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.
Since we are who we are, however (and not, say, North Koreans), we should expect that this kind of culture will only flourish in America if it’s connected up to our spiritual sensibilities. This is already quietly being done in organizations like San Diego’s Optimum Health Institute — the “healing ministry” of the Free Sacred Trinity Church, whose Bible-based creed seeks “the union of all with the Lord Jesus Christ.” To many Americans — religious and secular — this is sure to sound suspect at best and bizarre at worst. But in all likelihood, it is a strong harbinger of possibilities that many more Americans will start to seek out and realize.
Everyday life tells us unflinchingly what we try hard to deny — that the most significant fact about all of us is the extent of our similarity to one another, not the extent of our difference. Our individual differences are real, but they are too thin a reed to bear the pressures of modern experience and to prop up our expectations of happiness.
Our overly romanticized view of self-esteem as a spiritual essence is belied by the confidence and competence that comes from excellent physical health. If we got in the habit of raising our kids to actualize that potential, we’d be able to unburden ourselves of the endless, inefficient and ineffective educational programs that aspire to convince them that a high self-regard should flow naturally from one’s unique individuality.
Ironically and fortuitously, nature has equipped humans with bodies different enough on the outside to show forth our individuality even when we are in good physical shape. When that good shape is the product of cultivated and shared habit, we’re better primed to reach a degree of knowledge about ourselves and our world that’s long been associated with maturity and adulthood.
It’s increasingly evident that habitual, healthful physical discipline is a component of life that people want and need in order to do as well as they’d like to in today’s world. And it’s no coincidence that this kind of discipline can help Americans resolve some of our most uncomfortable and frustrating difficulties in some of the most important areas of public and private life. You’d think that anything which enables us to see our religious and educational stumbling blocks in a new light would attract a huge amount of attention, however outside our comfort zone it might be. Over the next 10 years or so — unless meddlesome legislators and bureaucrats interfere too heavily — that proposition will be put to the test.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.