When we think of Zen, we think of monks raking stones, or simple ascetic practices, or chanting, sometimes beatings, meditation, obscure sayings, and the practice and discipline of martial arts.
My all-time favourite definition of Zen was written by Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Zen Keys: “the world of Zen is the world of pure experience without concepts”.
This is where training the body serves us purely – there’s nothing special about martial arts, or gardening, or any single physical activity – all activities can lead us closer to a state of Zen-like awareness (especially exercising at intensity), because all activities have the capacity to bring us to an ultimate experience of the unnameable, free from concepts.
All this brings me to what I dislike about running on a treadmill while watching TV. It’s a complete denial of reality.
Training - to my mind, the primary benefit is to unite the body and mind, but when you have a body you detest, people don’t really want to think like that. They don’t want to think that they are their body and mind, all rolled into one. They want to blame their body for their shame and misery, but that blame belongs to the hypocrisy of our society, and to no single individual.
Or to put it another way – the primary benefit of training is the experience of training, which is to say – the liberating experience of your physicality. I like to talk about movement in terms of joy and freedom, but that’s not always the case. The body is the body, and your experience of your body on any given day will vary wildly. Often, experiencing your body truly does not make you feel free. Experiencing your physicality might not always equate to expressing yourself physically, and it might or might not be liberating. It can be challenging for many of us.
Sometimes to experience your body truly, is to experience anguish and despair. Sometimes anxiety and panic. Training means no single thing and like all things, sometimes it’s pleasant, and sometimes it’s not. Unfortunately, we are taught that it should be unpleasant - if you work hard, if you grind away, if you can dominate your body - you are one of the few who should be admired, that’s the worthy training. The people who are just having fun - that’s all well and good, but they aren’t really getting anywhere.
Let’s take the ubiquitous jog on the treadmill, and run with it. Turn off the TV. To intentionally deny yourself the true experience of what you actually are doing – for better or worse – this is to choose delusion. Are you bored? Bring yourself to the exercise, pay attention, listen. Have you already learned everything there is to know about your body in motion? I haven’t.
What arises? You don’t necessarily need to answer, only be aware and curious.
Do you feel anxiety? Maybe steady-state cardio isn’t for you – the symptoms of anxiety and cardio-vascular exercise are the same: difficulty breathing, elevated heart rate – this can result in panic. Do not jog.
If you turn off the TV, and discover that you hate to jog, then you shouldn’t be jogging. The more you force yourself to do something you despise – even ‘for your own good’ – the more it hurts you. It’ll just make you hate it even more in the future, and how will that serve you for life?
Do you feel trapped by a program or a method you have been told to do? Do you feel rebellious? There’s no reason you have to ‘do cardio’. But if I stop, I might get fat! Yes, you might. You can do “all the right things” and still get fat – many people do. The diet industry exploits it. We are told that if we are good, if we are obedient, we will be safe. Sickness will not get us. But it’s not true, it only exploits our fear of death.
Besides, there are plenty of studies emerging that show steady-state cardio is no more effective for fat loss than many other training methods.
I don’t believe running outside is superior to running on a treadmill – they’re different. You might as well compare yoga and weightlifting – both deal with resistance, within a certain range of motion. They serve different purposes, and different people.
We will always have concepts about exercise. Will this make me thin? Buff? Is it efficient? Enjoyable? Cathartic? Will it help me to progress? Heal? Develop rad skills? Will this make me better? These are distractions. All exercise is good for you, unless you’re overdoing it, and even then you’ll learn about your limits, so you’ll learn something about yourself. Don’t think that because you want to be thinner, it means you’re incapable of overtraining.
We want to believe that if we do what we’re told, we’ll be okay. If we’re good, obedient, polite. But obedience won’t protect you from sickness, and ‘being good’ is no reliable way to ensure good health.
Sorry not to be more uplifting!
But you absolutely can do whatever the hell you like, and on your terms to boot. So there is that!