“Character can now be communicated to a prospective client or new employer by the relative fitness of one’s body. A lean, hardened body suggests discipline, control and personal responsibility. Great stamina suggests dedication. The qualities that a businessman admired – commitment, steadfastness and forbearance – are just as important today as they were a century ago. But now they are communicated differently. They are expressed through one’s physique. The interpretation of character is now a completely visual process.” – Ronald Dworkin, The Rise of the Imperial Self
True or false? Not the statement itself. Dworkin is dead on in how judgment is made. But is it true about the actual judgment? Does a fit looking body translate to dedication or steadfastness?
An interesting use of the words ‘relative fitness.’ If there is one thing anyone steeped in this Fitness Industrial Complex understands 100% is that what one looks like and what one actually is are not synonymous. Dworkin’s not wrong about the perception, but the perception itself might be inaccurate. The modern fitness industrial light and magic show is the perpetuation of that perception to sell product, without there being, in many (perhaps even most) cases, an actual correlation between a fit-looking body and real capability.
Nowhere in any substantial definition of fitness do the words “look better,” “ripped abs,” or “toned and defined” appear, yet these aesthetic quests make up for probably 90% of the Average Gym Members (AGMs) in the world. Since the premise of Dworkin’s statement above is true (and the fitness industry is so happy it is) then many folks want to appear powerful (and the fitness industry will gleefully sell that to you). Judging a book by the cover, perhaps, but it’s the quickest estimation of character we have. It may not be fair, but what else do you have to go on in the first few seconds of meeting someone?
Well, although the premise may be accurate, it shows a gross inaccuracy of character judgment. What may be initially perceived as dedication and forbearance may simply be narcissism or shallowness. Strength of character may correlate with strength of joints, muscle, spine and spirit, but rarely with just how pretty those muscles look.
These days it is easy to look the part without actually being the part
So the age-old correlation between aesthetic appeal and practical achievement is no longer entirely accurate (used to be, though), but the butt-whuppin’ drive it takes to conquer our fitness demons is the same piss and vinegar we need for all other obstacles in life. Though Dworkin discusses simple appearance and how it relates to impressions, that belief exists because it’s understood that by attaining a higher awareness of oneself through the mediums of intense movement and strength, the impressions of power, control and dedication won’t be superficial. When we witness high levels of power and fitness in the gym (or out), we witness people who don’t doubt their ability and set no limits on what they are capable of. That often correlates with other areas of their life (hopefully). Unfortunately, people believe that looking the part equates to being the part. Common gym experience will belay time and time again how untrue that is.
Who’s to blame for the emphasis of outer appearances? No one and everyone. “Blame” isn’t exactly the right word. Our bodies process information quickly through the senses, sight usually being the first. It takes more time and effort to incorporate deeper judgmental skills, to assess the worth of someone through achievement, ability, personality, etc., so our initial visual judgment holds until our minds process more information as we receive it. Since our initial perception is sensory based, it’s a direct link to all our other sensory judgments, like physical attraction, which can easily override the brain’s ability to create a fairer opinion based on more intrinsic and internal qualities. In other words, we can overlook a lot of personality flaws in physically beautiful people. Hence, the one night stand, or the long term, tumultuous relationship. Usually both are completely physically based, sometimes despite efforts to try to like or accept qualities about the other person that actually are very annoying or downright disagreeable. It’s easier (not better) for passion to exist from physical attraction – kickin’ bod, nice smell, seductive smile – then from more profound attractions, like wisdom, common dreams and ideas, sense of humor. And our ubiquitous media is the largest exploiter of this. Therefore relationships and desires are created in greater numbers from the physical world, though they’re often fickle, short lived and erroneous. The strongest relationships, though, might begin with the physical, but then incorporate the spirit.
Our strongest pinnacles of culture, be it artistic (musicians, painters, writers) or cognitive activists (philosophers, religious idealists, politicians), have become attractive to us through a deeper, more powerful lust – the lust of the mind and spirit. After initially hitting our senses, we found something inside of us that embraced them, which replied back to our senses to ask for more. Our senses then were a means to an end, not the final decision, with the ultimate choice being a fulfilling internal and eternal one. This is what we can become, and the tools needed for a true fitness lifestyle – dedication, focus and intensity – can be applied to all aspects of life. This is a definition of fitness: becoming better at life through movement. By improving the connection between body and mind we will make ourselves more useful, more inspiring, more “attractive” than just a pretty little flesh packet.
Incorporating the Spirit
“Spirit” often has religious or New-age connotations relating to foo-foo guru-ism or far-out fanaticism. Spirit, though, may be simply thought of as the untouchable, non-physical aspect of what drives our flesh packets. Fitness, then, is beyond physical. When our bodies, which house the ethereal essentials as well as the solid vitals, transcend the menial task of just holding everything together (in other words, when your body is fully alive) only then does the wall between flesh and spirit lower. Intensity, the quasi-tangible prerequisite for accomplishment, helps bridge the gap between body and soul. When we are pushed to the limits – intense pain, intense pleasure, intense terror, intense joy – concrete “goods” and “bads” fall on their foundations. Inner strength, sense of being, those obvious times when the spirit steps in to run the show, usually can be traced to a sensational intensity. We push our limits – physical, sexual, artistic, sensational – with a primal, subconscious desire to accomplish the incorporation of the spirit. But often the mind/body/spirit merger isn’t completed, so steeped are we in just the physical, so content with our insecurities. We pull a “let’s-just-be-friends” with our spirits, achieving only rare and brief samples of our potential in dreams, inspirations and epiphanies. We’re too secure in our insecurities to accept the spirit through the threshold we often create for it.
Since intensity is a key to acknowledgment of the spirit, our workouts can make pretty strong bridges inward. This isn’t to say that our training should be nothing but a self-actualizing quest. Heck, where’s the fun in that? But applying respect and appreciation for the art and science of movement will fulfill deeper needs than the constant struggle to look better. Let’s face it. By following the three basics – train hard, eat well, rest hard – you’re going to look better. It’s a required by-product. When that focus dominates a workout, though, the accomplishment is rather shallow, a minor victory in your grand scheme.
Inspiration and celebration for life
We need basic functions and actions to provide ourselves with the ability to transcend basic functions and actions. We wake up, brush our teeth, pretty-up ourselves, dress and eat before we attack the greater tasks of creating, accomplishing and providing. Though your protocol might not match the exact pattern above, we all have routines to move us through the day so we can focus and function better on more important tasks. Routines are thoughtless actions that meet basal requirements. Routines do not offer inspiration or purpose beyond our most simple needs. Routines, albeit necessary, are droll. Plain and simple.
Fitness goals are more often vague hopes than thought-out plans. Most folks in the gym “will know when they get there,” which is to say they don’t have measured steps and progressions that can be manipulated to ensure progress. Fitness goals are rarely about life enhancement (unfortunately) and have more to do with simple, often erroneous or obsessive, aesthetic goals (which actually negates them having anything to do with “fitness”).
Movement, especially in extreme forms, is an open spectacle, an individual parade for existence. The ability to overcome very real and physical obstacles, be it in the form of several hundred pounds lifted off your body or conquering new terrain on a cardiovascular journey, should never be a routine. Let’s not take motion for granted.
When asked “how do we live spiritually?’ Joseph Campbell replied, “In ancient times, that was what ritual was for. A ritual can be defined as the enactment of a myth. By participating in a ritual, you are actually experiencing a mythological life. And it’s out of this participation that one can learn to live spiritually”
When conscious thought or meaning is applied to a movement or task to invoke a greater good, then it is a ritual. When considering what Dworkin wrote, instead of gaining the appearance of power and discipline, why not actually BE powerful and disciplined?
“People create images of themselves in the world and guide their action according to such images. The images are not only myths that capture the meaning of past experiences but lead to anticipation of future events.” – N. Fredman and R. Sherwood, Handbook of Structured Techniques in Marriage and Family Therapy
The meaning of myth in ritual is not folklore, or storyteller’s fantasy, but the correlating metaphoric representation of a very real emotion, aspect or quality in life. With ritual within a workout, a lift cannot only be a literal display of power, but can be representative of power in other aspects of life, a very real myth of power. Much of the fitness literature out there makes wonderful, if not oblique, claims of self-empowerment, stress relief or ability to deal with stress better, esteem building, and the overcoming of many non-physical obstacles. But these aren’t just automatic byproducts of fitness. Unless some cognitive effort is made not to take physical ability for granted, these potential qualities are wasted. Obligatory fitness, which is fitness under duress of guilt, usually stemming from erroneous pressures of physical ideals, will not meet any of the above claims. Obligatory fitness makes up for that giant dessert from last night, or a weekend of bingeing. It is fitness without ritual, fitness without passion. It yields little true gain and satisfies daily guilt, not any actual goal.
Okay, so now what?
“To derive power from a ritual it must, in some way, stand apart from our ordinary lives. It is not uncommon for us to have so much of our energy and attention directed towards our daily routines and our goals that our focus becomes narrowed. We may even have become preoccupied with our doubts, our fears, or our pain. These things can isolate us. We may lose connection with the rhythm in our lives and the passage that we share as human beings on the planet. This is what the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger called a state of ‘forgetfulness of being.’” – Renee Beck and Sydney Metrick, The Art of Ritual
A common and easy way to dwell in the “forgetfulness of being” is to live in routine. Now routines can have an acceptable, if not required, place in survival as mentioned earlier. But a routine will never produce progress, routine will never breed inspiration. By being self-aware, and “conscious of being the creative composer of one’s own life” (Beck), we achieve the condition of “mindfulness of being.” We can take a little responsibility, using our workout as one of many possible vehicles, and choose to be aware of our movements and action, maybe even using a little metaphor or fantasy to shift the focus from the micro process (sets, reps, mechanics) and view its place in the macro process (being better at life). If we view our workouts as ceremonies of intensity and commitment and apply them to an organized set of cyclic goals, from baby steps to the grand scheme o’ things, the workout can become a ritual, not just a routine.
Even famed malignant Englishman Alister Crowley wrote “magick is the art and science of making change occur according to will.” If our true will is simply droppin’ some fat to satisfy a scale, then we should be damned to a life of obligatory fitness. If our workouts are rituals of the celebration of movement, ability, and therefore life, we’re pretty magickal.