Is Your Spiritual Practice Like Going to the Gym?

Episode 23 – Is Your Spiritual Practice Like Going to the Gym? The Waxing Soul

Episode Transcript:

I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast where we're adventuring into the world of mindful modern magic and authentic spiritual practice.

It's April 7, 2022, and today's topic is why our spiritual practices may feel unsatisfying or like a chore.

Are you ready to grow your soul?

Welcome back to the podcast, witchy and spiritual friends!

One of the things, one of the ideas that has helped me better understand spirituality as a whole, as a concept is the idea that spiritual life and mundane life aren’t two different things. That there isn’t this separate realm of spirituality with rules and systems and whatever that aren’t the same as and don’t apply in the mundane world.

This is… In a lot of ways I was brought up in a tradition which buys into that idea very heavily. It’s explicit about it, even. Like, especially in evangelical circles, there is a mundane, physical, material, worldly part of existence which isn’t just separate from the spiritual and religious part, it’s actively at odds with it. So that’s the kind of baggage I came to paganism still dragging. And it’s pervasive enough in Christianity of all types to at least some extent that it’s become part of how we tend to see spirituality in the Western world, especially. And especially towards the religious end of the spectrum. There’s the stuff that goes on at work and in everyday life and in the media and just in general in society, but then you go to church and you do the things god wants you to do and hang out with godly people and that’s a different world, a different part of life.

That’s definitely not how I understand things to be anymore. And part of that has to do with the way I understand spirit itself, which if this is new to you, if you’re new to the podcast and haven’t read my book, is all based in alchemical ideas and means that all energies are spirit, exchange of and working with that spirit in all its forms is what spirituality is, therefore spirituality is everything we do. It’s not just religious-type communications and relationships and exchanges, it’s all of it.

So let’s shift a bit and talk about fitness. I promise there’s a connection here.

So I’m sure I’ve got a whole range of relationships in the listener audience when it comes to working out and all that. There’s, everything from, you know, people who find a love for working out in itself, that truly get into it as a pursuit, as something they’re really invested in and that they find fun, all the way to the people who would literally rather do anything else than go to a gym and work out there. I’m… I’m somewhere in between, more towards the latter than the former, though. And it’s not that I don’t like moving or sweating or exerting myself. I’ve been taking belly dance classes which I love, I like playing VR stuff like Beat Saber or Synth Riders, I used to really love playing on corporate sports leagues, I did that marathon that one time. But I don’t love working out. I’ve done it, I can work up enough enthusiasm to do it under certain circumstances, but it’s not something I love.

So, I saw someone the other day in a video talking about how… It was a TikTok, a stitch of someone doing a thing in the gym where it’s like pulling on a rope that’s on a pully thing, so it’s a resistance contraption, and talking about how it reminded them of a job they had working on a boat or something, and then someone had stitched that to say that they always hated going to the gym and working out because it all seemed pointless, but they really enjoyed the same kind of beneficial activities if they were in a real life context and had a purpose.

And I was like, yeah, totally, I’m the same way. That’s… Like, when I was training for the marathon, prior to that I did a lot of walking and eventually running outside, back and forth to work, long distances on trails, and that was enjoyable, but if I did the same thing on a treadmill it was hard to get through. Not physically difficult, mentally difficult. Like, what’s the point? If there’s not… For me, the only times when I’ve consistently been able to make myself really commit to traditional types of working out, just doing exercises, is if there’s some kind of end goal with a deadline like training for the marathon or whatever.

And I think there really is something significant to examine here with the way that, like, modern life doesn’t require the vast majority of us to do tasks every day that are physically difficult or strenuous, so the solution we’ve ended up turning to is isolating the part that is physical exertion and doing that, even though it’s devoid of purpose. Humans used to get their exercise mostly from necessary tasks like farming and hunting and building and traveling and all of that, but since most of us don’t do those things as part of life anymore, we go to the gym and pull on bars connected to pullies and weights or we ride a bike that doesn’t go anywhere, or whatever. We have to set aside extra time and make a space and tools specifically to stand in for those things we don’t do in everyday life anymore.

And as I was kind of turning this over in my brain and going, like, “Yeah, I would much rather just find things that I need to do or want to do that, just as a side effect, also require me to be active in some way than go to a gym and push levers and walk miles to nowhere,” my brain also went, “Um, isn’t this also how we do spirituality these days?” Especially in a society centered on individualism, achievement, exploitation, things that break down the communal systems and social structures that used to provide a lot for us in terms of a sense of identity and shared worldview and emotional or mental support and all of that. Which, you know, we now turn to spirituality to help us get, right?

And if you’re going, “Is this true? Is this what I do in my practice?” or “Is that bad? Do I need to fix it?” Stick with me for a minute.

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Now back to the episode!

In the digging that I’ve done into human history and spirituality, one of the things that I’ve realized is that we make a big mistake by assuming that human spirituality has always looked more or less the way it does for us in modern times. And I don’t mean in terms of what the rituals are like, what the beliefs are like, I also mean the way it was integrated into life.

Like, I think we tend to envision our… Okay, I’m going to put this out there, and I would legitimately welcome everyone to find me on social media and let’s engage in some dialogue about this.

So, I was reading an article about a group of nomadic pastoralists somewhere in the world, I can dig up the article if anyone is super interested, but the specifics aren’t super important. They were talking about the way they worshiped and honored the spirits of the lands they ran their herds on, and something in the way the article explained things made me step back and realize that I’d always thought of the whole concept of land spirits and animism and stuff kind of all wrong. Like, in all the different ways that people and books and whatever have described animism to me, I always interpreted it as meaning that there were spirits who inhabited objects and the land and whatever in kind of the same way that a ghost inhabits a house or something possesses a person, you know? That there are spirits, there’s a belief in spirits, and these spirits live in everything around us. Which I know I’m not the only person to kind of think of it in that way, to interpret the just basic description of animism this way.

And it was one of those things that didn’t make sense to me for all kinds of reasons. Like, why would are ancient ancestors who were so connected to the earth, who understood things like migratory patterns and weather patterns and the cycling of celestial bodies and… If they were so knowledgable and connected to the world around them, because they had to be, we know they were because they used this knowledge to do all the stuff they did, then why would they overlay this kind of irrational set of beliefs in, like, ghost-like spirits living in stuff that they then had to worship in certain ways to survive?

And I know I’m not the only person who interpreted animism this way because I see this interpretation in modern neopagan practices. But as I was reading this article it suddenly clicked in my head that I had been making the assumption that… You know, I was raised in American Evangelical Protestant Christianity, which considers anything spirit-like which isn’t from god and heaven to be satanic and demonic. If it’s not god, it’s a bad spirit. And that means that if you come out of that tradition or if that way of thinking is prevalent in the way you come to understand spirituality and religion, which it is for, you know, everyone who lives in American culture, I would say, then those ideas get overlaid on everything else. If animistic beliefs are described as a belief that everything is animated by and contains a spirit, spirit is understood to be an entity, so there are little entities in everything. That’s what makes sense.

But I’ve studied alchemy for how long now? And it still didn’t click until I read that article that, like, what that means, what these people worshiping their land spirits meant was that the land has a… has a life force. It’s a living thing. There’s not an entity that lives inside it, it IS an entity. Some of you are like, um, duh. Some of you are probably having a moment of reinterpreting a bunch of stuff. Some of you probably have some thinking to do.

But my point after all that is that we have this persistent habit of assuming our way of thinking about something is the default, it’s the way everyone thinks of a thing, even back through history, and that’s not true. Our way of thinking about spirituality as a compartmentalized piece of existence isn’t how it’s always been for humanity. Our modern Western way of turning spirituality into a religion thing where everyone has their lives and their work and their day to day existence and then at some point most people kind of shut that of and go to church and do spiritual things… that’s new.

And yeah, we’ve looked at history and anthropology through that lens without questioning a lot of it for a very long time. We look at people whose spiritual practices and beliefs are interwoven into their daily life and we go, well, they’re a very spiritual, very belief driven society, isn’t that beautiful and unique! When we really are the odd ones. The fact is that modern society has put such an emphasis on things like achievement and competition and productivity and wealth that the whole reason we still need spirituality and pursue it even in that compartmentalized way is that the elements that make up what we call spirituality are just the things modern society has deprioritized and stripped away from our daily experience and left us without a way to fill those needs.

But that doesn’t mean we have to do those things in a kind of separate, sterilized, artificial way the same way we don’t have to compensate for the sedentary nature of modern life by spending our time on machines that mimic productive activities. There are lots of ways to approach this, which is what I’ll get into next.

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The things that we do, the elements of our spiritual practices all have a purpose and in a lot of cases those purposes aren’t what we may have always thought they were. Or at the very least the underlying reasons for those things being part of our practices are rooted in something we haven’t though about.

Now, when it comes to breaking down a spiritual practice into elements or characteristics or whatever, there’s a zillion different ways to do that. So I kind of want to go back to the metaphor I started with here.

When it comes to fitness, there’s some common ways to divide up and categorize the types of exercise that all achieve a different thing. Strength, cardio, flexibility, endurance, speed… And whatever you want to work on, you can go to the gym and pick a machine or a type of exercise that will do that thing kind of in isolation, right? You can go lift weights, you can run on a treadmill, you can climb fake stairs, you can do special stretches. Or you can do activities which focus on one or two of those things in a way that isn’t so, like, isolated and stripped down so it’s more enjoyable, more natural, more naturally motivating, but it’s still a matter of doing that activity for the purpose of fitness with maybe a competitive or social layer to it. So, for instance, you could go trail running or other kinds of races, you could take yoga or pilates classes, that kind of thing. Or you can do activities which are physically demanding but enjoyable for something more than the physicality, even if they’re hobbies or pursuits that aren’t strictly practical. This is like if you took up dancing or mountain climbing or whatever. And then if you go a step beyond that you could choose to structure your life in a way that’s more naturally active and physically demanding so that you, just in the course of doing your day to day stuff, you are building strength and all that. You get out and do your own yardwork, you maybe choose a physically demanding job, you walk places instead of driving, that kind of thing.

We’ve all got to find the route that makes most sense for us, right? And, I mean, if we wanted to dig even deeper there’s the whole issue of determining our reasons for believing we’re not active enough, our goals, what we want to get out of these pursuits. Like, I know I’m much more of the more active life and active hobbies kind of fitness person, but I’m also not overly concerned about things that motivate others to fitness. I’m not trying to lose weight, I’m done trying to live up to external standards as far as my appearance and whatever, but I want to be active enough that I feel, you know, able to be active, where my joints keep working as I get older, where I can remain able to do the physical things I want to do. Because absolutely there is a push to excessive worrying about fitness that may not be rooted in actual, like, real understanding of health.

But there’s not a one right answer. Of all the ways to pursue exercise, going to the gym isn’t the best way and it’s not the worst way, it’s an individual preference. It’s about what resonates with us individually.

And that’s all true for spirituality, too.

There’s the same need to do some thinking about what we feel we need spirituality for and if that’s a spiritually healthy, you know, viewpoint. And then there’s many different things that we use spiritual practices to work on, like understanding the world, self growth and development, establishing a sense of identity, emotional wellbeing, connections to others, finding purpose, etc. But then some of us are going to best fulfill those needs by turning to very formal practices, religion and formal ritual and established communities and traditions where we engage in these spiritual pursuits in a somewhat isolated way, not connected to mundane activities. Some of us will resonate more with a practice that is less formal but still conducted in a solely spiritual context, like I think a lot of New Age spirituality fits here, the sort of thing where we explore spiritual purposes in more of a journey, a self-guided exploratory experience type thing. Then there are those of us who will best fill our spiritual needs by engaging in activities and hobbies that will naturally push us to be spiritually focused, things like community service work, traveling where we actually engage with other cultures, mentoring, creating, that sort of thing. Or we can try and reintegrate spirituality into life in a holistic, authentic way where we kind of go against the ways modern society has separated mundane life from the spiritual. The hard part of doing that, of course, is that it’s kind of hard to do that and still be quote unquote normal in society’s eyes. It’s like the fitness thing, if we just decide to cultivate a more active life, we’re kind of the weird ones, the odd ones. You kind of end up being an outlier in both situations. And for some of us that’s the thing that resonates most. That’s the way of life that feels most authentic.

Bottom line, though, is that if you’ve felt like you’re not getting what you need from your spiritual practice, your spiritual life, if you feel like it’s not meeting your needs in a way that you… Like, if you just go through the motions or you do the spirituality thing because you feel like you should, but you don’t feel like it’s as rewarding for you as it seems to be for others, that’s probably because you’re more towards the “going to the gym to use the machines” end of the spectrum and you should be more the other direction.

Thank you so much for listening.
New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday.
All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens.
Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two.
Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.

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