On Exercising the Mind

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

We recognize the benefits of exercise — or practice — even beyond physical fitness, but not to everything:

In learning to speak another language, drive a car or play an instrument, we recognise the value of going over things again and again, of rehearsing, memorising and testing according to established principles. We willingly follow the advice of the tennis coach to take the ball a fraction earlier on the backhand or to overcome a tendency to maintain too upright a posture going into the shot. Ultimately what we are trying to do is to form good habits so that, with sufficient practice, we won’t have to think (for example) about how to reverse the car into a parking bay or return the ball from the left hand corner. It will simply be easy and natural.

However, for major cultural reasons, we are extremely selective in our enthusiasm for areas where we accept the utility of practice, teaching, systematic education, rehearsal and repetition. Very strangely and sadly, exercise has come to feel alien in the area of our intimate emotional and cultural lives. Jane Austen — for instance — would have readily accepted that people have to learn how to have conversations, that there are rules to be practiced in relationships, and that compassion is something that can be learnt. She spoke movingly about what she termed ‘the training of the heart’. But we have subsequently developed a highly negative take on the role of teaching, rules and exercises in emotional, social and cultural life. It has come to seem as if rules will always be oppressive. The idea of learning how to have a relationship, be a friend or have a conversation now sounds unbearably stiff, too formal, pompous or just fake.


There’s now a widespread dislike of generalisations and an assumption that no one knows the secrets of living well; we must simply make up the rules as best we can, there is no accumulated wisdom we can draw from. It’s about starting from scratch every time and cobbling together the answers through painful experiences, one mistake after another. Many influential 20th-century intellectual figures (Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Sartre to start the list) were supporters of such spontaneity, naturalness and authenticity — and equal opponents of anything that looked like an ‘answer’ derived from Other People.

The good life is something that can be taught, using exercises of clarification and exercises of reinforcement.


  1. Alrenous says:

    The synthesis being that your spontaneous, authentic intent is not always your spontaneous action, and connecting the two consists not merely of recognizing the mismatch.

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