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In A Nutshell Weight-lifting Cardio-kickboxing A Few Thoughts on Stress Meditation Vision Quest Essay
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In a Nutshell:

I've been a trainer for 11 years, and the fact of the matter is, people who hire trainers hate working out. They might learn to like it with the help of a good trainer, but mostly they don't want to sweat, and they don't feel like working hard. Why? Because they already work extremely hard in their job life. Who wants more hard work? And their hard job-work pays off in the good life, which means access to fine wine, gourmet food, and expensive cigars. And if one works hard to be able to enjoy these things, well, then, one bloody well wants to enjoy them. Most trainers & nutritionists deny their clients all their hard-won pleasures, and put them in the Pain House. Those kinds of trainers usually don't make it past 3 months. Eventually these clients find me. I keep my clients for decades.

Why? Because personal training is a lot like psychology. It CAN be rocket-science, but it's best when treated as common-sense. However, as we all know - "Common-sense is not common." Most trainers talk "trainer-speak," and say things like, "We need to work on your scapula-retraction." This scares people. All you need to say is, "Pull your shoulders back". Everybody relaxes.

Getting in shape is actually pretty easy, under the guidance of an experienced trainer. The most effective things are always the simplest. You don't need a gazillion fads, like "Tae-bo Freestyle Funk" or Gyrotonics. You don't need a "Pilates Reformer." All you need are a couple of dumbbells, a big rubber beach ball, a jumprope, a few square feet, and you're in business. Main thing: it must be fun. It must be an enjoyable time. You must see results. This is all easy to do. Fitness IS rocket-science - but it doesn't have to sound like it.

Weight-lifting:

The essence of what I do is based on the philosophy that in all things, the simplest way is the most effective. The workout is therefore simple. I train you for strength. Period. This is the most effective method for fat-burning, and overall fitness, bar none. Lift heavy weights quickly for a few reps. Stretch. Every once in a while do something speedy for a short period of time. That's it. Dorian Yates won the Mr. Olympia, the highest award in professional body-building, 8 times, with just such a routine.

Train smart, not necessarily hard, and save time. Strong muscles need energy to maintain themselves. Where do they get that energy? From your fat supply. When all muscles are trained and in great shape, you will go to bed and wake up 2 or 3 pounds lighter, because your muscles have been burning fat while you sleep.

A note to women: strength-training does not equal bulking up - you need testosterone to do that.    

Cardio-kickboxing:

"Traditional" aerobics are not necessary to weight-loss. However, as an enjoyable stress-busting/endurance-challenge optional workout, you'll find hitting and kicking pads very gratifying and cathartic. Kickboxing is a highly effective aerobic workout because it's enjoyable. If you're having fun, you don't notice how much actual fat-burning work you're putting in. Ducking a (fake) hay-maker swing every few seconds takes the focus off the fact that you are actually doing a large amount of endurance-building/fat-burning squats.

Unlike a generic aerobics class, the techniques are real-world applicable; you learn to throw punches, kicks, knees, elbows, & blocks, with proper form and power, as well as how to apply variations and combinations of all of the above. You learn the rudiments of self-defense, get to hit a moving target (me), while substituting me for your annoying boss. It clears bad moods right up.

A Few Thoughts on Stress:

As New Yorkers, we need to have a  stress-management routine. We may no longer have the 1970's New York type stress of pimps, junkies, muggings, switchblades, & dogcrap. Now we have the stress of a recession, foreclosures, Bernie Madoff, & global warming. And the subways are more crowded than ever. We STILL need stress relief. Part of which, especially for men, means becoming "emotionally literate."

Americans tend to bottle up their anger. We live in a culture that says that anger and irritaton are bad emotions, which is like saying the color red is a bad color. This is an enormous factor in heart disease. In counseling, some therapists use the "Wiffle-bat & pillow" technique. When asked about how, say, catching their wife cheating makes them feel, many men tend to squelch their emotions and feign stoicism. When the therapist suggests they think about what transpired and then hit the pillow with the bat and yell, they immediately turn into berserkers, and the toxic emotions drain out.

Negative-ion generating emotions need to be eliminated from the body; otherwise they cause emotional constipation - stress builds up in the physical body, usually in the form of neck and lower back pain. These two areas of back pain are so prevalent that they've worked their way into our language - things are either a "Pain in the ass," or a "Pain in the neck." Stress also registers as tension-headaches, "chronic" migraines, stomache-aches, TMJ (jaw-muscle pain from night-time teeth-grinding). it may further express itself as something that feels like arthritic twinges in your shoulder and elbow joints. Acne breakouts. Hair-loss. Stress also comes in the form of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a highly uncomfortable back-&-forth of diarrhea/constipation. Your sleep will get disturbed - you'll wake up at 3:00am, toss & turn for hours and then start getting drowsy 10 minutes before you have to wake up at 7:00, and be exhausted all day.

I agree with the philosophy of Dr. John E. Sarno's "Healing Back Pain," which maintains that the body is a perfect machine, but does not function ideally in today's stress-ridden world. Stress is behind hundreds of aches and pains. Anyone remembering the 60's will remember ulcers. Everybody had ulcers, nobody ever talked about back pain - ulcers were a sign of the times. Then we learned to cut down on stomach-lining irritants like alcohol & cigarettes, and stress had to register itself somewhere else. Now everyone has "incurable" lower back pain.

Lifting heavy weights and hitting focus pads are very good substitutes for the bat-and-pillow routine. Better, in fact. Because in addition to draining stress, you also lose weight.  :-)

Meditation:

Meditation is the greatest stress-dissolver of all time. I have studied many forms ranging from Eastern: Burmese Vipassana, Korean Dahnhak, Chinese Nei Gung & Falun Dafa, to Western: Native-American Sacred Silence, and Rudolf Steiner's 8-fold path. I have also done many Native-American "Vision Quests" which are, essentially, a solitary 4-day/5-night meditation/fast in the wilderness. It has now been scientifically proven that human beings should do some form of meditation everyday, to achieve optimal health, energy, clarity, balance, and serenity.

Some people are immediately put off by the concept that sitting in meditation for an hour is painful. Think of it this way: the pain is black-belt level stuff. Just like a white belt can't be expected to snap off a double round-house kick two feet over his/her head, same with the pain aspect of meditation. It's best to start just on the concentration aspect of meditation -- sit upright in a chair, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Count 4 breaths, and start all over again. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back. The Indians say the mind is like an elephant's trunk; first it's over here grabbing this bunch of bananas, then it's over there across the street stealing that vendor's bunch of coconuts and throwing them in the mouth and crunching them. It has a mind of it's own. The smart "Fahkir" -- the guy who rides the elephant, gives his elephant a little stick to hold in its trunk. It twists the trunk up and concentrates on holding that little stick. It focuses the trunk. That's what concentrating on the breathing does for the mind. Or staring at a candle. Or repeating a mantra. One's ideal focusing aid depends on what your neuro-linguistic programming happens to be -- audial, visual, or kinesthetic. For example, if you're audial, listen to your breathing. If you're visual, stare at a candle.

When the mind is focussed yet empty - that's when God (insert your own personal understanding of that word here) has a chance to speak to you. Only you won't hear him/her. But the message gets through nonetheless. It will show up as dreams, signs, symbols, "coincidences", synchronicity, notions that pop into your mind "out of the blue." Prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to God. Now, I first came across the pain aspect of meditation while doing a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreat. No talking for ten days, 12 hours a day of seated meditation (not 12 hours in a row). They claim their system, which comes from Burma, is the direct linneage from Siddartha, the Buddha. The point is to learn to constantly scan your body in a ritual process from top to bottom, and observe all the sensations. Because the painful legs are actually the easiest part to take - what's much worse, lol, is the itchy nose, and what's even worse than that--- the tickles that appear out of nowhere on any part of the body. Why are they worse? Because once in position -- you're not supposed to move! Why? Because the point of meditation is not, as is commonly thought, to shut out the chaos of life. When you shut it out, it just knocks louder. The idea is to accept it. Life always throws us off balance (which is what the study of yoga is all about -- accepting the instability), and brings us suffering and chaos, as long as we are human and haven't entirely paid off our karmic debts. And so instead of running from it, the whole point of it is to sink down into the middle of it, and learn to observe it and detach from it. And after years of learning to feel our feelings, we can feel them and yet not get pulled off center (learning not to get pulled off center is would be the practice of Aikido). And then, on top of that, when you can sit with the pain of life, the aches, the itches, the tickles, etc. -- and care less about it all -- according to the buddhists, when you can withstand the suffering of pain/itches/tickles, you're also lightening, or paying off, your karmic load. Which is where the term "en-lighten-ment" comes from.

Vision Quest Essay:

By Mark Jackson

So there I was, along with your typical assemblage of "Tom Brown's Tracking, Nature, & Wilderness Survival School" types: Tatted/pierced X-games-type goat-beard young dudes, blond-dreadlocked, b.o. & hairy-pits-rockin' eco-hippiechicks, couple of 'Nam vets, yer senior-citizen eccentrics, yer kahki-wearin', guns-'n-ammo-talkin', "Soldier-of-Fortune" magazine readin' mountain men, a passel of women in their mid-forties who were there to figure out how to forgive their husbands for cheating on them, and how to stop cheating on their husbands, and a sprinkling of other various and sundry societally marginal types that defied description. That Beck tune kept repeating itself through my mind, "I'm a loooz-ah bay-bay, so why-doan-cha kill me...". After five minutes of cynical observance my conscience whispered "judge much?", and so I proceeded to make myself start talking to people and of course met some beautiful souls. Made a couple of friends for life. So here's how it went:

NATIVE AMERICAN VISION QUEST:

It's 4 days/nights, sitting in a 10-foot diameter circle in the woods or desert - isolated from people. No food. Only a gallon of water per day. You have some clothes and a sleeping bag. If you're really doing it right, you're naked (I tried that for a minute but sitting in the underbrush was brutal on the ass). The idea is to break down the logical mind with fatigue to the point where you kill it - it's called by native people the world over - "Dying the little death." Your old self dies, and you are reborn. This is why it was used as a rite-of-passage; the child dies and the adult emerges.

So your logical mind shuts down, and you are left with the core of your being. This core is then open to signs, symbols, dreams, visions, feelings, emotions - which is how the spiritual world communicates with us - never the logical mind. You pray alot, you pray for a vision. Basically what you are praying for is your birthright, your destiny, the path you laid out for yourself with the help of your Spirit Guide before you incarnated - your true path, your purpose, your reason for living on this earth. You pray that this be revealed to you. You go in with a list of questions; you may be at a cross-roads in your life and not know which way to turn so you ask those questions over and over again and wait for an answer. These generally get cleared up on the 2nd day.

Most visions are subtle. Earth is the greatest teacher. Small insects will communicate tremendous teachings to you. Everything in your quest circle is teaching you constantly, that's why it's a four-day meditation in essence; you try to clear the mind of all distractions (except when you're praying). Then you'll be open to the wealth of teachings. And when you come out of the quest, it's a good idea to immediately journal the entire experience down to the finest details, because it'll feed you for the rest of your life. All quests after the first one are considered "Clarification quests."

Your defenses break down. I was annoyed and irritated by all manner of flies for the first two days, but by the third day, I hardly noticed them. Mosquitoes were a problem. I had to cover myself with bug repellent, which made me want to dry heave, but they'd still buzz and whine around my ears all night. I got no sleep whatsoever the first night, and was exhausted the 2nd day.

They tell you to be careful of your expectations of what the quest should be and do for you. I thought I had no expectations, I'd been involved with spiritual things for long enough to know that I most likely wouldn't get a mind-shattering Vision, where my Spirit Guardian materialized in a blinding light, trumpets blaring, (Tom calls this kind of vision the "White-Winged Buffalo) and loudly proclaimed my life's purpose. I figured I'd get a subtle message from an ant or some such thing. But I thought I would be dying the little death. By the third day, I still felt pretty good; I thought, "Aww damn, I'm too strong for the 4-day quest, I shouldda had the 10 day quest to break me down." Well, on the 4th day, I felt pole-axed, could barely move - felt like I was dying. So I was happy.

All my questions were cleared up. It's generally not a great idea to talk about the answers you receive, because anytime the spiritual world communicates with you, it's a powerful thing, and talking about it dissipates the power. You literally gab away your gift. If you tell others, they'll start going, "Naaah, that doesn't sound right to me, I think your subconscious desires caused you to come up with that, you oughta be doing this...." And your logical mind will go, "Oh man, that's so logical, they're right! I should be doing that...." And you'll be right back to your old self, not knowing which way to turn, thinking the hell out of everything, and confusing yourself.

You get subtle answers, but they're deceptively simple, such slight shifts - things that make you say, "Well... du-uh! Of course. Why didn't I think of that 15 years ago!" On the third day, after asking my questions over and over again, I just started running through them out loud, and then all of a sudden I started answering myself - "What should I do about that?" "Well, you should do this." And it would make total sense.

You dance. It's called the stomp-dance, and what you do is you go in a circle around your area and stomp your feet into the ground, toe-heel, toe-heel, etc. This is to keep your mind from drifting, to regain focus, and to release big emotions when they build up. I wore a 10-inch trench in the ground, and on the third day, I unearthed an ancient camp-fire. It was buried about 8 inches down, and I could tell no one had been in that area for years so I thought it might have been one of Tom's childhood camps - possibly one of "Grandfather's". I told an instructor and he said, "Whoa, that's good medicine, judging from that area, I'm pretty sure it was one of Grandfather's" ("Grandfather," or Stalking Wolf, was an Apache elder/mentor who taught Tom Brown, Jr. all the old Native-American ways of wilderness survival & spirituality) So I got myself a "medicine bag", and I put some little things that I had gathered from the quest area in it, including one of the old cinders. So now I can carry a little of the energy of my quest with me always.

They tell you about the distractions, they break it down into the 4 days: The first day is the "Day of the Body"; you'll sit against your tree (you can have a tree in your sit-area) you'll notice the ants, the leaves, the grass- hoppers, the flies, the stones, all the things around you, you'll notice the hair in your armpits and notice that you never really noticed this before; you'll pick your nose and notice that, you'll fiddle with your pits some more, you'll fiddle with your belly-button. Then your ass will start to hurt. So you shift to one cheek and save one for later. You sit with your feet up, you sit with your feet down, you sit with them stretched out. You look some more, you fiddle some more. Then you stand up.

And it's a whole new perspective from up there. So you start all over again - you'll notice the ants, the leaves, the grass hoppers, the flies, the stones, all the things around you, you'll notice the hair in your pits and notice that you never really noticed this before...

Day 2 is the Day of the Mind. You'll make endless lists, figure out how many matches are in a match book, balance your check book, count all manner of things, rehearse songs, rehearse speeches, (Oscar-award-ceremony speech) remember your childhood, come up with things you haven't thought of for years and years... you'll make recipes....

Day 3 is the Day of Emotions. You soar with ecstasy only to fall down into the blackest despair the next minute, followed by apoplectic fury, then stitch-causing laughter, and around and around.

Day 4 is the Day of the Spirit. You go through all this stuff again and make your peace with all of it.

I didn't have much of a problem with this. They were describing what would happen for your regular Joe-on-the-street who'd never confronted themselves and been alone with their thoughts for very long. That's why they tell you to cut the labels out of your clothes and take the labels off the water jugs beforehand, so you don't start playing word games, and not to drink huge amounts of water so you can engage in "recreational peeing."

I thought I knew my mind pretty well, but I did some real good remembering. But mostly for 4 days, I focused on my quest-ions, quest-ed for my vision. When my mind would drift I would do the dance.

They tell you to fight sleep up to the point where sleep becomes a distraction. Then you lie down and get 10 minutes, 3 hrs., 6 hrs., - basically whatever your body needs to focus again, and then you get right back into it. So I did that. Also, after ten years of bartending and days of standing for 13 hours straight, I could do some pretty good standing. I stood better than I sat at that point, so basically, I stood in one spot for four days.

The legend goes - the more you suffer, the more the ancestors will take pity on you and give you a vision. The third evening a massive thunderstorm blew up on me. I saw it rolling in fast from a distance and scrambled to rig an A-frame of black plastic tarp over a line strung between two trees. Just as I dove into it, huge rain drops starting hitting. It was a deluge, almost a flash-flood. It was uncomfortably stuffy in the tarp because it wasn't breathable, and a large, cold puddle slowly gathered at the foot of my sleeping bag and soaked all the way through my boots. I somehow managed to sleep, but woke up in the morning with the inside of the tarp crawling with huge daddylonglegs. I've had a bad case of arachnophobia since I was five. I know daddylonglegs' fangs are too short to break through human skin, but I also know that if they COULD, they are the most venomous creatures in the spider family - way worse than black widows. I suffered.

Every dawn you go out to the trail and put a marker in your "marker box" so the protector people who are running the quest will know you're alright. (I found out later, a few people freaked and had to come out early - we never found out who they were) You check for ticks twice a day. I got covered with deer ticks, those are the bad ones that carry Lyme's disease, and got bit a lot, but I saw a doctor right after the quest who told me they have to be newly born ticks, only some of them carry it, they have to be imbedded for over 24 hrs., etc... So no problem.

You get close to the earth. You feel a part of it. You realize how artificial modern society is. It gives me alot of strength to know this Manhattan nonsense is just a little crazy anthill, and right outside the city, there's Mother Earth.

They said you do your first quest out of curiosity, and you have to be dragged kicking and screaming to your later ones. The Native-Americans did a quest every season. Directly after the quest I swore up and down I'd never do another one, - too much pain!!! - but I know now that this is a sure-fire way to getting un-stuck in your life, and I know I'll get stuck again at various points in my life. I know I'll quest again when the situation calls for it. It becomes a way of life. Tom Brown, Jr. calls it the "sledge-hammer" approach to purifying Inner Vision."

I could go on & on, but the most amazing part was coming back into camp on the fifth day and watching everyone slowly coming back in. There were some people, (mostly the younger, hard-core survival dudes) who were covered from head to toe with mud & dirt, all you could see was the whites of the their eyes - just REBORN out of the earth. It's a powerful change. And then the men and women all split up and went swimming which was a great bonding experience & you all feel like you've been through a war together.

So I recommend this. If you feel stuck, and want to make sure you're on the right path in your life, start getting your questions together (I had 24 questions) and think them out in detail and extreme specificity and go quest and you WILL get answers. You will know your life's path. Every culture, without failure, the world over; from Siberia to Australia, from Scotland to Africa, from South America to Japan, from the Vietnamese to the Kalahari Bushmen to the Inuits - had some form of retreat experience that involved 4 days, fasting, isolation, & direct one-on-one contact with the Creator.

When I told my acting coach in acting class about it, he first made a show of rejecting the whole thing Woody Allen-style, like, "SHEEESH! BUGS??! NO FOOD?? AND YOU HAVE TO PAY TO DO THIS???!!" etc., but we spent the first half-hour of class with people grilling me with questions. I could feel the primal pull of this thing, people just sense how powerful it is and are drawn to it. And apparently, the usual anger that had manifested in my acting work for years...had disappeared...

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