What is it like to work out without comparison?


Want to know the opposite of mindfulness?  It’s comparison.  Whether that is comparing yourself to someone else or even a past version of you, the effect is the same;  it is alienating.  In comparing, you are pulled out of the moment.

The fitness industry, I’m sad to say, encourages comparison.  Not everyone, of course.  But many—to our collective detriment.  Even some industry leaders.  Before and after photos come to mind.  People looking sad and bloated juxtapositioned next to their newer, apparently happier and more successful selves.  Tell me that isn’t an act of self-negation.

Even the idea that there is an after is preposterous.  You only exist in the present.  Every other moment lives exclusively in your imagination.  So, the idea that you have to defer pride or happiness, or celebration until you attain some specific state is outrageous.

There is an issue that is even more insidious: when the options presented do not offer any version of you.

My friend, Girls Gone Strong co-founder, Molly Galbraith introduced me to a telling concept in her book, Strong Women Lift Each Other Up.  As Dr. Larissa M. Mercado-López, a professor at CSU, points out, if you do a google image search for “successful women.  Or “healthy women,” or “fit women,” you will see an overwhelmingly homogenous representation of body types, skin colours, and looks.  I know a lot of successful women and they are not well-represented here.

Why does comparison exist in the fitness industry?

Self-negation creates motivation.  And motivation is what we are forever trying to manipulate.  Within ourselves.  Within our clients.  For everyone.  More motivation leads to more sales and better results.  That’s the idea.  But the problem is that this type of motivation is inherently dysfunctional.  It starts your relationship out at a deficit.  It feeds into a sense of insufficiency.  It is broken.

The result is the classic boom and bust that I’ve seen so many people go through: feeling frustrated and insufficient;  feeling motivated enough to take action;  starting an aggressive and unsustainable process;  getting burnt-out, frustrated, or injured; giving up… Until the whole cycle begins again.

We can do better.

What would it be like to work out without comparison?

Krishnamurti said, “Meditation begins with the ending of comparison.”  I like that.  Like a cold glass of fizzy water on a hot day, it just hits right.  It is also instructive because “Don’t do” habits aren’t very useful.  They build a frame around the very picture you don’t want to look at.  Mindfulness is different.  It draws your attention… to wherever your attention goes.  Paradoxically, you can even be mindful about comparison. That’s because paying attention to the experience of comparing brings you back to the present.  Chew on that one for a while.

So, comparison is not eliminated by not comparing but—instead—by looking around for other frames.  Our feelings.  What we notice.  The tugs on our intuition and intellect.  Looking at the world around us as if it’s all that there is. 

If there is a dominant emotion to non-comparison, I would express it as curiosity.  We want to know what is happening—and what is about to happen.  And when we channel this curiosity into our own process, we begin to approach challenges differently.  We are open to them.

  • Instead of… copying someone else’s exercise regimen to be more like them, you borrow it and tailor it to be more like your own.
  • Instead of… spending time thinking about someone else (including Past You or Future You), you spend time engrossed in your experience.
  • Instead of… imagining yourself doing some other “better” version of something, celebrating the myriad great things you’re already doing.

Working out without comparison might feel disorienting at first

If, like an old ship captain, you are used to navigating by the stars, it would be disquieting to have the night sky go black.  Yet, if your navigation points have been negative feelings, it is worth the period of uncertainty.  This is sometimes called negative capacity;  the ability to live without the answers.  But as you develop new questions to ask and new frames of reference, you will be able to navigate more effectively—and with greater meaning and joy.

Non-comparison is like a garden

When I was a just a 19-year-old whippersnapper living in China, I was exposed to a world of culture that surprised me in countless ways.  One of my favourite memories was the traditional gardens in the canal city of Hangzhou.  These somehow escaped destruction via the Red Guard.  I think that even the most hardened revolutionaries had to acknowledge the splendour of these places.

One of the dominant themes in this type of garden is framing.  Drawing your focus toward more distant beauty.  The designers didn’t hang neon arrows pointing to the primary features.  Here, the conversation is far more subtle. Negative space guides your gaze.

If you want an even more dramatic version of this, you’ll see it in Zen gardens.  There is so much that isn’t there that your attention is reflexively drawn to what is important—including nothing at all.

Each garden stands alone.  You would never compare one Zen garden to another.  You can’t.  The experiences and ideas are so distinct—and in keeping with the expression of nature—that each one is a monolith.  In fact, looking at them is only a hint at what they are.  It is really the act of cultivating them that allows you to fully experience them.  Like quantum uncertainty, you can look or you can act but you cannot do both.

If you want a more conventional version of this, think of planting a vegetable garden.  You do not compare the seeds in your hands unfavourably to mature carrots or tomatoes.  You plant them and take care of them.  You note the soil.  Prune leaves.  Water—or don’t water.  You give things time and attention because the process of caring for them is the only option in the present.

You are a garden.  Your terrain;  your topography;  your rocks,  gravel,  trees, and seedlings.  All of it is unlike anything else.  Comparison would be a disservice to you—and to whoever is on the other side.  It is the experience of cultivating yourself that reveals that.  So is the artful removal of all that does not provide you with joy or utility.

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