Boot camp for the soul
“Existential Fitness”: Boot Camp for the Soul
Don’t just lift big weights. Lift Big Questions.
We hear a lot about “fitness” these days.
There’s a lot about “eat this, not that.”
Or “exercise this way, not that way.”
Or “adopt this habit,” and “avoid that habit.”
This is all well and good. If life could be boiled down to just food, exercise, and habits, good tips here would tell us what we need to know. Things would be a lot simpler.
But we all know there’s more to it than that.
That “more” part sometimes seems to barely get the leftover scraps these days.
There’s more to life than food, exercise, and habits, of course. But that’s where things can get messy. Life is often so rushed and complex today, we often try to avoid “messy” when we can.
This can make us biased toward the tangible. According to this “tangibility bias,” if something can be seen, heard, felt, weighed, measured, quantified, sold, made into a pill, seen in a mirror or selfie, or signaled over social media, it’s “real.”
If not, it’s “unreal.”
But the other side deserves a fair hearing.
It could be argued that some of the most important stuff in life is “intangible.” “What is essential,” says The Little Prince, “is invisible to the eye.” Plenty of intangible things don’t show up under a microscope or in a spreadsheet, but are vital. It’s the “other stuff” in life that’s less tangible but still critical.
It’s the “everything else” factor.
So, what is in this “everything else” factor?
Hollywood, for example, puts billions of dollars on the line based on elusive intangibles like “star power,” “charisma” and the “’It’ Factor.” Global economies rise and fall based on “trust.” Entire political regimes depend entirely on things like “will.” Everything from corporations to cities to ships at sea thrive or perish based on an intangible known as “morale.” Just to name a few.
Our personal lives also orbit intangible-yet-very-real things like “love” and “meaning” and “spirit.”
The quantifiable, the measurable, the empirical, the things that can be packaged and shrink-wrapped and made into pills – all fine things, when they work.
But like everything, a thirst for obvious and provable certainty it can be taken too far. It can become a “tyranny of the tangible.” Obsession with the tangible can exclude the intangible, and that can risk excluding the essential.
So, what does all this have to do with “fitness”?
Good diet, exercise, habits and so on – all great things.
But again, life is complicated, and big. It can’t be reduced down to just food, exercise, and habits – not without paying a price.
Meanwhile, we get flooded with information about getting our bodies in shape.
But we hear much less about getting our minds and hearts in shape.
Which seems strange, doesn’t it?
After all, if your mind and heart are in good shape, then your body, to the degree you have a say in the matter, should generally turn out just fine.
But if someone’s body is in great shape, but their mind and heart isn’t, then, well, eventually, that often means trouble. If the heart craves an all-Cheetos Diet and the mind says “follow your heart!” – well, that usually doesn’t bode well for the body, in the long run.
Our “minds” and “hearts” are “intangible-yet-essential.”
The body is important. But a case could be made that the mind and the heart is more important than the body.
Yet today, we seem to hear tons about the less important stuff, but little about the more important.
What’s more important than the food in our mouths?
Answer: the thoughts in our minds, and the feelings in our hearts.
There’s our “diet of ideas.”
That phrase might sound strange. We hear about the importance of a healthy diet when it comes to food, but not when it comes to ideas.
But it makes sense. An obsession with feeding our bodies nothing but organic kale will only go so far if we have a head full of mental junk-food.
We all have a constant flow of ideas coming into our minds and going out. The basic process seems to work the same way it does with food. Stuff comes in one end, and goes out the other. If there’s junk-food (junk ideas) coming in, the body (and mind) generally tends to get weaker and sicker. But if there are apples and spinach and nutrient-rich superfoods coming in, it generally tends to get stronger and healthier.
It seems to work the same way with our minds and hearts.
Some ideas and feelings are like junk-food that make us weaker and sicker.
Others are like nutrient-rich superfoods that make us stronger and healthier.
The “idea” equivalent of “The Cotton-Candy and Bacon Diet” seems to get a lot of great press these days.
Meanwhile, the boring, un-hip geeks pushing intellectual broccoli and spinach often get ignored.
This all raises an important question.
What kind of “idea diet” will get us more “fit” when it comes to life?
Not just physically fit, but fit on the inside?
Or, from a different angle: how do we strengthen our minds and hearts?
It’s not like there’s some kind of metaphysical weight-bench where a disembodied soul can spread out a towel and start powerlifting.
“Existential core strength training”?
There is some literature on “mental toughness.” But much of it basically about forcing yourself to do things you don’t really want to do. It focuses on pushing yourself to keep going even when you’re tired, for example, or working even when you’re feeling lazy.
Which can be great.
But it’s not “existential fitness.”
“Existential Fitness” has to do with The Big Picture in life.
It has to do not just with getting your body fit, but with getting your entire life fit.
This might sound like the stuff of some kind of “rah-rah” motivational speech or weekend seminar or something. (It’s not.) Inspiration fades. The bigger trick – and the tougher one – is a mind and heart that doesn’t need a constant refueling of inspiration.
A clear mind and a strong heart is definitely part of it.
But again, life is big. There’s more to it than just that.
Minds and hearts need to be grounded in reality.
And that can be dangerous terrain. Dangerous, partly because it’s so easy to underestimate, and partly because you can be in trouble while having no idea.
But being grounded in reality is no small matter.
It can mean squaring off with “The Big Questions” of life.
What are "The Big Questions”?
What’s it all about? Why are we here? How do we know? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What’s the point? How do we know? What the heck is going on?
We often avoid squaring off with The Big Questions of life. Especially when we’re relentlessly surrounded by pleasant, alluring distractions. (Aka, the modern world as a giant casino.)
We often think we should only ask The Big Questions during certain phases of our lives when we find ourselves going through a bout of angst.
When this happens, we often get busy, dig in, and come up with answers that are “good enough” to get us through that spell.
Then once that’s over, more often than not, we put The Big Questions aside and get back to the important things, like celebrity gossip and getting outraged about stuff.
But The Big Questions are often like art.
They don’t get completed, just abandoned.
Existential Fitness means taking control of this.
It means aiming for something more than “good enough to ward off a spell of angst.”
It aims for excellence. It aims for peak fitness on a deeper level than the physical.
But what would this look like in regards to actual, concrete actions?
A few examples:
It might mean literally, deliberately, and consciously asking yourself The Big Questions and working on your answers to them.
The work here isn’t physical, it’s mental. With this, someone sitting still – apparently doing nothing, to the casual observer – might have more pistons firing than someone furiously pumping iron.
And so on.
All of this uses and entirely different set of muscles than what we often call on.
All of it can be quite challenging.
But luckily, your trusty LiveReal Agents are on the case.
We’re working on it.
No doubt, this is no small enchilada we’re trying to bite down on.
But we’ve been working on all this for a while now. The mission is ongoing. The landscape is treacherous, and the dangers are harrowing.
But we’ve made some progress.
What follows is an “existential gym” of sorts.
The objective is something like “core inner strength.”
A gym is essentially a series of challenges. The weights challenge your muscles, which makes them stronger.
The kind of workout in this gym isn’t for your body. It’s for your mind, and heart, and as folks used to call it, back in yonder olden times, your “soul.”
These challenges don’t involve weights, just weighty questions. The exercise isn’t about lifting big barbells, but big ideas. They aren’t meant to leave your body “sore but stronger” – the way a good workout does – they’re meant to leave your mind, heart, and life “sore but stronger.” The soreness is temporary, but the strength should stay around.
If you work it.
What follows is something like an amusement park.
It’s like a Disneyland for folks who want to be more existentially fit.
(So, is it a gym, or an amusement park? Can amusement parks make you stronger? Can gyms be lots of fun? Or maybe a mixed metaphor is a ten-pound barbell, and you’re lifting it right now?)
At any rate, you don’t have to go there in person, pay twenty bucks just to park, and stand in line for hours.
Just cruise around the park and work out.
Some “rides” might grab you. Some you might want to ride more than a few times. Some might find exactly where you’re stuck, and unstick you. Others might bore you. Some might feel like “kiddie” rides. Others might seem like “too much.”
The challenge is to find a good weight, and lift it.
Here are a few stations.
Warmup: The Big Questions
"The Big Questions" of Life: A Roundup
10 "Existential Riddles" Life Throw at Us
"Games of Life": A Roundup
"Be Yourself" as "the Hardest Battle" of Life
What is "Human Potential"?
“The Higher Life”: "Living" vs. "Existing"
On Meaning in Life, and Meaninglessness
"Heart Workout" | Emotional Strength
The Perennial Psychology
Why "Follow Your Heart" is Bad Advice
Happiness | "Antifragile Happiness" | Why "the Pursuit of Happiness" is Sometimes Doomed
How Psychology Can Drive You Crazy
On Just Suffering
What is real "love"?
How to be a Better Lover
Does Human Nature Have a Spiritual Component?
"Mind Workout" | Mental Clarity
Everyone is a Philosopher
Overcoming Postmodern Confusion
What's Your Worldview?
The Limits of Science
Upgrade Your Model of "Human Nature"
Living Through "The Death of God"
Consequences of "The Death of God"
Why Soft Nihilism is So Popular These Days
The Origins of Modern Meaninglessness
The "Existential No-Man’s Land" (coming soon)
"Soul Workout" | Spiritual Vitality
Ask "The Big Questions"
Spirituality for Skeptics
Does Human Nature Have a Spiritual Component?
"The Existential No-Man’s Land"
“See for yourself” vs “Trust Me”
The Search for "The Meaning of Life"
The Origins of Modern Meaninglessness
How to Investigate Spiritual Questions Scientifically
Practical Spiritual Experiments
"Existential Core Strength": The “How” of “Inner Work”
So, that’s our “existential gym.”
(Or amusement park, depending on which metaphor we're mixing.)
The challenge, now, is to use it. If not this gym, then another one.
The hope is that soon, we’ll all be more buff and beautiful on the inside than we are now.
(Umm, and humble, too. Super-humble. So, like, each of us will be way humbler than everyone else.)