“When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.” – Shunryu Suzuki
Lots of comparisons have been made between Buddhist mediation and CrossFit. Specifically, there are connections found in the focus on correct form and in breathing. Picture rows of meditating bald-headed young monks, sitting zazen for hours on end in their yellow and orange robes. A master monk walks slowly between them carrying a keisaku, a thick “warning” stick. As a student loses his form, the keisaku falls quick and sharp to their back: No Rep!
But I am learning that there is more to this connection.
L Ron Hubbard is rumored to have said that if you want to get rich, start a religion. And that’s what CrossFit has done. It is — sometimes jokingly and sometimes derisively — called a cult, but it’s really a well organized set of rules and tropes that comply with religious cliches.
It has a repetitive set of icons (the kettle-bell, the rings), its own language (AMRAP, WOD), rituals (group contortions during warm-up), its devil figure (Pukie) a gathering place (the Box), its own music (unfortunately LaBouche at my Box) high-priests (Thorsidottir, Froning, Foucher), and miracles (a muscle-up in my case). Like most religions, the rules, icons and language are designed to organize people around one ideology or another. The strategy works.
Buddhism, like many religions, is built on a triad. Christianity (and Star Wars) has the father, son and holy ghost. Buddhism has its three Jewels — the Buddha, The Dharma and the Sangha. Looking at the three Jewels, we can see reflections of CrossFit.
“Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.” -Shunryu Suzuki
This is the ideal within all people, sometimes called enlightenment. It is what we strive for through CrossFit. The Buddha teaches us that the ideal is not “out there,” that the Buddha is us — the individual. There is no god or goal waiting to approve, forgive or judge. We take responsibility for the No Rep, not the judge. We are encouraged to compare our actions to our own past and potential future, not the athlete lying next to us. And yet, when we meditate, we can sometimes experience invisible moments between the breaths when there is nothing — not even I. For me this is the same space between the initial pull and end of a successful snatch. That missing half-second is enlightenment. I cease to exist. I find my Buddha in that lack of self.
“There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.” -Shunryu Suzuki
This is the teaching of the Buddha, the lessons. We can think of this as form, technique, proper breath, posture and clean eating, of course. But I think a more interesting connection is found in the notion of service to others that runs deep in CrossFit. CrossFit celebrates the sacrifice of others — most often military and civil servants. We metaphorically prostrate ourselves (literally during burpees) to them during Hero WODS. We honor and worship them through a kind of reenactment of their honorable actions. And, we hope, that through the act of reenactment some of that honor rubs off on us. Yes, we know that the Hero WOD does not compare to their very real sacrifice. But it is our ritual sharing of their pain. And the ritual serves as a reminder that we can all be better people doing better things. This is the teaching.
“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous.” -Shunryu Suzuki
This is the community that practices Buddhism. For CrossFit (and Buddhism), this extends beyond the Box or Temple, but for us it starts at the Box. The Box is where we meet. But the Sangha can’t be reduced to the physical space. Yes, the Box is where we practice being better together, but it is not the Sangha. When people come and convert to CrossFit, they do not give credit to the physical space or gear. They praise the community. This is a community that does not judge scaling, and it rallies for the final finishers for the fastest. And the odd pedagogy of ‘teaching strict, but encouraging play’ offers a unique space for athletes of all shapes, sizes, abilities and goals. That’s the CrossFit Sangha.
And, of course, Shunryu Suzuki, the Soto Zen monk who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the United States, knew something about goats when he reminded us to “enjoy your problems.”
Johnny Rooks practices CrossFit at CF Beacon in Portland Maine. Light the Way.