Exercise and Self-Knowledge: Dimensions of the Spiritual Path

The year was 1971. We sat in a classroom with desks in straight rows. The high school guidance counselor walked in as a hush fell upon the room. After dumping books and papers on the desk, he went to the chalk board and wrote, “Know Thyself.”

The “guidance” class required during freshman year at my high school was meant to help us make the transition to the high school experience and adolescence. The format was discussion oriented based on a theme introduced by the guidance counselor. On that day, we began with Aristotle’s great words of wisdom, “Know Thyself.”

Over time, I learned that these words have been echoed in various ways throughout history. For all his religious stoicism, John Calvin understood that the more one grows in the knowledge of self, the more one grows in the knowledge of God. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been drawing on the writings of Teresa of Avila for spiritual sustenance. I have spent considerable time on her words, “The path to self knowledge must never be abandoned.”

In June, I began a process that unexpectedly has taken me further along the path to self knowledge. Now in my mid-fifties, I’m seriously overdue for some lifestyle changes. I’ve lived a very sedentary life. While I’ve made monthly “donations” for fitness centers and health clubs for the last twenty-five years, I’ve never been fond of exercise and have preferred a steady routine of visualized aerobics. Because of increased pain from arthritis in multiple joints, my habits needed to change. The result is that for the last three months, I’ve developed a routine of exercise for approximately 45 to 60 minutes five or six days each week. Much like my pattern for prayer, exercise seems to work best for me by having two periods each day, morning and evening. The result is that I feel better have surprisingly learned more about myself. The new self-knowledge has come in three identifiable dimensions of my life: physical, psychological, and spiritual.

Physically, yes: I feel better. Not only do I go up and down steps with ease, but sometimes I take them two at a time. I sleep better and am more alert. While I’ve lost very little weight, which is the plight of most folks my age, I’m definitely more agile and comfortable in my body.

On a psychological dimension, I’ve come to understand my stress patterns more clearly. I quickly identify the stress in my body and am aware of when I stress myself. In addition, my mood is more positive and I’m more able to shake off things that normally get me down. I find myself humming and singing much more than I used to and experience greater happiness. This comes as quite a surprise because, in fact, this year has been particularly difficult.

The most surprising discovery to me is the impact which regular exercise is having on the spiritual dimension of life. I find myself living more mindfully, with greater focus on the present moment, and an increased sense of inner peace. Time in prayer and meditation is also more focused and, for lack of a better term, deeper
When I intentionally began a pattern of regular exercise, I assumed that it would need to be a disciplined activity each day. I thought I had enough self-discipline force myself to make it work. What I found was that the experience has been a kind of life-transformation. I experience myself differently in each dimension of who I am. It’s been a great adventure that I didn’t expect to be on.

This experience underscores for me how each dimension of who we are is fundamentally related. As I focus on the physical dimension, I also explore the psychological and spiritual component of who I am. No matter the starting place, it leads me along the ongoing journey on the path of self-knowledge. What the high school guidance counselor didn’t tell us was that growth in self-knowledge continues throughout life.

(Originally posted on e-merging on October 27, 2010)

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Anger: A Signal for Change

In the mid 1980’s, I read a novel by May Sarton: Anger. Because her autobiographic work, The Journal of a Solitude, touched me deeply, I hoped her novel exploring expressions of anger would help me sort out my own experience of anger.

Anger is an emotion which has complicated my life. In the 1980’s, my anger grew more pervasive and poignant. At that time, I was extensively involved in community activism and organizations for people living with AIDS. The work was very frustrating. The prejudices I encountered while advocating for the proper care of people with AIDS ran very deep in society. Many efforts were stonewalled while countless young people died horrific deaths. I was angry. The anger was taking over my life. I felt like I was losing myself and becoming my anger.

Sarton’s writing helped me to name the anger and identify the many shades of color which were part of its intensity. Through her writing, I came to understand the ways in which anger would seemingly take possession of my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I didn’t like the anger. Nor did I like the person I was when I was angry. But I came to understand that the anger was an important dimension of my life. I entered a dialogue with my anger and came to understand why it was there. I came to learn that anger wasn’t my enemy but, like a friend who is sometimes too honest, anger made clear that something was not the way it should be in my life. Anger became a warning sign for me that something in my life needed to be approached differently.

Twenty-five years after exploring anger with the help of May Sarton’s writing, I still experience anger. There are times when it continues to take possession of my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I recognize that anger is an important part of who I am. Anger causes me to pay attention to what’s not right in my life and to see what needs to change. Sometimes the change needs to be inside of me and sometimes there is a need for something outside of me to change.

Today, in the United States, many, many people are very angry. The anger is real. It has taken possession of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of scores of people. It is as though the nation is shouting with one voice, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The anger is raw and pervasive. It’s also largely unexamined.

As the anger grows and intensifies, it seeks expression. In looking around the country, we see that anger has led to an increased lack of tolerance for those labeled as “different.”. The anger looms so large that civil discourse, critical thought, and reasoned action have become nearly impossible. Because people are angry, they cannot even recognize when their actions are more harmful to themselves than to anyone else. The expressions of anger in the country are much like an angry young man who breaks his hand by punching a brick wall.

The anger is real and should not be discounted. It should get our attention and not be dismissed. Anger may be related to any number of causes including the loss of employment, loss of homes, loss of a sense of well-being, loss of …. yes, so many of us have lost or been deprived of a great deal and all we seem to have left is anger. Yet, no matter the cause, we must take care to not loose ourselves in the anger.

In order to prevent oneself from becoming nothing but the anger, some inner reflection is needed. I’ve learned that it’s critical not to just pay attention to the anger but to examine the actual root. Rarely is the cause, the root of the anger what it first appears to be. For example, the driver who cuts me off on the freeway may elicit the burst of anger, but that’s not the real cause of my anger. The cause may be a lack of proper rest, the experience of stress from multiple sources at once, or generalized feelings of helplessness because the situations of life are beyond my control. It seems that the inner work to identify this connection is what escapes most people. Rather than attending to the root cause, which may be something like financial stress, it’s easier to label the driver who cut me off as the cause. Blaming the driver for my anger may lead to yelling, horn blowing, or extending a one-fingered salute. In these displays of aggression, I merely give my anger to another thus continuing the cycle that leads to growing anger in the world. Yet, my problem still remains. I am still angry and the cause of my anger continues to gnaw at me.

As Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests, cooling the flames of anger is the result of mindful living. In his own book on anger, Thich Nhat Hanh explores how he learned to respond to justifiable anger as he witnessed so much of his homeland destroyed by a war in which friends and family were brutally killed. Neither having a good reason to be angry nor wanting to fight back against injustice is sufficient reason to allow anger to take over one’s life. Instead, the spiritual dimension of life challenges us to understand the root of the anger and to make decisions about how to root the cause out of one’s life. Rooting out the cause often requires both calming the inner flames of anger while also working toward a resolution regarding the root cause of the anger.

As I have noted many times, spirituality is about the way we live. When we allow our lives to be characterized by anger, we bring harm to ourselves and others. Living out of anger destroys life. The anger in American society destroys the life of individuals and destroys our lives together as a people.

The resolution of the anger in our country will come when enough people cool the flames of anger and begin to explore the roots of the anger. In doing so, an opportunity can be created to create new solutions for the problems which face us. By recognizing that anger works to alert us of something important, we can take the opportunity to reflect on why anger has entered our lives and what changes in life are needed.

(Originally posted on e-merging on September 22, 2010)

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Gratitude for Being Sustained

Over the last month, I’ve made weekly trips beyond the suburbs along a bumpy road far from the busy city. While it’s a drive out of my way, it’s a trip I look forward to. I always find something I didn’t expect – something good to bring home. My destination: the farm! It’s there I find produce for the week: corn on the cob, string beans, peas, potatoes, turnips, tomatoes, cucumbers, tree-ripened peaches and cantaloupes from the vine. It’s an amazing bounty! While I buy fresh produce throughout the year at the local market, it’s striking how full of flavor freshly picked fruits and vegetables can be when they come directly from the farm.

Part of the sustainable living and slow food movements is a focus on buying local, non-processed products. Buying locally means that produce is picked ripe which means that it’s bursting with flavor. But it also means that the produce isn’t shipped across the country (or from another country) adding carbon fuel pollutants to the environment. (For those who may question my drive to the country, I will add that I drive a hybrid car — so I am attempting to limit my own carbon footprint.) As important as the commitment to sustainable living is, there is also an important spiritual dimension to consider in this season of harvest. Simply put, Mother Earth responds generously to our presence by assuring that we are nourished by her bounty.

Consider this for a moment: the earth is opened to receive the seed in planting time. With very little on our part, the mystery of growth occurs. The seed shoots up a bud; the bud blossoms; the blossom grows into a red, ripe tomato or fresh, juicy cantaloupe. Freely, the plant shares its bounty with us to nourish us. It seems to almost say, “Take. Eat. Be refreshed with my sweetness.” We, in turn, have the honor to take and savor the richness of Mother Earth but often do so without recognition of or gratitude for the wonderful way in which we are sustained.

To consider a sustainable spirituality, we need to begin from the recognition that Mother Earth already sustains us. Everything we need in life is provided for us on this vast, rich planet. In fact, it was here before we could ask for it. In return for sustaining us, we have a responsibility: to use the gifts of our planet wisely – in a way that sustains the bounty for others who will come after us.

Often, when people think of sustainability, the focus is on the changes that need to be made in lifestyle. From this perspective, sustainability is understood as a sacrifice to comfort and convenience. This perspective is a narrow view and misses the far greater reality: that we have already been sustained by our planet. Mother Earth has given us a great gift. Sustainable living becomes an opportunity to respond in-kind by supporting the life of the planet which supports our lives.

Sustainable living is based on nothing more than recognizing that Earth’s bountiful resources have sustained us. In gratitude, our choices in how to live need to sustain the Earth for those who come after us.

(Originally posted on e-merging on August 31, 2010)

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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