Perhaps this sounds merely like trading one addiction for another. And if by addiction we mean its colloquial but vague sense of any habit-forming activity, then there is some truth to it. However, one of my aims in this book is to show that there is a far more nuanced, and ultimately more profound, way to understand the widespread phenomenon of the exercise habit. To put it briefly: by swapping cigarettes for running, I had taken a few stutter steps in the direction of what I will call, after the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, the practicing life. Addiction is just the repetition of a habit; it’s the sameness of the repeated act that mollifies us. The practicing life demands one continually reform and reevaluate one’s habits as part of a process of deliberately shaping one’s existence.
One reason I like to return to the topic of the gym is because I like how it serves as an unconventional example of the “practicing life” in contrast to the artsy, spiritual connotations the phrase might call to mind. If I begin to speak of my “daily practice,” you might expect to hear me describe my writing process (gag) or my zazen ritual. The mind/body divide has been unevenly balanced ever since Plato. But I like to try to illustrate that the body can be something other than a vessel for egotism and hedonism, especially in a place like the gym, which you might consider the mecca for those traits.
Speaking of Zen meditation, Brad Warner has written several times over the years of the surprising difficulty behind something as simple as literally sitting still and staring at the wall while following your breath. Those of us who have ever attempted it quickly learn why the apt metaphor of the “monkey mind” exists. For most of us, with our minds already addled by too much stimulation, it’s a sobering experience to aim to notice your thoughts without clinging to them. When you find yourself, inevitably, rehashing that scene from work, or recalling song lyrics, or wondering why your left knee feels sore, you notice it, let it go, and return to your breath. You may even succeed a few times. Eventually, though, your mind will become increasingly shrill about demanding to grab onto some idea or image and wallow in it. Warner describes how you may find yourself entertaining the most shocking or horrific thoughts, all because your mind would rather torment you with terrible thoughts than relax and not think at all.
I experience a version of this a few times a week when I ride the recumbent bike as a warmup. I do intervals on it: I start off on level 8 resistance for one minute at 70 RPM. Then I bump it up to 12 resistance for a minute at 65 RPM. Every minute, I change it accordingly. From 12, back to 8, up to 14, back to 8, and so on, up until 20. Usually, I can get up to 16 resistance without too much strain, but by 18 and 20, I’m breathing more heavily, sweat is streaming down my face, and the lactic acid is stinging my quadriceps and hamstrings. (An alternate version starts at 8, jumps to 22, back down to 10, up to 20, and so on, until I end up on 15.) I’ve done this countless times. I know what to expect. Sitting here at the desk early in the day, I can look ahead to riding the bike this evening with a sense of calm determination. But nearly every time, I will actually spend those two minutes with my mind throwing a tantrum, just like a monkey in a cage, trying to get me to stop. My eyes jump from watching the clock, to watching the RPMs, to scanning the gym, desperately looking for a distraction. In a mere sixty seconds, my mind offers up multiple rationales for why it would be okay, even necessary, to stop right now, no, really, it’s fine, 41 seconds is more than enough effort, it’s not important to finish the entire minute, and besides, we can just do it tomorrow instead. Does your ego need to be humbled? I can assure you, there’s nothing more effective than to be reminded that a little squirt of lactic acid can have you mewling like a kitten, ready to sell your loved ones to human traffickers if only the burning pain will stop.
Something similar occurs on the squat rack. As Mark Rippetoe noted, you learn something important about yourself when you have one more rep to go on your second set of five under heavy weight. Again, no matter how many times I’ve done it successfully, I feel apprehensive when I step up to a loaded bar. Faced with discomfort and extreme effort, my mind starts throwing objections against the wall of my skull, looking for anything that might stick. My hip is sore! I haven’t caught my breath yet! That last set with fifty fewer pounds was hard, there’s no way I can do this one! And each time, I rely on the traditions established by all those before me to get me through, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Feel the bar resting snugly on your traps. Connect to your core, get a good breath before lifting off. Set your feet. Go down with control, open up at the bottom (i.e. spread your knees), push through your pelvic floor, drive from your heels. Countless people smarter and stronger than I have established these rules and found them to work; what do my petty little cavils matter? Notice them as they arise and let them go; focus on your breath. There’s something eternal about that choice in a moment of discomfort and fear. It will come up repeatedly in your life, but the gym is a safe space, if you will, for running that little controlled experiment, for practicing how to thrive despite obstacles. Pushed to your limits, confronted with pain or anxiety, can you remain calm and keep going? If not now, when? If you get in the habit of quitting or rationalizing, how will you ever stop doing it?
I’ve always worked with a personal trainer, not just for the instant feedback and reservoir of expertise, but for the accountability. The simple truth is, you try harder for someone else than you do for yourself, even when you don’t strictly owe them anything, even when your obligation is entirely self-imposed. Your loved ones will accept you no matter what, but the professional distance between my trainer and I serves as a spur. I don’t want him to see me being weak; I don’t want to embarrass myself with a flimsy excuse. Training on my own, it would be too easy to take a longer rest in between sets, to avoid adding that extra weight. Ego would say: I don’t like that, that’s too uncomfortable, and besides, I don’t think it’s effective anyway. By subordinating my ego to the discipline imposed by a trainer, I find I’m capable of a lot more than I thought.
It turns out that around 70% of personal training clients are women looking to lose weight. I asked my trainer if he thought that was due to the inherent tendency of men to avoid stopping to ask directions. Partially, he said, but even in the last couple decades, there used to be a more balanced gender ratio. He thinks social media has made the difference — lots of guys watch some YouTube videos and think, “I’ve got this! I don’t need any help!” I see them all the time, with their terrible form and untutored enthusiasm, and just wince at how dumb it is to let pride get in the way of such a useful relationship to have. Like I said, it’s not just the instrumental usefulness of having a walking encyclopedia right there to answer questions and give you an objective perspective on your efforts. It’s the whole master/apprentice relationship that’s valuable — the act of placing trust in a respected authority figure, the subordination of your own ego in order to learn best practices.
None of this is to say that it’s common to think of working out in these quasi-spiritual terms. Many if not most people in the gym are probably driven by ego and vanity, and many of them don’t stick with it once they start. But as is often the case, there are hidden depths everywhere if you care to notice them.