By Matthew Allen Newland, PhD (c)
The following is somewhat autobiographical, but describes my coming to realize the importance of “wholeness” in the concept of health. Growing up in a religious home, I always heard a lot about the soul, the state of which was a prime concern of my mother's. Granted, we talked about the resurrection of the dead, etc., but the soul dying, leaving the body behind, and going to heaven was the real belief, if one considers things as they were really imagined. The body was just a shell; what really mattered lay hidden inside, and caring for the body was secondary to that.
Though I am (and I realize the irony) intellectually aware of this mistake, I continue to grapple with old habits which have a real effect on my life. I am both a teacher and a student, and as a result spend most of my time either at the computer or in ach air. My work and studies preoccupy my mind, but my body is often neglected. Of course, one might ask why it matters; my work requires that my mind function well, not my body, right? (Even my role as a parent doesn't seem to hinge on anything but the most basic physical abilities; I drove my kids to the swimming pool, and am at this very moment writing this text on a bench by the poolside ... sitting again). I trim my nails, wash my hair, and eat when I'm hungry; why isn't this good enough?
Luckily Plato and my studies have set me straight. Plato makes the health of the body a prime point of focus in the Republic (the very book I am writing my doctoral thesis on). Specifically, Plato tells us (via Socrates) that
The man who makes the finest mixture of gymnastic with music and brings them to his soul in the most proper measure is the one of whom we would most correctly say that he is the most perfectly musical and well harmonized.
Plato recognizes the individual who exercises both her or his body and her or his mind as someone who is harmonized, well-cultured, and educated; a prime example of humanity, in other words. Plato was especially concerned with exercise and gymnastics, as they had great potential to add to the formation of good citizens. Through working and playing together, citizens could strengthen their friendships, learn to trust and rely on one another, and cultivate a spirit of teamwork that would aid them in all aspects of life. It is Plato’s understanding that the individual’s purpose is to serve society and play a particular, unique role (each according to her or his talents and capabilities), ensuring the fitness of the body to do that role. In that case, getting along with those others with whom I share citizenship, makes sense; as long as I live in society, this aspect of life needs to be cultivated.
On the other hand, if my job is to teach, should going to the gym (or at least having a regular workout routine) really be that essential? My job is not physically demanding after all. My studies would not let the mater go; my look at Plato’s Republicand the tripartite soul sent me to look at more present-day understandings of the human mind and body: Paul MacLean's triune brain (his parallels with Plato’s parts of the tripartite soul are striking) and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who not only emphasizes the brain’s links with the body (for it is an organ of the body, after all), but reminds us that neural activity does not exist isolated on its own. To function, the mind depends on stimuli taken in from the nerves, from one's physical and socio-cultural environments and the body's actions on those environments. Damasio says: “I am saying that the body contributes more than life support and modulatory effects to the brain. It contributes a content that is part and parcel of the workings of a normal mind.” Indeed, soul and body were not the separate things I'd been led to believe growing up!
Aiming to supplement and contrast my investigation into the mind-body relationship with an alternative perspective, my studies in Asian philosophical viewpoints led me to a fascinating insight from Fritjof Capra in his 1975 book, The Tao of Physics. My old idea of the mind-body distinction, it would seem, owes something to Rene Descartes, whose thought had a major impact on the scientific worldview on which the West has built its understanding of the world. In its effort to understand reality, I learned, the West has taken it apart. It has analyzed the components, but forgotten to see them as parts of a larger, single whole:
As a consequence of the Cartesian division, most individuals are aware of themselves as isolated egos existing ‘inside’ their bodies. The mind has been separated from the body and given the futile task of controlling it, thus causing an apparent conflict between the conscious will and the involuntary instincts.
This Cartesian separation has put us at odds not only with our own bodies, but with the world in which we live as well. “This inner fragmentation of man,” he goes on, mirrors his view of the world ‘outside’ which is seen as a multitude of separate objects and events.” It has turned the world into a collection of objects, rendered the environment ripe for exploitation, and has separated us from our bodies as well. Capra sees this as a major flaw in the Western understanding, and so long as these distinctions remain it will always be incomplete (something I think the author of the Republic would certainly agree with).
Capra’s understanding that wholeness is an essential part of accurately understanding reality is reflected in the writings of other physicists, who are now working to unify our understanding of the world as a single whole. David Bohm also saw a divided, selfish world arising from the old Cartesian understanding, but also saw the potential for something new and better to follow from the acceptance of the quantum understanding of reality. While Western scientific successes allowed the Cartesian worldview to endure for several centuries,, human beings have “always been seeking wholeness – mental, physical, social, individual.” From the twentieth century on, quantum physics has specifically sought a wholeness which unites the whole universe into a single event. Bohm, like the Greeks long before him, sees a clear connection between the concepts of wholeness and health: “To be healthy is to be whole.” Of late humankind (at least in the West) has been living in fragmentation, but this has sadly not allowed for a truly well-lived life.
Early on I mentioned that I continue to grapple with old habits, and now find myself in the interesting position of knowing intellectual what I am not yet regularly putting into practice physically (thus making me a living example of this aforementioned fragmentation). I know a physically active life is best, not only for my body, but for every aspect of my being. I realize that mind and body are really one; they are all connected, and are all aspects of a single, united being (that’s me). And having realized this, and understanding that every facet of my life would benefit from a more physically active lifestyle, I know the time has come to get started.
Luckily for me, I went to school with the Fitness Philosopher.
It’s time to give him a call.
Matthew Allen Newland, PhD Candidate
Faculty of Philosophy
Dominican University College
Bohm, D. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. New York, NY: Routledge Classics. 2002. Originally published in 1980.
Capra, F. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (Revised 2000 edition). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2000. Originally published in 1975.
Damasio, A. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005. Originally published 1994.
Plato. The Republic. A. Bloom, trans. New York, NY: HarperCollins Basic Books. 1991, translation originally published 1961.