Imagine if you lived in a world where exercise wasn’t really a thing. Sure, maybe somewhere, up in the mountains of Tibet, serene looking monks spent their days doing pull-ups and burpees, by generally speaking, nobody bothered.
Imagine there were no gyms, no televised sporting events, nobody ever gave any thought to eating a healthy diet, there were no athletes or body builders. Instead, people thought of these things as vague, poorly understood practices for people with too much time on their hands.
In this imaginary world people are, unsurprisingly, in pretty bad shape. Chronic obesity is common (yes I am still talking about an imaginary world), people’s immune systems barely function, it’s almost unheard of to eat a vegetable or drink something without sugar in it, ordinary daily tasks like walking up a flight of stairs are exhausting…you get the idea.
Now imagine that you meet somebody who tells you that if you were to perform a few repetitive movements 3 times a week, and eat certain things not for their taste but for the good they could do for your health, you would experience benefits you could barely imagine. Benefits that would impact almost every aspect of your life. But there’s a catch. In order to reap these benefits, you might have to maintain these practices for weeks or even months before you saw the effcts. And if you were ever to stop, you’d begin to lose them almost immediately.
What do you think you would say?
For most people it would be a pretty tough sell. When exercise is framed in this way it does seem like more trouble than its worth. And if there were no examples of fit and healthy people to aspire to, or their fitness and healthiness were somehow invisible, we’d probably say that things were just fine as they were and that it wasn’t worth putting forth all that effort for benefits which we wouldn’t have any hope of appreciating until after we’d done the work.
In fact, maybe this is what you currently think of exercise. That it’s too hard, that it’s not worth the effort, that no amount of physical well-being is worth the trauma of having to be seen in Lycra. But even if that’s the case, you’re at least aware that it’s possible to improve your body. To strengthen it. To increase its flexibility and versatility. You’re aware that spending every moment where you don’t absolutely have to use your body, lying in bed and eating junk food is bad for you. If you find yourself feeling tired all the time, or if you injure yourself, or if for some reason you decide you want to run a marathon, you know that there are tools out there to help you, and you know more or less what they are.
This isn’t true for the mind.
We live in a world where, broadly speaking, taking care of our mental health isn’t a thing. And by taking care of mental health, I don’t just mean taking anti depressants, maintaining a social support network or speaking up when we need to. Of course I don’t mean to imply that these aren’t good, important things, I mean to point out that they’re mainly things we do when we’re already struggling. But exercise isn’t something we do to improve things once we’re sick. Exercise is something we do to keep ourselves well.
Mental health care should be more than strategies for managing the illnesses of depression or anxiety once were already dealing with them, it should be focused on ways to inoculate our minds against these illnesses, not so that we never have a bad day ever again, but so that when we do, our minds (our mental immune systems if you will) are more able to cope.
Why is it that some people are so much better than others at dealing with stress? Why is it that if you put two people in the exact same situation, one will handle it better than the other? Is the strength of our mind, it’s ability to maintain perspective and equanimity, it’s resilience to stress, or it’s lack thereof, are these just things we’re born with? Or can these capabilities be improved? This isn’t actually a difficult question to answer. In fact it’s already been answered many times.
The problem is that despite the fact that meditation has repeatedly been clinically proven to make our minds happier, healthier and more resilient to the effects of stress and anxiety, it’s so far outside of the experience of most people that it might as well not exist. Even for those that know about it, the idea of a practice which requires consistent work, whose benefits aren’t immediate, and worse, can’t be seen in a mirror, makes it difficult to see the point in doing.
And so, just like the people in our exercise-free world, we tell ourselves that things are good enough as they are, despite the fact that simply looking around gives us all the evidence we could need that this isn’t the case. Chronic stress, anxiety and depression are epidemic. This isn’t because they’re natural or unavoidable conditions, anymore than obesity or malnutrition are, but simply because we live in a world where mindfulness isn’t really a thing.
So I’ll say the same thing that I’d say to somebody who had never exercised or eaten healthily before. You could feel better than you currently feel. Your life could be easier than it currently is. You could get to know more about yourself than you currently do. About your strengths, about your weaknesses, about the way you interact with the people around you, about the people around you.
You don’t have to become a different person,. You don’t have to take on any new beliefs or abandon any existing ones, you don’t have to be able to sit cross-legged or chant or stomach the smell of incense. You don’t have to tell anybody you’re doing it if you’re worried it would change how people would see you. You can do it anywhere, at any time, no equipment required. And perhaps most importantly of all, you don’t have to wear Lycra.