We sit here, rather stand here (or are we just running in place, here?), brimming with the potential of life, or sport, or game.. of survival. It enjoins us to be strong enough, fast enough, or smart enough or we will not live for as many years as those that are. And those that prevail, in turn, procreate and propagate the species engendering the emerging culture.
By virtue of nature’s great, primal reduction,”kill or be killed”, our will must be to survive first, live second. But, then, it would seem, the simple fact that we are now breathing life into coordinated words and hazardous notions means we are a noble life-form made manifest to not merely breathe but to imbibe the fruits of passion, singing psalms, exulting life’s juicy nectar. But, then every waking moment we are quietly fighting for our lives, outrunning a sometimes unseen, imagined predator.
Little has changed in the polarity of this ambivalence. We are, and have always been, souls triumphant upon the mountaintop and creatures trembling in the corners of obscurity. We have merely refined the discord through so many degrees of separation and sophistications.
It is fashionable, and swiftly becoming an occupational prerequisite- however unspoken- to be strong and slim, rather than fat and obstructive. It is a demonstration of physical mastery and is perceived as in somewise indicating comparable strengths in the workplace.
Yet however we might imagine physical dominance to promote our social and economic standing, we are certainly driven toward the lowest common denominator: attraction, or more accurately, attactivity. We are singularly interested in garnering admiration or envy, exercising to produce an appearance, more or less, of strength and power because it’s attractive and receives positive attention, rather than revered for their inherent virtues.
We have not always viewed physical strength and muscularity as admirable attributes as they have long been associated with the working class or peasantry. The regeneration of our collective species and it’s aesthetics are a statement of the times, and the times have certainly changed in the portrayal of what is strong and beautiful and even smart (read successful, provident and socially viable), conjured in accordance with the steady fast-food of trending nutritional dogmatism and a corporate-sponsored, sex-driven media.
Compelled for many personal gratifications (now, far beyond just surviving nature’s gauntlet to see another day) we can be reduced to five root causes or five primary motivations for enhancing physical aptitude, whether we exercise, train or workout. And these are:
1) training for battle (military)
2) training for competition (sport)
3) exercising for general fitness and wellness (physical, mental, and emotional health)
4) working out for physical aesthetics and self-confidence (vanity) and
5) for play (joy)
We might propose another motivation, which trains for the raw principles of power and speed, and the improvement of the individual toward these ends (which weightlifters or sprinters might be grouped under), but this type seems to fall under the 2nd class, as you inevitably compete against others (and yourself), and also the 4th, since the self-confidence component is inescapable. Thus, for our discussion I’d like to focus on these five, ultimately conducting our attention to the zenith of joyful recreation.
Military training, as it involves calisthenics and strength training, is directed toward psychological and physical trial and is a stringent, aggressive discipline of martial arts (hand-to-hand combat) as well as a gauntlet of strategically strenuous obstacles for engaging not only the body, but also a person’s problem-solving acumen in the misdst of such harsh conditions for use in grounded military conflicts. It is a hyper-focused, dog-eat-dog, live-or-die scenario, practiced over and over, directed to the (rapidly becoming more technological) trenches of the battle and the real-time engagement of war. Those primitive fight or flight mechanisms are bruised and hardened to a sharpened tip as young men and women are hewn from unskilled civilians, forged into expert soldiers, ready for any scenario.
I have the utmost respect for a Marine’s morning routine, the one that says, “we do more before 6 o’clock” than the rest of us, you know, do the entire day. It is rightly earned (not without a little chest thumping, of course, Arooo!). The training of an indivisible military force from impressionable young men and women is a serious business and also an important insight into the edges of our quite fragile, and yet inexhaustible, human psychology. Through a grueling set of conditioning variables the individual is broken down and rebuilt, the inseparable cogs of the all-mighty military wheel. In this crucible, this soul-crushing labyrinth, the boundaries of corporal tolerance are razed and reconstituted, demonstrating man’s limits and his great potential toward bravery and honor.
Not all military training is so authoritative and deconstructive. Some is voluntary and could be described more as a state of mind, than a deliberate directive. The calm, serenity of the poetic warrior (think Sun Tzu and The Art of War) is brought to mind as we must rightly conceive of a skilled and disciplined lover whose interest in self-defense and military strategy is as profound and sacred as the baker or the metallurgist to wheat and iron. He must stand vigilantly every nightfall in patient, mindfulness of an ever-present threat, though it, indeed, may never come. He is a protector of the weak and the innocent.
In this manner, each of us is called, sometimes loudly or quietly, to serve and protect, and we have responded. We have also each faced a situation we turned away from, acquiescing to an unkindness or inhumanity. But we all are summoned into a silent “battle” on a daily basis, so we all are effectively, although figuratively, “soldiers”. We just don’t do as much “whatever it takes” “before 6 a.m.” than the paid, uniformed soldier.
To elevate the topical discussion to a philosophical strata, martial arts training in a pure and impersonal pursuit of self-defense for the broader security of the family and community must be viewed as a truly noble training that gives rise to some of the greatest aspects of strength, our resolve and redemption, endurance and discipline, but also our courage and honor. Military strength, or martial-arts prowess, exalted to the higher planes of self-discipline and courage is of a different order than being a “paid soldier”, although the two are not mutually exclusive, as history has laid bare.
Military exercise, in its strict focus of breaking down and building up, is to be treated as a mechanized regimen for strengthening and purifying the resolve of a soldier in the vein of an ancient familial protection instinct, to fend for turf and home. Wars will be waged in the name of family and country. These struggles are won by courage and resolve. So, in a sense, martial arts, as self-defense and discipline of mind and body to overcome adversity, is the primitive root of all fitness, a sophistication of survival into science.
Competition immediately steps out beyond the throes of survival and declares the elegance of sport as the one, true measure of human supremacy. We make an evolutionary quantum leap as we graduate from throwing rocks and spears AT each other’s bodies [to conquer] to respectfully challenging the other man to throw said rock and spear FURTHER (to compete). Sports, in its vaunted and highly decorated form, with all of its pomp and pageantry, can be traced back to the first Olympians where some of the current Olympic events: discus, javelin, and foot races still draw their ancestry. Only recently has organized competition come to flourish so prolifically, coming to be seen, in the monolithic aspect of the Olympian standard- higher, faster, stronger- as the greatest cause for global gregariousness. In the midst of an upswing of burgeoning, large-scale athletic events the modern day Olympics was inaugurated.
These sporting events began as challenges- quite elementary in design and grandiose in display- with such fantastic heraldry as “the fastest man to walk across the city of London”, for instance, and developed into events with more intriguing demands and stakes like marathons (the first real marathon was in 1896 in the months leading up to the first modern-day Olympics and it imitated Pheidippides’ celebrated run from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C.) and bicycle races (the Tour de France began in 1903) and have morphed into a modern cornucopia of athletic games with enticing individual stakes and and an endless line of subsequent and varied competitions.
[Q: In the 1908 London Olympic Games, the finalists in this event were two 8-man teams of British policemen from London (who took Gold) and Liverpool (Silver). A third team of British police took the Bronze medal by default, when their Swedish opponents didn’t bother to turn up for the match. What now discontinued sport is this?? A: Tug-of-War!]
Nowadays, Ironman, Crossfit, X-Games and professional Obstacle Course events are proliferating their absorption of all the “other” “amateur” athletes that haven’t, conceivably, found their niche in the dominant, BIG (think “television worth”: football, basketball, Olympics) sports. We are successively demanding more options to compete. “Sport” is a word constantly being refined and redefined by our unceasing desire, that human spirit which ever reaches out for a baton, a ball, a higher point. In the last decade and a half we have witnessed a renaissance, nay, A REVOLUTION! of sports and gaming (a passing acknowledgement of video games) ushering in a new age of athletic super-breeding.
These evolving games, however, not only suggest unique athletic skill sets (e.g. special physical and mental conditioning) but have special rules or conditions in order to be played which set rigid boundaries on when and where such games can be played. Some of these games are based largely on our immediate climate and economic conditions. For example, a kid from Phoenix is not overly-exposed to hockey, or figure-skating, nor is a kid from Harlem often handed a polo stick, or a saddle, or the horse, for that matter. More simply, people next to a beach are predisposed to swim and those next to mountains to climb. Often displaced athletes sit on the fringe of their respective athletic predispostions, spectators rather than competitors, estranged, with talents just askew of the sports available in their respective climate and social context. The disenchantment of would-be athletes from sports they may be naturally predisposed to is countered nowadays by the wealth of options and opportunities to the athlete, as an individual.
The small yield for professional sports players has left a tremendous gap for an army of “amateurs” left over to be seized upon by insurgent markets. Notably, Cross-Fit has turned the very ideas of strength and training inside out sending shock waves through the entire world of sports and simultaneously promoted an array of high-profile athletes garnering a massive following and a fledgeling culture of pseudo-celebrity. The Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) arena, in particular, has seen exponential growth as professional boxing’s inflated, over-glorified stage falls flat on its TKO’d kisser, admitting a successor, a marketing machine, UFC (Ultimate FIghting Championship), as the fragmentation of boxing, a virtual monopoly in the world of combat sports, in the post-Mike Tyce era yield it’s audience, becoming a massive media side-show to the violence-first format of the Octagon. This has been a perfect centrifuge for variant martial arts disciplines to engage in “all-out” blood sport, determining not only individual victors, but supremacy of fighting schools. The collective blood-letting has produced a new culture of cross-disciplined fighters. Today you can’t engage in this arena without some proficiency in several styles; you can’t be only a boxer or merely a grappler (wrestler) to thrive, you need to be indoctrinated in the technical merits of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Tae-Kwon-Do, and Karate and execute them at a world-class level. These are just the tip of the iceberg; a whole new underworld of alternative sporting is widely affected by this attrition from the major sports, like small rivers spawning from the cracks in the big-league dam.
The recent Obstacle Course phenomenon has opened the floodgates to the average weekend (weakened?) warrior- not inclined to Ironman or Ultimate Ninja Warrior status- to get out and be wild and run around with your friends, impervious, in such a heightened excitement, to the bodily beating inflicted in the mud trenches and the battery of water slides, emerging from the mayhem feeling rushed with invincibility. There’s races for all reasons (Tough Mudder, Spartan, Rainbow Run, to name a few) and for every full marathon there’s a halfer, for every Ironman there’s a Leadman, or “run-of-the-mill” triathlon. There’s a race out there for everyone. Athletes are successively creating many, various opportunities to challenge our comfort zones, cheering and exhorting our mates to follow, or lead. It is more collective fun than individual discipline, competing and conquering obstacles- and fears- together. We are running WITH rather than AGAINST each other. (Although it should be noted that there is current push to further monetize and incentivize these events with larger purses to procure more interest and audience to a sport seemingly ripe and ready to be plucked for its own “piece of the pie”.
Sport seems poised to be the great interlocutor of nations. Why settle the score on the battlefield when I can defeat you on the track..and shake your hand at the finish line? Make touchdown, not war. There’s nothing to argue about off the field when the argument’s been decided on it. “Score-Board!”
In a results-based fitness world, competition which yields accomplishments and achievements, winners and losers, is the supreme motivator for individual excellence. It is dramatic, definitive, demanding and possibly very rewarding. It challenges us, inspires us to a higher level of being, it is an ultimate rush. An ultimate rush that we must eventually descend from. It could be said that no one builds their house on the jagged mountaintop. So what happens when the game is over? When the match has been won? When the obstacle course was last week? What next?
Thus, we enter the athlete’s real “end game”: life after sport. Much like a soldier’s life after returning from war, a post-traumatic vacuum of complacent “normalcy” lands on a career athlete, enveloped in a quietly hostile inner-world of plain-old, day-to-day livin’. The thrill of the chase, these adrenaline-charged states of consciousness are now swollen echoes in a barren suburban landscape, where the warfare is more subversive, the competition more cunning and covert. How do you compete in this passive-aggresive, technological environment? Who is your adversary? Where is the starting gun? The finish line? There must be more to this cat and mouse scheme than winning and losing. These must be mere (mirror?) components in a larger procession of life.
So what does a player do when there are no other players? How many games have withered away within us, like old leather baseball gloves, buried under years of dusty neglect because we outgrew the game? With all the outsized childishness and faded fashion, sport is still the pastime which has colored the seasons of our lives. It is the fervent spirit which burns even in the darkest cold of winter and gallops wild and naked in the rapture of summer. Where military training is a science, sport is an art. So, before proceeding, we must hesitate and acknowledge the central component of all of sport, when reduced to its simplest expression: playing games, as this will be central to our final motivation.
Health and wellness came to to the forefront of the cultural conversation in the 80’s as we furnished ourselves with gym memberships, leg warmers, in-home treadmills and stationary bikes, but in the decades leading up, we were enjoined by our nation’s highest leaders (Eisenhower and Kennedy both adopted committees around public health and fitness) which sought, on a public note, to offset the terrible death rates that were being recorded by middle-age (mostly white) men after the post-war economic boom but also, in the spirit of “special interests”, to encourage a more vigorous society that would be ready-made to spring into a potential Cold War with the Soviets. A recent fitness study had demonstrated the average European’s health and fitness to be superior to the average American’s causing much ado in the politics of public administration and health initiatives in that day.
After jogging was advanced as an easy, new, d.i.y. practice to promote health and well being the fitness craze really took off. Almost overnight the sidewalks and parks were being frequented by these avid running enthusiasts, bolstered with nifty Sony Walkmans (a veritable game-changer in technology and music). Strenuous exercise was no longer reserved for the military or athletes, but was a moral imperative which required everyone to adhere to healthy exercise practices- in addition to all the trendy diets we subscribe to, off and on, over the years. The quiet wisdom of Kenneth Cooper’s book, “Jogging” and its immediate success amongst a middle-class audience was compounded by the overtly masculinized world of bodybuilding, which was gaining national attention around the same time. So as novice health nuts chased miles, muscle heads reflexively queried, “What ‘cha bench?”
Here, in the progressive times of self-motivation, positive thinking and vigorous lifestyles, is a sort of crease into the fourth category, narcissism. Here, however, we are directed toward good-intentioned- however self-interested- successful habits to live well by, while compelled by mortality and quality of living, factors that are quite inexhaustible as they confront us daily, though they seem ever in the background. It is an insipid, measured striving toward a prolongation of pleasurable life, albeit functional, and not one to inspire or evoke heightened states of consciousness. Furthermore, there is a lack of integrity and determination with staving off a faceless ailment like dementia or heart failure that often derails our good intentions. I mean, would any one of us be honest in saying that a more desirous event would be good health in our old age and not eating steak and cheesecake right now? There are indeed limits in our perceiving health and happiness as gained through vigilant exercise and austere diet. In this sense, then, exercise for health is a proverbial carrot for a blind turtle, a slight motivation where we know little of the effects or end result and is not one to provoke imagination or dramatic impact. It is, alas, a perspective of health relegated only to the negative causes and effects of our environments and the prevention thereof, and is not concerned with beauty and strength, as they are positive attributes of good health and therefore require no further consideration.
Narcissism, vanity and the flickering flutter of self-acceptance, are the psychological digression of health and wellness to mere shadows. We chase apparitions of what we think we are or should be and never find the brilliance and perfection, or even truth, in our own naked reflection. That ever-elusive fountain of youth has surely turned into a bottomless well causing many to plunge into their insidious peril. Even those who quip they’re “getting better with age” know full well each day brings death a day closer. We hurry after the illusory rabbit around a never-ending track garnering no sort of prize to show for it. Vanity is an endless tedium and a spiraling wormhole.
With any degree of beatification there is a corresponding measure of disapproval, even disgust, which negates or derides any appearance of betterment. We are, in a sense, conditioned to be self-loathing and any improvement is slighted (though the ego’s clandestine premise of self-greatness remains intact, like Gollum in our hollow caverns). We cannot see any positive attribute as an end, but merely as means, for which we desire more of the same. Any bodybuilder, anorexic or pageant queen will tell you they were never satisfied, never felt that they were done. There is a subversive suspicion of the appearance by this insatiable desire to be better. Plus, when the premise for exercise is self-improvement there is a disconnect in intuiting the end in itself, for isn’t there always room for improvement?
So, without expounding on the intrinsic limits of narcissistic motivations, we will proceed from here by acknowledging the obvious dilemma of fleeting illusions conjured up by a fractured mirror of self-worth. We are never satisfied. We can always be better. It is symptomatic of the perfection of the species that we cannot accept anything less, and therefore we never do.
“Oh Joy, that in our embers is something that doth live, that nature yet remembers what was so fugitive.”
Joy is the exhilarated pleasure of a free body in motion, or of thought, that rises above a normal, sober experience to become something more deliberate and provocative. It is like the frenetic expulsion of laughter when a body is unable to stifle the absorption of gleeful humor, it is an overflowing of emotion aroused by imagination and play. Play, more than competitive sports, stands diametrically opposed to survival, yet, like survival, we do not exercise to play or play to exercise, exercise is a natural consequence of play, which is an end in itself, like survival.
We have been known, in our earlier years, to engage in games and frivolous drama. “The world is a stage” is the predicate of everything in a child’s universe. Before the seriousness of being an “adult”, “making a living”, “going to work” and “paying the bills” become the dreary tenets of life, we are governed by amusement and mimicry. These whimsical games are the hieroglyphs upon which we build all of the hallowed monuments of man’s architectural greatness.
These open spaces, vast meadows inviting careless dalliances are abruptly (in another of man’s civilized sophistications) converted into competitive playing fields which, no matter how they’re measured, are far from even. Every child, regardless of gender or race is subjected to the wringer of “developmental” sports whose main directive is repetitively instructing and inculcating the disciplinary standards required to excel in the particular athletic arena where victors and the defeated are decided. There is far less fun when fifty percent of winning is losing. You have no other choice but to win or lose. What else is there. I would say that before organized sports we all played games that did not see a black and white, win or lose scenario. We all kind of, well, won.
And here in the figurative playground, the child’s eye of the adult storm, here in the dreamy wanderings of a distantly familiar world, is the never-never bliss of days uncounted or timed out into quotidian minutia, a play without a stage, a drama without dilemma. We are, and always have been, children. All the callousness of our adulthood still has not wholly cut out that psychical root when we first cut our teeth on the symbols of language and experience.
Games were the only thing, as children, we understood and yet we adults can’t remember how to play (to save our lives). We are far too serious and “high-minded” to stoop and bow down to the mockery and absurdity to which child’s play often deteriorates. You have to get down on “all-fours”, to crawl, roll, tumble, jump and slide. You’ll probably even get you’re hair a bit messed up or wrinkle your dress shirt. You can’t interact on a child’s level without losing a little self-respect. And here in this slight exposure and faintest vulnerability is the fading ripple of a child still skipping stones into the pond of consciousness. By virtue of these first and formative experiences, we are first led into maturity; not by education and training, but, more tangibly, and tangly, through games and improvisation. Even now, we adults are still playing games and acting out parts between our personal and professional life, we just don’t perceive it as play. Adult life means work.
But there are plenty of ways we play as adults, although not many would include “tag” among those activities, or, dare I say it, climbing a tree. So what do we do?We go to adult theme parks and take rides, we travel and recreate abroad, we participate in extreme sports like dirt-biking and sky-diving or we may play organized sports- softball, basketball, volleyball and the like- in city leagues or with company teams. Some of us might enjoy playing frisbee with the dog in the park or riding our bike along the lake or up into the mountain trails, or perhaps we’d just like to go fishing. We are surrounded by all these things we could be doing with our time rather than at our desk, locked in and clocked out, yet we seldom seem to have enough time in the day to be able to get out and do those things that are fun and give us joy. And then, even if we do, we are “too tired” from work that we have nothing in the tank left for play.
Is it not some twist of fate, a sort of cunning self-defeatism that work and responsibility surreptitiously suck the imaginative spirit from us at too early an age, so that by the end of our twenties many of us are “ready to settle down” (whatever that means)? Then we have kids, so “wound up” and ready to play all the time, but we have nothing left, and wouldn’t know what to do with it (our energy AND our kids) even if we did. Herein lies the gap between youth and adulthood: PLAY.
While there are many considerations as to how and why play is eroded from us through childhood until- usually by adolescence- we are suspicious and contemptuous towards the sincerest manifestations of it (because it’s not “cool”), or even what we adults perceive as play and why we are prevented from experiencing the carefree, carelessness of it, we must, for now, address only the occasions and criteria which define it. As alluded to above, the majority of adults might relate to play through some sort of extreme and risk-filled activity where trepidation succumbs to exhilaration (and there is definitely an aspect of staring death in the face that cannot be replicated in less extreme conditions and are geared for mature audiences only), but they are often impossibly difficult to re-create in a “normal” environment (e.g. skydiving, paintballing, or obstacle courses and the like). Hence, the confluence with video gaming where hyper-(s)paced, high thrills and violence arouse adrenaline whilst we recline in our hammocks. (Warning: Personal beliefs to follow) Children introduced at too early an age to technological media when their imaginations are still yet so malleable and adaptable and can only discourage some of the organic and natural interactions that compose a child’s experience. And so the glaring distinction between child’s play and adult’s play: children have no previous experience upon which to pattern bigger and better, sensational experience, theirs is ground zero where EVERYthing is surprising and wondrous, adults have reached the ceiling, are difficult to impress and are constantly pushing the limits for what is possible, often while also seeking to inflate the comfort level of such escapades.
There is no question the rebellious risk-takers and fire-starters are the instigators of a wider arena for sport at large, but the price paid for the effort is often not one most of us can afford. I envision the extreme scenario of a snowboarder via helicopter dropped off atop a snow-capped cliff into the twisted descent of a freshly frosted slope. This is not realistic for the average Joeboarder, much less an adult in the Phoenix desert and penniless. Or, how about the YouTube-sensational Parkour stunts? Incredible feats which are not for copycats (although they are legion) to produce. So what options do we have to play or recreate in a joyful (and exhilarating) manner? Better yet, what does an adult, without the access or the skill level required to engage in such ridiculous circumstances, do for sport? That’s a good question. The first thing you must do is look around and take into account what is available and what interests you.
Without a financially convenient option most of us will not entertain the possibility or will budget it for once or twice a year (or once-in-a-lifetime like climbing Mount Everest). What can we do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis to create fantastic events which will give rise to an “out-of-body” physical experience. We’ll discuss these options when I introduce the F.E.Q. in another blog which will help us assess what activities are joyful, intense, accessible, and reciprocal (in subjective experience and environmental impact).
For now it is enough that we remain bemused by that innermost beacon of play, the origin of all childhood, however prematurely spoiled, and move forward more cognitive of our motives to exercise. Most of us are not (paid) soldiers or (paid) athletes, we may have an interest to improve our immediate and long-term health or just want to slip in to that old black dress that seemed to evoke such haughtiness, but all these states of body are congruent with a body in perpetually playful motion. And I would even contend that ALL of these pursuits are best achieved through a mentality of playfulness. The mind bears too heavy a burden under a disproportion of seriousness and stress and responds positively to a healthy dose of mischief. My assertion is that play fulfills all the end results for each of the first four motivations without the drudgery and disconnection. Play is as direct and connective as it gets and requires just a little healthy competition AND sportsmanship and camaraderie OR constraints (physical and time) to vivify its intensity to match that of military or competitive training. Follow me into the next section on the Fitness Energetics Quotient (F.E.Q.) as we delve into the patterns that we are surrounded by and those that we surround ourselves with and determine what we might align ourselves with to create super-natural fitness experience.
Play on, playa..and March Forth!