Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thinking Inside of the Box

In "Boxing Lessons," boxing coach and philosopher Gordon Marino argues that "Aside from the possibilities for self-fulfillment, boxing can also contribute to our moral lives."  I've taken boxing lessons, but for many of the reasons mentioned in the comments on Marino's article, I've never actually sparred with anyone in the ring.  Enduring repeated blows to the head simply isn't good for your brain, and since I (allegedly) make my living using my noggin', I thought it best to put my relatively successful career ahead of my slightly aggressive impulses.  

Although I also question the link that Marino draws between morality and physically assaulting an opponent, I think that there is a link to be made between athletics and the intellectual life.  I box, I swim, I bike, and I do Pilates, and in all of these activities, I have a very clear sense that I am not simply warding off osteoporosis and flab.  I am also becoming a better thinker.

As Marino notes, even before Descartes, the mind and the body have been separated in Western philosophy, a practice that is in distinct contrast to many of the teachings of various Eastern philosophies.  The Roman satirist Juvenal suggested that we should pray for "mens sana in corpore sano" ("a sound mind in a sound body"), but the fact that he offers this suggestion in an ostensibly satiric context makes it difficult to determine whether he was advocating this conjunction or acknowledging its ultimate impossibility.  (Juvenal also tell us that, while we're at it, we should "Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death,/ which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings,/ which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings,/ does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes/ the hardships and savage labors of Hercules better than/ the satisfactions, feasts, and feather bed of an Eastern king."  Well, I guess it never hurts to ask...)

So, setting aside the question of whether we can all be both brainy and buff, I'd like to meditate a bit on what it is that I learn from boxing that can be transferred to my intellectual life.  While Marino argues that boxing teaches and develops courage, I would argue that the ability to conquer fear is the least of boxing's influences on my own experience.  I think you have to be pretty bold young lady to begin with, if you're going to decide to go see what boxing is all about.

What I did learn from boxing, though, is how important forethought and anticipation--to say nothing of endurance--really are.  It's not about brute strength, although that certainly helps, and it's not about pounding someone to a pulp, although that sometimes happens.  Boxers have to assess their opponents on a wide range of levels: size, speed, skill, and attitude vary greatly from one boxer to the next.   You have to have the ability to think through different strategies for coping with the specific challenges posed by an opponent's unique combination of these qualities, and you have to know how to switch gears when a particular strategy simply isn't working.  All of this is particularly difficult to do, of course, when someone is simultaneously trying to out-think you and hit you very hard in return.

Boxing teaches you to keep your guard up: there's no point in being the smartest, fastest, strongest boxer out there, if you leave yourself vulnerable. (This was what drove me nuts about the film "Million Dollar Baby"--no good fighter would "forget" to keep his or her guard up while fighting.  As my boxing instructor told me, "After you get punched in the face, you remember, no problem.")  As I also learned, it's not always about punching; it's also about not being punched.  You have to stay on your toes and assess when it's more prudent to hang back and try to wear your opponent down.  If they're smart, they'll be trying to cut you off so that you can't wear them down, so once again, you need to think on your feet, conserve your energy and put your strength to good use.

Speed, precision and quick decision-making are crucial: you need to think about where you'll be striking, when, and why.  You want to strike fast, so that you can surprise your opponent and get your guard back up before s/he hits back.  You have to persevere and practice, practice, practice: reactions need to become automatic, muscle-memory effectively channeled through conscious thought and skill.

Boxing uses your entire body.  Your core has to stay balanced, centered and strong (this is where Pilates really helps), because let's face it: an off-balanced punch is no good to anyone but your opponent, and you can't slip (duck and weave) effectively (if at all) if you're off-center.  You throw a punch by pivoting your hips around the axis of your own centered body, so that the energy of the blow travels up your leg, through your arm and out your fist.  The force of a shot literally seems to start in the tip of your toes, gain momentum and power through your hips, and then explode out the end of your arm.  The faster you can channel this force and momentum, the better. 

So, setting aside its debatable morality, I think there are reasons that boxers love to box, and their decision to pursue the sport may have very little to do with an unthinking lust for violence.  Boxing can cultivate a kind of self-awareness that has applications to all areas of life and its challenges.  Given the chance, who wouldn't want to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee?

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