MIND over BODY – The Metaphysics of Exercise/Dieting/Fasting.
Obesity is a major epidemic in the United States, considering more than 65% of American adults are either overweight or obese. For African Americans and Hispanics, the obesity rate is even higher, as they make up a majority of the lower class. This is a new phenomenon, considering the fact that in the earlier time periods, the obese people were usually the rich. Being fat was a sign of prestige and status, since only the people who had money ate well. In today’s industrialized society, food is cheap and abundant, and unhealthy foods are even cheaper and more accessible.
Weight loss or weight control is ultimately a battle between the mind and body, rationality and desire, and the physical and spiritual. People who attempt to lose weight through food control and physical exercises are displaying the moral and virtuous perfection of suppressing the primal and beastly urges of the body with their mind and reason. This notion of controlling the body through reason is a metaphysical and ontological notion celebrated throughout Western thought.
Philosophers like Plato, Descartes, Augustine and other moral and religious thinkers were dualists who believed in the mind/body dichotomy, where the body is conceptualized as the spatial, material, “extended thing”, while the mind/soul is the “thinking thing”. Through this partition between the physical and the mental/spiritual, the spirit is conceived to be ontologically superior. The goods, the moral, and the intellect are all on the side of the mental and spiritual, while the body is thought to be a confinement of freedom – a cave that houses the evil of wants, desires, impulses, and corruption. As a result, a part of the Western ideals is to praise and practice the mind-over-body control in order to transcend the soul over the body, the spiritual over the physical. The body is thought to house unnecessary desires and illusions such as hunger and sex, and has always been seen as inferior to the mind and the intellect, while needing to be disciplined, controlled, or even punished.
Plato stated that the body is a heavy object that holds us to the ground. That “as long as we have a body and our soul is fused with such evil we shall never adequately attain… The Truth….if we want to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body”. And that the heaviness of the body “drags” down the soul, inserting a gravitational pull that retrains and prevents the mind and the soul to a higher level of realization.
In ancient Greece, the word “asceticism”, which means elevation or ascension, as athletes learn to “punish” and “push” their bodies to free the spirits. In religious traditions, abstinence and fasting is usually practiced as a way to constrain and discipline the undesirable desires of one’s body to achieve transcendence and detach from the world so that their spirits and intellect elevate to unite with God. This idea of elevation – “lifting”, “floating”, “rising”, and “flying” ultimately drive one to pursuit a sense of “lightness” of the body. In another words, it makes people want to lose as much weight as they can in order to reduce their bodies to the point of complete detachment.
Perhaps, this deliberate pursuit of “lightness”, and the “detachment of the body”, and having the power to “control the body with the mind” has been passed on from classical Western thinking into the modernity. Teenagers, women, and men all over the world today are obsessed with losing weight because it makes them feel as if they are in “control” of their body. It makes them feel good “spiritually”, and to be recognized by others the “value” of being thin, light, or physically fit in society. To “lose weight” is to literally shred and dissolve away the heaviness of flesh and fat of the body that houses unwell desires and evils through will and rationality to unlock and ascend the mind that has been “held back”. Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia can be seen as the deliberate method to achieve the means to reach a moral perfection of “lightness” (thinness). “Lightness” can also be associated with a sense of beauty, elegance, agility in various types of sports and other art forms such as dance, gymnastics, and music.
Achieving weight-loss by exercising vigorously, eating “healthy”, and starving oneself through food control thus become a means for the mind to triumph over the body. To achieve the ideal freedom of the spirit that is caged by the body is through the controlling the desires and the corruptible will of flesh to obtain truth – a higher level of being and consciousness, where either the body is no longer relevant, and that the mind inserts its power, punishments, discipline, over the body. Ultimately, this goal leads one to abolish the body completely, to “kill it off” until he or she no longer needs to eat and support the body.
It’s interesting to note that the pleasure of achieving “lightness” is as much physiological as mental. Fasting and starving the body can trigger the secretion of adrenalin into the bloodstream, which in turn leads to the release of endokinins in the brain. The continued presence of endokinins ultimately leads to tranquilizing and euphoric effects and light-headed experiences. Likewise, running induces endorphin production in the brain to result in a “runner’s high”. And before I attempt a high vertical jump, my nervous system can be so fired up that I experience an “out of body” experience where I abandon the heaviness of my body and envision my consciousness to hover and float above the ground and to feel an extreme sense of “lightness”.
Asides from anorexia and other forms of fasting, another metaphysical form of dictating one’s body with the will of the mind is through physical training. Exercises such as weightlifting, running, and other systematic regime imposed on the body in order to find out how far they can push their bodies before collapsing and vomiting. This complete mastery of the body through discourses of punishment and disciplines require the athlete (a bodybuilder, perhaps) to have a clear mental conception of an idealized body, where the actual body becomes an instrument of experimentation that he can “artistically” and “scientifically” sculpt and mold. Many bodybuilders and weightlifters practice a form of visualization (or a virtual workout) as they keep a mental picture in their mind of what they want to look like in the future. They detach their minds from their current body and projecting it onto an idealized, future, and perfected body.
Ultimately, the very notion of transcending one’s soul to overcome the body in order to master and perfect it’s physicality, or the idea that the soul can “survive” the death of the body and endures through eternity holds the ground in our culture’s desire for youth and to “live forever” beyond death. People rush into the gym, eat organic foods, and purchase cosmetic products to keep their bodies smooth, strong, and muscular to fulfill the illusion of delaying or escaping the inevitable. Paradoxically, the art of having a total control over the body through the mind also encourages individuals (anorexia) to harm their bodies through malnutrition. The transcendental experience of “thinness”, “lightness” and the abolishment of the material body eventually leads one towards death itself.