Much of the bad rap that religion gets nowadays can be traced to a single source. From a contemporary perspective, many faiths seem to consider the physical body more as part of the problem than as part of the solution. Jokes about Muslim clothes, Christian chastity belts and holes in Jewish sheets speak to a basic concern that the body itself — not just its appetites or desires — is viewed by religion almost as an enemy. Some Christians, aware of the difficulty, have tried to combat it with something approaching a threesome-with-Jesus campaign. One’s abstinent years are presented as the divine cover charge for a lifetime of awesome God-approved sex with one’s husband or wife.
At first blush, the connection between this situation and our failing education system is not obvious. But a closer look shows us something huge. The awkward choices confronting many American denominations help reveal the same thing as do our nationwide struggles for adequate teaching and learning. Americans have formed an unintentional cultural conspiracy against healthy bodily discipline — a skillful practice that, if popularized and made habitual at an early age, can revolutionize the way we educate ourselves and our children.
In just a generation or two — a blip on the timeline of civilizations — such an approach would reap big benefits at the level of our entire civilization. We have known for years that physical exertion has positive emotional consequences. We also now know, thanks to researchers at the University of Illinois, that children’s physical exercise contributes significantly to increasing the size and interactivity of the parts of their brain that facilitate complex thinking. Our current attitude toward physical education, however, expresses some of the same cultural defeatism which constantly reinforces our sense that strict discipline of kids is bad, impossible or both. There’s nothing wrong with running, jumping and playing sports, but there’s plenty wrong with leaving it there.
At the heart of healthy physical discipline is an emphasis on stillness as well as motion, including the “active rest” of mind and body. Mere exercise — whether in the gym or on the field — doesn’t teach the critical physical skill of adjusting one’s consciousness to tune out the din of the world. It certainly doesn’t foster a reflective experience of the rewards that practice can bring.
Perhaps in part for this reason, America’s remarkable explosion of holistic body-consciousness has not penetrated the status quo hardened around familial and social childrearing. Today’s increasing elite interest in “getting kids moving” presumes that if you just get children exercising, they’ll get in the habit themselves. That comes too close to replicating the experience some language learners associate with that dusty box of Rosetta Stone CDs. Just as true language fluency comes from imposed habituation, so does true public health — proceed carefully, policy wonks — come from a culture that authoritatively imposes the habit of physical discipline.
Anyone who thinks that kind of cultural resurgence can’t happen by itself hasn’t been paying attention. Just 10 years ago, vegetarianism was an eccentricity, veganism was unheard of and yoga was something that happened in certain Los Angeles and New York zip codes. Now look. The growth of these habitual practices is being powered by our intensifying feeling that, psychologically, we can’t hack modern life without devoting focused, sustained energy to the discipline of bodily health. Arguably, today’s kids stand to gain most of all from that kind of mental centering and physical anchoring.