Yesterday, as I prepared my lunch, a memory came rushing to the forefront of my mind… and although it was a memory from a whole different era of my life, long before I ever touched a barbell or swung a kettlebell, I realized it had a great deal of relevance to my approach to training and nutrition.
Zen and the Middle Way
You see, many years ago I lived, worked, and meditated at a Zen Center in upstate New York, the Rochester Zen Center… and every once in a while the Zen Center would have something called a Term Intensive, a time when we were all encouraged to step things up a notch.
This is how it worked: we would each make a personally relevant commitment that we would adhere to throughout the term of the T.I. (they varied in length from several weeks to several months). Some common commitments were to meditate more, to eat more mindfully, to stop swearing or speaking out of anger, to eliminate certain foods from our diet, or to avoid various forms of media. Then, we’d meet once each week and share about our progress, challenges, and any insights we’d had along the way.
One time, one of my friends made a commitment to remain silent throughout the T.I.–she would write if needed, share progress reports in the weekly meeting, and take part in the morning chanting services, but that was it.
A week or two into it, however, she reported that Roshi had encouraged her to change her commitment, reminding her that Zen emphasizes finding a middle way that avoids extremes. He suggested that, instead of remaining completely silent, she commit to only speaking when it was truly necessary.
Here’s what she discovered: it was a lot more challenging to determine what was actually necessary to communicate than to either have no restrictions whatsoever or to rigidly maintain a vow of silence.
It required discernment.
And a great deal of willingness to be honest with herself about her motivations for speaking.
Here’s what else she discovered: she learned a lot more about herself from her time spent taking the middle way than she had when she was maintaining absolute silence.
For example, she had insights into her ways of and reasons for connecting with others that would have remained hidden if she hadn’t gone through the process of rigorously questioning herself each time she felt the desire to speak.
And because her insights went deeper, the transformation that she went through took root and led to more sustainable and profound growth.
So What Does This Have to Do with Training and Nutrition?
Here’s what: everything.
Living on the extremes is, to a certain degree, easy.
Eat whatever you want, no matter how it makes you feel or what impact it has on your body.
Or adhere to a strictly restrictive diet with few or no exceptions.
(Obviously, anorexia and bulimia are extreme examples of this approach to eating, as is orthorexia. If you suspect you may have an eating disorder or are in an earlier stage of disordered eating, please seek help. Also, keep in mind that people of all genders, sexes, ages, races, and body types can have eating disorders: your right to help and healing are not dependent upon whether or not you fit into the stereotype of what someone with an eating disorder looks like.)
Be sedentary, eschewing evening walks, heavy weights, and raised heart rates.
Or workout every day, only missing the days when you’re injured.
Do the same workout every time you go to the gym, one that’s familiar and never pushes you outside of your comfort zone.
Or train to failure, pushing yourself to the absolute limit every time you workout.
Every one of those options is easy: they require no thought, no discernment, and no adaptability.
And here’s the thing: it’s so easy to get stuck on a pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other.
Eat perfectly! Gym everyday! Workouts on point! Everything’s great!
And then you miss a day.
Or eat something that you really, really love that isn’t something your diet “allows” you to eat—and dare to enjoy it.
The “perfection” is gone, and clouds and self-judgment move in. It’s common at this point for people who had the all-or-nothing approach to food and/or fitness to use such completely normal occurrences as a missed workout or an indulgent meal as proof of failure or a reason to continue not going to the gym and avoiding nutrient-dense foods.
One supposed “slip” becomes the start of the swing to the other extreme.
From what I’ve experienced in my own past and have heard from countless others, there are few things more likely to completely sabotage a long-term commitment to healthy movement and a healthy relationship to food than perfectionism and extremism.
Conversely, I think there is no surer guarantee of long-term progress towards health and flourishing than the willingness to find a balanced, sustainable middle-way approach.
Yes, it will be more challenging. You will need to pay attention to your body, be honest with yourself about how rested and mobile you are, and be aware of your true motivations for eating and training.
But it will also be more rewarding. If you miss a day at the gym or eat something truly, outrageously decadent, you’ll do so without guilt and with a minimum of self-judgment (or, preferably, none at all)… which will make it so much easier to continue along the path that you’re on, moving one step at a time towards a healthy way of life that truly works for you… sustainably and happily.
And here’s the best part: it’s a process that can be maintained with ever-greater amounts of love and acceptance for one’s self. No ideas of so-called perfection are needed, simply the willingness to accept one’s self and desire the best for one’s self, exactly as one is.
(Note: the featured image at the top of this post is the seventh of the ten oxherding pictures, which is known as “The Ox Transcended.” It is often accompanied by the following verse, which seemed apropos to the topic of this post:
Astride the Ox, I reach home.
I am serene. The Ox too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling
I have abandoned the whip and ropes.)