Over the last few years, I have been clarifying a spiritual practice that has been a part of my life for some time, but which I have only recently been able to articulate. My time as clerk of my monthly meeting these last couple of years has helped me to understand it as a necessary part of what I do to keep myself spiritually balanced and present.
These three words: body, mind, and spirit – and associated practices – have been essential for me in finding the balance and spiritual clarity I needed to serve as clerk of my meeting. I list them in this order, not because one is more important than the other, but because the first is so often neglected in our secular lives, as well as our lives as Friends.
We prioritize, as we should, the importance of Spirit in our lives as Quakers. Even mind is given precedence, especially among Quaker activists. The oft-neglected aspect that I have needed to keep reminding myself about is body. At our yearly and quarterly gatherings, I am confronted regularly by lack of attention to the needs of my body. The time we devote to business during these gatherings – sitting and deliberating – conflicts with my need to be active, which diminishes my ability to be spiritually attentive and engaged in our work.
In a favorite book of mine, The Exercise Cure, author Jordan D. Metzl, MD, gives a partial list of health ailments for which exercise has been shown to provide effective treatment. The list is long and ranges from obesity, diabetes, and hypertension to immunity against common illnesses such as the cold and flu. Exercise can aid against depression and anxiety, and help in smoking and alcohol cessation, insomnia and apnea, arthritis, Parkinson’s, and asthma. It can reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s and even certain cancers. If we had a drug that was as powerful at treating so many ailments, we would consider it a miracle cure. With a list this long, we should not be surprised to find also that exercise is a powerful medicine for spiritual health and depth.
We voice, at times, amazement at the distances traveled and the time spent in spiritual discernment by past generations of Friends. However, those Friends were, by and large, very physically active in their daily work. They often practiced physical activity through their livelihoods. Being physically active is how we evolved as a species; it is part of our very genetic makeup. However, unlike the vast majority of our ancestors, most of us today are not physically active.
We have become a society out-of-balance, a nation of couch potatoes. Physical inactivity threatens our health, our communities, our relation to the planet, and our connection to Spirit. In my own experience, I find that when I am physically inactive, I am also unable to be spiritually attentive. This can appear as inattention to the work of the Meeting, or, more disconcerting, as inattention to loved ones in my family and community.
Friends represent a fair cross-section of our nation’s sedentary population, in which two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or obese. As Friends, we spend much of our time together perched on our rear ends, trying to find the most comfortable slouch we can. This is not what Spirit would have of us. We owe it to ourselves, our kids, our planet, and our connection to the Divine to pay attention to this most basic human need – the need to be physically active and healthy.
During a conversation at a recent NPYM gathering, the topic of physical activity among Friends came up. One Friend said dismissively, “I doubt that many of us are out there lifting weights or body-building, but . . .”
– implying that such pursuits would be unworthy of Friends. In fact, lifting weights is one important way that I use to prepare myself for Spirit.
Several religious thinkers have written or spoken about the spiritual practice of splitting wood. As our family often heats with wood during the winter, this has become a concrete practice for me. However, my spiritual preparation also involves many other physical activities: gardening, hiking, biking, backpacking, dancing, swimming, running, and yes, regular workouts including weights, push-ups, chin-ups, planks and other resistance exercises. I often feel the strongest connection with Spirit when I pay attention to these details of life, and when I am or have been actively, physically working. During physical activity, the mind and Spirit are left free and open to what leadings they might find.
It is my experience that getting regular, adequate, physical exercise affects my emotions, personal disposition, outlook, and spiritual health, often on an hour-by-hour basis. I can feel a direct relationship between the level of exercise I get in the morning and my clarity of thought, emotional wellbeing, and depth of spiritual insight and connection in the afternoon. Exercise affects my ability to stay hopeful and optimistic in a time that might lead one to deep despair.
It is important for Friends especially to maintain a sense of optimism, joyfulness, and hopefulness, even as we remain aware of the sad realities of our time. Despair can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and inability to take action. The world today needs Friends and others to act on the promptings of the Inner Guide, to follow the Truth that they are led to speak and act. We need our bodies to be in the best physical condition possible to support right action and clarity of thought and Spirit.
Physical activity can also bring us closer to the Divine simply by drawing us into the open air and sunlight, encouraging us to spend more time in the mountains and wilderness, on the beach, by a quiet stream or lake, at a park, or in our own back yard. These experiences, in turn, draw us toward closer relationships with the earth, with Spirit, and with our beloved community. ~~~
Andy Cross is a parent, a gardener, a backpacker, and is active with the work of Friends Peace Teams in Latin America. He is a member of Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM), where he has attended for over twenty-five years.