Zen and the Art of Exercise (part 3)

Howdy readers! This is the third in a series of six articles titled Zen and the Art of Exercise. In each part I’ll be looking at a different koan – an anecdote or riddle used in Zen Buddhism to provoke thoughtfulness and enlightenment by circumventing typical logical thought – and then talking about how I feel it applies to exercise, fitness, health, training, etc. If you have no interest in philosophy at all, then this isn’t the series for you. But if you like thinking in the abstract and challenging your mind to understand new ideas, then this might be a fun read for you.

Zen and the Art of Exercise

Part 3: My Heart Burns Like Fire

The Koan


Soyen Shaku, the first Zen teacher to come to America, said: “My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes.” He made the following rules which he practiced every day of his life.

In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate.

Retire at a regular hour. Partake of food at regular intervals. Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.

Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.

Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.

When an opportunity comes do not let it pass by, yet always think twice before acting.

Do not regret the past. Look to the future.

Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.

Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

The Lesson

I want to start by talking about how Shaku describes himself. He says that his heart burns like fire, but his eyes are as cold as dead ashes. We could easily look at this phrase and think, “holy crap this guy is a Dexter-level sociopath!” But this is only because we are so accustomed to having this type of description – namely, “cold eyes” – levied at killers or criminals. We’ve come to associate the idea with evil. Shaku is saying something very different.

When he describes his heart burning like fire, he means the passion and love that coming to slowly understand himself and the world brings him. He is alight with positive emotions that fill him nearly to bursting.

But his eyes are cold like ashes because he is in control of his passions, emotions, and thoughts. Often we think of very emotional people as being easy to read, because they write their feelings on their faces. The turn of the mouth, wrinkling of the nose, and glare in the eyes can signal someone losing control of their inner self. Shaku, in contrast, has eyes that remain calm and cool with self-control.

His rules, then, advocate living a life where you can live in perpetual passion and liveliness without allowing it to spill out inappropriately. From a fitness and health perspective, these rules are great to put into place because they help you maintain good overall habits. Having a contained passion that you can focus appropriately is essential to getting the most out of your gym experience. Those athletes who let their passions run wild, will find that injury and poor performance (relative to their potential) becomes common. They will find themselves sprinting workouts too often, following poor form in the pursuit of speed/power, and failing to listen to the signals their body is giving them.

Let’s break down Shaku’s rules.

Shaku begins his day with meditation. As a practice intended to beget contemplation and serenity, starting your day in this state is going to help you approach challenges you may face from a more inherently calm standpoint. Things that may have lit up your eyes with fire, will instead pass through you and into understanding. Less anger is good, mm’kay? There’s nothing wrong with going into a workout hungry to perform your best, but don’t mistake a hunger for virtuosity with anger. Getting angry will cause your mind to lose focus on the task and wander to dark places.

When Shaku tells us to sleep and eat at regular intervals and to moderation, he’s really just saying what any fitness professional should be telling you: rest and nutrition are really, really important! You should be paying attention to whether or not you’re getting the right amounts of each, and if you’re not, it throws everything off. And this is coming from a Zen Buddhist monk right around 1900 CE, so we’ve known about this for at least 110 years. Following a nutrition plan that supports your lifestyle is essential to getting the most out of your training, and sleep is the key to recovering after workouts.

Shaku then goes on to say that your attitude should be the same whether you are alone or entertaining a guest. This is a great piece of advice, because it leads you to merging the best of both attitudes. Alone, we tend to be more true to ourselves than when we are with others. Shaku is saying that you shouldn’t hide behind false fronts when in company. At the same time, when we are with others we also tend to be more kind, more understanding, and better behaved. If we take that same behavior into our alone time, we practice being kind even when there are no consequences for not doing so. Not only does this make it easier to be kind to others, but also to be kind to yourself! This translates easily to respecting good gym etiquette, treating shared space just like you would your own home (if not better, honestly).

Going right along with our attitude, Shaku gives his basic rules for keeping your word and living up to what you tell others. Essentially he’s just striving to practice what he preaches. When you tell someone else to eat well, then you should be eating well. If you tell someone to mind their temper, than it won’t do to lose yours easily. Said another way, don’t give any advice that you should be following, unless you are following it! If you constantly give fitness or nutrition advice to others, but fail to follow even a basically healthy lifestyle, it will show. Those who would have listened will lose respect for you and stop listening to your advice even if you happen to be right! In contrast, living the lessons you give to others makes you even more of an authority in that space, so if your passion truly is to get others healthy, then the best way is to live a healthy lifestyle yourself.

Where the last few points deal with how you should behave towards yourself and others, Shaku uses the next three points to describe how you should react to life itself.

First, he tells us to never let an opportunity pass, but that every opportunity requires critical thought. This begs the question, is Shaku saying that we should think about and then accept every opportunity that comes our way? Not at all! What he’s saying is that we should be reflecting on everything that’s offered to us so that we can make the best decision, at that moment, based on honest reflection. No opportunity is inherently good or bad, but how it will affect our lives can be positive, negative, or neutral. This might be something simple like the chance to compete (even if you may not be ready for it) or someone offering you “quick-fix” health pills (like steroids or useless placebos). Weigh the risk and reward, thinking critically about the outcomes of the decision you’re about to make.

His views on the past and future are similarly simple. We cannot change the past, so regretting it does no good because regret cannot change anything. If we instead choose to look to the future, we can use the lessons and consequences of our past to inform better decisions going forward. This is never more true than with the “mistakes” we make in our health and fitness. Some people will focus so much on the things they do wrong – like missing a workout day – that they let those little things stop them from making the good decisions going forward. “Oh I ate bad for breakfast, my diet is ruined, thus I will eat very badly all day” or “I missed one workout this week, so I’ll take the rest of the week off and start again next week”. These aren’t hypotheticals; these are things I’ve heard people say before! One missed workout or one poor meal does not translate to abject failure that should be followed up with more bad decisions! Make a good health decision at your next opportunity and then keep making the good decisions every chance you possibly can. Instead of creating a string of failures interspersed with some success, create a string of successes with the occasional stumble.

Lastly in this section Shaku tells us that he tries to be both a hero and a child in equal measures. The fearless attitude of a hero is bold and takes risks to make a better life. Simultaneously, the loving heart of a child is concerned with the well-being of others and possessed of very pure compassion. How do these two mix? We can take risks, perform bold action, and strive for great things in life, so long as our risks, actions, and goals don’t harm others. It’s a very similar notion to the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what ye will” or the Golden Rule we learn in school. In the gym, this means you need to be courageous and challenge your limitations in a safe, effective way. This is how you make progress. But, you also need to be concerned with your well-being, tempering your need to make great strides with the need to protect yourself from over reaching. There is a certain art to balancing the two.

I find it interesting that Shaku circles back to one final point that seems to be geared towards the personal: Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

Read one way, he’s simply saying sleep deeply and wake up quickly. I think this is too close to the surface to be it, though. By telling us to sleep as if we had entered our last sleep, Shaku is really saying that at the end of the day there is no guarantee that we will wake up. Go to your bed with no regrets, no worries, and nothing to stop you from sleeping peacefully, even if that sleep is forever. In contrast, he tells us that if you do wake up the next day, don’t waste time in bed! Get up, get out, live life, love life, and experience the things that only life can give you. Only by treating every day as unique, special, and possibly incredibly finite can we reach a true understanding of what we’re supposed to be doing. Don’t wait until tomorrow to start making good decisions for yourself, because you never know if tomorrow will come. If this is your last day, do you want to live it making bad choices and hurting yourself or making good choices and building yourself into something better? I know which one I’ll pick.

This lesson ends with homework!

First, I want you to do an audit on your daily habits. What can be better? What are you doing right? What are three things you could do to better take care of yourself, physically or emotionally?

The second part of your homework is to write out your perfect day. From waking to sleeping, describe the 16 hour period in which you live your perfect day. When do you wake up? What do you do as soon as you get out of bed? Who do you spend your day with? Do you work? If so, what do you work on? What hobbies do you explore? What meals do you eat? Don’t go into a world of pure fantasy where you fight dark wizards or something; that’s not what this is. The goal is to figure out what your realistic perfect day would be, if it could be anything in the world.

Then, figure out why you’re not experiencing that day and what you can do to get one step closer.


That’s it for this entry in “Zen and the Art of Exercise”. I hope I gave you some food for thought, and have a great day!