The Philosophical Body

by Rachel Robinson

As students of Philosophy we are engaged in the Western Intellectual Tradition. With oct 30 blogmuch of the emphasis placed on mental activity, we often forget that our bodies are a key part of our success as students and scholars. For those familiar with Merleau-Ponty or Feminist thought, it is well-known the body is a subject worthy of philosophical exploration. In fact, some may say that the body announces itself. The body speaks especially loudly when it says that it’s time to stop working, whether by the stomach’s growling from hunger, the legs’ stiffness from sitting in one spot for countless hours, or the eyes’ burning from staring too long at a computer screen. At each of these instances, and especially when they’re combined, the body dictates how much quality work can be done. An anecdote that one of my professors often told was that of Kant taking his daily walk at the same time each day at such a precise time that the townspeople set their watches to his routine. Kant knew that spending all day long reading and writing needed to be supplemented by some form of physical activity, and this is advice that grad students tend to forget. Sometimes, the mental exhaustion that is part of extensive research can be helped by attending to the body’s needs. Here are some suggestions for staying mentally and physically strong:

  • Pay attention to your eyes. When they start stinging or burning from constant computer use, it’s time to step away from the screen. Sometimes, just closing your eyes for a minute and then getting back to the typing may be enough, especially in the middle of a paragraph. When you have a headache but still need to write your ideas down, do it the old-fashioned way using a pen and notebook.
  • Learn the difference between taking a mental break and just being distracted. A mental break is when you’re too tired to think clearly because the sentences no longer make sense, and you’re doubting the clarity of the last few sentences you’ve just written. This is the time to do something else, preferably non-academic to let your mind rest. Being distracted is when checking an unknown word online becomes hours logged on Thought Catalogue or Buzzfeed. Try to limit your computer-oriented breaks to 10-15 minutes, and then getting back to work. Sometimes we get easily distracted when we aren’t particularly engaged in the subject matter, and few things are more depressing than seeing a blank word document. Try brainstorming or free-writing any and all ideas that come to mind, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more interested you become when you find you do have thoughts on the topic.
  • Stand up every hour. If you can, walk around to keep the blood flowing in your body. This will help you from cramping up and from feeling cold. If you’re working at home, open the front door or just step outside for a minute (even and especially in winter). A breath of fresh air is surprisingly refreshing from the stuffiness of indoor heating.
  • Keep water nearby. If you drink enough of it, you’ll be standing up and walking every few hours, guaranteed.
  • Take a short walk to clear your mind, perhaps to the grocery store where you can load up on great study foods like nuts, almonds and bananas. Similarly, take time to cook meals that you can then have as leftovers later on that week.
  • Go for a run. Or a bike ride. Or try indoor climbing. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the times that you’re the busiest are the best times to work out. Your body and your mind will be thankful for the change in routine. Soon, fitting in that daily run or gym time will be a natural part of your life.
  •  Call your parents. They miss you. Your emotional well-being shouldn’t be neglected either.

4 thoughts on “The Philosophical Body

  1. Great advice! Especially getting up and moving around even when you are in the zone. I find it keeps you focused for much longer if you take little movement breaks.

  2. This is all really useful and important to remember. I find that sometimes, when I am in the zone, my body fails to announce itself to me. For example, when writing is going really well, sometimes time passes quickly and finally I ‘come back’ from my thoughts and notice that it is 3 pm and I have not even had breakfast yet. I think your suggestion to make this a conscious practice is a really good one.

    I would add one thing to your list, if I may: pay attention to oral hygiene. This is not something you have to do every day, but as grad students it can be difficult to make and keep dentist appointments. In part I think this is because although most schools offer dental coverage, they usually don’t offer 100% coverage. Grad student budgets are often very tight and it can seem very difficult (perhaps impossible, or perhaps like a waste) to spend $50-100 to go to the dentist. But lack of oral health has been linked to many other illnesses including stomach problems and heart disease. For a lot of professors, we experience oral health problems, and most of these were developed in grad school.

  3. I especially liked the advice about the water drinking:)

    And your suggestion about making time for physical activity is another important one. I find that it is easy to neglect going for a run or spending time at the gym because you feel like you’re just so busy and can’t spend extra hours on something that’s not school related work. I find it that scheduling regular weekly/bi-weekly sport activities with friends helps to keep the commitment and allows for planning ahead. Or, if you like running, register for a race — this way you have a due date and a goal in mind that keeps you committed to running for weeks or months ahead of it.

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