Finding Direction in a Puddle of Sweat and a Shared Video

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The second of an occasional series

WASHINGTON, D.C. — This just in: I am 16 weeks into my weight-loss and fitness program and I have lost 35 pounds. That puts me more than halfway to my goal of 150 pounds. And I have sufficiently reduced my body mass index from being classified as obese to just being overweight.

Hold your applause. It’s not over yet.

Like anyone who is struggling to change eating habits, drop weight and get fit, I would like to reach my goal tomorrow. But I learned from a wise friend years ago that “life is 99 percent process and 1 percent results. If you don’t learn to enjoy the process, you are going to spend life miserable.”

And so, I endeavor to find insight and learn lessons from my six-weekly workouts, which include four grueling one-hour sessions of High Intensity Interval Training with my trainer. Over the weeks, I have gotten stronger, slightly more coordinated and no longer associate a good workout with how much rest time I get, but with how hard I breathe and how much I sweat.

Yeah, I am getting addicted to that endorphin high, and the benefit of feeling tremendously better 24/7 keeps me looking forward to each workout with a weird combination of eager anticipation and a little anxiety about what new exercises my trainer will introduce.

I started blogging about this experience because I believe that fitness can make a difference in the lives of creative people. That’s right: Being in good shape can enhance your creativity. And there is even some science to back that up.

A 2005 study by researchers at Rhode Island College found that creative thinking was measurably enhanced among 60 student volunteers after they completed aerobic exercise. This squares with anecdotal reports by subjects in fitness programs who report that exercise clears their minds, helps balance emotions and opens the pathway to creativity.

Debra Atkinson, who holds a masters degree in kinesiology and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, maintains that exercise is the best way to quiet the chattering of the left side of the brain. It is the left side, she says, that allows us to function well at school or work, focusing on problems and tasks to be completed. She maintains that sufficiently intense exercise will quiet the left brain, allowing the right side to step forward and offer up its abundant supply of creativity that produces music, art — and yes, great photography.

“The key is finding an activity intense enough to force you out of your pattern of thinking,” she wrote in a recent article.

My trainer, Dat Dang, enjoys coffee while I workout. My job: Sweat!

My trainer, Dat Dang, enjoys coffee while I workout. My job: Sweat! You tell me who’s having more fun.

For my part, I have learned a technique that I have dubbed, “reaching deeper!” It’s a place inside me that I tap when I am being called on to pump out more reps when I am exhausted, the muscles burn and I feel oxygen depleted. I get there by closing my eyes and reaching into what seems like an ethereal place, perhaps the place where the soul and the subconscious are linked and taps my deepest inner strength. If you are spiritual, you might say this is the energy of the Universe or the God spot.

I often know it is time to “reach deeper” when I hear my trainer beckoning: “Come on, Robert, you got this. I know you can do it.”

This special place, which I believe exists in all of us, has been at my disposal and drawn on throughout my life. But never before have I been so aware of its existence. It was the source of resolve that propelled me to break stories as a journalist. And now, I know I can tap that energy source to put forth the extra effort to capture images that not only better serve my clients but also create higher achievements in my personal creative projects.

But not all insights come from “reaching deeper.” Some come from the personal connections you make from like-minded souls in the gym. A couple of weeks ago, my trainer sent me a video with a message, “This will make you cry.” Indeed, the story about the Sports Illustrated 2012 Kids of the Year is tear inducing. And it reminded me of the children I photographed a year ago when I was on a photo workshop In Dehradun, India, with the Momenta Workshops.

Each of the seven photographers in the group were assigned to shoot images for a local non-profit. My non-profit provided early learning care for severely disabled children who have conditions like autism, cerebral palsy and down syndrome. I was very moved by the dedication and patience of the staff as they worked with challenging children, pushing them to slowly learn basic life skills like walking, feeding themselves and using a toilet. (You can see those images on my website under the “Portfolio” drop-down menu at the top of the page).

One day after I had been shooting images of the children being picked-up by their parents to go home, I had time for a moment of masala tea in a quiet sunlit room. Reflecting on the portfolio that I was compiling, I slipped into that “reaching deeper” place and realized how tremendously rewarding it was to be creating images that my host non-profit could use to raise funds and support its important work. I was creating images that would ultimately make a difference in the lives of these children and their families.

I felt a special calling: Humanitarian photography projects should be a big part of my future.

But I’ve realized that over the months that I’ve lost my direction. The need to pick-up quick commercial assignments to pay the bills, my book project and the demands of daily life have diverted my attention. I knew this when I watched the the Sports Illustrated video. That inner voice returned.

It’s possible that I just needed time to get fit and improve my health. After all, I also recall while being in India that being heavy made the work far more difficult. After a day of shooting and carrying around 216 pounds of myself, I was exhausted and every weak muscle in my body was in agony. Now, I can shoot weddings, events and model photo shoots without being exhausted and in pain when I am finished. In fact, I have plenty of extra energy reserves to keep shooting, going for those extra images that finally produce an exceptional shot for a client or for my own personal project. And my mind seems clear, focused, processing at a faster clip and more creatively than before.

My experience is not scientific and only anecdotal. But I know that I have found renewed direction. By “reaching deeper” in a puddle of sweat, and through the thoughtful sharing of a video by a good friend, I have found renewed direction in my creative life.

Some additional resources:

Body Mass Index

Rhode Island University Study

Momenta Workshops

High-Intensity Interval Training

Project India I

Project India II

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