I have some most excellent, scientifically correct news: We humans are a lot more than big old naked brains riding around in vehicles that are kind of like animated meatballs with feet. I have to admit that is a bit of a relief. (I like albondigas in their place, but life, it seems to me, is more than a tapas bar.)
All during my growing-up years, I was dragged kicking and screaming into the prevalent paradigms that told me that my cerebral matter was the only thing about me that was of any value. All the rest of me was supposed to be some kind of fidgety wild beast or kooky goofball that had to be tamed and brought into line by the all-important, almighty encephalon.
Descartes and his “I think therefore I am” contingent really did a number on the rest of us, I say.
For the whole rest of pre-rationalist human history, it seems to me, the ancient wise guys believed that we humans actually were more than just a brain walking around and cogitating. In the old days, we had things like a body that included guts and a heart as well as a spirit and even a something called “essence.”
The guys in the white lab coats did rediscover what the ancients knew. Lately, the leading-edge guys who are doing work on artificial intelligence have come around to the notion that our bodies and their reactions to the environments in which we live are an integral part of how we get to be conscious beings.
The Smarty Pants have apparently figured out that a brain floating around in blah soup probably won’t reach a mindful, humanistic awareness no matter how much you poke at it and tweak it. It’s just a bundle of sweetmeats with built-in electrical wiring, after all.
Our brains need feedback from the world to grow good minds. We get that because we have a body with all kinds of cool senses and sensations.
COMES NOW “EMBODIED CONSCIOUSNESS”
This 2018 YouTube video was uploaded by THUNK, Josh Pelton’s YouTube channel that promises to “tickle your brain.” It has a great explanation about “embodied consciousness” – what it is and what it means to the world at large.
Pelton is a mechanical engineer-cum-philosopher whose thought that “until you’re actually standing under something you’ve built, it’s all just ‘thought,’” resonates with me.
If you’re curious about Pelton, you can click on the button below. It will take you to Daniel Podgorski’s The Gembok blog for a fun interview with the guy.
Pelton’s YouTube offering is especially exciting to me because it references the book, METAPHORS WE LIVE BY, written by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. That book, is now a classic.
Lakoff, it says here, is a professor at UC Berkely and was one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. The book he wrote with Johnson in 1979 has since gone on to become a go-to resource for guys who are studying how we humans think and how we express our thoughts.
[Poet-Me stands around wrapped in smugness, bathing in the reflected glory. Poets and metaphors are naturals together, ya know.]
EMBODIED COGNITION ALWAYS GETS PHYSICAL
The ideas uncovered by the philosophers, psychologists and sociologists studying embodied cognition in all its various flavors that have big, long tongue-twisting labels like “phenomenology” and “enactivism” and “connectivism” and so on do resonate with regular humans.
Before his untimely death in 1962, French philosopher-turned-phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty built on the work of his predecessors, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, to bring up arguments against the view that the way our minds work and grow can be completely explained by a mechanistic, nuts-and-bolt approach.
We are not just fleshy machines full of circuitry and chemical reactions and our minds are not made up of streaming and morphing inner symbols that dance around each other and merge and break apart.
In his masterpiece book, PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTON, which was published in 1945, Merleau-Ponty says:
“The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature to be interinvolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.”
What the philosopher is saying is that you learn about the world through your body. It’s what you use to figure out your own individual “point of view” about the world.
Since you and your brother have different bodies, is it any wonder that you might have very different points of view? Your mind and his mind are sitting on different rocks even when your bodies are both in the same place.
[Sorry, Poet-Me gets carried away sometimes.]
Anyway, assorted phenomenologists agree that “all cognition is embodied, interactive and embedded in dynamically changing environments.” Your mind grows and changes because of the way your body interacts with your world.
(Yay! We moderns talked ourselves back into believing that Bodies Matter Too!)
All the various flavors of phenomenology and its offshoots have proponents and every one of them blathers on and on and on.
MIND MOVES BODY UNTIL BODY MOVES MIND…ONE STORY
I have a confession to make. I am a lousy practitioner of Southern Style Praying Mantis kung fu. I actually got into it because, at the time, it was the only way I could learn how to do “Six Healing Sounds” ch’i kung, a system of body movements, breathing and visualization that helps to ground and center you in your body.
David Moragne, a disciple of the late Grandmaster Gin Foon Mark (the fifth lineage holder in Kwang Sai Jook Lum Southern Style Praying Mantis kung fu school), became my sifu (teacher) in a serendipitous confluence of events. He was there in my life when I needed a way to get past some hard, when I was shattered and scattered and in a lot of pain.
Frankly, the kung fu style my sifu taught was not really one for martial arts sports tournaments. The style is not particularly showy even though it can be devastatingly effective for real fighting if you’re into that sort of thing.
I didn’t care. I was in the class for the ch’i kung. I did the kung fu part because I liked feeling like I was in a Jackie Chan movie.
I was the worst fighter in the class. (I hate hitting people.) I was also the most assiduous student of the ch’i kung.
Sifu indulged me. I’d bring a battery-operated CD player to the classes which were variously held in an old rackety pineapple plantation camp community center or in the moonlight on a sandy beach in Paia or on the expansive green lawns of the Maui Community College which has since become part of the University of Hawaii.
I’d play world fusion music and Carlos Nakai flute CDs so we’d have a sound-track to do our moves. (You gotta have a soundtrack if you’re in a movie, ya know.) We students would sit around after class with Sifu and talk Tao-ish philosophy and kung fu mindsets even though we all had to go to work the next day. It was cool.
Sifu would often tell us students that the way we trained our bodies to move would become the way our minds would begin to move. He told us that we would struggle to learn to dance the ch’i, maybe for years. Then, he said, one day the ch’i would dance us.
[You see why I loved the guy? He even sounded like a kung fu movie.]
He was right. When we students were learning a new form, we had to deliberately and intensely focus our minds to embed each of the movements we learned into our muscles. In time, we trained those muscles to flow smoothly from one movement to the next without needing to think about how or when or why to do each move.
Sifu called the training we did “sinking the lessons into your bones.”
That training resulted in us reaching a point where the movements we practiced sat dormant in our muscles, ready to be called upon to be used either in the set sequences we practiced or as separate movements that could be recombined to make new, different responses to an attack. As we learned these moves, we also began using our bodies and our minds to play better in the ch’i with each other.
The first stance at the start of every Southern Style Praying Mantis kung fu form is called “begging hands.” You stand strong and balanced with your body relaxed, your elbows close to your body, and your open hands out in front of you with your palms held up facing the other.
Standing like that, you wait for your fellow player’s first move.
We discovered that you could shape the way you stood in that first stance so that your body invited or even challenged your partner to start the dance. Then, one time, Sifu stood so perfectly balanced and defended that no one in the circle of students around him could even think of trying to launch an attack on him.
That one was a mind-boggle for me. It became a model for me, the first stance I always aimed for (and was never able to do right).
The system also taught us to instantaneously respond to whatever our partner did, to block the initial move and then answer with a series of attacking moves of our own. We practiced a lot.
About a year and a half into the training, I complained to my Sifu that I was starting to “trip” over other people. They would do something and I would spontaneously begin responding to their mind-moves with a bunch of my own.
If they were up to the dance, my stuff often caused them to joyously come play with me. We could zip along having a grand old time, getting things done and tackling any obstacle or problem facing us. If they were slow on the uptake or if they were reluctant or fearful, they would stall out and things would go like molasses. I often found myself wanting to scream.
Sifu laughed and laughed.
After several years of this, life changed and I no longer had room in my life for the kung fu classes. At the last class I attended, which happened to be held at another school’s kwoon (training hall), my Sifu did his “begging hands” demonstration before all of the other students and, again, nobody had any urge to attack him.
I stepped up behind him, wrapped my arms around his still body and hugged him. He rolled his eyes, laughed, dropped his arms, and gave up immediately! That one made everybody laugh. It is still a good memory.
My sifu died in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic had been raging through the world for a while.
I still do the ch’i kung exercises. I am still trying to do the first kung fu form I learned — “Three Step Arrow” — better. And I am still sinking new, not-kung fu body lessons into my bones and learning how to use them to do better mind-moves.
Here’s a poem:
Opposition and divergence
Resistance and disharmony….
It seems a given:
Strength calls to strength.
Push and you hit a wall of shove
Coming right back at you.
Wise guys say you do better
When you can turn sideways,
Let the oncoming force flow on past you,
Let it turn you ’round
With your striking hand extended
To tap that incoming power,
Influence and turn it
Towards the place it wants to go…
(Right out of your face).
Circles and angles and lines,
Leverage and motion,
Spin you in and out of the slipstream,
Sliding you away to your own place
Again and again and again.
By Netta Kanoho
Header photo credit: “Kung-Fu Style” by Henry Sudarman via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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