Many of the most valuable life lessons I have learned, I’ve learned from fitness. Whether I’m just working out for fun or sticking to a more arduous training schedule, I love every aspect of the process of bettering myself through physical activity. But, it’s not just a sense of self-improvement, or accomplishment, that drives me. My pursuit of fitness also has a very heavily spiritual component. I’ve noticed that, in the years since I’ve begun adhering to a regular workout regimen (which started, strangely, as an experiment to see if I could nix my smoking habit by replacing smoking with exercise. It worked, and I now believe wholly in the merits of behavior replacement.), that I have evolved personally and spiritually in a number of important ways that are directly attributable to fitness. Of course, I could tell you that I’ve grown stronger, leaner, and have more energy—all of which would be true—but it’s the spiritual component of this journey on which I’d like to focus. Because those changes have, perhaps, been the most impactful and the most permanent.
Here are some of the spiritual practices and life lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Access the reservoirs of your inner strength.
Fitness helps me repeatedly access the sources of my inner strength—or, I should say, it helps me reach into the reservoirs of my strength. Indeed, something remarkable happens at that point in a competition in which you think you can go no further. In training, you may’ve quit then, or at least slowed down, especially if no one was there to hold you accountable. But, competition is different. It forces you to dig deeper, to access a source of strength that you may not have even known you had, and use that to pull yourself through. It is that same storehouse of strength that, after getting knocked down 100 times, drags you up off the floor 101. Fitness builds fortitude.
Stay keen in your awareness.
Regular exercise can also aid in sharpening awareness. I think physical activity helps me stay tuned in to the more nuanced aspects of my daily experience. It keeps me a keen observer of what feels good, right, appropriate, or comfortable for me in a variety of situations, whether related to my own thoughts and actions or the behaviors of others. (I also swear that exercise makes me smarter, although it probably just helps me think more clearly.) Where routine can often dull our sensibilities, I believe that physical activity, including repeated exposure to a variety of new challenges, can help us stay sensitized. Physically, intellectually, and intuitively.
Find your source of calm in a chaotic situation.
Without question, fitness has helped me to more easily access a calm and stable center in highly stressful, chaotic, or volatile situations. (I also do a good share of reading about and attempting to integrate the practices of Stoicism into my daily life.) This, I think, is largely a matter of recognizing what we are capable of and being assured that we can control it. Training the body is a great way to achieve that kind of awareness.
There is, of course, such a thing as practicing even healthful behaviors to excess. Working out is great. So is eating healthfully. But knowing when to say, “when,” and eat the cheeseburger you’ve been craving instead of going to the gym, is just as important. Being able to ease up on ourselves, and temper even our desirable habits, is critical.
That chip on your shoulder…
I believe that fitness has made me more acutely aware of the chip on my shoulder. I think of it as a form of potential—a force that generally lies dormant until I need it. It is what makes me not simply want to succeed or achieve, but that makes me pissed off enough to go after what I want (when I really want something) with everything I’ve got. Even when I think I can’t go anymore. It is base. It is carnal, gritty, blunt and aggressive. It is survival. It is bare-bones determination. It is also an incredibly useful energy to harness, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of seemingly insurmountable challenges. When the rest of us wants to capitulate, it rears its head. And it roars.