06/17/2011 08:25 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2011

Men and the Mind-Body Connection

When the French philosopher René Descartes wrote "I think, therefore I am" he could not have foreseen the damage this concept would create. We have been taught to believe that the mind and body are separate and that our corporal selves are inferior to our intellectual selves. Contrary to Descartes' dictum, the body is a source of creativity and wisdom, and it often reveals more than our conscious, rational minds. I was reminded of this in a locker room after playing basketball a few years ago. I couldn't remember the combination for my lock. The more I thought about it and tried to open the lock, the more it seemed to elude me. I only succeeded when I drew on body memory and "let my fingers do the walking" without thinking about the combination.

The body tells the unvarnished truth about how we are doing and is our early warning system, signaling stress, illness, and breakdown before we are conscious of them.

Creating a harmonious relationship between mind and body is a foundation of flourishing. We need to become friends with our bodies and treat them as allies and sources of wisdom rather than opponents whose needs must be vanquished. Instead of dominating, or neglecting, our bodies, we must try to listen to them and take responsibility for what we hear -- a method I call "inner fine-tuning."

Struggling with his meditation practice, an earnest and agitated man went to the Buddha for advice. The Buddha listened to the man's description of the tension created as he strove for spiritual advancement. Knowing that he was a musician, the Buddha said that to play beautiful music an instrument must be properly tuned -- the strings should be neither too loose nor too tight. The man suddenly realized that he needed to loosen the strings -- to strive less hard. By easing up and going more with the flow he was able to fine-tune his life.

Inner fine-tuning not only helps mind and body become allies -- it is the crucial ingredient in deepening self-care. The Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses had a unique system of training, which exemplifies inner fine-tuning. He decreased his strenuous workouts when he did well and when he was struggling. At first this approach seems counter-intuitive; success encourages most of us to continue doing what we excel at. It feels wonderful, even ecstatic, to be in a physical flow or zone and performing at the highest athletic level with little conscious effort or striving. Most people become addicted to that experience and sense of achievement and crave more of it. Moses realized that no one performs at an optimal physical level over an extended period of time. Because the other side of such "peaking" is breakdown, he would scale back his workouts ever so slightly when he was performing extremely well to avoid burnout and injury.

Most of us get upset and push harder -- if we don't quit -- when we are doing poorly in a physical activity. When we try to get out of a slump we tend to pressure ourselves and therefore do even worse, which perpetuates a negative cycle of frustration, stress, and further impaired performance. Moses understood that when he was not performing at a peak level it usually meant that he was stressed out. He had the wisdom and self-trust to back off; which usually allowed him to recover, and led to rejuvenation, improved health, and optimal performance.

Moses perfected the art of inner fine-tuning. He was like a musical instrument that was strung neither too loose nor too tight. His original and balanced training philosophy contributed to his being a two-time Olympic champion in the four-hundred-meter hurdles, and remaining the finest hurdler in the world and undefeated for nine years -- a superhuman level of performance.

While few people are Olympic or professional athletes, any of us can learn the art of inner fine-tuning. Here are three questions we might ask ourselves to cultivate inner fine-tuning:

What is my energy level?

When you wake up in the morning, do you feel renewed and energetic? Or do you drag yourself out of bed and need a shower and a cup of coffee to get going? Many of us use stimulants to make it through our days. If we regularly crave coffee, tea, or caffeine-laden soft drinks to wake up and stay up, we are not getting enough sleep or are taking on too much work, and in the process, we are wearing our bodies down. Any self-care evaluation must include how much sleep we really need, and how much we are actually getting. All the latest sleep research shows that the effects of sleep deprivation are disastrous. There's a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture.

How is my mood?

Are you calm and relaxed, focused and clear-thinking, eager to face challenges? Or are you overwhelmed and anxious, harried and complaining that everything is too much? If so, your body may be telling you that something is amiss that you haven't yet consciously realized.

Do I impose a workout on my body? Or do I listen to how I feel?

Injuries sometimes occur in yoga class. Surprised? One reason may be that the participants blindly twist themselves into positions that someone else insists on -- rather than paying attention to how their own bodies are feeling moment to moment, which is actually the correct way to do yoga. If we bend to touch our toes and feel a tug in our hamstrings, that is feedback that we need to listen to or we may get injured. We have to pull back a bit until we feel the stretch but not the pain. Even if we only get halfway down we are actually in greater harmony with our bodies and will do yoga longer with fewer injuries.

As we deepen inner fine-tuning we create more harmony between our minds and our bodies, and that helps us flourish.