Mind over matter

People have been saying that marathons are difficult. Having recently completed my first, I can say this – they’re not lying.

It would be no great exaggeration to call the Great Ocean Road Marathon the most difficult single thing I’ve done in my life — except for, perhaps, mustering the motivation to finally write this post. As a physical challenge, it exposed all my weaknesses and drove muscles to levels of exertion previously not experienced. The hours that followed were spent with as little movement as possible; the days that followed were spent somewhere between limping and hobbling; the weeks that followed were spent in slow recovery, tired, still affected by the exertion.

Mentally, I faced an internal voice telling me to stop, making excuses, giving myself outs. The concept of “the wall”, which comes up hard and fast against runners at some distance into a run, sought to block not only my physical self, but my mental self. My body could still move, but my mind didn’t want it to.

These challenges to both the physical and mental faculties led to thoughts on the intersection of mind and body, branching into two separate concepts.

First, the influence of the mind on the body – visualisation, positive thinking, and plenty of scientific studies. Clearly, my own strength of will needs some work – I spent 10km of my run complaining inwardly about a foot injury, then the next 10km questioning what absurd decision I’d made to end up here.

Second is the separation of mind and body, and the philosophical thinking behind this separation. While contemporary western thought considers the mind and the body as part of the same whole, the boundaries between these are not always so blurred.

Influence of the mind over the body

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, a widely read book by the much-lauded Daniel Kahneman, the author discusses his research on cognitive biases and heuristics, and explores how our minds work. A perhaps now-famous study discussed in this work is that of visualisation and basketball free throws. In this study, the accuracy of the participants’ free throws was measured before and after the study period. The participants were separated into two groups – one group regularly practised their free throws with a basketball, and the other group only visualised doing so. The results of this study were striking – the increase in throw accuracy between the two groups was almost identical.

This is far from the first time visualisation and sport have been brought together. Many elite athletes use a variety of mental techniques to become the best in their chosen sport. “Mental rehearsal”, as the technique above is sometimes called, has been used to train mind and body to improve in the imagined skill. Other well-known techniques include that of visualising an intended outcome – be it for a race, a competition, a performance, or any other situation. By seeing the intended outcome, and holding that image in one’s mind, the mind subconsciously works towards achieving it. While running the 44km of my marathon, I kept the image of the finish line clearly in mind, and played through exactly what I would do once there. Whether this was enough to overcome the complaints of my weary body, however, is a matter of contention.

Surprisingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly, given this power of our minds over our bodies – the mindset we take towards physical exercise can also influence the effects of that exercise. In another study, a set of maids at a hotel were separated into two trial groups. These maids perform frequent physical activity in the course of their work, from transporting towels and linen, to shifting furniture, and many other instances of manual labour. As such, one would expect the physical conditioning of the maids to improve over time. Members of the first trial group were given no special comments on the beneficial qualities of their work. The second group was told that their work was conducive to losing weight, building muscle, and other positive physical changes. The group who received no comments on the effectiveness of their work on physical conditioning showed minor improvements over the study period. However, the group who were led to perceive their work as beneficial for their body saw results which reflected this perception. By thinking that the work was actually good for them, their work actually was good for them.

Separation of mind and body

Though we rarely consciously acknowledge it, most of us have the concept of a unity between mind and body. We are our mind, we are our body – these are composite parts of the same whole that constitutes “us”. However, the necessity of this connection is not as rigid as one may believe. Some philosophies, both eastern and western, have for thousands of years conceived of ourselves as our mind, with “us” merely inhabiting our body for the course of our earthly lives. This is part of a key concept of Buddhist philosophy – that one should not see body as self, or see ideas as self, or see possession as self.

Admittedly, this may sound like grandiose spiritual posturing. However, and perhaps fortunately, we are not required to take a leap of faith to uncover certain modes of thought stemming from this concept, which we can use to improve our lives.

In the twilight years of his life, the Indian spiritual master Sai Baba was shackled with a frail, aging body. When asked by his followers how he could continue to live unaffected through what was perceived to be unbearable pain, he responded thus: “Pain is a natural phenomenon. Suffering is a choice.” In this way, Sai Baba expressed the disconnect between the mind and the body. His body had deteriorated and was experiencing pain. This pain, however, was natural, expected, a consequence of having a material body at all. However, this was all that the pain was. Sai Baba’s mind was unaffected by the pain of his body, since he chose not to be affected by it. Such a strong detachment from bodily pain was made possible by years of meditation and other practices, yet to some extent is something we can keep in mind with our own experiences.

Sai Baba’s response is similar to thinking found in Stoic philosophy. As Epictetus wrote, “it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed. You must believe that you are being harmed.” These occurrences, being hit or insulted, are for the most part outside of our control. Similar to Sai Baba’s pain, we cannot control whether we are afflicted by them or not. However, if we choose, we can be mere observers to our pain. Our conditioning causes us to react instinctively to many stimuli. However, through practice and conditioning of our own, we are able to overcome these responses.

The mind and the body are, in some interpretations more than others, what define our existence. Hence it’s no surprise there exists a wealth of thought and literature on both topics — elite athlete training, scientific studies, philosophical beliefs and even core religious tenets centre on how the mind and body are connected and affect us. From such diverse sources, we can find guidance in how to improve ourselves and how to live more fulfilled lives.

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