Less Self, More Health

It seems like a stupid question: What could be healthier than health and fitness? Likewise, What could be healthier than the health and fitness industry? It seems like a slam dunk. By definition, anything we do in this industry should be healthy. We say it, therefore it must be true. 

Such assumptions aside, all is not well in our industry. In fact, there is a deep contradiction that lies right at the heart of what we do. The problem begins with this thing we call the self, our sense of individual identity. We all know this sense and most of us understand that it’s a flexible thing. Sometimes our identity feels solid, other times we forget about the self entirely. It’s also true that our training practices affect this sense: some practices increase our sense of self, some help us transcend it.

But what are we to do with this understanding? Should we as teachers, trainers and coaches help people strengthen their sense of self? Or should we help them get over it? If this seems like yet another stupid question, consider the wisdom of our spiritual teachers through the ages. No matter what tradition you like to draw on, one pattern consistently emerges. That is, most teachers agree that the spiritual path lies in giving up, overcoming or transcending our focus on the self.

Obviously, this presents a contradiction: Spiritual development begins when we abandon our focus on ourselves, but here in the health and fitness industry we see a powerfully concentrated effort to do precisely the opposite. Bodybuilding is the classic example, but most of our training and athletic competition is driven by a similar desire to maximize individual accomplishment and glory. We encourage our clients to focus on themselves first. We shape their bodies and take pictures of the results. We put them in front of mirrors so they can focus more intensely on themselves. We display perfect individual bodies on Photoshopped magazine covers. We devise ever more sophisticated training programs to maximize the welfare of the individual. We are nothing if not selfists.

Most of us mean well, of course. We’re trying to do the right thing for ourselves and our clients. But we’re like Russian dolls, nested inside a vanity culture that’s bigger, wealthier and more vocal than we are. And that culture has a laser focus on the welfare and status of the individual.

This is where the trouble begins. Over time, our laser focus on individuality actually becomes corrosive to health. It creates a world of isolated individuals, divorced from habitat and one another. As our sense of individuality solidifies, we begin to lose contact with the very things that give us life. 

Of course, focusing of the self is not entirely negative; much depends on where we stand in our lifespan. For young people, building up the self makes sense. Strength, competence, power, control and independence are vital qualities for building happiness and yes, health. Likewise, adults need periodic refreshers in individual power, challenges that strengthen our bodies and our will to meet the demands of a crazy and chaotic world.

But the dose makes the poison. Self-focused training, in moderate doses at the right time, is appropriate and health-promoting. But in large doses over long periods of time, it becomes destructive. Exclusive attention to personal welfare and achievement, sustained over the course of a career, is a perfect formula for misery and suffering.

And thus our folly. The modern corporate gymnasium has become an artificial paradise of delusion in which people are led to believe that “it’s all about you.” What people really need are reminders of what really keeps them alive. Our job as trainers and coaches is to show them the connections between their bodies and their life support systems. If people lose sight of those continuities, it won’t matter how many sets, reps or miles they do. 

The antidote to our narcissism is to shift our focus from self to world, from identity to integration, from self to bigger-than-self. We need new imagery, new tag lines and new advertising slogans. People want to feel integrated with the natural and social world. They want to feel part of something larger. They want meaning in their movement. And this, as much as any exercise machine or protein shake, will improve their health.  

Frank Forencich1 Comment