The gym, or any other place a person exercises, can be an emotional minefield. Exercise, of course, is not all about the physical—physical places, physical movements, physical forces. Thoughts and emotions play a significant role in fitness, as this list of rhetorical1 questions underscores:
- Have you ever avoided an exercise because you predicted or knew from experience it would be physically painful?
- Have you ever gotten distracted at the gym because another person wronged you (for instance, monopolized the equipment you wanted or treated you rudely)?
- Have you ever been overwhelmed by negative thoughts relating to exercise?
- Has performance anxiety ever derailed you during a fitness competition or your normal routine?
I have experienced all these unwanted situations, some many times over. They are unpleasant to dwell on, but recently I read a book that I believe can help these situations and others like them occur less frequently. The Tools, by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels, explores common emotional and psychological problems and offers “an arsenal of techniques” to overcome them.
Here are the five techniques, in brief:
- The Reversal of Desire – Embrace rather than avoid pain in order to get out of your comfort zones and move forward in life.
- Active Love – Concentrate your love on those who have wronged you in order to get out of “Mazes” of resentment and hostility.
- Inner Authority – Unite with your inner “Shadow” to overcome performance anxiety and intimidating circumstances.
- The Grateful Flow – Concentrate on things you’re grateful for in order to transcend “worry, self-hatred, or any other form of negative thinking.”
- Jeopardy – Envision your deathbed in order to persevere with using the other four tools.
Here is an application of one of the tools to one of the rhetorical questions I posed above:
Problem: Avoiding an exercise because you predicted or knew from experience it would be physically painful.
Tool: The Reversal of Desire
Process:2 Focus your mind on the pain you’re avoiding. Silently scream, “Bring it on!” Then, as you visualize the pain surrounding you like a cloud, scream silently, “I love pain!” As you leave the cloud, say inwardly, “Pain sets me free!”
One of my favorite things about this book is that it acknowledges repeatedly that none of the tools are quick or easy fixes. From the day we are born until the day we die, the same problems—pain, insecurity, injustice, anxiety—visit us over and over again. These problems are never going to go away, so you can never stop practicing and using the tools if you want to continue to benefit from them, the authors write. This is similar to how fitness and exercise work. A marathon is always painful, the deterioration of the body through aging is always distressing on some level, and people exercising around you will treat you unfairly at some time or another throughout your life. As Stutz and Michels explain, true “exoneration” from life’s difficulties and agonies comes only at the end. Until then, there is work to do.
One thing I haven’t latched onto as well is the authors’ views on higher powers. This is a significant issue for me because the whole system of the tools is based on these higher powers, occasionally called the “Source” or “God” but usually just described as higher powers. The authors address this issue in the book, but I don’t find their explanations especially compelling, even considering the elasticity of their views. However, they also state that “in the long run, the most important thing is that you keep using the tools.” I have yet to determine whether the tools can be effective over time without a mental alignment with Stutz and Michels’ concept of higher powers, but I can attest that even without such an alignment, the tools have already helped me cope with concrete problems on a few occasions.
Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
Just as there are many exercise regimens claiming to improve physical well-being, there are many self-help books out there claiming to improve, or even revolutionize, psychological and emotional well-being. I have read so few of these books that I can’t place The Tools within the self-help book pool as a whole. All I can say is that I believe it is worth a read for just about anyone, as a source of techniques to try during exercise and in life in general.
1. Or maybe not rhetorical—comments are welcome!
2. An edit of the “The Tool in Brief” section of The Tools, Spiegel & Grau first ed., 2012, pp. 66-67.