Survival of the Fittest: Spiritual Exercises

Higher consciousness may be only a workout away.

Adlai Stevenson once said, "Some of us worship in churches, some in synagogues, and some on golf courses." Now we need to allow for the fact that it was the 1950s, and so Stevenson couldn't help but have a blinkered view of the world's religious diversity. In our more enlightened era we have broadened our understanding of this diversity to include, not only golf, but every conceivable form of worship from archery to ziplining. The return on sweat and hard work is not just physical. It is also serenity, a renewed sense of purpose, and the comforting feeling that none of us is, as the pundits would say, "bowling alone" in an indifferent, uncaring universe.

As an avid weekend runner, I have upheld my end of many an argument with my wife by paraphrasing Stevenson    along the following lines: "Some of us worship sitting down in pews for several hours and doing nothing to lower our blood pressure and cholesterol. Others of us worship while vigorously promoting the health of our cardiovascular system, not to mention  our cognitive abilities."

    Still, this kind of argument does not really answer the question of "Why Dad gets a free pass and the rest of us don't?" since most weekends would seem to hold enough hours to run and attend religious services. To make matters worse,

houses of worship sometimes schedule multiple services on the same day, putting all but the super-fit in the impossible position of having to keep moving from dawn through the  afternoon in order to excuse their absence.

 In an effort to quell some doubts and show just how spiritual a runner I am, I monitored my own stream of consciousness during a recent Sunday outing up South Orange Avenue. What I found is that, though some parts of this stream run deeper than others, neither am I exercising in a spiritual or, for that matter, moral vacuum:

Will New Directions be able to take down Vocal Adrenaline on the next season of "Glee"? Not nice the trick the Adrenaline singers played on Rachel...

    Ok, that wasn't too impressive. But as I gasped my way toward Wyoming Avenue, I could feel more of my neurons lighting up:

 At this rate will be dead before the run is over. Raises whole question of which afterlife I'm headed for. Will know immediately if met at gate by guy with horns, pitchfork, and the kind of stopwatch that track coaches use to time you. My personal definition of hell: wind sprints. And what about the other place? How will I know I'm there? Not sure, but what I imagine is a lot of soothing Tai Chi, slow, steady movements with long rests in between.

 By the time I reached the Reservation, I was not only ready to collapse but was having thoughts so profound I only dimly recognized them as my own.  From my new vantage point, worries that had earlier loomed large, like whether or not I would be on time to pick up my family from church or they would have to stay through to the evening service (I only hoped there was one), now seemed insignificant. The boundaries of my own identity were revealed for the illusion that they are, and I became loudly and, to judge from the looks I was getting, incorrectly convinced that I wasn't tone-deaf after all but should probably be trying out for Vocal Adrenaline sometime soon.

Now I am not claiming I have this kind of experience every time I run. I had to block out a lot of distracting mental chatter to achieve it, and the five cups of coffee I downed earlier that morning may have been a contributing factor, too. But if someone as spiritually challenged as me can attain such dizzying heights even for a few minutes, then other weekend athletes in search of their out may have found it.

But what about those who get out of breath contemplating a game of tennis, much less setting out on foot for a wilderness adventure? Is there a spiritual exercise for them?

Yes, it is called "meditation." Remember that spirituality is all about perspective and balance. For instance, "Honey, I need to close my eyes for a minute" is something that you will need a lot of perspective to say at a time when water is leaking through the living room ceiling and one of the kids is cartwheeling across the floor.

 "You can sleep now?" your better half may wonder in a tone of voice you haven't heard her use since the microwave was engulfed in a mysterious blue flame.

 "No, not sleep, meditate." This is an important distinction to make; the two activities may look the same to the uninitiated.

Now here's a good beginner's exercise. After closing your eyes, imagine yourself eating all the chocolate fudge cake you want. Then while you are doing this, count off all the sit-ups, push-ups, and wind-sprints you are not doing. Soon you will be ready to move on to all the core-building fitness classes you aren't taking. By the time you reach Extreme Cardio-Kickboxing you should be feeling very relaxed indeed.

Now open your eyes. The lamp that used to be on the mantel over the fireplace is lying in pieces next to a growing puddle on the floor. Just to the left of this,  a woman who looks vaguely familiar is holding the phone and screaming the way the passengers on the Titanic did when they noticed water coming in through the portholes.

Yet, somehow you are managing to look down on it all as if from a great height. Time has slowed,  too, and it is as if the woman on the phone is not gesturing frantically but executing a series of graceful, fluid motions with her free hand.

You could almost think she is doing Tai Chi and this must be heaven.


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