The Spirituality of Weight-loss and Wellness: Diet after diet, work-out after work-out and I'm s
Why am I failing? Why am I not losing weight? Why am I not getting to where I want to be? Well, it is probably because you are in some kind of pain or suffering, in grief or guilt, in despair or hopelessness from failures past and present – signs that your spirit is hurting. The outcome of a hurt spirit for many people is that they feel they don’t deserve the good, they don’t deserve to reach their goal. I think that is where we need to start. Because let’s be honest, when we choose to eat something unhealthy, we know that it is not a ‘healthy’ choice – that it will certainly derail our weight-loss/wellness goal, but in our minds we say: “Fuck it, I don’t care, because I want it…or I had a rough day, so I deserve this reward.” Really? When we eat McDonald’s or fast food, there is no lack of public information, scientific and beyond, clarifying that it is certainly not good for your health. We might rationalize it with convenience or that it’s cheap, but I think there is a much deeper, more central reason we keep making unhealthy choices.
I think what we are TRUTHFULLY saying to ourselves is: “Fuck it, I don’t care about myself, I don’t care about my health, I don’t care about my body…I deserve to be miserable, I deserve to be unhealthy, I deserve to feel bad because of (Insert here: failed relationship, guilt, shame, addiction, hopelessness in an unjust world, grief, meaningless job, having been hurt by those who love you, having hurt those you love, etc.).”
We treat ourselves badly when we feel bad about ourselves and THAT is directly connected to spirituality – not to a diet or fitness program. Those who are spiritually healthy experience inner peace, love, service, sense of unity, explorative creativity, playfulness, joy, and gratitude on a regular basis; they know they deserve wellness and their life choices get them there.
The middle to the end of January is very interesting because at the beginning of the New Year, many of us tend to make a New Year’s resolution. I would venture to say the majority of those are focused on weight-loss, health and wellness, a nutrition program…something to make ourselves better. Whether that is to make ourselves look better or to feel better, we are looking for something we believe we have not yet attained but would like to. What I find interesting is that we make those goals, but for the majority of people by mid-January or the end of January, or if you are lucky, maybe you make it into February, generally we sabotage those goals or we give up. Why do we do this?
1. It is not for lack of information.
Our society is truly amazing in that we have access to a plethora of information and it is right at our fingertips. No longer do we have to go to the library and read book after book trying to connect the dots. No, it is already done for us and it is all readily available! We have more diet pills/supplements, more nutrition programs, and more fitness programs that ever before and yet, we are more obese and sick as time progresses. So, how is it that we have SO many resources and yet, we are sicker and more obese.
According the CDC, we continue to get more obese year after year; for adults, averaging a 10% increase per study. And with obesity comes illness and pain - diabetes, heart problems, joint pain, lack of energy, lack of movement…guilt, shame, hopelessness, despair. We might be starting to realize it isn’t just about the BEST nutrition program or the BEST fitness program or the BEST pill…because they alone are obviously not working.
2. Our weight loss and wellness failures are connected to our spirituality (or lack thereof).
Considering yourself a religious person or belonging to a religion is NOT necessary to spirituality; in fact, even though I work in ministry, I actually believe that religion can be more hurtful than helpful for many people for the following reasons:
a. Some people have had very negative experiences with a specific religion(s), which can cause a complete withdrawal or shut-down from any association, so becoming more spiritual is NOT about being religious.
b. While the values of service and self-sacrifice are important to many religions and to our moral development as human beings, I believe it can pre-condition us to forget about our own needs or believe our needs to be unimportant.
c. I also believe that while many religions try to direct people in morality and ethical decision-making, it can be laden with guilt and shame, which do extreme damage to our spiritual wellness. For example: if you feel guilty or shameful, you are less likely to believe yourself deserving of anything good and therefore, will subconsciously treat yourself poorly (since that is what you have been conditioned to think you ‘deserve’).
All of these reasons can make a serious dent in our spirituality and therefore, a dent in our weight-loss and wellness goals. If this is not your experience with religion and your religion serves to deepen your spirituality, then I am all for it! The goal is for everyone to develop their spirituality because it is foundationally part of being human.
The human being has 3 components: mind, body, and spirit, which are all connected and necessary to the experience of health/wellness/wholeness we seek. MIND: We are really great at nurturing our minds with endless access to information and becoming educated as it is a high priority in our country. BODY: For our bodies, we have access to various areas of healthcare as well as numerous fitness and nutrition programs. The development or enhancement of one area (mind/body/spirit) can inspire and motivate the development/enhancement of the other areas. For example: we educate our mind (study/research a diet or nutrition program) and when we feel well-educated on that topic or have been convinced intellectually it may work, we are then able to implement that program through our body. Body and mind are relatively obvious topics, but what about our spirit? How does one identify and then develop his or her spirituality? And how is spirituality related to our weight-loss and wellness goals?
Spirituality is a difficult topic to cover, which is maybe why it has been avoided for so long. Spirituality is not tangible like our mind or body and we have had very little direction from our society on how to study, pursue or develop it. Researchers have shied away from studying spirituality because it cannot be scientifically measured; in a world where science = fact, we leave little room for the immeasurable, the unquantifiable, the intangible; yet, our spirit is what drives us, motivates us, and gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
Interestingly, our brains were designed to ask those very questions: What happens when we die? (Medulla oblongata) What moves us? (Limbic) What is the purpose of life? (Neo-cortex).
I would like to emphasize that there is nothing about the human being that is purely physical or mental. We are not simply bodies, and our needs are not simply corporal or psychological. It is not possible to attend to one element of the human person without being aware of the whole. Doctors have done extensive research finding that nearly 80% of all physical ailments human beings experience are psychosomatic illnesses – illness caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress (“Living An Authentic Life” by Dr. Thomas E. Legere). Similarly, the placebo effect (a simulated medically ineffectual treatment that unexplainably has positive healing effects) points to a very real power of the spirit in affecting mental and physical health.
The human body continues to amaze scientists. There have been extraordinary displays of physical strength, assumed to be humanly impossible, when the spirit is tested; for example, a mother who is able to lift an automobile off of her struggling child. Scientifically, this would not be possible due to our Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO), which are located within our musculotendinous junction and inhibit muscle contraction when they sense too much tension. However, there have been unexplainable phenomena where a human being can override their GTO under times of extreme parasympathetic stimuli, ripping the muscle or breaking the bone to express maximum capacity of strength. The willingness to endure such intense pain and to override the science of our bodies points to a higher power, or the spirituality of a human being. Even if a scientist would assert that it was emotion and adrenaline that caused the response, it is still unknown how the emotion or adrenaline was triggered, and the spiritual trigger is still certainly not quantifiably measurable.
Furthermore, when human beings are physically healthy and spiritually healthy, they are generally in better moods and are motivated to become greater, sometimes even pushing beyond average mental capacity and the limits of pure physicality as in examples of extraordinary athletes. In addition, mental health is enhanced when the body is healthy; exercise releases serotonin (a pleasure hormone and the main component in a serotonin reuptake inhibitor) and is encouraged by mental health professionals to help treat depression. Moreover, those who identify as spiritual, experience less physical and mental illness…hmmm.
If you have experienced love (fundamental to human existence) - an immeasurable, unquantifiable, and for the most part, intangible experience - then there must be a little curious acknowledgement that there is more to wellness than what science can provide. These experiences of human beings point to the fact that spiritual development is necessary to the wellness of the human being.
In regards to weight-loss and wellness, if we don’t understand what drives us, motivates us, and what gives meaning and purpose to our lives, it is no wonder that we keep on failing…our spirits are ill, meaning we are living with an immense amount of unresolved pain and suffering, which keep us from finding meaning, purpose, and motivation in reaching our goals!
I find it interesting that as obesity in our country rises, so does the use of drugs/alcohol and the increasing rate of addiction. While addiction is an illness (physical, mental, and spiritual) and should never be reduced to simply the overuse of a substance, what drives a person to use drugs or alcohol in the first place? Social anxiety (“If I have a drink, I’ll be able to loosen up”), grief or physical pain (“I can’t deal with this pain so I need a break to numb out”), lack of self-esteem or guilt (“I feel like shit about myself, so I’m going to get high so I can feel something good”) to name only a few reasons. One of the best questions I have asked my students is: “If you didn’t drink or do any drugs this weekend, why not?” Of course, there were the few that were just economically broke and couldn’t afford it, but many didn’t use because they weren’t in some kind of pain – they were with friends who accepted them so there was no social anxiety, or they had an event planned (running a race, doing service work, going on retreat), or they had meaningful future goals which could only be accomplished by doing their school work. Besides a social glass of wine here and there, which I thoroughly enjoy the taste of with a special meal, I don’t drink because I’m happy without it. And before you stop reading, I have had no lack of great pain and suffering – 2 alcoholic parents and a sibling in recovery from a heroin addiction, the death of my brother due to an overdose, rape, domestic abuse, divorce, coming out as gay (and Catholic), and struggle with child-hood and adult obesity to name just the major sources of pain. But I was also given many opportunities for education, sought out help and direction, wrestled with my own demons year after year, which has finally led me to a place of health and wellness that I want to share with you. You are not alone in your pain and you are not alone in your weight-loss and wellness failures. We have all been there...I have been there.
Many of our mainstream values and practices tend to harm our spirituality, taking the focus away from our connection to nature, one another, and self; rather, we are taught to focus on technological advancement, wealth as a measure of success, and individual power at the expense of the good of the whole. These values are not fundamentally bad at all; in fact, they have many positive outcomes. Our problem with these values is balance; rather than being seen as a way to aid our human needs for wellness and wholeness, they become the central focus apart from the common good.
Technology, while it has the great ability to offer limitless information for education and create easier methods for communication, it has also distanced us from our basic needs for human encounter. Wealth, while it provides many opportunities and access to many things we need to survive (shelter, food, water, etc.), isn’t necessarily what we are concerned with when we face the end of our lives. I have yet to meet a dying person whose last words were: “I should have made more money.” Our cultural idea of power, while it may provide the illusion of safety, tends to be reached by creating fear and limiting the power of others rather than empowering others to be their best selves. There is very little time spent in our educational system and healthcare system (though this is changing!!!) developing and encouraging spiritual wellness. The lack of spiritual development is not your fault and I intend to give you the tools not only understand what spirituality is, but also how to measure and develop it so you can finally reach your wellness goals for good.
What is Spirituality?
Let’s start with defining spirituality in an understandable way. I think a lot of people like the “sound” of being spiritual (as it has begun to reach a trendy status) but do not even know what it is. Every time one of my students tells me: “I’m spiritual.” I respond: “That’s wonderful! Can you tell me how you know you are spiritual?” … (pause)…(blank stare)…not a clue. I certainly don’t blame them for the reasons I have already mentioned above! Simplistically, spirituality is the search for and the knowledge of a higher power. Some choose to call that higher power “God”, some choose to call that higher power “love”, some have even different definitions of it, but it is fundamentally an understanding that there is something greater than just yourself, something greater than just our humanness, that is driving and motivating this world. Spiritual people have an awareness that they are part of a whole as well as something greater than themselves. Spirituality aides in wellness.
As a result, people that are spiritually healthy (meaning, they believe in and actively connect with that higher power) experience the following on a regular basis: inner peace, love, service, sense of unity, explorative creativity, playfulness, joy, and gratitude to name a few. Looking at the world today and working with young adults for the past 12 years, I am finding that those spiritual components are not only becoming less experienced in daily life, but some are actually missing completely from their lives.
When we set a goal for our health and wellness, those experiences of spirituality: inner peace, love, service, sense of unity, explorative creativity, playfulness, joy, and gratitude are necessary for success; along our life journey, we will fail and be faced with pain and suffering (we are human), and it is our developed spirituality, trust in a power greater than ourselves, that will be our motivation to keep going. Let’s explore this more deeply. First of all, we are human and our lives are and always have been about trying and failing…when we learn to walk, we fall a lot before getting it right; when we learn to read, we fail a lot before getting it right; when we learn to be in relationship with others, we fail a lot before getting it right…when we learn to be healthy, we fail a lot before we get it right. Those who have been able to develop a healthy spiritual life, even in the face of pain and failure, are able to be resilient; they find the strength and power to keep going. But now, instead of utilizing our connectedness to our higher power, which is tangibly found in our connectedness to one another, thereby motivating our resiliency…WE ARE GIVING UP.
When we were learning to walk, we had our parents encouraging us, motivating us, their love gave meaning, so we kept going. In school, we had teachers motivating us to keep going, but we began to become aware that we had to motivate ourselves as well. As adults, we have trainers and nutritionists to motivate us to keep going in our weight loss goals, but we need more than that because we are giving up. As adults, we realize we have choices that we didn’t have as children; the motivation must first be internal, but how can we get that if we are in pain, suffering or feeling alone?
As adults, where is our motivation? Where is the meaning behind the cookie-cutter ‘I want to look good, I want to be healthy’ rationale we have been told to use? If we don’t experience peace and love, service or unity, if we aren’t creative or playful, and joyful or grateful…how can we expect ourselves to keep going? How can we expect to make ourselves better, to reach our goals of diet/fitness/nutrition wellness when the pain of our failures makes us hate ourselves?
Spiritual coaching and spiritual development helps us to see the fundamental GOOD in who we are, despite our past failures and mistakes, to forgive ourselves and others, to let go of guilt and shame, to find meaning and purpose in our lives and in our goals, to care about one another without ulterior motivation. My goal is to help alleviate pain while guiding you towards healing so as to create a life that is safe, relational, and experienced from a place of wholeness. I believe we are all good because we inherently all have the ability to love – and love is a driving force of meaning for our health and wellness goals: from the superficial meaningful: “I want to be noticed, I want to be found attractive, I want to find love so I want to lose this weight” to the more deeply meaningful: “I want to be healthy so I can live longer, be more active, and have more experiences with my family who I love” to the deepest meaningful: “I want to be healthy, because I love myself – I am good, I am here for a purpose, and I have more to offer this world.”
Spiritual development requires that you dig through the “emotional muck” you have carried for so long in order to uncover the goodness, beauty, and meaning to your life that is already there.
The experience is challenging, but worth it. If you have tried nutrition/fitness programs time and time again, failing time and time again, it might be time to start a spiritual journey. I truly believe many of us carry the extra weight as subconscious protection from fear and pain. When we start to see our inherent goodness through spiritual development, pain can begin to heal and fears can become less debilitating. What will it feel like to wake up every morning with purpose? What will you be able to do? How will your relationships change? What will you say to yourself when you look in the mirror? How will your eating and health choices change? What happens when you actually…finally…reach your goal? My hope is to help you find that meaning, motivation, and purpose so you can finally succeed on any diet/nutrition or fitness program.
The potential within is beyond what we believe possible. While fitting into a new dress, seeing a specific number on the scale, completing a physical challenge, or wearing a bikini for the first time are wonderful goals and results, they become secondary when you are regularly experiencing inner peace, love, service, sense of unity, explorative creativity, playfulness, joy, and gratitude…life becomes more than just existing…you begin to live. Let the journey begin!
**Join the Facebook Group: “Spiritual Weight-loss, Wellness, Wholeness” More to come!**