When I go to the gym, the elliptical is the piece of equipment I use most regularly. I like it because it counts calories burned and measures my heart rate. But mostly, I like the elliptical because I don’t have to pay attention to what I’m doing. I just step up onto the elliptical foot platforms, set the incline and resistance, and I’m off.
I use the handles that can be pushed and pulled to build upper body strength. With my hands well attached to these handles, I am free to watch a video on the private digital screen, or listen to music or a podcast. Or I can read a book. Usually, though, my exercise session is a kind of meditation.
The physical effort needed at the start of my workout is pretty low. My legs are pumping happily. It just feels so good to move. I like to close my eyes. It’s liberating to be safe while moving boldly without the normalcy of sight. My mind registers the rocking of my body. I notice my posture. I pull my spine up long and tall, my head lifting. With my head raised high, a soft dignity comes over me. I’m sensing myself from the inside out. My deeper breathing expands my ribcage. My heart is beating smoothly.
I think about how there are people across the planet doing their workout, right now, feeling how their bodies warm up to the exercise, feeling how the air about them brushes across their skin as they move. People have been exercising their bodies for thousands of years, feeling their muscles strain to pull or push the resisting weight. My sense of here and now expands as I consider the many enthusiasts of exercise over time. Some of them surround me in this very gym. I do not work in isolation.
My legs are working the elliptical easily now, and my mind is free from any demands. I turn from words toward silence. I am sightless and wordless, and I feel very alive. I just listen, feel, move, breathe. I enjoy the peacefulness of the mental calm.
I hear the person on the machine next to me stepping off of their elliptical. My mind wonders what their mind did while they peddled. I wonder how many people in the gym meditate regularly. Probably a few at least. Noticing that my brain has started talking about the world surrounding me, I follow that focus and shape it. What is there outside of my body? Sensations fill my inner body and then stretch across the surface. I direct my awareness outward, regaining silence.
I feel my shoes encasing my feet. They are outside me. They connect to the peddles. The elliptical machine is outside of me, moving mechanically, like my joints. The whirring sound of the gears and belts in the elliptical are outside of me. The room spreads out from this rhythmically working body of mine. I check that my grasp is steady. Confident, I let the size of the entire gym into my awareness, then grow the awareness out to the neighborhood, then to the town, the planet, and beyond. So much space all around. If images arise, I let them go. I let myself be willing to be very big. I feel the rocking and pumping of my body working the elliptical while my awareness is also holding the bigness of the world outside of my body.
It is hard to hold a dual focus for long. When my attention breaks down, I return the focus to the space within the gym and to my feet. I gradually work my way out to the big picture again. After a few repetitions of this mental exercise, my mind is tired. I relax.
The peddling has become very easy. I’ve been at it for a while and my muscles are eager for harder work. I open my eyes to increase the resistance. The timer tells me I’m close to halfway through my 20-minute session. I’m surprised at the time passing. Closing my eyes again is a relief. It’s quieter with my eyes closed. Less for my brain to notice and chat about.
I decide to settle my mental focus behind me about five feet back, as if I see myself from behind, but not with eyes. I’m working for a sense of awareness from a perspective other than from my body. I move the “seeing” further behind me, and then raise it up some. This, again, uses the imagination, and my brain can slip into imaging. Any images generated by this effort are set aside, just as words get set aside. I have to set aside mental activity over and over again, both words and images. I return each time to quietly sensing, seeing without seeing.
After a bit, words have taken over again. I realize I am talking to myself about my workout, but not to the self I want to keep engaged. I remember that my attention had been behind me. Now all my attention is on my body. All of my energy is going to the physical work, and to directing that work.
My metabolism has heated up. My breath is very deep now, bringing more oxygen rich air into my lungs. It’s almost a sucking of air into my chest. Calories must be burned for the harder push my legs are producing. That burning requires oxygen. Breathing pulls it in. All this work going on inside my flesh. My legs peddle. My arms pull. My lungs heave. My heart beats. There is a system. It’s working.
My sense of presence is in my chest. It’s very warm and very alive here, a counterbalance to all the work. So much to feel. So central. Balance is in constant play. My hips sway, the spine lilting along, even my neck. My shoulder blades move with each pulling and pushing on the handle bars. They adjust with each stride. But they are not working as hard as they were. They’ve gotten tired. My legs have taken up the slack.
I direct my arms to work harder against the handle bars. They are reluctant. I need them to expend their maximum strength so that my exercise session can be effective. Directing them to do the work takes all of my focus. I am aware only of needing to task my muscles. My mind is focused. There are no words, no images, no mental wandering. Concentrated discipline, that is all that can be allowed. The mental exercise of quiet awareness has given way to focused struggle against fatigue. My mind’s command must match my body’s drive to let up. Intention is everything.
I decide to increase the resistance on the elliptical for the last few minutes of exercise. My entire body leaps into gear to make it happen. The burn is deep. The lungs burn, too. There is resistance not just in the elliptical. My body wants to rebel. I set aside each muscular complaint, each lapse in forceful energy, each emotional plea. No fuss about it. I merely re-up the required focus each time it falls off.
The demanding physical effort colors my relationship with both body and mind. I hold steadily the purpose for taking on the challenge. The strain is in the mental work as much as the physical. Indeed, I was wrong to say I don’t have to pay attention to what I’m doing while on the elliptical. Once I’m really pushing the limits of my body’s strength, the exercise demands total attention, which is just fine with me. As before, it’s quiet here. This is another kind of meditation. One focus. One purpose.
I listen only to the part of me that directs my energy. This is the same part of me that directed my mental exercises just minutes ago. This is my trusted partner, my lifelong self. It is me, myself, who directs these exercises. Only I can. Only I can put the head-talk and the resistance gently outside of my attention, somewhere, anywhere, out behind me, outside of my interest. I do not care about distractions except to dismiss them. I care only to complete my exercise session.
I breathe. I burn. I am calm. I carry on. I peddle with my feet. I push and pull with my arms. I keep my eyes closed. Being present. Being silent. Staying with it. This is practice, not perfection. Work now. The session will end soon.