On the Body

Though I don’t follow basketball, I have preceded it. The athletic director at the college where I teach has a long tradition of inviting a faculty member to deliver an annual lecture on this, the opening day of March Madness. By tradition the title is always the same: “On the Body.” The speaker delivers it from center court of Temple Iglehart, the college’s wonderful old gymnasium.  Seated in a semicircle on the wooden court floor, the audience includes players and fans of the two teams that will kick off the college’s intramural version of the tournament immediately after the speaker ends his lecture by invoking the traditional words, Let the Madness Begin.

Below I offer the brief lecture I gave in 2011, which reflects on how the body informs the mind through athletic practices. Regular readers will notice that this lecture continues in the vein of some recents posts praising the distinctive virtues that come from practicing, whether it’s a game a master plays with his dog, or one a spiritual master plays with his thief-disciple. Anyway, with no further ado…

We’ve gathered in a sacred space, the Temple Iglehart.  This is the place on campus where it’s not speeches but deeds that count. Tonight the body gets the title role, and the mind plays supporting actor, an instrument for the body’s purposes. What are the body’s purposes? To become sensitive, perceptive, powerful, skillful, accomplished—as judged on the court of action.

Before saying more about these purposes, first we must know which body we are talking about. Is it the universal or the individual body? If we’re truly to praise the body we can’t talk about the universal body or self, for then all we’ll hear about are the mind’s bright ideas about body in general. That leaves the individual body. The problem with speaking about it is that the individual self appears to be unknowable insofar as it’s that part of ourselves that is unique and perishable rather than universal and enduring. From this perspective, the body has often seemed a trap to those philosophers and religious seekers who aim to transcend the embodied world, and pop their heads out for a glimpse hypuranean being, as the Socratic myth has it. Tonight, however, is devoted to the body’s view, which means we are gathered  to celebrate this earthly world, this embodied life, and these our gloriously individual bodies.

I’d like to celebrate the body by suggesting the distinctive wisdom we can acquire through it. Notice that the path to embodied wisdom leads from the outside in: You learn and master basketball through cultivating the body first. You cannot really know the game unless you become a player. For basketball is an art, not a science. Like ethical virtue, it comes about through experience, where perception, feeling, skills, practical judgment, and other particulars come into play. In contrast, mathematics requires no such skills and no analogous cultivation of the body. Like theoretical endeavors generally, it starts and ends in the mind. On the path to theoretical wisdom, as the story goes, the individual body and self have limited value, falling away in the end with the realization that the self and world soul are one and the same.  Here the role of the body is, at best, instrumental. Plato thinks of gymnastics as medicinal in the sense that it is instrumental to health. (Whether it ultimately may be more than instrumental is an interesting question.)

Learning from the outside in—being inducted rather than educated—means cultivating the body and perfecting practices for their own sake. This in turn means embracing our animality, that vital mortal part that we share with other animals. The part that loves to run, jump, compete, cooperate—play ball. Like the rest of the animals, the animal in us thinks the only speech that counts is deeds. Shut up and put up. Or lay up. Aristotle says that if it’s the truth of feelings and actions you’re after, opinions and speeches matter less than deeds. You can know every rule, every stat, the whole history of the game, but if you don’t play you remain an outsider whose knowledge is superficial. Why? Because basketball isn’t ultimately something thought or observed, it’s something played.

Sun salutation

sun salutation vinyasa

In the spirit of honoring the body and its way of learning—from the outside in—I’ll use my own experience with yoga, where I have acquired a little inside knowledge, to talk about how I see body educating mind.

I remember that first yoga class. I remember when the teacher started describing how to do a forward bend. What could be easier than knowing how to touch your toes? I thought to myself. Besides, I was a serious runner who knew all about stretching. (Sounds like Meno, come to think of it.) So at first I was only half-listening as I bent forward. But soon I was all ears because I was, well, astonished by her detailed thoroughness. For me touching your toes was one action. According to her: On the inhale, feet rooted on their four corners (four corners?), draw up evenly through the quads and hamstrings, pressing shins forward and knees back, lifting the spine out of the pelvic floor; on the exhale, draw the abdomen back into the anterior spine, and bend from the hips, keeping the back straight and arms in their sockets. And that’s just the part of her description I recognized. (There were also spirals and other geometric figures she apparently expected me to animate within my body.)

Long story short, I learned that my body was dumb, thickly inarticulate, capable of only the grossest movements. I learned this not only because I couldn’t understand what she was talking about, but because I couldn’t do what she and others were doing. And, past a point, listening to her or reading books wasn’t going to make my body any less stupid. Only practice would do.  Forward bends, like good jump shots (and unlike calculus), cannot be learned from speeches and study alone. They are skills acquired through the body, learned from the outside in.  Consequently, early on the speeches about poses had this curious status of being understandable but empty, like sights described to the blind. I could parse the words, but their meaning became clear only after practice awakened the intelligence in my body.

Sometimes we resist this way of learning because the body seems dense and slow, requiring a kind of patience our active flighty minds resent, the more so because the mind must slow down and become a passive instrument that listens to and is instructed by this dense inarticulate thing.

And if it doesn’t listen? You go too deep too fast and, Ouch! Most injuries happen because we’re not listening to our bodies, and this is often because the mind has forgotten its supporting role and presumed to lead. But when all goes well, practice is a kind of meditation that quiets the mind and puts you “in the zone” as athletes say. Which I take it is a state of concentration, of flow, from which the body’s practice can make inroads (in the form of maps) in the mind. We understand a forward bend after practice makes our body intelligently articulate in its own right.

I said practice makes maps of the body in the mind, articulating and illuminating a part of ourselves and the world that thinking by itself cannot develop. But I think we can equally say that when we practice we are extending the reach of our minds, again bringing the outside in, by making our bodies mindful in their own right by cultivating our sensitivity, our perceptiveness, our balance and coordination, our control of the gross and subtle bodies at work in our skillful motions. My point here is that far from leaving our minds behind when we come to the gym, we are expanding and deepening them. Even if all you cared about was the theoretical life, you refine your power to care for it by cultivating your body.

I could go on to praise the distinctive and sublime pleasures and virtues of this path to embodied wisdom, but instead I’ll leave you with a question I’ve often wondered about. I mentioned earlier that Plato calls gymnastics medicinal, and I asked whether it may be more than that. Another way of putting the question is to ask whether the body is merely instrumental to wisdom, or an integral part of the wisdom we seek?

Let the madness begin!

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This entry was posted in Mind, Philosophy, Plato, Sport, Yoga and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On the Body

  1. Cindy Boersma says:

    Very nice. I’m glad to be reminded of this lovely talk.

  2. Norm says:

    I’m always glad to be reminded about why I feel both smarter and more alive after a good workout.

  3. Hey Norm, It’s good to hear from you. Your comment nicely captures part of the experience I wanted to describe.

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