The Iron Mind Makes Its Workout a Meditation

Stay awake and pay attention. Become stronger, healthier, and happier by clearing out your nervous system.

Source: Bev Childress

Sometimes you read a single sentence and it sticks with you for life. I remember one such sentence from the early days of my own reading on meditation, mindset, and mental toughness. It came from a controversial and contrarian guru type from India who, I have to admit, I don’t put much faith in these days. But true is true, regardless of the source, and in this, I feel he was right. And if it weren’t for this sentence infesting and nesting in my brain as a young lad, who knows how much time I’d have wasted without its wisdom. In response to a novice meditator complaining of his troubles focusing in meditation, the guru had simply said that the average person has a lot of work to do before he can just sit still.

And there I was thinking that, at least outwardly, meditation was simple. Sit still and watch the breath, and watch the stress and negativity fly off forever like bats out of the belfry. What could be more simple than that? But from my own frustrating experiments, I knew he was right. The body wants to move. It’s built to move. Try not to move, and what happens? It moves. And it doesn’t help that we humans carry around tons of unnecessary tension all the time. Our nervous systems are always desperately trying to shake off that tension constantly.

In fact, that’s exactly what he was referring to. Tension causes anxiety, and anxiety causes restlessness. Ostensibly, if we were able to revert to the primal state of relaxation that we should be in all the time (barring an actual, existential threat), we’d settle into a state of deep meditative relaxation easily and effortlessly whenever we chose to be still.

The Truth Behind Tension

Is that true? Well, it’s a hypothesis, and it can be tested. You can take on the Herculean task of taming the lion of tension, cleaning out the Stygian stables of stress, and seeing if meditation doesn’t come just ever so naturally afterward. That’s what I did. I took a break from meditation for about ten years, trained deeply and extensively in Neuromuscular Release to clear out a good majority of that tension, and now I settle into a meditation like a cat settles into a nap. When your nervous system is cleared out, meditation is easy and natural, and enhances every other aspect of training and life.

That’s the long road. But taking that road also taught me that you don’t have to take a decade to start applying the essential principles of meditation to whatever it is you’re already doing. You can leverage your workouts into a kind of mindfulness meditation of their own, getting most, if not all the benefits, while costing almost zero extra time from your day. After all, you take your mind with you into the gym just the same way you take your body with you into meditation. May as well make it useful for all of you to train on multiple levels at once.

Iron Into Gold

The protocol I’m going to describe here is simple in the extreme, but don’t let that fool you. The protocol for running a marathon is simple, too (run until you finish), but the real work is in persistent effort, meeting and addressing obstacles as you go, and of course, actually doing it in the first place.

To make your workout a meditation, you’re not going to do anything differently; you’re going to pay attention to what you’re doing differently. With that said, I would suggest that you start by consecrating your new approach with a specific sacrifice: I know it’s tempting and enjoyable to listen to music or podcasts during your workout. I do it all the time. But if you want to really get your head moving in a different direction, I suggest you go on a “media fast,” at least during your actual workout hours. As much as possible, you’re going to want to be dealing with the raw material of your perception, not whatever storyline or fantasy that’s being engaged by your entertainment. There will be time for that later. But for now, consider turning your workout into sacred territory, and your body into a roving temple wherein your brain will have space to blossom to a new level of awareness. Before you can infuse it with the pure quality of attention, you have to protect it against the grossest and most obvious forces of distraction.

The Method of the Mindful Workout

Once you’ve cleared out some inner space, you’re going to start by simply putting your attention onto your senses. You can take a few minutes to do this before you start your actual workout, or you can do it as you walk into the gym, as you change, or whatever transitional activities there are for you between non-workout time and workout time. In time this will be easy, but at first, you might want to take an inventory, settling in a little bit at a time.

Start by tuning into the sounds around you, the sights, and the smells (hopefully your gym isn’t too woefully sweaty-smelling at this point). Just take a little time to notice what’s going on in your surroundings, and notice the tendency not to notice—the tendency to narrow the stream of attention inward. As you take it all in, see if you can expand your sense of awareness to contain your entire field of perception, expanding outward into it.

Now notice your body as an object within this expanded field of perception. Notice the sensations as they arise and pass away. Notice your breath. Don’t try to manipulate it in any way—just notice, and let your newly expanded attention have its root there.

This is the same kind of expanding and gathering of attention often used prior to a seated meditation. But whereas they’ll be carrying onward by sitting still and counting their breaths, you’ll be carrying on with your usual workout. Except this time, you’ll be maintaining that focused, sensory perception anchored in the breath.

Now, very simply, as you go about your workout, keep your attention on your body. If it drifts away into thought and fantasy, which it will simply notice and gently bring it back. Even if you find yourself going into a trance and snapping out of it five minutes later, again, just notice and bring the attention back to the body. Just noticing how often you drift into distraction can be an enormous benefit. The more you notice, the more you’ll catch yourself doing it, and the more you’ll be motivated to stop. As you’ll discover, being fully awake to the moment-by-moment reality of your living experience just feels a hell of a lot better than thinking about what you’re having for dinner, or why she hasn’t texted you back yet.

Don’t simply assume that because you’re doing something physical that you’re “in touch” with your body. Some of the best competitive athletes I know are deeply out of touch with their bodies, which is often reflected in overtraining and avoidable injuries. Especially if you’re training in a way that’s habitual for you, you may notice that it happens almost automatically, whether you’re paying attention or not. There is another potential benefit beyond the brain development inherent to mindfulness: you’re way more likely to notice when you let your form slip, or when your body is telling you to go easy, or that it’s ready for a higher weight. In that way, the workout serves the meditation and the meditation serves the workout.

Is This Really Meditation?

Depending on how conversant you already are with more traditional meditation techniques, this may sound a little bit like cheating. I can already hear some of the meditation purists I know groaning a bit at the suggestion that a workout can be a meditation. Then again, those purists could usually benefit from a little sweat, endorphins, and muscle mass themselves, so I’d say, it’s all about balance.

Ultimately, just about any activity can be used as a meditation. You can meditate while you run, while you lift, while you walk your dog, while you eat, while you shower. In fact, this kind of approach is not uncommon in meditation circles, where people will take up running or lifting, sometimes for the first time, in order to give themselves a physical anchor for their meditation. I know of at least one advanced meditator who took up powerlifting as a way to process some of the intense mental and emotional experiences that can happen the deeper you go with meditation.

Most of us go through our workouts, our days, and our lives in some degree of trance—not quite asleep, but never fully awake. In a way, all the instruction I can give you for making your workout a meditation can be summed up in five words: Stay awake and pay attention.

The point is to see more of reality because by seeing more of reality, you automatically become smarter, more proficient, more engaged; less hypnotized, less caught up in thought, and less indulgent in fantasy. You become not only stronger, healthier, and happier, but more real, and your workout will become a clearer oasis in your day, a sacred space of self-development, instead of just one more chore to tick off your list.