Posted by: Alton | April 21, 2009

Individuality and the World


‘Sire, others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Pai Ya, or Pai Ya were the harp.”

-From “The Taming of the Harp”, as quoted in The Book of Tea


When thinking about wellness and the body, it’s easy to get caught up in all the fascinating chemical and physical mechanisms at work inside all the systems that keep us going, and forget that these systems exist in a context. One small nuance can lead to huge differences on the large scale, such that the perfect diet for one person could easily kill the next. In that light, I’d like to talk a bit about the role of the self in the world.

The sense of self has always been a difficult problem for philosophers. Without delving into questions of dualism and materialism, which largely have no scope on issues other than religion, metaphysics, and some edge cases in ethics, I think it’s worth noting that the role of self-in-the-world in the west has largely been a detached one. From the dualism of Plato, the Christian adaptations of Aristotle’s ‘psyche’, and Kant’s Copernican Revolution, there has always been a sense that we are removed somehow from our environment, and that there is a veil of ignorance that separates us from the world. Or a fiery cave with shackles, depending on how poetic you feel. I largely agree with this idea- it’s important to keep a sense of the proportion of things, and to understand the flaws in our perceptions and ability to comprehend the world around us. Yes, there is a detachment to be found here, which manifests itself in a healthy way in the sense of skepticism and distrust in our own senses at giving the full picture of an event. Taken too far, and you get a relativism that denies the ability to ask meaningful questions of the world around us- a relativism I soundly reject.

Despite this detachment, however, we constantly betray our intimate connection with the world. As Confucius put it, “Man Hideth Not.” Or as Okakura put it, “For life is an expression, our unconscious actions the constant betrayal of our innermost thought.” It is an inescapable fact that who we are, how we act, and our well being depends on circumstances and events outside of our physical self. More to the point, all our learned behaviors, characteristics, and body chemistry all depend on that outside world- simply because we have a hard time understanding it does not mean that it is not a good idea to approach the underlying questions. How these questions should be asked and followed up on, though, is crucial.

In my Aikido training, only an extremely limited set of exercises are done independently. All technique is learned as a paired exercise or form. I consider the training I do here to be a way of delving into crucial moments in physical confrontation- slowing down the point of impact, to study how we can shape and control fast and powerful energy that can be difficult to approach without experiencing it at a slower pace. Aikido training, in a sense, is how we should approach all aspects of life- it simply focuses on approaching person-on-person conflict. In a more scientific context, the same sort of training could be seen as the same sort of scientific-method based experimentation, isolating and breaking down the questions into their fundamental components, that is the hallmark of all good science. But just as good technique only exists the context surrounding and including that moment-of-contact, good science is about a single reaction taking place in a larger context.

Such as it is with human behavior, as well. Individual choices are rarely examined in such a context, though philosophers have tried to dissect them as such- Utilitarians, for example. They are no exception, however, in depending on the larger context to be understood fully. Our sense of well-being is also greatly tied to the environment we find ourselves in- just look up psychology/communications fields such as Proxemics to see how seriously spatial relations can affect our actions and demeanor. In a sense, we’re “leaning” on the world around us- dependent on its influence and support, and constantly shaping and being shaped by it. Now take it a step further, and consider the surrounding world that affects us, and what –it- might depend on.

Ignoring the dimension of individual willpower and free will that could easily be discussed here, it’s easy to see how individual choices can be seen in far too limited a context. Lectures regarding “Eating too much”, or “not exercising enough”, ignore the larger context of the dependency of energy intake to outtake, and the body’s self-regulating mechanisms. And so on. The ultimate authority on our bodies is –our bodies-, and nothing else. The danger of misinterpreted science is attempting to use authority to something that you can’t argue with- imagine telling your insulin “NO!”- events always break down to that moment-of-impact, abstract-scientific-experiment granular level. You just have to see the universal in the particular, and the particular in the universal, without closing your mind to either, as both perspectives are equally necessary in understanding.

Extending this idea to the broader concept of the self-in-the-world, who we are as individuals cannot be seen in a vacuum. Just as any cog of a machine can’t be understood independently of the machine, we as organisms can’t be understood outside of the world we live in, without missing a great deal- just as the whole cannot be understood without all of the component elements. It is this sense of the inseparability of the individual from the whole that gives rise to my personal sense of collective responsibility for the contexts created on a societal scale- my response to the Tragedy of the Commons. 

I’ve always felt like there should be a sense of unified purpose that a culture or community shares in, but in the modern US, I feel nothing but an immense sense of passive-aggressive aversion. Almost as if everyone was holding their ears to the noise of too much stimuli, waiting for another human being to come along, living lives of desperate, numb isolation. I think this might be why I find writings from feudal Japan so appealing at times- the sense of absolute devotion an unified purpose under the heavens, and pride in the community of your lord, was something extremely foreign, yet attractive to me. Still, despite the pull in that direction, I must insist that no matter how strong the sense of community, the sense of the individual must also play an equal (and in many cases greater) role- it’s still YOU in the world, not just the world- but I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here.

Bringing this back to the subject of wellness and nutrition- I’m honestly not surprised one bit when I see obese and overweight people walking the streets, because the patterns of behavior that result from eating carbs tend to create a craving for –more- carbs-, resulting in what we have today- a marketplace full of sugars and unhealthy food.

Part of the reason I decided to start writing, and to poke my brother into writing as well, is because I have this strong sense that the easiest response for people when confronted with cognitive dissonance and personal frustration with their own attempts to regulate their diet and nutrition, is to withdraw from asking questions entirely. They end up saying things about how nobody knows what a nutritional diet is, or that science doesn’t have all the answers, etc. This blog serves as a forum for the authors’ thoughts, but more importantly, I hope it can serve as a small community for our immediate friends to get accurate information (or to be routed TO accurate information- go go gadget Taubes!). Having my brother’s feedback, and lately the compliments of my co-workers, has helped immensely in transitioning to a more healthy lifestyle. It’s easy once you get to the self-sustaining stage, but until that point… well, like I said above, you lean on your immediate surroundings- so lean on us for a while. We can all share in the responsibility for our well-being, because after all, when my friends live healthy lives, it’s far easier for me to do so.


Certainly makes it easier to bring a dish everyone will eat to a dinner party.




  1. […] just as we lean on our surroundings, we depend greatly on components of ourselves that we would be hard pressed to define as essential […]

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