The Tension of the All-Night Watch

It was my ambition as a young climber that started me down the path of fitness. My heroes in both the physical and literary world were fit themselves and revered strength and endurance as tools used to attain higher consciousness. Few of the men I admired had achieved success or painted their incredible masterpieces on steep mountain faces by accident. To be sure, occasionally, a man, pushed beyond his limits overcame his own best efforts and managed to survive his ambition in a hostile environment. More often than not however those who were dishonest about their personal capacity or were ill prepared died. This is as it should be; without predators or self-imposed challenges of similar magnitude it is easy to become soft, to regard health and fitness as unnecessary anachronisms. The modern world values intellectual horsepower and the "spirit" in complete disassociation from the physical body. Athletes are “entertainers” rather than examples of mankind’s potential. And the practical men and women whose work allows an infrastructure built upon ideas and words to exist are relegated to a separate society. Those to whom the application of physicality is a normal or even higher ideal are considered the servants of the virtual world. In this world the concept of fitness and its prophets are sometimes marginalized. Yukio Mishima, who, despite a brilliant literary career was considered a nut for his intense devotion to physical culture (and super nationalism) wrote, "how often has the term ‘imagination’ been used to prettify the unhealthy tendency of the soul to soar off in a boundless quest after truth, leaving the body where it always was!" Mishima believed in the correspondence between the flesh and spirit, "... feeble emotions, it seemed to me, corresponded to flaccid muscles, sentimentality to a sagging stomach, and over-impressionability to an oversensitive, white skin. Bulging muscles, a taut stomach, and a tough skin, I reasoned, would correspond respectively to an intrepid fighting spirit, the power of dispassionate intellectual judgment, and a robust disposition." Mishima did not believe that bulging muscles automatically conferred similar intellectual strength. Rather he was commenting on the fact that there was no outward manifestation of the moral character he had developed through rigorous study and intellectual discipline and that he could use the language of the body (as well as words) to communicate his character. He knew that no matter how well readers learned his words, lacking physical manifestation on his part the words mattered little. In the results of Mishima’s intense physical training one may understand the self-discipline and intellectual rigor of one of the world’s greatest authors. This physical intensity did not bring Mishima closer to his fellow man and it is likely that his relationship to pain further alienated him from so-called normal society. His desire to “follow consciousness through to its most extreme limits” was founded on the desire to discover when the conscious became “unconscious power.” His proof of the persistence of consciousness within the flesh was physical suffering. He called pain “the sole physical expression of consciousness” and discovered it “directly” with his body through intense, difficult training. Similarly Nietzsche wrote that, “Great pain is, as the teacher of great suspicion, the ultimate liberator of the spirit.” He doubted that “such pain ‘improves’ - but I do know it deepens us …” Mishima also believed that the acceptance of suffering was “proof of courage” and that this theme was the foundation for rites of initiation and passage in the past. These ceremonies, which symbolized death and resurrection taught the value of life and living and there are few modern equivalents save those we artificially create. While a confrontation with death is generally needed to teach the sanctity of life, tough workouts that push an individual to the very limit of his or her capacities may become the gateway to higher consciousness. Mishima noted that because his workouts replicated the struggle against death (in miniature) his solace “lay more than anywhere in the small rebirths that occurred immediately after exercise.” When concentration on the task is total the “I” the individual so highly reveres necessarily disappears and we become what we are doing. It is this annihilation and eventual recovery of the self that teaches us the courage to face and know ourselves. Mishima was right: in pain and suffering we may discover the bright and ragged doors of perception. The exhausted mind cannot maintain its prejudice or resist pure, human experience. And through this we draw closer to ourselves and to our fellow man.