Injecting Philosophy Into Fitness

( Plato in His Academy  | Engraving after painting by Swedish painter Carl Johan Wahlbom)

(Plato in His Academy | Engraving after painting by Swedish painter Carl Johan Wahlbom)

"I plant some thought seeds, and we wait. Seems to work."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

What does philosophy have to do with physical fitness, one might ask? But how is building up your external body in an attempt to increase your inner-worth, not philosophical? It's just that we normally leave philosophy to chance, which is why it normally falls apart.

During an e-mail exchange with a philosopher friend, I was asked how I apply Quietism, philosophy, and mindfulness to the physical training of students — since I have a hand in the health and fitness realm. Before I share my response, let's define some concepts:

  • Philosophy – a coherent framework of thinking.
  • Mindfulness – awareness without judgment.
  • Quietism – that philosophy can be helpful to unclutter confusion, especially in the focus of what we mean, rather than we say, even to ourselves; our description may not match the described, which can lead to frustration.
  • Absurdism — the human want for perfect answers and the human inability to find any.
  • Empiricism — knowledge from sense-experience.
  • Physical Training – the cultivation of not only health and the body, but the strengthening of mindset, character, and creativity.

My Response:

I’ve applied philosophy as a way to help people get healthier for the past several years. Now one can ask, what does philosophy have to do with physical health? But like anything, things improve with better thinking. Your mind is the agent of action of everything you do. As you become a better agent of action, a more reliable agent of action, things get better. That’s all philosophy. I don’t know why it’s not constantly involved in our lives. I mean, the vacuum left by its absence definitely makes things worse.

But rather than ‘philosophy,’ I call it ‘better thinking.’ As with any description, it’s not about what ‘better thinking’ literally means, it’s about what it conjures in the minds. And philosophy may conjure the wrong thing, even though that’s what we’re doing. But sometimes philosophy is easiest to digest if you don’t make a direct reference to it.

I also pass no judgments toward the people I am working with. I like them fine the way they are. How they feel about themselves is another matter. In the world of fitness, it’s all judgments: ‘here is how you are not good enough, here is why you are lazy, so let’s set some goals to make you more worthy so you and I can stop loathing you so much.’ It’s doomed to only make things worse, and people feel more shame and embarrassment and guilt and their view of the world becomes negative. It’s adversarial when it should be collaborative. Why make war with each other and ourselves? So I don’t set goals.

I tell them I’m not their therapist as I have no expectations of them nor any interest in ‘breakthroughs,’ — but I also don’t want to spend so much of my time only listening. I know this sounds radical but my time with each individual is limited. I have to transfer as much of my knowledge as I can to them. I sometimes have as little as a twice a week for one month. (And sometimes, it might be only once.) That is the expectation of physical training so I must do what is most practical, which is not always the same as ideal.

Then I can’t start out talking about Absurdism, right? (That there is no absolute answer, and the absurdity of controlling what cannot be controlled. Not because it is not logically possible, but it is not humanly possible.) That’s like me teaching them evolution when they don’t know biology — or physics when their math isn’t up to snuff.

Rather, I try and help build a framework for understanding how it is we tend to think, then I help them realize the absurdity of it all. I mean, they come to me to pay me to help them achieve some look because they can’t accept themselves for who they are.

It’s like the old mind-body problem, except, rather than the usual: the non-physical mind vs. the physical events of the body — it’s the brain vs. physical appearance.

(What is me? Are my thoughts, my very identity, the amalgam of hormones, neural impulses, and cellular communication? A biological robot? Or am I an intangible quality that cannot be quantified by the body? An ethereal soul?)

Now it’s more like, am I what my brain thinks I should look like? Or am I how I perceive myself to look like? How I think others perceive me to look like? It’s as if we are automatons, like a car, just predictable mechanics on the inside, and our only value, what makes us unique, is what’s on the outside. Or the reverse, our bodies’ only function is to get our brain from place to place. And our brains’ only function is to make money. Maximizing both is maximizing money and looks.

So who you are has become how your physical body looks or how much money your brain can make, rather than the usual — who you are. And the expectation of me being the facilitator of their self-value and worth is obscene to me. So I stopped engaging in it. Though I can’t say, it’s still not there, but I’m not feeding it. But I am more picky about who I take on as a student. (And when I say student, I don’t mean underling or someone who I have authority over, I just mean the recipient of my information. I am really an information broker, and I never tell people what to do, I only make suggestions.)

Being physically active used to be interchangeable with being human, now it’s its own class, independent from normal life. But being physically active is a great way to reconnect with your senses. It’s how we biologically build up empiricism. (Which is why I find it’s just as contradictory when philosophers do not engage in active life.)

We’re most active as children; it’s when we are the most sensory. Physical activity is a way to recapture that neuroplasticity of childhood. And once we reconnect with our senses, we will find that movement is joy.

Once we move more, eat in a way that improves how we feel, we will hopefully see that feeling better is literally a better feeling. Feeling good feels good. Not temporary self-pleasure but long-term self-satisfaction. These observations might seem automatic, and shouldn’t require explanation — but it’s a journey of self-discovery. We have been conditioned not to think deeply, and if we do, only about anxiety or the cash economy. But you can only discover it on your own. I just try to nudge them the right way. But sometimes they may not make that connection — on the joy of living. On bliss and satisfaction and how these should be normal human states, not just exhaustion and dissatisfaction — what we’ve come to think is normal.

We get everything we need to get done, so we think that’s good enough. But there’s a difference between getting things done, and getting things done while feeling good (or knowing why it should be getting done in the first place).

In adult culture, some folks won’t realize they are smiling or happy unless it is pointed out to them. They will break up with someone that makes them happy because they never noticed it. They will stop doing activities that make them happy because they never connected that activity to that feeling. Because what does that feeling have to do with how you look? Or how much money your brain can make? Well, that feeling is what makes you a human being. Not a sports car or a real estate calculator. But many of us have forgotten how to feel. Physical activity then is a great way to rebuild those sense, if that is the intent, you can do it while being completely ignorant to your senses, as well. It’s a tool, and you can divorce it from its function if you focus on some external goal rather than internal knowing.

But once you make these connections, you don’t need goals or motivation to be physical. You don’t need to give yourself an external reason. You only need an external reason when you don’t know why you should be doing something. So you give yourself an incentive, just like they do at work. ‘If you do this, you’ll get this.’ But you are a human being, not a corporation. Everything we do should be natural to that. And being free-range used to mean being human. I think it makes more sense to say human being than human because human should be a verb, not just a biological fact. Otherwise, we are just a noun for a specific type of flesh.

I tell people that we will never talk about their weight or their appearance — which is weird, right? Think about the act of weighing another human being. It’s like treating them like cargo: ‘let’s weigh this cargo, this sack of flesh and see the value.’ It’s pretty fucked up if you think about it since we used to weigh slaves for value. It’s the automaton in society valued for its body again. Divorced from the thinking being, hence, ‘better thinking.’ I mean, this is hopefully where real inner-value and self-worth will arise, but only if we break the shackles of physical and monetary worth. But to do that, you first must see the absurdity in it. I mean, ‘I am only valuable if I am beautiful.’ ‘I am only human if I am beautiful.’ It’s absurd!

I have no problems adopting conventions of broader culture if it’s better than what I already have. I question adopting it if it is inferior to what I already have. Just because it’s normal shouldn’t be the reason to adopt something. Adopt it if it works better.

So, despite breaking convention, new students still come. Seems a lot of folks are tired of the conventional ways. And even without talking about the physical explicitly, my students get healthier — the ones who need to lose weight, lose weight, and they look better — as a matter of course. That’s the key. The effects are the byproducts rather than the goals. If you focus on byproducts as goals, you misguide the whole process. How can you have a short-term end goal when you’re trying to live as long as you can? That misses the point. The point is to become a person who doesn’t need goals. Goals are attempts to do things you wouldn’t normally do. Well, then make those activities things you would normally do. Otherwise, you will only be able to maintain what is inauthentic to you for so long.

Seneca said, ‘If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.’ You can’t change the universe, but you can change yourself. And even if you wanted to change the world, you must first become someone who could and would change the world. Change your personality, your opinions, your character. You are the problem to solve (because the problem only exists in our minds). Accept yourself or change yourself.

And we know this to be true: how can one be healthy without the level of character to create and maintain health in the first place? It is damn difficult to change the body. All diets and exercise programs fail after a few years, not because they are flawed (though that may also be the case), but because not enough people can stick to it for more than a short period of time. There is yet to be a pill or a magic exercise machine that can create permanent change, nor am I the one to create such a thing. So I focus on the only variable one can have control over — the individual. This is also the least absurd solution.

People with character naturally get healthier if provided the knowledge to do so. So I work on character and give them the right information. I pull from all of my influences: science, psychology, Taoism, Zen, Quietism, Wittgenstein, emerging technologies — but also the naturalists like Thoreau. I get my students to be mindful without ever using that word, my version of Quietism, as ‘mindfulness’ would conjure the wrong idea. So would ‘zen,’ so I have to use the right words that create the right intent. I say things like ‘critical thinking,’ ‘non-binary decision-making,’ and I probably say, ‘fruitful’ a lot. It’s like someone who’s never heard a real gun before, to them, the movie sound effect of a gun is what they think a real gun sounds like. So the sound of a real gun would not conjure the idea of a gun, but the sound of a fake gun would. Same as in how we might mistake a character an actor is playing for the actor himself.

The principles of clarity are there, but to use the ‘correct’ terminology, believe it or not, would cause less clarity. (Core was supposed to be a concept, now it’s used as jargon for abs.) The buzzword definitions have replaced the actual definitions, we then lose much of the benefits of the original concepts. For another instance, ‘holistic’ is a term I avoid, rather, I say ‘wholeness.’ Holistic used to mean a whole approach. Now it defaults to alternative, or anti-conventional, the opposite of wholeness, a fragmented approach. There can be a benefit to the alternative, but that idea is alive and well, we have lost a way to define the whole.

We are losing wholeness in broader culture even though the amount of times we say holistic keeps going up. It would be like if diversity started being used as a way to say uniformity. Then no matter how often we talked about diversity, real diversity would only dwindle, and we would have no way of talking about the problem at hand. We keep saying holistic but we don’t really mean holistic, so total approaches keep disappearing. Totality, it’s a good word, hardly used, so it still conjures the right intent.

Popular words become new ways to describe old ideas that are already familiar to us, so, without a way to describe new ideas, we lose the ability to create new change. This misuse of words and ideas reinforce the tendency to remain in the status quo. Confirming preexisting biases. And if the status quo is unhealthy and unhappy, that will be the default mode of being — and you have no words to say otherwise. Just a general malaise without any understanding or any way to express why you feel this way. So, without an ability to solve the real problem, you try to solve the problems we do have words for — like ‘weight-loss,’ rather than making whole a fragmented and partial life.

Nothing means what it’s supposed to mean in the health industry, it seems, and I suspect this is how money is made. If the population never gets healthy, there will always be a demand for health products.

I think sometimes people expect some cargo cult herb extract that will deliver some magic result — or as an Asian, I know some pressure point that will make them pretty and happy. I just tell them to create new habits. I plant some thought seeds, and we wait. Seems to work. Seems to be the only thing that ever works. And whether they change or not, they are still fine to me. I like them just the same.

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