The Mindful Athlete
Gritrx is all about extending fitness to everyone, with the general idea that through fitness we gain important experiential knowledge about the world outside of the gym. Is fitness the end-all-be-all answer to all of life’s problems? No. The purpose of this blog post is to touch on that idea. The idea that there’s more to it than simply getting fit and eating right if you want to be able to deal with life’s problems. Fitness is a great step in dealing with mental/emotional health and addiction issues. But there’s more to it than that. You may be thinking, “Okay… but I thought that’s what this whole Gritrx thing is about.” It’s also about something much deeper.
I found Buddhism through what seemed like pure coincidence really. I was in the library just browsing. At the time, I had a long commute and was looking at books on tape to help ease the pain of 695. Through no rhyme or reason whatsoever, I picked up The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Before this, I had no background with spiritual or “new age” type of books or philosophy. The Power of Now absolutely changed me. I was blown away. Sometimes I would even get home from school and just sit in my car late at night listening to it. I would stare at the woods behind my parents’ house in complete awe of what I was hearing and learning. As an anxious person, the idea that all the suffering I had endured was just my mind- and that I had the ability to separate my true self from that incessant voice in my head- was so freeing.
I immediately began trying to put this practice to use. I can remember vividly having the urge one day to call my mom and freak out (a common occurrence) with worry that I didn’t complete the paperwork for my LGPC correctly (to get my graduate license to do therapy). I was having all the symptoms of a panic attack- heavy breathing, throat closing, sweating, etc. And, of course, the worst symptom: the racing thoughts that came with projecting myself into some awful future where I had wasted thousands of dollars on graduate school only to be homeless and on the street.
I pulled out my phone to call her. I pulled my mom’s name up on my phone and then BAM. My awareness kicked in: “Here you are, doing that thing you always do.” I watched my own mind. I watched it panicking. Then everything was still for a second before the urge to call her came back in. At that point, it was a bit of a back and forth between my monkey mind pushing me to call her, to get outside comfort, and my true self, the watcher in me… observing this whole shit storm going down. I put the phone down. I said to myself, “There’s nothing wrong in this moment. I will try all this power of now stuff and wait to freak out until I really have a reason to freak out.” Guess what? My license came through. I had probably freaked out a million times before where things had worked out throughout my life! All that energy and stress… wasted on literally nothing!
This whole experience put me on a path that has brought to where I am today. I read countless books on Buddhism after that. I began meditating and joined a Buddhist sangha for group meditation. I went on Buddhist retreats. I paid for meditative spiritual healings from a Sufi woman. I even did a three day solo meditative backpacking trip. This idea, that our own minds are the culprit for our suffering, was ground breaking and changed the way I lived and absolutely shaped the way I do therapy. It underlies everything I do. I learned that this is why I love exercise and sport. These things FORCE us into the present moment. It’s very difficult to worry about what’s happening outside of the seconds when you are jumping through the air to head a soccer ball, or pulling yourself under a heavy barbell during a snatch.
In the groups I run on problem solving, I often reference a metaphor I picked up somewhere about near-accidents while driving. If you have ever driven a car, you have probably at some point in your life had a close call. During the near-accident you react instinctively: you swerve or break or do nothing and just sort of observe what’s happening as it happens. You make it out of the situation unscathed… AND THEN you feel panic. It’s not until after the incident your mind makes what just happened into an awful experience or problem. In the moment it was merely a situation to be dealt with and often our instincts take over without thought. This is the key.
One of my favorite lines as a substance abuse counselor was, “smoking weed/drinking/using whatever, gets our minds to shut the fuck up.” Clients would often just look at me nodding. We all just want our minds to shut the fuck up sometimes. Especially if we have a mental health diagnosis. It becomes annoying. Sometimes it’s more than annoying. It can drive us to suicide. During your sport, you may experience “flow” or be “in the zone.” This is a state where you are just doing things without really thinking. In fact, if you think, it will often disrupt your “flow.” Athletes who achieve this state describe it as almost out of body- something else entirely takes over. You are one with your experience. Whatever it is you are doing, you are totally immersed in it- no other thought or detail comes in for an extended period of time. You don't know what songs played, you don't notice the crowd.
Fitness and working out are merely windows into this experience. The deeper lesson I want to get through to groups over time, is that they can ALWAYS access this place- with or without fitness/sport. Recently I was injured and unable to experience flow through exercise at all anymore. Any physical exertion at all bothered my injury. I meditated my ass off. I returned to a Sangha to meditate with others. I did my best to fully accept what was happening to me and I knew in order to do that I needed to return to a different kind of “practice.” This “practice” …meditation- however you chose to do it, is the real key. Through fitness I feel I’m merely tricking people into learning this.
Imbedded in each group is the underlying message: your mind will try and interfere, stay present, always return to the present and accept or deal with whatever it brings you. Anything else is madness and is caused by the thinking mind. The mind is what causes us to give up (failure). It’s what beats us up and tells us we are no good (confidence/self-esteem). It’s what distracts us, causing us to lose focus (focus/visualization). It’s what makes us second guess ourselves, or hyper focus on extraneous details (problem solving/goal setting), and what makes us afraid (comfort zones).
Being aware of your mind and its thought patterns is the first and most important step. If you are not aware of the negative patterns, nothing will change. This is therapy- I pay attention to people’s patterns, discern where they may have originated and then make the client aware of it. Without awareness we are on “auto-pilot”. Much of what we do throughout our day is done without any conscious awareness. Have you ever read a page in a book and you get to the bottom and you realize you weren’t really reading? Have you ever driven home only to realize you don’t remember much of the trip at all? That’s your mind interfering. It took you away from your present task or focus. We are missing our lives.
Anytime you are staying present and focused on the now, you are in a meditative state. This state is where we function best. Good things can happen when we do things from a completely conscious state of mind. I do my best work as a therapist when I am fully focused on what my client is saying. I will often take a deep breath and put my attention on the inside of my chest as a client is talking about something very upsetting as a way of staying present and to avoid the tendency to scramble to try and think of the next thing to say in order to take away or “fix” their pain. I just stay present with them in whatever they are experiencing at that moment. I’ve learned over time that learning to accept and experience pain is largely the goal of therapy. For some reason it’s not acceptable to do this in the outside world. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable things and go to great lengths to avoid it. One of the main reasons for drug use is to escape overwhelming feelings. Only through acceptance and surrender to what is occurring in the present moment are we able to stop avoiding pain, and the strength to move through, and transform it.
Teaching athletes who come into the gym to learn to stay present, to free themselves from over-thinking and to use their minds as a tool- instead of letting their minds use them- is the real mission within Gritrx. Exercise just happens to be a great vehicle for that learning process. Telling someone how to ride a bike, will not make them be able to ride a bike. They have to experience it. They have overcome fear, exert effort, fail, focus, visualize, stay positive, and problem solve, in the moment, for themselves. Only through successful navigation of this process are they led to a new level of awareness and existence. Not only can they ride a bike, but they suddenly believe in themselves. And they realize they can do more things that will lead them to this amazing state of being.
In upcoming posts I'll touch more on the science of mindfulness/meditation and exactly how to begin a meditative practice.