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.

Mobility, Metaphors and Cached Selves

06.11.17

The book Metaphors We Live By has been a great inspiration to me ever since I read it earlier this year.  One thing that came to light while reading was the way in which my relationship with my body was shaped by unhelpful metaphors.  The first that I noticed was the idea of mobility or flexibility as being an unobtainable object.  This idea of mobility as an object can be demonstrated by such phrases as “what will you do with your new-found mobility?” and “I’ve lost my mobility since last year” for example.  But for me, mobility wasn’t simply an object that you either have or do not have, it was impossible for me to get it no matter how hard I tried!

The second part of the metaphor describes a binary state which hides the reality that mobility is pretty much always present in varying degrees, as long as we remain alive.  When imagined as something perpetually out of reach the metaphor is successful in preventing me from exercising whatever mobility I do have, which is perhaps the most important point, especially as far as adaptation is concerned.  This isn’t just a philosophical idea; if we focus on what we lack instead of the things that we have available and perhaps take for granted, it’s quite possible that we let opportunity go to waste along with various physical and mental attributes.  Use it or lose it.

This realisation was like a fog suddenly lifting to reveal the sun that had been there all along.  I wasn’t at all as immobile and helpless as I had felt and acted, and instead of mobility being unobtainable it was an ever-present quality to be deliberately expressed.

The second metaphor that I unearthed dates back at least 10 years, and is one that more people can possibly relate to which is energy or strength as a limited resource.  While it is less obvious that this concept is a metaphor it works in similar ways to the first, which is that it limits our actions by conceptualising strength itself in a limited way.  In my own experience and no matter how absurd it may seem, what this meant was for me was that once again I failed to express what strength and energy I did have, and as my dad might say, I was “coming from a place of scarcity”.  I felt at the time, all those years ago, that I was almost “saving” my strength for some other, more important occasion that of course, never came.

As with the first metaphor, the implications are that by failing to express my strength I missed the opportunities for further growth that would have stemmed from regular, unrestricted use of what I already had.

Energy and strength are limited in a real sense, but the real-world restrictions are not well-represented by their metaphorical counterparts.

In my own case at least, it appears that metaphors were not the only things at work, and I suspect that consistency bias played a role too.  By proclaiming my inflexibility or weakness I would trap myself in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, propped up by cognitive metaphor.  Memories of myself declaring and acting in accordance with my apparent inflexibility would help form an almost unbreakable self-image over time.  Even if I attempted to change this image, it’s likely that my view of such attempts would be biased by my prior beliefs.  I.e. my beliefs would influence not only the quality and quantity of attempts to change, but my opinion of those attempts would also likely overstate the effort I put in while understating the results.  In this way, our past actions are used as a rough template of how we expect to behave in the future, which saves us the trouble of having to go out and create our self-image from scratch every morning.  The problem is we can get stuck with an undesirable self-concept and not know how to change it, or even realise we have it, as in the case of metaphor.

This is one reason I believe that much more importance should be given to psychological factors and influences when it comes to understanding one’s relationship with the body and exercise or movement.  The mind provides the foundation for a willing body to follow.

A final, more obscure example of how thoughts have influenced my behaviour also dates back at least a decade.  I recall a dream I had in which I found myself dancing in front of a large audience, where I was aware of being extremely self-conscious because I felt that everyone could see through me, as if the act of dancing rendered my thoughts and emotions visible.  Although this was a dream, at the time it made me realise that this was how I saw dance, and that I didn’t want to actually express myself in this way, or that perhaps I had just wanted to be different, to be someone and to feel something I would be proud to express.

This metaphor of dance as a display of emotion or of my “true self”, as it had felt to me in my dream, undoubtedly played a significant role in retarding my growth, just like the other metaphors seem to have done.  Feeling depressed, worthless and incapable, meant that as a reflection of these thoughts and emotions, dance itself became an act that reinforced my poor self-image, which in turn limited how I danced in public.  The circle was a vicious one.

Lately I have been dancing again, but from a new perspective, utilising more useful metaphors to promote a healthy self-image.  There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of harm to be un-done, but I am already beginning to feel physically and mentally different, in all likelihood due to a combination of my relaxation practice and a deliberate attempt to exercise and appreciate the qualities I already have.  Whatever the root causes, I am feeling more positive about the future.

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?

Before You Run

29.10.17

I began an experiment examining my movements while walking, beginning with my normal gait.  I filmed myself for five minutes each time as this was the recording limit on my camera, but this length of time was enough to allow me to settle into my posture which would possibly be altered by the knowledge that I was filming myself.

After the first five minutes of normal walking I then did a further five with an emphasis on relaxing the arms, followed by the legs, then both, and then finally I finished with various walking styles that over-exaggerated certain movements or particular areas of the body.

What I learned through analysing these various clips was that just as there was a gap between the feeling of relaxation and actual relaxation, there is a distinct general difference how my movements currently feel and look.  In short, I have to make a concerted effort to over-exaggerate my movements and positions in order for them to better resemble how I want and imagine them to be.

In addition to this primary insight I also discovered that I have no strong images of what a more relaxed and confident walk may look like, despite obviously being able to spot one when I see it (perhaps there is a link between being able to accurately visualise a movement and being able to perform it).  My initial self-observation was that my neck and upper back are too stiff and seem stuck together instead of being independent and articulated, but for now at least I am unable to imagine how loosening their association will change my walk.  In any case it’s not sure that reverse-engineering gait is desirable or even possible, but I do believe however, that being more relaxed generally should also affect my moving posture, and I have at least some confidence that acting, pretending or behaving as if I was more relaxed should not only lead to real relaxation eventually, but it should also confer similar benefits along the way.

These videos will now also serve as a record of my movement quality during the very early stages of self-treatment.

I have also chosen to explicitly abandon the idea of improving my posture through mechanical means such as stretching, myofascial release or strengthening.  Instead, inspired by other experiments in brain-body connection I will focus on tackling this challenge from the opposite direction, concentrating my efforts on mental techniques such as meditation, and building a greater sensitivity to, and awareness of my mental states and their relationship to certain postures, types of movement and exercises.

I currently feel that I’ve improved my sensitivity and that I am becoming better at imitating relaxedness in certain contexts.  Much of my “training” so far has happened within designated sessions, but already, perhaps simply through spending more time focusing on, writing about and pondering the nature of relaxation, the practice is spilling over to daily life in a more general way.  For example while sitting at the computer I am more aware of tension or discomfort, but more importantly I am quicker to do something about it.  This reactivity is a necessary part of the equation when we increase sensitivity, for what use is knowledge if it is not acted upon?

 

Sedentary Athlete’s Dilemma

“Not to beat the car metaphor to death, but you have to look at every athlete as a complex engine with thousands of moving parts. And you, the coach, are trying to squeeze every single drop of horsepower you can out of that engine.”

 

Movement is never a simple black and white dichotomy, and we can never understand movement and how it relates to the individual from visual examination alone. The exterior is often misleading, and many beginners start the learning process by simply imitating their references. It’s also hard for a beginner to have strong motivations for something they have never done before, and only have surface knowledge of. In any case, the exterior is what attracts people and what gets most exposure regardless of our intentions.

We may look at someone doing a plank and think that they are training their abs, but that is from our outsider’s point of view. There may be any number of motivations behind the exercise which as spectators we do not have immediate access to, particularly when we are virtual spectators.

Purpose is not an intrinsic property of exercises or movements, and if we use a little imagination we can create our own novel purposes from pre-existing ones. With this in mind we shouldn’t be so quick to take what we see at face value.

Examples of different lenses with which to view movement:

What am I learning?

What am I reinforcing?

What am I exploring?

What am I strengthening?

What am I stretching?

What am I challenging (mental/physical)?

What am I enjoying/benefiting from in the immediate term?

The modern progression has been towards training and turning people into athletes, I.e. the focus has shifted to a single, easily measurable outcome: increasing productivity. This is in direct comparison to the changes that happened during and since the industrial revolution which has lead to the mechanisation and automation of processes, along with the division of labour and specialisation. Humans began to create and use ever more complicated machines and means in order to enhance their exercise sessions and themselves. The emphasis changed from being on the individual (the interior) towards the object (the exterior). This implicated not only exercise equipment, but a whole range of supplements, aids, treatments and merchandise which now appear as necessary elements in a complicated equation which is both alien and alienating for outsiders (beginners) and the experienced alike. Health, fitness, movement, or simply put, a personal relationship and ownership of one’s own body are unimaginable and out of reach for all but the elite.  We can no longer know or govern ourselves, and must rely on the authorities to tell us what is best for us.  The only problem is that many authorities only have their best interests at heart.

Athletes (people) train (move) to achieve very specific goals which are based around competition with external agents and the potential rewards of fame and financial gains. The human becomes a specialist in the name of efficiency, and the spirit (hidden elements at the heart) of movement is lost because it was not an obvious external component.

The vocabulary itself speaks a lot about the nature of the practice. “Training” implies at least one explicit and extrinsically motivated goal of some sort, which in turn demands an often regimented procedure and means of objective measurement. An event or specific end is what we train for. We train to pass the physical tests to join the army, we train to win a particular competition or to beat a particular record for example. Training is the fundamental opposite of instinctive and improvised movement, but it is my contention that without allowing the training mindset to suffocate the natural or instinctual, plastic and playful side of things, we can use training for the benefit of our physical-self-studies. It appears to be a delicate balance though, which is made more difficult by the fact that many of us who search for a stronger mind-body connection are residents of a society in which everything is geared towards convenience and efficiency. We want our meals to be fast, and healthy, we want our exercises to give us “the most bang for the buck”, and we’d gladly make meditation more efficient if only we could. It therefore becomes natural for this way of thinking and behaving to extend its way into other areas. The idea of having time set aside to train is itself a symptom of strange relationship with our bodies and our health, in a society that depends on ritualisation for the sake of efficiency (again). Nowadays we have to schedule spontaneity and take classes on how to use our initiatives, which is to say that what should be personal has been rendered impersonal and the power of the individual has passed into the hands of someone else. We have (im)personal trainers instead of movement-based-self-actualisation-guides or elders. But much of this wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t lose our capabilities and playful mindset in the first place, therefore much of what the fitness industry represents is ad-hoc solutions to environmental and cultural/ social problems.

Athletes are touted as being the peak of human fitness, and this is a huge problem with the myth.  Athletes are not made (trained) to last in the long run, they are shaped to perform a relatively simple job at extremely high intensity, and thus for an artificially limited period of time.  Athletic values are in fact the opposite of all that is healthy, while maintaining a heroic physique and facade that is easy to sell to a vulnerable public.

Not only are we expected to work hard 5 days a week from the comfort of our ergonomic office chairs, but we also must train as athletes in our spare time, lifting more, maintaining low body fat and breaking PR’s.  This understimulation/overstimulation cycle is characteristic of life in a domesticated society where there is very little middle ground between the extremes.  It soon becomes painfully clear though, that one cannot mix and match a sedentary lifestyle with the training regimen needed in order to become the mythical athlete or even just have his body, like as sold to us by the magazines, photos and online videos.  The bitter pill to swallow is that the environments we have been raised in do not provide the ideal conditions to become the kind of person we are pushed to be, in fact the societal ideals are at odds with the environmental and societal conditions.

Instead of asking ourselves “is my training functional and transferable to real life?”, we should be demanding whether or not our daily lives are dysfunctional, and if they are conducive not only to what we want to do with our bodies in the immediate and long term, but more importantly to what we want to achieve in life.  In this sense, the concept of “functional training” is often looking at the problem in reverse, hoping that a bunch of treatments, whose content is still informed by the idea of building a stronger human instead of a more holistically healthy and mobile one, will compensate for the inadequacies of our lifestyles and our inability to accept them.

Human ≠ Athlete ≠ Machine

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.

Mindlessness

26.09.17

[This text uses the metaphors of “left-brained” and “right-brained” to refer to two different ways of thinking, which could be summarised as “the intellect” and “instinct”.  In reality there is no clear separation between personality types as we all express both sides to some degree, but more importantly there is no physical left/right brain divide that accounts for these differences –

The notion of different hemispheric thinking styles is based on an erroneous premise: each brain hemisphere is specialised and therefore each must function independently with a different thinking style. This connection is a bridge too far: it uses scientific findings regarding functional asymmetries for the processing of stimuli to create conceptions about hemispheric differences on a different level, such as a cognitive thinking style. Furthermore, there is no direct scientific evidence supporting the idea that different thinking styles lie within each hemisphere. Indeed, deriving different hemispheric thinking styles from functional asymmetries is quite a bold venture, which oversimplifies and misinterprets scientific findings.]

As  previously discussed, our animal instincts and primal ways have become taboo, and in the process of taming our savage selves we have over-emphasised the rational mind, conscious thought, and well-considered action, as if culturally-speaking we have given the verbal, language-focused side of the brain free reign to dominate and influence our perspectives.  In a society such as this the individuals and ideas that are not in compliance with the left-brained regulations are rejected or forcefully made to conform to them.  By dominating our instincts and other unholy inherent phenomena we are metaphorically attempting to conquer the animal inside us, by imposing colonialist ideals upon it.

The domestic human values not just control over everything external, but over all internal elements as well.  If given the choice he would even dictate his own heartbeat.

And so, just as the animals and the ground they walk on have been stigmatised, so too have the ideas of mindlessness, ignorance and unconsciousness.

In a society that attempts to control and analyse everything that goes on in the mind, the thought of happily, mindlessly going about one’s business conjures images of a drooling village idiot.  To lose one’s mind means to go crazy, essentially due to the fact that the mind represents control, and a loss of such control is not only a sign of weakness, but also the sign of a dangerous individual that must be feared.  In the nature vs. nurture debate, conscious control often amounts to mollycoddling what should really be left to nature.

Ignorance is perhaps the strongest form of mindlessness, and hints at the idea that somehow we should know better, and have failed to do our duty as humans.  Holding an opinion on any particular subject is like proudly waving a little flag that reads: “I did my homework!”, but behind the host of opinions lies an uncomfortable truth, that we know very little as a species, and even less as individuals.  Opinion-waving left-brainers are uncomfortable with the weight of all these known unknowns and especially the unknown unknowns whose mere possibility keeps them awake at night in an awkward sweat.

There are two types of people: the happily ignorant, and the unhappily ignorant.

Where some see ignorance as a shamefully empty void, I see not-knowing as a blank canvas, a territory unexplored and a map yet to be drawn.  The same people who would point and cry “ignorance!” are the same ones who would dictate what it is we must not be ignorant of.

Unconsciousness or non-awareness is akin to disobedience in the eyes of the left-brained conquistador.  “You should have been paying attention!”, he angrily shouts in an attempt to wake you from your mindless reverie.  In fact we talk of consciousness using the same type of metaphors and connotations as before: high = good, low = bad.  Dismissing the fact that there are good reasons not to be aware of everything and to forcefully guide all our thoughts and actions, while also discounting the fact that many people are naturally right-brained, and that trying to make them operate in left-brained ways can be very counterproductive.

I have not only been a victim of a society that imposes left-brain standards, but I have also unwittingly fallen into the trap of wilfully attempting to conform myself, sometimes based on what I perceive to be more desirable by industry standards.  Now I realise that in multiple areas of my life I have actually made things more difficult for myself by trying to get in alignment with external factors that neither know or care about me, instead of concentrating all my efforts on being myself.

I have become too self-conscious, contained and shaped by routine, affected by what other people expect of me; a poor copy of my former self.

What I need to do is lose my mind.

Low and Mighty

24.09.17

As self-domesticated animals we retain strong links to our primal history and physical nature through our relatively unchanged biological makeup, particularly that of the brain.  But despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, we seem to be focusing our efforts on moving further away from, denying and even erasing all traces of this shameful past.

We place ourselves above animals and even use this as a derogatory term to describe other.  Flies, dogs and pigs to list a few, have all had the misfortune of having their names sullied by the connotations of man.  Animals are evidently lower life-forms, and thus, humans who share animal characteristics are repulsive pigs who deserve to die like dogs.

But the relationship we have with our beastly brethren as evidenced by our common expressions is only just the beginning of the story.  Perhaps the most significant aspect of our domestication is the move towards a sedentary lifestyle, and particularly the rejection, stigmatisation and devaluation of physical labour.

On one hand, slavery, mechanisation and technological advance are all about reducing the physical input of the individual for the sake of convenience and ultimately profit, but at the same time there are interesting, perhaps unintended consequences of such systems.  Physical work becomes associated with poverty and lower status, in the same way that pigs are linked to filth, grime and unsanitary living conditions.  If your job is manual labour, it usually signals that you are not clever enough, or well-educated enough in order to easily obtain a more sedentary position.  Moreover, it places you firmly at the bottom of a hierarchy which is quite clearly delineated between not just rich and poor, but between those roles that require the body, and those whose primary focus is the intellect, or at least just the brain.

The slave was liberated, only to become the operator of a piece of time-saving machinery, having once been the machinery himself.

So physical effort is viewed as something to be avoided, which also means that opportunities to benefit from Darwinian happiness associated with the body in movement are wasted.

There are however, well-paid physical jobs such as those of professional sportsmen, but despite their million-dollar income, football players remain manual labourers, and lack the status of other competitors in other sports such as horse or motor racing.  In both the previous examples there is a large financial barrier to entry: most children cannot afford a horse, a racecar, or even lessons, but what they can do is learn to use their own bodies with minimal equipment.  In any case, the divide can be seen within sports and physical occupations themselves.  Professional boxing has different physical demands and financial constraints compared to golf for example.

A loss of contact between humans and their animal heritage is profoundly mirrored in their actual loss of contact with the earth itself.  Squatting has been replaced with sitting in chairs, shoes separate our feet from the ground, and mats mask our contact with the floor.  The earth is dirty, like the animals who roll in it, and separation from this dirt is a sign of wealth.

Compared to the outside world, a modern gym is a sterile environment in which to habitually re-enact contrived movements for the sake of “health” or aesthetics.  In this way, humans can take their necessary movement medicine without having to get dirty, and risk the damage to their status that comes from contact with the earth and their animal nature.  A practice that not only embraces, but demands connection with the floor is fundamentally counter-culture, just as eating with cutlery is deemed to be civilised.

We are not upstanding citizens, we are low-down, dirty dogs, and these ideas are clearly reflected in our cultural metaphors.

Stand up for your beliefs by stooping so low and remaining grounded in physical activity I say.  In fact, we could even think of construction metaphors in which foundations are laid and built upon, as reflecting the same idea that domestication is about moving further away, not only from the ground and eventually the earth itself (think space travel), but from our ancestral roots.  In this sense, the negative connotations of being on the floor (down and out) may arise as a direct consequence of several metaphors which are based on the concepts up = good and down = weak.

Feeling Relaxed, Overreacting, and Acute Solutions

11.09.17

I thought of a benefit to my DIY relaxation method that hadn’t occurred to me until yesterday.  I was using my pulley setup for the first time, which simply comprises one strap borrowed from my gymnastics rings, and a horizontal bar not much higher than my maximal reach.  A slipknot in the end of the strap can be easily adjusted, and a weight attached to the opposite end to minimise the amount of effort that the pulling arm must make.  A bar is preferred over a beam for example, as the movement of the strap must be as smooth and friction-free as possible.

With my leg suspended at the knee to its maximum height, I realised that sucessfully being able to relax, especially quickly and in end-range positions, should really be a pre-requisite for trying to stretch in them.  While this may seem glaringly obvious, it raises the question “what do you think stretching is?”, and I now realise that I had perhaps always associated stretching with not relaxation, but end-range resistance.  The question then becomes “how far can I move (in which directions) while remaining relaxed?”, and this is something that the use of the pulley system can answer directly.

I have intentionally avoided the use of a training partner for two reasons:

  1. Working alone allows you to go at your own pace and to change the parameters to exactly match what you feel, without having to vocalise and constantly relay that information to an outside party.
  2. The ability to work alone means that this method can be used by anyone, and emphasises self-reliance.

What becomes increasingly apparent is that there are two different states:

Feeling relaxed

Being relaxed

“Feeling relaxed” can be thought of as “normal”, or our baseline.  We tend to think of ourselves as being at ease when we are immobile, which means that by living sedentary lives we become disconnected from actual relaxation.  If we return to my personal example of stress in which I had little or no conscious awareness of it, we could say that I had conflated feeling relaxed and being relaxed.

The purpose of this system therefore, is to create an acute awareness of the differences between tension (stress) and relaxation, and to re-calibrate our senses so that feeling relaxed correlates maximally with being relaxed.

When using the pulley system I worked slowly raising and lowering my arm for a maximum of two repetitions over the course of perhaps ten minutes.  When working slowly it seems that we can be fooled by change blindness which essentially means that it is difficult to be aware of a tension that builds slowly, compared to suddenly.  In this way, I would arrive at a point and then abruptly realise that I was not completely relaxed, and unable to pinpoint when exactly I began to create tension.  When this happens I simply return to a previous position and slowly begin the ascent or descent again.  With this in mind, a single “rep” is not really just a concentric and eccentric movement, but a series of back-and-forth explorations, constantly checking to see if and where there is tension.

There are different logical applications for this knowledge (sensitivity) and technique which encompass all activity and non-activity.  This is because we often form habits in the shape of physical reactions and muscular tensions which are unnecessary and can be detrimental in the long-term.  Frowning, squinting, clenching the teeth and tightening the jaw, hiking the shoulders up and even holding the breath are all seemingly small habits that amount to unnecessary tension manifested in an array of reactions and areas of the body.

If these are our responses to certain stresses and situations it seems possible that by undoing or eliminating these tension-reactions we can change our mental states and reduce stress.  This idea is a logical extension of such experiments that show by making a forced smile (by holding a pen in the mouth) participants found comedies funnier for example.  Furthermore, the experiments that found by recreating the conditions of attraction (increased heart rate for example), they could make someone appear more attractive, also seem to hint that human psychology is a two-way street that can easily be manipulated.  It is as if the brain recognises that there is a tendency for conditions to occur in tandem, for example a smile often occurs when we find something funny, without there being an awareness of causation.  Smile = Funny, and Funny = Smile as far as the brain is concerned they are linked, so we can either smile when we are amused, or exploit the fact that if we smile we will find our experiences more amusing.

In my own experiments I had already noticed this idea of “X appears in the presence of Y”, in the form of “a bent arm occurs in the presence of bicep tension” for example.  Initially, by passively bending the arm, the biceps would contract, although they were not needed.  But as I progress, instead of exploiting this two-way relationship, I am actually deliberately severing the connection.

From a psychological perspective this is exciting because if ultimately successful and transferable it could mean that we can train ourselves out of certain automatic responses that function in this way.  This is a useful tool for those interested in self-defence against the dark arts, and may provide a starting point for further self-experimentation of this kind.

As my training continues, the next step, after total relaxation through all ranges is achieved, is to gradually increase the speed of the movement.  At present there is no sudden force being exerted on my limbs that may cause them to tense up in response, but as the speed of the movement, and consequently the speed of the transition from being still to being manipulated increase, there is an increased chance of re-action to that force.  This is why it is important to begin and remain at slow speeds for the muscles (and brain) to properly adapt to these new states.  Once the limbs can be passively moved at high speed, incorporating active tension and relaxation can truly begin.

When lifting my hand with the strap I noticed that there was a split-second where the strap went from loose to taking up the slack and beginning to support the weight of my hand, and my muscles sort of “flinched” in response.  This is the same reaction I had when passively touching objects with a relaxed limb – it would tense up and try to take over the movement, to be the one in control.

If the stretch reflex is fundamentally a built in safety mechanism in order to prevent damage to the joints and soft tissues, it seems reasonable to suppose that automatic tension and therefore movement, has at least some basis in preventing damage and even death of the entire organism.  Blinking, flinching and curling up or ducking are all untrained movement responses that did enough to significantly aid our ancestors in surviving longer.

Humans are experts at re-purposing and manipulating their environments and everything in them, and martial arts are just one example of how for centuries people have been using our innate biology to adapt the body for our own specific goals, strengthening the bones and training the reflexes.  Now it seems that if we are unable to change our stressful circumstances, or vacate stressful environments, in order to survive we must change our knee-jerk reactions to the stressors themselves.

By realising that stress and the ability to experience it without long-term negative effects is relative, that there is no universal standard for what is or should be stressful or stress-free.  It allows us to set our standards high, while accepting our current levels.  Looking around at all the manner of seemingly stressful things humans are capable of doing; bungee jumping, public speaking or even just leaving the house, we should get a sense of how fluid this ability is and understand that we too can alter where the metaphorical ceiling is for our own benefit.

Overreacting

If for a moment we allow ourselves to thing metaphorically and consider muscular tension and stress to be “strong” reactions, with stress being a state of chronic tension arising from such strong reactions, we could think of hatred as being a strong reaction too.  We are all familiar with emotional over-reaction, melodrama, hyperbole and generalisation, but what if these were all just inefficient responses?

There is an emotionally different quality to hating something compared to simply disliking it, but beyond that, both are just labels.  As in the case of the manufactured smile, what if the act of labelling, verbally or otherwise, became the source of our emotional responses instead of the other way around?  We could effectively alter our reactions by consciously choosing our language.  Just as clenching our teeth can become a habit, so too the act of using certain labels to describe our common experiences becomes habitual (labelling itself is often a habit).

Another, more abstract example of overreacting is how we deal with information.  Do you immediately believe or even disbelieve what you hear?  Seen in this way, contrarianism is a specific overreaction to believe or think or do whatever is opposite to the stimulus, and gullibility is the strong reaction to instantly believe.

We could therefore draw a parallel between my psycho-physical relaxation method and the purely psychological domain of rationality.  From a rational perspective we must allow ourselves to be moved by evidence, but not more so than is justified.  Biases are tensional tendencies that are at work automatically whether we are aware of them or not.  By achieving and beginning from a relaxed, unbiased state, only then can we have appropriate reactions to all manner of stimuli.

I see this state as being akin to the selfless emptiness which certain religions use meditation to try and achieve, except that in my case the physical relaxation and rationality skills have their techniques not only well-defined and free of metaphysical connotation, but they are grounded in empirical findings and not esoteric tradition.

Taking the metaphor of strong reactions further still, we can easily begin to see how we live in a society that habitually overreacts.  We eat too much food as an overreaction to hunger in the face of abundance.  Did you hear the joke about the man who went to the all you can eat buffet and only satiated his hunger?  [Side note: it is well documented that trying to go food shopping on an empty stomach will greatly increase your chances of falling victim to hunger-related strong reactions.]

The tendency to rely on medication is an overreaction of not just the healthcare system and its providers, but of individuals everywhere who self-medicate with everything from off-the-shelf stimulants to off-the-street narcotics and surgical interventions.  We could become vegan for ethical reasons or we could do so because we heard that meat causes cancer.  Same result, different reaction.

Politics is a system of strong reactions that relies on the fact that people vote favourably for politicians who are seen to have strong reactions.  “The war on_____” is an obvious example of the type of response that wins voters, and in true form, elicits a strong contrarian reaction from others.  It’s as if politics were a system for creating answers that only allows minimal picking and choosing from two extremes and absolutely no dilution.

Careers themselves are often strong reactions to the fact that we need food and shelter to survive.  Once our basic needs are well met we begin veering into buffet territory, and our consumption habits become an inappropriate response to an abundance of financial wealth.  The modern job is the knee-jerk reaction to the various perceived threats to our security and that of our status.

We must remember that strong reactions are unnecessary, automatic, and therefore often unconscious, and harmful to long-term physical, mental and epistemic health.

Acute Solutions

It appears to me that there are two distinct methods for achieving whatever goals we may have, and I call them “acute” and “chronic”.  Having an operation to staple your stomach and remove a portion of your intestines in order to lose weight is the acute solution.  Changing your diet, exercise, and ultimately lifestyle in order to accommodate weight loss and healthy habits is the chronic solution.

In every case there is an instant or “shock” treatment that is often violent and drastic in its implementation, and a “soft” treatment that relies on small, incremental changes over time.  With this in mind we can examine the behaviour of modern civilisation in a new light.

We all would like to change at least something about ourselves, and with advancements in technology it seems to be our appearance that we are most biased towards.  While plastic surgery is the epitome of the acute solution, we are increasingly tempted by other acute methods, or at least those claimed to be, for becoming the person we want to be, or at least for looking like them.

Do you want to lose 20lbs in just 2 weeks with this one simple trick?  Do you want to have washboard abs without dieting OR exercise?  Then you have bought into acutist ideology, where anything can be obtained near-instantly, without the need for hard work, especially, god forbid, physical labour.

While false advertising abound, the sentiment is clear: people don’t want to spend their time and effort on achieving things that would normally take time and effort to achieve.  If a healthier, happier you is only 1-click away, then that’s 1-click too far.

Beyond being lazy and devaluing that which is achieved or obtained, the acutist mindset fosters overconsumption, an over-reliance on technology, and a diminished appreciation of the self and one’s own capacities.

The most common, or perhaps just the most radical, and therefore noticeable form of transhumanism is the acute branch.  Here, technology in the form of pills, implants, gene therapy and other theoretical solutions are awaited with baited breath like apple fans queuing for the latest iteration of their favourite gadget.

Acute transhumanists see the problems or lack of features on current humans, and see technology as providing the right answer, or perhaps just the quickest fix for them.

Not every problem has an adequate chronic solution though.  If we take our health for example, we wouldn’t want to wait to overcome cancer or aids even if that was an option, we’d prefer the instant, heal-me-now kind of treatment.  But this kind of scenario seems relatively rare compared to all other possible uses for acute transhumanist interventions.

I see myself as a transhumanist from the perspective that humanity has the potential to be much greater than it currently is, but where I differ is the why and how.

I see humans as collectively expressing an amazing range of ideas, capabilities and characteristics – we are as impressive physically as we are intellectually, yet on an individual level many, if not all of these facets are underdeveloped, unrealised and repressed.  I see the totality as being a marker of what the individual is capable of achieving without having to dedicate their life to being a specialist in a single domain.  We are born with an array of mundane special powers that eventually atrophy through non-use, and so we default to the external power, the internal upgrade, the technological add-on.  If we haven’t even scratched the surface of our current form it seems misguided and even condescending to think that an artificial enhancement is necessary or will help.  I think the danger is twofold: that humankind never explores or even discovers its current greatness, allowing its abilities to wither and become a historical mirage, and that we continue down the path of technological dependence, instant self-gratification, laziness, and a devaluation and de-emphasis of humanity, until the day we become self-worshipping robots.