Generally speaking, I don't listen to music when I'm at the gym. I only listen to music in my headphones if the background music in the gym is awful and/or distracting and I can't do anything to change it. This isn't to say that I don't like music, because that's definitely not the case. I am myself a musician and songwriter, proficient with multiple instruments, and I relish the opportunity to lose myself in the magic of sound. But when I lift weights I don't listen to music at all if I can help it.
The reason for this may be counterintuitive to some, but it makes perfect sense to me. I only ever listen to music I like, and music I like makes me feel good. But I don't want to feel good when I'm lifting weights or grappling or hitting the bag. I don't want to feel happy or optimistic or anything that might be perceived as positive. When I'm with the iron, I want to feel anger. Anger is a powerful energy that can be incredibly useful when purposefully channeled. When I'm working out, I want to feel every disappointment, every annoyance, every depressing thought that my "Thrall Mind" has ever used to weigh me down and hold me back. The author Paul Waggener has described the Thrall Mind as the driver of the force of internal resistance, which retards your progress and darkens your spirit. He is your dark twin who wishes nothing for you but stagnation and a dull grey mediocrity. This feeling can be emotionally conflicting and, if you're like me, this emotional conflict leads to anger which can be channeled into purposeful energy.
When I am angry or depressed I like to hit things and I like to feel pain. Aside from its use as a physical warning signal, pain is also the physical manifestation of psychological dissonance, which is partly why so many teenagers turn to self-harm. Every weightlifter and athlete is in this sense a self-harmer. Weightlifting and martial arts are the most productive forms of self-harm that exist. Those of us who work out know that we must first break down our bodies before we can grow stronger. We must hurt ourselves daily, repetitively, incrementally, in order to grow; just as a piece of iron is hammered by the blacksmith. For a long time, I trained thinking that I could make gains by lifting sensibly and with medium intensity, but that was just the stupid thinking of a lazy idiot kid who lacked proper guidance. These days when I train, I do so with quiet purposeful aggression. When you watch me lift, you won't see someone who's obviously in a state of berserker rage or riastrád, but you will see someone who knows what he has come to do and who does it with determination and grit.
When I look around the gym, I see dozens of people talking shit with their buddies, texting their girlfriends, Instagramming pictures of their chest pump, and generally indulging in distractions and flights of fancy. I see guys taking five minutes seated rest between sets of squats. I see people mixing shakes at the bench. Girls on the stair-machine talk shit and cackle like witches without even breaking a sweat. Guys who are supposedly spotting their buddies stare into their smartphones doing who knows what. The very sight of these distracted people serves as a distraction for me. I do not want to lose focus when I am in that environment, so the sight of so much indecision and procrastination is an affront to me. When I have the option, I train alone, or with one or two of my buddies who take their training seriously.
When I see people fall victim to these mindless distractions I am reminded that that is not my approach to the iron. When I'm with the iron, I treat it as a solemn and serious occasion. I am there to achieve something, to get some work done, to purify my body and my mind from the toxic influences of soft living and civilized habits. I go to the gym to punish myself for the weakness that I have fallen prey to as a result of my living in a civilized environment. I lift weights to prove to myself that I am more than just a flaccid sack of flesh and bile who has never had to survive by the merits of his physicality. I think of the countless lives of men and women who had to push their bodies to the very ends of their endurance just to mate and raise offspring who would eventually lead to my birth, and I am ashamed at the relative luxury and indolence that the modern world has afforded me.
I need not walk or pull a cart laden with cumbersome goods to the village market to barter goods for food; I just ride my motorcycle to the store and buy it with cash that fits in my pocket. I need not spend my days digging a tiny patch of barren Irish soil in the hope of growing some vegetables to boil in a thin soup; I work a day job, some days sitting at a desk, and only occasionally working weekends. I have never been driven from my home into a snowy winter night with no shoes or cloak because I lacked the means to pay my rent. Nor have I been driven across the Atlantic Ocean in a Coffin Ship to a foreign land where men spoke a foreign tongue that I did not know, struggling each day to scrabble together a few pennies for a piece of bread and a whiskey. I have never hunted the Aurochs for his pelt and his meat. The lives that my ancestors endured prove the strength that lies inside the human body, which is only rarely called upon in this age of mediocrity. How many of my forefathers would scorn me for indulging in the idle comforts of modern life? How could I meet the gaze of men who have endured such strain for my sake?
When I'm with the iron, I treat it as a religious rite. Many will scoff derisively at the pompousness of that statement, but fuck them. Where other men and women my age worship nothing but the shiny trinkets of consumerism and "progress", I worship that within myself which has the potential to do great things when called upon. Actually, forget greatness, I work the iron so that I can count on my body being capable to perform even mundane physical tasks that lesser men shun, like carrying my tools to my worksite instead of using a trolley, or lifting something heavy by myself instead of asking for help like a child. Greatness is not measured only by those rare instances where we are called upon to go beyond the parameters that we are expected to meet. Greatness can also be measured by the accumulation of many small tasks performed with tenacity and consistency.
As I said, physical training is a religious rite for me. When I work the iron I am carrying out ritualized sacrifice to the God Within. The Iron God. Barbells and sandbags and stones and other men are merely the implements of ritual which I use to actualize that which is greater than I am. Ten years ago I was a skinny kid, but today I am more than that. I am not yet a behemoth or a giant by any means, and I am not the most imposing man to look upon. I have fallen prey to many injuries and setbacks and poor programming choices and stupid decisions, which have all impeded my progress. I am just a man who strives to be strong and capable. But in the past decade I have achieved measurable and meaningful success in improving myself both mentally and physically. This could not have been done without performing the rituals of my worship.
If you work the iron, do so with consistent focus and tenacity. Do not fall prey to distraction and doubt. Before you ever set foot in a gym, with your program in hand and your shiny new headphones, ask yourself if you've come to play or if you've come to slay. Listen to music if you must but if, like me, your training is better served by sullen silence, then be silent. Get your mind right before you even touch your first barbell. Decide what your goals are, write them down somewhere you will see them, and figure out how you are going to get there. If you're even in the gym, you're already way ahead of the vast majority of the indolent herd. But if you are in the gym, or on the field, do yourself the service of taking your training seriously and not wasting any more time than you must.
The road that leads to physical transcendence is long and difficult, and it is littered with the headless corpses of lesser men who failed. Go forth along the path with dogged determination and unyielding focus. Do what you must do, then go home and live your life. Squeeze the most out of every second before you die, because nobody will ever tell stories about the guy who worked, lived, and trained, without heart.
February, 2018. Dublin.