(This is a piece written originally for the 401(j) blog)
As I jog down beautiful Blackstone Boulevard, freely breathing the cleaner-than-usual air and taking simple pleasure in the shade of the strong sturdy trees, I can’t help but marvel at the many people (and dogs) also enjoying the East Side’s treasured oasis on an enlivened June day. A tall father expertly and routinely jogs while pushing a jogging stroller, as if this novelty of convenience and health had always existed. Two elderly visor donning women briskly alternate arms as they power walk in 90’s era walking suits – remember those? A group of college students quicker and leaner than the rest pass us all, for the third time; I now suppose they must be members of an organized cross country team. Bikers decked out in numbered uniforms and serious biking gear zoom by, while cars are eager to wait patiently for the myriad strollers, joggers, and walkers. In short, “the Boulevard” as it’s affectionately called by locals serves as a symbol of the great commitment to physical and mental well-being that has so deeply pervaded our sense of lifestyle. I often feel proud to live in a city and join as part of a local community with Blackstone Boulevard as a sort of crowned jewel.
Along with a cultural commitment to physical wellbeing, it seems that a new trend is arising, and it’s one I’d like to reflect on today. I’m calling it “metaphysical fitness”, a name which came out of a group conversation at the International Rabbinic Fellowship’s recent conference; I did not invent the name and take no credit for it. Moreover, it doesn’t much matter whether the type of fitness it intends to describe is in fact truly metaphysical (denoting something beyond the physical existence of this present universe) or really some deep physical manifestation within the brain. Broadly speaking, it conjures up notions of spiritual well being, including the health of the soul and a connection with the unified Source of all life. Our relationship to nature and the natural world become important from this perspective, as does the universal connection of all things to all other things, shedding away the masks of individuality and separateness that Jewish mystics have long called useful illusions.
Now, the model of fitness serves as a useful paradigm from which to examine how to improve individually and collectively our metaphysical well-being. Meditation, mindfulness, reflection, perspective, song, harmony, and prayer are the gym equipment of the metaphysical health center, and daily practice, tailored individually, is key in this arena as well. As a Rabbi, many people often complain to me regarding the difficulties they face when coming to pray. “Rabbi, it just doesn’t speak to me – I’m unfamiliar with the words and grow bored quickly.” I’ve felt this way as well at times, and the High Holidays often foster this sentiment amongst multitudes of serious (and seriously frustrated) Jews.
In 2010, I was in poor physical shape, and decided that I needed to incorporate regular cardio into my weekly routine. I tentatively and self-consciously entered the Yeshiva University gym, and began to jog on the treadmill. I could barely complete 1.5 miles on a non-inclined indoor treadmill, and was legitimately wondering if my heart and lungs could bear the exercise. Looking back a mere four years later, even a semi-regular often interrupted routine of jogging and exercise makes those days seem laughable. Gradual regular practice at any discipline is the time-honored surefire way to improve, and the spiritual realm is no different. If you try out prayer, meditation, and the other gym equipment to promote healthy soulful living (and I’d encourage everyone to give it a serious try), don’t give up when it’s tough at the beginning. Stick it out, find ways to improve your technique, whether from metaphysical trainers or literature, and you’ll certainly note a gradual but surprising increase in metaphysical well being.