Dampfbad - Steam Bath

Of Sweat, Sweets, and Self

When you sweat, it’s you that sweats; when you enjoy something sweet, it’s you tasting and enjoying it. Isn’t it?

We often think and speak as if we were truly just the conscious part of ourselves – and it’s a fundamental and consequential way we fail to be and make ourselves ‘at home’.

We are “brain owners,” I recently heard in a podcast; neuroimaging finding the signal to begin an action before this action becomes consciously decided on is interpreted as meaning that we do not have free will (for it is our brains and not we who made that decision, apparently); many a talk of the posthuman suggests that brains will be uploaded into computer systems and people therefore exist forever, free of their mortal coils / meat bags.

It all – in all the commonness of talk about “my brain” or “my body” – misunderstands the extent to which we are our total bodies.

It would be amusing, if it weren’t so serious, that this is happening at a time when we learn ever more of how our gut (and other) microbiota – which isn’t even our cells, but bacteria – has a major influence over our health, weight, and well-being. So, we turn out to be more than us ourselves.
And sometimes, we are less, as when a body part or a sense gets lost and we are still ourselves; sometimes we are more, as when our tools basically become a part of us and expand our senses – and sense of self.

Sometimes, in fact, we are most ourselves when we enter a flow state in which we do not feel our bodies, certainly not as separate, lose our conscious sense of self, and seem to dissolve into nothing but the activity.

It is here that we find the problem with the everyday way of interpreting ourselves as not embodied (or rather, not bodies). By introducing those boundaries and ‘others’ to our selves, separating the mind from the body, we make it so easy to disavow all responsibility for many of our behaviors. What we don’t like is no longer our fault, “the mind is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Well, it all is us – and if we don’t learn to deal with that appropriately, balancing and nudging it to good ways, we’ll just keep flailing and failing.

Meanwhile, the ways to see how we are one, and how it matters, are everywhere.

Dampfbad - Steam Bath
Or you go into a steam bath. To many people, that’s even worse than a sauna…

When you go to a sauna, engage in vigorous exercise, or simply suffer a stifling heat, you will sweat. (Hopefully, or you’d suffer a heat stroke and collapse.) You won’t be able to do much of any work, least of all any that requires mental exertion.

Yes, to some extent, you can shape your reaction by will power. Some people will be more able to continue moving in heat, for example, than others, simply because they can (mentally) suffer better and get around the body’s mechanism to keep a safety reserve.

It is insane to think that the inability to just go on however one may want is a sign of mental weakness, however. There are mechanisms which are there, interactions both physical and mental (and not actually both, but aspects of a same we have decided to call differently), that make sense.
Will power all well and good, after all, but it’s rather better to survive without having to think about it too much.

Kaltbecken - Cold Pool
Cold pool, bracing like a mountain stream. Best done not thinking about it ;)

The interaction between the two sides of the same body is perhaps the most interesting, however, because the heat may be exhausting for the body while the mind says that it’s a good thing, as when you go visit a sauna or engage in physical exertion for the benefits and fun of it. Or the mind may say that it’s a challenge, as when jumping into a cold pool after a sauna visit, while it’s actually not just no problem, but actually does a body good…

Similarly, sweet things are so enticing to us because the sweet taste is an indication of sugar, and sugar is our fuel. (And no, not our body’s fuel, not our brain’s fuel, but our fuel. No sugar would mean no energy, and therefore no living being.)

It would, however, always have been around in rather small quantities, not today’s glut. So, a sweet is a treat. Or so it should be.

beim Zauner
Sweets in Konditorei Zauner, Bad Ischl, which were good enough for the emperor…

It’s not a battle between body and mind, the two are both happily one in the desire for sugar. The amounts we eat and like, however, will be more than just influenced by our surroundings. How much sugar is available, how normal and good sweet things are considered to be, how accustomed we therefore get (and have gotten in our childhoods) to certain levels of sweetness, will have a tremendous influence.

The influence is all the greater because there, it is not about a dualism between body and mind, but the unity between the two. In learning to eat in certain ways, better or worse in terms of sugar consumption, the whole person learns to eat in that way. A certain sugariness is, then, satisfying or already cloying, a sweet a perfect treat for a rare occasion or a constant snack, vegetables something to struggle with or to enjoy (and even to dislike only when they are too sugary-sweet).

Whether it is about sweat or sweets, comforts or growth, we will only get on truly good paths when we finally forget the old myths that explain things too easily – and incorrectly – and start working with things as they actually are.

We are whole beings, not minds that have somehow ended up stuck into meat bags. Hence, we need the sweat same as we like the sweets, all in a balance that positively challenges – and comforts – us.

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