On spiritual exercise


One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father playing catch with me. In my mind’s eye, I can see him showing me how to rotate my glove through a sundial of positions. A basket catch won’t always do. You don’t stab at the ball with pinchers; you let it in. A good outfielder gets under the ball and uses two hands. A great fielder moves to where the ball will be, not where it is. The drop-step, the first five steps, a keen eye, a clean read, quickness rather than breakaway speed: all of these the outfielder’s weapons.

During the summer, we played catch after he got home from work while it was still light out. Sometimes he could be a prick and I could be mopey, but usually this was our time to figure out what being a father and a son was all about. During winter, I stood sideways and caught footballs. Or I did out-and-in’s, out-and-down’s, down-out-and-down’s. I learned how to catch the ball over my shoulder in stride. I dove and leapt for balls when I had to. Many an imaginary cornerback lost his jockstrap.

There was simplicity in all this, tradition too, and as I tell it lumps of sentimentality, but also and not least discipline. We may have thrown the ball around in a laggardy way to warm up, but when it came time we meant business. Each time out, there was some lesson to be imparted through practice, repetition, dissection, screwup, diagnosis, and more repetition. That lesson was self-improvement through focused attention and, more important, through habit formation. It was implied that the best and the brightest excelled at their activity of choice not because they were innately superior to everyone else but because they had made action, procedure, breath, locomotion second nature.

I’m sure I wanted to please my father. These experiences were, then as now, the nearest expressions of love we had. When he called me his “little man,” I softened with pride, the pride of promising to grow up well. But I also took to these sports because I loved the artistry, better, the slow training in mastery. I doubt that I was ever an excellent baseball or basketball or football player, and I was never a great team sports player since I cared only about movement, the moment, the wonderment of craft, the beauty of the meditation, none of which necessarily translated into winning or fraternity. Never an MVP.


As I look back on it now, I can’t help but see the decade I spent weightlifting as unequivocally bizarre: You step into a factory, get totally psyched, move a body part in a specified way a set number of times, rest for the appropriate amount of time, and then do it all over again. To say this is to tell only half of the story. For the rest, one also had to consider sleep, diet, supplements (glutamine, taurine, creatine), cardio, weights, and workout routines. One had to keep a record of reps, sets, routines. One had to have a plan and stick to it or modify it when necessary. One might need a partner who could motivate you, help you get pumped. Sometimes, one needed a spotter. There were one-rep maxes to think of, light days and heavy days, favorite and least favorite body parts to make bigger or smaller, bits of you susceptible to growth and others not. This, too, was an art of discipline, a great mastery of the bodily self.

I began lifting in my basement when I was 14 and didn’t stop, really, until I was 28. At my peak, I was working out 6 times a week for at least 2 hours a day. It would be hard to count the number of days and hours spent in a gym, but the soundtrack would have to be Smashing Pumpkin’s “emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is godliness…” I never chose the song, and I’m not sure that I really liked it, but somehow it was always playing in the background.

Lifting weights was an alchemy of the body. We tolerated pain and spoke of “getting huge.” One of my friends wanted to be “swoll.” (I’d have to say that he definitely qualified.) Guys with big arms were “jacked.” Abs were supposed to be “ripped.” They came in packs of 6, sometimes–and freakishly–megapacks of 8.

But why did we do it? Fuck if I know. We were not growing functional strength. It would have been nice to jump higher or run faster, but that was unlikely given our bulk. We did not get stronger to pancake linebackers, wield sledgehammers, or build pyramids. Were we healthier? Perhaps, but then many of us couldn’t walk well (given our lopsided bodies), some couldn’t sleep well (given our hypertrophic backs), and a few probably had a hard time finding clothes that fit them.

Did we look good? Were we after a certain effete, highly stylized manliness, a feline masculinity–what with our shaved legs, exposed arms, and tanned bodies? (This is a period piece, mind you: You have to remember that this was during the high point–or low point–of the late 90’s.) Was it to exert our will, to see how plastic our bodies were? Was it to experience fraternity and camaraderie? Or could it have been to achieve autonomy–to set ends and to engage in goal-directed activity? Or, or, or could it have been, simply, to increase our tolerance of pain?

Why, in other words, do we as a culture accord such high solemnity to the disciplined body and why, by contrast, such haphazard care for the social and contemplative mind?


Virtue is excellence: acting in the right way at the right time for the right reasons toward the right end. Spiritual exercise is the cultivation of virtue through rational-spiritual exercise. Pascal once wrote that we had gotten belief all wrong. If we thought that we could reason our way to believing in god, we were well off-track. Pascal’s great insight was to see the problem of belief entirely differently. “Kneel down and pray,” he advised, “and you will believe.” Belief, he implies, is embedded in a social practice and, as such, cannot be understood apart from the practice in which it unfolds and has meaning. Pascal was onto something.

I don’t play catch or lift weights anymore, and I’m tempted to call the years I spent lifting weights a profound waste of time. Tempted. But then I think it would be more accurate to say that it was a spiritual exercise taking place within a social practice that made sense of the lives of 20-something males growing up in the 90’s. We were then, as we are now, too attached to a conception of happiness that is identified almost exclusively with health, and so we’d do well to reflect upon our cultural aspirations, start the slow process of growing up, and ultimately put our adolescent cultural aspirations aside. But the practice of working on oneself, this we need to hold onto, this we need to cultivate, only in a context that would have appealed to the ancients and mystics: the care for our souls.

No doubt the moral life is more complex than the arena, the pitch, or the gym. No doubt a virtuous life is more difficult to achieve than rock-hard abs or sculpted thighs. But then which of the two can hope to bring us a sense of wholeness, mental clarity, loving kindness? Which of the two can hope to lead us home again?

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