Body & soul: the self & exerciseMarch 17, 2014
A strange thing has happened to me recently. Time, that thing we are all so desperately lacking, and thus constantly mourning – seems to have warped and expanded. There seem to be more hours in the day, I feel calmly able to manage all the stuff I have to do and more, without that terrible fizzy, crowdy-headed feeling Caro so aptly described in her comment on the last post – the sense of being torn in different directions by competing demands, voices, responsibilities and desires, by the world’s troubles and our responses to them, by everything hurtling in.
Free, from all of it.
This weird and pleasant sensation can be fleeting, and I have to catch it when it’s there, but I have finally figured out its source: exercise. The more I exercise, the more time slows and expands. Seriously weird.
All my life I’ve been an on-again off-again exerciser, with extended periods of good fitness alternating with long bouts of pure slothfulness. I’ve only recently come to examine why, when I know how good regular exercise makes me feel, I so often lapse away from it.
A new book by a philosopher has finally helped me work out what’s behind this: I’ve never felt I actually belonged in the world of the physically fit. I might visit for a while, and feel good about it, but underneath it flows the current of a powerful belief that I’m Not Really That Kind of Person.
I’m late to understanding what a conceit this is – seeing oneself as Of The (elevated) Mind rather than Of The (base) Body. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit here to this simplistic and, let’s face it, quite absurd desire to divide the indivisible. But there it is. Though I have often genuinely admired my friends for their skill in and love of exercise, and have long been able to see that for other people it’s not an either/or thing, I just never felt that exercise was a natural home for me.
I wonder where it began?
In my family, despite all of us kids playing sport of one kind or another throughout our childhoods – basketball was my thing, though I was never particularly good at it – all achievement in the physical sphere was met by our parents with a kind of distracted bemusement. They were much more interested in our academic and creative achievements, I guess reflecting their own personalities and backgrounds. Or maybe they just weren’t interested in the idea of competition.
I am remembering as I type this that in junior high school I was athletics champion for several years running. But it was a little school, and it was a one-day-of-the-year thing, not to be trained for or thought about between annual carnivals. And this modest physical prowess completely disappeared in the pool – I absolutely hated, feared, and was hopeless at swimming. The time a primary school teacher had to jump into the pool and rescue my scrawny, flailing form is a huge family joke.
It will be interesting to see if my siblings feel the same way about this, for as we all know, family experiences are so wildly different for each member that half the time it seems impossible one lived in the same house. But for me, while I don’t recall anything ever being said, the family ethos was pretty clear: interest in the physical world was for Other People – sport was the province of those with no interest in the imagination or the mind.
Thinking, not moving, was living. The idea that the two things could be part of one whole never occurred to us.
How wrong we were.
But how wrong we all still are, in contemporary Australian culture, almost all the time. Apart from eastern traditions like yoga, almost all discussion of exercise in our culture focuses entirely on the body – or recently, on quite mechanistic-sounding effects on brain chemistry and hormones. And for women, so much exercise promotion is also the promotion of self-hatred: we should exercise because we’re fat, our bodies are the wrong shape, we’re sagging, we’re ageing, we’re undesirable – external stuff that is all about someone making money from our insecurity and self-loathing.
Almost nobody talks publicly, with any sophistication, about the self and exercise.
But lots of people do get it. I have always had a quiet envy of people who get real peace and imaginative and contemplative sustenance from physicality – like my friend Ailsa Piper with her incredible walk across Spain, or my friends Bec and Jane who brave the waves for ocean swimming in all seasons and find it deeply sustaining, or Ali whose sense of inner peace and wholeness has always depended on being able to swim or run regularly.
They have always understood what Damon Young is talking about in his wonderful new work How To Think About Exercise, but though I’ve had glimpses of this wholeness, it’s taken this book to really draw it together for me. It’s one thing to intellectually accept that what’s good for the body is good for the mind, or that body and mind and soul inseparable – but it’s another thing altogether to feel it, to actually believe in this inseparability, this wholeness, in oneself.
A Melbourne-based philosopher whose work I first read in the rich and fascinating Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free, Damon’s new work has come to me at a time when my own impoverished thinking about exercise was ready for some serious nourishment.
Over the past year or so I have slowly begun to take proper notice and care of my spine and neck, damaged through decades of sitting and computer use, with beginner Pilates and good preventive osteopathy bringing my back to its best condition in years. As well, I’ve been working with Alison Manning and hearing her ideas about integration of the different parts of ourselves being the key to sound mental health, born of the synthesis of neurological, psychological and behavioural research. And I have finally begun to understand – bodily – that everything in my head is connected to everything in my body.
I’ve had some great chats with my osteopath Eddie about the way one’s mind can hold old injuries and sort of re-tell them, in one’s body, as pain rather than a sensation that another person might perceive as a stretch or mere stiffness.
And in talking with my Pilates teacher and physio Prue about the effects on the body of how we use language and the things we visualise, I’ve become conscious for the first time of how much writing novels can screw with your body. I don’t mean just the standard desk-related damage, which is now well documented. But there’s another angle to this too.
Fiction requires conflict – you can’t write a good novel about people being happy and peaceful (can you?). And for me at least, writing well requires periods of absolute and sustained mental focus on things, especially in this current novel, that are – well, not nice. As my mind inhabits a character who is frightened, or desperate, or grief-stricken, I realise now, it’s simply impossible to escape the bodily manifestation of such emotions (changes in stress hormones, muscle tension, neural pathway changes), even if it’s only to the smallest degree. But over years and years, this surely must have some strange effects.
No wonder writing is so physically tiring.
All of this came together for me when I read Damon’s elegant introduction of the concept of dualism – our cultural separation of body and mind into two separate, unrelated systems. I suddenly understood a whole lot of stuff about myself and my own body/mind schism.
I mentioned all this to a friend, telling him how I’d always felt my self to be quite separate from my body, and that this new feeling of wholeness – largely through Damon’s articulation of exercise in poetic and intellectual terms, like reverie and constancy and beauty and humility – was altogether exhilarating. It was the first time in my life, I told him, that I’d made a serious link between mind and body.
‘Bullshit,’ he said. ‘What about cooking?’
I was shocked: of course he’s right. I’ve written endlessly about how inseparable is the feeding of the mind from the feeding of the body. This whole blog is basically a discussion in those terms. So how could I have missed this other part of the equation? Why such an immovable block about exercise?
I’m yet to figure that one out. For now, I’m just happy to have this growing, real rather than wishful, sense of the bits of me coming together. It’s a tentative thing, and it will need cultivation and attention if it’s to last. I would like it to – if for no other reason, this sense of time opening up because of mental calm feels like some kind of magical gift.
Here’s a bit from Damon’s book that struck me with great force.
So Descartes was wrong. We are not minds who have bodies, in the way we have a cricket bat or pair of sneakers. We are bodies. ‘Body am I entirely, and nothing more,’ wrote Nietzche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘and soul is only the name of something in the body.’ Thinking and feeling always happen in, with and through the flesh.
That’s my new mantra: all things through the flesh. It helps me see the real point of going to the gym or the physio, or walking to the bus stop, or working in the garden or hanging out the washing – all these things I used to be impatient to get out of the way, so I could get back to the real business of thinking.
Now I understand that all of these things are also thinking, are living. Through the flesh.
And now, after all this sitting, I’m going to haul my thinking flesh off to the gym.