When you decide to run for exercise you don’t expect much other than sore calf muscles and tired lungs. You don’t expect to discover your purpose in life, or to somehow work through a worry that has plagued you for months. But oddly enough, some 30 minutes into a run, a voice from nowhere can descend – rational, optimistic, measured, hopeful – and suddenly you have some clarity.
ASICS, the running shoe brand, is an acronym for the Latin phrase anima sana in corpore sano, or “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. The phrase derives from a satirical poem by Roman poet Juvenal, who argued that our ambitions for wealth, power, and personal beauty would lead to disappointment, and so, instead, we should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body. He seemed to want to remind us to prioritise the stuff that matters.
While Juvenal, in ancient Rome, viewed health from the perspective of mind and body, in the intervening years, we’ve split the human body into its various parts, and somehow forgotten the whole. “The body has been divided from one whole into four different ‘bodies’,” Christer Bjurvill writes in The Philosophy of the Body. “Science has appropriated one part of the body, the inside; philosophy the mind; and medicine the organism.” Lastly, there are the artists – sculptors, poets, and dancers – who concern themselves with the outside of the head, the face and its expressions, as well as outside of the body, the limbs and their various movements.
We all have our body interests – philosophers on what goes on inside the head, on thought and intellect; theologians, to the interior realm, or soul; psychologists, our senses and perceptions; and sportspeople, artists, and physiotherapists, on the exterior of the body – its gestures, postures, and motor performances. And then there’s the special part of the body, which “has been at the centre of interest for physicians”, adds Bjurvill, and that is the anatomical construction and physiological functioning of the body. The body, indeed, has been a rich universe to poke and prod, but how the body’s interconnected parts can work together to restore, heal, and improve ourselves has taken a back seat due to our fixation on each of these four different bodies.
It’s tempting to focus on strategies of the mind when we suffer mentally, or to fixate further on the body when we are physically unwell. Although it does feel counter-intuitive, there has been some research into the benefits of doing the reverse – to commit to physical exercise when we are mentally plagued or take up matters of the mind like philosophy when we are physically unwell. Like a tightrope walker, the good life requires a continual adjustment of mind and body.
Plato was a wrestler, and a believer in the importance of balancing the twin poles of physical training and cultivating the mind. “The purpose is to bring the two elements into tune with one another by adjusting the tension of each to the right pitch,” he asserts in The Republic. Too much of one can be at the detriment of the other and can contribute to difficulties or suffering we may encounter in life. “Have you noticed how a lifelong devotion to physical exercise, to the exclusion of anything else, produces a certain type of mind? Just as neglect of it produces another?” Plato writes. “Excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilised type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft.”
Today, in Central Park, New York, there are psychotherapists who walk with their clients, wandering down paths to relay traumas and hurt, rather than laying back on a couch. The rhythmic pattern of brisk walking, the fresh air and overhanging trees, the accelerated heart rate, the eyes that look outwards towards the future, all contribute to a better prognosis. In moments of movement, the body talks.
In recent years, there has been mounting evidence of the chemical effects of exercise – from cannabis-style highs to elevated levels of so-called ‘bliss molecules’. Similarly, at the other end of the spectrum, athletes have shown enhanced performance when applying mind-control techniques to quell unease and keep the body fluid and relaxed.
Even mindfulness, which one might suspect would be overflowing with techniques to order the mind, often channels the mind not backwards upon itself, but directly at parts of the body. Techniques such as the ‘body scan’ roll the mind from the scalp to the toes and back again, massaging the body with the mind. Tranquillity can be found, it seems, when the mind’s universe becomes the body, and the body’s universe becomes the mind – when we are no longer fragmented parts of four bodies, but a singular whole.
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