Zen and the Art of Getting Fit
Zen and the Art of Getting Fit
Much has been said about mindfulness and exercise, but little has been said about the link between mindfulness and the battle we old guys go through to turn up, eat well, overcome adversity and get stronger each day on our pathway from being tired and unmotivated to having “good” technique and results.
There are many definitions of mindfulness in the zen and Buddhist arts – my personal view on it is that is the awareness of aversion, attachment, and delusion. Aversion: the false view that something can make you angry; Attachment: the false view that something can make you happy; and the last being the many types of pressure that a person puts on themselves and others trying to make something fit into a preconceived mould. The challenge of lifting and getting fit provides them all.
Lifting weights as suffering
Going to the gym and grinding it out involves suffering for many reasons, which is perhaps why people find it hard. It involves actual suffering; injury; muscle soreness; the threat of injury; and the mental suffering from starting at low weights and failing at first until we grow. It involves the suffering of change: some days we feel great, our technique works, we feel strong and we can do the reps. Other days, though, nothing seems to work. We leave the gym dejected, replaying the session in our minds, wondering what we did wrong. We may get injured and gain weight, or get seriously injured and need to change our approach and our routines partly or entirely. We get old and we grow weaker, and we fight against it because it makes it harder to get to the gym, makes the techniques harder to perform, makes the session harder to get through. Even though we know instinctively that the seasons change, and that today can never be replayed, we all struggle with time and change with fitness. We always want to be “getting better” and sometimes we simply can’t.
It also involves pervasive suffering, which is the most complicated. This is the suffering we have from the pressure we put mainly on ourselves and on others. We imagine what we could be, what we could achieve, what we should be achieving, and then when we don’t get there, it makes us unhappy. We want to be strong. We imagine what we “should” be doing at our experience level. We feel pressure to be.
Zen, Mindfulness and Fitness
We can’t wish away the risk and impact of injury or the vagaries of age. For those over 40, it is a reality that our bodies will probably fail us before we achieve the level of fitness we would like to. We can, however, deal with the pressure we put on ourselves – the pressure of change and the ever-present pressure of “being the big guy” or living up to whoever we think we were before we took a break from the gym.
The reality is that we will never conquer our bodies completely, and we will always be on a journey to conquer ourselves within the various sufferings provided by our fitness and strength journey. We will all change over our time that we train – we will be stronger, and weaker, and fatter, and thinner, and more and less explosive, and more and less busy, over the course of our lives. Some days we will feel great, and confident, and spring out of bed, and some days we’ll struggle, we’ll fail to meet the number of reps or the weight.
The guys who make fitness and strength part of their life, who grow with it, understand the impermanence of it and of themselves. They understand that its hard to get better unless you fail, they know the ups and downs, and they understand its impossible to progress without respect and compassion for others. They don’t feel the pressure of always needing to lift more. They understand that sometimes, obstacles appear and they have to overcome them in a way that doesn’t allow fixed views of yourself and where you think you should be. They fail when they try new exercises, or when they are slightly out of shape, and they bounce back and keep learning.
So the next time you train, or reflect, or be hard on yourself for not making the lift, or perhaps when you are lying in bed after a few months off, or a few years off, thinking you are too fat or too old or too sore or too broken to return, stop. Just stop. Be mindful. Remember that anything created by someone else is impermanent and can and will change. You are impermanent and you can and will change. Your fitness and diet goals will be there when you arrive and welcome you to enter the complex, challenging, unsolvable world of fitness the same as it always did, but maybe in a different way than before. As fellow old man Chris Hauter says, it's not about who’s the best, it’s about who’s left.
Now, old man, go train. If all you can do is crawl, then start crawling.