The Hidden Pathway

06.11.17

Some months ago I began writing a list of exercises for learning how to control the lumbar spine and how to differentiate between movement that originates in the hip from that of the low back.  As my list of variations grew an interesting pattern emerged: all of these exercises required and promoted “core” strength as a kind of side-effect.  I came to call this method “implicit strength training”, but at the time I hadn’t yet applied the idea elsewhere and it seemed paradoxical to think of training the core by not training it.  This concept drew awareness to the often hidden benefits to any particular set of exercises or method.

As the weeks went by, during various moment of my training I began to tune into the implicit strength aspects of what I was doing, while juggling and playing throwing and catching games I saw how I was also conditioning not just the skin on my hands but also the bones, through the repetitive impacts of catching spinning sticks and logs.

Returning to an even earlier point a couple of years ago when I wasn’t doing any type of training or exercise, I decided that without having any strong motivations for moving I would use manual labour as a point of entry, or excuse to introduce movement into my life again.  Sweeping leaves taught me a number of things that I had forgotten in my sedentary state, most importantly, that movement and physical effort or exertion were enjoyable activities in and of themselves, regardless of what outcomes they implied or lead to.  I was also reminded that for me at least, movement is often a meditative activity, I.e. one in which I am completely focused on the present moment, enjoying the different kinetic sensations that arise from any particular action.  In addition, I was aware of the strength requirements and eventual adaptations that would result from habitually moving in such a way.

Sweeping was not a mere chore that had to be finished and as quickly as possible, but it was an opportunity to benefit from an activity in multiple, non-obvious ways.  Each movement was something that could be practiced and refined if only we decided to give it our attention and deem it worthy of our time.  The irony being, that when we make the effort to give ourselves completely to whatever we may be doing we no longer wish for time to pass quicker, and we stop seeing things as being a “waste” of time or as obstacles to achieving our goals.

For Daniel, waxing cars and painting fences was a waste of time because he had wanted to learn karate, but what he didn’t realise at the time was that he was learning, and that in fact there were many such opportunities throughout the day to practice, to learn and to improve implicitly.

Just as parkour uses obstacles as tools with which to strengthen the mind and body, the implicit learning mindset takes this a step further by applying it to all activities and all obstacles, both physical and metaphorical.

What the implicit model of learning highlights is that in our attempts to decrease work and make life more efficient and convenient we successfully reduce exercise down to what we consider the bare essentials, to our own detriment.

The trend of isolating muscles in order to train them is actually a fool’s quest, because not only does the body function as a single coordinated unit both in daily life and in sport, but ironically, if we are successful in isolating  movements, NOT muscles, we call upon a much larger range of musculature to stabilise the body while one or two joints move under control. Badly executed barbell curls that resemble strange hyper-extended deadlifts are an example of someone who thinks they are isolating their biceps, but would benefit from a free ab workout among other things if true joint isolation were to be practised. Gymnastics rings offer the most difficult and purest form of controlled joint isolations imaginable, which makes the rings a great tool for practising and increasing the skill of paired stabilisation/mobilisation, and also a diagnostic tool for finding weaknesses or areas that lack necessary control.

In nature everything is experienced multi-dimensionally and has many implicit elements.  Problems begin to show up when we attempt to isolate and prise apart these elements from their intrinsic structures because in doing so we are ignoring the context in which they have grown.  If we cut off the philosophy (or fighting) from a martial art we are left with competition or meaningless movement.

As I have previously hinted at I believe that what is often referred to as the soul is actually a number of non-obvious, invisible and implied characteristics of an object, activity or being.  Martial arts minus philosophy is soulless, a person without strong guiding values, morals and purpose: soulless.  A meal from a blender or microwaved package: soulless.

In this way we could see that attempts to alter traditions whether they originate in martial arts, religions, governments or other areas of society are deeply felt threats that are more than simple challenges to beliefs and norms, but are threats to the very soul, that act on an emotional and not intellectual level.

Soullessness is simply a synonym for “there’s something important missing from this equation”, where that important thing might just be in the eye of the beholder.

I believe that soulfulness equates with wholeness, in other words, an appreciation and expression from multiple angles maximises soul, while anything isolated is soulless.  The soul needs a body to inhabit, and not just a few skin cells.

This explains another part of the internal dilemma I had about creating my own non-martial art, which was the feeling that I was somehow contributing to a less-soulful universe.  I realised that I had successfully isolated many disparate ingredients for my home-brewed concoction, and that I now needed to put them together, to create something new and above all, whole.  I needn’t have worried though, as my intention has always been to move away from efficiency and towards deeper meaning and purpose stemming from honest self-expression.

How did I do that?  How did I get here?  These are typical feelings of those who learn implicitly, and ironically it was such a question, along with a desire to know more for the sake of self-improvement and ultimately sharing my experience with others, that lead me down a long tunnel away from self-knowledge and a naturally instinctive approach to everything in life.  I learned a lot of interesting things during that time, in a backwards, inside-out kinda way, but despite it being interesting most of that information did little to benefit me in any practical way, and more importantly it left my original question unanswered.

Now I know that I don’t want to know.  My new question however, is how can others be taught, or should I say guided towards the path of implicit learning and instinctive exploration?  Bruce Lee would have called this a study of unnatural naturalness, and I have already begun experimenting recently with novel techniques designed to facilitate skill acquisition in an unconscious manner.  My past experience though, is grounded in accidental strength, but it remains to be seen whether I can take that experience to build a useful model for others, and whether or not the other implicit qualities can be successfully integrated along with all the additional, less physical, but nevertheless important aspects of my non-martial art.

This is the challenge facing anyone wishing to design their own ritual: how to mould separate and unrelated elements together in order to form a coherent whole that appears as natural as possible, while providing the benefits you want without introducing problems.  This is another example of unnatural naturalness, but on a different level.

Perhaps the pursuit of a purpose-built, all encompassing way of life, philosophy and culture will suffer the same problems my other non-instinctive activities did, except this time on an all-encompassing scale.  I see the problem as ultimately being an artistic one though; a challenge of creating a sense of order from chaos, of building a whole that is greater than the sum of all its components.  I have already chosen the main ingredients instinctively, what remains now is how they are put together, and it seems highly likely that the result will be a surprising one.

The Art of Movement?

Coe (1992, p. 219) defines art as:

Color and/or form used by humans in order to modify an object, body, or message solely to attract attention to that object, body, or message. The proximate or immediate effect of art is to make objects more noticeable.

 

My interest is not in making the body more noticeable as is the case with adornment and decoration, as this type of body art is strongly linked to the goal of attracting a suitable mate, and nor would I say that my practice is the art of movement.  For one thing, the term “movement” is very vague and yet seemingly all-encompassing due to the fact that “doing” is an act, and all acts imply movement of some form, but when we examine the practices of those who align themselves with such a label what we see is a much more limited set of ideas and products, but more importantly the art of movement implies an emphasis on movement and aesthetics, drawing attention to the movements themselves, and in turn the body.

My goal is not to get caught up in worshipping a particular physique or type of movement, but to draw attention to the wonderful variety of human capacities that stem from having large brains and being bipedal with opposable thumbs.  This incorporates a lot of physical activities, skills and qualities, but above all, the capacity to acquire them through continuing challenge, practise and discipline.

I think that self-change, an expansion of experience and capacity to appreciate and also empathise are at the heart of what I am aiming for.  A humanistic art that celebrates and consciously seeks to benefit from our innate abilities and characteristics, and that inspires a broader perspective of what life is and can be.

So while a body is necessary for being human, it should be seen as a facilitator of experience rather than simply a means by which to render one’s self more desirable.  My art is human-centric, not body, or even mind-centric.

Nevertheless, we can’t escape the fact that as humans we love to watch each other, especially when we perform, so while we can exercise our humanity in the enjoyment of watching or being seen, we should just accept this as an inevitable phenomena and not confuse it with our person aims.

Sheep are thought of as being dumb animals who follow the herd without thinking, but humans are very much the same as we too are highly influenced by social proof.  I was watching one of our kittens play with a ball of paper and saw how this interested the other, which got me thinking that all activity, but physical activity in particular functions as a stimulus to outsiders, and perhaps even works across species.  Have you ever seen a child only begin to take an interest in a particular toy once another is playing with it?  From our definition in the introduction this would be akin to the art of doing or the art of interacting, making objects seem more interesting by taking an interest in them.  I have already experienced something similar when out photographing various things.  When encountering other people with or without cameras they take my regard as a sign of something interesting, something to be interested in.

I now think that the best way of getting people to take an interest in activities and ideas, especially new ones, is to publicise your own involvement and interest in them.  I imagine that this works better for ideas that can be presented visually through photos and videos that portray a person actively engaging, rather than mere images of something which is supposed to be of interest, or videos shot from first person perspective.  This also implies that writing may be a relatively poor method of generating interest, as writing is always read inside the head of the reader, instead of experienced through the mouth of the speaker.

I suspect that the advent of the online video has been responsible for relatively more copycat acts than the democratisation of the printed word ever did.  Could it be that videos and certain photos are in fact motivational superstimuli?

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.

DIY Culture

27.09.17

In thinking about culture it occurred to me that culture is like an ornate vase sitting behind a protective glass case on a pedestal in a prestigiously stuffy museum somewhere.  It is to be admired, gazed upon and theorised about, but never to be touched by the greasy hands of mere peasants, and the light-fingered parties of thronging proletariat children on their annual field trips.

But this notion of an untouchable authority figure leaves us in the uncomfortable position of being armchair spectators to an apparently powerful and socially significant force.  So this is where art comes in.  As I see it, art is a flexible, open-ended method for contributing to both local and global society, through ideas, actions, and other more commonly recognisable artworks.  In effect the artist is a creator of culture, contrary to the person who simply reads a lot of books and regularly visits galleries who is considered “cultured”.  In fact, the term “cultured” would seem to suggest this difference, that the individual has been affected by culture and not the other way around.

The failure of our society is to promote worship over participation, history over the present or the future, and the group over the individual.  We are taught not only who our idols are, but why we should idolise them, in a one-way system that belittles personal participation.  Critics and reviews tell us what our responses should be before we’ve even had the chance to think about or even experience the work for ourselves, and institutions everywhere provide the final word on what is interesting, relevant, and valuable.

The art world is a competition to be the newest, most innovative or provocative, to be the best at pleasing the authorities and conducting one’s self in accordance with institutional standards.  The art qualification is just the beginning in a long line of irrelevant hoops.

According to those in the know and those with their fingers on the pulse, everything you do is insignificant unless they say otherwise.  The accessible-for-all, self-empowering power of art has been buried by capitalist interests and shallow, extrinsic motivations.

Graffiti never belonged in a museum because writers had already taken matters into their own hands by contributing to hip hop culture.  By passing from the street to the gallery they gave up their source of power to the establishment, and the same is true of the other elements of hip hop culture that were exploited by the already-wealthy, who only cared for their own financial gain.

The power imbalance remains strong.  Institutions are still holding many of the keys, not only to exhibition spaces, but to funding and remuneration; the two most important things if you want to make art make money.  Increased competition means that more and more, especially debuting and would-be-professionals are willing to work for free, and little or no recognition.  Corporations, businesses and even government institutions continue to take advantage of this fact, helping de-value the work that artists do, all while continuing to promote the noble ideas of sharing and appreciating art.  Not only do we have art residencies that pay less than the equivalent of minimum wage, we now have a host of other traps designed to entice artists with promises of recognition, status and financial reward, but are really just money-making schemes for those that set them up.  Photography competitions with (huge) entry fees, exhibitions without pay, and artist-holidays that pose as residencies but demand more in fees than you would probably make at a real residence of equal duration.

This state of affairs leaves the artist at the mercy of the institutions, meaning that instead of being a true contributor to culture, the artist becomes a performer who simply acts out the values and ideals of the dominant authority, instead of expressing their self-generated interests.

So what I propose is a DIY solution – a culture that is created by you, for you, where the individual decides the values, themes, goals and ultimately outcomes, instead of having them dictated by a higher power.  But the meaning of DIY culture is twofold: it’s not simply about changing roles from spectator to creator of art, it is about adopting a general do-it-yourself approach to things.  When the pre-existing solutions and ideas are uninspiring, the empowering route of the pro-activist is to turn to a home-grown response.

I think that art needs a certain amount of separation from financial reward in order to continue to exist in its purest, intrinsically-motivated form, so we could consider the difficulties involved in making art profitable for the artist, to be strong environmental pressures that may actually be a benefit in the long-run.  In any case, it rests in the hands of the artist to create, not just works of art in the traditional sense, but to shape the world into a better place to be for himself and others.