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Mindful Athleticism!

It wasn't until I was on vacation in Flint, Michigan with the completion of Heller's The Importance of Nietzsche and Mill's On Liberty in July 2002 that I decided an essay like this was long overdue.


Many articles have been written on the "mind in bodybuilding," but few approach it from a purely philosophical vantage point to advance the power of the mind for assisting in the athlete's goal for improving his or her physique or increasing performance.

Drawing a parallel between philosophy as an activity of the mind and bodybuilding as an activity of the body is an idea I have thought upon for quite some time. It wasn't until I was on vacation in Flint, Michigan with the completion of Heller's The Importance of Nietzsche and Mill's On Liberty in July 2002 that I decided an essay like this was long overdue.

Examples of the Philosophic Athlete in Training

The biblical figure St. Paul who was educated in philosophy and law before advancing his religious persuasion to convince others of it, likened himself as an athlete in physical training and enduring pain along the way to the goal saying, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone competes in the games goes into strict training … I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave …"

Philosophers are analogous to athletes in mental training while seeking to define and convince others of the aesthetic way of life saying, "If I cannot get further, this is because I have banged my head against the wall of language. Then, with my head bleeding, I withdraw. And want to go on." Wittgenstein similarly says: "Philosophy results in the discovery of one or another piece of simple nonsense, and in bruises which the understanding has suffered by bumping its head against the limits of language.

They, the bruises, make us see the value of that discovery." And likewise with Nietzsche's famous idea of the 'Superman' saying, "Caesar - with the heart of Christ!" Become a warrior and a conqueror, but be kind, considerate and truthful.

The Mind: Igniting the Spark!

There is much that philosophers and athletes understand regarding mental and physical training of the mind or of the body for enhancing the quality of life all together: Improved intelligence, increased performance, superior aesthetics, and above all self-worth.

Both philosophers and athletes pursue mental and physical extremism. Philosophers drive their minds to the border of insanity seeking to understand this chaotic world we call 'Life' and help discover meaning in it. Athletes push their bodies to the brink of cardio-respiratory or muscular collapse seeking to be the best and win the prize.

It may not be pleasurable to endure pain (more is said about the relationship between enduring pain and growth below) along the way but PAIN is the motivation of each stepping-stone of success! Philosophers subject the mind and athletes discipline the body to gain excellence and mastery over self for winning the love of life and extol this joy on others to experience the same!

Without the mind the body cannot function. To accomplish any goal in life the rendering of the mind ignites the spark of a specific quest and an unfailing plan to succeed that is fueled with a passionate devotion of self-worth, an unrelenting force within, and an obstinate desire that explodes!

We see, therefore, the parallel between philosophical thought and bodybuilding aesthetics for enhancing both these arts on the way to balanced perfection.

Making the Mind/Body Connection

The connection between physical fitness and philosophy is that first both are an aesthetic art of self and human worth - one of the body and the other of the mind. And second, they require the active engagement of the mind necessary for coordinating and improving both the mental and muscular functions to power the body!

Since physical training is more mind than muscle - at least 70% - for improving fitness or physical performance we then begin to understand that the mind is the most important "power" to engage.

Any athlete cannot improve his or her quality of muscle, strength or performance without first improving the quality of the mind. That is why there is, should be, distinct levels of "progressive" training routines to follow in accordance with the adaptation of the central nervous system's (CNS) learning capabilities and the growth of the mind. We get better at doing things through the habitual practice of them because our minds make a stronger connection to whatever we are trying to better coordinate.

Take for example karate. It is perhaps the most mental sport around. In achieving properly controlled movements of the body the student reaches a point called mind-body unity. The body is able to do what the mind tells it to. Any individual sport that uses one's mind and teaches self-confidence, discipline, and courage like bodybuilding, karate, tennis, gymnastics, etc. are just a few positive mental effects.

Regarding the relationship between the mental and muscular powers John Stuart Mill says, "[They] are improved only by being used" and "are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it."

If the grounds for exercise is "not conclusive to the person's own reason (a reason to exercise must be your own, not anyone else's), his or her reason cannot be strengthened, but is likely to be weakened, by adopting it (a reason other than one's own to exercise)." And if the inducement to exercise is not "to his or her own feelings (personal passion) … it is so much done toward rendering his or her feelings … inert and torpid instead of active and energetic."

We can draw an analogy from the quote above concerning well-meaning fitness enthusiasts wanting to become fit when in fact they do not because they:

    1. Lack personal passion
    2. Accept to be guided by reason other than their own
    3. Refuse an unfailing plan that is most appropriate for them

Whether a beginner for at least 6 weeks or someone training for years they still remain the same. I see them in the gym everyday. They walk around the gym like half-zombies refusing to devour their own passions and consume energies to ignite! When I do my cardio on the treadmill I tend to philosophize my training and the training of others.

I witness lifeless energy emitting from both the fit and the fat and spending not enough or too much time to clearly burn calories and boost energy after exercise! Why am I not getting bigger, losing fat or increasing energy? Ha! I've already answered this! Because you are "inert and torpid instead of active and energetic!" Movement is all too familiar to us! What?

People who have no plan or a plan chosen for them without question, Mill says, "Has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation." "Gorilla's speak to one another through … vocalizations including grunts, barks and hoots … The day is usually spent resting and socialization with other members of the troop" (italics mine). Doing what other members of the troop do in the gym or advice from fitness gurus in highly-publicized magazines is motionless and lazy imitation. This has become the norm of the "genius of the species" improving itself toward its own perfection!

Concerning the context in Mill's, On Liberty, of following the troop to conform to the approved standard and drawing parallels from footnotes 10 and 11 with regard to the previous paragraph above of imitation Mill brilliantly states, "Instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies, which therefore can be kept in outward conformity to rule without any strength either of will or of reason."

My 9-year-old son who has a 6th-grade reading level told me that he's a bad reader in the morning when I required an unaccustomed compulsory reading time to me from him in the morning. His reading wasn't as good as his usual evening reading time but after reading a predetermined number of pages I told him there is no such thing as a bad reader in the morning (just as there is no best time to workout, unless your energy requirement is below your intensity demand or output especially training in the morning), unless he puts it into his mind and says to himself that he is. The wisdom literature reminds us, "For as he thinks within himself, so he is."

The same is true with reading a "difficult" book when we want or don't want to. A difficult book becomes easier to understand when we continue reading it because our mind simply grows with it making a mind-to-mind connection with the author, granted that his or her writing style is not elusive to misinterpretation.

Enduring Pain and the Will to Advance Growth

We, true athletes, become relentless in desiring to achieve the perfect body. And as a result our ability to endure pain along the way to get there becomes a great sensation.

The body has a natural chemical it releases to control pain occurring like morphine-like substances called "endorphins." With endorphins released we can continue to train harder that make a difference in effecting change to our body! It is not the body that actually releases these endorphins it is the mind. In this respect the power of the mind cannot be underestimated in anything we set out to do or wish to accomplish. If the endorphins are not kicking in and you accept the challenge of the enduring pain in-spite-of mental and physical exhaustion you have just won the Will to turn on and advance your own growth! That's success!

Ask a woman in labor about to give birth and she'll tell you birthing involves excruciating pain. Schooling a child or educating an adult involves pain to increase knowledge in preparation for life's challenges. An athlete's training for a perfected physical state, likewise, involves the physical and mental threshold of pain and unrelenting sacrifice. A mother, an educated person or a winning athlete will acknowledge it was pain and sacrifice to get their just reward: the aesthetic pleasure of creating and advancing growth.

What good does it do for the mind and body to "lose one pound a day without dieting and exercising" (whether one can or can't doesn't matter because it is not my intention to refute diet claims in this article/essay)? Part of getting fit is the challenge and fun to put forth one's personal effort and face enduring pain to get there, not to sit on one's ASS! It is a great consciousness of being alive to pursue one's personal self-worth with the dignified effort of an over-pouring of blood, sweat and tears!

"Growing pains" are a necessary and ongoing experience throughout most people's life. Experiencing pain, learning from pain, dealing with it and courageously self-affirming life in-spite-of the negation of pain invites growth. Life's meaning is oddly found in life's negative experiences. For Nietzsche "it is wrong to speak of 'will to existence' or even of 'will to life'; one must speak of 'will to power,' i.e., to more life." The relationship between enduring pain and growth go hand-in-hand for the advancement of the human spirit.

Coordinating together the mental and physical powers whether in busiest* (see footnote 16), lazy or idle times one must "painfully endure" a philosophy of "mental exertion" and a body of "physical exertion" to re-construct or build a tough mind and strong body to ascend to a higher type of being (as Nietzsche would say) for more life in whatever we set out to do for ourselves and others that twice says "Yes to Life!"

Adopting a Mindful Athletic Lifestyle

In this article/essay I sought to show the parallels between living a philosophic and athletic lifestyle of the mind and of the body by including analogies, examples and footnotes for using the most powerful faculty we possess - the mind. Applying the energies of the mind FREES the athlete to truly re-construct the body for more muscle, less fat or increased energy rather being inert and torpid and enslaved! The end is a reward in itself: an enriching quality of life marked with each successful stepping stone that is motivating and exciting to live and share!

Recommended Reading on Nietzsche

For those interested in Nietzsche I first recommend his own autobiography entitled: Ecce Homo by Penguin Classics. My second recommendation is his Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ (combined as one book) by Penguin Classics. These (two) books were so good I bought them a second time around to read again! For commentary on Nietzsche's works these foremost Nietzschean scholars are recommended: Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.


1 I use this term loosely to denote any fitness enthusiast devoted to using both their mental and physical faculties for improving oneself, by thus, noticing a difference, either by self or others!
2 Heller, Erich, The Importance of Nietzsche, Ten Essays, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
3Mill, John, Stuart, On Liberty, Penguin Books, Ltd., 1974. On Liberty was originally written by Mill in 1859.
41 Corinthians 9:24-27, New International Version, Zondervan Publishers, 1986.
5 Quoted in Heller's, The Importance of Nietzsche, p. 152.
7Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power, Vintage Books, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann, 1968, p. 513, no. 983.
8It is ridiculous to think we ever reach physical and mental perfection, but we constantly strive to attain our idea of a perfected state because we are stubborn enough not to want it that is within our genetic potential and environmental means to improve our self-worth!
9 See my book, Reverse Pyramid Training and the Fifteen Rules for Building Lean Muscle Mass, Appendix V, ©1997-2002.
10On Liberty, "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-being," Chapter 3, pp. 122-23.
11Parenthesis and italics mine.
12On Liberty, p. 123.
13While visiting the Detroit Zoological Park on vacation in July 2002 I came across this inscription of the gorilla exhibitions and thought the same regarding most human beings!
14 On Liberty, p. 135. The next sentence reads, "There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country (England) except business." No wonder the madman proclaimed, "God is dead!" - Nietzsche
15 Proverbs 23:7, New American Standard, A.J. Hoffman Company, 1976.
16Two kinds of people are recognized by "having the least" that mistakenly enriches or screws up the quality of life for others. The first kind is the rich, who live *hurriedly for the sake of 'progressing' to possess more money than they can manage to make life "more comfortable" and anxiously seek to avoid enduring pain. The rich give to show "how kind and moral" they are, without regard to how they give. The second kind is the idlers. They have nothing better to do than talk, criticize and gossip about others to show how "entitled" they are to such and such of an opinion and demonstrate the 'sin par excellence' of the instincts! The rich, of course, can be placed in this second kind too. Both kinds of people are lazy and good-for-nothing's because they are apathetic to enriching the quality of their life. The rich and the idle worshippers recite to themselves "how great thou art!" But alas, the quality of one's life is by far dependent on the ideas we judge by and the ideas we act on. Mortimer J. Adler's Six Great Ideas (MacMillan Publishing, N.Y., 1981) and Aristotle's Ethics (Penguin Books) are two excellent books on philosophy of ethics.
17 Unfortunately, most people do not want to grow up and wish to remain as little children because maturity is painful and responsible. Pleasure to them is more important to hang on since it conversely is the "absence of pain." Maturity has little to do with age, but how well we live life.
18 Tillich, Paul, The Courage To Be, "Courage and Life: Nietzsche," Yale University Press,1952, p. 29.

Copyright © 2002 Randy M. Herring