People tend to think of meditation and exercise as contrasting experiences. When you meditate, you calm the mind and still the body. When you exercise, you activate the mind and set the body in motion. Exercise and meditation, however, have a lot more in common than you think. Meditation as a discipline is about intentionally resetting the brain’s default setting to mindfulness in the present moment. This work is necessary because unresolved issues from the past and anxiety about the future make the present much less enjoyable (or more unpleasant than it already is). Meditation develops three important life skills critical to being mindful: concentration, clarity, and equanimity (emotional stability). Even people who haven’t taken up the discipline of meditation regularly engage in meditative activities. Many daily routines—like reading, running, lifting weights, playing sports, taking cold showers, listening to music—develop the same skills as sitting crossed leg or standing up straight, focusing on the breath, repeating mantras, or any of the other traditional features of meditation. What this doesn’t mean is that every daily routine is equally effective for everyone. I personally get the most out of traditional meditation because it enables me to exclusively devote all of my brainpower to concentration, clarity, and equanimity. Your experience may be different. But what it does mean is that we should rethink how universally important meditation, with its varied expressions, is to living well.
Every activity that promotes mindfulness is essentially meditation.
The Universal Law of Meditation
Exercise deserves special attention because of how vital it is to human health. Exercise can take a variety of forms, like walking, stretching, running, lifting weights, and sports. But all exercise has one thing in common: motion. As Tony Robbins always says, “Motion creates emotion.” And the motion of exercise in a healthy environment is positive emotion (ie, when you’re not being chased by a bear or yelled at by a football coach). Our brain rewards the physical stress of exercise with happy hormones (endorphines) that relieve symptoms of mental stress. This is why exercise is so good at promoting mindfulness.
What always stands in the way of mindfulness is negative emotion. Exercise provides temporary relief from negative emotion. When exercising, it is easier to be clear-headed, concentrated, and even-keeled. But it also provides more permanent relief as the brain rehearses and normalizes the experience of exercise, adapting mindfulness as the new norm. Exercise is a powerful tool for everyone, especially people struggling to stay grounded in the present.
Once I had an interesting conversation with a bodybuilder.
I asked him, “Do you ever meditate?”
He said, “I don’t have time between work, family, and hitting the gym.”
I said “Well, you go the gym every day.”
He said “Yeah, I’m in there 4 hours a day 5 days a week. The gym is my sanctuary.”
He was a personal trainer. He would work out and train people on the daily. I proceeded to explain to him how going to the gym for him was a lot like meditating for me. Meditation is where I concentrate. Meditation is where I feel clear-headed and relaxed. Meditation is where I process emotions. Meditation is where I train myself to be stronger. He said it made sense, even though he never thought about it that way. As it turns out, meditation and exercise do have a lot in common. For many people, they are different ways of achieving the same goal.
Focus isn’t cheap. It takes a lot of willpower to focus where you want when you want. That’s because focus means letting go of the past and the future. Letting go of the emotional baggage that demands being nurtured in the present. The discipline of meditation is a tried-and-trued way to develop the skills of clarity, focus, and emotional fortitude. And so is exercise—as well as a myriad of other mindfulness-promoting routines that people do without even realizing it.
What are some of your favorite mindfulness-promoting routines?