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 in 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 works 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 for 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 grown 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 to me is the impact of my regular exercise 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, deep.

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 continued throughout life.

© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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6 Responses to Exercise and Self-Knowledge: Dimensions of the Spiritual Path

  1. Rebecca says:

    This is wonderful to read. The yogis have explained this incredibly well in their explanation of the koshas – the sheaths and bodies. I normally would not post on someone else’s page about my blog, but I have started writing a series on the koshas on my blog, and so far I have written the first two – physical body and breath body. The next three will be written over the following week or so. The point is that when all five bodies / koshas (physical, breath, mind, meditative, and divine) are in balance, we function at our best. I think the yogic explanation will help explain what you are experiencing and describing here. Check it out: http://isyogalegal.blogspot.com/2010/10/finding-breath.html

  2. The physical is the platform for the spiritual, so all by itself taking care of the body makes sense. I have found, as you have, a meditative dimension to exercise. We just pay more attention. And finally, exercise affects brain chemistry and mood, and feeling good is perfect for a sense of a light and joyful spirit. Thanks for the opportunity to share. Good health to you.

  3. Lou says:

    Mark:

    Thanks for the comment.

    Like many people, I got off my routine over the holidays but as I have gotten back into both physical exercise and spiritual practice, I have more energy, am more alert, and think more clearly. The creative juices are also flowing.

    Best wishes.

    Lou

  4. 2gnoME says:

    This is great! Self-knowledge is truly a fantastic thing to have.

  5. Wonderful. I too have started daily exercise, and it is transforming my life too!!

  6. Lou says:

    That’s great!

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