Why might a person choose to eat in a healthy way, to get regular exercise? What’s behind the wish to take care of the body? And what might these questions have to do with a spiritual orientation to life?
It can be rich terrain to explore the motivation behind a health-promoting lifestyle, eating and exercising and forgoing things thought to be harmful to the body. This isn’t about the perceived benefits of one diet versus another, or of working out in favor of sitting all day. It’s about something deeper than that, something underlying the motivation to take care of the body.
Sometimes when a person is diagnosed with a serious illness, they’ll say, “But how could I get cancer, when I’ve been a vegetarian for years and go to the gym every day?” As if maybe they’d imagined having some kind of control over mortality.
If you spend precious life steadily averting your eyes from your inevitable end, it continues to be possible to postpone what really matters.
If you scratch the surface of lifestyle choices, you may discover things worth looking at. Like an identity made up of how you eat (and don’t eat), a self-image based on how active you are (or are not), on your “youthfulness.” Deeper in, underlying this constructed identity, may lurk the fear of death, and a related discomfort with the decline aging brings.
We tend to equate the possible real benefits of lifestyle choices with the illusion of control, to associate relative physical well-being with permanence.
For some, there can be the impression that treating the body well may move a person along spiritually speaking. But there’s nothing like a neatly-constructed identity, and the denial of reality (the certainty of death), to hold radical freedom at arm’s length. Nor does it matter to higher consciousness what kind of shape the body is in.
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Has anyone ever said you look younger than you are? Have you ever said that about someone else’s looks? Did that appear to be a compliment?
What’s the matter with looking your age? What’s wrong with aging? The visible retreating from the vibrancy and beauty of youth whispers to us of brevity, of death. The prospect of dying makes us want to look away from obvious signs of aging: we know it’s a one-way street we’re on.
And what’s wrong with dying? Is it that we see death as the end of the chance to live? That we don’t want to run out of opportunities for that?
The only possible answer is to live while living is possible: right now.
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What if you made friends with your mortality? The blessing of allowing the reality of death to be alive in you is that it puts attention, most compellingly, on the now, on the only real thing. What happens then, there? It registers that while you don’t have forever to (fill in the blank: visit a place or person you love, enjoy this piece of music, say you’re sorry), you do have this moment to do so. How can you, then, avert your eyes from the immediate chance to truly live? To savor? How can you possibly allow attention to be diverted from appreciation to irritation or dread?
But if you spend precious life steadily averting your eyes from your inevitable end, it continues to be possible to postpone what really matters. Because it appears you “have forever.”
What is it to care for the body right alongside the steady awareness of its inevitable demise? To remember — even as you take that healthy bite of food, set out for a brisk walk, unfold your yoga mat — that death could come this very day? What is it to embody these two things without it giving rise to anxiety, to the illusion of control?
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Let’s say a person didn’t identify with the body, a healthy one or otherwise. We’re all headed for certain death, one way or the other, at a time we cannot guess, let alone avoid. What would be the possible incentive to choose one kind of lifestyle over another?
It’s entirely possible to care for the body in whatever way we’re moved to, alongside the awareness it’s on its way to inevitable extinction. There is no contradiction.
It’s surely the case that some ways of eating and exercising are kinder to the body than others. Maybe whatever a person happens to be allotted in the way of years (days, heartbeats) — maybe each bit of life will feel better, perhaps causing less trouble, than it otherwise might. Less pain or limitation, more energy. Fewer medications, illnesses, surgeries. Who knows?
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Maybe the truest sense of “healthy” is the comfortable relationship with brevity. This awareness is often conspicuously absent in a person stressing particular lifestyle practices, taking pride in fitness and youthfulness.
You have the present moment. What you do not have is a future: you never did. All you’ve ever had (or ever could) is a succession of nows. The persisting refuge in a future, whether it takes the form of hope or of fear, is a terrible thing to inflict on yourself (much worse than an unhealthy body). Because it causes you to justify not really living now. To postpone what deeply matters to you.
When there’s the ongoing awareness of brevity, then when it comes time to die, you’re not filled with regret, with fear. Along the way, you’re really, simply alive. Which is all you’ve ever really wanted, isn’t it?Jan Frazier