I used to be an athlete. I pretty much had a sport for every season and I was good at most of them. Football, in particular, was a big part of my life and I had the opportunity to play through college.
Football is the kind of sport that you're always training for. In the offseason, even though I was playing other sports, I was always training for football. Squats, power cleans, bench press, rows, cardio, plyos, sprints. It was hardcore. My goal was to have the fastest, strongest body I could in order to be the best football player I could be.
After college, I stopped lifting and working out so much. Part of it was that I no longer had as much of a reason to. If I wasn't training to excel in a sport, what was my motivation? It seemed to me that my motivation to work out, and especially lift weights, was to look better. Pure vanity. So I stopped. I was okay that that season of my life had passed.
Fast forward to my early 30's. I'm getting old. Not old old. But old. Not working out in your 30's is a different thing than not working out in your 20's. In your 20's you can get away with it. You can still be generally healthy without training too much. In your 30's the pounds come real quick.
So I'm starting to train again.
Any action can be performed for self and any action can be performed for something beyond self. In my spiritual life, I've come to the conclusion that, while it isn't necessarily wrong to do things for self, it's just empty. I think training so that I can have a good looking body is an empty and unfulfilling goal. It simply leads to more ego – more "I," "me," "mine" – which leads to more unrest. Training to have more energy, a positive mood, and a healthier body so that I can better serve the world? That's different. According to Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. A pure heart wills only "the good." The saint lives purely to complete the will of God as she understands it. From this point of view, if an action is directed toward "doing the most good," or "completing the will of God in the world," it comes from a pure motive.
I can work out for self, or I can work out for something beyond self.
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, when speaking about the work of contemplative practice, has this to say about physical training:
"I am serious when I say that this work demands a relaxed, healthy, and vigorous disposition of both body and spirit. For the love of God, discipline yourself in body and spirit so that you preserve your health as long as you can."
– The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 41
So I'm going to start discipling my body again. And, as with just about every action I perform in life, I'll probably have mixed motives in doing so. The less it's about self and the more it's about something beyond self, the better.