Body & soul: the self & exercise

March 17, 2014

shoesA 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.

dyoungbookThey 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.


  1. Reblogged this on cossack design and commented:
    This has got this exercise-hating mind re-thinking this whole issue.

  2. So much goodness here Charlotte. Thank you.
    When teaching, I often find that one of the most challenging things students face is my insistence that it is the HEAD telling us that the head is important. The body has all our memory store in it, reliably and ingeniously, and we just need to find ways to dialogue with it.
    Sounds a bit wafty, perhaps, but so true in my experience.
    And I love that you emphasise the PHYSICAL and not the BURN. So many people stop moving because it is somehow about those punishing results, when actually it is about the doing of it and the pleasures that open as a result.
    Yep, the boring old line about journey and destination…
    Anyway, thank you.
    Given that I’m trying to learn the joys(?) of being still due to this glandular fever, this meditation is a tonic, and a reminder that even my snail movements are something. I have been teaching a woman who lives in a wheelchair, and she makes me rethink what my experience is with every exchange.
    Such goodies to chew on. Thanks xx

  3. Fascinating as always and bang on about how there is a sort of weird snobbery among intellectuals that they don’t need to pay attention to the body. I came from a family where no one exercised until my mother took up yoga in her forties and we teased her about it. Who is laughing now? She has great posture still at 86.

    I do think it is cultural, partly. Like you I never felt I belonged among the fit . I tried exercise and waited for the endorphin rush but it never came, not even when I paid a personal trainer to run me around an oval and up hills when I was so stressed I could hardly breathe ( one of those jobs at the ABC) so I never got the HIT of good stuff that others talk about. For me, there are several obstacles: boredom, which Pilates manages to defeat with an endless series of toys and challenges; and cost, which Pilates is the main culprit of, as to do a proper class, with the real equipment, costs a lot on my budget and unlike you I don’t have a gym I can walk to which is my idea of heaven these days ( esp when combined with an indoor pool- a marvel).

    I have been wondering about hiring a treadmill because I HATE walking up hills and that is what I am faced with here, but in the meantime I have taken up skipping, which is very aerobic and I enjoy its spontaneity. So after a particularly knotty phone call with an editor or client, I skip away whatever frustration I feel. And I have put my free weights out on the new deck so that I SEE them every morning and pick them up for a few minutes. It’s a start.

  4. I think about exercising a lot whenever I try on a frock that no longer fits. Unfortunately I HATE running and smelly gyms. Can’t play tennis because of dodgy ankles. The only thing I’ve discovered that I like is kayaking. Fortunately I can only do it once every three months as I don’t own a kayak and have to hire one. Yay. But yoga’s OK and I try to do it once a week. And the manual coffee grinder takes care of the “fadoobadas”. It’s a start.

  5. oh bum just wrote long comment and forgot to take copy before pressing post. I then go into you must log in to WordPress ( forgot password) get new password, log in and cannot seem to get back.

    ou are spot on, just wrangling with this issue ( again) . xxj

    • That’s no good Jules! If you can be bothered redoing it would love to hear your view …

  6. Exercise and me have never been great friends. I hated it at school & used to hide behind the old church and read novels while the other girls bounced and belted up and down the netball and tennis courts. Until Sister Columbiere sprang me in my nest, of course. No-one played sport in our house, so it was never really on my radar.
    I was blessed with a rangy frame, a voracious appetite and a speedy metabolism until I had my children, when I had to take up the least offensive forms of exercise I could find – swimming and walking – both of which have fallen by the wayside now that I’ve discovered writing. As a result I now find myself in the poorest physical condition I have ever been in my life, with minimal motivation to remedy the situation. Like Caro, I’ve never really felt the rush of endorphins so I fail to find the pleasure in exercise, but acknowledge the necessity.
    I shall now ponder Damon’s words as I plod dutifully round the local football oval.

  7. Great post Charlotte, and be thankful you reached your wise insights through reading and reflection rather than major surgery. I remember coming round after a hideous op to remove an exploded spinal disc, every part (except one hand, oddly) screaming in pain and a small voice emanating from my body: NOW will you listen??? So I did, with years of Alexander technique, cranial osteopathy and similar bodily attentions and it was like being introduced to a long-time flatmate you hadn’t noticed – so many surprises and recognitions. Occupying myself physically in my 30s also had a certain sadness, that I had absented my body for so long, disregarded all those messages, given it away to people I didn’t even like. Mind you, accepting I had a body was also an introduction to mortality – one of the grounds for denial I think. “If I stay in my head I can live forever, can’t I?”
    Back to the present and it’s all gone pear-shaped, so I will use your post to inspire a little stretching and take it from there, thanks.

  8. I come from a very long line of fat, lazy people. I spent my teenage years faking injuries to get out of PE, or thinking there was no point trying sport because I wasn’t one of those athletic, tanned girls who knew how to run without resembling a panda staggering along on its hind legs. In my late 30s, however, I’ve discovered that I’m actually very good at kickboxing, can quickly pick up choreography, and love the exhaustion that comes after an almost-vomit-inducing training session. The part that I didn’t anticipate was how it’s reconstructed my self-identity. It has nothing to do with losing weight or getting fitter. I still catch myself thinking, “Me! Look at me! I’m doing this! Meeeee!” It is very odd to finally be viewing myself as An Active Person.

    My parents, like yours, still view my activities with bemusement.

  9. Ohhh, what deliciously rich and fabulous comments these all are. Thank you so much for them – it’s funny, this post seems to have touched a nerve (lots of Facebook stuff too). I think it’s a big thing, this idea of ourselves as Not Physical.

    Jo and Lia, you write so well about the identity thing – how lovely it is to somehow find a way through it into some sense of honour for one’s poor old body.

    And Jo your remark about mortality is very powerful – maybe that’s a lot bigger for all of us than we realise. My parents died so young I have always felt close to death in what I thought was a healthy way, but now I wonder – partly it’s meant I don’t have a strong belief in ‘live well and you live long’ – not my experience. So maybe I’ve disregarded that in a sort of opposite way; like, it doesn’t matter what you do with your body, you’re going to die young anyway!

    Caro and Lambsearshoney Amanda – the endorphin expectation is interesting. I don’t know that I get a ‘rush’ – well I definitely don’t. But I do get a feeling, not a high or a buzz or anything, but just a feeling of ‘i’m glad I’m doing this’ about ten minutes into exercise. Even if it’s just walking. My husband reckons he NEVER gets even that and hates every minute. But I do also like the sense of virtue – when you grew up Catholic, you’re so used to feeling guilty about everything that one takes one’s sense of pride and virtue where one gets it I reckon.

    Anyway, really loving this discussion – thank you all for being so generous with it.

  10. Hi Charlotte,
    I’m a sporadic reader and first-time poster, but I wanted to respond to this because a few of the things you said have chimed so exactly with my own experience of learning to live in my flesh, as did many of the responses from commenters. I also wanted to pick up on what you wrote about women’s motivation for exercise often being prompted by self-hatred.

    I think for women, and for intelligent women particularly, the mind/body dualism thing and the tendency to view your body as ‘other’ is increased by the constant pressure to objectify yourself, and to think of your body primarily as an aesthetic project for continual improvement. I can remember reading Possession and having a visceral response to a quote from a philosopher that was included, something about beautiful women looking in the mirror and knowing that their beauty is an essential part of them, and plain or ugly women looking at their reflections and knowing that their appearance isn’t. I can’t remember the precise wording, but I thought the sentiment was exactly correct; the rage you feel on being dismissed for your appearance seemed to be because it wasn’t really a part of you. Your body was just something that carried you around, and it had always seemed so ridiculously unfair that the *you* of you should be overlooked because of something which had as much relationship to that real you as would a car. Less relationship, in fact; you get to choose your car. If you have the misfortune to be both unbeautiful and intellectual (doubly unattractive!), it can be so much easier to reject your body entirely, and just live in your head.

    Trying to intellectualise myself into better body image has never worked, but exercise has helped immeasurably. Not because it’s made me thinner or more toned or less saggy, but because it’s forced me to inhabit my body for the first time. If you’re living in an immediate, physical way – through the flesh – you’re suddenly focused on how you feel, not how you think you look. And you start considering your body as functional, rather than decorative or otherwise. Like Lia, I keep getting bowled over by my ability to DO this.

    I feel best about my body when I’m running, even though I’m sweaty and red and wearing ugly old shirts with holes in them. I’m at my most present, and integrated, and alive.

    That’s all a bit Feminist Theory 101, but knowing something intellectually and feeling it are quite different things. As, indeed, you said. And it seems that the only way you can make that leap is by physical experience. Thinking it isn’t enough.

    • Kate, thank you SO much for this amazing, thoughtful response. So much to think about – the stuff about women of obvious beauty attaching it deeply to their idea of who they are while the rest of us dissociate to some degree from our bodies … really really interesting. THANKYOU.

  11. Last year I signed up for Michelle Bridges’ 12 Week Body Transformation. There’s no way I would have done this had my friend Virginia not recommended it, then when Anne Summers mentioned (on Twitter) her success with the program I felt extra reassurance. (This should tell you a lot about where I was coming from: I trusted a feminist public intellectual far more than a fitness professional when it came to choosing a fitness program.)
    The program turned me into a runner – I ran a half marathon last October. During the training period, I had access to an online forum for participants and I got into the habit of recommending books I was reading that I thought other new runners might enjoy. I wrote a similar (albeit less eloquent) post as yours about how I’d always thought of myself as separate to my body and somehow (shamefully) superior to “sporty” types. Someone left a perceptive comment on my post about how my reading about running and recommending books might be my attempt to reconcile these two identities – my comfortable, non-sporty self with my new self, who had to get out of bed everyday to run ever-increasing distances in the dark.
    I now run regularly and plan to train again for another half marathon later in the year. What has come as a surprise, even more than the fact that I run, is how following a structured training program, with incremental increases in pace and distance each week, has changed my writing practice. I started to see how true it was that tiny improvements accumulate, and that one bad day doesn’t scuttle the whole enterprise. I started to think that if I could transfer the attitude I brought to running to other areas of my life, I might get a lot more done or at least, start doing stuff with less angst. I don’t know that I’m a better writer yet, but I’m a more disciplined one and less judgemental of my efforts. It is almost embarrassing to admit that running taught me this.

    • howtoism, that is fascinating – this is a whole new strand, the running and writing thing, which I think I will have to revisit soon. I am thrilled this post has sparked this amazing conversation …. soooo much to think about, THANKYOU.

  12. Charlotte, this is fantastic. So chuffed the book’s been helpful.

    And I’m really digging this conversation, too.

    • I am amazed at this conversation Damon – all sparked by your fab book which I have been spruiking all over the place. I’m like the Avon Lady for How To Think About Exercise. Just came at exactly the right time for me.

  13. […] love fucks us up. | “Thinking, not moving, was living.” | ”You hesitate to say anything at all, as if staying quiet better preserves the […]

  14. […] discipline is often tied to maintaining or striving for a certain appearance. “For women,” writes the Australian novelist Charlotte Wood, “so much exercise promotion is also the promotion of self-hatred: we should exercise because […]

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