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The Spiritual Workout

May 9, 2009 | by Kezia Raffel Pride

When life's challenges feel like an Olympic training program.

Life is hard work. Good work, to be sure, but often very challenging, full of trials and difficulties, from the most mundane (traffic jams, lost keys, running out of flour in the middle of a recipe) to the most dramatic (hurricanes, dreaded illnesses, wars).

But what happens when we are able to look at that hard work and see it all as part of some higher goal? When we are able to look beyond the temporary inconvenience and difficulty in our day-to-day lives and see ourselves as striving towards something much higher? What if we were able to maintain that kind of focus at all times?

Think of an athlete training for the Olympics. Every morning, he wakes up before the dawn. He doesn't mind foregoing the extra sleep, because he has work to do; he charges out of bed like a warrior, ready to face the day's challenges. He eats a healthy breakfast -- he would never dream of indulging in momentary gastronomic pleasure at the expense of his training -- and sets out for the day's workout. He runs until his legs ache, but he doesn't resent this exertion. He would never complain, "Why do I have to do this? Why can't I just rest for a change?"

The athlete welcomes the obstacles in her path, bringing her closer to the goal.

Day after day the athlete attacks her grueling regimen with enthusiasm, never begging for a day off, never feeling put upon. She has incredible focus, because she knows exactly what her goal is. She welcomes the obstacles in her path because each hill climbed, each hurdle cleared, is bringing her closer to her goal. When her trainer tells her to add another five miles, when her coach tells her to try the quadruple flip this time, the athlete accepts it with equanimity: yes, I welcome this challenge. It is hard work, but I want to do it, because it is for my own good and it will bring me closer to my ultimate goal.

But what about the person who wants to achieve spiritual heights? Why can't he approach his work in the same way? When we set ourselves a goal, perhaps a resolution taken up at Rosh Hashana such as to work on eliminating gossip from our speech or to pray with greater devotion, why shouldn't we be able to maintain the single-minded focus of the athlete in training? Then each time we are tested (the neighbor had such a juicy story to tell; we tried to pray with intention but right at that moment the construction worker outside turned on his jackhammer), we would be able to see it as a challenge tailor-made for us, to exercise our spiritual "muscles," to help us in our quest to improve our capacity.

All too often we don't see these obstacles as a help to us; we only see the hindrance. We get discouraged and give up, feeling justified that we did our best, and who can blame us if we did not succeed? Why is it so hard for us to hold onto our focus, to keep our goal in sight and to keep working for it like the athlete, to be grateful for the challenges we must overcome, which after all are what build us into someone greater than we were before?

There is a fundamental difference, in fact, between spiritual growth and athletic achievement. It is easier for the committed athlete to keep his goal in sight because his goal is self-selected and, to some extent, ego-driven. He chooses his challenge, and he undertakes it for his own satisfaction and personal sense of achievement.

The reward in a spiritual quest, by contrast, is intangible and even elusive. If we are motivated by personal satisfaction, the lack of tangible reward and often even measurable progress may be discouraging. Our ego wants to feel good; if we don't experience immediate gratification, then once things get truly difficult, it can be all too tempting to simply give up on our spiritual pursuit.

Furthermore, the training course that we get handed by our ultimate Trainer is not tailor-made for the achievement of our own self-defined goals. It is tailor-made for the goals that God has identified for us. So the situations that we encounter on a day-to-day basis that test us, that give us the opportunity to grow our spiritual muscles, are very much not of our own choosing. They may cause muscles to ache that we don't even want to develop!

My husband and I, for example, moved to Israel because we wanted to grow spiritually and simplify the material aspect of our lives. To our surprise, in the two years since we made the move, we have found ourselves more firmly enmeshed than ever in the material. The sheer logistics of moving to another country are far more absorbing than we had envisioned; instead of learning Torah with our heads in the clouds, we are busy each day grappling with bureaucracy, and with earning a living (which was much less of a struggle for us in our former home), and with trying to figure out how to get things done in a place where what used to be simple activities for us have often become exercises in bewilderment (ever try hanging a picture on a concrete wall? how about visiting the national insurance office to find out why you just got a letter which, the best you can decipher it, seems to say they are about to confiscate all your household goods for lack of a payment you never knew you were supposed to make?).

The way to feel at peace with our challenges is to align our goal with the training program we've been given.

It is very tempting to say that we didn't sign up for this set of difficulties. This wasn't the spiritual workout we expected to undertake. And if we can't obviously see the point of these kinds of obstacles and challenges in our lives, we may find ourselves resenting them, from the trivial to the major. We may find ourselves fighting with the training course that is our life, rejecting it, trying to shirk it, refusing to learn the lessons we need to learn. And if we find ourselves in that position we will be unhappy indeed, easily frustrated, unfulfilled, angry, even bitter. Why do I have to climb this hill, God? Why me?

The only way to feel completely at peace with the challenges we face in our lives is to embrace and strive for a goal that is harmonious with the training program we've been given. And there is only one goal that fits that bill. It is not an ego-centered goal. It is a God-centered goal. If my goal is to make God's will my will, if my goal is to become the person God wants me to be, and if I can really keep this goal before me at all times, then suddenly all of life's challenges will become so much easier to bear.

If I am working at an ego-centered level, I will be thinking, "I wanted spiritual growth, not material frustration," or, "I wanted to work on intensifying my prayer experience, so why do I need to spend two hours waiting on line at the office of immigrant absorption only to find that the person I need to see isn't there?" But if I can lift myself to a God-centered level, if I can accept that God knows better than I do what I need to work on right now to improve myself, I will calmly accept the challenges He sends me. Like the athlete, I will welcome my trials, knowing that they are strengthening me and enabling me to rise ever higher.

I will no longer rail against the injustice of the indignities that I have to bear. I will no longer hear my ego saying, "This shouldn't be happening to me; I shouldn't have to deal with this." And I will be able to walk through life with just a piece of that serenity and holiness that shines so obviously on the faces of the truly righteous people in this world.

When we can accept each of our daily trials and challenges as a gift to us, sent by God to strengthen us and tailor-made to bring out our best, we will not only be calmer and happier people, but we will be well on our way to a truly meaningful spiritual growth.

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