The Obstacle is the Way, Pt. 5
The best adventures often begin with a bit of trepidation. The sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and pit that forms in your stomach the moment you sign on to a friend’s crazy idea; these are the moments that provide great opportunity for growth. I call this elective stress, or the voluntary participation in an event or activity that is generally outside the range of one’s self-efficacy. Understanding the definition of elective stress requires a basic knowledge of self-efficacy, a common concept but lesser known phrase. Self-efficacy is defined as “an individual’s subjective perception of his or her capability to perform in a given setting or to attain desired results.” A key word here is subjective. Based on one’s self perception, physical limitations, or a myriad of other reasons that which is difficult for one person could be common place for another.
Take for example the story of Erik Weihenmayer. Erik is extraordinarily ordinary. He was a high school wrestler, had a pet dog in high school, and enjoyed rock climbing. He went on to attend Boston College and graduated as an English and Communications double major. Later, he went on to do some kayaking in a little stretch of water known as the Colorado River and climb a mountain some may have heard of named Everest. But the extraordinary part is this: he did all of this as a blind man.
Is Erik different from you or me? Yes. He’s blind. But that’s it. Over the years, Erik has developed his self-efficacy to a point that allows him to have a strong willingness to do things others may not be willing to do.
I believe journeys such as these, to push our level of self-efficacy through the practice of regularly embracing difficulties, offer a unique opportunity for spiritual growth. The key for any spiritual discipline, though, is intention.
Let's use the spiritual discipline of fasting as an example. In the context of spiritual disciplines, fasting is the process of skipping meals for the sake of spiritual growth. This differs drastically and categorically from anorexia, which is often characterized by skipping meals. So what is the difference? To begin with, one is a healthy and encouraged form of spiritual discipline and the other is an incredibly challenging eating disorder which affects 10 million women and 1 million men in the US. On a practical level, the purpose, intention and the structure surrounding the process of not eating differ drastically as well. This, too, is true for the practice of elective stress.
Becoming a practitioner of elective stress requires the engagement of self, Spirit, and community in conjunction with undertaking a physical practice designed to challenge an individual beyond one’s self-efficacy.
Elective stress as a spiritual discipline is executed through participation in five steps: (1) listening (2) mindful meditation (3) contemplation
(4) communal response
The first step towards any goal is identifying where you want to grow. I call this listening, as the most meaningful growth is often initiated by our community and those around us. The people who know and love us the most are in a position to offer critical feedback for growth if we’re only willing to listen. In the realm of spiritual growth, we also hear from scripture. Community, self, and scripture all lead one to an understanding of the need for spiritual growth. This listening step is also the stage in which a participant would select a text from scripture to serve as a mantra or passage on which to meditate during step two.
Mindful Meditation At this point, the elective stress practice begins. From the onset, mindful mediation serves as the tool in which one invokes the work of the Spirit. This can occur throughout the duration of the activity, but should particularly be utilized during moments of challenge. Without this component of connection with the Divine, the practice is merely another activity in the day. Using mindfulness, the participant reappraises the stimulus in a positive light to facilitate a positive emotion and reduce stress in the moment, resulting in an adaptive response to the stressor. In the midst of the activity, the participant repeats their mindfulness mantra (i.e., the passage of Scripture or affirmation phrase) during difficult moments in order to draw one’s mind to God. This process allows for decentering, disconnecting from “doing” and moving toward “being” in the presence of God.
Examining one’s experience in the immediate aftermath of the practice with the Spirit draws one into a period of contemplation. Immediately following the elective stress practice, the practitioner engages in a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention activity. This process includes a body scan (paying attention to sensations throughout the body), and mindfulness meditation. This looks like standing or sitting at rest, eyes closed, allowing your mind to walk from foot to head analyzing the bodies response to the elective stress practice, followed by revisiting the mindful meditation.
A critical component to spiritual growth is that it makes one look more like Christ. Elective stress as a spiritual discipline must impact the Christian community for it to be effective in transforming self and others. The communal response is accomplished through storytelling. This cognitive reconstruction begins by reimagining the experience in a positive light, forming a new perspective on the stress experience. An important element to this process is considering how the scripture played a role in the process and acknowledging new insights or perspectives gained by meditation on the passage. The cognitive reconstruction should lead a participant to identify the moments of challenge identified in the self-confrontation step and then challenge the practitioner to begin to consider growth and deeper connection to God that has occurred in the process.
This new narrative of how your challenge brought growth must also offer something to the broader community. How will you tell the story of your experience and the growth that has been achieved? In the age of social media, this task is simple but not easy. Elective stress is more than just telling people about the cool/hard thing you did. It’s about bringing others into an opportunity for spiritual formation. How can you share of your experience and the ensuing growth in a way that reflects your struggle and God’s sustenance? The process extends beyond the iPhone and social media world as well, as you consider sharing this narrative of your growth in conversations with friends, family, and your Christian community.
The ultimate measure of a spiritual discipline is how it forms an individual more into the image of Christ. Theologian Dallas Willard writes, “Spiritual formation in Christ is the process through which disciples or apprentices of Jesus take on the qualities or characteristics of Christ himself, in every essential dimension of human personality.” Thus, elective stress and all spiritual disciplines must lead to disciples who take on the characteristics of Christ. A spiritual discipline that does not result in one looking more like Christ is simply a discipline without the spiritual part.
In the contemporary American context as physical challenges draw increasing numbers of participants, a lack of structure for using the body results in a missed opportunity for spiritual growth. The components necessary for such an activity are in place; Christians regularly engage in physical challenges and also desire to grow spiritually. In recent years, participation in obstacle course racing, CrossFit, and other physically challenging practices has swept the nation. While the stage is set, the connection between the popular activities and Christians’ desire for spiritual growth has yet to be made. It’s my hope that this structure for doing hard things for spiritual growth can be of contribution to the church. So, get out there and get after it!
 APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “Self-efficacy,” edited by Gary R. VandenBos, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2015, 954. http://pepperdine.eblib.com/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=3115092. April 04, 2017.
 Willard, Dallas, “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare Between the Flesh and the Human Spirit,” 152.