When I was young, I almost always stretched before playing a sport or doing any extreme exercise. Whether it was a team sport like football, basketball, or track and field, or a class in school like PE or weightlifting, we always stretched. We always stretched because, well, the coaches and teachers told us to stretch. It was the first thing we did: line up, high knees, butt kickers, toe touches, karaoke, etc.
It took about five minutes per day, not long, and yet, it’s probably the reason why in over ten years of intense competition I was only injured maybe two or three times, and even then, not badly.
Later, when I became an adult, I would still play sports like pickup basketball, but it was on my terms. And so I never really stretched. Why do this weird parade of dances? It doesn’t seem like many of the other people in the gym are doing them. There was no one telling me what to do, and in all my years of stretching, I never learned why exactly we were stretching. So I assumed it wasn’t necessary, or really, I just didn’t even think about it. I just went straight to playing.
What happened? Well, nothing at first. My body was resilient, or maybe I had a lucky streak. But before long, I started to roll my ankles. The first roll didn’t take long to heal, a couple of days maybe. The second took a bit longer, a week. The third, three weeks. I tried different shoes and an ankle brace which were annoying to wear, and even those ultimately didn’t protect me. I still managed to hurt myself again.
Despite these frequent injuries, I stubbornly kept playing because one, it was just part of my routine, and two, the catharsis of playing an intense sport made me feel good. It refreshed me and got rid of the stress of work and studies. Eventually, though, the probability of an injury was so high that it made it no longer fun. I was forced against much of my will to abstain from basketball for an entire year.
After that year, though, I was good! I would play and never get injured! It took a while to heal but Oh well, the cost of getting older, I thought, even though I was still in my early twenties.
Fast forward several more years, and my ankles never had problems like before. But this time, it was my back. Actually, the very first injury was from weightlifting without warming up, but after, I reinjured it in many different settings: an exercise class, a basketball game, another basketball game. And let me tell you, a back injury is much worse than an ankle injury. Or at least mine was.
Once again, I had to stop playing entirely to give myself time to thoroughly heal. And heal I did, and start playing again I did too. But this time, I just couldn’t risk returning to my previous state of suffering, so I added another practice to my routine, an old childhood habit that I had almost forgotten: stretching. And more than that, I chose to stay consistent with it. Every time, without fail, I stretch.
Now since I myself am just a single data point, I can’t say for sure how much the stretching has helped, but I’ve had great luck with it so far. And I can say too that over my many injuries, I’ve started to develop an intuition for when my body is susceptible to injury, and it certainly helps according to my internal body meter.
But more importantly, I realized that stretching in these regards is very similar to another childhood habit of mine, one which I had also lost in my adult life: religion.
Whereas stretching aims towards improving inner body health—e.g. keeping the muscles and tendons loose and knot-free—religious practices aim towards improving inner spiritual health—e.g. keeping our egos in check, encouraging us to value love over recognition, and encouraging us take our emotions and unconscious minds seriously (though they may not use those terms). Also, in much the same way as great bodily injury can help us to rediscover our weird parade of childhood stretches, great spiritual injury—hitting a mental rock bottom perhaps—can help us to rediscover our weird parade of childhood religious practices.
Now I certainly agree with many atheists that this is a sign of our human weakness. Lord knows we’re all flawed and imperfect. But where I disagree perhaps is that I think it’s no more a sign of human weakness than stretching is. I don’t, for example, see this as a sign that we are illogical in some absolute sense. Rather, I agree with Pascal who said “The heart has its reasons which the reason does not at all perceive.”
And in fact, religious or spiritual practices in their common forms serve specific, logical purposes including one, protecting the inner self from the wiles of the ego (or ideally, encouraging the unity of the inner self and the ego), and two, fostering supportive and loving communities.1
It’s hard to underestimate how much, especially in this day and age, the forces of the outside world manipulate our egos in ways that lead, if not immediately, eventually, to inner turmoil. Just take any advertisement: it first of all encourages us to want more, and it second of all encourages us to be easily duped. I mean, do we really believe that this is The World’s Best Shaver? No, not in a literal sense. But then why do they say it?2
(Actually, funnily enough, there is a burger place in San Francisco, Sam’s, which calls itself “Top Three Burgers in the World”. I always think it’s hilarious and more believable. But even then, and even though Anthony Bourdain has visited, I highly doubt it’s actually Top Three in the World.)
Of course, the forces and false narratives of the outside world wouldn’t be a problem if we had perfect self-awareness. But guess what: we don’t. If I had perfect body-awareness, even then I could’ve still been injured by something unexpected. And stretching doesn’t prevent that possibility; it merely lessens it and promotes body-awareness. Religious teachings and rituals, if used well, do something similar. And though some of us may have greater hubris when it comes to “intellectual” matters, the case is really no different than with our bodies. We all need lessons, reminders, and rituals to be constantly improving and working on our inner selves.
One reason why is that we all have intellectual weaknesses. For example, those of us who are gifted when it comes to rational matters are relatively naive when it comes to emotional matters, and vice versa. And the misdirections of the outside world attack on multiple fronts. The misdirections are clever enough and plentiful enough to attack each of us right at our weak points. Furthermore, we all have multiple sides to ourselves—e.g. rational and emotional, or sensory and intuitive—and it takes experience and wisdom to integrate these different parts. Often outside messaging and incentives work by keeping us divided against ourselves; perhaps because the system we’re embedded in only wants part of us (individual wholeness makes us inefficient cogs and “bad” consumers even if it makes us great neighbors and parents and craftsmen and artists).
Actually, as with stretching, the data is quite clear: stretching helps to prevent bodily injuries, and religious practice helps to prevent spiritual injuries, for example, depression and anxiety.3
That being said, I should add a caveat to avoid confusion: there is a big difference between moral teachings on the one hand and creeds or dogmas on the other. And there is a big difference between historical rituals and practices and what a particular organization may be doing today. Anything can be corrupted. Not to say that most local religious groups are corrupt—certainly not—merely to make the point that a handful of bad apples do not prove anything about apples in general.
(For example, speaking of corruption, I’d encourage any American to read John Adams’ Thoughts on Government and compare it to our present day government. And then reflect on the fact that at one point we elected this guy, a short, rotund moral philosopher really, as President!)
Certainly in many cases it is true that religion can be “the opiate of the masses”, or that religion is a risk factor in warfare. But sociologically-speaking, the root causes of these things are not the original moral teachings or the generationally-consistent rituals, but rather other societal incentives which some groups and individuals follow to gain power. Religion can certainly be wielded and twisted by governments or rulers to support their aims. But we should be careful to separate this later twisting from the earlier teachings and rituals which are aimed towards inner spiritual health.
Also, I do believe that this is precisely where our great strides in rational thinking and science can come to help. Even someone who is spiritually mature is susceptible to corruption if they don’t have the experience or the tools of thought to understand the world around them. The outer world and the inner world are equally important and valuable and neither can be neglected if we want to ensure our health and freedom, and health and freedom for our children (which means a healthy, more natural relationship with our environment too).
In my view, science in its truest form—that is, the form which includes all kinds of facts which are important to both our external and our internal worlds, e.g. objective, psychological, and sociological—is not at all incompatible with religion.4 Rather, science and religion are complementary and not mutually exclusive. There are, for example, many fields of study or practice which form bridges between these two realms.
Of course, while we’re operating deep within one realm, it would be counterproductive to pay much attention to the other realm. Words like “love” and “sin” are far too non-descriptive to be of much use in science or engineering. In religious practices, however, their non-descriptiveness may in fact be beneficial!5 In either case, the lesson I’ve learned is that it’s a bad idea to spend all of our time and energy operating deep within one realm to the total neglect of the other. If we just “go straight to playing”, we’re bound to get injured. This is true for individual people and for society as a whole.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we can overcome our weaknesses by improving our strengths. But that “overcoming” is more often repression, and what is repressed is bound to boil up eventually. And guess what too? When it does eventually come to a boil, possibly an explosion, and we’re forced to face our weaknesses, we’ll still be just as weak in those dimensions because we never worked on them!
Nope, we’ve got to stretch ourselves: work on our strengths as well as our weaknesses, the external and the internal, the rational and the irrational, and ultimately, find harmony between the two.
When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below…then will you enter the kingdom.Gospel of Thomas 22
1 Evidence and arguments for these purposes are numerous, but some of my favorites, or the ones I’m aware of, include the works of Jung (e.g. Psychology and Religion), the works of C.S. Lewis (e.g. The Abolition of Man), the works of Gregory Bateson (e.g. the essay, The Cybernetics of “Self”), the works of Kierkegaard (e.g. Concluding Unscientific Postscript). Or really, the purposes can be seen in the original teachings of, for example, Jesus, Guatama Buddha, and Lao Tzu.
2 See Jules Henry’s Culture Against Man for more on this topic.
3 See, for example, the papers Religious and Spiritual Factors in Depression (Bonelli et al. 2012) and Review of the Effect of Religion on Anxiety (Stewart et al. 2019). Ironically perhaps, the evidence for the benefits of stretching on injury prevention is more ambiguous. In both cases, though, academic studies of bodily and spiritual injuries, there are the issues of correlation and causation, the rarity and chance timing of major injuries, and more holistic issues, like the fact that these practices in their natural incarnations are organically integrated into people’s lives. Any kind of explicit experimental intervention is a bit unnatural, and anything purely observational struggles to determine causality (especially if its focus is narrow).
4 These “different kinds of facts” are a complicated matter, but I can give a brief idea of what I mean. By “objective fact”, I mean those events or replicable experiments which can be seen entirely in our shared external world. By “psychological fact”, I mean it in the Jungian sense of recurrent phenomena coming from within, which can only be seen or felt in their entirety within, but which do form patterns and which we can see evidence of or manifest to some extent in the outer world and relate to based on our individual lived experiences. Some examples include emotional experiences and dream imagery. Interestingly, Jung referred to the unconscious mind as the “objective psyche” because our conscious mind merely receives messages from the unconscious which it can interpret; though it is of course still subjective in the sense that these messages can’t be directly seen by others. By “sociological facts”, I mean it in the Durkheimian sense: it consists of analyzing existing collections of objective facts in a holistic and causal way (and therefore involves some subjectivity), specifically looking at how phenomena can be caused in part by society as a whole.
5 See The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling for more on this topic.