Both meditation and physical exercise are activities that may reduce our vulnerability to stress and increase our quality of life. In Acem Meditation, this happens as unsettled tensions in our mind are met with free mental repetition of a meditation sound. Physical exercise, on the other hand, brings us in better shape, increases our bodily strength and improves our physical and mental well-being, which might improve our general functional ability.
Meditation cannot replace physical exercise. One does not get stronger or in better physical shape by meditating. Very few meditators would argue that physical inactivity is desirable. Meditation and motion is even mutually enriching. Still, I believe that at times, there might also be a contradiction between meditation and physical exercise.
Can we exercise our problems away?
In my experience, physical exercise may sometimes pull in the opposite direction of the meditative movement towards greater inner openness. This might particularly be the case when exercise is used as a means to handling psychological uneasiness.
Some people seem to exercise more when life is hard, or use exercise as a means to handling more general life frustrations. For sure, physical exercise might very often be helpful in such situations. At the same time, however, I feel that it might be worth discussing if intense physical exercise is always the best medicine when life challenges knock on the door: Can, for instance, one’s marital problems, the lack of enthusiasm for one’s work, or the indefinable feeling that something in life is not exactly how it should be, best be dealt with by running at high speeds through the forests, signing up for hard spinning in a gym, or by lifting heavy weights? We might come closer to an answer to this question by looking at two different aspects of physical exercise.
Exercise as a mental opener
Often when we do physical exercise, we also open our minds to some degree. What we achieve through physical activity can probably, at least to some extent, thus be compared to the meditation process: When we exercise, we give the brain a ‘break’ where thoughts are allowed to wander relatively freely. Consciously or unconsciously, we thereby give ourselves an opportunity to process and soften some of our mental tensions.
Some forms of exercise, such as yoga, actively cultivate openness to inner impulses in combination with physical movements. However, for people who are in good physical shape, a similar mental openness can probably be present also during more ordinary physical exercise with relatively high intensity, such as running or weight training. Using the Acem vocabulary, we could say that even quite hard physical exercise can be performed with a relatively ‘free mental attitude’, leading to at least some kind of mental ‘ventilation’. It is hard to see any disadvantages about this aspect of physical exercise.
Endorphins – a double-edged sword?
On the other hand, anyone who has exercised hard and regularly over time is familiar with the effect of endorphins – the hormone that is released in the body during physical activity. The wellbeing and energy of an ‘endorphin rush’ can be intense. For some time, it might almost feel like all problems and challenges in one’s life have disappeared, as might also happen, for instance, when we are drunk from alcohol. Endorphins, however, also share another quality with alcohol: They solve very few, if any, problems – even if it might feel that way when we are on a ‘high.’
There is probably nothing wrong about an occasional endorphin rush. Hard physical exercise can also give a highly satisfying sense of mastery. In that way, it has a value for its own sake.
However, I do have a feeling that endorphins for some people at certain times may also provide an escape from life challenges. The meditative experience, on the other hand, is that being able to look existential challenges straight into the eye can be very beneficial for growth. In meditation, we seek to open ourselves to what is in our minds, even if it is painful or difficult. Many people have the experience that over time, this might make us more sensitive to the needs of ourselves and others, and more capable of coping with life’s big and small challenges.
Physical exercise as a potential ‘closer’?
Physical exercise, on the other hand, can probably either be a mental ‘opener’ or a mental ‘closer’, depending on how it is performed. In my experience, intense physical activity can be used to push difficult thoughts and emotions away – thus constituting a possible parallel to ‘concentrated’ repetition of the meditation sound during an Acem meditation session. From a meditative perspective, we might therefore ask: If one persistently uses endorphins as an ‘intoxicant’ to escape disturbing thoughts or emotions, how might that affect one’s ability to handle life challenges over time?
It is not my intention to give a categorical answer to this question. In any case, however, it might be worth reflecting upon what is one’s basic goal by doing physical exercise.
And, from time to time, it is probably also wise to let one’s body remain entirely still, and let what is, just be. By doing so, we may allow our uneasy or worrisome feelings to tell us that it is possible to live our lives in even better ways than what we do today. Probably, some of the potential of meditation lies exactly therein – not as a replacement for, but as a useful supplement to, physical exercise.