23 September 2011


Shall I show you the sinews of a philosopher? "What sinews are those?" - A will undisappointed; evils avoided; powers daily exercised, careful resolutions; unerring decisions.

(Epictetus; the Discourses, book two.)

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?

(Marcus Aurelius; Meditations, book five.)

Such were the words that compelled me to rise from my bed a few weeks ago and, after dressing, make my way outside to begin walking my way toward a healthier lifestyle. Throughout the summer I thought to myself that I would like to begin such a morning exercise, but  I never engaged in "zerizus*": I never converted that will into action.  Even though I began studying Stoicism in 2008, up until now I have only applied discipline toward the easy things, matters of the mind -- emotions, thoughts. As an introspective person,  maintaining control over mind comes naturally. My lifestyle has been sedentary since middle school, though, and pushing myself to be physically active is much more difficult. I am unpracticed at it: my commands are weak. But I must develop the physical sinews of a philosopher:  not only does my future health demand it, but I need those sinews to continue growing into the person I want to be -- 'a man in full'.

A bit over a month ago, I was taken to the doctor's office after weeks of deteriorating health: my appetite had dwindled, I often went days without sleeping, and I could not walk more than short distances without being reduced to gagging and retching. I tend to take a "this, too, shall pass" attitude toward illness, but my family members were not quite as content to watch me circle the drain. At their urging, I grudgingly visited the doctor -- who diagnosed me with high blood pressure, hypertension enough to threaten stroke.  I walked out of the doctor's office with pills and orders to avoid pork and minimize salt intake.  The medicine had an immediate effect: my restless legs quietened and gave me sleep, and I began breathing much easier. Determined to make the most of this opportunity I'd been given to reclaim my life,  I walked out of the door that brisk morning a few weeks ago and I have been exercising the muscles of physical discipline ever since. I have been ever-more mindful of my eating habits, and increased the length of my morning walk steadily to two miles (at present). It is my hope that a healthier diet and a daily habit of exercise will eventually make medication unnecessary, for what Stoic wants to be dependent on an external like that?

Just as a stalled train is an opportunity to practice patience, and a broken friendship a time to meditate on grace and learn serenity, so to was this medical crisis  an impetus for me to put into effect something I had wanted to do  for a while. I do not wish to be sedentary: I have worked this month not to help lower my blood pressure, or to lose wight, but to begin a habit which will flower into an active lifestyle.  For me, sitting for hours at a time reading a thick book and musing and writing on ideas is a joy -- but I also know the pleasures to be had in prolonged physical exertion, the joy of action, of movement. I enjoy activities like basketball and hiking, and I wish to do them all the more. I never feel better all day than I do in the moments after that morning walk, when the steady sound of my shoes on the pavement stops dominating my mind and I realize how good I feel.

So far I have kept my practice up for a month: I do not anticipate changing it for the seasons or weather, although I suppose if there is a tornado meandering through the neighborhood I would wait in safety, and give the cyclone its privacy. I see this physical activity as contributing to the whole of my life -- not just in allowing me to enjoy more activities, but in other areas as well. I delight in seeing my neighborhood so early in the morning; the sun is still rising, and often there's a mist that hangs over the road and lawns. I've seen sublimely beautiful scenes while out and about. I've talked more with my neighbors in the past two weeks than I have for the past ten years of my life preceding them. Further, in addition to losing weight and strengthening my limbs, I am strengthening those philosopher's sinews:  there are mornings when I am tired, and wish to stop early -- but I take command, and I push myself to keep walking. My body tires, and slows down -- I push it to regain its productive pace.  My feet ache; I walk through them. Day by day, I strengthen my mind's command over the body:  with every step, my will gains mastery:  I  have learned from Buddha and Epictetus that great results lie in consistently taking the right actions, small as they may be -- just as as a steady supply of water drops eventually fills a pot. It is no accident to that Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus often made allusions to physical training when counseling themselves and others. I found the walk to be a way to practice meditation: indeed, it seems the best way to make it to the end, as when I am meditating I am not mindful of any aches, and the time slips by quickly so that I have gone half and mile and cannot recall walking it.  Yet walk it I did, and walk I will continue to do. I am growing in the direction of my ideals: not only growing in my ability to be physically active, but assuming total (mental and physical) command of myself.

* A word I heard from a rabbi named Zelig Pliskin, who teaches mindfulness in a Jewish context and describes it as "the joyful art of taking action".

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