What follows is an explanation of why I lift. That question inspired this post and is the context for which my answer was written. However, the concepts laid out can be more broadly applied beyond lifting weights and physical fitness generally. Although this was written after four years of training without a rest day, it is my hope that you the reader find this perspective helpful to your fitness endeavors and everything else that is part of your life, as it has been in my own.
The Road to Nowhere
Why Do you lift?
Is it cathartic?
An outlet for something?
Or is it a journey?
to a place
with a number that’s pleasing?
If your rage never fades
is your therapy working?
When your road is blocked
will you stop walking?
No you will not.
Why do you lift?
Is it the sound of the plates
and the smell of chalk in the air?
Or the commitment,
to realize yourself
on this road to nowhere?
Your hate cannot fuel this drive.
And the passion will turn to fog.
This road is long.
Its slope is steep.
What inside drives you on this Sisyphean feat?
If not anger, passion, or a number,
Why do you lift?
On this road to nowhere?
I wrote that poem six years ago. Then I didn’t really have an answer to my question why do you lift? After working out every day for four years, I found one.
Spirals, December 1953.
Wood engraving printed from two blocks by M.C. Escher.
The outside becomes the inside.
Philosopher and mathematician Douglas Hofstadter developed the concept of "strange loops" to explain how self-referential systems can create complex patterns and structures. His book "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" describes the paradoxical, self-referential nature of certain systems. According to Hofstadter, a strange loop is a system that contains a self-referential structure which, when observed at a higher level of abstraction, creates a paradoxical situation. Hofstadter suggests that our lives are analogous to such paradoxical strange loops.
In the case of physicality, creativity, and consciousness, the strange loop occurs when each of these elements refers to the other two, thereby forming a feedback loop of increasing complexity. For example, physicality refers to the way that the body and the world around us impact our consciousness and creative output. But our consciousness also influences the way we experience physicality, and our creative impulses can shape both our physical actions and our mental states. Similarly, creativity refers to our ability to generate new ideas and expressions, but it is also influenced by our physicality and consciousness. Our physical abilities and limitations can impact the ways we express ourselves creatively, and our conscious experiences can inform the content and style of our creative output. And finally, consciousness refers to our subjective experience of the world, but it is also shaped by our physical experiences and creative expressions.
Our physical senses and actions influence the way we perceive the world, and our creative endeavors can deepen our understanding of our own consciousness and the world around us. Together, these three elements create a feedback loop of increasing complexity, with each one influencing and being influenced by the other two. This creates a strange loop that has the potential to generate endless patterns and structures, as well as new insights into the nature of our physicality, creativity, and consciousness.
Creativity is inherently physical. Some paint. Others dance. Life is in each. Action is observed in the brush strokes of the painter. Emotion is observed in the steps of the dancer. Action recorded in paint brings a lifeless canvas alive. A dancer’s flowing limbs make the theater another world. Both artists create and inspire, breathing life into space, their audiences, and themselves. Our physicality propels us through the strange loop that is us; our consciousness improves through creativity which necessitates physicality.
Like traditional means of artistic expression, a person lifting weights is creating. Individual compositions are merely slivers of the grand creation: the artist themselves; a single workout and the lifter, a product of many workouts. Regarding the lifter, they are simultaneously developing a sculpture of flesh while carefully practicing a choreography of exercises. For creations (actions) reflect the actor (creator). What is created is a mirror through which feedback is experienced and processed. Feedback provides direction, and without direction, progression is impossible. Without progression, by means of some creative act, we become mired and lost. Then our mind, spirit, and body become increasingly disconnected, until such detachment brings death to each part of us. The last of which, the body, when developed through creativity, retains and improves the former two. In this way the triumvirate of self is governed. Our physicality receives feedback, in turn prompting more creativity from which our sense of self is developed.
The process of self-development is a loop that requires action to progress through. Creativity, being an act of physicality, whether singing, painting, lifting, etc., develops two mediums – the most important one being the artist themselves. The inanimate comes alive by the actions of the creator. The canvas, the theatre, the piano, the barbell; each are dead before being acted upon. Through the creative process the individual experiences feedback from which self-awareness is gained. The creator lives in their creations and the creations in their creator.
The strange loop arises when we consider that our physical bodies are not just passive tools of consciousness and creativity but are themselves products of conscious and creative processes. Our bodies are the result of conscious and creative processes that involve self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-modification. So, in this strange loop, physicality, creativity, and consciousness are intertwined in a self-referential structure that creates a paradoxical situation. Our physical bodies are both the foundation and the product of our conscious and creative processes, which in turn shape and transform who we are. The interdependence of these three concepts creates a strange loop that is both hierarchical and heterarchical, sensible yet paradoxical, while highlighting the intricate and mysterious nature of the human experience.
Thus, our physicality creates our consciousness, and our consciousness creates our physicality – we are what we do, and what we do, we become. When we stop doing, we stop being.
Cycle, May 1938. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.
The man becomes the structure. The structure produces the man.
I lift, therefore I am.
As silly as it sounds, and as convoluted as that last section seems, the reality is that without consistent measures we are incapable of observing the strange loop that is our lives. What we do is the process from which who we are arises. Apart from this process, our reality, our very being, comes into question.
Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am is the foundation upon which Rene Descartes’ philosophy of systematic doubt rests. In the 17th century, Descartes, questioning his own existence and finding the question itself as the answer is another example of Hofstadter’s paradoxical strange loops that give rise to consciousness out of a complex self-referential system. However, it was Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, published nearly 300 years later, that would prove self-reference was inherent in all complex logical systems (upon which Hofstadter theorizes strange loops). But it was Descartes who realized through rigorous skepticism that there is truth in self-reference. His philosophy is considered the origin of the modern scientific method, for the process of questioning methodologically is how genuine reality is observed.
Can we honestly observe ourselves without generating feedback through the creative process? No. Therefore, one must find means to create feedback consistently. To do so requires physicality. For me, that means is lifting weights. And though it is a far simpler act than say, playing an instrument, it is nevertheless a creative means that I have braided into my consciousness through consistent physicality. Lifting is quantifiable and qualitative while also being developmental and sustainable. Therefore, it is and builds the structure through which my life flows.
Do not interpret this as an argument for being one dimensional. I know who I am because of what I do, and I do what I know because that is who I am. And because I know who I am and what I can do, I am even more capable of doing things I do not know. We grow in capacity as we grow physically, and as we grow physically, we grow cognitively; these two ultimately giving rise to more creativity – and our first creation, incomplete until extinguished, is who we are.
Drawing Hands. January 1948. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.
What is created, creates.
Physicality, and more specifically the focus on improving my size, strength, and stamina, has allowed me to do more things than just lift weights. Physical training is merely the process from which opportunity arises before me. Because I am fit, I am more capable. And because I am more capable, I can participate more in this strange thing we call life. The same can be true for you. Though it may seem daunting at first, understand that the relationship between physicality, creativity, and consciousness is both the structure and the means of developing structure: You.
On a whim I can climb a mountain or learn a new activity. When a blizzard hits, I can chop wood for hours and shovel snow that much longer. I can help myself, my family, and my neighbors because of the capacity I have developed through the process of physical training. I am not special. This is the nature of our environment and who we are within it. Those interactions, with new places, environments, objects, and people contribute to the feedback loop that informs our consciousness and develops our being.
Therefore, when I am separated from the process that is braided into my being, that process being physical training, the awareness of what I can do diminishes, and with it so too fades who I am. Such is true for any of you and any activity. A writer with prolonged writer’s block ceases to become a writer. Likewise a musician who stops playing, a painter that stops painting, and for Descartes, a thinker that stops thinking, stops being. Absence from feedback is death. To receive feedback, we must be consistent, put forth effort, and remain patient; three traits that bolster the physicality, creativity, consciousness relationship.
Waterfall. October 1961. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.
Water flows endlessly through a paradoxical structure.
Both the form and flow symbolize the nature of our lives.
Anything worthwhile requires three things: Effort, Consistency, and Patience. Without each of those, the process is cut short. As one fades, so does the other two, making the day-to-day increasingly unfulfilling. Dissatisfaction comes as our patience wanes, effort dwindles, and consistency vanishes. Without one of the three the other two produce insufficient fruit. It is the sum of those three things that are foundational to any endeavor. Self-development being the most important endeavor of all.
Because who we are is born out of what we do, if we hope to live fulfilled, then we must put forth the effort by which the feedback we desire is generated. That effort must be consistent, day in, day out, otherwise the feedback decreases in both quantity and quality, and with it also our growth. Patience then yields time, from which nourishing feedback is harvested. We grow when fed. Both the growing of food and the consumption of it take time, the former far longer than the latter. This is why creative acts must be consistent, for the feedback they produce is short lived. Let this analogy be an encouragement. For effort can be exhausting, consistency monotonous, and patience thin, yet when grafted together, those branches produce fruits from a tree that is your life.
When ripe our labors are enjoyed. Not merely by us alone, but by all those who may find shelter and nourishment beside us; those who return feedback: encouragement and criticism, kindness and cruelty, love and hate. Expect negativity and know that with patience it is possible to process everything beneficially, then turning all feedback into fuel for consistent effort. The choice is ours – be not discouraged – for it is not the input that determines the outcome, because we are not simply machines. Sure, it takes more effort and determination to creatively repurpose negative feedback into positive results, but those solutions make hardier systems; the strange loops from which our consciousness grows: physicality with effort, consistency, and patience.
Relativity. July 1953. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.
Simultaneously hierarchical and heterarchical.
No side is up or down, yet all are connected
and movement flows throughout.
A complete system is a set of interacting and interdependent components or parts that work together to achieve a specific goal or purpose. It involves all the necessary elements and resources needed to operate and function effectively. A complete system may include hardware, software, data, procedures, people, and other operational or organizational components that are necessary for the system to fulfill its intended purpose. It is a cohesive and integrated whole made up of various parts that work together to achieve a specific outcome. What is your desired outcome and how are you developing and sustaining the complete system necessary to realize that goal?
By now it should be clear that you must do before you receive and what you receive reflects the quality and consistency of your efforts. Your system may not be complete, but that should not be the barrier that stops you from acting. Such incompleteness requires physicality because it takes work – effort, consistency, and patience – to develop what areas are lacking. Should those areas be unknown, become an explorer and locate what is needed. Become the builder and piece together something new from what is available. From those efforts creativity is developed, new solutions are discovered, and capacity increases.
All too often we let a missing piece stop us from acting. We will let a seemingly massive obstacle impede our progress. And because of these missing pieces and barriers we allow ourselves to operate in a limited and fragile system. This is unfortunate because what has really occurred is that we have confined ourselves to a narrow set of solutions. It is possible that what we think is missing is an assumption, or that the perceived obstacle is an illusion. Operating on false premises guarantees inaccurate feedback. Even if you had everything you thought you needed, would you be consistent? Would you put forth the effort? Would you remain patient?
To prevent developing a system lacking integrity we must first act – that is, put forth the physical effort to discover the true nature of the system we are continuously developing. Whether or not we act does not separate us from the system that is part of us. It does not pause. Life goes on. The choice to not act is passivity, ultimately weakening the system that is inherently us. Therefore, it is consistent physicality that both produces the complete system and does the work of holding it together. Anything found lacking is discovered through physicality, which is creativity, the means of developing solutions that complete the system; the strange loop that is our conscious selves.
One of M.C. Escher’s many tessellations created
from several systems based on Euclidian and hyperbolic geometry.
A pattern without gaps or overlaps, complete.
The monotony of an endless loop is inescapable. It is who we are, and though the experiences and fruits (physicality and creativity) may change, the system itself does not. Therefore, as we apply effort with consistency and patience, it is better to see monotony as a positive force of our own creation. Like the erosion that shaped the Grand Canyon, so too does the monotony we endure shape us, revealing our greatness a little more each day. This process births self-awareness through patient endurance, in time building the strength of character only achievable by remaining active and conscious in our development.
So, how does one remain and not wither in the environment and be ground into dust? Assess what you do every day and determine if the loop you are in is developing your physicality, and therefore your creativity and consciousness. If one is lacking so are the other two. To live, create something, and in that process someone: yourself. Not sure what to do or how to do it? Act first. Do not wait for the perfect time, or the feeling of having all information, skills, or tools needed to produce the optimal results in the shortest amount of time. The process is the goal. Separating ourselves from doing, for any reason, is the means by which we passively accept eventually not being. Physicality is creativity is consciousness.
Do not seek perfection. Desire the process itself, for that is the strange loop that is life. Braid into it ever more complex capabilities and creations, using those to receive all feedback with gratitude – even the negative! For it is our effort and creativity that can turn such feedback into positive results. Should anything be found lacking, remain consistent and patient, working through potential solutions. In time what is needed to complete the system will be received. If not, then effort, consistency, and patience allowed for the unnecessary to be eroded away, revealing the grander self within.
Why do you lift? Asked the poem that began this post. Because it helps me know who I am.
Hand with Reflecting Sphere, a self-portrait.
January 1953. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.