Why Spiritual Development Doesn't 'Stick' without Exercise

Traditionally, spiritual practices were always taught with two major components:
  1. a contemplative practice
  2. a physical or "action" practice
So, Buddhist meditation practices have support of yogic practices (as in "Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines", edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz); Taoist practices have Tai Chi and Chi Kung; Hindu practices have Hatha Yoga. Zen practice has KinHin (walking meditation), Karma Yoga ("karma" means, literally, "action"), Carlos Castaneda's Toltec practices of "The Recapitulation" (contemplative) and "Tensegrity" (movement), Dreaming (internalized) and Stalking (action) and so on.

In the West, however, the two arms of practice have often been separated and dissociated.  Hatha Yoga practice is commonly taught without a meditation practice, even in a "competitive" or "athletic" spirit, or a "how well and far can you stretch" spirit, in some settings.  Likewise, Asian martial arts, etc., are commonly viewed as modes of combat in which one is supposed to live in a state of "relaxed readiness" -- without equally emphasizing contemplative practices needed to cultivate "relaxed readiness" -- which is a contradiction in terms, by the way, since to be relaxed is to be unready.

We see the "action practices" in the movies, all the time; the contemplative side, you may notice, is almost always absent.

And we commonly hear of the plight of spiritual practitioners -- the difficulty of bringing realization and insight "off the cushion" and into "real life."

So, I'll address the whole quandary, here.  It's a revelation.


Ken Wilber made a point that the fruits of spritual practice seem not to 'stick' without exercise.

His recommendation:  Resistance/Weight Training

For the moment, I'm not going to concern us with his specific recommendation; rather, I'm going to explain why spiritual transformations seem not to stick without physical exercise.  I'll be using the framework of somatic existence I've outlined elsewhere:  That all somas (sentient beings) consist, at their/our core, of four basic functions:
  1. attention
  2. intention
  3. memory
  4. imagination

It comes down to this:

There are two stages of going from rest into activity.

  1. The first stage starts with a departure from the state of "not ready", or "not prepared".  No intention is active at the moment.  The first stage has to do with activating an intention -- generally an intention stored in memory -- with getting aroused from rest.
  2. The second stage starts at the stage of "having an active intention" and carrying it out.

The two stages have correspondences to our physical being, particularly, the musculature.  It's where fine motor skills show up in gross motor skills and where intentions show up as well-performed actions.

Muscular behavior (i.e., movement) starts with an "orienting" stage in which the memory or experience of readiness mobilizes what Ida Rolf (developer of Rolfing) termed, "the intrinsic musculature".  The intrinsic musculature consists of the finest muscles closest to the bone (oversimplification, but adequate).  Examples:  the muscles of breathing, the muscles of seeing, the fine muscles that line the spinal column, the psoas muscles, the muscles of speech, the fine muscles of our inner ears that tune the ossicles (vibrating bones) so we can listen selectively.

The intrinsic muscles contract in organized patterns that set up the movement action we are about to do; they have little strength because they are fine muscles, but they do have "direction" or a "shape of pull" that gets us ready for the movements to come -- and equally importantly, they create a sensation in themselves, when they contract, that the brain registers (we register) as a direction of movement -- in a word, an orientation.

Once the "orienting" stage is in place (moments later), the extrinsic musculature starts to move, carrying out the movement set up by the intrinsic musculature along the lines indicated by the intrinsic musculature (again, oversimplified, but adequate for the moment), a movement set up by the intention that we are about to carry out.  Examples of extrinsic muscles:  the hamstrings, biceps, triceps, larger back muscles.

The intrinsic musculature sets action up; the extrinsic musculature carries actions out.

The set-up of the intrinsic muscles reflects the movements of attention and the formation of an intention.  Those muscles work from the inside, out, and the level of memory involved is short-term memory (because we must be free to change the focus of our attention and intentions from moment to moment).

Spiritual practice, particularly contemplative practices that don't involve much movement, activate and shape the behavior of the intrinsic musculature and don't involve the extrinsic (or power) muscles to any significant degree.  They involve a new intention and a new state of attention, but only in the latent or preparatory stage -- short-term memory.

As a result, the impression made by spiritual states on memory (the basis of persistent change), is faint, weak, short-term and easily overpowered by the momentum and habitual intentions of interactive life. Interactive life is "louder".

To make the memory impression strong, we must engage our extrinsic musculature (engage in actions) that carry out the intention present in the intrinsic musculature. Then, the impression made in memory is "loud" enough to match or exceed the momentum and habitual intentions of our interactive life and can get transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory.

That said, resistance weight training done after a session of contemplative practice can transfer the new intention held in the intrinsic musculature to the extrinsic musculature, and from there, to long-term memory.  However, because resistance training does not necessarily involve particularly sophisticated or well-coordinated movement (movement may be outright crude, particularly if weight machines are involved, but also if the individual has the residual patterns of nervous tension from stress and physical trauma so common among people), resistance training may also "smear" the attention gathered in contemplative practice into ungainly patterns of sensation  -- the kinesthetic "body" that resonates in the play of attention and intuition and that underlies thought.

Note that thought is an intrinsic function, so the short-term memory intrinsic musculature is involved -- and residual tension of the extrinsic musculature generally overpowers the signal of the intrinsics, and so affects thought and orientation, in general.

I suggest that a better, more sophisticated and compatible form of exercise, one that transfers conditioning patterns from intrinsic to extrinsic, with a high degree of fidelity, is somatic exercises.

Rather than concentrating on strength, only, somatic exercises concentrate on strength, feeling/sensation, pattern and integration; they involve attention, intention, memory and imagination in both subtle and strong ways.  They dispel residual tension patterns.  In that sense, they are far more suitable for bringing subtle transformations into interactive existence; they are far less likely to "smear" the patterns of more subtly awakened consciousness, than resistance/weight training.

So now, I've explained why spiritual development doesn't stick so well without exercise, what it takes to get it to stick, better, and why it sticks better.


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