What Can Buddhism Teach Us About Our Fitness Journey?

As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön said, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”

As I was watching a video the other night, I was struck by something the person being interviewed said: “There is nothing that does not grow easier with familiarity.” This quote was referring to facing the discomfort of stillness and the process of meditation. For me, this statement caused me to reflect on my own journey in fitness and the martial arts. The author of this statement isn’t a fitness or martial arts guru, but none other than Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. Ms. Chödrön is also a best-selling author who has many enthusiastic followers in and outside of the Buddhist community.

To some, Pema Chödrön is known as sort of a spiritual master, while others would perhaps classify her works and philosophy as self-help. However, unlike what you hear from the vast majority of self-help experts out there, her philosophy is about facing our suffering versus trying to avoid the pain that causes it. Her philosophy (and that of Buddhism) is about leaning into pain versus avoidance of it.

Fellow Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hahn, is perhaps even better known and cut from the same cloth philosophically. Hahn reminds us that “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering,” and “Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Chödrön and Hahn might have vocal supporters and avid followers but their voices are drowned out by the much more popular self-help mantras du jour – “Yes you can, dream it, and believe it, Have fun, and you have the power!”

The Self-Help and Fitness Industries

The self-help movement, like the fitness and wellness industry, has seen increasing interest and popularity in recent decades. Simply put, people are searching for answers to their unhappiness or their expanding waistlines. Every once in a while Oprah will have some new self help author on and, lo and behold, it sweeps the nation by storm. Anyone remember The Secret? It seems Americans love the self-help sector, and it’s any wonder while we are increasingly unhappy country. Don’t take my word for it. According to the Happy Planet Index, our nation ranks 150th in happiness among the worlds’ nations.

Indeed, to combat our growing discomfort (and weight gain), Americans spent $11 billion in 2008 on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching, and stress-management programs – a 13.6% increase from 2005, according to Marketdata Enterprises. Closely correlated to the self-help sector is our very own fitness industry, which despite economic downturns in recent years, has continued to see strong growth. This also stems in large part from our collective dissatisfaction – from obesity to the sharp rise in correlated health issues from our weight gain.

While it’s interesting and impressive to note the gains in certain industry sectors and some of the successful products, authors, and businesses within these sectors, the larger question looms: is it working? Are people happier? Despite the growth of the fitness industry, are people healthier? I think we know the answers.

The fitness industry and the self-help industry have largely come together to tell us that what we need is a large dose of good old positive thinking. In her book Bright Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich talks at length about our nation’s insatiable appetite for positive thought. Ehrenrecih points out how this positive thinking permeates our culture, from the corporate boardroom to the cancer fighting industry. Hard to argue with positive thinking, right? No one likes a Debbie Downer! Nike sure has sold a lot of shoes reminding people to “Just Do It.” I like the positive approach myself, but one thing the Buddhists might remind us of, is that the positive is not the absence of the negative or pain, it is facing it. As a coach once said to me, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the mastery of it.”

Back to Buddhism and Fitness

Another quotation that stuck out to me from the same interview was from famed Buddhist philosopher, Shantideva. The statement read, “We (who are like senseless children) shrink from suffering but love its causes.” In responding to this statement, Chödrön commented that no one likes to suffer, but we go about getting happy the wrong way. We go about it by distracting ourselves, which in true irony actually perpetuates our pain and suffering.

It is, of course, natural to hope to minimize our suffering as anyone would rightfully want to do. However, we cannot avoid pain in life and it is only in facing it that we can move beyond it. In my estimation, much of what we see in the fitness and wellness industry is about giving people pleasant distractions. Processed diet food that is “healthier” than processed junk food is one such example of a distraction that actually compounds a problem instead of providing sustainable change.

buddhism and fitness, pema chodron, buddhist philosophy, buddhist fitnessWhat we need to tell people in the fitness industry is that we need to face our fears, answer the difficult questions – like why am I unhappy, fat, sedentary, and so forth. It is only in facing these answers and in the discomfort of moving a sedentary body that we can succeed with lasting results. As far as I can tell, the Buddhists would agree and suggest we minimize distractions, sit with pain, and become friends with it.

It’s also okay and essential to accept not having all of the answers and just commit to the process. Real answers evolve from the openness to not having to have them. In our land of rigid, black-and-white thinking, such concepts don’t seem to always resonate. It seems we want something concrete that immediately makes us feel good, no matter what. We want the first step of exercise to be easy and fun or the diet food we eat to taste good. The Buddhist philosophy is that feeling good is a practice, rather than some sort of distraction or simple will power of positive thinking.

I have often wondered what a gym would look like without all of the TVs, loud music, and fancy machines laden with bells and whistles – all of which are meant to distract. What would happen if we had to exercise without such distractions? Might we have to face ourselves?

I have had actually this experience in the martial arts. Save perhaps a little background meditative-like music, the focus of training in the martial arts is about being present in the moment rather than escaping it. If a punch or a kick is coming toward your head you want to make darn sure you aren’t distracted. This is the real reason I love the martial arts. It isn’t about the punches or the kicks. It’s about the mindfulness. The martial arts are about facing the pain and the discomfort versus finding a way away from it. I have found the same to be true in my life as an actor and writer. Creativity also stems often from a place of pain, suffering, and uncertainty.

Profound change and success in and around our journeys in health and wellness come from embracing and facing that same place. As Pema Chödrön said, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”


1. Ehrenreich, Barbara 2009, Bright Sided Metropolitan Books

2. Melanie, Linder “What people are still willing to pay forForbes , January 2009

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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