those circles. I can remember hanging out at a bar one night with three pro bodybuilders. One was wearing a gold medal around his neck from the world championships, and the others were talking about how they wouldn't waste their energy on sex and how much work the girl would have to do. Looking across the table, I realized I was looking at three twelve-year-olds, and I went home, packed my car, and left the next day. I still don't use the term “bodybuilder” because of its association with that subculture. It's a freaky subculture—a single line of development gone wrong.

That was a turning point for me, because I began to see the infinite weakness of ego and my dependence on it for emotional fuel and passion. I couldn't give up what it was I did every day, but I was struggling with the motivation. I knew instinctively that I had to replace the fear-based charge of the ego with a truly healthy purpose and intention. But how do you replace ego motivation with higher inspiration? That's a big question. It had to be for me—not for others, not for the ego, not to impress, but for my own internal strength of body and mind.

When I started to meditate ten years ago, I recognized that quiet space of mind as the state I had been cultivating in the gym all along. But it has only been in the last five or six years that I've really become conscious of the spiritual significance of my physical training. Six years ago, I suffered a really serious injury—I tore my tricep off and had to be rushed into surgery. That was the first time in fifteen years I'd been without my practice and I thought that maybe it would be great to just get out of the gym and be away from it. But so many other things in my life began to unravel that I was forced to reflect more deeply on what the practice meant to me. And I realized that my commitment to quieting my mind and strengthening my body and spirit through weightlifting has been the stabilizing factor in my life, the one thing that has kept my head above water, growing and evolving and seeing. Without it, I wouldn't have bought into anything else. I wouldn't have opened up to anything else.

WIE: How did your practice change through this transition? Can you describe what it's like today?

PHILLIPS: As I've grown over the years, I've brought greater intention and awareness to practices that were intuitive before. Simply put, it's mindful weight training. My workout still begins with a mental preparation ritual where I concentrate my attention and focus my intention. This includes dedicating the training to something or someone else to bring in some force. For example, right now my father is very ill, and I'll use that as a dedication. You can only push yourself so hard for your own good. But if you put it in a context of greater good for the world, or for someone else, it's a different story. You can literally double the output of the exercise.

As I warm up, I go through visualizations of universal energy pouring through my body at the gross, subtle, and causal levels. Then, during the routine, I alternate back and forth between two states of consciousness—from a highly focused intensity to a receptive or recovery state of broad awareness. I use a rhythm of engaging and disengaging fully on each set, lifting the weights in a very quiet but intensely focused state of calm, imagining beams of light running through the muscle into infinity. The energy is all single-pointed, flowing through a spot at the center of the muscle being activated. After the set is complete, I'll pull back to a recovery state of open, mindful awareness and perform ten or fifteen centering breaths. Then I'll do three intense charging breaths, establish conscious contact with the ground, and discharge the energy with an explosion of commitment as I engage back into the next set. And I always end with a short meditation.

WIE: It seems like what you keep coming back to is the state of consciousness that you discover and rediscover when you break through the boundaries of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual inertia—the sense that anything is possible, and the experience of release and bliss and well-being that comes with that.

PHILLIPS: Absolutely. That's the core of it. Through this practice, my understanding of the scope of human potential has transformed. It's no longer just about the size of one's biceps, but about the nearly unlimited potential of the mind, body, and spirit—the full potential of being. It goes way beyond the physical self—this is a transcendent state of recognizing Big Mind. There is a connection running through these states, a pattern of higher energy that gets ingrained and grounds you as part of a universal whole.

If people don't have an intimate relationship with physical intensity, there tends to be a pattern or a habit of withdrawing from or dissociating from the pain of it. But it's so interesting when you draw yourself into the pain. It demands sacrifice. When you draw yourself into the physical pain, you move into a joyful state. It's a powerfully inspiring feeling, to move in and really focus on it. Because if you're training a muscle, and every bit of psychic energy that you can pull and master is on that particular point, that's pleasure. It's a level of ecstasy that can't help but have a lasting impact.

So many thousands of times, I've seen “average” people awakened by a vision of something bigger than they'd ever dreamed of. For millions more in gyms across the country, this kind of total engagement of body, mind, and spirit has the power to transform—and the greatest impact is rarely in the weight room. Even when all else seems to be going against you, focused, mindful training can facilitate a deep and ever-expanding spiritual life. We've all slipped into the zone by accident at one time or another, feeling invincible, calm, and clear, as if everything is going in slow motion and we can do no wrong. But you can reach a delicious state of flow every day if you want to, and show up in life—in relationship, in business, in conversation—with a full and vibrant state of presence.

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