Movement, Balance & The Art of Being Still

5 12 2012

Silas House, in his essay The Art of Being Still, expresses beautifully the delicate equilibrium between movement and stillness.

Writing is a very active pursuit: there is the fluid flow of words, the vivid visualisations, and perhaps some brain rattling to squeeze out those ideas onto the written page.

Mr. House points out one jarring problem, however: “too many writers today are afraid to be still”.

Like me, Mr. House is constantly in motion. But he also knows there can be movement in stillness: “We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened.”

We must ingest and digest simultaneously, as Eddie from the movie Limitless put it, and as I explained here.

Most tellingly, the Chinese word for movement is 動靜 – dong jing. Dong means movement, jing means stasis and quiet. Put together you have a beautiful word that perfectly exemplifies the equilibrium between the two. Movement and stillness are not polarities – they are in fact forever in balance.

Mr. House gives his essay a roaring finale with these fine words:

I give it to you now and hope that you will take it out into the waiting world, pushing forth through all of your daily work and joys and struggles with a bit of your mind focused on reality and the larger part of it quiet, still, and always thinking like a writer.

Yes, move. But stay still, too. And hang on tight – it’s going to be a hell of a ride!





Confessions of a Running Addict: We All Shit.

27 07 2012

Kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies. Montaigne

So Montaigne was right. We all shit. Kings, philosophers, ladies. Everyone.

Of course, the pooping bit wasn’t really much of a revelation. I didn’t exactly need Montaigne to tell me that all human beings, by our very nature, defecate. What Montaigne was trying to get across wasn’t the simple fact that we must all, once in a while (or more than once in a while), poop and/or pass wind. Rather he was trying to tell us that, more often than not, our bodies have an upper hand over our minds. Our minds, generally, are a slave to our mind.

This is how Montaigne describes a fart: “That sphincter which serves to discharge our stomachs has dilations and contractions proper to itself, independent of our wishes or even opposed to them.” He also adds that the sphincter is “most indiscreet and disorderly.” Montaigne might well have been writing school reports for an unruly six year old!

But I’m not here to write about farting. Not only about farting, anyway. Farting’s only a small part of it.

You know those times when you’re in a bad mood, when you can at once find everything to be supremely disagreeable? Times when you’re a simmering kettle – just a liiiittle bit more heat to push you over the threshold, to push you to your boiling point. Every once in a while, and for absolutely no apparent reason, I find myself in one of these dangerous moods.

But I think I do know the reason for these unexplained bouts of choler: a deficiency of endorphins, a ravenous craving for that sometimes-elusive Runner’s High.

I tend to think of myself as rather rational. I’m fairly good at controlling emotions; farewells don’t occur to me as excessively difficult; and I can usually set aside emotions and sentiments to focus on what’s at hand. And yet when it comes to something as simple as running, my mind gives way to my body! A simple crave for a run and the quick release of endorphins is enough to render me a slave to my mind, totally controlled by mere chemicals!

What does this tell me? It tells me that as much as we may appear to ourselves as rational beings with control over our minds, we are, ultimately, animals. At the end of the day we are merely animals, governed by more basic elements such as bodily needs, chemicals, and emotions.

As Montaigne put it, “Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.”





This Is Why I Like Food

22 06 2012

Homemade wholewheat naan with a chickpea burger patty and some mixed salad.

If my Instagram feed feed can tell you anything about myself, it’s probably this: I like food, and I sure have photos (lots of them) to prove it!

I’ve never paid much attention to food until recently. It used to be just something to fill me up, to fuel me up for the day. Now, though, food is increasingly growing in importance, meaning and significance. Why?

FOOD AS A BASIC NEED

Most obviously, we need food – it’s essential for survival. And as an athlete, I need to make sure that I’m eating enough of the right foods to ensure optimum performance. But at the same time, food is so much more than a provider of life and energy.

Study snack: apples!

FOOD AS A CELEBRATION

Food, more than just a physiological necessity, is an art, an enjoyment, a celebration and a way of life. Behind every bite lies thousands and thousands of years of history: conflict and friendship, leisure and toil, creation and destruction.

In fact, the world was for a long time divided into three major empires based on the three main staple foods, wheat, rice and maize. What separated people even more was the sauce or spice they added: olive oil in the Mediterranean, soya in China, chilli in Mexico, butter in northern Europe, a whole range of aromas in India. Different cultures cook food differently, but culinary all progress has been dependent on the assimilation of foreign food and condiments. (Source: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theordore Zeldin)

Food at once distinguishes but also unites.

Image courtesy of Kevin Van Aelst.

Food is so important in so many different senses, and that is why I want to take control over what, how, when and where I eat. This is what attracts me to cooking. I don’t like eating out in restaurants because when I do, I give up control over what I eat. It is a loss of freedom in the culinary sense.

Party time!

FOOD AS THE SELF

Food is also an expression of identity. More often than not, we eat to satisfy hunger. But as Theodore Zeldin points out in An Intimate History of Humanity, hunger is often satisfied without full awareness for what it is one is hungry for. Making sense of why we eat what we eat can tell us more than just about our taste in food. It also reveals how far we are interested by new sorts of pleasure, or innovation and creativity, or whether we are willing risk takers.

Gastronomy, Zeldin notes, is not just self-indulgence nor self-exploration, but also the exploration of the whole of nature.

Fork and spoons have probably done more to reconcile people who cannot agree than guns and bombs ever did.” – Theodore Zeldin

Chicken meatballs and tomato sauce…total improvisation!

FOOD AS MORALITY

Every bite I take is also an ethical choice. Should I eat meat? Organic, free range, factory farmed or I-don’t-care? Genetically modified, imported, homegrown? In season or out of season? Behind all culinary decisions is a complex web of principles, values and ethics. Whether we pay attention to this web is of course another matter.

I’ve decided that it is worth thinking about, and that’s why I’ve been reading more about food. At first the reading was merely taking infinite pleasure out of various food blogs: mouth watering photos (otherwise known as food porn), attractive recipes, interesting debates about different diets etc. Now, though, I also want to know more about the food industry, and what my food means for the world. On the reading list now:

  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer finished reading
  • In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan
  • The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason
  • Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie

The food I eat is part of who I am. I want to make sure that my food decisions are made properly, that I make a decision for the right reasons.

Couscous salad

SO THAT’S WHY I LIKE FOOD.

Food as a basic need. Food as a celebration. Food as the self. Food as morality.

And as I keep moving, as I continue on my culinary journey, I’m sure I’ll find ever more reasons to like this thing we call ‘food’.

Do you like food? Why, or why not?

Fluffy scrambled eggs as a pre-workout snack.





A Wrong Turn……That Saved My Life

25 12 2011

Note: After a 10 week long hiatus, I’ve decided that I must revive my blog writing habits. So, as one of my New Year’s Resolutions (I don’t usually do them, but anyway), I shall endeavour to update my blog weekly, no matter how short the post. Let’s get started.

There are no wrong turns. (Photo from MBAdventure)

Seven years ago tomorrow, I made a wrong turn, and it saved my life.

My family and I together with family friends were on vacation in Thailand. I was heading back to the room along with two friends to fetch my beachwear. The route was straightforward: down the stairs, then a right turn to the seaside, where our room was. I had walked this route multiple times before and yet for reasons which I will never know, I subconsciously and unknowingly made a wrong turn. I turned left, away from our room, away from the sea. Away from fatal danger.

For it was only minutes later, while I wandered around hopelessly lost, that the devastating waves of a tsunami came crashing down on the resort – waves which would have engulfed me, knocked me out and killed me without mercy. Yet miraculously, the waves did not hit me. I was safe because I had turned left, away from the beach. Because I had made a wrong turn.

Back then, the gravity of it all eluded me. It seemed like dumb luck: I had had a 50-50 chance between life and death, and  my bad sense of direction had inadvertently nudged me towards the former.

Over the years though, the impact of this experience has slowly dawned on me. The point now wasn’t so much about why I had been lucky enough to make a wrong turn as much as what this simple lifesaving mistake could teach me about…well, life.

I began to realise that more often than not, failures are opportunities wrapped under a deceptive cloak of disguise. Too often we fail to take action for fear of failure. But how valid is this fear, really? All that’s stopping us is the fear of some hypothetical failure – mucking up, making mistakes, embarrassing yourself…but really, what’s the worst that could happen? Failure: opportunity in disguise.

This is the philosophy that guides me now. Of course, it’s our nature to fear failure. Whenever I catch myself doing so, though, I just have to remind myself of that lifesaving wrong turn seven years ago.

For me, there are no wrong turns. Only opportunities.





Don’t Run For The Train

19 08 2011

Well, that would be another reason not to run for the train. Photo from ManiacWorld

How many times have you missed the train by just that smallest fraction of a second?

How many times have you run onto the platform, only to have the cruel train doors slide close in your face?

And how many times have you thought to yourself, if I had taken a shorter shower, or had chewed my toast more quickly, or walked a slightly faster pace, I wouldn’t have missed the train?

I’m sure we’ve all had those painfully annoying moments.

But what if we were to take this entire mindset and flip it upside down on its head? What if, instead of running madly for the train, we instead teach ourselves not to run for the train?

It sounds high-brow, perhaps even naive and idealistic,  but the concept is somewhat appealing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduced the idea in his book The Black Swan. Here are some of his words of wisdom:

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behaviour, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.

You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.

He sums up this idea with some powerful words:

It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.

In Black Swan terms, this means that you are exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do; so make this your end.

Hm. Idealistic? In a sense, yes. After all, you can’t justify, say, failing an exam by proclaiming ‘I wasn’t aiming to pass it anyway! I’m above the pecking order, I don’t need to play the exam game!’. In another sense, it would definitely feel infinitely fulfilling to walk up to a just-departing train, and think, ‘Ha! You haven’t snubbed me. You think you’re so important?! I wasn’t running for you anyway, you egotistical sleazebag!’





To Become a Champion, Fight One More Round

3 08 2011

To Become a Champion, Fight One More Round.    James Corbett

When I read this quotation a few years ago, I knew that this was my philosophy.

Champions aren’t born. I believe that talent is important, but pure hard work is what nails it more often than not.

I take ‘fight’ to mean exert – to give it your all. You can fight one more round physically, but also mentally.

She’s a running champ because she trains more, but also because she trains with a better mindset: more concentration, more determination, more motivation.

He’s top of the class because he studies more, but also because he learns with the optimal mentality: more curiosity, more initiative , more skepticism.

This is the philosophy that I keep in whatever I do. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it well – and so I fight one more round. I’ll get up early and run. I’ll jump into the pool and do 1000m before the actual training session starts. I’ll read more, write more. I’ll do more, but most importantly, I’ll do it with the best mindset I can possibly have.

It pays off to fight one more round, and it definitely feels very rewarding when you see results. This summer, I was determined to improve my swimming. I signed myself up for 3 sessions of training a week, and on top of that, I swam before training, after training, as well as the remaining days of the week. And guess what? It paid of, because my times have improved!

That sure felt good.

At the end of the day though, the reality is that I won’t ever be a top competitive swimmer –  it isn’t my strength, and I realise that. But that doesn’t matter to me, because as important as it is for me to be a champion, I also believe that it’s being your own champion that matters.

So, fight one more round. Give it you all. Be a champion – your own champion.





Movement and Stillness: a balance

10 06 2011

Are movement and stillness mutually exclusive, or are they compatible with one another?

A delicate balance between movement and stillness seems to pervade in Chinese culture. There are quite a few sayings and idioms in Chinese that place the words movement (動, dòng) and stillness (静, jìng) together. In fact, the word for movement in Chinese is 動静 – if you break down the phrase and take each character at face value, then movement is quite literally “movement-stillness”. Does this imply that the Chinese perception of movement inherently also includes stillness as a counter balance?

I came across a quotation from the  Tao Te Ching (a classic Chinese text by the sage Laozi) earlier this morning:

”  躁勝寒,靜勝熱, 清靜為天下正。”

Translation: Movement overcomes cold. Stillness overcomes heat. Peace and quiet govern the world.

So what’s Laozi getting to here? He’s highlighting the importance of balance: movement raises the temperature, and stillness decreases it. To reach an equilibrium, then, there needs to be movement and stillness until the ‘temperature’, so to speak, is just right.

Looks like the chicken needs a good dose of Tao De Ching!

Here’s another quotation:

静若处子,动若脱兔

Translation: This idiom alludes to an army. Before the army makes a move, it is as quiet as a young lady who is yet to be married (presumably a virgin). Once the army does move, it will be as quick and nimble as a rabbit escaping from its predator.

The idiom doesn’t explicitly talk about balance, but I find it interesting that both “stillness” and “movement” are used together.

So what of this balance? I agree that there needs to be a balance – after all, it isn’t exactly realistic to expect someone to keep moving perpetually, or to keep still forever. And yet the world itself is continually moving, developing and changing – so how are we supposed to find ‘stillness’?  For me, I find stillness in movement. But more on this next time.

Subscribe to this blog via RSS, or enter your email in the email subscription box above. You can also follow me on Twitter to receive regular updates.

Comments are most welcome!