Show a Little Stoicism
By Donny Shankle
I’ve admired the Stoic philosophy and its principles since my time in the Marine Corps. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is a book I brought with me to Iraq. In it Seneca (Roman philosopher and statesman) discusses the morals of a Stoic man and how life should be lived.
Seneca and his friend Lucillius exchange over 100 letters of counsel between each other which makes it very engaging. Questions are asked in letter writing between friends and this leads to conversations which often become very personal. I still have the same copy of the book I read in Iraq and carry it with me on occasion to refresh my memory of its principles.
I am not so bold as to say I am a Stoic or that I have tirelessly studied the Stoic mind. No. What follows is merely a collection of some of my favorite lines in the book and how I incorporated an ancient philosophy into my training to become a champion. These principles helped me stay single minded. I leave it up to you the degree you wish to take your single mindedness.
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
As an athlete you will spend a lot of your time alone. The night life must be kept at a minimum in order to get the proper rest to optimally perform. Unless your friends share the same dreams as you, it’s wise not to keep regular company with them. Train and go home. Spend your off time with those closest to you.
“The simple way of life need not be a crude one.”
Enjoy the simplicity behind straightforward training. You will Snatch, Clean and Jerk and squat every time you are in the gym or do a close variation. This same principle will be applied out of the gym. You will sleep, eat nutritiously and get occasional massage and/or some other form of consistent health care. Whether or not your total improves is not hidden within some polished program. It lies within discipline and consistency.
“Men learn as they teach.”
When you are not training, take time to teach others how to lift who are interested. This not only helps to grow the sport but also makes you a better Weightlifter. As you teach you will see things you can do better in your own training. Teaching will encourage you to carry yourself more as a professional and in turn lift like one.
“Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. It needs to be treated somewhat strictly to prevent it from being disobedient to the spirit.”
You may have heard its muscle that moves the bar. This is not true. Your mind is what moves the bar. The mind is the engine and the body or muscles the vehicle. Take care of your body. The mind and body are one unit. If you poison your body or abuse it, the mind will also suffer as well as your spirit.
“…self-sufficient though he is, he still desires a friend, a neighbor, a companion.”
Without a positive support structure in the form of knowledgable coaches, positive relationships and encouraging friendships your progress will be limited. Your capacity in the gym will not always be enough. Make sure you surround yourself with strong people.
“Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts!”
Carry yourself always as a professional. Great Weightlifters are self assertive and confident. When other people you train with see this in you they too will emulate you. This makes the gym a place of champions. Each person will hold themselves to a greater standard and learn to feel disgust at the thought of losing. Once everyone in the gym thinks this way, personal records change at the rate of the morning sunrise.
“No one can be held a prisoner in life.”
You are alone on the platform and at this time your capacity is put to the test. Stress, discomfort and pain do not command you. The negative does not exist unless you let it. In order to be the champion on the platform, you have to free yourself of the idea that any one of those things I mentioned slow you down. If they do exist at all it’s only to make you stronger.
“Of this one thing make sure against your dying day - that your faults die before you do.”
I am surprised when people bring up the bad in people. I like to focus on the good in men. People are fallible. Don’t let the mistakes of yesterday affect your training today. Why? Can you change what happened yesterday? Yesterday was then and today is now. As you become a better Weightlifter so also you will become a better man. The body does not look the same as you grow in strength and neither does the mind. Your faults will die as you stay focused on great accomplishment. Because that person who was will no longer be the same. He or she will be changed.
“Nature will never ask of you more than you can handle.”
Neither will your coach. The athlete and coach relationship is special. Each of you work closely with one another for a long time and a trust is developed. You cannot have this training alone. Sometimes the pull may feel slow when in fact it was fast. The feet may feel they jumped forward but in fact stayed in place. Encouragement from someone who watches you will push you out of comfort zones which are the Weightlifters death knell. You can handle more than you think and your coach is there to help you believe it.
“Be harsh with yourself at times.”
A champion Weightlifter is disciplined. If you know the lift could have been made but you failed because of a silly mistake then correct it. The Weightlifter has to be perfect in execution. Be hard on yourself then let it go.
“Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.”
Reading the science is good and study is a requirement to improve your focus. However, you are a Weightlifter. Through training and competing you will grow. Improved focus means nothing without putting it to the test. Your focus will also begin to improve more as you start contributing. This ties closely with learning through teaching.
“Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s.”
Here is the central principle to the Stoic. Do not place value in the things which can be easily taken away. If what you have wasn’t fought for then it’s probably of no use to you. Your strength, mind and spirit can never be taken from you by the parasites of this world. Hold on to these and your identity will be strong.
“Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born.”
The ideal state of man is not to be happy. Whoever said your happiness was deserved? Happiness must be pursued and even in your pursuit there is no guarantee you will achieve the virtue of joy. However, it is attainable. The natural state of man is tireless work. Through man’s work he becomes happy as long as he has great passion for the thing he does. Get in the gym and work towards being happy. It will not be given to you. Do you think you’re the only one who wants to be the best?
“Straightforwardness and simplicity are in keeping with goodness.”
It’s also in keeping with training. When you go into the gym keep it simple and straightforward. What is required of you is to Snatch and Clean and Jerk more the the next man. You can do this with a confident mind and well trained body.
“There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.”
Life requires you to be brave as does Weightlifting and it’s the attribute of courage which is most easily misunderstood. This is trained too in the gym during each attempt. The day has already given you what you require as a human being. Be brave in your efforts if you want more.
“…pain is a trivial sort of thing…let’s stick it out.”
The pain Weightlifting brings doesn’t last forever. The muscles will relax, the aches will subside and you will adapt. Even the callouses on your hands disappear when you stop lifting. The champion welcomes his pain because he knows it intimidates the meek. Ya it’s gonna hurt but you can choose to show it or own it.
“I’m suffering severe pain, you may say. Well does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion?”
If your back hurts will the pain go away complaining about it? Don’t look to me to help you. Swallow some Ibuprofen or see a doctor and carry on. The most disgusting person in the gym is the person who bitches and moans. I remember the first time I front squatted 215 kilos. After I stood up I went down to a knee and started shaking. All my coach did was look at me. No helping hand was given. Weightlifting is chosen by you. If you don’t want it then walk. If you want something to complain about, complain about your taxes. Complain about the weather. You have just about as much control over these as your so called confessed pain.
“…there is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant.”
Have you never noticed when you stand on the podium in first place all of your pains go away?
“…but virtue only comes to a character which has been thoroughly schooled and trained and brought to a pitch of perfection by unremitting practice.”
Unremitting practice will make your actions perfect. It will bring the bar in the right position. It will increase your sense of touch to the point it becomes your strongest sense. When you feel the bar against your body as it moves through space you will react without thought. This is how you become blindingly fast. Practice your ass off and become virtuous. Understand this now. There is only one way to become great at something in this world. You have to work at it. Unremittingly.
“…the growth of things is a tardy process and their undoing is a rapid matter.”
A tardy process is understood by the champion as a gradual process. If you take on more than you have trained for you welcome ruin. The great Weightlifter trains the same way he pulls. Patiently.
“…we should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening.”
It is common to think you want to be the best in your gym. In a small group. It is common to think you want to be a national champion. It is common to say I want to go to the Olympics. The champion is not common. He is alone in this world because he visualizes more and his actions make it real. He puts no limits on himself or what he can conceive.
“Many things have fallen only to rise to more exalted heights.”
Each miss in training will teach you how not to miss again and move on. This is good because in competition you may have gone 1 for 3 in the Snatch but the competition isn’t over. Rise on the Clean and Jerk. The competition is not over until the last Clean and Jerk comes down.
“When she created us, nature endowed us with noble aspirations, and just as she gave certain animals ferocity, others timidity, others cunning, so to us she gave a spirit of exalted ambition, a spirit that takes us in search of a life of, not the greatest safety, but the greatest honor - a spirit very like the universe, which, so far as mortal footsteps may, it follows and adopts a model. It is self assertive; it feels assured of honor and respect; it is a master of all things; it is above all things; it should accordingly give in to nothing; in nothing should it see a burden calculated to bow the shoulders of a man.”
Roll your shoulders back and pull the bar. The human animal has successfully endured more struggle in his existence than any other animal. There is no burden too great. Men have literally moved mountains and gone to the moon. Take your journey one step at a time.
“It’s not because they’re hard that we lose confidence; they’re hard because we lack the confidence.”
The Weightlifter is the most confident of athletes and the universe is benevolent but only for the strong.
Weightlifting does not follow the path of least resistance. It’s all about resistance and you overcoming it. This is how you become strong and a Champion. The whole idea is to continue adding the resistance until everyone else has either fallen or been beaten by you. Weightlifting pits man against man and man against himself at the same time. Few sports do this so elegantly as Weightlifting.
In order to keep adapting to the stress and lift more weight, you have to let go of negative emotions and be tough. There is no other way. Whether you want to practice a little Stoicism is up to you. I’ve found strength and guidance in certainly more places and persons than Seneca’s letters. Whatever it is that gives you strength hold on to it. Bring it into the gym each and every day.
Do not place value in what can be taken away. This is the hallmark of Stoicism. This plus learning to abandon negative feelings and dealing with pain are the three chief ideas I take mostly away from the philosophy. Whether you follow the principles of Stoicism or some other good philosophy a Weightlifter needs a system of beliefs to meet with both success and failure. A proper philosophy in Weightlifting establishes the belief of magnificence in the self. This is a romantic idea only felt by the drug-free weightlifter because he is not an actor or an entertainer. His honest life is his love and this makes him the good man. The good man is grand.