On Mind and Matter: Harnessing the power of philosophy for major health and performance gains (plus abs, of course)
One might not initially think that philosophy and psychology have a lot to do with your body’s health and fitness but a deeper inquiry should convince you otherwise. After all, you think on some level before you act so the content of those thoughts should have some influence over the results of your action – whether you are making a decision at work, in a relationship, or in the gym.
Following one of my favorite methods of narrowing topics or fields down to the 5 most essential concepts, I’d like to cover the essentials of a philosophy known as Stoicism. Widely regarded as one of the dominant philosophies shaping our military – it is a dominant force in developing the mind-set of a warrior. Life can be a battlefield so we are all warriors on some level.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that offers powerful tools that can help us direct our thoughts and actions in an ever-increasing world of complexity. It recognizes that we can’t always control external events but that we can control our mind and choose our response. Between stimulus and response lies choice. Stoicism was founded by the Greek Zeno in 301 BC and was regarded as the philosophy of the street back then as it focused on the practical needs men had in dealing with the world around them. This was in contrast to his contemporaries, Socrates and Plato, who seemed content to pontificate on endless abstractions and dream of a perfect world of forms floating off in some other reality. Stoicism itself was a philosophy focused on living on Earth.
In psychology, Stoicism is the foundation of the Cognitive Behaviorists (William Irvine, Ryan Holiday). The principle source of its teachings comes from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), but Seneca (a statesman) and Epictetus (a slave) were also major thinkers. If a philosophy could be championed by both an Emperor and a slave then it must have universal applicability. In its essentials it can help us have a calm and rational mind – regardless of what happens to us – and help us understand and focus on what we can control (and not worrying about what we cannot).
My Big FIVE takeaway tenents include:
ONE: Live in agreement with human nature. Aristotle defined man as the rational animal. Living in agreement with our nature means that we must use our conceptual consciousness to the highest degree open to each of us. Yes, our emotions are there and can be helpful in “thinking fast and slow” situations, and can be wonderful to feel when they are positive, but our emotions are simply reflex feelings that arise from preformed value judgements. If you work hard on developing your mind over time you will gain control over your emotions. Gym Rat takeaway – don’t neglect training your mind there Beefcake. After all, to train successfully for performance over a long period of time actually takes a lot of knowledge and reason.
TWO: Focus on happiness (Eudymonia in Greek) and know that being happy, also known as living the good life, requires practicing Virtue. This virtue has nothing to do with religious teachings. If there are parallels that are noticed between the virtues of stoicism and the virtues of any of the religions it is simply due to the fact that we are dealing with the same entity – humans. I have always found it an interesting fact of etymology that the root of “Virtue” is the Latin “Vir.” This word is also the root of man and many masculine related words such as virility. So to be virtuous in its original meaning was simply to be a man. Man-up.
Donald Robertson said it well in his book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness:“The philosophical conclusion that the chief good, the most important thing in life, must necessarily be ‘up to us’ and under our direct control is at once the toughest and most appealing aspect of Stoicism. It makes us completely and utterly responsible for the single most important thing in life, depriving us of any excuses for not flourishing and attaining the best possible life, because this is always within our grasp.”
“To a Stoic, it ultimately does not matter if we think the Logos is God or Nature, as long as we recognize that a decent human life is about the cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people (and even for Nature itself) and is best enjoyed by way of a proper – but not fanatical – detachment from mere worldly goods.” – Massimo Pigliucci
True beauty lies in the excellence of our mind and character and not in our physical appearance. Epictetus says we should aim to “beautify that which is our true nature – the reason, its judgements, its activities.”
Gym Rat Takeaway – Don’t just strive to look like a superhero – actually BE a superhero. And you can’t be that without character. And character is the road to true happiness.
THREE: Be a person of action. Have a bias toward action. Earn the good life by taking the right action. Practice calm action in the face of adversity. Study phobologos. “Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war.” -Seneca. Gym Rat Takeaway: We all have fears such as growing old, losing abilities, even dying. But the best way to deal with those is in the realm of action. Once you learn that a course of action is correct (such is sticking with a diet or specific training regiment) then you MUST act. Get in there and take it head on. As Papa Roach says – F.E.A.R. Face Everything and Rise.
FOUR: Practice Mindfulness. Practice the art of acquiescence – accepting rather than fighting every little thing that runs counter to your conscience. Pain does occur in many forms in life. But not accepting pain (particularly if you have earned it) when it occurs is what leads to suffering. So suffering is within our power to eliminate.
Ryan Holiday added in his book The Daily Stoic:“And the most practiced Stoics take it a step further. Instead of simply accepting what happens, they urge us to actually enjoy what has happened – whatever it is. Nietzsche, many centuries later, coined the perfect expression to capture this idea: amor fati (a love of fate). It’s not just accepting, it’s loving everything that happens.”
Not accepting pain is suffering Accept pain when it must happen, when you have earned it, or when you can do nothing about it. Gym Rat Takeway: Training hard is uncomfortable but its just momentary pain, not suffering. It’s not a big deal. Push yourself everyday and the progress will come. It won’t come every day though – and that’s ok.
As an aside I can’t help quoting one more famous philosopher, the enduring Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” For Yoda, pain does not belong to the dark side-only suffering.
FIVE: Always do your best. Turn obstacles into opportunities. “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” – Marcus Aurelius The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
“Always do your best” also appears in the Four Agreements, along with:
Be impeccable with your word
Don’t take anything personally
Don’t make Assumptions
By the way, this is a short read and is a book that has some profound insights into some common sense stuff that we often look over or take for granted in today’s age. Gym Rat Takeaway: Your diet, training, supplementation, and recovery doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t beat yourself up kid. As long as you are doing your best that all that matters.
To sum up these FIVE – Think, Be a good dude or dudette, Have a bias toward action, Be mindful, and Always do your best.
Now let’s take a random walk down the street of Stoicism for a little trivia:
Stoic principles have found their way into accepted popular wisdom, as goals to which we should aspire–as in the Serenity Prayer of Twelve Step programs. Originally a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr that appeared in a 1944 work entitled “A Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces.” – so there is your military tie-in. It essential states: God give me the grace to serenely accept those things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Some of my favorite random quotes that are “Stoic” in nature:
Better to die resisting than to live submitting. –Pericles
Come back with your shield or on it – Spartan saying
There are some conditions under which life is not worth living –Aristotle
And of course….
My job is to fight – and win or die. There will be no running. OK, that’s my own saying and it is why I guess philosophically I hate long-distance running. I would prefer to focus on speed and power (to be able to catch what I’m after rather than run forever from the enemy).
Perhaps this Stoic Philosophy explains why on some level many warriors of ancient and modern days wished a glorious death. In other words, to die for a cause. Which would mean to have a life of consequence. We see this in our culture’s favorite super-hero movies right? To willingly risk all to save what we value. There is nothing worse than living a long life of no consequence. Henry David Thoreau would state: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Let us not be most men or women.
The ideal then is to live a life of consequence and, if it is possible, a long life of consequence. And in the end – to Die Proud and “drift quietly down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers” (George Washington).
Even the poem, revered by many a special operator, by Tecumseh showed that even he was a stoic.
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
~ Chief Tecumseh (Shawnee)