I am anxious that this post might be wasted. You see, I am working as a fitness trainer right now, and I’m following this path down whatever road it might lead me — hopefully to a state of financial independence, freedom and fulfillment. In spite of the fact that these hopes have been sparked in me by choosing to come back to fitness, nagging thoughts have been pressing at me constantly.
What are they? Every day that I get done with my clients, I am forced to reflect on where I’m at and what I’m doing. I find something very pressing and insidious staring me in the face. It’s this terribly deep need that I have to express and entertain complex thoughts, to describe experience and its patterns by means of these thoughts, and to uncover these shining gems of truth from the psychological dirt in which they are buried — to polish and set something articulate and formed and decided from the self-devouring internal chaos that I’m always struggling to cope with. And yet, in spite of the fact that I feel the guilt of existence right now — why can’t I be a writer, for instance, or a psychologist, and not a fitness trainer? — it is awesome to me to see the way in which fitness somehow promises, at this point, to bring some of these seemingly disparate threads together. The door is opened with a single insight: since I was very young, physical exercise has been one of the most potent ways in which I’ve dealt with the basic situation of my own anxiety.
In the modern, Western world, we have fallen into the terribly unfortunate misconception that anxiety is a “psychological disorder.” An overabundance of it can perhaps be seen accurately in this way, but there is a far more fundamental, existential significance to anxiety. Anxiety is, according to Heidegger, the “fundamental human mood.” Freud describes it further as the “currency for all affect,” while Lacan says that it is the single feeling that “does not lie.” So what might all of this mean, and in particular, with respect to exercise?
Anxiety, if I can add anything to the list, is rooted in the fundamental fact of the ambiguity of human existence. We enter the world unformed. By the time we are able to reflect, we find that the form our lives has taken is not something that we chose initially, but it requires us to make a choice, to take a stance on the meaning of who we are as individuals and the life-worlds we inhabit. Though so much is chosen for us ahead of time, we find ourselves incapable, in so many ways, of escaping the need to decide. We are forced to make choices. What will we choose?
That question can be resolved into the question of what it is that drives us. Everyone of us experiences within us a longing for a nameless greatness that we can’t fully fathom or describe. What we desire when we catch ourselves desiring in this way, at bottom, is transformation — to be pulled outside of ourselves and into something or someone that promises to fulfill that deep and terrible need. Think of how you feel when you first begin falling in love with someone, or the sense you get when you look up at the stars and realize that there are more of them than your senses and mind can possibly grasp. Then, think of what it feels like to look in the mirror at yourself, and to be unhappy with what you see — or think of what it feels like to be painfully conscious of the fact that you are alone. How are these two kinds of experiences, related in two different examples a piece, at all related? All of them point to a singular, basic fact about what it means to be human: we are somehow capable of knowing and feeling the infinite, of touching and grasping what is infinitely other than us — whether this be the number of stars in the firmament, or the mind and soul of another beautiful person. We recognize in this very experience, however, that we are incomplete. We are each of us voids in the whole of existence; our freedom, as human beings, is like a fissure in the dirt that is constantly attempting to fill itself in. We will spend our lives mourning the immediacy that we once felt when we were not capable of even distinguishing ourselves from that whole, when we were one with nature, when we were trapped within the womb, scarcely distinct from the bodies of our mothers.
Our lives will be filled with attempts to fill in this terrible sense of lack. Most of these attempts will be short-sighted and will fail. This goes without saying for the most heroic attempts we make — the ones that we tend to invest the most of ourselves into. This sense of lack itself is anxiety. It can manifest itself in many different ways, determining itself into fear — the fear of starvation, of going without shelter, the fear of losing love or status or recognition. But notice what it is that we fear losing in each of these instances: a singular, particular good, a concrete object, something that can really only symbolize or represent, at the end of the day, the ideal that we are attempting to take hold of through it — change.
The quest for fitness, I think, has been for me one of the most effective ways of making good use of this dread and terror that attends to the experience of being a perennially uneasy human being. None of us can or should rest simply or easily in casual and attainable comforts — whether we are conscious of it or not, we will become sick from abiding for too long within the frame of predetermined roles, our bodies as they are given to us, and the social expectations that we find ourselves trying to wrench our own authentic desires from.
The quest for fitness is a way of overcoming the idolatry of the transformational object — our natural tendency to see in a single person or event or achievement the fulfillment of the consummate expression of the substance of all our hopes and dreams. To commit to fitness, after all, involves making attempt after attempt after attempt. It involves lots and lots of failure, and pushing through the same. It involves building something upon the messy, uneven bedrock of lots of small victories and often many major disasters. To commit to fitness is to commit to a process of change — it is to commit, through action, to the idea of change itself, to affirm that growth is good and necessary. It is to commit to moving against the forces that would attempt to resolve the tension of human existence into the direction that it is always headed in anyways: death.
Fitness is a fight against death itself. It is a consummate expression of the drive towards life. It is an effort to prepare and to shape and to form one’s own life, to be able to gracefully weather whatever physical and mental challenges might come our way. It is a quest for a kind of immortality and greatness of spirit, a greatness that comes from ceaselessly working to keep the forces that would undermine life and its joyful intensity at bay. It has been, for me, a way of individuating myself from difficult environments and circumstances — a way of distinguishing myself from things that would degrade and denigrate everything that is vital and necessary, virtuous and beautiful about life.
Fitness is a fight against everything that would fight against your attempts to be the best version of who you are. It is a way of building and shoring yourself up in the limited time that you know yourself to have. It is a way of honoring both the body and mind — an activity that takes place precisely at the nexus point of our spiritual and our physical aspects. We can see that this is so, insofar as fitness involves bringing the light and the knowledge that only spirit and the intellect is capable of discerning to bear upon the recalcitrance, the inertness, the materiality of the physical body. Fitness is a way of disciplining what would seem base in us, from a naive perspective, into a state of ever greater perfection. In the praxis of fitness, we do just this by forcing the naturally resistant body, whose own tendency apart from the mind is just to keep things on an even keel (read: homeostasis), with some of our highest and most universal human ideals: strength and beauty, excellence and achievement. Fitness is a way of reaping, from that discipline, a knowledge that what seems profane and low is actually sacred and of a piece with our higher aspect — because we have chosen to bring our knowledge to bear upon it in effective action.
As a person who is enamored of fitness, the question sounds out every day: with the time you have, will you spend your life fighting for higher ground, for improving the physical conditions on which your thinking and acting rests, as a conscious creature? Or will you simply and passively permit the forces of death and decay to drive you, however quickly or slowly, back into the ground. As a fitness professional and fellow seeker, it is the desire to fight for higher ground that I seek to find and to spark, to ignite and to sustain in you — the desire to never let one’s self stand still, to always be on the way towards something better.POST COMMENT
I met Gary while he lived in Westlake Village, CA. In all of his 15 years of exercising at the local chain gym where we met, he said I was the first trainer who’d had the audacity to approach him. We hit it off from the start! Gary is a true Southern gentleman and was a wonderful person to work with — even when I was struggling to build my business, he never had anything but positive things to say to me and about me and his experience. He’s one of those golden apple clients who just wants to see you succeed, and the attitude was contagious in terms of my investment in him. “This guy is really good, I’m telling you.” The small talk between sets and reps was the most fun. We got to share so much, and it was neat for me to get the inside scoop on all the crazy stuff that goes on the entertainment industry. Oh yeah, we also got some killer workouts in, and he was more than satisfied with the changes we were able to make.POST COMMENT
I met Buddy at a local chain gym. We were both swimming, and while zoning out between laps with my SwimBuds in, I reached up to stretch my shoulder. I cursed when the impingement pain that’s been bothering me since my procedure flared up. Buddy spoke out with a laugh and a smile. We spoke briefly, and continued the conversation in the locker room. He told me about his son, a former Marine who’d had all kinds of orthopedic things done to him on account of his crazy life: snowboarding, surfing, playing basketball, doing jiujitsu, nothing was off limits. It wasn’t before long that Buddy revealed to me his desire to do something wild. He wanted to learn how to box. Here he is, three weeks later!POST COMMENT