Reverse Capoeira

 

“There’s more to fishing than catching fish”

In the documentary A Passion for Angling this sentiment, or philosophy rather, is made eloquently clear through the tales and adventures of two old friends and fishing partners, Bob James and Chris Yates.  It’s almost as if the actual act of catching a fish is merely a bi-product of the activities that surround it, with particular emphasis on time spent in peaceful appreciation and contemplation of nature.

To this day it remains an inspirational souvenir from my childhood that captures many different qualities that I still find important, all wrapped up in the myth of the traditional fisherman.

Having been hunter-gatherers in a not-too-distant past, it seems likely that we are all inseparable from the non-obvious rewards that accompany such activities.

Deriving a sense of pleasure from life-saving, life-preserving and life-creating activities can be seen as nature’s way of reinforcing itself through ourselves and through multiple secondary benefits.  It also seems likely that we enjoy spending time immersed in the natural world because it was a necessary part of hunting and gathering.  Now our search-engines do all the hunting, and consequently all the legwork, and the gathering is carried out by third parties in the third world.

Unless we are to return to such primitive ways of living, there remains this untapped innate connection, and the opportunity to live a more fuller life through exercising neglected aspects of our humanity.  But conversely, there are other, non-desirable aspects that we would be better off without, this is why violence and war will continue to linger for the foreseeable future, provided that humans are still around, because these harmful activities fulfil age-old needs, despite huge differences in our environment and social structures.  In the same way that we can benefit from making use of our biology in healthy, non-destructive ways, we also remain vulnerable to exploitation in the form of superstimuli, and higher powers who wish to manipulate us for their own purposes.  The most obvious example of this in practice is war.  Young individuals, mostly male, are shipped off to die heroic deaths, to exercise their fight or flight response in the most realistic scenarios possible, and for those who do make it back they have likely undergone the most powerful of bonding experiences the modern world has yet to replicate elsewhere than the battlefield.

It’s easy to dismiss war as a barbaric tradition, yet its worldwide prevalence is a testament to how much we need it, or at the very least, something that closely resembles it.  Computer games don’t create heroes, nor help fulfil such myths as they lack skin in the game, except perhaps that of the thumbs.  They are essentially play-play-fights carried out visually and sedentarily.  Team sports take things further by allowing the creation of an “other”; an opponent to be “beaten”, which has the advantage of implicating the spectators who can also enjoy a slice of the contrived conflict, albeit from a position in the stands.  From this point of view, football hooliganism seems like a natural re-evolution of what the sports and fanaticism all stood (in) for in the first place.  It seems that some prosthetics may just never be enough for some people.  And while computer games present us with many forms of play-play-fighting, sports such as boxing and cage fighting represent the grown-up and brutally organised end of the spectrum.  The blood, sweat and tears are all real, yet the motives are often empty and meaningless.  This is how civilised human beings agree to bash each other’s heads in.  By these standards wrestling theatrics are merely symbols for the enjoyment of the half-hearted fan who is unwilling to lay anything on the line, who instead of play-fighting, pays to watch others do it for him.

Despite our innumerable successes in manufacturing addictive and harmful superstimulants and in exploiting our primitive brains, we have yet to make progress in turning our weaknesses to our collective advantage.  The secret lies in first acknowledging the vulnerability in question, and then testing various potential, healthy replacements and diversions.  it may be the case that we cannot eliminate all evil in one fell-swoop, or go cold turkey on war, and that instead we must settle for the current lesser of the evils.  All of this remains highly personal though, so one man’s martial art may be another man’s war.  The key is to concentrate on searching for and developing alternative outlets.

If war and violence are not simply about defeating the enemy, then understanding those secondary, and non-obvious aspects of physical conflict can help shed light on what kinds of activity may be beneficial in the process of weaning ourselves off of this particular drug.  Differentiating between the icing and the cake itself is a useful exercise for a culture that eats too much cake in the relentless pursuit of icing.

I realised some time ago that sports and other physical activities were actually just starting points, or excuses to enjoy and explore the different uses and capabilities of my body.  This idea became more solidified as I began to engage in and seek out manual labour “for the sake of it”.

Music is as much of a physical practice as it is an audibly expressive one, and just as different sports require different skills and parts of the body, so too does each instrument.  I have progressed from the piano to practising coordination exercises for drumming which makes everything that bit more explicitly percussive, while changing the involvement of the limbs and the complexity of their use – two hands vs ten fingers.

If you limit your physical practice to those things only currently accepted, categorised, reinforced and promoted as being valid options, then you cut yourself off from the vast sphere of all possible options, which includes a huge chunk of (personally) unexplored terrain.  The difference between moving thousands of kilos of furniture and an equivalent weight in the gym is not really down to the environment or the shape of the objects, but the context of the intention.  Either one could be both a chore or a pleasurable workout or challenge and so on, they key is the mindset which is always separate from the environment and the apparatus.  The mindset is mobile, and having a mobile mindset is imperative to adaptation in the long run.

My ongoing interest in the martial arts has not been kept alive by the inextricable kicks and punches, but by the training methods, and the simple idea that if you do something for long enough, you will get good at it: the same concept that gives fingers a mind of their own helps humans gain inhuman strength and capabilities.

I also have a particular fondness for the training regimes of boxers; the hard grind and cardio that leaves people in a heap of limp, sweaty mush by the end of the session is something to be admired.  While I had these myths and ideas in mind as I purchased a second-hand punchbag, my intention was never to become a boxer, or martial artist even, but to use the bag as a novel movement stimulus.

Capoeira is sometimes said to have evolved from the need to train a martial art in secret, and so it was disguised as a dance.  I like to dance while disguising my movement as something more practical, and more deadly.  I call it reverse capoeria.

 

Speedbumps

The trial and error, DIY, experience-it-yourself, go-out-and-actually-have-a-look method of doing things is a naturally occurring speedbump that has been vastly eroded in recent years by the widespread availability of both written and visual information about everything and anything imaginable.

Those annoyingly ingenious features of the urban landscape designed to consistently infuriate us by impeding our flow are actually there for the benefit of everyone.

I’ve come to view rituals and other “time-consuming” activities as both breaks and brakes, intended to force us to slow down and alert us to our over eagerness to rush through life physically and mentally.  The perceived inconvenience of any particular activity becomes its strength; an opportunity to take back what an efficiency addicted culture has robbed us of.

Nowadays even our rituals can be easily purchased, in an ironic twist of fate characteristic of a sick society (dis-ease = uneasy with itself and the rest of the world).

We no longer engage in anything of substance because it’s quicker and easier to buy and display symbols.  If I burn enough incense and place enough statues of Buddha around the house it’ll be easier to achieve enlightenment.  If I buy all the equipment and invest enough in accessories, then I won’t have to do all the hard work.  We are essentially trying to bribe our way around the speedbumps in order to get to our next destination as quickly as possible.  If we try to drive at 100mph over the speedbumps the journey becomes uncomfortable, reinforcing the idea that they’re something to be removed.  But if we slow down, it not only gives us a chance to take things in that we normally miss, but the very experience of passing smoothly over the bump provides an insightful contrast to the rest of the journey.

This is why I believe that we need to bring back and promote the creation of rituals around the ideas and events that are most important to us as human beings and as individuals.

Despite growing up in an industrialised age, in the late 80’s and 90’s at school we celebrated harvest festival every year, where everyone brought food along to donate to charity.  Our parents weren’t peasant farmers subject to the whim of the seasons, yet we had a ritual celebrating abundance which included giving to those who were less fortunate.

In a society that is ruled by the metaphor “time is money”, any activity or act that is not obviously and immediately related to productivity is considered a waste of time, and is often frowned upon.  I think this is one subtle reason people end up trying to convert what they are passionate about into a money-making endeavour, because based on the rules of the system anything that turns a profit becomes legitimised, whereas doing things for fun is seen as childish and inconsequential.  Meditation is only valid if it can be packaged and sold, and art is only worthwhile if it can be displayed in a gallery.  In this way we can begin to understand how a single metaphor can shape our experience and in turn, our actions.

In this new age there is no art, only “content” ; an amorphous, easily consumable by-product of our industrial metaphors.  There is no artist or human even, just a biological machine programmed to do its job and fulfil the needs of the hungry masses.  But just as food is consumed mindlessly and without chewing or appreciation, so too is the steady feed of content, never wholesome or nourishing enough to satiate us. (Funnily enough, Soylent, the liquid food alternative for busy people doesn’t require chewing either.)

So now we are at a crossroads, where either we put up a stop sign and some traffic lights, or we keep our foot down on the accelerator and hope that it doesn’t take its toll.

While the speedbump imposes practical limitations on how quickly something can be achieved, the benefit doesn’t come from making life increasingly inconvenient, but slowly arises from the realisation that by habitually rushing through every activity, including those that are supposed to be enjoyable, we fail to appreciate life because we are trying to make it happen sooner.  Furthermore, when we live at peace with the present moment we dissolve the idea of “wasting time”, because even if we spend effort attempting to reach a goal and we fail, by remaining present throughout the process we experience life to the fullest, which we gradually come to realise is more important than the results.  This could be summed up as:

“the journey is more important than the destination”.

If we think of the current status and trajectory of modern civilisation and its technology we could describe it as being efficiency and outcome-oriented i.e. “the results are more important than the process”, and “the ends justify the means”.

From this perspective, a mindful existence and lifestyle is not just at odds with the civilised environment, but is contrary to its guiding values and its core philosophy.

When you live by the metaphor “time is money”, the abstract concept of time is conceived in terms of the tangible object, money.  But money however, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, but is symbolic of the power of self-sustenance, based on all of the necessities and things that help form our self-image that we could purchase with it.  This connection between the three concepts, time, money and self, helps explain the sense of deeply-felt urgency that accompanies life under the influence of such metaphors.  Wasting time i.e doing nothing to sustain your self-image is equivalent to both actual and metaphorical suicide, as if the ticking of the clock indicated our life force draining as in a computer game.

As long as we identify with our jobs, careers, hobbies and appearance and so on, we will always be uneasy with stillness, with non-striving, and with minimalist lifestyles that require less doing and more being.

Notes on Ways of Seeing

14.02.18

This a response to the video Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which is itself inspired by the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by philosopher Walter Benjamin.

 

Artwork – images and objects tied to place and general context.  As a familiar smell, feeling or sound might signal and signify a particular context, (original) works are the signifiers of the context out of which they are born.  Copies are also signifiers of their own context, but this is mostly hidden from view, as copies are often presented in the same light as originals – when an artwork is set up to be copied the context is omitted; we don’t want to see the oil painting under bright lights in a studio, we just want to see the painting, or as much of it as possible, which means as little as possible evidence of context, as little as possible evidence that it is in fact a copy, and not an original itself.

This veiling of original context is aided by technology while simultaneously leaving its own footprint – typewriters, printing presses and computers all remove evidence of the hand of the creator.  On the face of it, such copies could come from anywhere and from any time, because the word (or image) in its homogenised form bears no resemblance to the mark of the author, and instead displays evidence of the machine or technique that produced it.  Instead of strictly referencing the author, any text published in the Times New Roman font also becomes a reference to Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent; the creators of that typeface.

As an artwork passes from original to copy status, the shift in context leaves its mark.

Graffiti on canvas, although it may be original, is really just an example of transplanting an idea into an alien context.  The form has remained the same – it is still spray-painted letters in a particular style, but it is no longer tied to the immobile and illegal world of the outdoor, on-the-run artist.  By severing the link between the context and the artwork, or as in this case, by attempting to graft the whole genre onto a new context, the origins and meaning are lost in translation.

Everything becomes bastardised in some way by experiencing it in your own preferred and habitual context, which is often at home and on your computer.  This is domestication in brief: rounding up untamed elements and bringing them into the home for the pleasure of convenient experiences. The desire to make art that fits inside gallery walls, music studios and television channels, only serves to benefit those particular structures and the people hiding behind their favourite and most profitable contexts.  Instead of a bio-diverse art community, we have work that is invested in and created simply to fit into the moulds that may accommodate them with open wallets.  Instead of artists that produce work that is true to its own, and to their own specific context, we have work whose origins are hidden, whose would-be destiny is the featureless and naked gallery wall, the tv, cinema or computer screen.  Artists are willingly giving up identity and context to the demands of technology and consumerism.

Each musical style is embedded not just in time but place as well, despite music being a non-physical medium.  There is something uniquely bizarre about listening to hip hop at home in your bedroom when you live in Finland.  This couldn’t have happened without the physical act of mechanically copying music onto disks, and without the removal of a whole culture from its context.  The role of technology in creating convenience in its many forms is at the heart of the worldwide spread of ideas, art and imagery.  If everything had to be experienced in its rightful place; in its birthplace, then it would severely limit what would be shared, and by whom.  In a sense, experience itself is the unshareable artwork: we can only gaze upon the aftermath through art-produce and its reproductions.

If you believe that everything can, and should be shared for reasons of equality, then you consequently endorse the continuation and spread of domestication, because to make everything equally available ultimately means to make it effortless and contextless, and thus meaningless.  By turning Mount Everest into a guided tour, it stops becoming the feat it once was; it is de-feated.  Accessibility for all, while on the surface appears like a noble ideal, is actually counterproductive, and seems to spring from the philosophy that all hard work should be replaced by convenience at our earliest convenience.

I experience other people’s art as if I don’t understand it, i.e. as alien and as incomprehensible as it really is.  My reactions are mostly gut reactions and a projection of my own ideas: I cannot ultimately see the world without my own biases or perspective, and so instead of understanding we must satisfy ourselves with the feeling of having understood, or at the very least, the idea that we tried.  The work exists as it is, but there is no perspective-less perspective from which to view it.  Restoring context goes some way to remedying this problem, but cannot overcome it completely.

Misunderstanding is the basis for many a creation, and could be seen as a form of memetic mutation.  By failing to re-create the original meaning or context we veer off in a new direction, using religious icons as placemats, and wartime propaganda as wall hangings.

Just as objects signify contexts, images themselves become symbols of particular ideas and associated, inferred contexts and characteristics.  It is these implicit associations that advertising uses to hijack our experiences.  Products themselves come to signify desirable contexts and experiences as they are consistently shown to us in unison, and certain colours, shapes or fonts come to signify brand markings.

If reproduction destroys original meaning and gives rise to multiple interpretations, then we could say that copying processes delete objectivity and replace it with infinite subjectivity.  But if context is also time-specific, then by virtue of them being old, we can never experience the true meaning of an artwork, even if it hangs in its right place.  It’s not that reproduction in the mechanical sense destroys meaning, but it is reproduction from one mind to another where meaning is lost, irrespective of spacial and temporal context.  Mechanical reproduction simply aided this realisation.  This becomes immediately evident when you publicly display your work.  No amount of showing it in the context of your studio, or wherever else you created it will help change the fact that the meaning people derive from the work is a product of the work itself and their own minds.  Since there cannot be an experience without one or the other it becomes the destiny of any idea or artwork to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and remixed, both purposefully and accidentally.

Meaning, if any is present in an artwork, is only ever loosely attached, in the experiential sense – there is no universal, transmittable meaning (no universally convincing arguments).

Harmony

04.02.18

Either I take photographs to see how they look relative to the reality they are derived from, in which case harmony is achieved through accepting the process and the surprising outcomes, or I take photographs because I have a relatively clear (in comparison to my own hazy imagination) idea of how I want a photograph or series to look, in which case harmony in a more obvious way, is about matching the intention with the end results.

Whether our intentions are explicit or not, our sense of satisfaction or dissonance arises from whether or not our actions and their results meet our expectations.  Having an implicit or subconscious expectation can sometimes be the root cause of a problem; a meta-problem that must first be solved before the real work can begin.  If I am unaware of my reasons for doing anything, harmony and dissonance can seem to be fleeting and unexplainable, or else, we attribute them to factors other than our intentions.  In such a case, a creative practice may serve as an exercise in enlightenment, that is, in illuminating our drives, values and desires, elevating them to a conscious level.  But unconscious trial and error is a painstaking way of going about realising what our dreams are, and it runs the risk of returning a result way too late to be of any practical use.  Better late than never, sooner rather than later.  It is much simpler to sit down and take a moment to define our initial goals and values so that they may guide us in advance, instead of simply notifying us when we make a wrong turn.

So from a creative perspective, we ultimately seek to achieve harmony in various ways: with our environment, with our tools and materials, with our ideas, our creations and ourselves.  In the same way we might consider an un-retouched photograph or perhaps even a photo-realistic painting to be “true”, in the sense that the lines, shapes, light, tone, texture and colours are sufficiently matched or appropriate, there is also truth in artistic creation when we consider this alternative concept of harmony.

Truth is also about our personal interests and perspectives, so that if we find ourselves engaged in activities that we are not really interested in or find inspiring, it doesn’t resonate with us, or “ring true”.  In this case there is dissonance between our desires or direction, and what we are doing or where we are going.  Even from an emotional perspective we experience these different kinds of truth in the same way, i.e on an instinctual, gut-feeling level. Does an idea make you want to jump out of your seat, stop whatever you are doing and get to work, or does it make you want to stay in bed on a Monday morning, and worse still, make you feel worthless?

Most of us don’t consider ourselves to be artists, but if we think of art as being a deliberate, creative endeavour based on truth (harmony) and beauty, then in carving out the lives we want to live we become artists, and we develop a sensitivity to what is true and what is not.  The title is not simply a label for the sake of labelling, but it is rather a reminder of our responsibility to ourselves and of our role in taking deliberate steps to actively achieve what it is we have previously and explicitly stated that we wish to achieve.  In this sense, a job title is a call to action, and a personal mission statement, rather than simply a description of some task you regularly carry out for financial reward.

Study

 

14.11.17

Study means to examine closely. Therefore to study from a book is an oxymoron because the words are simply not the thing. The study should reveal more about the book and the recording and presentation process than about the subject itself .

Studying from a book is really the study of the subject through the intermediary of both the book (the physical medium) and the author (the subjective experience).  In this way, words, images and videos etc, all represent barriers to study, as these artefacts are often mistaken for the truth, and play an important role in shaping our opinions of the subject.

If we accept that each mode of representation has its own inherent characteristics and biases, then it follows that regardless of the author’s intentions and perspective, our subjective experience will always be altered by whatever medium our subject is presented in.

While each medium is a metaphorical barrier it is also a physical one: a book is a solid screen that blocks our vision and engages our metaphorical eyesight: the imagination.  It prevents us from seeing that which we intend to study, by presenting us with a pre-filtered copy and set of conclusions.

In effect, in order to study something as best as we can, we need to have an unobstructed view as possible, otherwise our perception and ideas can become tainted by the filters.  This implies at least two things: experiencing the subject first-hand, and becoming aware of one’s own biases.

First-hand experience is always limited, but in the past was even more limited by technological constraints.  Now that we can travel more easily and cheaply than ever before, we have the possibility to meet others and have experiences that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamt of.  The invention of high-fidelity modes of information sharing such as the printed word, no doubt played a role in inspiring readers to seek out new experiences, however, they simultaneously blinded people by convincing them that the words in the book, and the subject to which they referred were one and the same.  Thus, personal study was usurped by the official printed version.

First-hand experience is also limited by time as well as space, because we cannot have experience of time periods before or after our own.

In contrast to (direct) experience, indirect experience is a misleading term, and often refers to “experience of someone else’s account of something”.  A video for example, would constitute an account of an experience, while remaining a completely different experience in itself.

“Being there” is a necessary part of experience, therefore the different mediums for communication represent tools for inducing vicarious experience of things that are not there.

[we react to old, documentary footage of soldiers being killed as if it were happening right before our eyes, despite the fact that even if those soldiers had not been killed in battle, they would have died of old age long before the point in time when we choose to view their recorded deaths.  This idea became even clearer to me upon watching on old film in which a small bird was caught using a metal hook – the bird had long ago died, and would have done so irrespective.  The recording and repetition of its pain and suffering was just an echo, albeit a powerful one. {This unintentionally answers the question “if a tree falls in the woods” in a novel way: if there is no recording of the event there can be no echo.}]

The problem is that metaphorically speaking, we refer to the imagination as if it were a place, a space or container somewhere in our heads or minds (another metaphor), so that anything that happens “in our imagination” appears to us as if it were right before our eyes, and so, experiences that are first-hand to our imagination feel as if they were external, first-hand experiences.  This abstract concept can be easily understood by going to the cinema to watch a film.  Although we know and accept the unreal nature of the events projected onto the screen, we can’t help but react to them as if they were real.  If this were not true, cinema would have little or no reason to be so successful.  We end up feeling hatred, compassion, and all other possible emotions towards the characters the actors are pretending to be!  If you spend your time thinking rationally about what is going on onscreen, you won’t enjoy the movie!

This concept explains why athletes who imagine performing their sport, experience some of the benefits of actual exercise, but more importantly it explains why zebras don’t get ulcers.  [It is also my own just-so story about why cats dream: the dream state is a low-cost means of not only staying alert, but also maintaining physical fitness and reactivity.  This assumes though, that cat dreams are similar to cat lives – running, jumping and hunting etc, and that unconscious (sleeping) imagination has a similar, or the same effect as the waking imagination.]

How we relate to the world around us is determined by how we view and experience it.  Microscopes and telescopes both afford us unique vantage points that the naked eye alone does not.  If we constantly experience life through a microscope we risk damaging our eyesight: there are no angry atoms, only angry people.  That is to say, we must maintain an awareness of human experience on a level of the naked eye, regardless of what goes on under the surface.  Anthropology is not the same as biology etc.

Beyond being interesting or entertaining, I think that viewing a subject through different lenses simultaneously shows you some truth about that subject through that which remains the same, while also highlighting the characteristics of each lens through those features that change.  In this way I believe that using a number of different filters to examine a subject has a similar effect to running multiple tests and then cross-referencing the results, i.e increasing the sample size.  If a drug is effective for example, this should be shown by each test, although not necessarily to the same degree: this is the constant, while any differences in the results could be explained by varying methodologies and so on.  Anyone familiar with the scientific method should be aware that the results of the study can be down to poor design, rather than the element being tested.  This important fact seems little acknowledged outside of the scientific domain, but has been summed up famously as:

“the medium is the message”.

So if coming closer to a state of objectivity is arrived at by both de-filtering and cross-referencing information, we can conclude that much of what we consider truth, in the sense that it shapes our impressions and actions, lies somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Our experiences and ideas are not really our own, they are concepts passed down to us through a long, complex and ongoing filtering system that includes time itself.  The information we receive prior to our first-hand experiences goes a long way to biasing them, so that in effect, books and other reference points become important factors in preventing us from having our own untainted, and in-the-moment experiences.

We are largely to blame for this state of affairs though, as we often like to research and plan things to death before taking action, for the sake of apparent control and peace of mind.  It’s as if we only wish to move forward if we can not only be sure of the destination, that it really exists and in the form we currently desire, but also that we will actually make it there without fail.

In a sense it’s safer to get someone else’s opinion before launching ourselves into oblivion for the first time, both physically and metaphorically.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense that not only having correct beliefs led to greater chances of survival, but sharing them too was also beneficial for successful co-operation.  Trust could be built on accurate advice and data, and in some ways civilisation itself was also built by these same materials.  But technology has exponentially and reliably enabled us to circumvent and derail our biology, so that characteristics and circumstances that would have previously led to the extinction of a particular individual no longer have that effect.  We are able to support life that cannot even support itself, so much so that for the most part “survival of the fittest” no longer implies life-or-death struggle it once did, leaving the phrase an empty shell.  And in the same way that changes to our environment have led to us becoming less reliant on ancient practices for survival, we are no longer so dependent on the sharing and receiving of information that has a high probability of correlating to our immediate surroundings or even the world at large.  Truth is going the way of the dodo.

There are a number of things to first consider: our environment is orders of magnitude richer in information than that of our evolutionary ancestors, and although this is true, the amount of relevant information has probably not changed all that much.  These two points leave us with the conclusion that we are currently swamped with superfluous information for which there was no evolutionary advantage.  Information itself has broken free from its ancestral constraints.

Let me now bring your attention to the condom; an item that prevents the one thing we have evolved to do: procreate.  We should take care not to conflate evolution’s results with our own goals, but in a sense this should be obvious, as it appears natural for humans to rebel against their own biology in every single way possible, and currently impossible.  The existence and widespread use of contraceptives is abhorrent from a survival standpoint, as is suicide, abortion and sterilisation, which strangely enough, quite accurately maps to what certain religions also find objectionable.  The condom therefore, serves as a banal example of the normality of the strange.

In the same way that we are unable to emotionally create a distinction between things imagined and the things themselves, we also tend to treat information on a is-captivating-therefore-is-important basis, as if the latest viral videos were really information on where to harvest some ripe fruit or warnings of imminent death-by-tiger.  We also share this strange relationship to certain foods and other superstimuli, one where we are unable to untangle our emotional responses from our sense of good or bad.  We find it difficult to instinctively comprehend the idea of something having ultimately negative consequences for us, yet on the surface appears enticing and pleasant when we consume it.  But this is the crux of the issue with how human psychology operates and fails to operate effectively in our man-made environment – we are falling into our own concrete pitfalls, having spent so much effort on paving over the natural ones.

This historical anomaly we call the news, is an attempt at study from a distance, or study without study.  In order for the multitude of things reported on by the news to be of personal relevance to me, they would for the most part, have to take place in my local vicinity, so in order for me to study (experience) the effects of an earthquake in Tokyo I would have to be there in person.  This leaves me in a strange position: either I travel to every place on the news in order to experience things first-hand and in order for them to be relevant, and for me to have a greater power of affecting them, or I concede that the images before me that elicit such natural, healthy emotional responses, are merely entertainment like the actors on the cinema screen.

The news, through its study-from-home technique, emotionally transports us all across the globe, and takes us from fear, anger, astonishment, grief, joy and all the way back to fear again without us ever changing position, while constantly changing the plot and the protagonists.  For this reason the news is perhaps the strongest example of media as a teleportation device, but what goes unreported is not the trivial and meaningless occurrences that would otherwise pass by unannounced, but the collective emotional impact that such an experience of information has on the population.  We are as enthralled as we are divided: torn and divided as the range of messages, emotions and locations from which, and to where it is all broadcast.  Paying attention to the news is to self-inflict schizophrenia in small, regular doses.  The cost is sanity, as we lose our minds from having them constantly elsewhere, jolted back and forth, disturbed, uprooted, transplanted and replanted.  The end result is that we are never here.  We are never now.  Always then, in somebody else’s past, a fly on someone else’s wall, trying desperately to make sense of the events, fumbling to arrange them all in alphabetical order in an impossibly large filing cabinet that juts off heavenwards into infinity like a towering tombstone.

We don’t see the filter, only the pieces that pass through.  So when we view life through the privileged vantage points of the media, with our easily emotionally captured attention, we don’t ask ourselves why we are being presented with such information, instead we move directly on to responding to the propositions as they stand.  It’s as if when the television says “jump” we don’t say “how high?”, but proceed to jump automatically, when we should really be asking “why jump at all?”

By virtue of the focusing power that the news has over millions of people, simply showing something, anything at all, creates the illusion and feeling of primordial importance.

Terrorism became important in the minds of people, not because it was suddenly more relevant to our everyday lives, but because it was widely reported on and repeated, and re-repeated and reported.  Statistically speaking, you’re probably more likely to die by committing suicide than being killed in a terrorist attack, which if anything, means you should be worried about your own state of mind and should probably sleep with one eye open in case you’re watching.  This didn’t, and doesn’t stop anyone from feeling uneasy about walking around European cities, especially at certain times of year.  That information cannot be un-broadcast, to paraphrase a catchphrase.

Information should largely be opt-in only, which would put limits on advertising in public space, and make it the sole responsibility of the individual to manage their consumption of information.  There’s a reason it’s called a news feed.  Instead of using the heuristic interesting=good, we should be more wary of not only wasting our time, but of the possible short and long-term negative effects of having such an unrestricted diet.

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.

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.