Meditation and Medicine Balls
By James Karran
One of the highlights of the Olympics for me so far has been seeing the reaction of Chinese swimmer Fu Yuan Hu to her third place win in the women’s 100m backstroke semi-final. After the race, the young Olympian was interviewed by by the media and told, to her obvious shock and delight, that she had come in third. The response was priceless. She suddenly erupted with a surprise and unadulterated positivity that is impossible not to be infected by. However, it was the reason she gave for her impressive performance that really caught my eye. She said she used her “HONG HUANG ZHI LI”, which was subtitled as “Mystic Energy” and I understand refers to a kind of primal, otherworldly power that is often found in Chinese mythology.
Whatever Fu meant precisely by the phrase, it brought into focus something that has been at the back of my mind for a while now: the connection between contemplation and physical exercise. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at me, but I have been keeping up a daily exercise routine for about ten years. I alternate daily between cardiovascular and conditioning exercises (which is a posh way of saying I either run around or lift stuff up). I have a day off on a Sunday (day of rest and all that). It’s not a routine I have read about or picked up from anywhere, but it seems to work for me. It’s become so ingrained in my psyche that it actually takes more effort not to exercise. Even sat here talking about it now I can feel my arms beginning to twitch.
And I hate it.
Seriously. I know that some people loooooooove the exercise. Do ALL the exercises!!! I look on in awe at photos of my Facebook friends and their Crossfit exploits. Sheesh. Not for me. But I do it, partly because it does help keep me fit, partly because I like looking at my shoulders in the mirror (resist the selfie. RESIST THE SELFIE), and partly because it’s just too much effort to stop. But I am definitely NOT a gym bunny.
So I am constantly looking for new and innovative ways to make exercise sessions more bearable. This is where contemplation comes in.
I have made the surprising discovery that contemplation (meditation) and exercise are natural bedfellows. There is a lot going on with the body during any amount of physical exercise: the heart rate increases, breathing quickens and deepens, muscles burn, joints strain under impact etc. In short, there are loads of interesting and intense sensations to be fully experienced by the present mind. I have found that deliberately being aware of these sensations has the dual effect of bringing me powerfully into the present moment and enabling me to let go of the torrent of negative feelings I have toward the exercise. Result.
But the relationship goes deeper still. I recently came across the concept of Mushin, a Japanese Zen Buddhist term which is usually translated as ‘no mind’. Mushin is that state where all thoughts, all feelings, all desires, all anxieties have been purged from the mind and replaced by a nothingness, or emptiness. This is the state of instinct, when an athlete has trained to such an extent that the movements, the power, the grace are not things they need to remember or recall, they are them. Quite literally there is a oneness between the athlete as subject, the subject’s intention, and whatever the object might be (the water of the swimming pool, the racing bike, the horse, the weights etc). The British Kendo master John Howell says this about Mushin in relation to swordsmanship:
“However well a man (or woman) be trained in the art, the swordsman can never be the master of his technical knowledge unless all his psychic hindrances are removed and he can keep the mind in a state of emptiness, even purged of whatever technique he has obtained. The entire body together with the four limbs will be capable of displaying, for the first time and its full extent, all the art acquired by the training of several years.” (‘Mushin’ in Kihaku, magazine of the British Kendo Federation, Issue 1 2016)
Have you noticed the intent expression on the face of Michael Phelps, or Bradley Wiggins, or Jessica Ennis Hill before they do their thing? That’s Mushin. Elite sports people have an advantage over the rest of us in that they discover No Mind naturally, as part of their rise to greatness. However, No Mind is exactly the same state as non-dual mind, the ‘God perspective’ on the world. It is the goal of contemplation and the gateway to peace, love and contentment. It is the essence of True Life.
So next time you’re trying to drum up the will to exercise (I feel your pain), remember that it can be, if approached properly, a potent tool for your meditative journey.
Right, I’m off for a run.