I’m beginning to think it may actually be possible to have a good time at the gym.
Before my hard gym workout today, I ran an easy 30-minute warmup on the Foothill College track.
I didn’t feel much like running. I awoke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. But I ate a one-egg omelet at lunch and I suspect it helped restore the corpse.
I ran the warmup slowly, under 67% of maximum heart rate. In my book I tell how I discovered the “harmony zone.” It’s that pace, during any run, that feels completely “right.” I began to notice it years ago. At first, I dismissed it impatiently, feeling that I knew best. “I know how fast I want to run today.” But it seemed that every time I let the harmony zone feelings guide me, I had a great run. Now, it guides much of my training. (I haven’t given up on impatience entirely.)
As I shuffled around the track, I watched my inner feelings and stayed with the pace that kept me in the harmony zone, and my body was grateful. I knew it was happy, because it told me so. It’s something that happen invariably when I “do the right thing.” I soon felt energy rising into my upper chest and my upper spine straightening. Two more signs of the harmony zone. I love that when it happens – it made me feel centered, strong and light, though I was still barely shuffling.
Later, driving home, I thought, “Exercise is just an excuse to train the inner person.” Truly, I look for the harmony zone when I’m not running – because I seem to do better in all things when I’m there – work, relationships, dealing with clients, standing in line at the bank, etc.
(I thought, “Golly how awful it would be if a publishing company were to buy my book and rename it Fitness Intuition: Training the Inner Person. Yuck.”)
My energy wasn’t high. I ran for an hour and a half on Saturday and then threw in 20 minutes at a very hard tempo pace. Normally, blasting away at 92% of MHR or faster isn’t much of a problem, after a long warmup. But four days earlier I had sprinted across the Foothill campus on an errand, and my ancient body hadn’t fully recovered.
I started the gym workout with greater pep than I expected. It was the result of the careful warmup, and also because I’d prayed intermittently to be mature and strong – that is, forget egoistic workout thoughts – “I’m here to build my strength, to make my body look better” and similar nonsense – and hold myself back and open my awareness to include others’ realities.
At any rate, several times early in the workout I caught my mind and feelings trying to hook up with ego, shrink within, focus on me, but I insistently, repeatedly pulled back and tried to stay open to broader realities.
As I grow older – and one can’t really get much older – I seem to be learning increasingly that inner strength isn’t at all about domination and posturing, but about self-control: the ability to hold back and allow others to shine and be ready to help them, with a smile, an encouraging word spoken at the right time, etc. To the extent that I resist the urge to get in touch with my inner weenie, I am find that I can be strong and happy.
In the late nineties I worked at a bookstore with Robert Rosenberg, a wonderful man who has lifted weights and taught martial arts for more than 30 years. In my book I describe a conversation that I had with him:
Robert Rosenberg has been a martial arts instructor and strength trainer for thirty-five years. An ex-Marine, he talks in a jolly rapid-fire code that can be a bit hard to decipher. But during our conversation yesterday, every word rang clear.
I asked Robert a simple question about weightlifting: whether he worked his muscles to the maximum every time he went to the gym. He said, “Certainly not.” He explained that the most important thing in weight training is variety. He said he would work a muscle to failure no more than once every three or four weeks.
We talked about the spiritual side of sports, and Robert surprised me by saying some of the same things I’ve discovered as a runner. Things like, “I never work out just for myself – I exercise to give joy.” And “We’re all connected. When I work out, I’m improving one little part of the whole.”
Robert appears to have matured these attitudes in his heart. He’s a wonderful man, very outgoing and kind. My friend Skip Barrett often accompanies Robert to the gym, and he reports that Robert is forever helping others, cheering them on and making them laugh.
At any rate, my fine mood carried over to the gym. It was a vigorous, positive-minded workout. I swung from the bars, lifted tree trunks, ran in the jungle, and felt natural and happy, while having a jolly good old time.
I remembered something that my spiritual teacher told me, thirty years ago. I wrote him a letter and asked him some questions, I forget what, but I remember his answer clearly. He said, “The spiritual path isn’t about waiting for the teacher to come and make everything right. It takes dynamic self-offering.”
I’m only just beginning to understand. I’ve been greatly helped by something that I witnessed when my spiritual teacher swung through town last year. It was after a public talk that he gave, about a book that he’d written, called Hope for a Better World. He was sitting at a wooden picnic table in the patio behind the church and signing books for a long line of people who came forward one at a time.
I was, as is my usual habit, standing off to the side and quietly watching and taking pictures. I have thousands of pictures of him – it’s been a valuable experience to watch him through the lens for over 30 years, especially when he’s interacting with people. I’ve never seen him show anything but the same complete respect, naturalness, and absolute focus on that one person standing before him.
Anyway, I suddenly became aware of a tremendous current of bliss that was flowing out from him to the people who’d come to the lecture. It had nothing to do with outward appearances – in fact, he was just quietly signing books, saying a few words now and then. At one point, he ate an Indian pastry, called a pakora, and had it clamped in his teeth while he signed a book. Yet here was this enormous flow of bliss – it was no mild trickle of ordinary human goodwill or friendship, but a mighty flood, a Mississippi of joy. It was so powerful and intoxicatingly blissful that I couldn’t refrain from letting myself be swept along and adding my two cents’ worth of prayers to its flow.
I thought, “What a wonderful way to live! – to be able to give such a priceless gift.” And then I wondered, “But how is it possible?” Just then, my teacher paused for the briefest moment as if reflecting, and then I saw his jaw muscles tighten for a brief moment. I realized he was giving me the answer: by disciplining the little self and offering it into the great bliss of God.
Today at the Foothill track I realized: I’m happiest when I run that way. I don’t find a great river of bliss when I go within, but if I restrain my immature impulses and run with a broader awareness – when, in other words, I do what’s right, and not as some fleeting emotion might urge me – those are invariably my happiest runs.
When I am, paradoxically, most self-restrained and inwardly in control, I feel most liberated and free inside. It is then that I feel my awareness expand. It is then that I greet others appropriately, with awareness of their realities. It’s then that I’m no longer concerned with what they can give me, but only what I can give, how I can act, as a higher Self guides me.
Years ago, I went through a spiritual test in my running. For several months I’d had many runs that were marked by a great deal of joy, and then suddenly it all was gone. Months ensued of nothing but dry runs, devoid of warm feeling. Finally I prayed in anguish for an answer. I was running on a trail in the woods of the Coastal Range, and I heard the voice of my spiritual teacher say, very simply, “Do it to please God.”
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand that guidance, to know what pleases God. But today I think I became a little clearer about what it means. Do it, in other words, pretty much as I ran today – restraining myself not out of some brutal, dry discipline, but because in my saner moments I know that it’s the most blissful way to run.