It’s been almost exactly a year since I started weight training, and I’ve been thinking about what motivates me to keep doing this. I remember pondering this exact topic a lot last summer; I was in a writing group, I was focused on nonfiction, and I wrote about my commitment, my health and my family almost daily.
This is what I thought last July about why I do what I do to my body; the ideas here continue to push me every day.
I have been thinking about one of my favorite quotes from Lao-Tzu, “He who knows others is clever; he who knows himself is enlightened.” I have always tried to conquer the mystery of myself, and until this year, I thought I had a pretty good system worked out. I’m an analyst; I reflect upon, deconstruct, tear apart and rebuild every decision I make. Every choice, opinion, sentence, and turn is a careful representation of what I know of myself so far. I thought I was living up to Lao-Tzu’s words; I applied my habit of careful reflection to every aspect of my life – emotional, psychological and spiritual. I’ve even reflected on this habit of reflection: do I think too much? Too little? Just enough? Regardless, I always knew, with some certainty, that no matter how much I changed or experienced new things, I had the self-awareness to deal with anything that could come my way, always thoughtful about who I was and who I might become.
Until April, when, one day, after joining a gym, I decided to stay on the elliptical for 45 minutes. I felt great; I’d never stayed on any cardio equipment that long. My elation over this minor achievement, however, lasted exactly two hours, until such time as exhaustion and soreness kicked in, and I found myself prostrate on the couch. I had felt so strong, when really, I was actually very weak. I felt defeated.
Nothing, until that moment, had ever made me feel less in touch with who I physically was. I’d always been an inadequate athlete, but that never bothered me; I filled that inadequacy with other self-imposed challenges academics, music, financial independence, writing, self-reflection. That moment, however, when I sat exhausted on my couch and reflected on my own weakness, made me realize that, despite my efforts to know myself well as Lao-Tzu instructed, there was one aspect of my being I had neglected to truly know: my body. My physical body was, for the most part, a mystery to me, even after having lived in it for 32 years.
Recently, after a long conversation about women and body image, a colleague mentioned that she had found that, after having a child, she could no longer justify being concerned with things like diet or fitness. She had, in other words, something more important to think about a daughter. She assumed that a woman’s efforts towards knowing her body were superficial, the goal being to look or feel a certain way defined by men, society or other women. And at first, her convictions made me feel guilty. I’d just a hired a personal trainer, adjusted my diet, and started working out regularly. Maybe I was that superficial woman who should have been focusing my energy into more “worthwhile” pursuits.
Last week, though, I had a moment of certainty about this. On the treadmill, of course. I was pushing myself to run five minutes longer than I had the day before, and I could feel my lungs closing up on me. To get myself through it, I took a deep breath and relaxed my ribcage as much as I could. To my surprise, my lungs opened as I exhaled, the tightness around my ribs loosened, and I smiled as I felt my body agree to five more minutes. I finally felt like my mind and my body had a connection, something tangible that tied them together, something I could quantify. This was definitely not superficial. This was as “worthwhile” a pursuit as one could get. I felt like I was starting to understand yet another aspect of myself, coming one step closer to Lao-Tzu’s ideal, and it made me think that this is what life is really for a series of mysteries on which to hone myself.