Friday, June 10, 2011

All the King's Esquires

A friend of mine who is an agnostic once said she was aware that there was something that was "her" that was beyond her actual brain, emotions, sensory perceptions or behavior.    This part of her received the input from these sources and was influenced by it -- but it was something distinct, she felt.  It could decide what to pay attention to.   "It's not a soul," she said, disliking the idea of Christian doctrine slipping into it.  I am not sure if she thought it was an immaterial thing, something that went beyond organic function.   I am not sure if she would have agreed with Aristotle's idea of the vegetative, sentient and rational soul.    The rational soul incorporates the vegetative and sentient but goes beyond them to intellective cognition (concepts and chains of reasoning)  and intellective appetite(will, joy).   But when I read about Aristotle's idea, I remembered how she had described this "her" that seemed more than just a composite of physiological parts.

Why am I thinking about this?  I think because I decided that Friday was to be Fitness Friday but when I really think about it, fitness comes from the inside.  I don't mean that you can just sit around thinking and you will be fit, or that to be physically fit requires psychoanalysis or navel-gazing.   In fact, I think that I usually make behavior changes most effectively when I actually try to change the behavior (duh, right?), not when I sit around thinking about it!

However, in my experience I don't resolve on changes and actually work them into my life until I've gotten all the interior "troops" rallied on my side.  Some of them may not entirely jump for joy -- there are parts of my interior that don't really want to stick to a somewhat arbitrary schedule and goals.   But I do way better if those forces are at least willing to go along.   There's a part of my intellect that tries to trump the more balky, non-verbal part.    But will is "intellectual APPETITE".  I have to have my inner self on-board with what my reason tells me to do, or somehow I will be sabotaged in what I try to do. 

What this adds up to in real life is that when I want to do something -- make a change --  there is probably something resisting, or I wouldn't have to make the change in the first place.  For example, I already eat when I'm hungry.   I don't seem to have anything that blocks me from going into the kitchen and grabbing myself some food.   There are other things that come relatively easily to me.    I don't have to struggle with myself to go to Mass every week.   I have built up a habit at this point.  Aristotle says that good habits are things done with ease and fluency from repeated practice.    Habitus resides inside and is the fluency in doing the thing -- for example, even when I am not actually reading or writing, I have a facility in reading and writing, so I have a "habit".   And there are no real blocks in me that resist reading and writing (don't ask about the difficulty in pulling away from reading and writing, sometimes). 

Suppose now that I have writer's block.   Perhaps I have the ability to write fluently, I once wrote freely, but for some reason, something inside is resisting.   So I don't write.  It feels like I "can't" write, even though I retain the mechanical ability to write and the communicative skills I had previously.   But something is blocking me.

When that happens, what I experience is that the interior forces aren't rallied.   There are times when it works to just force your way past the resistance.  I think this works better if you are choleric or if you are undertaking a relatively mechanical project.   Plato said

..a freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.
Whenever we are talking about development of true virtue in habit, we are talking about something to do with the mind, because traditionally, virtue has been thought of as something to do with our rational nature.    In that way, it seems somewhat comparable to knowledge to me.    The etymology of virtue derives from "man" and secondarily, "strength".    Our strength is a human strength and will be by definition intellectual, as we are.  Animals aren't virtuous -- they seek goodness by instinct, without having to deliberate.   Our flying squirrels have an indescribable kind of natural wholesomeness.   They don't find themselves in moral dilemmas -- they work unreflectively towards self-preservation, the good of their species, and indirectly towards the good of the natural ecology (by providing food for predators, etc).     It's good, but it is categorically different from the goodness of humans.  Chesterton says we tell a man "Be a man!" but we don't tell a crocodile "Be a crocodile!"

So to try to pull this together -- when I'm trying to really change, it is a decision made by my soul, whatever is in me that takes all the different sensations, impulses and thoughts and pulls them together into right action.

Perhaps by now, when I'm talking about different "voices" or aspects of myself at war, it sounds like I am Gollum/Smeagol or something.   My preciouss.... we don't like nasty fitnessss programsss, does we!  That could be the case, but I think it probably goes beyond split personalities into a real part of human nature that we try to find language for that ends up being analogical and limited, since after all there is an immaterial aspect that can only be described by analogy.   Freud talks about subconscious, id and superego.   This seems to have some symbolic plausibility to it but in my opinion the analogy has become biased towards error by the way he and others used it.   Nowadays psychologists talk about right-brain (non-verbal, visual/spatial, emotional, big-picture) and left-brain (linear/sequential, verbal and analytical).   This is more neutral terminology, but still doesn't seem to sum it up since, as my friend said, there still seems to be a "me" who receives the input from the hemispheres (or whatever) and decides what to do with it.   Or you could talk about the Felix and Oscar sides of your personality.   But basically, there are messages coming from different parts of yourself and you want to integrate them effectively and "humanely", meaning that you want to treat yourself like a human being made in the image of God, not like a child or slave or pig. 

Personally when it comes to analogies I rather like Charlotte Mason's "parable of the Mansoul"  because it acknowledges that it is a parable, which gives you more freedom not to let the allegory pull your thinking off course or bring in a lot of extra baggage, which is what I don't like about Freud or even the left-brain/right-brain concept.    You could end up with a reductionist concept with those, because you don't have a real self acknowledged explicitly in that terminology.  With a frankly poetic analogy you are freed to acknowledge mystery and the vast amount we don't yet know about human psychology.

I admit I didn't like the analogy of an interior kingdom very much at first reading quite a few years ago-- it sounded strained and fanciful to me and I was hungry for science and simplicity  -- but the more I think about it, the more I realize why Charlotte Mason explained it this way.

So the basic point is that I am realizing now that "fitness" incorporates more than just a toned body.   Plato says that forced exercise does no harm to the body.   Those who are basically fit and qualify for military training can go through boot camp and it improves their fitness.   However, not all those who have gone through boot camp stay fit for their whole lives.  Some do, and others don't.  So I'm judging that to be truly fit you have to have an interior state that works outward towards your body.  The exercise alone only does it as long as someone is making you exercise. 

When I first started trying to exercise regularly again, a few years ago, I hated to exercise.  I would plan to do it and just not do it.  When I examined WHY I realized that (1) I didn't REALLY think it was a top priority compared to cuddling my babies, getting the house fairly clean, and having time to read and write.  Those were top priorities.  And (2) I was intimidated by the idea of having to exercise 45 minutes a day, which was what I had read was the minimum.  Also, I didn't want to sweat because I have eczema and my sweat aggravates it, and I thought you had to get breathless in order to have an effective workout, and I got anxious when I was out of breath.  So I didn't exercise regularly.  I regularly planned to, and sometimes started, but I never kept it up. 

What changed:  (1) I didn't have babies anymore and (2) I researched and found out the absolute minimum that would help me avoid health problems in later life (3) I was getting older and to the age where health problems can be caused by lack of fitness.    I also found that you didn't have to sweat copiously or be breathless for a long time in order to get sufficient exercise, that in fact being breathless means you are building up lactic acid and not getting aerobic conditioning, and that 20 X 5 minutes per week was enough to make a difference.

When my interior Prime Minister was able to listen to the interior Lords and Esquires and hear their counsel and make thoughtful decisions accordingly (much as St Benedict describes in his rule in regard to the abbott taking counsel with the monks, and even listening to the most junior of them) then I could actually make some changes rather than just wishing to and beating myself up because I couldn't.  I regret not having the babies around.  I think if I was back in the baby years I still would probably put formal exercise in a lower priority bracket than the other things, because I don't regret reading and writing and cuddling.  Maybe I would put the little person in a sling and walk the floor for 20 minutes though, now that I know that is enough to do some good!   Different people might make different decisions in this regard, and that seems like proper administration of our individual interior Kingdoms -- decisions are worked out in a unique context, what is great for Switzerland might not be the best for Japan. 

The King over the Prime Minister, of course, is God -- or perhaps we are the Regents in our souls and He is the Emperor as CS Lewis would have it.  Anyway, He's the one who is ultimately in command, and I am responsible to Him.   But He seems to let me have a lot of discretion -- I think He wants me to invest my whole self in serving Him, not just follow a checklist.  He does provide guidance and has given me Laws which are non-negotiable, but this is to preserve the interior kingdom from fire, flood, plague, famine and enemy invasion, as Charlotte Mason says.

So there, now I have gotten out what I am thinking about with regard to fitness.  The Greeks called the mind/body healthy composite "holos" which implies integrity, thinking of the body/soul/mind as all working together rather than warring and competing.   That seems like quite a good thing to work towards and pray for.    A priest once remarked in his homily that the Hebrew word "Shalom" has a similar meaning and when we say "Peace be with you" at Mass, we are wishing this wholeness on each other. So considering all that, though I want to be physically fit and healthy, this is really only desirable to me in the context of everything working together as a unified whole!


  1. I relate very closely to your descriptions. We must be kindred spirits. :)

    For the last year it's been about a 3 month cycle of doing the plan, not doing the plan, working up the gumption to get into it again, and then struggling to begin again. I'm in the struggling to begin again phase right now.

    So how does fitness become more a part of the whole person? I have been trying to work myself up to that point where I see it, and I feel like I catch glimpses of it but can't quite get there.

    Part of the dilemma is that the length I have to go to to lose weight past my current plateau is significantly different from what I have to do to maintain. Maintaining where I am would be simple and enjoyable, and I still struggle internally with whether or not it's worth it to get myself down to the next level, when I am comfortable where I am. When I analyze it and apply my reason, I am sure another 10-15 pounds or another size down is ideal -- not skinny, still substantial (as fits with my build), but finally in the healthy BMI range and within 10 pounds of where I was before babies. But all the other "counselors" like to question that conclusion and so my motivation suffers.

    I hate running, but I've never gotten such quick and startling results from anything I've ever done before, but after the first go at it (where I got to week 7 of 9) I've never been able to keep it up again past the second week.

    This week I decided to make a more bite-sized goal and set a deadline. 5 pounds in 7 weeks. That would get me past the point I haven't been able to break yet, and 7 weeks is our tenth anniversary, so it gives me a nice fixed point to focus on.

  2. Hi Mystie, I like the idea of setting modest goals. That reminds me of Charlotte Mason's short lessons. When you can see an end to something and a way to make progress, sometimes it reassures your inner esquires.

    It is interesting that you mention 3 month cycles because I seem to operate that way too. I've always wondered whether I should go with it or try to resist it (my king's counselor seems to dither like Hamlet sometimes). When I wrote the chapter for A Little Way of Homeschooling, I wrote about "seasonal schooling" but I think I am seasonal about almost everything!

  3. "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth."

    I like to walk and add a sprint or two during my walk. Gets my heartrate up quickly and then going back to a walk trains it to recover quickly.

    Also, Mike and I have been going to place that teaches ballroom dancing. Twice a week they have an hour-long introductory lesson of one dance follwed by two hours of social dancing -- we've gone to three so far: swing, waltz, and foxtrot. We're beginning a six-week class of swing dance at the end of the month.

    I've found that short periods of intense activity followed by longer periods of low-key activity work best for me. I have asthma so I'm guessing that's why I've never been able to manage a long spell of moderate activity, like what's generally recommended for aerobics.

    On lactic acid buildup -- when you sprint just until you're out of breath, then walk two or three minutes till your heartrate and breathing have recovered you don't have the problem of l.a. buildup.

    What I have read will happen though, is that your body will get the message that excess fat is a hinderance and it'll cause you to burn it off. On the other hand, longer spells of moderate activity (like jogging for half an hour at a rate where you're still able to carry on a conversation) will tell your body that you need to maintain plenty of stored energy for that activity, which is why joggers tend to put on weight pretty quickly when they quit running for some reason -- or so the theory goes.

  4. Hi Kelly,
    Interesting, especially on interval training. Most of my bike settings are programmed for that on/off type rhythm. I can handle it as long as I'm not building up too much cumulative pain.

    I think ballroom dancing is a fantastic way to be active without having to think of "exercise". My daughter and the young gentleman who is courting her have a custom of dancing a couple of times a week. It is beautiful and dignified and teaches grace of motion, which I understand was an important element of "gymnastic" to Plato and to Charlotte Mason, for example.

    I haven't figure out a way to do weight-lifting gracefully though using relatively light weights and doing slow movements helps a bit.

  5. For weight lifting -- hang all your laundry on a clothes line and fold it as you're taking it down. ;-)

    Most of my "exercise" is that kind of thing, plus yardwork -- especially pruning shrubs and pulling honeysuckle out of everything. LOL


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!