Exercise and Anger

I think I have figured out why I don’t like to exercise: my mind is very noisy.

For some reason, my mind is at its most critical when I exercise. Perhaps it is noisy because it is not busy with writing or doing and, left to its own devises, bored, it chatters. Like the old Peanut’s cartoons where Snoopy is jogging and all his body parts are chattering at him – I’m glad to know Charles Schultz shared my problem.

During class, I am constantly judging my body. I’m aware of what I’m not doing right, what I can’t do, what I should be doing. I make excuses — my ankles are weak. I tell myself I shouldn’t be thinking and feeling what I am thinking and feeling; that I should remember that I took this class because I am not good at these things and everyone should have at least one hobby that they aren’t good at, that they suck at, the way I suck at exercise.

I think about how much my feet hurt, or how hard it is to breathe; or to breathe correctly. I think about how I am gasping for breath instead of taking long deep slow breaths. I wonder why not being able to breathe that way is causing me to have a panic attack. I grab onto the panic attack and squeeze it tight, not letting it get the better of me, no siree, you are not getting the better of me! And why am I thinking anyway, this type of class should be meditative, I can’t even do that right!

I judge the person next to me – yes, you! – who is just exercising. I tell myself that, at least I am giving it my all, while she is walking through the exercises, uncaring of whatever is going on inside her life that causes her do the exercises in her own way. She should stand up straighter, she didn’t listen to the direction, why is she off in her own little world?

I judge the person on the other side of me – that’s right, buddy, I’m talking to you! What are you doing in this class anyway? It’s clear you should be somewhere else, in an advanced class instead of here, doing the advanced versions of whatever we’re doing, and making the rest of us feel bad because we’re not as good as or better than you! People like you shouldn’t be in classes with people like us.

And what is wrong with this teacher, anyway? Can’t they see that I’m struggling, that I need an explanation of what’s going on? Why don’t they tell me I’m doing a good job or, better yet, tell me what I need to do differently, better? How am I supposed to learn?

I ask myself where these voices came from, these critical voices, these fearful voices. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the voices that we hear in our heads, the voices that came from other people, the voices we learned as children. When we hear them, I’ve read, they may sound like our voice, but really, if we listen hard, we may hear someone else’s voice. So I listen hard, but all I hear is myself.

I don’t remember my parents ever talking to us about exercise; I do remember my mother, an anorexic, jogging around the living room, her hip bones and collar bones sticking out, pushing herself although she clearly didn’t enjoy it. For my parents, exercise was solitary. My mother jogging alone at home, too isolated to even exercise in public; later, hiking alone — or with her dysfunctional dogs — in the woods, perhaps nodding as she passed people, perhaps just talking to her dogs. My father, jogging in the Tucson heat, again by himself. Later in life, he, at least, found companions for many of his walks: a friend that he went cross-country skiing with and later on long walking tours with; a new wife, many years younger, who he went hiking and walking and biking with. My parents were not team players and neither are any of us. I hated PE in school; I hated being judged by the other kids because I didn’t do the games as well as them and always being picked last; hated being teased for how my body looked or my gym clothes.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t like exercise: because I associate it with loneliness and rejection. My mother remembers – although I have no memory of it at all – signing me up for skiing lessons in high school. She says I never skied, instead bringing a book and reading with hot cocoa in the ski resort, until mom got tired of paying for the skiing that I wasn’t taking. Although I don’t remember it – it could have been my youngest sister who is like me this way – it does sound like me: rebelling by refusing to participate in something she decided I needed to do because it was good for me; sitting angrily silent, disappearing into a book with intellectual superiority, lonely and mad that she presumed to know me well enough to make decisions about what was best for me, when she ignored all the things I really was interested in, all the things I did well, because they didn’t conform to her idea of what a successful daughter should do, or her idea of what I had become: a thing to be fixed because I was so clearly broken, because three years before in a different time and place, I had gone through a year of school, so isolated and miserable that I barely spoke to anyone and had almost no friends at school. And she just couldn’t have a daughter who wasn’t pretty, popular, bubbly and outgoing; a daughter that lived the life she wished she had lived when she was my age. The life she thought my other sister – the favorite – was living and that she could live through her. Because having a daughter like me showed everyone what a failure she was as a parent.

Although what this has to do with exercise, I don’t know. It still doesn’t solve the mystery about whose voice I am hearing in my head when I exercise. [Well, really, I suspect it does.]

Regardless of whose voice it was originally, it’s my voice now. I own this voice and what it says to me. It’s my job to deal with it.

I have been meditating on silence recently. Silence, the teacher says, is not the absence of sound, it is what sound comes from. It lies behind and beneath the sound. If you have noisy thoughts, think of them as just that: noise. Not words, just noise, the way that the sound of the fire engine or the U.N.’s HVAC system is just vibrations against your ear drum. Don’t try to label or form words or make sense of the thoughts in your head, just experience them as noise.

And trust that silence lies behind the sounds. Rest in that silence.

That is what I try to do as I exercise.

***

Later: I don’t advise writing about the anger of exercise before going to Tai Chi; it just clogs your brain with anger while you’re doing it. Sigh.

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