The Philosophy of Fitness: A Strong Body for a Strong Mind

August 4, 2017
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From the dawn of philosophy, the division of the mind and the body has formed one of the classic dualisms. Many philosophers have focused their attention on the importance and superiority of the mind while ignoring the impact the body has on our general being.

This mind-body dualism essentially severed the body from the mind and further aggravated the divorce by denying the body its visitation rights in philosophy. Descartes insisted that the body, with all of its mechanical parts, lacked the ineffable freedom that the mind could entertain. The body was tethered to the world and the mind was something that could go wandering and exploring without the constraints of physicality.

And the Cartesian vision of the body is mostly true. The body is anchored in the phenomenal world. It is forced to abide by the rules of natural law and does not have the liberties that the mind can indulge. But in being grounded in the world, it is arguably the most important connection we have to the world. It is the only thing that you have of yourself that can be truly experienced by another. Experienced in a way that your mind can never be experienced. 

Your body can be caressed and kissed and held and warmed. Your body is your means of demonstrating the emotional connection you have with people or things by exploring the physical connections that the body makes possible, and as such, it should be appreciated as a crucial continuation of your mind- as the finite vessel of your being, to be polished and cleaned and kept in good stead in order to hold all of the infinite, leaking liquids of your mind.

What’s more, we do not have to resort to a complete move into Monism to join the body and the mind. We do not have to say that the mind and body are one single entity of a joined essence and substance. They can be separate and apart, each having its place in the world, but both working together to create a whole that is stronger than if one is neglected.

To that ends, I believe we should explore the body as it relates to our lives and understand the importance of keeping it working as well as possible in order to get the most from your mind.

The Impact of the Body

There are a few philosophers that have had the courage and grace to bring the body into philosophy. It has always been seen as a dwelling place for our more base and animalistic urges. But some philosophers have seen the import of the body. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Montaigne, to name but a few. They understood the impact that the body could have on the mind and they sought to explore that impact through their philosophies.

Montaigne was vocal in pointing out that to be human is to be a composite of the mind and the body – of the sensual and the spiritual. Montaigne went to great lengths to explore the ways in which ailments of the body can determine the state of affairs in our minds. It is not difficult to see this connection when we are faced with our own physical maladies that seem to consume the space in our minds we would rather reserve for more reasoned thought.

Nietzsche had no choice but to explore the impact of the body as it related to the mind. His entire life was beset by illnesses of varying degrees that had him struggling for survival, let alone able to produce the copious amount of philosophical material that is credited to him. It was easy for Nietzsche to see how closely tied the conditions of the body and mind are, and how impactful the body can be in affecting the output and quality of the mind.

I think we can all see to some degree that the condition of our bodies impacts our reactions and engagement in the world. How we feel physically is a great determinant in how we will think and act and speak. Ask anyone who has suffered a long term illness that causes them constant pain about the influence that ailment has had on their mental state and you will understand how critical a sound health is for a sound mind.  

If we let either one suffer we often find the other losing some of its sharpness and ability. And that is why we need to find a balance between the physical and the mental in our lives.

Symbiosis of Body and Mind

The intellect has always been the favored commodity among thinkers but the strongest intellect will never overcome the breaking down of the body. These two companions must be pursued in concert and we must seek to maintain a healthy harmony in order for the true possibility of either to be achieved. We must find the equilibrium between the satisfaction of our body and the satisfaction of our mind.

Imbalances in the body affect the mind and imbalances in the mind affect the body. There is a strong relationship there that is easily felt throughout our day. When we are anxious or agitated or angry or frustrated we can feel the bodily effects of carrying around that mental baggage. Our muscles feel tense, our breath is shallow, our heart races and our face feels hot. All of that translates to a yet deeper state of mental agitation because the body then begins feeding the mind and everything in our physical space is telling us to fight, flight or freeze.

The goal is to have the mind and body working in tandem so that they can support each other in maintaining a sense of physical and mental equilibrium. When the body is feeding the mind cues that we are in danger or we are angry, we need to find space in the mind to get comfortable with those feelings and not let them further feed our negativity. And when the mind is agitated and feeding the body negative cues, we need to engage the body in a positive way to distract the mind from its pursuit of negative things.  

 There are many ways we can do this. My suggestion is to find activities that force you to pay close attention to both the mind and the body together and observe how they work to support each other.

What activities are these?

  • Meditation
  • Running
  • Weight lifting
  • Yoga

These are a few examples of the activities that require elements of both body and mind in order to be effective, and as such, they are ideal for finding that symbiotic balance of body and mind that is important in maintaining the health and strength of both.

Making the physical, intellectual

Engaging the body in physical activity is a genuine catalyst for new ideas, creativity, and a deep, abiding mental satisfaction. How many great thinkers have said that their most brilliant discoveries and insights have come when out on a long walk? How many times have you yourself felt the hard stress and tension of a problem in your life alleviated by going to the gym or going for a run or by yoga or any sort of physical exertion?

When we engage with the body we are redirecting the focus of the mind to the present and tangible aspects of our being. We are bringing ourselves out of the infinite confines of worry and thought that can be had in the mind and returning ourselves to the phenomenal reality of our impermanent, physical existence and with that comes a deep awareness of the present. During physical exertion it is hard to be anywhere else but where you are in the moment and that presence lends itself to an improved clarity of mind and a more focused perspective on life. 

Taking Care of The Body To Improve The Mind

Often, the first evidence we have of mental agitation manifests in the body. And ache in your temples telling you about the mounting stress. A tightening of muscles telling you about your growing anger. By paying close attention to our bodies we can become better aware of the shifts in our mental patterns by observing the changes in our bodies. And when we come to notice those changes in the body and connect them to the mental states of our minds, we can practice self-care in order to alleviate the suffering that can come from those mental states.

There is plenty of science to support the idea that getting involved in physical activity is a great way to clear the mind and let go of the constant stress we accumulate in our daily living. But you don’t need science to tell you that getting your body in shape will improve your general outlook on life and what’s more, science will never be as good of a motivator as just getting physical and feeling the kick of endorphins and the satisfaction of progress. 

If you feel good physically – if you eat the right foods and get some exercise and rest and generally take care of your body – your mindset is going to improve. I guarantee it. You will become more confident. More energized – mentally and physically. You are going to feel better about being alive. You are going to find that once your body begins to improve, the mind has no choice but to follow it along and most every other aspect of your life will improve.

Summary

We are not mere thinkers, you and I. We must carry our minds around in the vehicles of our body and in order to get the most from our intellects it is important to take care of the vessel in which it resides.

This means understanding the impact the body has on the mind and finding the right balance of intellectual pursuits and physical pursuits. Making both a priority in order to get the most of either. It means pushing both the mind and the body to its limits on occasion because at the edge of those intellectual and physical boundaries are the weapons that will make us stronger and more resilient in the face of life’s physical and mental challenges.

What’s more, we must work to bring the physical aspects of our being into the intellectual spaces that we inhabit and see the improvements a sound body can have on our creativity and ingenuity of thought. We should take care of our bodies in a way that allows the mind to be free and open and unencumbered by the thoughts of physical discomfort or neglect.

The body you have is yours alone and it is the only vehicle you have to carry around the mind that is so heavily prized among us philosophers. If you treat it like a piece of shit you shouldn’t expect it to carry your mind very far, but if you work to keep it clean, shiny, polished and ready to travel, you are going to find that the trips your mind is able to take are so much more scenic.