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Igniting the Flame of Intensity

The Spiritual Journey of a New Kind of Bodybuilder

An interview with Shawn Phillips
by Ross Robertson

“My life, while out of the ordinary, does not feel like a hero's journey to me,” wrote bodybuilder, businessman, and fitness author Shawn Phillips in an email to me the day before our interview. But as someone who has seen pictures of Phillips with his shirt off, I reserve the right to disagree. If heroism can be measured by the size of a man's “six-pack,” Mr. Phillips would give Hercules a run for his money. Yet for this truly original yogi of the weight room, a jaw-dropping Olympian physique is but the material reward of a lifetime devoted to the mastery of an inner fire.

“Focus is the spark that ignites the flame of intensity,” he writes in one of his more than seventy-five articles, and he's not just talking about muscle development. Sure, weightlifting is his profession, and he made a name for himself by helping to bring the sport into the mainstream with his brother Bill, founder of both performance-nutrition company EAS and Muscle Media magazine, and author of the New York Times bestseller Body for Life. But in the gym, Shawn Phillips is more sensei than jock. His principles of Focused Intensity Training, which he has developed over the course of the last twenty years, are designed “to deepen the impact of people's training—physically, mentally, and spiritually,” he says. “Simply stated, I'm seeking to integrate the principles and practices of the martial arts into an activity that millions of people already do each day.”

Coming from a man who sees strength training as a legitimate path to spiritual deliverance—and whose generosity and lighthearted humor are every bit as noteworthy as his muscle definition—it's no surprise that the title of his book, ABSolution (2002), is a conscious pun. Founder of (a resource for expert knowledge on performance supplements), Phillips is currently finishing up a new book officially introducing Focused Intensity Training to the world, and he's also developing a complete ITP (Integral Transformative Practice) program in conjunction with Ken Wilber's Integral Institute.

As we began our conversation, this reluctant hero did admit to at least some measure of greatness: “I do accept that in a field that is without the structure and heritage of martial arts, I am considered a 'master' by many.” But nothing could have prepared me for just how innovative, just how limit-smashing, his journey across the inner frontiers of weightlifting would turn out to be . . .

Excerpted from the interview:

WIE: How did you first get involved with the practice of strength training?

PHILLIPS: I took up weightlifting in college, and it soon became my passion. I was getting into intense daily workouts— all-encompassing energy events—and I'd spend hour after hour studying the body. I wanted to be a professional bodybuilder, and although I knew I was never going to be Arnold Schwarzenegger—I didn't have the genetic capacity to be huge—I also knew that I could have a great physique. So I thought, “What about this Frank Zane guy?”* At 180 pounds, he looked amazing, like a living Greek sculpture. And at the center of his perfectly symmetric physique were abs that just pulled your eyes in like a magnet. He had a trademark pose called “the vacuum” where he could literally draw his entire midsection up into his rib cage. His abs seemed to disappear right before your eyes. It was actually a bit on the freaky side, but I was inspired by the power of the connection between mind and body that gave him this amazing ability to control his abdominal muscles. So I decided that's what I would do. I spent two hours a night in the gym for six months learning to independently control every muscle fiber in my abs. I could literally pull up one ab at a time and drop it down again like a shutter.

WIE: That's amazing!

PHILLIPS: Yeah. These days I like to say, “That and two-fifty will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks.” But it did teach me the power of single-minded focus, and the clarity that comes from that. For those times, I was free of the stresses and concerns of a young life. You know, an intense workout could cure my ego ills for two or three days. It was just like armor plating. When I would leave the gym, it was with all the confidence and ignorance of a warrior. I mean, I felt like there was nothing I could not achieve. And that was a lasting sensation—a tangible, incredible, deep state of ecstasy. When you train like that, it makes you feel so strong and powerful that you can walk into a room and your little tiny fear-based self actually recedes far enough into the background that there's space for you to be present. I didn't have to be aggressive physically and I didn't have to be outspoken. I didn't have to be anything, because my presence alone made its own statement.

WIE: How did you develop such an unusual intensity of focus?

PHILLIPS: It was mostly an intuitive thing. When I was nineteen, I had to drive twenty minutes to the gym, and on the way there I'd go through a preparation ritual—snacking on a baked potato, meditating on the challenge, setting my intention for the day, and visualizing the result. I also developed breathing rituals—I was very specific in how I would breathe and engage the weights. At the time, it wasn't unusual for me to squat 750 pounds, and when you're pulling that kind of weight, it absolutely demands a ritual level of focus. You have to pull every bit of energy from everywhere you can in the world. And you know that if you allow anything to come into your head other than what you are doing, there is no way you will be able to do it. You will be crushed.

I was very fortunate to engage and ingrain this depth of intensity and focus early on, because now I can access that space at will. When I give lectures today, I tell people it's not about the amount of weight you lift—I can take a five-pound weight and just fire every single cell and fiber in my bicep. It's about developing and mastering a mind-body neurological connection. From the beginning, what I was connecting with in the gym was a universal energy source. I would just feel it flowing. Even when I was twenty years old, I called the gym my church. When I was there, it wasn't about being social; it was about doing my practice. I was in it. I was in the zone. I remember being so tuned in to people's energy levels, I could read the emotional state of every person who walked by me. If I traveled to New York City, I'd have to go in and out of the stores because I couldn't handle being on the street too long.

WIE: Do you mean that through your physical practice you had developed some sort of psychic capacity?

PHILLIPS: Yes. I could sense body energies—good, bad, and otherwise—and I would get overwhelmed by them. I think it was a natural result of that deep connection and clearing of the mind. From the time I was eighteen until I was probably twenty-three or twenty-four, I was in the gym every day practicing for two hours or more. It wasn't unusual for me to go three hours, because I didn't have as much to do in those days, and I just got into a state of such ecstasy and flow that it was like, “Who the heck wants to leave that?” Kids these days go to raves and dances. For me, this was the rave culture sans the drugs—an environment for creating some incredibly heightened states.

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