Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Body as Ethical Compass

A good friend of mine wrote me today that he is restless and uncertain of the value of his work, both in terms of its immediate effect on his mental health and also its larger effects on society. In a complicated world in which effects of most everything seem divergent and diffuse, few have escaped these sorts of thoughts. They come to us most directly in the early afternoon lag, when the third cup of coffee has no more vital effect but instead sends our thoughts scattering out wildly. Mostly, however, we avoid pondering these imponderables and know them only as, say, a growing waistline or creeping insomnia or an endless distraction that cannot be shaken.

For these things, we need renewal. There are times when I marvel at nature's capacity for renewal: how many barrels of oil could there possibly be? How many cucumbers can this world provide? How is it possible that all the worlds forests have not yet been cut and processed into paper?

The body as natural object, delicate as it is, shares in this fertile power of renewal. Like the world, it can be abused thoughtlessly and yet still give without desire for gratitude. There is no need to describe the particularly gruesome forms of bodily abuse that are a natural effect of culture in the 21st century. The evidence, like the evidence of environmental abuse, is so ordinary that it is almost invisible.

But still -- and this is why I was always an afternoon runner -- there is so much that even a damaged body can give us. After exercise we are refreshed and centered. When we use our bodies they envelope us within a field of intimacy and causality that is an antidote to the restless dispersion of 21st century life. Deleuze called this dispersiveness a kind of schizoid flow, and in his analyses always pushed the questions of ethics as the question of channeling these flows. The body has a non-dispersive flow. Its rhythms are regular and can be learned like a musical instrument.

When we say "the body" we refer to a lush flow of experience that we are able to tap into, habituate, and if not control at least find a way to flow along with it. The joy of regular exercise and training is the joy of mastering a type of flow, of being able to turn it on and turn it off, of being able to ride its waters even as they rush.

Any attempt to thoroughly organize the body is an attempt to shut down its flows -- to kill it. There is always an animal side to exercise, a side that is beyond reflection or control. If we are lucky enough to have a healthy relationship with our body, we are able to find a way of interacting with it that is vital, playful, and beyond questions of control. We develop trust in it and with it, and the body becomes a constant and reliable companion.

To return to my friend's difficult imponderables: the body's critical power can be used not only to endure difficult life situations but also as an ethical compass of sorts. Those of us who know the intimacy of the body, the power of its vitality, and the freedom and joy it can give cannot help but use that knowledge as a counterpoint to a life frittered away in small things. A run in a well-trained body shows us what life can be.

Training the body does not make one ethical, as the endless scrutiny into the personal life of athletes reminds us. That said, the question of how we respond to the fullness of experience that athletics gives us is an ethical question that continues to challenge the athlete, long after his best running is done.
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