Years ago, I had the honor of interviewing David Mamet, who, in addition to being a fine playwright, is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts. After our conversation, I asked him to give me one piece of advice I might pass along to my students. He said, “Tell them to pick some physical art—ballet, boxing, judo, yoga, whatever—and to stick with it. It will make them feel grounded and better able to deal with adversity and rejection in this world.” By moving your body in a certain way, he was saying, you will shape the way you feel and who you are.
Philosophy professors (including me) assume that we learn to negotiate these things only by reflecting on them. It is as though we have become oblivious to the lessons we can learn on the path leading from the body to the brain. Once, I confided about an emotional problem to a yoga teacher. She replied, “The answer to the problem is just to breathe.” At the time, I was deeply and rather unreflectively committed to the belief that it is only by thinking that we can solve problems. The yoga teacher’s words awakened me to something I should have known already.
After all, I had been training boxers for decades, learning and imparting some of the lessons Carlo Rotella writes about so eloquently in Cut Time: An Education at the Fights:
The deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such lessons…about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy…boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.1
In the sweat-and-blood parlor of the boxing ring, young people deal with feelings they seldom get controlled practice with, such as anxiety and anger. And make no mistake—the kind of people we become is largely determined by the way we negotiate those dreadnought emotions.