Can Fitness Help You Become a Better Artist?
Living as we do in a world of Cartesian duality, most people would probably say, of course not. You use your mind when you’re writing; the body is irrelevant. It’s taken for granted that mind and body are distinct things that have very little to do with one another. And in the West, most people are much prouder of their brains than their bodies; I’ve never understood why, since both are largely inherited, and we deserve as little credit, or as much, for being bright as we do for being beautiful or strong. Still, people will tell you, look at all the unhealthy writers: the drunks, the addicts, the infirm, the frail and the fat. And there’s something to that. It’s not hard to find examples of brilliant writers who have been alcoholics (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner) or drug-takers (de Quincey, Baudelaire, Huxley), smokers (any number), and so on.
But anyone who practises yoga or Tai Chi knows the Asian view, that there is a mind-body continuum, but not a mind and a body as distinct entities. And in fact the idea that the mind is the noble part of the human being—that we are essentially our brains, which just happen to reside in a particular body, an envelope which is of no importance—is a relatively recent one in the West. The Ancients famously held up the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano; to the Greeks, the aristos or superior man cultivated mind, body and spirit equally. In spite of the prevalence of the belief in the superiority and uniqueness of the mind (“I want to be loved for my mind!”), though, Biology is bearing out the truth of the yogic and Taoist doctrines. The mind is not coexistent with the brain: we think with our whole bodies. And decisions are made, neurologists tell us, not by the conscious part of the brain, but by completely subconscious impulses which are the result of genetic programming and conditioning. Perhaps Freud was the first modern medical man to posit the idea that all illnesses are psychosomatic—that they have not only mental causes but mental consequences too. And holistic medicine, including most alternative therapies, recognizes this.
So might it not make sense that a truly healthy person will be more energetic, more confident, and even more creative? Again, I’m not suggesting that robust health is a sine qua non. Obviously that is not the case. But it could be a real advantage. When you are overweight and overfed—particularly on the fat-rich, sugar-rich, chemical-filled western diet—you are frequently drained of energy. I speak from experience. And while many writers romanticize bibulous poets, les poetes ivres, I doubt that anyone wrote well while intoxicated—even Faulkner. (Well, maybe Malcolm Lowry: there’s an exception to every rule.)
I would suggest that a good diet, low in sugars and starches and transfats, and avoiding processed food as much as possible, allied with plenty of sleep (at least eight hours a night, for most people), and exercise, will make you not only calmer and more energetic, but also more confident and more creative.
At any rate this is why I, on the threshold of old age, have embarked on a rigorous diet. I am determined to shed my belly fat, and learn to relax better. It’s an experiment. I can’t assure you that it will render me one of the immortal geniuses of English Literature, of course, but I think it’s worth a try. And if I succeed, no doubt you’ll be hearing from me—and of me!