What’s at the center of your being right now? Right this second.
That’s a question my coach asked me once during a conversation, and I froze in my tracks to puzzle it over. I considered possible weighty, metaphysical responses—deep, profound, disingenuous and ultimately without meaning. I also considered broad, simple answers: mind, consciousness, awareness. Accurate, but vague enough that there would be no actual substance to the response.
After I had spent a few moments wondering what the “right” answer was, my coach said, “Well, I would hope that right now ‘listening’ is at the center of your being.” He went on to explain that he didn’t mean anything mystical or mysterious by the question: it was a literal cue to stop and consider what was my current prevalent focus, mood or internal atmosphere. He said we’re often tempted to think “the center of our being” is something set in stone—some completely inflexible core around which everything we are is built layer by layer. But actually, he said, it doesn’t work like that. The center of our being is constantly shifting—being swapped out and renewed day by day, moment by moment. Right now you’re focused on reading, and that is the center of your being. The act and process of reading is central in your mind; your body and attention are aligned towards the text. As long as you’re so aligned, reading is the center of everything you are. Your heart is beating in service of reading. In five minutes, maybe “hungry” will be the center of everything you are, and then you’ll shift “making a sandwich” to the center, because, body and brain, you will turn yourself towards that task.
Staying updated on this, knowing “what’s at the center” at any given moment, is not only a vital part of coaching, it is a vital part of powerful, effective, self-aware action. A coach needs to be aware what’s at the center of others, athletes needs to be aware of what’s at the center of themselves. And it’s not a one-time revelation: it’s an ongoing study.
Think of the first time you ever walked into the gym. What impelled you? Why, deep down, did you decide to step through the door? That’s not in any way a rhetorical question. It demands a specific, direct answer. Being transparent to yourself and commanding deep knowledge of what motivates you would put you in a position to benefit fully from every available resource—both your own internal resources, and the external opportunities that come along to move further towards your goals.
But it isn’t just a one-time revaluation exactly because of the shifting, transforming nature of our motivations and aspirations. Whatever was at the center of your being the first time you walked into a gym, it may not be—in fact, almost certainly isn’t—the center anymore. Your perspective has changed, your knowledge has deepened, your resources have expanded, and you’re aligned towards something new now. Staying up to date on what’s at the center now vs. what was at the center then is the difference between subscribing to a narrative about yourself and having knowledge of yourself.
If you take out all the specifics, every hero’s journey comes down to the same fundamental arc. The hero moves out of familiar surroundings, into the realm of adventure. After trials and striving, the hero arrives at some kind of symbolic revelation; he or she returns to the normal world, but now everything looks different.
Whether you’re a bodybuilder, a weightlifter or just someone who generally aspires to “fitness,” your training can follow a hero arc. Every workout can be a heroic journey. You move out of the common, everyday concerns of life, into a realm where all different values, all different motivations are brought into the center of your being. Strength, power, poise; health, self-care, high aesthetics; self-revolution. Undertaking to lift a heavy thing represents a will to undertake exceptional tasks, a burning fervor to challenge and stimulate your mind and body in a way that perhaps no other sphere of your life enables. Passing out of ordinary life into this realm, you arrive at revelations about your own strength, beauty or steadfastness, and you return to the ordinary world changed.
But to really reap the deepest benefits of this arc, you can’t go through the motions like an automaton. It requires ongoing self-knowledge. It requires you to be transparent to yourself. Just like you become leaner and stronger little by little, you need to become more self-aware, little by little.
“You look good. Do you work out?”
No, that’s not what I do. I don’t like the vernacular “I work out.”
It sounds like a meandering, generic, unreflected concept—because it is one. People who think in terms of “workouts” don’t actually train. Training is a systematic, goal-oriented, efficient, no-nonsense, graduated plan. A background in the martial arts preps you for thinking in these terms. You don’t walk into a martial arts studio for a “workout.” Sure, you’ll get one, but the physical exercise is sort of incidental. You’re specifically training to develop a range of skills, to advance your rank, and to increase your knowledge-base in topics relevant to your field.
Serious weight-lifting or gym-going is the same. You’re not in it for a once-off workout—every training session builds on the last, and they carry you towards a definite objective with steadily increasing momentum. Whether your goals are aesthetic and qualitative (i.e., you’re after a tapered torso and bigger biceps) or quantitative (i.e., you want to deadlift 405 pounds,) the objectives cannot be reached in the short term. It is a long-term objective, something that takes systematic training and perseverance to attain. If you thought only in terms of once-off, individual workouts, your goals would evaporate.
Now, the Zen saying that “If you keep your eyes on the goal, you won’t be able to see the path” is true. If you are so consumed with your goals that your relationship with individual workouts becomes stoney-faced, militant and unenjoyable, you won’t actually reach those goals that you cherish. You have to value the experience to build on the experience. Every workout is a unit of currency for, in essence, buying you the effect you want. Each one is a penny. A hundred make a dollar. You want 20 inch biceps? Okay, that’ll be $100 dollars. Better start hoarding those pennies. Careful not to get too self-satisfied with small change, because you need real money here. But also, don’t get too casual about undervaluing pennies, because if you don’t value them as well as they deserve, they’ll never collect in large enough quantities to amount to much.
And as you “mature” in your training, you’ll have an evolving relationship with the currency. When you were five, having $20 felt like being rich. You could practically buy everything you could imagine wanting. By the time you were sixteen, you were dropping $25 dollars a day, easily. By the time you reached adulthood, you would hardly feel rich with anything short of $1,000,000. So as your training goes on, your accrued “wealth” of effort and experience is still divisible down to the level of individual pennies, but the sheer volume of pennies you need to approach the goals you have at your level is staggering. Your goals are not only evolving, but your ability to formulate goals is evolving. As you go, you are unlocking an understanding of things you want that you didn’t even know you wanted in the beginning.
It’s a balancing act. Cherish the pennies—but remember you are dealing in dollars.
And then you’re not just meandering from workout to workout. You’re training.
Four Things About Fitness I Wish I’d Known Sooner
1.“Fitness” describes a capacity, not a state of being.
Saying someone is “fit” describes a capacity they have; being fit is not a thing in and of itself. “Fit” is an adjective, not a noun.
Think of it this way. A noun describes a thing, a thing that exists and has characteristics of its own. A pistachio. A walrus. Those are things. They are the same thing no matter where you encounter them: a walrus out of its natural habitat is still a walrus. No matter how incongruous the context in which it appears (“Why the fuck is there a walrus in my bathtub?”) it is still the same thing. Fitness, however, is not a thing. It does not exist, and it has no characteristics.
Fit is an adjective. It describes something, and what it means always varies depending on where it’s used. A fit marathoner and a fit weightlifter are not the same thing. Speaking of their “fitness” describes their ability to do their own sport, but in each case it describes something wildly different. And not only are those capacities different, they don’t necessarily overlap at all.
The capacity to lift a lot of weight is not suitable or appropriate to help one complete marathons—hence, in that context, it is not fitness. The capacity to run a long way without stopping is not suitable or appropriate to help one set a new bench-press PR—hence, in that context, it is not fitness. The two athletes probably look different and certainly perform differently, but they are both fit.
This may seem like hair-splitting semantics, but it actually isn’t. Understanding that “fitness” does not exist and has literally zero innate characteristics topples the entire popular conception of what being “fit” means. The media make Fit a noun. It’s touted as a thing that exists—a specific thing that can be aspired to and achieved. Unless they’ve somehow never been exposed to modern media, the vast majority of people have at least some stereotyped ideas about the “innate characteristics” of fitness. —Six-pack abs. Thick arms in men, thin arms in women. A certain percent body-fat. Certain activities and certain foods are paired in people’s minds with a “fit” lifestyle. Maybe even certain clothes.
But this is entirely based in sloppy thinking, fantasy, media and marketing. Fitness is without characteristics. Fitness is no more about the size of your waistband than the size of your shoes.
There are as many ways to be fit as there are different things in the world that people do. And there are as many body-types associated with fitness as there are, well, body-types.
2. You’ll Probably Need To Expand Your Thinking.
Whatever you’re doing right now in your training, odds are good that your program is going to change. No matter how great the sense of all-in-one completeness you derive from the routine you’ve found or created, in ten years you will have learned so much more, your thinking will have changed on so many topics, and your body will have changed enough, to cause you to change your approach. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a criticism of whatever you’re doing. Think about it: what you do now is the optimal approach to fitness-training according to your current understanding. In a year or two, you will know exponentially more, and what you think is optimal now may no longer look optimal. Your approach may be refined, tweaked, tightened up in some places, loosened in others. Or whatever. But it will change. Your thinking will expand—new knowledge will come in and shake up the settled order of your training.
That’s important to keep in mind because of our tendency to grab onto our programs or approaches and think we’ve found the One True Way.
“Man, you’ve gotta try this yoga class I’ve started doing. It’s an unchanging sequence of poses every time—same timing, same temperature in the room. Everything the same. It’s designed perfectly. Perfection: nothing to add or subtract. It’s the magic bullet—all you need wrapped up in one class. Everyone should be doing exactly this, and if you talk to me about anything else I’ll excommunicate you immediately.” That’s a pretty extreme example, but it’s too easy to tend towards that mindset in anything we do, fitness-wise.
“THIS IS IT! I’VE FOUND THE GRAIL.” Just take the guess-work out of it, and accept from the beginning that you’ll never find the grail, because there isn’t one. What you may think is the answer to all your fitness questions right now almost certainly will not be the answer anymore a decade from now. That’s not a bad thing—that’s as it should be. Help yourself along the road of continually expanding your thinking and practice by treating everything you do in your training like a tool. Firm grip on the handle, but don’t clutch it. If you clutch the handle of a tool too tightly, you wind up wielding it awkwardly.
3. You’ll Also Probably Need To Expand Your Timeframe
We want jumpstarts and reboots and six-week transformations. We want to “kick our metabolisms into gear” and “shed pounds” and do all kinds of things that sound like rapid changes and drastic overhauls. But rapid changes generally don’t last. Think of an illustration from nature: a plant that grows quickly withers just as fast. It explodes out of its seed, spreads around, bears a yield of fruit, then dies. On the other hand, a tree grows slowly. A bit at a time. And 100 years later? It’s gargantuan. And it’s still growing a bit at a time.
We make healthy, lasting changes to our bodies more like the tree than like the plant. Expand the timeframe in which you demand results. What you’re measuring in days, start measuring in weeks. What you think of in terms of weeks, you should probably be thinking of in terms of months. And so on.
4. You Really, Really Need To Be Having Fun
I’m not saying you need to work out exclusively on playgrounds. I’m not saying you need to pause after every set of deadlifts to have sex with your workout partner against the gym wall (though I’m not not saying that.) All I’m saying is, if the attitude you bring to your training is rigid, militant and devoid of joy, you probably aren’t going to get where you want to go. It’s a long road. If you’re not deriving any joy at all from what you’re doing, it’s unlikely you’ll stay with it over the long haul.
Think of joy in your training as being equally important to getting protein in your diet. Put the same level of attention into it. Give it the same level of precedence in how you gauge your progress. It will make a difference.
If you absolutely positively can’t find any joy in what you’re doing, it means you’re doing the wrong thing, and that’s that. If you analyzed your diet and realized you were getting way too little protein, you would obviously know that you needed to change your diet. If you analyze your fitness training and realize that you’re getting no enjoyment out of it, you need to change your training. You need to find ways to move, strive and challenge yourself that compel you and that you find joy in.
It’s a long road. Actually, scratch that: it’s an infinite road. There is no final destination. You may have concrete goals, but when you reach those goals they always turn out to just be milestones. You pass them, and move on. The goals you set at one moment in time, when you finally reach them, no longer seem like enough. You’ve expanded: the old goals are small compared to you now. So you move on.
And so it goes, on and on. There is no finish-line to cross. If you put your head down and barrel onward, as if you’re just going to tough it out until you get there, you’re in for a harsh surprise. It’s an infinite road. If being on the road itself isn’t joyful, you’re bound for disillusionment.
I was talking with a client this morning after her weightlifting session; we discussed the concept of moderation in her fitness routine. Before we started working together some months ago, she had a highly driven, hi-octane approach to her physical conditioning. Less than half an hour on the treadmill, for instance, and the session didn’t even count, as far as she was concerned—she told me how she had to abandon her habit of running before work, because by the end of her intense cardio sessions she would be sweaty and tired. She’d need a full half hour to cool off, shower, and pull herself together. It took too damn long.
She gave up on the idea of getting in some physical activity before her largely inactive workday, because there just wasn’t time for that rigamarole. As a result, her exercise sessions clustered together at the end of the week—she was inactive all week because there was no time to work out, then made up for it with a bombardment of rapid-fire, soul-crushing workouts all through the weekend. That story isn’t unique. Plenty of people do exactly the same thing.
I think moderation gets a bad rap. We look on moderation like a markedly uninspired, pantywaist reluctance to push ourselves, or a general policy of backing away from hard work. We have given “moderation” a negative connotation just like we’ve given “decadence” a positive connotation. How many times do we need to call a dessert “decadent” before decadent is functionally a synonym for “delicious?” How many times do we have to call something wimpy “moderate” before moderate is functionally a synonym for wimpy?
But Moderation, be it with a capital “M” or otherwise, is “the avoidance of excess or extremes.” Excess and extremes are, by definition, too much of something. So making moderation your goal is, literally, making it your goal to do the right amount. Being moderate is bringing critical thought and discernment to bear on your fitness and health. It means designing a plan that works for you and, on the nitty-gritty practical level, is rational and ultimately effective. Moderation means doing things in a sustainable way that works well in the long term, rather than an extreme way that is short-lived and doesn’t work as well. Moderation is a function of clear judgment and critical thinking.
Which is why, when my client told me about how she didn’t run before work anymore because it took to long to cool down and recover, I gave her a piece of moderate advice.
I didn’t say, “Suck it up! This is your health we’re talking about. Work for it. Do the session.”
“Don’t work so hard,” I said. “Instead of half an hour running, do fifteen minutes.” And she did. And it was easily manageable. Fifteen minutes of running before work was no problem—and she didn’t get as sweaty and worn out, so she didn’t need all that recovery-time before moving on with her day. It became her new habit to run for fifteen minutes before leaving for work, not getting up much of a sweat, not wearing herself out.
In other words, she had been thinking in extreme terms and ultimately had to give up on her before-work sessions because they weren’t manageable. As a result, she was largely inactive all week. Then she started thinking in moderate terms. Her before-work sessions became manageable—and thus she got in up to 75 additional minutes of exercise per week, between all those short sessions.
So, that’s a pretty significant change in her level of activity during the workweek. Extreme attitude towards exercise, 0 minutes of exercise. Moderate attitude towards exercise, 75 minutes of exercise. (Who’s pantywaist now, Extremism?)
And this morning, she said something to me about the change in her attitude that inspired me to write this post: “It used to be like I was at a banquet.”
You see, I had described a moderate approach to exercise like this: exercising is no different than eating. When you eat, you eat until you’re satisfied, then you stop. You plan on eating again later. That’s just how it is. This meal isn’t going to last you forever—soon enough, it will be time to eat again.
Workouts should be the same. No one single workout will ever make or break you. Each one is an increment. Each one is a small part of an ongoing series. The series, the plan, the overall habit and tendency, is where moderation asserts itself. Moderation thinks in terms of the right amount to be sustained across a long haul.
It creates an overarching framework to continue building upon as time goes by. Someone with an extreme attitude, on the other hand, tries to get done with everything, JUST ABSOLUTELY ALL OF IT RIGHT THE HELL NOW, HURRY, HURRY, THERE’S NO TIME. Extremism thinks too much in terms of each workout having discrete, individual importance. —“This is the big one. This is the one that counts. This is the one that it’s all about.”
But a single workout only has value in as much as it is part of a habit—as a stand-alone event, a single workout can’t do much for you. No matter how drawn-on the marathon session is, no matter how thoroughly you annihilate yourself, no matter how many calories are burned or how many pounds of water-weight are sweat out, a single session is not going to bring the results you seek. Those results come over time.
Moderation eats a little, planning to eat again later. Extremism gorges itself, sitting at the head of the table at a massive banquet—but all that food isn’t going to bring much nourishment if it just goes and goes until it is fucking vomiting all over the floor.
Or think of it like this: You want to grow an orchard. You plant apple-tree saplings, and water them. Later, the soil is getting dry, so you water them again. That’s moderation: you think critically about how much water the trees will benefit from at this stage of their development, and give it to them when they need it. You do that over and over again.
Now, suppose you decided to skip those little individual watering sessions, because who has time for that? Better to do it all at once—over the weekend, when you have time to do some serious watering. So you give the parched, withering trees a sudden influx of massive amounts of H2O—more than they can possibly take up through their roots all at once.
Congratulations! You’ve killed your apple-trees. Or if they survive and mature, they’re not going to produce anything close to optimal apple-yield.
Now I’m done spouting metaphors and similes. Go apply it to the real deal, instead. Consider your workout plan—is it moderate (i.e., well-thought out for maximum effectiveness and sustainability over time) or is it extreme (i.e., poorly thought out, causing it to become unbalanced in actual practice, spiral off course and prove itself ultimately unsustainable.)
First of all, let me just get this off my chest:
WEIGHT IS SUCH A FUCKING STUPID METRIC TO MEASURE A HUMAN BEING WITH, HOW DID THE IDEA CATCH ON IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Don’t think I’m starting off on a moral note or being anti-vanity. I’m making a neutral statement, there. I’m not saying “It’s wrong to aspire to certain physical aesthetics,” I’m just saying that thinking only about weight is a fundamentally misguided way of approaching those aesthetics. Even in completely vain terms—purely as a means working on one’s appearance—weight is a stupid absolute metric to be following. What I’m saying is, there are more effective ways of being vain—worrying exclusively and obsessively about weight is a clumsy method.
As a bodybuilder, I recognize that my relationship to my weight is literally inverted from the average person’s. Most people want to lose a few pounds and keep them off—whereas I want to gain twenty-eight pounds and keep them on. Most people would get depressed if they realized they’ve “outgrown” their clothes and need to shop for a new wardrobe. I, one the other hand, get wicked excited when I can no longer squeeze into a pair of jeans, and feel like we should go out to dinner and celebrate whenever it becomes impossible to fasten the top button on one of my dress shirts.
But the inversion of my value system around weight doesn’t change the fact that it is a stupid metric to attach absolute meaning to. Still looking at this purely in terms of vanity, there are too many other variables involved in physical aesthetics for weight to be really useful as the be-all-and-end-all measurement. Muscularity, symmetry, etc., etc. If my concern is creating a certain physical image, I need to be thinking about a whole slew of other things besides my weight—including qualitative rather than qualitative things, like posture and movement. Those all factor into appearance—most of them are vastly more significant than weight.
Weight is the sole measurement by which a farmer determines the value of a pumpkin. If you judge yourself primarily according to weight, you are cultivating yourself like a farmer cultivates a champion pumpkin. (That goes whether you’re trying to lose weight like most people, or trying to gain weight, like a bodybuilder. Whichever change on the scale you attach value to, the scale is fundamentally the same, and fundamentally lacking as a real measurement of what you’re trying to achieve.)
If we take the pursuit of an “ideal weight” out of the context of vanity and place it in the context of “health” or “fitness,” it becomes an even more wildly misguided and fundamentally absurd, abortive fiasco. Muscle weighs more than fat. Bone and cartilage weigh something, too—and since the process of getting “more fit” involves getting more muscle, denser bones and stronger joints, changes in weight associated with increased fitness are influenced by many more variables than just fat loss.
(I can’t stress this enough to anybody lifting weights or building strength in any way: even if you’re not trying to “get bulky,” you’re still building more muscle as you get more fit. Touching very briefly on the subject, literally every body movement is facilitated by little contractile proteins in the core of each muscle fiber—getting stronger is a measurable mechanical effect of new proteins being added inside the fiber. That translates to weight. A stronger muscles weighs more, even if it isn’t visibly “bulkier.”)
And as you get more fit, no matter what kind of training you’re doing, nine times out of ten you’re perforce going to start adhering to better habits of hydration. BAM, more water in your body, more weight to your body. Think about that. It obviously doesn’t mean chronic dehydration is a healthier option because you’ll weigh less. It means weight is, for yet another reason, fucking flawed as a measurement of health or fitness.
Imagine for a second that you’re a sedentary guy, on the hefty side. You work a desk job, and have decided that your New Year’s Resolution is to become more active. You start a new fitness routine.
When you tell somebody that you want to get in shape, you say, “I want to lose weight.” That’s shorthand for what you mean, which is “I want to alter my body composition and increase my level of general physical conditioning in order to enjoy improved health and quality of life, and potentially greater longevity, and, coincidentally, enhance my physical aesthetics.”
That’s a mouthful; of course you go for the weight-loss shorthand. But here’s the kicker: that’s absolutely not an accurate or acceptable summation of your objectives, because even though a corollary of your overall goal is to lose fat, fat loss is not what you’re measuring—the only thing you’re measuring is your weight. If you’re judging the success or failure of your new routine by changes in weight, and that means you’re judging it wrong.
Perhaps, after a few weeks, no significant reduction in weight causes you to become frustrated, lose motivation and give up on your resolution.
This isn’t a gray area. If you’re just going by weight, you’re doing it wrong.
If you instead judged your new fitness routine—which we’re just assuming is being done well and intelligently, so it carries the maximum possible benefit for your work—by the fact that your back and joints no longer hurt all the time, you can walk up a flight of stairs without having to pause at the top and catch your breath, you can actually enjoy playing outside with your kids; your mood is generally staying in a more positive emotional range day-to-day, you’re happier with how your body looks than you’ve been in years; your sex life is better than it’s been in years; you’re more energetic and more interested in life and engaged with the world than you’ve been in years—and I’ll stop there, because this list could still keep going on for a while—if you judged your success by all these things instead of weight, maybe weight would be fucking ousted from it’s central position in your view of “health.”
So, a while back, a research professor at Boston college named Peter Grey, Ph.D., and his collogue Gina Riley (adjunct professor of special education at Hunter College) ran a survey of “unschooled” adults, for analysis and publication in an educational journal and also for a four-part article featured on “Psychology Today.”
Since I was “unschooled,” a friend of mine directed me to the survey. I’m was one of the 75 responders.
Since it might conceivably be interesting to somebody who wants to know what unschooling is or what it’s like, here’s my response to the survey in full. (Don’t worry, I at least drop a few references to weightlifting and bodybuilding in here, so it’s not completely unrelated to this blog.)
Survey of Unschooled Adults (Age 18 and older)
Silas David Lamprey Jackson
1) Please tell us about your history of schooling/homeschooling/unschooling:
I am the youngest of four brothers, all of whom were unschooled.
(a) Did you ever attend a school, as a regular student, when you were between the ages of 5 and 16? If so, please list any schools you attended by type of school (e.g. public, Montessori, etc.), your age when you attended and when you left, your grade level(s) at that school (e.g. kindergarten through 5th grade), and your understanding of why you left that school.
I never attended a school of any type.
(b) During the years when you were not in school, between age 5 and 16, did you ever do homeschooling—that is, school at home, where you were following a curriculum determined by your parent(s) or another adult? If so, please describe that experience, how long it lasted, and your age at the time. If you switched from homeschooling to unschooling, what led you and/or your parent(s) to make that switch?
I never followed a curriculum set out by my parents. I did study with tutors occasionally, but only in subjects that interested me specifically that couldn’t be approached as effectively without a teacher—my parents sought out and made available the resources I would need in those cases. My two oldest brothers did follow a curriculum with my parents briefly (long before I was born,) and my parents gradually drifted away from homeschooling into pure unschooling as they observed how effectively the kids were learning organically, with self-direction driven by their own individual interests. They were inspired to step back and allow them to, essentially, do their own thing—trusting that they would learn what they needed to learn, when they needed to learn it.
2) Please describe briefly how your family defined unschooling. What, if any responsibility, did your parent(s) assume for your education?
I hesitate to say my parents “assumed no responsibility,” because it might imply a semi-neglectful attitude. They assumed the responsibility of standing back, prepared to teach if we approached with questions, but otherwise patient enough not to involve themselves overmuch in our learning while it was progressing on its own.
3) In your opinion, why were you “unschooled” instead of going to school or doing school at home? Is this something that both you and your parent(s) wanted to do?
Both my parents chose unschooling. The brief answer is, they didn’t believe in the formal educational system. They were admirers of John Holt and his educational philosophy, and chose to make this experiment despite its unusualness at the time my older brothers were born. By the time I came along in the late eighties there were plenty of other home/unschoolers in the area, but earlier there were very few. My parents were pioneers in that regard, unschooling my brothers in the old days when it required special permission from the State (which they acquired easily by presenting their views on the matter to the principal of the local school and outlining the subjects my brothers were working with,) and was still met with a certain apprehension by others in the community. That changed slowly as the general social attitude towards homeschooling changed. It was always understood that any of us could have opted to attend school at any time if we decided we wanted to.
4) Are you currently employed? If so, what do you do? Does your current employment match any interests/activities you had as an unschooled child/teen? If so, please explain.
Thankfully, both of my current jobs relate directly to my interests earlier in life. I am a writer and a martial arts instructor. Writing is a craft I’ve always been involved with and have always had ample room to explore in a slow, thorough, unstructured way. I don’t hesitate to say that it is unschooling which allowed my to develop my writing however far I have—reading classic literature with my father from a young age (of course by “reading” I mean “having it read to me”) and bumbling through my family’s extensive library year after year were two totally informal and totally essential components of my education. Later on, when I began to study and practice more structured aspects of writing—finer details like poetic meters and forms, literary composition, the arcana of English grammar, the processes of editing and publication—it was all placed on a foundation of natural love for words that had developed entirely in its own time and way. I wouldn’t trade the opportunity I had to read and think aimlessly for any other type of education in writing. Anything I’m now required to learn in a more formal way as a professional writer, I can seek out on my own. What I couldn’t ever give myself, is more time. That had to be given to me originally—and the time I had, to spend exactly as my own interests directed me to spend it, is something that will continue to benefit me for my entire life.
Martial arts are another subject I was able to immerse myself in exhaustively, thanks to the freedom I was allowed in how I used my days. I began instructing at my Taekwon-do school a few years after beginning to train there, and when my grand-master died and the studio closed recently, I began to run my own classes and take on my own students, blending martial arts organically with the other arenas of physical training I’ve been studying over the years. My academy (“Planet Beast”—the absurd name hopefully conveys what a good time we have, and how much time we spend laughing) in a lot of ways mirrors the paradigm of unschooling. Students come for Taekwon-do, but before the class is over they’ve experienced weightlifting and strength training, military-type exercise, flexibility training drawn from yoga, all blended in a natural way as it applies to and interacts with the original subject they wanted to learn, giving a broader perspective and a sounder understanding of the underlying principles involved. In my mind, that is the philosophy of unschooling. First chew, digest and understand the principles behind things, then worry about finer details.
5) Please describe briefly any formal higher education you have experienced, such as community college/college/and graduate school. How did you get into college without having a high school diploma? How did you adjust from being unschooled to being enrolled in a more formal type of educational experience? Please list any degrees you have obtained or degrees you are currently working toward.
I haven’t undergone any formal higher education.
6) What was your social life like growing up? How did you meet other kids your age? How was your “social” experience as an unschooler similar/different to the types of social experiences you have now?
Growing up, I mainly met kids my own age either through friends of my parents, or through my mother’s students (she is a music teacher.) As a kid I had a small group of friends, but close-knit and, years later, the friendships have endured and remain of absolute, paramount importance to me, not even second to blood family. Over the years, my social circle expanded exponentially through involvement with various activities that brought me into regular contact with comparatively massive numbers of people. So the sheer number of friends and acquaintances is one key difference in my modern social experience versus earlier in my life. A seven-year-old me, for instance, likely wouldn’t have been able to handle them all.
Another key difference is that many of my friends now have a context that we mainly connect through—yoga friends, bodybuilding friends, martial arts friends, author friends, etc. We have our specific thing that we generally do together, and when we’re not doing it, we’re talking about it. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy genuine, satisfying relationships with them—it’s just that we relate in a different way than my older friends because there’s a specific framework that our friendship developed within, rather than being a slow, aimless, markedly unschooled-like experience spanning from childhood on.
7) What, for you, were the main advantages of unschooling? Please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now, looking back at your experiences. In your view, how did unschooling help you in your transition toward adulthood?
If maturity can be measured by self-knowledge, then unschooling allowed me to mature (in a personal sense) in a fairly smooth way that, given my natural temperament, may have been impossible for me otherwise. That is, had I not had the rich allowance for quiet introspection I always had. Growing up, I had no grasp of what this meant, because I had no palpable frame of reference outside of my own educational experience—I was what I was and learned as I learned, without any particular critical evaluation of either. Looking back, however, I see that unschooling—by allowing me to gravitate towards my own interests and digest them at my own rate, not moving on until I thoroughly understood them and how they related to me—gave me the strong comprehension of what I want to do in my life, and the strengths and weaknesses I will be working with as I attempt to do it, that many of my peers seem to struggle to attain. Simply put, I feel I arrived at a sense of purpose earlier than the average person because I had leisure to mull the matter over earlier than most people. Shifting from subject to subject in a formal setting, tangled up in homework and tests and grades and schedules, there’s not enough time to do nothing, and the brain isn’t given enough time to think.
8) What, for you, were the main disadvantages of unschooling? Again, please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now. In your view, did unschooling hinder you at all in your transition toward adulthood?
I suppose the main hinderances were related to an asynchronization between how I operate and how the larger world operates. We had drastically different paces of life. My early existence was never governed by schedules, and as a result my functional relationship with time developed to be quite loose (my difficulties with conceptions of time led to a running joke that I don’t know how old I am or what year I was born in.) Basically, when the world got up and moved, it was difficult for me to to keep step with it. I was used to leisurely meals and time to sit and digest, in a world that thrives on fast-food, eaten on the go. The challenge for me was, and is, to learn to thrive on fast food when I have to.
It occurs to me that what I just called a hinderance is basically the mirror image of what I above called an asset. Oddly, this isn’t an inconsistency. Many factors of my personality that were developed through unschooling, I find, can be assets or hindrances equally in different contexts. The value of each trait isn’t innate, but rather depends on how effectively it can be adapted, in motion, as the situation demands it.
9) If you choose to have a family/children, do you think you will choose to unschool them? Why or why not?
If I have a family, and assuming my future wife is of the same mind, I will certainly be unschooling my children. If my own experience with it were not enough to fix unschooling in my mind as the best educational option, I now have the added reinforcement of watching my nieces grow and learn, unschooled by my oldest brother and his wife. Oddly enough, my brother, having been unschooled, was at first adamant that his daughters go to school. His wife, who was formally educated, was adamant that they home- or unschool their children. Once he observed his little girls’ natural learning, my brother agreed with his wife and decided that unschooling was the best option.
So the main reason I would unschool my children, is I trust a child’s natural capacity to learn even without professional intervention. Since my general philosophy in life is that every step taken away from our nature carries a steep price, I would prefer to model something as major as my children’s education along a paradigm that follows, rather than in many ways antagonizes, their nature.
Last night, a friend of mine asked me why I lift weights and build my body. She wasn’t being flip—she was actually intrigued by it, and wanted to understand what motivates me in the kind of training I do. I replied—and here’s what I said.
“HEY! So, why the training? Sorry in advance for writing a really long thing, but I’m getting pretty fascinated by trying to answer the question, because it forces me to step back and take a fresh look at why I do what I do, getting it clear enough to communicate it to someone else.
Really, the WHY varies from person to person, and there are as many different drives finding an outlet in bodybuilding as there are bodybuilders (and many, many different drives finding an outlet EVEN IN ONE bodybuilder, haha). But I can only get into my own stuff, and what I’ve talked about with my coach. (Did you read The Man Who Pulled HIs Own Leg? I don’t want to just rehash stuff from the book to answer your question, but a lot of the basic personal reasons I transitioned from yoga to bodybuilding are in there.)
One of the big things that keeps me with the training is that I JUST LOVE IT. Like, I love the actual moment of lifting a heavy thing. Since I take a lot of joy in the training itself, even if I made little or no ‘gains’ I would still be lifting. I do it because I find it amazing that my body is capable of it, and that keeps me intrigued by progressively discovering just how MUCH MORE my body is capable of. That, and feeling good physically as a result of it—so on a bodily level, basically the same exact two things that kept me with yoga for the past decade, and with martial arts for even longer than that.
I authentically enjoy the physical activity of hard, manual labor, even if that’s something as simple as having to move a pile of boulders from one place to another for some practical reason. Weightlifting is a way to enjoy that kind of thing systematically, for it’s own sake, while developing the ability to do more and more of the work as time goes on.
As for bodybuilding, WHY build bigger muscles and aspire to certain physical aesthetics, for their own sake, distinct from any actual application in physical or athletic work—that’s harder to answer because it has a lot of different motivations simultaneously. I’m not kidding when I say, for me, it is basically sarcastic. I do it with a wink. But at the same time, even though I’m doing it sarcastically, it’s very, very much NOT a joke (I don’t know if that contradiction makes much sense, but the fact that my coach instantly understood what I meant by it is one of the big reasons we get along so well, haha.) What I mean is, I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t derive my sense of self from, say, my biceps, but at the same time, it’s the outlet of a very serious artistic impulse. It’s not any different from the impulse to paint something or sculpt something. Except instead of working with canvass or marble, I’m working with my own genetics and physiology.
My left brain is intrigued because it’s a way to delve into how the body works and explore it on a practical level—practical, because it’s aimed at actually making observable changes—and my right brain is satisfied because the work-in-progress is something deeply artistic, aiming for the creation of a pretty damn powerful symbol. It’s the archetypes that are represented by a jacked body-as-a-symbol that make it compelling to work towards. Just ask ancient Greek sculptors. That’s why bodybuilding poses exist. They’re tools to express an ideal, and since they’re all about being seen, they’re about communicating something with other people.
And on the subject of being seen, the attention that comes with creating an imposing or impressive physique is also satisfying on some vain level, haha. I admitted to Dev a while ago that the bodybuilding progress-shots I was uploading to Facebook all the time while she was far away weren’t coincidence—they were almost entirely for her benefit. 😉
Lastly, for me, bodybuilding is kind of a mental deprogramming from a lot of stuff I’ve worked through in the past, where I glorified feeling shut-down and inadequate by justifying it with deconstructive philosophies—destroy the ego, abandon identification with the body, surrender all attachments, remain emotionally aloof from worldly things, etc, etc. I’m not knocking Eastern religions, I’m just saying I related to those ideas in a way that was basically negative.
And bodybuilding is a way of continuing to turn around from that, because what’s more body-positive, constructive and creative than directly working to get physically bigger? Hahaha.”