Whether you’re religiously pious or a bit of a fitness nut, we have a long history – us humans – of believing there’s moral superiority in the rejection of pleasure. I used to buy into this myself to a point, but I’m less prone to moralizing in general than I used to be. Or perhaps to rephrase: morals where morals belong, but what about where they don’t quite seem to fit?
If I’m to think about the logical biology of pleasure and disgust, they serve it seems, to ensure survival of the species. I’m not a biologist. My mum is, so I hope she’ll correct me if I’m off-base, but what seems logical to me is this: things that bring us pleasure: eating, sex, sleeping, exercise, relaxation, social interaction – these things can all be linked with the survival of our species, in rather direct ways. Also, these things that disgust us: mold, rot, certain foods, smells, pain – the mechanism of disgust also clearly serves to keep us alive.
Of course, not everything comes down to this.
But it rephrases the moralizing of pleasure somewhat. Reproduction, nutrition, social interaction – we need these things. Our very survival is dependent upon them. So it makes sense to me that pleasure, this powerful motivator, pleasure as a mechanism serves to keep us alive. What then, is wrong with this?
TW. A discussion about pleasure and exploitation:
The exploitation of pleasure is a different issue altogether. It is related to the exploitation of desires, fantasies, youth, naivety, and fears… to caution people against the pursuit of pleasure, maybe is to protect them from exploitation and violation? Is that a survival strategy, or are we circling closer to the practice of victim-blaming? Can we instead be more direct, and not teach people that pleasure itself is bad, but perhaps teach them in such a way so as to arm them against exploitation?
If you teach the young people of today to deny themselves pleasure, do you fortify them against exploitation? Or conversely – I heard this recently and it makes sense to me – if you teach people that pleasurable things should actually be pleasurable – instead of shame-filled – do you help them develop a good radar for exploitative people and practices? If sex should feel pleasurable, and it does not, you know something is amiss. And you may be less-likely to go along with it, than if you never really expected to enjoy it in the first place. And if you feel less shame, surely you’re more likely to report or speak out against people who are trying to take advantage of you? If you feel less shame, surely you are better equipped to make choices based on something more solid than fear?
And if you expect sex to not be pleasurable, then do you normalize things that really should not be normalized? Forgive me, to me much of this is academic. I’m raising questions to which I have no clear answers.
But to food: if eating should be pleasurable, but it is not, what’s going on there? Should alarm bells be ringing? If you are what you eat, what happens when you eat foods you despise? And likewise what does that imply, if you eat in a way that brings you pleasure? If you eat with extreme control, are you a controlling person? Discipline. Freedom. Intuition. Our personalities do seem to mix in with our eating behaviours. Maybe there are both pros and cons to this.
Foods that you like will be, in some way, good for you. Nutrition is good for you. Carbs and salt are useful; cravings exist for a reason, and that reason is not invalid. And investing in self-trust never really backfires, not so far as I can tell. But if we pursue pleasure at the exclusion of all else it can get us into trouble too. People in this world will try to exploit your desires and fears to their own ends. And at the same time, in a variety of contexts, restraint and moderation possess great merit. In the martial arts, restraint reveals dignity and compassion. Moderation isn’t sexy, but so often it’s the best path to improved health. But how do you structure moderation? Don’t eat excessively, don’t restrict excessively, have a varied diet, but can it be too varied? And what actually constitutes excess? Moderation as a concept is too, too vague.
Instead we cleanse, we diet and non-diet, we stop and start training, we are confused and extreme in our measures. I don’t mean that if we were just sensible all our problems would go away. They have a way of hanging around, whether you are sensible or no. My cravings started to go away, not when I did anything magical with my diet, instead they faded away when I stopped thinking of them as the problem. And, of course, at the same time I started properly feeding myself.
But there is also much to be said, in terms of the survival of the species, about the positive benefit to what you may think of as the act of denying oneself pleasure in the moment for the sake of future reward. Future planning is a good survival skill. But perhaps that needs to be re-framed too: it is the ability to apply hard work in the present, for future reward. This is rather a different concept to the oversimplified denial of pleasure. What you reap is what you sow, as they say. The notion of denying oneself pleasure must be for a purpose. Something solid and worthwhile. But hard work does not negate the existence of pleasure. Instead, satisfaction may be had in the moment, and rewards may also be experienced in future. One’s food and training experiences should be satisfying in the long term, but in the short term too. The promise of future reward isn’t actually enough, if you want to build a proper fitness habit. It must also be giving you something worthwhile right now, because the future-gazing game never ends. Good training programs do that - there is always some give and take. A good program will feel satisfying, but you must bring yourself to the task with an open mind.
But pious fitness gurus make much of the denial of pleasure, these days.
And it is easy to get lost in it all. Future promises. If you invest in them too much, in future you won’t enjoy your success, instead - what if all you have done is invest in the notion that you must be unhappy in the eternal now, for the promise of future happiness? In twenty years, you’ll be more practiced, that belief will be even more entrenched, and then what? You’ll be really damn good at being dissatisfied, because that is what you’ve practiced. When you are well-practiced at being unhappy with your body, that becomes a skill that is unpleasant to have. You become really good at it. When does the happiness come?
The health benefits of training - improved insulin sensitivity and hormone profiling, improved circulation, improved sugar metabolism, all these things start happening from day one. It’s not the promise of future thinness that does you good, it’s the actual physical act of exercise. That is immediate, and measurable. But we pin our hopes on body re-composition, even though it’s the last thing you’re likely to notice changing.
So if you have been working very hard for some time, and the rewards you seek remain elusive, is the hard work worth it all? Are the two things: your work and your goals, genuinely aligned? Will the former lead to the later, in time?
This is what kung fu actually means: skill achieved through work. It is not a martial art in and of itself, but a concept. Kung means work, or exercise, and fu is a mature adult. Hence, the more poetic translation of the term is this: refined skill earned through the application of hard work, over time. The work you are doing, this hard work, what will it actually yield? What will you develop, over time?
If you start paying attention to kung fu practitioners, you’ll notice that beginners or masters may be lean or they may not; mastery is not determined by appearance, but instead of course by quality of skill and depth of understanding. Because it’s about, well, something. Masters will have excellent posture, and they will carry themselves well, but otherwise physically, to look at – you can’t tell. One year of training or thirty – it’s a cliché, but good martial arts prioritizes substance over style.
That’s the context from which I came to modern fitness training: exercise was an almost entirely skills-based endeavour. My feeling is that personal trainers are supposed to be part of the health industry, not the beauty industry.
Nobody can fake good kung fu. Not even in The Matrix. And hard work, for its own sake, can possess value. But if hard work does not actually lead you to where you wish to go...
Things must be worth their effort. One way or another.
I had a thought the other day which started this whole ball rolling: food = fuel in the same way as sex = reproduction. It’s only one narrow window of perception. If you think maybe there’s something more to sex than a biological survival imperative, maybe there’s also something more to the act of eating. And maybe training can be pleasurable too. If you’re going to do anything, do things that are fun.
I don’t mean to sexualize eating, or training, if anything I hope to de-stigmatize both food and sex. Libido means appetite. There’s got to be something in that.
I wonder what it might be like: a reality in which we did not fear food. A world where hunger was not considered weakness, but instead was celebrated. Where pleasure was not considered base, but existed peacefully, in context, without shame. Just simply, without shame. Then you could perceive it clearly.
And exercise, I believe, should actually be pleasurable. Like all things, it depends on how you go about it, and if you expect it to be fun, to be pleasurable, when someone tries to take advantage of you, when someone tries to shame you so they can make a buck off your insecurity, you’ll be better equipped to actually notice and tell them to go eat a bag of whatchamacallits.
Donuts. Yes, donuts.
And if we’re to indulge in the hunter/Paleo fantasy: at the end of your training, after applying your tireless efforts to the task, you should be rewarded with a kill, so-to-speak. Have your cake and eat it too.