Things that challenge our bodies calm our minds, and there is a reason for that.
Yes, the release of endorphins is one reason, but there is more: when we are concentrating on exercise we are occupying our conscious minds. When our conscious minds are occupied, we free our awareness, making room for higher states to emerge into view.
About 12 years ago, in a beginner’s manual on Hatha yoga, I found short allegory that metaphorically explained the function of a mantra. It stuck with me. It goes like this:
A man discovers a bottle with a genie. The genie informs the man that he will now do his bidding, but that he must be kept busy, or he will regain his freedom and promptly devour him. The man sets the genie to granting his every wish, but he reaches the end of his list quickly, and he realizes he needs to keep the genie busy so he is not eaten. He consults a guru who tells him to order the genie to build a pole, climb to the top, and when he reaches the top, climb back down again. “Tell him that when he gets to the bottom, he must climb back up to the top again,” says the guru (Johnsen, 2002). This, of course, solves the genie problem and allows the man to go about his life enjoying his wealth and happiness.
In this metaphor the genie is the conscious, busy mind and the ladder command is mantra. What this story is really describing is the occupation of the conscious mind with a repetitive task; therein allowing peace and higher consciousness a seat at the table, so to speak. Sound familiar? Yes! This is what we are doing when we are holding the pose, or practicing the Kata, or pushing out that last mile. We are giving our genie a task, so that we can experience bliss. This makes the exercise itself a form of meditation.
Of course, students in yoga or martial arts traditions are familiar with the idea of exercise as a form of meditation, but what about other forms of exercise?
When we use our bodies in a way that requires intense concentration, we are entering a state of awareness that allows us to expand our minds, just as in the kind of meditation where you sit or lie down with eyes closed. As many meditators already know, once we begin to glimpse the peace and expanded consciousness that comes with quieting the conscious mind, we start to realize how powerful thoughts really are. We begin to see that negativity, anxiety, and many kinds of mental unrest can be dealt with—that we do not have to believe everything that we think.
What’s more, as we are beginning to tame these destructive thought patterns, we are also glimpsing something else. Call it the infinite. Call it the true self. Call it spirit, or god, or super consciousness. We don’t know what it is, but it seems that many people who have meditative experiences agree there is something beyond the everyday constructs of the conscious mind. With meditation we begin to develop what has been called “Spiritual Intelligence.” While this is a somewhat loaded term, there is something to the idea that we can (and should) develop a kind of intelligence that has less to do with the tangible, material aspects of happiness and more to do with the intangible—whatever that might mean for you. This places value on mental health and well-being and emphasizes an open-minded approach.
In my own life, the simple joy of hiking has had a powerful impact. I am lucky to live in a place that offers me majestic natural beauty on a regular basis. Since I was a child, I’ve spent many days every year walking in the forest enveloping myself in the sounds, and smells and colors surrounding me. When I settle into my hike my breathing changes, my heart rate slows, my mind begins to calm and it feels as if a weight is being lifted. Suddenly, there is room in my mind for peace and quiet! The anxious-thought string has disappeared, or at least retreated. This is meditation.
I can say with confidence that this habit has always been a meditation for me, even before I knew what meditation meant. I can also attest to the fact that people you meet on a hiking trail are generally some of the happiest people you will ever meet; even when it is pouring rain and the bugs are still biting, they will offer you a smile. I believe that this is because they are in their happy place. Their personal genie is occupied with the climb and they are smiling at you from a place that I just a little less anxious and chaotic. They are meditating too.
It is as though with exercise we are creating a multi-faceted openness inside of ourselves. We are moving our bodies and releasing excess energy, boosting our metabolism and building strength. This process releases endorphins and gives us that healthy afterglow. Finally, we are entering a meditative state that allows us to leave behind worry and fear, eventually leading us to a place where we can see beyond the confines of the material, and perhaps glimpse the interconnectedness of all beings.
This is the way that exercise, any exercise, can help open us to open our minds.
Author: J. Margaret Vincent
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Michelle Spencer/Unsplash