If I say I’m “researching a new book”, you might imagine an image like this:
If so, you’d usually be spot on. In this case, I’m reading the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu scripture. It’s for the chapter on yoga, meditation and oneness in How to Think About Exercise.
But for that chapter, I also did research like this (often badly):
The book included high-minded study like this:
And so much of this scholarship I kept buying new shoes:
How to Think About Exercise is certainly about thinking. But not thinking as something ethereal and monkish; something only done in a chair in a high tower, while wearing noise-cancelling earphones. One of the points of the book is that minds are not spiritual somethings, off in faraway neverlands. We are not minds who have bodies: we are bodies. And ‘mind’ is a verb, not a neat little noun — it’s something we do.
So the gym, swimming pool or yoga studio needn’t be spots for mindless physicality, and scholarship needn’t be sedentary. We can think through exercise. It can offer new ideas and impressions. It can also help to develop valuable dispositions: also known as ‘virtues’.
The point isn’t that exercise will automatically transform us into angelic superbeings with rock-hard abs and morals. The point is that intellectual and ethical life can be enhanced and enriched with good habits – including those involved in fitness and sports.
For example, there is no doubt that swimming is an excellent way to develop muscle and improve heart function. It is an all-body workout. But immersion in water can also offer an encounter with the sublime.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors like Edmund Burke and Arthur Schopenhauer described the sublime as a unique combination of awe and fear. We have a thrilling feeling of immensity and oneness, which frightens pleasurably.
The psychology is complex and not yet understood, but the basic feeling is unmissable – what I’ve called “vulnerable aliveness”. What looks like an ordinary dip in the local pool can also be a confrontation with the quiet, enveloping enormity of water:
As this suggests, one of the most important messages of How to Think About Exercise is pleasure. This is exercise, not as a dull duty, but as a distinctive joy. And this joy is not simply one of physical power – although this, as Nietzsche noted, is genuine. Exercise can be rewarding for its psychological payoffs, like the ‘flow’ of climbing or oneness of yoga. It can offer the ethical pleasure of pride in sprinting, or the reverie of walking.
So exercise doesn’t have to be about losing weight to conform with a marketed ideal. I needn’t involve macho swagger or (well-lit, airbrushed) models. It is about wholeness, in which we cultivate mind and body together, over a lifetime.
The School of Life
by Damon Young
It can often seem like existence is split in two: body and mind, flesh and spirit, moving and thinking. In the office or at study we are ‘mind workers’, with superfluous bodies. In the gym we stretch, run and lift, but our minds are idle. Damon Young challenges this idea, revealing how fitness can develop our bodies and minds, together.
Exploring exercises and sports with the help of ancient and modern philosophy, he uncovers the pleasures, virtues and big ideas of fitness. By exercising intelligently, we are committing to wholeness: enjoying and enhancing our full humanity.
About the Author
Damon Young is an Australian philosopher, author and commentator. He is an Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne and the author of several books including Voltaire’s Vine and Other Philosophies.