Building Spiritual Fitness: A Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Want to be a stronger spiritual athlete? Spiritual Fitness follows the same deliberate process as Aerobic Fitness – benefitting every area of your life.

Let’s Start with Aerobic Fitness

The ability to endure and sustain “forward motion” over time. (How about a lifetime?) You must develop strength and efficient technique. This requires patience, perseverance, and some clear goals to work towards.

Spiritual Fitness?

Spiritual fitness is also about endurance, resilience and forward movement. Running the equivalent of a marathon in our spiritual lives also requires inner strength, good technique (especially relationship skills) and lots of patience and perseverance.

Nelson Mandela was a world-class spiritual athlete. He transformed every hardship he incurred into triumph. He held no grudges. He maintained forward velocity – in spite of being locked in a prison cell for 27 years.


How do we build spiritual fitness?

Fitness – in any form – flows through the same three-phase cycle:

  • Stress
  • Recovery
  • Adaptation

Nelson Mandela recovered and adapted from the physical, mental and emotional stress of 27 years in a cage to become a world leader in democracy and empowerment.

“From Prisoner to President”: How?

We can use aerobic training as a way to learn about building spiritual fitness. There is a carryover. The secret?

Exercising choice: When you lace up your shoes to go out for a run, you anticipate – even welcome – the sore muscles and fatigue. You choose the stress and you welcome the benefits. Mandela “chose” the stressful challenges imposed on him. (That doesn’t mean he enjoyed them!)

After your training run, a shower and healthy food, you return to your job. A frustrated co-worker confronts you with a problem. His frustration and fear manifest as anger – a source of stress for you. You have a choice:

  • Like Nelson Mandela you can embrace the stress as an opportunity for spiritual fitness training. Engage your creativity.
  • Choose not to be the victim: “You’re doing this to me!” Don’t let fear or anger govern your actions or your thoughts.

Identify the “Stress Opportunities”

It’s easy to identify the stress opportunity in aerobic training: It’s the exercise! The stress opportunities in our day-to-day usually arise in:

  • Relationships
  • Challenging tasks
  • Unexpected/unintended circumstances or results

Exercise vigilance in your day-to-day. Beware the “ordinary”: This is where we miss the opportunities to train spiritual fitness.

Don’t Take it Personally

When we experience discord in our relationships, we usually take it personally. Mandela got past the threat to his ego. He saw that the discord arose from fear, greed, anger, jealousy, or grief.

  • Compassion enables the spiritual athlete to see beyond the surface and move to recovery and adaptation.
  • Fear prevents us from seeing beyond the threat.

After all, do you “take it personally” when your feet are sore after a run?“Whaa! Why me?”

Respond or React?

Victimization aborts the three-phase cycle. Victims never get beyond Stress to the healing power of Recovery and Adaptation. With an open heart and mind, we are empowered to exercise choice:

  • Empowerment: Welcome and respond to the opportunity. You will move gracefully through recovery and adaptation.
  • Victimization: Resist and react to the threat. You will experience chronic stress.

Core Strength

As an endurance athlete, your pelvic core must be strong to be stable and functional. Compassion is the spiritual athlete’s “core strength” that enables recovery and adaptation.

  • Core strength leads to integrity and stability.
  • A weak core results in clumsy ineffective movement and injury.

Be vigilant in your day-to-day activities for opportunities to exercise your “core strength” – your compassion. See the truth beyond the threat and you are able to respond brilliantly.

Measuring Spiritual Fitness

Endurance athletes measure progress (adaptation) as their ability to go faster or farther with less effort and less impact – in a word “efficiency”. Fewer injuries, faster recovery and a sense of ease, grace and enjoyment. We pursue the same things in spiritual fitness adaptation:

  • Efficiency: Harmony and a sense of ease in our relationships and responsibilities
  • “Speed”: Resolution and completion arise with less time and energy spent in crisis
  • Fewer “Injuries”: Less anger, resentment, fear, frustration
  • Greater flexibility and resilience

Forgiveness and Tenacity

With grace and good humor, Nelson Mandela forgave his antagonists for decades, just as endurance athlete embrace the challenges of fatigue and discomfort.

  • Forgiveness is giving forward – it enables recovery and adaptation
  • Resentment is “re-sending”: looking backward – causing stagnation and chronic stress

With tenacity, Mandela never lost sight of his goals: equality and harmony. Vision, not fear.

  • Tenacity is endurance leading to adaptation and completion
  • Self-pity is resignation leading to “DNF” (Did Not Finish)


“A successful petition for the empowerment of companionship”.

Let’s get to the finish line together. We’ll celebrate our spiritual fitness!!