Reflections on Health

The phrase “one should take care of mind, body, and soul” has always troubled me. Not the intention behind it, but rather an assumption made within that sentiment. Of course, feeling like we have a body is immediately natural. The body reaches out into the world, like a puppet, controlled by the more real us. Our mind is what and who we are. Things happen to our body, or our brain, but the flicker of the inner soul remains ever-present. From this perspective seeing how the religious concept of separating soul from body becomes obvious. Any common or readily conceived conception of religion bears this out. The word ‘animism’, describing the belief that nearly anything possesses its own spiritual essence, comes from the Latin anima, which may mean ‘breath’ or ‘life’. You may find that your spirit has its own residency that’s decidedly not on our humble Earth; perhaps you will be reincarnated into some other body, or lose the body altogether and enjoy the purest form of anima. (For the record, my favorite incarnation of the concept of a spiritual life comes from the Homeric Underworld, where the boring, tedious, and rather sad endlessness of existence there helps to push Odysseus to find and create more meaning in the world of the living.)

Beautifully, in some Eastern religious traditions, this concept of the mind being a perfect operator of what we feel to be consciousness, is—ignoring anything about deities or holy stories—shown to be a fabrication. One of the general goals of meditation is to realize that the random stream of consciousness we all constantly interact with every day is genuinely not under our control. Furthermore, based on personal experimentation and reflection, the only path to peace and happiness seems to come from this pursuit.

A startling thought that everyone should entertain is that “we don’t have bodies—we are bodies.” With this in mind, the idea of having a mind and a body starts to seem tenuous. Now, there is the point to be made that clearly, many of the things we value and think of as being part of the fabric of being human consist of the inner intellectual and emotional lives of the people we know and see in the world. In other words, a lot of what we find important and engaging comes from individuals’ minds. The thing that bothers me about the dichotomy of mind and body is that not only are they so clearly linked, but they are in fact part of the same system. This beautiful machine which we all see in the mirror every day includes the brain, which, as an organ, admittedly performs some pretty unique functions. I do hate being too generalist, but if we broaden our scope for a moment, the abilities creatures possess today have formed out of some ancestral necessity; this includes the brain. Perhaps not as consequential to our lives, and not as Herculean an accomplishment when reflecting on the ability to have rich and complex experiences, the brain is still just another organ. Our ability to think and create and emote lies on a spectrum full of all kinds of other living things’ abilities. The fact that there have been several solutions of getting a creature to fly is also part of that fabric. And the ability to breathe air, and to camouflage, or truly countless other things. More to the point of this piece, caring for your body, in some sense, includes caring for your mind.

At this point, we know that physical and mental health are greatly intertwined. The effects of exercise on the brain across the board seem positive and one-directional, even if the pathways between the two aren’t fully understood. The opposite also appears to be true. Everybody knows that the attitude and habitual practices of a mind have a great affect on the overall health of any given person. What this means to me is that the system must be cared for as a whole. A few years ago I took up exercise as a serious and dedicated discipline to which I would try to do some justice. Anybody who has experimented with this process almost unilaterally can and will tell you that treating the body to the kind of stress it can use to become stronger and healthier improves everything from sleep to concentration to mood. Furthermore, the ability to train physically is actually in some sense the same as training mentally. Pushing yourself to run a great distance or move a heavy object takes purposeful concentration and discipline. The link between mind and body again seems blurred—they are two different components of the same overall system. Having spent many hours in practice rooms in my life, the ability to work my body seemed like a relatively easy transition because it felt to me like exactly the same skill set.

Without being vain, admitting that human body is a beautiful structure is something that perhaps we don’t reflect upon enough. In all of our pursuit of beauty in the areas of the inner life, there can indeed be a synonymous pursuit in the health of one’s own body for their own sake. There is a truly over-cited quote from Socrates that bears repeating here (my apologies):

It is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit.

Perhaps there’s a reason that quote is so oft-cited. In day-to-day life, especially the more we become idle and sedentary, I often find myself seeing people and wondering how they never do any physical activity and/or put nothing but the lowest common denominator of food into their bodies. With something so precious and beautiful at stake, letting this happen to the one and only thing we truly own in the world, our bodies, is unfortunate.   I should hasten to note here that I’m no peak physical specimen, but I do push myself rather hard to train and eat well, to my authentic satisfaction. As is often the case in life, the pursuit, and the genuine dedication to improvement, not necessarily where you are at any given time, is what matters.

The body, with all of its components, makes up personhood. There is no shame in molding yourself to the best person you can be, inside and out. In fact, conquering multitudinous facets of life begets a true sense of achievement and inner pride that fulfills our deepest desire to lead a life well-lived.

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