Disarming Dis-empowerment

Disarming Disempowerment: How May Fitness and Recreation Deepen Spiritual Growth and Serve as a Strategy for Recovery?

Mark S. Bodnar

Sermon at Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church, Ellijay, Georgia, October 22, 2017

When Bruce (Bruce Wood, MLUUC Sunday Services Leader) asked me to come back to give another sermon, my initial reaction was of course that of being flattered and honored. That thought was quickly followed by, “Oh gosh, what else could I possibly have to say this time.” When I asked Bruce for any thoughts on what I might speak on, his reply was the following:

An idea for a presentation might be how to use the relationships among physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual health to promote healing, and use a setback as a platform for enhancing recovery and growth thereafter. Your personal experience at handling your own recovery can be instructive for all of us. Facing such a surgery and rehab reminds us of our mortality and can be humbling, especially for those of us who, in our younger days, thought we were bullet proof. Recovery is a broad term, encompassing a wide range of experience, including loss, injury, illness, and addiction. How might using fitness and recreation to deepen spiritual growth serve as a strategy for recovery?”

I must say, this was a much more challenging talk to prepare. I would have to go places that made me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable for me to admit to myself and talk about out loud. It would involve sharing aspects of myself that aren’t particularly flattering, like my neuroses, insecurities and preoccupation with body image, and the resulting loss of confidence I experience when my body doesn’t look and feel right.

There was a lot more to rehabbing from surgery than simply doing my physical therapy (PT) exercises. I had to wrestle with the idea of redefining my self-image; and in the process the Ego would most likely take a beating. Five months post-surgery when I still couldn’t do push-ups or pull-ups, I had to come to terms with the fact I may not fully recover. There were many “what if’s”. What if I can’t do my job the way I used to? What if I can’t do the activities like whitewater sports, yoga and working out like I used to? Much of my self-confidence was based on being physically fit. What if I lose the physique I’m used to? With all the “what ifs” came a great deal of anxiety, depression, and self-doubt.

And of course, there was the anger. I was angry at my surgeon because he assured me this was 100% fixable and it wasn’t right. I was angry that I didn’t have more time to recover before having to go back to work. I was angry from watching my upper body atrophy. I was angry at myself for letting this happen in the first place, and then I was angry because I kept accidentally reinjuring it by simply doing activities of daily living. This wasn’t just about the shoulder. I was pissed, demoralized, and afraid. So, it’s hardly surprising to me that when contemplating on what to focus my talk, the idea or theme that my mind kept circling back to, was the loss of personal worth or power, or in other words, disempowerment.

The Universality of Disempowerment

Empowerment, or its opposite, disempowerment or impotence, is such a universal theme, and a very hot topic in our modern-day world. Every religion and culture has stories and myths based on this human condition. The Bhagavad Gita, The Bible, Homer’s The Odyssey, the horrific tales of life in a concentration camp during WWII by Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. It is indeed a universal theme and a part of the human condition for all of us.

When I look at my own condition, it seems rather trivial by comparison to that of many others. Examples that come to mind are those who witnessed their home destroyed by any of the recent hurricanes, the earthquake in Mexico and the fires in California, or the refugees fleeing Syria or Myanmar because their homes and villages are being destroyed, and they are being raped and killed. Nevertheless, the shoulder injury/surgery was what God, or the Universe, or whatever you want to call it, dumped on my plate so I may work on my own personal growth. Being rather attached to my body image, this was where my Ego had very sticky fingers, and thus where I needed to loosen my grip a little.

Loss of our physical strength or health due to injury and/or illness, or watching our homes be destroyed are only a couple of examples of where one may feel helpless. Others include being left by a significant other, losing our job, experiencing cognitive decline or dementia, and watching a loved one dying. Sooner or later, we will all experience disempowerment, even if it’s not until we are on our death bed. Everyone feels disempowered one way or another. It is one of the Buddha’s four noble truths that life in all its forms experiences suffering, and another truth is that suffering is caused by clinging to that which will inevitably be lost, or trying to avert that which cannot be averted. We are essentially powerless in our attempts to escape these human conditions.

Is there any one here who has not experienced defeat, the wind taken out of your sails, the loss of a job or a relationship, the effects of no longer being physically able to do what one did in the times of youth? Then it would seem that an aspect of the Divine Plan is that these losses are necessary to higher living.

So, if this type of suffering, this feeling of being disempowered, is so universal, It leads one to wonder whether impotence and helplessness are essential. It must be an important part of the equation for life and spiritual growth. But why? Why would we all at some point in our lives need to experience this sense of helplessness? I’m not sure I’m conscious enough to answer that question; but my faith tells me it is somehow a necessity. There is a verse in The Book of Tao that states, “when we feel most destroyed, we are about to grow.”

Disempowerment or helplessness are very loaded words. We look at these conditions as if they are some evil or disease that needs to be conquered and eliminated quickly. When we personally, or when we see others experiencing these conditions, our immediate reaction is “what can I do to fix this? What can I do to feel empowered quickly?” Do we stop to consider “what’s going on here? What is the point of this? Why isn’t my life or my old way of doing things working? What is to be gained from this?” Again, I can’t say that I am conscious enough to know the answer to that; but I sense there is some value to experiencing this loss of power.

There are times in life when our best efforts to direct our course and make something happen simply fail. Do we need to be reminded that we are not in charge of what is going on? Are we too inflated and too invested about our intentions and goals, even if they seem very noble and unselfish? What is the real issue we are being forced to confront when we experience this loss of power? Did we need a lesson in humility, compassion, empathy, or learning to forgive ourselves or others?

What are we truly searching for? Is it respect? Belonging? Inclusion? Being seen? Having a voice? Are we afraid of no longer being useful or of service? Are we afraid of losing our independence or status? Or do we simply want to be loved? So maybe it is useful to explore what’s really underlying this feeling of helplessness or disempowerment before trying to escape it. What are we truly afraid of, and why? Rather than focusing solely on regaining power, perhaps understanding the underlying cause may be more useful in the long run.

My own personal faith and belief is that all things in life, both pleasant and painful, are for one reason alone – to bring us closer to God. As Tony Robbins would say, “Life is always happening “for” us, not “to” us. It’s our job to find out where the benefit is. If we do, life is magnificent.”

Coming to terms with loss and learning to work with what we have

While perusing various texts that explore the issue of struggling to make sense of our inner conflicts regarding personal power, understanding the meaning and purpose behind these conflicts, and redefining ourselves in the face of life changing events, two texts really stood out as powerful models for taking conscious action, or making conscious change. One was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, the other was India’s best loved holy book from the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita. The former is an inspirational guide for making sense out of our most difficult challenges in life, while the latter is an instructional manual on how to meet them.

Finding Meaning in Life’s Challenges

In Part I of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recounts his experiences in the Jewish concentration camps in Nazi Germany during WWII. Part II of the book gives a brief explanation of logotherapy, the school of therapy that emerged from Frankl’s life experiences. Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence, as well as one’s search for such meaning. According to logotherapy, man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in one’s life, and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual desires, as in Freud’s pleasure principle, or Adler’s motive of striving for superiority. Frankl noted that it was those in the concentration camps who could find some purpose or meaning in the horrendous suffering, and had something outside of themselves to live for, who were the ones who survived the ordeal. He states, “once an individual’s search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy, but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.”

Frankl stresses the importance of finding meaning in the various individual situations that one faces throughout the lifetime, instead of attempting to make sense of an abstract meaning of life as a whole; although he does not deny such a meaning exists.

When experiencing suffering, our challenge is to find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For when we do, we witness the uniquely human potential in its highest form, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turns one’s predicament into a personal achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.

Victor Frankl says there are three main ways to find meaning in life in the face of suffering. First, he says, “Create something. Do a work. Do something! Act!” The second way to find meaning is through love and meaningful relationships. Care about someone else. Fall in love. The third way to find meaning in life, is to rise above being a victim. Get involved with something larger than yourself, something that matters. Transcend your little life.

My particular situation gave me the opportunity to find meaning in this event by all three avenues. For me, not exercising or not teaching were not options. Life had to go on. Not only did I have to go on making a living, I knew I had to keep exercising. Exercise is what kept me sane, even if there was a bit of vanity mixed in there. Not only was it necessary to keep the anxiety and depression at bay, but I was also a role model to my students at GSU. One of the things we talk about early in the semester is “perceived” barriers to fitness. This means, if you think something is a problem and will interfere with your ability to exercise, then it will. As Henry Ford would say, “whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”

I would not stop teaching or exercising, but I would have to do things differently. Every workout was an exploration of “what can I do without my arms?” Many hours were spent on a stationary bike often while watching instructional videos or listening to lectures. I could still work my legs and core. I could still study and learn new things about fitness and exercise. This became the period where I began to write my own book on fitness, which I would use as my text for my GSU exercise sciences.

My injury meant that I would have to change my teaching style. For many yoga poses or exercises demonstrating was completely out of the question. I would have to be more articulate and precise in my verbal instructions. I would use students to demonstrate, which gave them the opportunity to shine and boost their own confidence. Many of the PT exercises I did for my shoulder ended up being of great benefit to many of my students and personal clients who were also suffering from shoulder ailments.

This process has taught me to help others become better teachers and leaders by giving them the opportunity to lead and demonstrate what they can do. One student even commented to me that her being called upon in class to demonstrate, in effect being the “teacher’s pet”, gave her confidence in other areas of her life. These are the kinds of things teachers love to hear.

Another humbling aspect of the experience was that I would have to ask for, and accept, help. I was accustomed to being very independent. The first two weeks post-surgery I could do little on my own. I would need help changing clothes, getting in and out of the sling, preparing meals, putting on the cryo-cuff, and making a bed of out the recliner I would sleep in for the next several weeks. I initially thought of myself as being a helpless burden. What I came to realize was that others took joy in helping me. They were glad to do it.

One of the more touching qualities of the experience was a deepening of the bond between me and many of my long-term students. Most of them are older than myself and had endured many injuries, surgeries and had various conditions, as well as numerous aches and pains that come with growing older. Much of the time I was able to help them with their various injuries, conditions, and pains. It was now their opportunity to show that they cared about me. It was like having an extended family. They all wanted to help. They all wanted me to fully recover. They let it be known that they loved their yoga teacher. And I could sense their appreciation and gratitude when I was showing up in a sling three weeks post-surgery. They were glad to see me back.

So, finding meaning in the ordeal was not hard. I knew that I identified strongly with my body, that much of my self-confidence came from being fit, and that relying on that physical fitness for confidence was a pretty shaky foundation. Sooner or later my physical fitness will inevitably decline. In what will I find my sense of confidence then? My value as a teacher didn’t necessarily come from what “I” could do with my own body, but from how I could help others. As one student put it, I provide experience, an experience that allows others to explore and transcend their sense of self. This whole ordeal would make me more sensitive to the frustrations of others who were dealing with physical limitations; but it would also make me more creative and resourceful in finding ways to overcome those limitations.

The Bhagavad Gita on Duty, Action, Discipline and Non-attachment

The second text, the Bhagavad Gita, or simply known as the Gita, was written around the first century AD. It is an epic poem depicting the tale of a bitter interfamilial feud that eventually led to an unavoidable by war. The poem is really an exposition of yoga. The two main characters of the tale are Arjuna, the leader of the army of the five Pandava brothers, who are the legitimate heirs to the throne and country, and his charioteer, who is none other than the Lord Krishna in disguise. Arjuna’s opponents on the battlefield are his own cousins, country men, comrades, and former teachers; and his army is outnumbered by 11 million troops to seven million. While both armies are amassed on either side of the battlefield, Arjuna and Krishna wheel their chariot to the center of the battlefield, where Arjuna collapses in despair on the floor. He is completely paralyzed by grief, anguish, self-doubt and indecision. In other words, he feels completely disempowered. It is here that Krishna outlines the crucial relationships among religious duty (dharma), discipline (yoga), action (karma), knowledge (juana), and devotion (bhakti).

The poem of this necessary battle is an elaborate metaphor. The actual battlefield is our own human body and mind where our individual struggles are fought. There are several interpretations as to what the two opposing armies represent. One such interpretation is that the army of Dhritarashtra represents our Egos, and everything associated with it: personal agendas, pride, status or power, belief systems, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, wanting to be right or not look foolish. Essentially, the drive of the Ego is to make ourselves look good, get everything we want, and rid ourselves of all that we don’t. The army of the five Pandava brothers represents our souls, our true Self, the foundation of which is divine. It is the part of ourselves that is created in God’s own image. The kingdom for which they are fighting is none other than the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Ego can never muscle its way into Heaven; it is only the soul which is granted admission. And once the invitation is extended, there is no refusing it. The great poet, and Sufi Mystic, Hafiz writes,

You have been invited to meet The Friend.

No one can resist a Divine Invitation.

That narrows all our choices to just two:

We can come to God Dressed for Dancing,


Be carried on a stretcher

To God’s Ward

Back to the Gita. Throughout the tale Krishna urges Arjuna to pull himself together, to get up, and to fight. The message is that we are to meet the challenges which life presents to us. This is our sacred duty or Dharma. This duty takes many forms. We have a responsibility to care for ourselves properly – hence the discipline of yoga or fitness in general. We have an obligation to care for our families and serve in our communities. In other words, freedom lies not in the renunciation of the world, but in disciplined action – this is known as karma yoga.

However, not only are we called to service or to act, but all action is to be performed without attachment to the fruit of action, and dedicated with loving devotion (bhakti) to God. Or as Tony Horton of the P90X videos would say, “do your best, and forget the rest.” The Avatar of every age has told us that the most practical way to love and serve the Lord is to love and serve your fellow man without thought of reward.

How do these lessons relate to my own personal situation?

There was never really a time during my recovery when I stopped exercising. Having suffered from depression and anxiety in the past, I knew that complete inactivity might make psychological matters worse. There would be a decline in physical strength, but I was determined to minimize the loss in cardiorespiratory fitness, knowing the strong link between aerobic fitness and mental health.

So, discipline was never the problem. As I mentioned earlier, not exercising was not an option. It was the non-attachment part that of the equation with which I was struggling. I wanted to look good. I wanted to be fit and strong. I wanted to impress others by what I could do with my body. I was very attached to the fruits of my labors. This is where my Ego needed a lesson in humility.

The Shift from Performance to Service

About five months post-surgery, well after I had “graduated” from PT, what seemed like the most insignificant of verbal exchanges between a yoga student and myself was the unlikely turning point in my recovery. My students and clients were forever asking me how the shoulder was doing. I would cringe upon hearing that question and I would often abruptly end the conversation by responding that that was my least favorite thing to talk about. On this particular day, I was commenting to my student that I was still not able to do push-ups, even while on my knees with my hands on a bench. I said that I was getting used to the idea that I may not be able to bench-press my body weight again. Her gentle response was, “well, it’s not the end of the world.” After a slight pause I responded, “no, it isn’t.”

Why was that such a big deal? Probably less than 10% of the people I know can bench press their body weight. Several things occurred to me: nobody stopped taking my classes, none of my personal clients dropped me. Several people told me it made me more valuable as a teacher. My teaching style changed so that I was demonstrating less, and walking around more giving personal attention. Several students even jokingly remarked, “I can’t wait until your shoulder is better; we can’t get away with anything now.” I would often have other students demonstrate on my behalf. Most of my students are older than myself, and some poked fun by saying with a chuckle or grin, “welcome to the club.” Meaning they already had tons of injuries they would have to deal with the rest of their lives. This is just part of being on the back nine as they say. They weren’t being insensitive. They were just letting me know they could relate.

With that seemingly insignificant comment of, “well, it’s not the end of the world,” came the beginning of acceptance. And it was in that space of acceptance that the real healing process was able to begin. I could see how the experience did indeed help me to become a better teacher and healer. In other words, it made me a better servant. The most interesting part of it all was shortly after that moment of grace and surrender, that my shoulder made a miraculous improvement over the next month. My PT had ended a month before then, but I was still religiously doing my PT exercises. The pain was less, the ROM was getting better, and the strength was returning. I was starting to look and feel like my old self again.

Putting it all together

  • It was the initial loss of personal power that initiated the growth and change, as well as fostering a deeper connection with others.
  • It was the discipline of regular exercise, yoga and meditation practice – not to mention faith and a little help from my therapist – that facilitated and sustained my mental and physical well-being through the process.
  • It was the students and clients that provided my work with meaning, and thus the necessary motivation and inspiration to stay focused on work and recovery.
  • It was through exploring new forms of recreation such as more leisure reading, writing, study, and alternative forms of physical activity that I was able learn new things and cultivate new talents and interests, or in other words, to recreate myself.
  • It was by letting go of who I thought I was, and accepting where I am now, that I can consider a new possibility of who I might be.

I’m glad that Bruce asked me to speak on these things. It would have been easy to quickly forget the lessons learned from this experience had I not been urged to reflect upon and articulate them. I hope they are not soon forgotten; and I hope some of you can relate this experience to your own personal challenges you may be facing.

What is most interesting is that it was through the loss of my own personal power, that I become better equipped to empower others; and it was in the acceptance of my own weakness, that I began to regain my strength. I’m not sure that would have happened if my only goal was to feel empowered as quickly as possible.

I wanted to end with this quote from a commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman:

The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

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