I’ve been thinking of what I wrote in a recent post about “my body’s integrity.”
I defined this as “the basic confidence that everything is working, that all the parts and systems are functioning together as they should.” I also went on to write that young people (especially athletes) usually take this bodily integrity for granted, because it is almost always present except in rare times of illness or injury. As we get older, more and more things can go wrong. Some of the damage is permanent and it may prevent us from ever again feeling an effortless sense of ease and ecstasy from our our physical selves.
I am fortunate that I have good health. I still experience times when my body seems whole, balanced, and sensitive, appreciative of what it can feel and how it can perform. My thankfulness for the good days is enhanced by the contrasting bad days. Sometimes I feel terrible, from sleep deprivation, the effects of sleeping pills, or the restless frustration that comes when my knee is painful or uncomfortable and I can’t move the way I want to.
I often think that I’m too reliant on how I’m feeling physically for a more complete sense of peace and harmony. Physical integrity is one thing, but isn’t an inner integrity what we are ultimately striving for? Physically, the good days will become rarer the older I get. Our bodies betray us all, alike, in the end, whether it happens gradually or suddenly.
It is only a “spiritual integrity” that can save me from panic, depression, and despair.
Yet it’s a struggle to give up my reliance on physical well-being and physical pleasures as a major source of inner harmony. I’ve been an athlete since I was sixteen. I applaud all the benefits to physical and mental health that physical fitness can bring. Yet I think our society places too much emphasis on physical fitness and appearance and fails to value virtues that are perhaps less visible and less measurable, but are more important and more difficult to attain.
My highest admiration goes to people who have the spiritual integrity that I am still striving for. They have mastered themselves. They have achieved a balance between their own growth and giving to others—their their loved ones, their communities and workplaces, perhaps even all of humankind or all of our Earth. They are at peace with themselves and are able to love, nurture, and teach others.
Most of my blog posts don’t reveal how far I am from achieving what I’ve called spiritual integrity. Though some of my most personal posts have included negative emotions and something of my inner struggles, I try to focus on positive messages. Even sad or tragic stories can include ideas about growth, learning, and overcoming adversity.
However, the “complete” story is not usually as positive as the one I present in my blog posts. The “complete” story is always more complicated and nuanced.
Social media exerts a relentless subtle (or not-so-subtle) pressure to present a positive attitude. People want to be inspired; they want to be reassured; they want to hear success stories. They can handle greater or lesser degrees of tragedy, craziness, or bad luck in stories, but they want a happy ending, or at least a message with a positive tone.
In many of my blog posts, it’s easy for me to be positive, because I’m writing about peak experiences. In fact, I’m a person who is very often happy in a “present moment” kind of way. I truly appreciate the little things in my life: the beauty of my neighbourhood and my city; the exhilaration and relaxation that follow a hard workout; the intellectual enjoyment of a good book; times of closeness with my partner or my friends.
Yet my moments of rapture, insight, and contentment are transitory. They alternate with times when I feel self-doubt and worthlessness, anxiety, guilt, even panic or despair.
This is because I don’t have a complete spiritual integrity. I’m a deeply conflicted person.
I think about all the components that that might contribute to a modern person’s mental integrity. Each person’s values and goals are unique, but I think human nature is constant enough that we all share many of the same needs when it comes to achieving inner harmony. It is mostly the details that differ.
So I ask myself: How can I achieve spiritual integrity?
- By using whatever talents and abilities I have to make a contribution to the world, whether that is through paid work or in another way.
- By having a complete, honest, giving/receiving intimate relationship with another person.
- By having meaningful friendships.
- By being able to maintain a sense of security even when bad things happen to me or others I love. By believing that my inner strength and what I might call “the strength of the universe” (some might call this God) will carry me through hard times, so that my thankfulness for life is never extinguished.
- By always acting in accordance with my own moral code of what is right. I’m not a person to follow a moral code set up by someone else.
- By continuing to learn. What are my main reasons for learning? To understand and appreciate other people, and to help solve the world’s problems at whatever scale my abilities and interests allow.
- By figuring out a balance between a) the necessary practical realities of life—the tasks that must or should be done, from the most mundane (like housework) to family/social/work/community contributions and b) my desire for personal growth and aesthetic enjoyment—reading, listening to music or thought-provoking radio shows, watching movies. How can I achieve this balance? How can I know where to draw the line so that self-enrichment and enjoyment don’t turn into narcissism and selfishness?
How can there be enough hours in the day?
I am a conflicted person because I haven’t achieved all the goals I listed above as being essential to (my) sense of mental harmony. There are things I’m doing or not doing that are not in agreement with these goals.
A few days ago while swimming at Sasamat Lake I had some piercingly clear thoughts that illustrate two of my main conflicts.
First is my worry about being too dependent on physical sensations for happiness.
That day, I could only swim for a few minutes because the water was icy. Yet during those minutes, I felt that wonderful sense of total body integrity. My physical joy eclipsed every physical discomfort and negative thought. I felt I was in my perfect place in the world—in that lake, breathing deeply, swimming strongly, overwhelmed by the gloriousness of the sun/water/sky/trees.
This happens often when I swim at Sasamat Lake. And even if it’s only a 2- or 5- or 10-minute experience, it is powerful. It changes my day. So why do I feel a conflict?
- Because many of my physical outlets will no longer be possible for me as I get older. Already, I can do almost no running.
- Because I question the way I prioritize my compulsion to work out, possibly at the expense of ever achieving professional success of any kind.
[For more about my ambiguous feelings focusing too much on the physical kind of achievement, read please read some of my other posts: Who wins the race? Shining a light on the dark side of the winner’s personality, Reasons you don’t want to be an elite runner, and Runners’ obsessions part two: Dr. Greg Wells and Project Ex .]
After I came out of the water that day at Sasamat Lake, I stayed on the beach for a while, engrossed in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was at one of the most gripping and sad parts of the story, where the young heroine, Maggie Tulliver, is desperately unhappy. Her family has been bankrupted and disgraced. She has little hope for the future; she can’t further her education, and it’s unlikely she can make a good marriage, given her family’s position.
Maggie reads a book written in the Middle Ages by a monk named Thomas a Kempis. She becomes convinced that she has to give up striving or longing for learning and beauty in her life. She has to completely give up her desires; that is the only way she can lessen her pain and dissatisfaction.
Then she is visited by Philip, a deformed young man who is the son of the man Maggie’s father blames for his ruin. Philip and Maggie, though they have cared deeply for each other since childhood, know their bond is forbidden. Maggie explains to Philip:
Our life is determined for us—and it makes the mind very free when we give up wishing and only think of bearing what is laid upon us and doing what is given to us to do. [p. 342]
Philip doesn’t agree with her, though. He says:
But I can’t give up wishing. It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. How can we ever be satisfied without them until our feelings are deadened? [p. 342]
Reading this book reminded me once again how literature enriches me spiritually. It inspires me; it teaches me; it puts my own troubles in a broader perspective and makes me feel connected to other human beings who might have lived hundreds of years ago. All this is good: yet the goodness doesn’t resolve another of my chief conflicts: the attempt to balance my hunger for consumption of Art and information with my desire and need to produce (my own writing).
Quotes in this post are from:
Eliot, George. (1860). The Mill on the Floss. New York: Penguin Group USA