Friday, 31 August 2012

Personal Training for the soul

What do we mean by “fitness”. Anybody? Well, no it’s not about getting muscles or losing weight. To most people getting “fit” is an abstract idea, a notion, an idea, bantered about with no real meaning. As a Personal Trainer, to me “Fitness” is defined as:  a complete feeling of and state of physical, mental and emotional well-being.  Being a Personal Trainer or Fitness Instructor isn't just about about showing people how to lift weights!

Personal training and religion have a lot in common, and you know, I think we can apply a lot of the techniques of personal training for health and well being to our spiritual health as well.

Our American cousins define Fitness (or as they term it “Wellness”)as having six dimensions: Physical, Emotional, Intellectual, Social, Vocational and Spiritual.

Physical wellness encourages all issues concerning your physical body and daily life Emotional wellness emphasises awareness of and acceptance of feelings. An emotionally well person maintains satisfying relationships with others while feeling positive and enthusiastic about his life. You also maintain minimal levels of stress, develop healthy feelings and use nondestructive emotional outlets.
Intellectual Wellness encourages creative, stimulating mental activities including learning and adapting to and understanding change and the world we live in.
Social Wellness encourages contributing to human community and environment. A socially well person emphasises interdependence with others, with nature and within his own family and self.
Vocational Wellness is the growth and happiness in your own work, and jobs that are satisfying and enriching; vocational wellness emphasises being fit for purpose.
Spiritual Wellness is the universal quest for meaning and purpose. A spiritually well person develops, evolves and practices his religious, political, environmental and personal beliefs with integrity, truthfulness.”

 Six factors which we all need and can achieve. It is interesting, isn't it, that included in that list of what it is to be “fit” and to “get fit” are things like emotions and spirituality. To extrapolate that list further, if you want to be Spiritual Fit, Spiritually well, you need to be physically fit, emotionally fit etc. Therefore, looking after our minds and bodies – as Jesus pointed out in our gospel reading – is part of our Spiritual lives. Can you be spiritually fit if you are overweight, drink and smoke? If you aren't physically fit you cannot be spiritually fit. Similarly, can you be physically fit if you aren't emotionally or spiritually fit?

The Ancient Greeks saw that a well balanced person could be described as an equilateral triangle, with Mind, Body and Spirit all in a perfect balance. They saw the body as being the vessel for the soul, and to have a healthy body you needed a healthy soul and to have a healthy soul you needed a healthy body. The writers of the Bible also understood this, hence St Paul urging his readers to abstain from alcohol, gambling, sexual immorality and gluttony. The UK is the fattest country in Europe, it has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and STDs in Europe, it has the highest mortality rate through Diabetes and Heart Disease (both fat induced conditions) in Europe and the second highest to the US. Surely now, more than ever, those injunctions need to be listened to!

Fitness and wellness is and has to be a lifelong process; its not like winning the Pools, where you take the millions and never work again. Losing weight, getting a six pack, winning a race isn't about working hard, watching what you eat until you get to your goal, it is about a complete change in lifestyle, getting rid of all those habits and activities that are bad and unhealthy for you, not just physically, but also emotionally, vocationally, and spiritually.

It is all about finding yourself, getting fit, being well, being whole, being holy. Respecting and loving yourself and your body enough to change your lifestyle, to rid yourself of unhealthy practices, to enter into a new, integrated, whole body, way of living, entering into resurrection living: putting to death the old self and being re-awoken in a new way of living.

Becoming fit and well, does not have to be something that is dreaded or seen as a chore; it can and should become a natural part of the day. Being fit and well isn't just physical, but spiritual too and integrates body, mind and soul. In Britain and America, the two fattest nations in the developed world, we don't think of exercise and fitness as integrated or vital part of our lifestyle – and we are suffering for it, physically and spiritually.

Like an athlete who must be able to withstand the physical and emotional challenges of his sport and still thrive, we too must be athletes in the game of life.

If we keep to our idea of personal training for the soul, then how do we apply that to our spiritual lives? Well, at the basest level, then the church or chapel must be our “Soul Gym” – when we come together to collectively work out and train our souls, assisted or aided by our spiritual Personal Trainers – ministers, lay preachers. We even “exercise to music” when we sing our hymns or meditate to music.

However, the gym isn’t the be all and end all of personal training, and if it was I wouldn’t be working as a trainer! I’ll share some figures with you. Out of the current UK adult population, only 20% take part in regular weekly exercise, and of that 20% only 10% are members of a health club or a gym. Out of the 80% of people who do not exercise regularly, 75% say that they would but do not like gyms or the idea of a gym and therefore would take part in exercise but not in that environment.

More important to this service is the fact that most people do not like the idea of training in a gym. Hmm… I’ve heard the same argument before with regards to church. The “I believe in God but I don’t want to do church” or people who have had bad experiences of the church and might not want to go back. Those should be the target audience of the PT and religion.

More than that, getting fit/well/whole can take part ANYWHERE, not just in the gym. It can take place at home, in a park, wherever the client feels confident! The gym is merely a tool, part of a whole package, part of that means to an end. If the church or chapel is our “Soul Gym” then surely coming together to exercise our souls doesn’t just have to be in the “soul gym” and nor should the soul gym be the be-all and end-all of our soul training regime.

No, rather like Personal Training, our soul exercise regime should and can take place anywhere! Fitness isn’t just to be found in a gym; neither is God to be found just in the chapel and on a Sunday. God is to be found everywhere and therefore wherever we find Him, see Him, and experience Him that is where we should exercise our souls, be it in chapel, up a mountain or sitting under a tree.  In other words, our soul training regime is already holistic through the simple fact that we can train anywhere! God isn’t just church, nor has He ever been.

Did you know, everyone favours one sense over the other; some people find they learn and respond best to a visual, or aural or touching or doing stimulus, and that means our worship needs to reach out and appeal to all the senses, not only to appeal to a whole body but also to everyone.

We sing after every Service “God be in my head/God be in my eyes/ God be in my mouth/God be in my heart”. That is a whole person, a whole body approach to worship. This whole person approach to spirituality and God I think was best summed up in our reading by St Mark. That is surely as holistic as you can get – worship and love God with your whole heart, mind, body.

No other commandments are greater than these. To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. What a high standard! What a call to selfless living; to love you as the person you are, unique and holy and to love others as yourself!

The greatest commandments are not dress like I dress, believe what I believe, do what I do, accept one sect or denomination as the body of Christ on earth or as the single revelation of God...

The greatest thing is love: the loving of God, the loving of his son Jesus, the loving of doing “those things that are pleasing in his sight”. The loving of our neighbour as ourselves, and the loving especially of “them who are of the household of faith”.

Worshipping God with your whole mind is something I think we Unitarians have always done; thinking about God, thinking and questioning and understanding God, asking questions of prayer and worship, seeking and searching, but I think we do so to the loss of the other senses.

Too often our worship can be just aural...we listen to readings and poems, to organ music, sing our hymns. But that is just one of six senses! Senses we have been blessed with , God given. We need to use all of our senses in our worship and exploration of God  – voices raised in song or prayer or poetry, bodies to feel, touch, see, smell. To sense.

We need to and can find God and meet him anywhere and when you do, use as many means as  possible to explore and grow in Him!

As a personal trainer I understand that there is no set recipe for getting fit, for reaching personal goals. So too, as a Free Christian, I recognise that there is no one fixed recipe for getting spiritually fit, all I can do is to share with you my experiences of God, those spiritual practices that I find healthy and helpful in my daily life and hope that together we can all learn from each other.
The encouragement and inspiration provided by Jesus, who I see as the ultimate Soul Trainer,  lies not only in his proclamation of what was deepest and truest in life but in the embodiment of the love of God in his own life and death and resurrection, He shows to use the very heart and face of God.
He helps us out of our collective spiritual rut. As H. G. Wells no less once said "Jesus was like some terrible mortal huntsman digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hitherto. In the white blaze of his kingdom, there was to be no property, no privilege, no pride, no precedence; no motive indeed, and no reward but love". And isn’t Jesus still doing that? If not, why? We should be searching ourselves, our souls, getting rid of those things in our lives which are unhealthy, physically, emotionally or spiritually, working hard ever day in our own Soul Gym, finding our complacency and being challenged every day – being challenged not only by ourselves but by God.

O Lord our God, to you and you alone we turn for the strength to continue on our spiritual journey. You are the centre and soul of our being, and the author of our very lives. Without you, we can do nothing.
Give us, O Lord, a deeper sense of your presence with us. Reveal yourself to us, both in your Word and in our hearts, so that we may love you with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might. Strengthen our love for you so that, by your power, we will be victorious in the wars and battles that we fight within our spirits.

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