“First of all our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards,” said Swami Vivekananda. “Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the [Hindu religious text of the Bhagavad] Gita… You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger.”
We in the West have inherited the Christian image — and I would say, largely a false image — of the spiritual or enlightened man: self-sacrificing, passive, slender, and in a sense anti-physical.
Where Christianity has declined or disappeared, this image and the assumptions of the religion — equality, a focus on — or a belief in — the poor and the outcast, and strong suspicion of the physical body, especially physical strength — have become the major motifs of politics.
But the traits we associate with spirituality and intelligence are not necessarily accepted by either non-Western or pre-modern cultures.
If we look to the East, we find that the Buddha — a prince in his earlier life — was said to be skilled in martial arts; Krishna revealed his teachings on the battlefield, urging his disciple to fight. Then, of course, there are the Shaolin warrior monks, who developed Kung-Fu. So, too, in pre-Christian Europe, the gods prepare for a final cataclysmic batter: Ragnarok.
“God is not to be reached by the weak,” says Swami Vivekananda. “Never be weak. You have infinite strength within you. How else will you conquer anything? How else will you come to God?”
If we have infinite strength, physical and mental, isn’t it a blasphemy to cultivate weakness within ourselves? Certainly, it is. Yet, today, across the West, we see not only a loathing of the strong, muscular physical body in regard to men (and feminine beauty in regard to women), but we see college students calling for the banning of ideas with which they disapprove (but have never engaged), the banning of speakers with which they disagree, and even for the establishment of “safe spaces” on campus.
This is both an anti-intellectual and anti-body environment. Although the figure of the false Jesus-like male invariably turns up here, against both physical and mental strength, it is essentially an anti-spiritual movement.
It is a movement, or, really, a mob, designed to keep people locked into certain beliefs, but not to understand them. Learning, understanding, awakening, self-development, and character or cultivating inner strength all require the individual to consider ideas different to, and even contrary to, his beliefs. He may or may not change his views. But he should at least understand his own better by doing so.
True spirituality, as would be understood by Swami Vivekananda, ancient tribes, martial arts lineages, Buddhism in the East (especially Vajrayana Buddhism), Hinduism in India (especially Tantra), and even Freemasonry (with its symbolism of death — the dagger, and so on), requires not safe spaces but dangerous spaces — that is to say, spaces of cultivation through a kind of positive-opposition to the disciple, student, or initiate. Such spaces are not reckless, but designed to push the individual beyond what he believes his limits are (but in fact are not).
Cultivating physical and mental strength means cultivating inner and outer peace. It is not only an act of self-reliance, it is a real self-sacrifice — sacrificing one’s pettiness through focus, the pain of physical exercise and inner-growth — to one’s society that should benefit from having more men and women who are noble in mind, body, and spirit.
Today, we have come to mistake the shallow appearance of niceness for the substance of inner peace, attained through strength. This is an enormous trap.
“Nice guys” are usually not that nice. A man whose body is weak, and who is easily intimidated must avoid violence. Such a man is not peaceful. He is merely forced to be subservient. “Peacefulness” and “enlightenment” and “spirituality” become a pose — excuses not to engage in confrontations. It is not merely a case of avoiding physical violence, but even in expressing his feelings to his girlfriend, for example, if it could lead to a heated discussion. Because he does not do what he believes is good for him, and because he expects others to act as weakly toward him when he wants something from them, inside of the “nice guy” boils resentment that he does not get his way.
We see this frustration played out in other ways, imposing itself on society.
In the past, weak-bodied priests talked viciously about God’s “love,” and warned of hell fire for anyone who disagreed, while religious schools often meted out harsh punishments to boys and girls, traumatizing them for life.
Today, we see a new expression of the same old fear: Large groups of “peaceful protesters” screaming, shouting, threatening, committing acts of vandalism, and even sometimes physically attacking a lone individual who has had the nerve to say something with which they disagree. All of this happens for some alleged ideal — usually some secular variation of Christianity’s universal harmony among mankind — which melts away the moment it becomes an inconvenience. Alone, each member of the mob is utterly without strength.
As Swami Vivekananda said, “strength is life, weakness is death.” Choose life. Cultivate physical strength. Make it a foundation for authentic inner peace, for cultivating higher qualities, confidence and focus, and make it a shield against the winds of modernity that blow this way then that, ever changing, always howling, always empty.