Rob McNamara is a psychology professor, zen practitioner, and strength trainer who works at the intersection of strength training and contemplative practice. In this episode McNamara explains how his experiences in the gym helped him understand the purpose of meditation, and how both inner and outer strength are deeply intertwined. He describes how strength training can stretch both the upper and lower boundaries of the ego, helping us learn how to not check out when things get uncomfortable, nor space out when we have an opportunity to relax deeply and let go.
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn coming to you from my new studio in Boulder, Colorado. This is the first interview back here in Boulder and I’m stoked to be joined by a Boulder local and an old friend of mine, Rob McNamara. It’s great to have you here dude.
Rob: It is totally a pleasure to be in the new studio with you.
Vincent: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a pretty nice little spot and I think we’re going to get it pumped up with some Buddhist Geeks vibes here this second.
Rob: We’re going to drop it like it’s hot.
Vincent: That’s how we do here Buddhist Geeks. Just to say a little bit about Rob, your background and kind where you’re coming from in this conversation. Actually, I think the first time I meet you was at Naropa University. I think you’re actually an assistant teacher at the time and now you’re a full professor in psychology. You teach courses on trans-personal psychology, developmental psychology. You’re basically all up into the mind and how it works and how it functions.
Rob: Totally. Yeah.
Vincent: And then another part of that is that you’re also into the body. You are a long time strength trainer. And if people could see you they would instantly recognize that fact cause of your hard earned physique.
Vincent: I also wanted to mention that you’re a serious contemplative practitioner. You’d been practicing Zen I know very seriously with Diane Hamilton who we’ve had on the show. And before that you had some introduction in the Shambhala tradition through Naropa.
Vincent: That feels like a good place to start is kind of hear a little bit about how you got into this two different disciplines of like contemplative practice, mind and then on the hand the body and strength training which is often times seemingly divorced from this other realm. So I’d be curious to hear how you got into these different fields.
Rob: Yeah. When I first started coming across meditation literature it was from the boomers that kind of brought Buddhism here. And so in reading kind of Joseph Goldstein and his work in particular, Jack Kornfield, that discourse most readily related to me as I understood my strength training practice. Just first reading meditation literature like the way that I could make meaning was like some experiences that I had in the gym. And so I was like I kind of get that in this movement sense, but I have not idea what they’re talking about in terms of like stillness.
So that was kind of the intersection that first most readily made sense to me. And at the time I was a major in philosophy and I was double majoring in physics. And I was like super. I was going to become a quantum physicist. It was totally insane. And I realized that I wasn’t so much in love with the mathematics as I was with the consciousness dimensions, and that’s what gotten me into psychology. And so like just diving deep with philosophy and psychology, it doesn’t take long before you kind of start coming across Buddhism and transpersonal psychology.
Then I started actually reading about this whole thing of like meditation practice. Then I started reading about it and I started to really connect it to, there’s something that I’m doing in the gym that helps me access these qualities of consciousness or being. And so I started kind of watering both, you know, like how do I actually deepen my movement practice in terms of strength training but also how do I inhabit stillness via my meditation posture. And those are kind of like two concurrent things that have just been working me.
But the heart of that has always been my movement. You know that was like home base for Rob. And I followed that as long and as hard as I possibly could. And just at some point I switched. I was just like I’m ready for a teacher, and that was a really cool transition because I was always like I’m doing my own thing. And as you can guess, and as you know, like with strength training there really just isn’t anybody out there.
Vincent: There’s not really a similar model as in Zen Buddhism where you have teachers and people.
Rob: No. No. There’s actually nobody there to actually help you negotiate the depths of your being through that practice. There’s just nobody there. And part of me likes that there is no support in it. It’s all on you.
Vincent: Like DIY style.
Rob: Yeah, totally. It’s like do it yourself. And I kind of reached this point where I was like okay I’m ready for a teacher.
And as soon as that switch made, and it’s the classic like when you’re ready for a teacher the teacher appears. And I had known Diane Hamilton for years before. Loved her. Practiced with her. Put on events and it was just radically apparent. I’m like okay it’s Di. There’s just no question in my mind that’s my teacher. And at the time I wasn’t even sure if she was taking students yet. So I was kind of like hey I want to practice with you. I want to teach with you. So I was saying are you taking on students or do I need to take Genpo on. I was essentially going to use Genpo to get to Diane. [laughter] But fortunately she received me as a student and that was kind of my official step into Zen. And that’s been kind of a dive that’s been happening.
Vincent: Nice. Nice. And I know since you did that I mean you’ve spent a lot of time with her on retreats doing zazens just doing all kind of stuff. So you’d been really kind of full dive into that world.
Vincent: Nice. Nice. So getting into this new book that you just released and wrote that’s called Strength to Awaken which is an awesome title.
Rob: Thank you.
Vincent: And having read a few books on strength training and sort of seeing what’s out there I was shocked first by the fact that this is probably the first book ever specifically written about strength training as a contemplative practice. And you hear people, at least I do hear people all the time saying things trite like running is my spiritual practice or knitting is my practice. And then most of the time they just mean they find some value in it that affects their mind. But you’re talking about it really as a discipline in the same way that I think Joseph Goldstein or any of the teachers you’ve mentioned are talking about like really rigorous practice in training. And it was clear reading your book. You’re talking about something more really intentional that you’re really including your mind and your intention as part of the practice.
Vincent: And I wanted to hear how does that actually work. How does that work in practice? What is like to strength train in a contemplative way?
Rob: Well sometimes it looks just like everything. Sometimes if you watch me train, it looks completely normal. It looks like on the surface, at first glance, you’ll see the same kind of things happening, the same movements, the same activities. And other times you’ll see some really crazy stuff. I mean it’s not often that you’ll see somebody kind of in full lotus in front of the squat rack. [laughter]
It’s just not common you know or I’ll do these hanging inversions. There’s this machine where you can hang upside down. I’m doing inversions. That’s just kind of weird to begin with. Everybody is kind of walking around; it’s like what’s with the guy hanging upside down for 5 minutes. Like who’s that. That’s just strange. And then oh wait now he’s doing a backbend while he’s upside down. So there’s some crazy things. There’s some strange things that are happening. So in terms of like objectively what it looks like it can be very normal and it can be very kind of like that’s really strange and I like that.
You know sometimes like this particular form of practice looks very normal and ordinary and other times it’s like I’ve never quite seen anybody do that before and I think that’s kind of part of the practice is we can be in the forms and we can be outside the forms in a really fluid way.
Vincent: It sounds similar in some ways to meditation practice like if you’re just watching someone sitting there they’re just sitting there.
Vincent: So is it what’s happening inside that’s really the differentiator here.
Vincent: Okay. And then could you maybe give like just a sense of what it’s like to strength train in a contemplative way from the inside.
Rob: Yeah. Most of the activity that happens in a gym is to get somewhere else. So there’s a tremendous amount of habituated distractions that are going on. And typically even the intention to get stronger is by definition trying to get somewhere else. And to make strength training into a contemplative practice we actually have to stop trying to get somewhere else. We have to actually look at the discipline as an invitation not to actually move in this particular direction so I can get x, y or z or achieve some end. But actually how do I actually strengthen my capacity to inhabit what’s here and to participate with the immediacy with what’s actually here. And that’s just the entirely different interiority, right, like that actually starts to carry some depth.
You know in strength training in its more conventional forms where you lift something till like it’s uncomfortable and then you stop and then you rest and then you do it again. If you look at strength training in that context, strength training is actually way more interested in you getting weaker than you getting stronger. I mean if we actually kind of really polished the mirror and just look very simply and very clearly, when you strength train you get weaker. And yes, when you do that over time you get stronger, right. But it’s the process of getting weaker that is the rich stuff.
And so if you’re going to step in strength training in a contemplative way it looks like and what it feels like is every single rep I’m actually becoming more and more open, more and more vulnerable, and more and more intimate with how limited, weak, and present I am. And coming at that we find and we can already feel it just in this space there’s like a stillness, you know, there’s actually like a settling quality just talking about it. And it’s like that’s the kind of strength that I’m interested in cultivating.
And I think that the world is in extreme necessity. It needs people to actually be radically vulnerable to what’s here and to be really attuned to where we are limited, where we are not resourced such that we can do the most skillful in those places. That’s kind of like a little bit of taste is that I’m actually not interested in getting somewhere else, but I’m actually interested in really being curious and really being open and actually embracing precisely the limitations that all of my organization is defended against and I want to get out of.
And so part of like cutting through in like strength training as contemplative practice is oh my god like here’s that habituated response to get out of this. And like the human psyche, Freud totally agreed with Buddha, like the basic ground of the human psyche is like avoid pain, grasp after pleasure. And strength training, it gets you to that point of facing that habituation so quickly. And in that sense it’s kind of like meditation accelerated. Cause I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time figuring out how can I be comfortable for as long as possible on my cushion. I know that not many people do that but maybe you’re one of them.
Vincent: I tried. But my body is like what are you doing.
Rob: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And we can actually get fairly proficient at working with our posture such that we’re comfortable, and that’s not what the practice is about. It’s not about being comfortable. It’s actually about meeting that edge of your fundamental conditioning of like I don’t want to feel this and I want to grasp after that, like pain and pleasure. And strength training, just give yourself like 20-25 seconds, and you’re probably going to be like face to face with your basic habituation around pain. And so from a contemplative standpoint how do we actually be really really present and actually not fall into that unconscious state and check out.
Vincent: One thing I found really interesting, like a useful distinction, and I immediately saw how it related to my contemplative practice was that you were describing the upper limits of the ego and the lower limits. And it’s not just that we reach our limit and its one limit, like a certain place that’s the same. That there are actually different kinds of places we reach that sort of this process of checking out happens. And could you say a little bit about that in the strength context.
Vincent: I think it will be clear how it relates to meditation too.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Well so the ego as I defined it in my book is habituated struggle, right. So instead of a conscious participation with what is, there’s a unconscious habituated struggle with what is, right. And the upper ego boundary if you will is there’s a certain level of struggle intention that is workable, that’s comfortable, that’s manageable and anything beyond that it’s intensely defended against.
So as you’re kind of lifting and as you’re kind of moving there comes a point where your struggle with the immediacy of the sensation becomes so poignant that you don’t have any other option but to be really present. You know what I mean. So it actually forces you into being totally present and that’s really scary for the ego. Because being present in a very basic way does not have struggle. And so the upper boundary is kind of like how do we actually move beyond our habituated struggles. And in my experience that just usually involves an adoption of a more subtle, more sophisticated nuanced kind of struggle that shows up over time. Like I’m starting to see this new layer of my upper boundary and that’s kind of your ego growing in its capacity.
Vincent: Like stretching in a way.
Rob: Yeah. Yeah. Totally. So we want to stretch that upper boundary so that you can actually struggle in more refined and precise ways with what’s happening. And eventually the struggle kind of transitions to a participation, and that’s like this big shift in terms of this fundamental conflict with what is to a willingness to like participate with what is. And when we’re talking about embodied sensation, an immense like resistance that we’re pressing into the world with, it’s just a really rich fertile place for practice.
And the more you’re able to kind of press into your vulnerability of weakness and continue to go and its beyond your conventions, there’s some really beautiful territory out there. There’s some really beautiful territory. And that’s kind of like stretching that upper ego boundary. And as soon as you stop there’s always the invitation to work with your lower ego boundary. And the lower ego boundary is essentially there’s not enough struggle. So we start to introduce struggles and this is kind of the classic like I’ve actually put the weight down. Like there’s this nice release. There’s this beautiful letting go. It’s like thank god, right? Like full bodied gratitude, and an immense release and a kind of a pouring in of energy. But very quickly the habituated mind will start to introduce struggles about, oh I don’t know if I want to feel that again. I don’t know about this next set or it might be like start picking up kind of like there’s this thing going on with work or I got this thing with my relationship. And whatever it might be I start introducing new struggles.
And it might just be like for me like I hate TV, just kind of crazy, or the music, this incessant need to have music at every point like I love training in the silence. It’s one of my favorite things. So my kind of habituated thing is like I’ll get in a struggle like just people are checking out again like really, like you’re just a zombie like kind of watching CNN as you’re training or like is this song really playing right now like are you kidding me. You know these are like in between sets. My mind is introducing struggle with what is and that’s actually inhibiting my ability to recover and to actually really plunge into a place of radical peace and unconditioned restorative wakefulness.
Vincent: Beautiful. And you know just to draw some correlations with meditative discipline. I know I’ve had these experiences with different practices where for instance I’ll be doing a practice that’s very effortful and there’s a lot of technique involved and a lot of focus. And then sometimes even built in where after those periods you just let go and rest in a kind of open awareness not trying to do anything. And it seems like there’s some relationship there between sort of effortful, intentional engagement and then the sort of intentionally just releasing and relaxing and opening. But it was so cool to hear you talk about that in terms of strength training, because it made it more real for me in terms of what is actually happening there in meditation. And it seems like both are really interested in bringing or cultivating some capacity and then having that actually be present in the rest of life ultimately.
Vincent: So getting into how these things could work together and then also maybe how they’re different, I wanted to bring an illustration that’s stuck in my mind for years. And that is of this philosopher named Ken Wilber that I worked for several years ago and who you also were working with. And I remember when I first met him I was just like shocked because this dude was really really buff. And this sort of super geeky philosopher reading his books I would never imagine he’s also a strength trainer. And he had an incredibly sculpted body. And I was just like whoa what is going here. How many philosophers do you meet and meditators that are also like super buff and look good in a Speedo.
Rob: Right. Right. Right.
Vincent: Which he did. And so he sometimes would make this claim that from his experience that taking up strength training later in his life actually did more to affect his meditation practice and his ability to be present than anything had in the decades preceding that. And I found that was like amazing claim. And he talked a lot about the importance of cross training in these different ways, the same way like an athlete would sort of cross train or do different disciplines to help their main thing.
Vincent: Could you say a little bit about cross training and how these things could work together, and specifically do you see benefits for a lot of meditators in getting into more body centered practice and do you think that could help their practices?
Rob: Yeah, totally. The developmental capacity that most adults are working on right now is actually an integrative synthesis of body and mind. And so if we think of dialectical cognition as this awareness that actually can see polar opposites, and how do we actually allow them to co-rise and mutually arise in the body and mind as kind of one being separate and being connected, these are like fundamentally un-resolvable tensions that are actually co-arising and mutually interpenetrating one another in creating who you are.
And creating a divorce between body and mind works for kind of one-stage of adult development. But people who are kind of searching for growth and development are attracted to it typically start to bump up against these dialectical tensions, these un-resolvable paradoxes. And the natural gradient towards evolution of the human being moves towards greater inclusion, greater synthesis. So meditation starts to take on a whole new texture when we start looking at dialects.
It’s no longer about getting to one fixed place. And meditation in that sense is usually about like let me get into being. Like let me liberate my awareness into the infinite sea of being [0:23:33][inaudible], or however you want to label that infinite unmoving presence. And that’s like, that’s a beautiful inquiry and there’s also this need to participate with becoming whether it’s acknowledged or not like it’s for whatever reason like the great mystery is happening.
Like infinite stillness is total dynamic becoming and there’s this ecstatic urgency on this side of the street. And that’s where kind of strength training and meditation really talk to each other in a really beautiful way. Because one is how do we integrate, how do we synthesize, how do we unify, how do we yoke together being and becoming in stillness, in human form? And that’s like that’s a serious contemplative practice of how do we do that.
And on the other side of the street it’s like okay, after you get off the cushion, and I’m actually engaging movement and doing this and participating with that and you know engaging the world of multiplicity and form, that whole thing is how do we inhabit the same practices, the same qualities of liberation and engagement with life while we’re lifting weights, while we’re writing a business plan, while we’re having sex.
So I think that they work really well together in the sense that there is times when the human vehicle, like your body-mind, should inhabit the posture of like an unconditioned stillness. It’s like it appears that human beings really need that whether you consciously participated with it or not. Like every night you’re going to go to sleep and you will not move. You will fall into that deep dreamless sleep and you will plunge into something. It might not be conscious but your sanity depends upon it as a human being.
And likewise whether you want to participate with it or not movement like moving your vehicle is actually absolutely essential and doing more and becoming more is just as important. And so strength training it’s kind of, you know, its basic orientation is towards like becoming more. So that’s one of the ways that they talk to each other. Did that make sense?
Vincent: Yeah, it does. And it sounds like to me there is a benefit in engaging in a more movement based body based practice. For sure I can look back at my own practice history and I see this with other people. Some people get into meditation through movement like your story. Like a lot of people who find meditation through yoga. You know they do a lot of yoga and they are hanging at savasana in the end and like wait a second something is going on here. And then there are other geeks or disembodied heads that get into meditation or philosophy or whatever and then at certain point they go wait a second I have a body.
Vincent: And I’ve seen both of those where people find there’s something missing if they focused on one side of this tension you’re talking about this body mind tension.
Vincent: So it makes a lot of sense to me that there is a relationship or connection there that people often struggle with and get benefit from that struggle. Cool.
Rob: Yeah. And I think another way that they talk is around conditioning and habituation. So movement and activity, like we have such immense habituation around kind of like doing this, getting somewhere else, going there. That’s why meditation is so powerful. It allows you to make object all of those habituated movements. So just by inhabiting stillness, you can see all this like crazy activity. And similarly with strength training, there is like a range of comfortability. There’s a range of comfortability where you’re willing to put in effort and then back off, and you’re willing to relax and then add some effort. And there’s like a safe window and everybody has like their kind of preferred window.
And my sense is that every human being is actually challenged to be more than that. You know like some facet of your life requires a tenacious, voracious, perhaps unconditioned effort and absolute devotion to some gesture of service in the world, you know, some truth, some love that you must become. And it’s going to require that you go beyond all of your habituations. And likewise you’re going to actually need to surrender and actually let go in a way that challenges your basic fundamental habituations. And life, like the world of form, demands that. And that’s kind of another way that they’re always in conversation.
Vincent: Yeah. It sounds like you’re kind of pointing to this inseparability of complete engagement and complete surrender all at the same time essentially. That’s really cool.
Vincent: I mean that’s non dual right there.
Vincent: Non dual weight lifting.
Rob: Yeah. And this non duality is the only really sane response to any of this is there’s these un-resolvable dualities that are arising that we must participate with, with our full elegance. And that’s really the only sane option that I see at least. Everything else is kind of a substitute of insanity that happens to just be more comfortable for my particular conditioning, and that doesn’t serve a whole lot.