I finally motivated myself to begin running again this fall after more than a decade-long hiatus. But then winter came along, and my hopes of consistent outdoor running were dashed. So, I added myself to the family gym membership that my husband and son were enjoying, and I jumped in with both feet.
I’ve found great solace at the gym. After months of intense brain-focused work, it’s been a relief to spend time in a space that caters to the body. I’m reminded of how often I’ve resembled James Joyce’s character, Mr. Duffy, who “lived a short distance from his body.” Yes, I know better. But my small self has been driven to get it all done in this “busy” season of life. So it’s been a relief to give myself over to the activities of the body. I walk away from the gym feeling balanced and refreshed.
My gym experiences have been enlightening in many other ways. I’m a natural observer so I enjoy watching people work out. Yes, I see the ego associated with fitness and muscle-building. But I also get to observe the packs of teenagers (including my son) who work out together. Given all of the things that distract teenagers today, I perceive this activity as incredibly healthy. And this makes my experience at the gym even more enjoyable.
I’d be stating the obvious if I said that the world outside of the gym feels precarious and askew. I only have to look up at the five TVs in front of me while I’m on the treadmill to validate these feelings. Whether I focus on CNN, FOX News, or HGTV, the messages are the same and they seem to fall into two categories: 1) Buy this and 2) Buy into this. Glancing at the headlines and commercials, it is easy to see how the media promotes imbalanced ideas of happiness, terror, and truth.
While gym time for me is an opportunity to listen to uplifting and enlightening podcasts, I find myself occasionally drawn to read these news headlines. When I do, I often experience an immediate somatic reaction of nausea. It doesn’t matter which channel I look at. I feel a profound energetic disconnect between the compassionate and energizing messages in the podcasts I choose to listen to and the heart wrenching, divisive headlines pronouncing that the sky is falling.
Registering the two worlds at the same time feels deeply disorienting and unsettling as I find myself holding optimism and despair in the same hand. I know what I believe in my core – that there is great hope in the world because there is so much wisdom and kindness radiating from all corners of the earth (and from the earth herself). But I also viscerally feel the devastation of so much suffering, loss, and ignorance. I have moments in the gym (and outside of it of course), where I vacillate between these two worlds, having to intentionally re-hitch myself to optimism to stay mentally afloat.
As I was on the treadmill last week avoiding eye contact with the TVs, I listened to a podcast interview with a mindfulness, meditation, and non-violent communications expert who described how he was learning to hold both the joy and the pain of the world without feeling compelled to negate one or the other out of guilt or fear. This is a central teaching in Buddhist psychology – how to be with the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows, as meditation teacher Jack Kornfield puts it. For me, the most challenging part of holding both truths lightly is the discipline it takes to divert my eyes from the headlines and to choose the information I consume so that I can maintain mindful awareness of what is going on and at the same time, wise perspective.
The Buddha taught about “attachment to view.” This is the idea that we can get so attached to our perceptions of right and wrong, black and white, that we miss the forest, the nuance, the deeper truths. Attachment to view can prevent us from seeing what lies beneath the surface of our grasping and it can cause an incredible amount of suffering both for ourselves and for those around us. James Baldwin points to what might hold our attachments in place when he writes, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”[i]
Mindfulness can help us to see this bigger picture. Our attachments and aversions can lose some of their power when we’ve opened up the space that comes from a curious, kind awareness. We can learn to hold the pain and joy, the paradoxes and contradictions, of being human in this living-dying world ever so gently. We can see the causes and conditions that lead to war and hatred and ignorance. And we can also see the beauty of the sun rising and the silhouette of an owl hooting from the rooftop. As poet Mark Nepo so eloquently points to this paradox in his poem, “Adrift,” “I am so sad and everything is beautiful.”
Attaining a gentle hold on the joys and sorrows of the world not only requires us to be mindful of our “attachment of view,” but it also asks us to step out of the battle. As Thai Buddhist Monk Ajahn Chah suggests, “We human beings are in conflict, in battle, at war with so many things – with one another, with our ideas, with our ideals, with our wishes, with our hopes. We’re in conflict with when it’s too hot, and when it’s too cold, and how it tastes, and how it sounds, and how they are. Why not step out of the saddle, step off the battlefield? Stop the war? Find the place of peace that’s beyond and around, that’s larger than all those conflicts? Why not live in peace?”[ii]
It’s a simple question. So simple it can sound naïve. And yet…
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful practice in today’s world of global suffering. It requires that we find the courage to open up space for the larger truths. There is no shortcut to doing this inner work which may involve attending to the pain and suffering within and around us and bringing awareness to our role, however minuscule or significant, in the cycle of suffering. Regardless of how difficult this inner work may be, we can see, through our direct experience, that “meditation is an ultimate act of love toward yourself and toward the world.”[iii] As I have suggested before[iv], this act of love is a prerequisite for authentic engagement in the outer work that our world so desperately needs.
I’m learning that my meditation practice and my running practice are not so separate. The more aware I am of my body, the deeper I can sink into an inner awareness. The more I practice meditation, the deeper my somatic awareness becomes. These practices are holding me steady during these unsettling times. And the moments of simplicity I experience in the gym, as I watch teenagers rove in their packs and adults unwind with weights and machines, contribute significantly to my growing sense of optimism. Perhaps I need to get out more often and explore what happens in other communal spaces. But for now, the gym will do. I’ll let its lessons wash over me as I release the burdens of the day and experience the fruits of simply being present.
[i] From Notes of a Native Son, 1955
[ii] In Jack Kornfield, Equanimity and Peace transcript, Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Program
[iii] David Chernikoff, Dharma talk, 12/10/2023