I recently finished Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, and I was fascinated by the concepts of “set and setting.” Set, a linguistic contraction of mindset, and setting, the physical surroundings and social environment of a psychedelic drug experience, often determine the emotional, physical, and psychological outcomes of the experience. Pollan identifies a handful of people who could be credited with identifying these characteristics as the defining elements of a psychedelic journey, but eventually gives primary credit to an early pioneer in the use of LSD, Al Hubbard.
These facts probably aren’t overly important to this week’s post, but I feel obligated to give credit where credit is due and I feel even more obliged to recommend reading Pollan’s book, if for no other reason than he is a wonderful author and does an excellent job de-escalating the cultural biases and stigma surrounding these medicines.
He also offers some interesting historical background concerning their use within indigenous cultures, their ceremonial power, and their potential medicinal worth in dealing with the endemic dangers of mental illness. So, yeah, it’s a good read.
However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t somehow make connections between these terms, set and setting, to what we experience in the gym during our daily WODs because, well, I’m a CrossFitter and everything comes back to CrossFit…doesn’t it?
Let me offer you this.
We recently held our annual Memorial Day Murph a few weekends ago and it was our first in-gym event in almost 18 months. I don’t think I overreach when I say it was awesome. I mean it.
That was one of the best Murph’s I have ever experienced and I felt an overwhelming sense of awe at how powerful it was having our entire Fairwinds Community cycle through the gym at some point during the morning. Despite some daunting weather conditions, people did amazingly awe-inspiring things with that workout.
My favorite part of the day was when at one point Coach Eric looked over at me and with a big smile on his face said, “We’ve been finished for over an hour…and I don’t think anyone wants to leave.”
I simply nodded my confirmation with an equally big smile and felt happy. It was good to be back.
And so think about this.
Murph is a workout that comes with a lot of set and setting. The mindset of any Hero WOD has an added sense of worth. They inherently represent something bigger than just doing a workout. I’ve talked about this before, both on this blog and on the podcast, but for me, there is a continual struggle between over-emphasising Hero WODs as something more than what they are while also giving them their due deference. So, while they are just a workout, they are also an opportunity to think about the bigger reasons for why you are taking the time to move your body in a way that perhaps others can’t, won’t, or just don’t have the opportunity to. That’s something worth thinking about, or in other words, that’s a mindset that frames and contextualizes what we are doing in a way that offers an emotional, physical, and psycho-social impact.
In addition, most Hero WODs are done on special days. Memorial Day Murph. 31 Heroes. Special fundraising initiatives of 24 hours of Hero WODs. Bottom line, the normal, every day setting of the 60-minute workout of the day gets tweaked…we consciously make ourselves aware of our setting and thus, again, offer a potential change to the emotional, physical, and psycho-social impact.
And Murph is physically hard. It’s long. Most, if not everyone, probably scales it in some way or another. It’s doubtful anyone who did it this past iteration wouldn’t have gotten a few “no-reps” in a competition setting. But who cares. The end result was a shared consciousness of joy, fellowship, and worth by almost 100 people in our little neck of the creek.
So what happens when we do another workout, which I would argue is actually HARDER than Murph, on a normal Monday in June?
Yep, we have programmed a workout named “Kalsu” for this coming Monday. Kalsu is simple.
For time, complete 100 Thrusters (a front squat into a press over head) with a 135# or 95# barbell. At the start of the first minute and every minute after that, you must complete 5 burpees to continue with the thrusters until you complete all 100 thrusters.
Completion times should be in the 12-18 minute range…or can take as long as 45-50 minutes if people fail to scale/modify correctly. I’ve even seen some folks suffer for over an hour in misplaced, ego-driven attempts at physical self-destruction.
If you are reading this after Kalsu has come and gone, then jump onboard your mental time machine, journey back to when I am writing this, and imagine I just told you “Kalsu’s coming.”
Officially, Kalsu is not a CrossFit.com Hero WOD, but anyone who has been doing this for some time or knows the history of Kalsu, puts it in the category of benchmarks that, like Hero WODs, offers us a soul-searching experience through objectively sketchy physical difficulty that makes athletes question just why they do this to themselves.
Now notice what I just did there. Where Murph seemed to be about celebration, camaraderie, memorialization of a sacrifice for something beyond ourselves, Kalsu comes with a context of suffering.
What just happened?
Is this a function of mindset? Is it because Kalsu doesn’t come with it’s own fancy alliterative day?
I don’t know; but I do know that the mindset around Kalsu often yields a distinctly different physical and emotional impact when we complete it.
Perhaps it’s in Kalsu’s details.
Both are task priority, but Kalsu is shorter. In CrossFit, shorter inherently means higher power output, which means a potentially harder workout.
Maybe it’s because Kalsu is more or less single modality with a little gymnastic kicker whereas Murph is a blended chipper that allows folks to turn it into a multitude of different versions as long as the runs sandwich the gymnastics work.
Or maybe it’s the innate sense of individualization of Kalsu. Folks don’t immediately think of doing it as a partner or team workout whereas Murph is ALWAYS done with someone else. It doesn’t have to be a partner version, but in my experience, we are usually working in and around another human being during Murph, and in that, we find solace and joy in its execution.
So, try this tomorrow – do Kalsu in a way that modifies the setting so that your mindset is one of celebration and personal accomplishment.
Try it with a partner in a “I go, you go” structure.
Don’t like that, okay, do it with a scale or modification that ensures you complete it in under 20 minutes.
Don’t like that, okay, make it a rule that you have to get at least 5 thrusters every minute…when you don’t, you’re done…no debate. Your score is your time + the remaining thrusters in minutes.
Don’t like any of those options, okay, still show up and I’m sure your coach can come up with something that will work for you, if you are willing to look at this as an opportunity to move your body in a way that perhaps others can’t, won’t, or just don’t have the opportunity to.
Who knows, maybe that’s a set and setting that could serve us a bit more often than just once or twice a year.
Maybe events like Memorial Day Murph are our own little annual psychedelic-inducing trip that we can use to remind ourselves of just why we embrace movement practices into our daily routine.
Maybe we aren’t so different from those free-wheeling hippies who are now revolutionizing the mental health industry. Where they are using known medicinal tools and time-tested rituals to offer life improving shifts in psychological perspectives, we are attempting to do something similar with intense functional movement in a supportive and loving community. Perhaps our set and settings aren’t so different after all.
Or maybe I’m just a little too deep into my own thoughts and musings.
Either way, we’re gonna be doing some thrusters and burpees down on the creek…so I’ll see ya’ there.
Psychedelics aren’t necessarily recommended during the workout but hey, you do you.