By Chaplain (Capt.) Timothy Meier, 1-144th Maneuver Task ForceJanuary 17, 2010
As we all know, the Army expects Soldiers to be physically fit. To that end, we engage in all manner of PT, individually and in groups. We are required to take the APFT for record at least yearly, as at least some measure of that fitness. Most of us would agree that we need this kind of training activity over the long term. For those among us who've engaged in organized sports since childhood, going for long periods without some sort of intentional physical training regimen leaves us feeling out-of-sorts. We need to exercise. Our bodies, accustomed to this kind of exertion, go through something akin to the withdrawal experienced by a smoker trying to quit nicotine.
In addition to physical fitness, irrespective of one's religious preference (or lack thereof), we need to be spiritually fit as well, in order thrive -- and not just survive -- in the midst of what life can throw at us. Spirituality and religion can sometimes coincide, but they need not. A friend of mine who's sober in Alcoholics Anonymous says that "spirituality can unite what religions divide," because she's seen folks from diverse religious backgrounds -- people who otherwise would not even have coffee with one another -- get and stay sober by working the spiritual program which is the Twelve Steps.
Spiritual fitness, then, need not have anything to do with religious practice (but in my case, being professionally religious, I'd like to think they're not mutually exclusive, either!). I suggest that engaging in spiritual exercises can do for our psyches what physical exercise can do for our bodies. Spiritual exercises need not be very time-consuming or complex; in fact, the best ones I've seen seem to be very simple indeed. I'd like to present a few for your consideration over the coming weeks. Here's one for starters:
Two summers ago, in Chaplain Basic Training, we had the first Buddhist Chaplain Candidate in the Army going through Chaplain School. As part of his spiritual practice, he'd spend time each day meditating. A big part of his meditation practice was the intentional awareness of his breath moving into and out of the body. What could be simpler' Anybody can do this spiritual exercise; there need not even be any 'content' to the meditation. Buddhist practice suggests breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Peer-reviewed scientific journal articles have described the lowering of blood pressure and heart rate which can occur during such meditation events, of even a few minutes' duration. In a high-stress military/family environment, such a low-cost, non-pharmacological stress reduction practice makes good physical as well as spiritual sense.
But we need not even go to the length of entering into a deeply meditative state. When aware of being stressed, if we remind ourselves to breathe deeply, even something so simple as taking a few deep breaths can make a huge difference. Years ago, a friend of mine, Tom W, when I was upset in his presence, said to me with great kindness, "Tim, remember to breathe." (I, of course, wanted instantly to strangle him in response.) That statement had seemed stupid and condescending, but only until I realized that when I get upset, I hold my breath. Holding my breath does not help me to think clearly, or to calm down! The simple act of taking intentionally deep breaths can help to relax us, even (and especially) in highly stressful situations.
But how is something as trivial as breathing (trivial, of course, until we find it difficult or impossible to do, I suppose!) a spiritual exercise' Many religious traditions recognize that we can indeed encounter a Divine Presence in our daily lives. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us in Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know I am God." When we're tense, and our hearts are racing, and our guts are wrenched and contorted, it's hard to have a conscious awareness of God's presence and action around us. But when we're reminded to breathe, we can choose to inhale deeply, as if to breathe in the very breath of a God who "formed the man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." (Gen 2:7)
Who knew that something as simple as taking intentional, deep breaths could have so profound a meaning and effect' A very simple breathing meditation can help us not just to relax and focus in the midst of stressful situations, it can build us up spiritually as well. Breathing is a spiritual exercise.