Ty Phillips shares his near-death experience and an inner transformation from raging “Gorilla” to a peaceful pilgrim—by facing his fears and lifting weights
In May of 2011, I was diagnosed with severe heart failure.
Years of beating on and abusing a body that was already suffering from a genetic heart condition (which I found out to be Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome), my body gave out and I found myself in the emergency room, unable to breath, neck veins dilated, blood-oxygen level at 89 percent,and an ejection fraction of 12-15 percent – translation heart failure.
After I was diagnosed, I started heavy medications, had two ablations, a heart catheter and started dealing with my mortality.
I simply wasn’t healthy enough to run my gym anymore. By August, I shut my doors for good and the Gorilla Pit sign came down and now rests in a place of honor at my friend’s gym, Exile Barbell (fitting name).
In the summer of 2013, I tried to start lifting again.
I made almost miraculous progress with my health but the anxiety of lifting and dying were tied together too strongly for me to separate the two.
I tried it for a month but that four weeks was all I had in me.
Fast forward to July 2014, a full three years later, my blood pressure dropped to an amazing 120/70 and I have made a 100 percent cardiac recovery—but would I be able to make the full emotional recovery I needed in order to once again get under the bar?
The first few weeks went smoothly. I had retained a significant amount of strength, compared to the general population, and I was pleased with how well I had held up.
By week four, I was feeling that anxiety trigger again. Is this going to kill me? Is my heart going to give out? Why am I waking up the next morning with so much anxiety? Each time this happened, I did something different—but nothing helped.
That was until the one day, I didn’t fight it—I didn’t fight the anxiety, but I did confront it.
I sat with what I was feeling and broke it down piece by piece. Again and again, the answer was positive and I was able to see my anxiety for what it was.
The anxiety was merely a response to a trigger event that placed my mortality on the table—an event that allowed me to see my own impermanence and the fact that I was eventually going to die.
Only someone who has been under the oppression that death is waiting around the corner can explain the shadow of death smiling at you, even after you’re in full recovery. Oddly enough, that deathly smile serves as a constant reminder of what was irrelevant and a life that has been forever changed.
Now the question is am I ready to let go of the fear while still embracing the idea of impermanence? Am I able to take what I knew, what I experienced, and what I now know, and use it to help not only me but those around me.
Am I willing to see life through lenses that are not colored by ego, pride, fear, but rather offer an open hand and an open heart to those around me?
Two months into lifting again, I am feeling better each time.
I’m not only making peace with impermanence but able to embrace it with a sense of freedom rather than nihilism.
So many things that I thought were so fundamentally important to me and my life have faded away. They’re irrelevant now, and I am no longer burdened by my attachments to them. I have found that my strength is now fueled by peace. I’m not fighting the bar and I am no longer fighting life.
I’m no longer pacing at the bar, building up rage and aggression nor am I pacing the floor worried about death, the final outcome, the self absorption that fuels my ego.
When I approach the bar now, it is my friend. It has been helping me recover. It helps me rebuild. I am no longer fighting gravity for a lift, but cooperating with a friend in order to meet a new weight.
My previous “Gorilla Pit” mentality of conquest and record setting is gone. It’s been transformed into a personal training ideal of defeating fears and self obsession.
Breathing in I am with the bar. Breathing out I am with others—beyond myself.
If I have something to prove, that’s proof that I am living in fear. However, if I have something to share, that proves I am living in openness. That’s a much better way to live.
Maybe the doors to my gym will re-open again and maybe my journey can be a catalyst for the journey of others.
Whatever the outcome and whatever the future holds, I know my approach is different now. I am not here to glorify myself, to use something as a means to promote me.
The Gorilla Pit is now a place in my heart. It is a pit in the sense that I am facing me and conquering falseness.
Weakness is not the issue, fear is the issue.
Fear is not a motivator; it is a creator of walls and facades.
So maybe, just maybe, if I can open shop again one day, the bar can be a meditation for others.
The strain can be a gift.
Within me, the Gorilla and the Buddha met—-and the quiet won.
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