Each week at my Unitarian Universalist church, the minister shares a “Story for All Ages.” This is the time that my daughter and the other children move to the front of the Great Hall to see the pictures and I let my head drop onto my wife’s shoulder at the exhale of another long week.
A few Sundays ago, the minister told a story about a man who’d passed on from this life and was given the choice to be reincarnated as any creature he wished. He observed animals of the earth, sea and sky before his eyes lit on the humans. “I want to be that kind of creature,” he said. “They are so beautiful.”
That observation penetrated my Sunday morning sleepiness. At best, I’m inclined to think of the human animal as ridiculously adorable—more baby hedgehog than magnificent peacock. I tend toward a functional, “feed-the-machine” perspective, celebrating the corporeal capacity for doing. I practice gratitude for my body’s gifts: sensuality and sexuality, movement, strength, and power; and more than anything, the child that grew inside me. But beautiful?
Then my friend and colleague Kelly Coffey posted this to her virtual network: “You are achingly beautiful. You’ll see it when you believe it.” I recognized my inability to see the gorgeousness of the human animal as a reflection of the same deficit attitude that I challenge in many of my personal training clients.
As a trainer, I begin with the premise that every client’s body is perfect exactly the way it is. Effective training can bring us closer to a wellness goal—greater strength, flexibility, agility or endurance—but it isn’t necessary to correct an underlying unworthiness. As Hanne Blank has written (quoting Glenn Marla), “There is no wrong way to have a body.”
Potential clients often find this inconceivable—or even adversarial. “I’m weak.,” “I’m so out of shape.” “I can’t exercise.” “I’m bad.” “My butt/stomach/thighs are too big,” they tell me. The belief underneath this is, to them, self-evident: “My body is intolerable the way it is; I need a trainer’s help to transform it into something acceptable.”
It’s as if they believe their success and adherence will find its motivation in this stance of self-criticism. If I don’t agree that they are fundamentally contemptible, how can I be an ally in their training efforts?
But science supports my contention that self-disparaging is an especially inefficient strategy for doing something hard. Psychologist Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as “being kind and understanding to oneself in instances of…perceived inadequacy,” recognition of our common humanity, and balanced awareness and acceptance of painful emotion.
Neff’s research finds a correlation not only between self-compassion and mental health generally, but between self-compassion and “personal initiative” specifically. She writes,
…people are sometimes reluctant to be self-compassionate out of fear of self-indulgence…. [But] compassion involves desiring health and well-being for the self rather than pleasure per-se…. promoting one’s health often involves a certain amount of displeasure (e.g. exercising, dieting, reading a difficult but rewarding novel). Thus, the desire for well-being inherent in self-compassion is likely to engender productive, positive change.
This may be confusing to those of us who find exercise or healthy eating truly pleasurable. But each of us has disciplines of self-care we find difficult to maintain. For me, it’s flossing—for you, it might be stretching or doing that boring rehab routine the physical therapist assigned.
Neff’s research demonstrates that we are more likely to be “actively involved in making changes needed for a more productive and fulfilling life” if we are self-compassionate than if we are self-loathing.
Even before finding Neff’s construct of self-compassion, I was convinced that true wellness begins from a place of self-love. Who’s going to take good care of something that they resent? If I disliked my home as much as some folks hate their bodies, I’d be hard-pressed to put effort into cleaning or decorating. If I resented my car as much as they hate their bodies, I’d be reluctant to shell out for an oil-change or the car-wash.
Gratitude makes it easier to practice good stewardship of the gifts I have been given. When I am most hard-pressed to treat myself kindly I ask, “Would I speak to my daughter the way I am speaking to myself?”
When I was an active karate student I would sometimes get frustrated in the process of learning a new, highly technical exercise. My first instinct would be irritation with myself. I’d think, “I’m so stupid, why can’t I get this?” Then I’d switch to annoyance with my instructor: “I would be able to learn this if she was a better teacher.” But that didn’t sit right, because I knew my Sensei was a good teacher. The door to compassion opened when I realized that we were both simultaneously skilled and improvable.
When I softened my stance toward my teacher I realized one could be a gifted instructor and unable to teach every technique in the best possible manner for every student. When I softened my stance toward myself I asked better questions, consulted with other teachers and patiently explored through trial and error. Compassion cultivated the curiosity, help-seeking, and determination necessary to make progress. Feeling stupid shut down all of those things.
The human body is way more amazing than we recognize. No matter our religious leanings, or lack thereof, we understand that the body is the vehicle for our life force: call it soul, personality, or intellect. The body is our interface to the natural world; it is our mechanism for connection with other people. Despite our technological greatness, all our scientists have yet to design anything as complex and as awesome.
This is essentially a spiritual perspective. Awe, compassion and gratitude are among the positive emotions Harvard psychologist George Vaillant identifies as central to spirituality, something he calls “an essential human striving.” While some movement disciplines, like yoga or traditional martial arts, may incorporate an explicit spiritual practice, any physical training can embrace these aspects of being.
Nearly fifteen years ago a karate student reflected, “You can’t yell at a flower to grow.” I have carried this lesson into my parenting, my personal journey of growth and change, and my athletic endeavors. Kindness does not detract from these efforts, but enhances them. Your body—just the way it is today—is a magnificent gift. It is beautiful beyond measure. And you are its steward. Tend to it as you would a flower.
Portions of this essay were previously published by the Springfield Republican.