Testing Times

08.11.17

In the same way that there are multiple lenses with which to view exercise, there are also many uses or purposes of testing.  In classical education tests are mostly exercises in regurgitation, where the student with the best memory is able to perform the best.  Individual sports such as running or weightlifting are also a kind of regurgitation, or mechanical performance of techniques that have been practised over and over, where the rules and the task are well known.  In such cases we may wonder what the purpose of testing or competing is.  Is it to see how well we perform under pressure, or is it primarily a means by which to judge one’s self against others?  The aspects of competition or testing in these cases are very limited, because the participants are aware of what is precisely demanded of them, and have months and sometimes years to prepare for a relatively one-dimensional performance.  Because of this I don’t see competition and testing in their traditional forms to be very beneficial for would-be competitors.

Anticipation gives us time to prepare, and the existence of structured and routinely programmed tests, especially when we are told exactly what we’ll be tested on, remove the opportunity for surprise.  It’s as if most tests have been designed for the purpose of making sure that participants fail as little as possible.

If you suddenly found yourself stranded on a desert island and had to seek shelter, build a fire and find food, that would be a test.  But if you spent months learning and practising how to start a fire, make a shelter and find food on that exact island before being left there alone, it wouldn’t be much of a test would it?  Or, at the very least, it wouldn’t be the same kind of test.

At the heart of this idea is expectation, and that if we make plans and train based on expectations we limit our options for exploration and spontaneous adaptation.  In a sense, training for a known or anticipated scenario biases us and changes the way we view the world.  As long as there is a well-defined goal there will always be a most efficient solution to reach it, which means that most testing has the effect of getting us to focus on efficiency for the sake of reaching that goal.

Professional sports is one relevant realm where the goals are clear, and where efficiency is paramount because it leads to winning more, which ultimately means more financial reward.  But outside of sport the most efficient way often strongly correlates to whatever the majority happen to be doing, as following requires no self-reflection, personal investment or creativity.

Creativity and exploration demand uncertainty which is why it can be emotionally challenging to be an explorer or artist.  Living in constant doubt and darkness takes its toll, and so the explorer must return to the comfort of familiar territory from time to time, just as long as he doesn’t build his home there and then never leave.

So the real tests are not so much the ones we choose ourselves, except when we choose to submit to the challenge of unpredictable outside forces.  It’s too easy to select challenges that don’t do much to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and of course we must all start somewhere, but I believe that the direction must be towards more uncertainty and a relinquishment of control.  Training for Ninja Warrior on your backyard replica course is very different from entering the competition with little or no experience of the kinds of obstacles you will encounter.

For me, a meaningful test is an adaptation or improvisational challenge that should help stimulate growth and generate new information and perspectives about one’s self and the world around us.  This is why repetitive activity, including preparation for competitions gets old quickly, because the cognitive complexity is soon reduced to a process of primarily tissue adaptation after a relatively few exposures.  Thinking on your feet becomes mere foot strengthening.

Weightlifting, even bodyweight training is like having a predictable sparring partner who just takes more and more hits to knock down over time.  The anarchic, improvisational-challenge perspective is to change partners once you discover their weaknesses and then defeat them.

The balance needed to be a successful artist is between ultimate freedom and constraint.  Freedom is exciting, wild and scary, and can present a challenge in itself for those who are unorganised or used to having things habitually handed to them on a plate.  Freedom means that you must decide the operating parameters, the goals and the means to get there.  Freedom ultimately puts you in charge of defining the constraints.  We define, explore, refine and narrow down the list of possibilities until we reach a goal, a fork in the road, or a point at which we decide to go in a completely different direction or to just stop all together.  Wherever we go or end up though, there is always a constant movement between freedom and constraint, or else we stagnate.

If we have too much freedom we do nothing; too much constraint and we do the same thing over and over again.

In this case at least, balance isn’t about finding the centre point between the two and then staying there indefinitely, it is about developing an instinct for when to move towards one or the other, and then acting upon it.

Fast Food

01.10.17

I officially began a 7-day fast yesterday, although I had eaten very little the day before, and didn’t at all consume an evening meal.  I had experimented with fasting as a child, but no longer than a day at a time, and if I remember correctly my fasting periods were often during school hours.  I think it was my mother who once encouraged me to try, and I soon discovered how easy it was, and what’s more how I could save my lunch money to be able to afford a better meal the next day.  My motives were hardly spiritual or noble in any way, but it was nevertheless an unusual experience that further separated me from my peers.

I have challenged myself to do certain things over the years, most recently to live without time.  Not being tied to a routine job allowed me to remove all artificial evidence of time in the form of clocks, and to experience life according to the rhythms of nature, becoming more attuned to my own feelings and learning first-hand how much influence this powerful concept has over us.

On my first day of fasting I realised how much food and time had in common, and that much of our experience with food is tied to routine and expectation.  In the same way I had seen how time would dictate whether we ate or not, mealtimes themselves seemed to give meaning and order to the day, so that when eating (or time) is removed from the equation things fall apart and we are left feeling lost.  There are unexpected benefits to fasting that all amount to having more time on your hands, due to the fact that you no longer have to prepare food, eat, and clean up afterwards three times a day or more.  Now that’s something I could get used to.

My first day of fasting went smoothly until around 6 or 7pm when I began to feel very tired mentally.  I went to bed around 9:30 but had trouble sleeping, unable to shut off yet mentally exhausted.

When I woke up this morning I was still tired and felt physically weak as I went out to do my daily exercises.  When I came back in I lay down in bed as I didn’t feel any better and was also quite cold, which appears to be something that comes and goes throughout the day.  A little while later I drank some black tea but was sick shortly after.  At that moment, like many other people who have had one too many to drink, I told myself “never again”.  Surprisingly though, or not, if you think that one always feels better after chucking up a gut or two, I felt much livelier and more awake than I did before.

My day went from me thinking that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever put myself through, to feeling that it’s not so bad after all.  The hardest parts of the day are when my girlfriend cooks and the smell wafts in, more enticingly than ever.  I realised that I must have pretty good self-control though, as I don’t allow myself to dwell on the thought of food and have avoided making a lip-smacking mental list of all the thing I intend to feast upon once these 7 days are up.  Ok, at least not a complete list.

Today I saw how food, mealtimes and other related rituals are important for their symbolic aspects in ways that mechanical representations of time are not.  Food isn’t just a bunch of nutrients to be consumed as efficiently as possible, food is a vital symbol of self and group sustenance that not only concerns the end product in the form of a meal, but also encompasses the rituals and practices of hunting (sacrifice), harvesting (nurturing) and preparation.  This is why the metaphor of fast food extends much deeper than simply reduced cooking times, for the whole concept of food itself is reduced.

Recently I began not saying grace, but simply having a moment of often silent appreciation for the food and favourable circumstances that allow me to eat regularly.  Now into my fourth day of fasting my appreciation of food has grown even stronger, along with an awareness that every meal, every bite is an opportunity to enjoy the simple, necessary act of eating.  Bringing a consciousness to our eating habits and practices is another element missing from fast food culture, as we tend to consume our meals as rapidly as they are prepared.  There is a distinct lack of practice in savouring our nourishment and we treat carefully prepared meals just as fast food or protein shakes to be wolfed down out of necessity.  Fast food and the under appreciation of real cooking could be seen as a side effect of a time-bound culture that is both driven and sustained by convenience: we not only strive to make life more convenient for ourselves, but technology and modern infrastructures allow us to continue in this general direction by eliminating the need for effort and personal input, with an array of time-saving devices.  Convenience is all-encompassing, meaning that it is likely to affect multiple areas of your life.  It takes a lot of willpower and strong motivations to avoid becoming automatic when we live life according to the rigid routines of our jobs.  But instead of seeing a lack of time as the ultimate excuse for our failing to suck out all the marrow of life, we can instead take the opportunity and first steps towards a deeper appreciation of daily experiences as they are presented to us, and that moreover, we can liberate ourselves from a stressful sense of not having enough time.  For when you fail to enjoy the simple, humble occurrences that regularly pass you by, no amount of free time will satiate your hunger.

After being vegetarian for almost 30 years I became aware that I had slipped into a comfortable routine of eating the same things, despite enjoying cooking since I was a child when I would prepare 3-course meals for the whole family.

The closest I have come to making a new year’s resolution was saying to myself that I would pick up the recipe books and begin to experiment again, to change my diet and develop new tastes for the sort of things I’d habitually avoid due to prejudices and knee-jerk reactions.  Although I’ve yet to fulfil this non-resolution, my starved mind is eager to dive into this endeavour once I begin eating again.  My goal is to use the cookbook as a pre-defined constraint, meaning that I will follow all recipes and eat all meals, challenging my own consumption assumptions and expanding my knowledge and capacity for appreciation in the process.

I have already begun to venture outside the boundaries of my culinary norms with the discovery and joy of mushroom hunting last autumn.  I have never been a fan of cooked mushrooms due to their slimy appearance and texture, but realised that by developing a closer relationship to my food and also to nature, I became less repulsed and actually began to enjoy the smell and then taste of freshly-picked wild mushrooms.  Initially I would just help search for them, but later found it a bit of a shame to spend time collecting them without getting to savour the final product.  Now, not only have I been regularly eating mushrooms, but the proportion of my food that comes directly from nature and the garden as opposed to the supermarket has significantly risen, although remains relatively small for the time being.

I find it strange how something so important as the production of food has become so obscure and alien to the general population.  Not only are people ignorant of how to prepare their own food, they are also oblivious to the origins of their ready meals and constituents, and children fail to correctly identify vegetables, let alone know how to grow them themselves.

There appears to be a great source of untapped personal power, respect and gratitude in cultivating a more food-centric culture that re-connects humans to the earth through healthier (for body and mind) practices for eating and consuming.  Instead of merely waiting at the table with an eager knife and fork, the human must re-invest himself in all parts of the process.

Before beginning my foodless journey I had read that when fasting for a week or more the first days are the most difficult and then things het easier, but in my experience it was the opposite.  In the beginning I was able to function normally, to exercise and continue my daily routine without much difficulty and with a clear head.  As the week progressed I became much weaker and my calves felt like every step was a workout for some reason, and time itself slowed to a crawl.  Standing made me dizzy and I lost the desire to do anything, remaining seated and relatively motionless during the final days.  Strangely, throughout the fast I woke up before sunrise and didn’t feel like I needed as much sleep as before, despite being physically weaker.

I decided to end my fast early as I felt that there was nothing more to be gained from continuing in such a state, so on the morning of the 6th October, six and a half days after my improvised fast began I ate a banana.  That very instant I began to feel life return to my body, and I realised that this was the closest I had ever come to dying.

A week later and now everything seems like ancient history: distant and impersonal, yet I have created new boundaries for myself by removing one of life’s most essential comforts, and in the process altered my perspective.