Mood, exercise, and mindfulness

A bad mood has consequences.

In the last few years, I’ve become a master of weathering out pain, depression, anxiety and general misery.

I dealt with a chronic terrifying skin disease which left me awake, in pain, all night every night. The days weren’t much better.

I’ve written about this before, so I’ll keep the descriptions to a minimum, but there’s one aspect to this illness that I haven’t talked about: I couldn’t break a sweat.

Well, I could, but it made my skin all over my body itch like crazy. And it wouldn’t stop until I’d scratched off the first layer of skin, leaving me a bloody mess.

This meant that I hardly exercised at all for more than 18 months. I would go out for short walks, do some very limited exercises and stretches when I could find the energy.

Before my illness became that bad I would cycle the 5 km to school and back every day, but at some point I couldn’t keep it up.

The reason I’m writing about this is to put the subject of this post into perspective, so you know where I’m coming from.

It’s common knowledge now that exercise and mood are very closely linked. I’ve been experiencing this first hand for the last few months, especially the last month or so.

After I started regaining my health, I found myself in a sort of limbo: I could finally exercise and sweat again, but the habit of going out for a run or working out was so vague that I had a hard time getting started.

In the last three months I’ve been going out for a short run and doing body-weight exercises daily, with a rest day every third day. I also started training in a Judo Dojo twice a week.

Becoming mindful of my mood showed me the importance of getting off my butt and exercising.

I’ve been amazed at the effects on my mood most of all. My body feels better when it gets to move around like the animal it is, but mentally I feel awesome!

Just now, I got back from a long day at the workshop at school, feeling pretty tired and a bit on edge. I started by having something to eat. That made me feel a bit better, but I was still feeling a bit down, and a bit anxious as well.

It’s weird, we think we know things, but we forget and forget and forget. Then we finally remember.

That’s what happened to me just now. I was thinking, trying to figure out what I needed to do to make myself feel better. After more than an hour I realized “oh yeah! I just need to move my body!”. And so I went out for a short run in the rain, and here I am.

Anxiety gone, motivation for life back (for now).

Another thing I’ve realized is the incredible effects of mood on our ability to mindful. When I’m anxious, angry, depressed or just stressed out, remembering to be aware of my body and mental activities becomes almost impossible.

That’s why we need to set up powerful, mood-regulating habits in our life. Daily habits. We need to learn to recognize states of mind, and how to respond to them. It takes time, but it’s totally worth it.

Exercise is obviously one of the most powerful habits you can incorporate. There’s really no debating the fact that your body is designed to move around, using all the intricate muscles and ligaments and joints that get us from one place to another. I think in some cases, it’s a matter of releasing pent-up energy. If we don’t, it starts to make us feel anxious, on edge, even depressed.

I learned the hard way. You know, when you lose the ability to exercise, you’ll start to miss it. I used to be very active as an adolescent, but in my early twenties it started to become an on-off deal. Sometimes I’d exercise regularly for months at a time, and sometimes I’d be a couch potato, playing video games or watching TV all day instead of going out for a run.

I remember thinking a few times “why should I exercise? I eat relatively healthy and I’m lean, so what is there to gain?”. Well, it wasn’t really until years later, at the point where I started exercising again after being ill, that it really clicked for me:

Exercise isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.

If we want to feel truly good in life, we need to exercise. Moving your body is like walking a dog: You may not feel like it, but the dog (your body) will thank you for it, and you’ll probably end up enjoying yourself anyway.

We do actually crave exercise on a physical level. It’s like hunger or the need to pee. Our bodies know when we haven’t exercised enough and it tries to tell us so. We just aren’t accustomed to deciphering the often cryptic messages that our bodies send us. Partly this is because we usually find some instantly gratifying substance or activity, like sugar, caffeine, television or porn to take the edge off, but the larger problem is a general lack of awareness of yourself and life.

As you’ve probably experienced, we don’t always feel hunger physically in our stomachs, instead we feel it emotionally via our mood. Sometimes we just feel angry for no reason, but if we stop, breathe, and eat a piece of cheese, we feel better almost instantly.

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Sometimes we get pissed off over something absolutely trivial, only to then miraculously feel better when we get some protein and fat into our stomachs. We don’t always put two and two together, but that’s because most people aren’t even trying to. Lack of awareness is the ultimate problem in society.

I guess the part that’s eluded me the most is the “stopping to breathe” part. It’s definitely the key to understanding what you need, because once we disengage from the emotion for a second, we get a chance to see the root cause.

That’s when we can direct our attention deeper, and see exactly what you need, in this moment, to feel your best.

When you feel your best, that’s when you’re best able to stay mindful of life.

This actually eluded me for a long time. At some point, I was sure that the way to spiritual enlightenment would be to completely separate my mind from my body, by ignoring all sensations, cravings, needs. After all, the flesh is evil, right? Nope.

That’s absolutely the wrong approach. By ignoring the needs of this sack of bones that we happen to be driving in this world, we are making everything more difficult for ourselves. A healthy body is the pillar that supports a healthy mind. We need to become aware of everything we do in our day-to-day lives. This isn’t a chore, it’s a gift. Expanded awareness is always the way forward.

When I’m exercising regularly, eating a completely clean, healthy, whole-foods diet, and I take care to be mindful of my mood, my meditation practice goes through the roof. Concentration is so much easier when all needs are met.

Meeting the needs of this organism we happen to inhabit is paramount in order to develop consciousness further. It’s a game of perception. Learn to understand what your mood is trying to tell you, and you will be rewarded.

Now, as you can imagine, when you get sick for a long time like I did (it’s not over yet, mind you), and you can’t exercise, socialize, or really do anything, you get depressed. In the same way a dog that’s kept in a cage gets depressed, even if you give it food and water.

I got depressed to the point of suicidal thoughts. It’s terrifying to think back to that time. Right now, I’m doing a lot better. My skin is still seriously f-ed up, but it’s gotten better. Slowly, everything seems to be getting better. But what really dragged me up out of the pits of despair was that I started doing Vinyasa Yoga. Intensively.

Even though I got itchy and needed to scratch a lot during yoga classes, drawing uneasy stares from other practitioners (I tried to stay at the back, in the corner), I decided that this was just what I needed to do. I would end the session with a freezing cold shower (even though the water burned in the cuts and sores from scratching so much), which would effectively end the itching for a while.

The point is, I finally took my bodily needs into account. And by doing that, even though my circumstances were virtually unchanged, and my skin was still uncontrollable, I started to feel better. Not just during yoga, but the whole day after, too!

It was like I’d finally been pushed to the edge, where I realized that I needed to exercise, among other things, or my depression would take me to the point of no return.

This epiphany, in turn, changed many other aspects of my life to the better. My situation was still very bad. I had quit school to focus on recovery a few months before, and I was living on disability. I had every reason to be bitter and depressed, but it’s as if a veil had been lifted. I started to get more optimistic about regaining my health, and instead of moping about all day, I started going outside more, into nature whenever I could.

I became more motivated to do what I knew needed to be done. I kept my diet clean, and I started to take way better care of myself.

Most importantly, I started to focus on living a mindful life. I started to develop the habit of slowing down, multiple times a day, in order to just breathe, and feel what was going on within.

In that way I’ve been able to weather the storm that I’ve been going through with my health, without giving in to despair. Mindfulness has truly saved my life.

This is all you need to know: Mindfulness saves lives.

Many people seem to think that mindfulness is just some kind of fad, or self-help gimmick. The truth is that mindfulness is very simple to understand, and it’s been around since time immemorial. In fact, it will be around for eternity. That’s because mindfulness is one of the pillars of consciousness. When we orgasm during sex, we’re mindful. We can’t help it! When we really get deep into a game of chess, we’re mindful. Whenever we’re in a flow state, we’re mindful.

The art of developing mindfulness in our every day lives depends on our motivation for becoming aware of the things that don’t seem to matter as much.

It’s really just deciding to be here, now, without fussing about the future or brooding on the past. If you make this mindset your own, the results are unimaginable. Awareness can’t be talked about, or described. It can only be experienced directly.

That’s what makes expansion of consciousness such hard work: We can’t be aware of what we’re not aware of!

In the context of this article, I’m talking about developing the capacity of being mindful of what our body is asking for at any given time. If this article has sparked some tiny amount of awareness where before there was none, I will be immensely happy.

When you get some experience with this approach to health, it becomes second nature. It’s like learning a new language, the language of your body.

May you be infinitely successful on this journey. I know for a fact that the more people allow themselves to live in the present, the better and more prosperous this entire planet will become.

The development of the individual is the key to the health, wealth, and happiness of society as a whole.

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The peak

Have you ever heard of peak experiences?

I just climbed the mountain Tungufjall in Öxarfjörður, Iceland. It’s not very high, at roughly 500 meters, but the view from the top is amazing.

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Anybody who’s climbed a mountain knows that hiking is always an adventure. There are highs and lows, successes and defeats.

Reaching the top of a mountain is a literal peak experience. After hiking for hours, reaching the chilly winds and spectacular views are an incredible reward.

After a few minutes of gazing over the magnificent landscape, I started to feel cold. I started to feel hungry. I felt like heading back down into the warmth of home.

It’s funny that it took all that work to spend a few minutes on a cold, rocky precipice, only to head straight back down.

I think that’s what happens in the metaphorical sense of peak experiences as well. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We reach great heights after tons of work, whether it be playing a concert after months of practice, or publishing a book after writing every day for a year. Or maybe finishing a marathon after training in rain, wind and snow.

And it makes us feel amazing, but that feeling is usually very fleeting.

The thing is, we can only appreciate the peak experience if we spend time in the valley first. If we were constantly in a flux of good emotions, that would become baseline for us, and we would probably start grasping for something more.

In this world, everything waves. Like waves in the ocean, they build up and crash down, only to repeat endlessly. What goes up must come down, and then it goes up again.

So then what’s the point of seeking these experiences, only to come (sometimes crashing!) back down?

I would say the point is the expanded awareness of the way of the world. A new perspective. Just as seeing the earth from 500 meters above puts our lives into perspective, showing us how small we really are, seeing our lives from the lens of a peak experience also shows us something.

It may be difficult to figure out what that something is, and therein lies the real work.

Much love.