I went to a high school with a big football team. I think the cult of high school athletics alone dissuades many young men and women from even considering lifting weights. The association of muscle— or even athletics in general— with a lack of intelligence initially turned me away from a habit that would soon end up transforming my body and mind.
When I got to college, I was an anxious and semi-depressed chicken bone. I liked what I liked, and changing my mind had always been difficult. Somehow my roommate, a finance student, convinced me to start going to the gym with him. I went through three or four months of willpower testing.
This is the initiation period. It sucks and you just have to ride it out. Anyone who has been exercising for a long time knows. The questions pop into your head: “Why should I go do something that makes me hurt a day later? Why should I spend more money on eating more food? Why do people lift weights?”
I asked myself these questions as my roommate confidently retorted, “Come on, bro. Just do it.”
Just do it I did. After that three month mark, I began to feel different. I was sleeping like a baby every night despite the loud NYC streets outside. I felt mental clarity. Meditation became easier and I felt generally more centered. When I wanted to do something, I did it. Learning to lift weights had, much like meditation, changed my daily mode of operation. So I kept doing it.
Four years, one shoulder surgery, numerous smaller injuries and endless friend-and-family comments later, I continue to lift weights four or five times a week. I don’t consider myself a dolt or a douchebag. I don’t do steroids or weird supplements. I simply enjoy the physical and mental benefits lifting provides.
HOWEVER… The key from the beginning has been to not do it for any benefits. It’s taken me years to fully understand why people commit to a daily exercise regimen. Lifting in this manner becomes a metaphor for any pursuit in life. Detach yourself from expectation. Find independence from any outcome. “The world is won by those who let it go.”
We’re taught to see exercise as a means to an end. You get a hot bod so you can have hot sex with your hot wife— hell yeah! Like most advertising, this is a terrible amoral reduction of a thing. An aesthetic physique will come if you lift weights. It should come by accident. The Zen of exercise is to do it for its own sake. Transform it into a mindfulness practice.
I use exercise as a form of meditation. I lift slowly and deliberately. Each upward and downward motion constitutes and in breath and an out breath. I use steady breathing as my anchor. If my breathing becomes too chaotic, I know that I am stepping outside of my realm of capability, and I rest for a bit. I make sure to stretch and drink water in between sets. The entire workout can become a period in which I think about nothing except for what I am doing.
Exercise can be one of the most effective ways to remain in the present. When there’s a 200lb piece of metal inches away from your neck, you can’t really think of anything other than pushing it up. When you’re running a half-marathon and the endorphins kick in, you are fully in your human element. You’re working with hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary adaptations.
When you exercise with the right intentions and do so deliberately, trying to avoid vanity or zeal, you learn that your body is not just this weird bag of meat you’re attached to. Your body will treat your mind right if you give it respect.