Why I meditate and participate in endurance sports

June 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

I ran my first triathlon of the season this past weekend. It was a really fun experience with new friends I’ve made here in Brooklyn. I’ve also been meditating with coworkers and on my own, regularly, for the last 10 plus months. I find a lot in common between these experiences. And I find them instructive for dealing with anxiety about the future, of which there is plenty among my peer group.

Endurance sports like distance running, biking, swimming require a lot of mental fortitude. Completing an endurance event is as much a test of mental strength and will power as physical ability. Starting out on mile 1 of a 60 mile bike ride, or turning the corner for mile 20 of a marathon, it is easy to think about what I’ll feel like when I’m done. It’s easy to count backward from the finish line and just convince myself that I’ll keep enduring the pain until it’s over. I sometimes even think the finish line will be worth it, that how crappy I feel in the moment will be rewarded in turn when I finish. But I think that’s a mistake. I find it is much more rewarding to be present. I find much more satisfaction in focusing on how I feel right now. The ride, run or swim become much more calming when I can just focus on how I feel in the moment, enjoying the scenery, focusing on my breath or appreciating the pace I’m keeping up. If I start playing the mental game of “I only have 10 miles to go, which is 5 miles, repeated twice, which is about 30 or 35 minutes, so I should be…” I know I won’t enjoy myself as much. This falsely gives all the credit to the finish, when in fact the finish is only a small fraction of the activity.

I’ve had similar experiences with meditation. When I first started meditating, I remember having a hard time focusing on the present. My self talk during meditation sessions would primarily be about how I might feel at the end. There was no focus on being present, on learning about the moment I was in. It took me a long time and a lot of practice to understand how to focus on my breath, on how to recognize but not fixate on fleeting thoughts. It was a difficult habit to build, but something I’m glad I worked on. I still work on these habits every time I meditate, but I now understand the goal of focusing on my breath, on allowing myself to learn about my thought patterns and my proclivities through each meditation session.

I have found these habits to be very helpful in alleviating anxiety in my day to day life as well. Focusing on the future, thinking about next steps, evaluating experiences in terms of future rewards can be very anxiety provoking. I have talked with peers about these feelings too, and I imagine anxiety about the future is prevalent among many people. I have tried my best to focus on the present when moments like this arise for me. Taking pleasure in the moment you’re in, addressing facts and feelings as you know them now, trying your best not to count backward from some imagined future can go a long way in decreasing some of the anxiety caused by a hyper competitive, status minded, fatigue lauding world. There are a lot of things to be said about why we live in a world like this (from perspectives found in economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, so on and so on), but that’s a discussion about causes. I have found that in the mean time, this tactic of focusing on the present, can be helpful in treating at least this symptom.

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