27 November 2011

On the Importance of a Single Lampshade to Exercise

Can rearranging furniture lead to a change in a lifetime's thinking about exercise? Oddly enough, the answer appears to be yes.

My husband recently rearranged the family room furniture. He created a beautiful office space for himself within the book-lined walls at the back of the room. But, a consequence is that our treadmill--that once had a perfect view of both the television and backyard--had to be moved. Its new home is an awkward location: you have to walk around it to get to the seating area and the viewing angle for the television and outdoors is uncomfortable. But his new work space is lovely, so I am happy to walk around the treadmill.

We've had that treadmill for many years now. We bought it with best of intentions. We wanted to be able to to exercise regularly, regardless of the weather conditions, while watching whatever we wanted on television. And sometimes my intentions matched reality: I used it regularly while I watched old movies and art quilting programs. But more often it sat lonely and neglected.

The other day I was reflecting on how the winter's loss of light affects me. I am less active and spend less time outside. My energy drags and I can feel low. I decided right then that I would get on the treadmill and see how more consistent activity would counteract the lack of light.

I set the treadmill to a slow speed and started walking. It was a different experience walking on the treadmill in its new home. Instead of a view of the television or backyard, I had a perfect view of a single, white lampshade.

At this point, I need to share something: I have a fairly competitive personality. I was one of those annoying kids in grade school who would race to finish tests first and then invariably get an A. When I was in high school, I was part of a very competitive group of friends who competed over grades, accolades, and awards. Although I was a very good student, the unrelenting competition diminished my desire to compete with others. But it did not mean that I stopped competing with myself.

So when on the treadmill, for example, I would try to better my previous day's result. I would want to go faster, or longer, or on a steeper incline than I did the day before. I'd keep charts of all the statistics--mileage, time, calories burned--and gave myself gold stars for my personal bests.

What would inevitably happen is that I would burn myself out. I'd force myself through tougher and tougher workouts until I was red-faced, sweaty, and out of breath. I'd get shin splints and muscle strains from increasing the difficulty too quickly. Is it any wonder that the treadmill so often sat lonely and neglected?

So there I was, on my treadmill, looking at a white lampshade. I couldn't turn on the television to distract and entertain me while I pushed past my limits. I couldn't let my mind wander as I gazed at the backyard. All I could do was look at a white lampshade. So what I decided to do was to walk very mindfully, using the white lampshade as a focal point.

I focused my attention on how the muscles in my legs felt as I took each step, on how the air felt traveling through my nostrils as I inhaled, and on how it passed through my mouth as I exhaled. Whenever I wanted to look at the display to see how long I had walked or how fast, I would return my attention to the white lampshade. Whenever I wanted to speed up or raise the incline, I would return my attention to the white lampshade.

After walking for a while, I decided that I would stop while I wanted to keep going (rather than keep going until I had to stop). I got off the treadmill, did some simple stretches, and realized how energized I felt by taking it easier (rather than how exhausted I would usually feel after overdoing it).

Walking mindfully changed my experience. That would be my new approach to exercise. I set myself a few simple rules to counteract my natural tendency to compete with myself and also to promote a more mindful experience.
  1. I would set myself a time limit for each session. 
  2. I could stop before I hit the time limit but I could not exceed it. 
  3. I could increase the time limit once a week, but no more than a 10% increase. 
  4. If I had the urge to speed up or increase the incline, then I would slow down or decrease the incline. 
  5. I would get off the treadmill while I still wanted to keep going. 
  6. When my mind wanders I return my attention to the white lampshade.
What it boils down to is that I get on the treadmill because I get on the treadmill. I don't get on the treadmill to walk faster than the day before, or to burn a certain number of calories, or to walk longer than I ever have. I don't have any other goal than to get on the treadmill. The action itself (to get on the treadmill) is the goal (to get on the treadmill).

This has revolutionized my approach to exercise. It's easier to get on the treadmill because that is all I have to do. Once I am on it, I have achieved my goal. Of course while on it, I enjoy the movement and generally walk until the time limit. It's a gentle and mindful approach that allows me to enjoy movement for movement's sake rather than obsessing about pushing past my limits.

I want to reflect more on this idea of doing something because I do it. Can I apply this more mindful approach to other areas of my life? How would my art change if I simply created art for art's sake, rather than with thoughts of gallery shows or sales? How would my writing change if I wrote because I wrote, rather than thinking about who will read it or whether I can be published? Do these goals I set work for or against me? I'll share with you what I discover.

Thanks for reading. I'd love to read any thoughts you might have.

14 November 2011

On Lessons Learned About Hatred

You take your lessons where you find them. When you watch a national scandal develop on your doorstep, it is cause for reflection. The past week has been difficult for this community as it dealt with the ramifications of the sex abuse allegations.The charges are horrific and reflect a serious betrayal of trust. People are at turns angry and disgusted and heartbroken.

While our community has been reeling from the shocking accusations, the national media has swooped in with wall-to-wall coverage. The unceasing reporting has inflamed the entire nation with anger and hatred. First, it was rightfully directed towards the accused. But as the story developed and the details came out, the anger spread outwards--to the entire athletic department, to the university, and ultimately to the community as a whole.

A blog I read regularly had an angry post attacking not just those involved, but the entire Penn State and State College community for valuing football over human life. The commenters began echoing those sentiments in vile terms. I commented in an attempt to show that people here are concerned with the victims and angered by the situation, but it's hard for a single voice to be heard when the mob starts baying.

Over the week, the anger grew even stronger. Vile, hateful comments flooded social media and the internet, wishing death and destruction on the university, the town, and even the entire state. (This is not an exaggeration. You can do a search on Penn State and easily find them.) The students' vigil at Old Main and the alumni's raising of almost $250,000 in two days for a sex abuse charity have been cynically discarded as "public relations exercises" instead of recognizing that it represents the concern of the community. People with no interest in college football gleefully watched the game Saturday in hopes of seeing violence erupt. Instead, I hope their hearts were softened by moving group prayer offered by both Penn State and Nebraska before the game.

Of course there are plenty of reasons to be angry. It's easy to hate in this situation. What happened was so monstrous, so unconscionable, that anger and hatred is understandable and almost impossible to resist. Everyone I've talked to in our community has been extremely angry.  But it's been distressing to watch so much hatred being directed not just at the perpetrator and those whose inaction allowed it to continue, but at this reeling community. So many people are using the actions of a few to malign and attack an entire community of innocent, heartbroken people.

And that has led me to look inward and ask a hard question of myself: do I do the same thing? How often do I read a story that fills me with "righteous anger" that I then allow to spread over an entire community or group of people? The answer shames me because it's more than I would imagine.

It's little comfort to realize that I'm not alone in this. It's an entirely human reaction to divide the world into us and them. And our society encourages that, just read the paper, follow blogs, watch T.V. news, or listen to talk radio. While divisions naturally arise from differences and anger is a normal reaction to cruelty and injustice, you have to nurture these negative feelings to create hatred.

This story is not over for the victims, for the university, or for the community. The weeks and months to come will still be challenging.

So you take your lessons where you find them. After seeing how quickly anger can turn to hatred, I'm going to work hard on my awareness. When I read a story that angers me, I'll acknowledge the anger, but not feed it. When I'm talking with someone and find that conversation is leading down a negative path, I'll check my words and change the nature of the discussion. And when I encounter something that is full of anger and division, I'll close the page or turn it off. It's a small change, but one that I hope can make my little corner of the world a better place.