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David at Edge of Grace put up this great fillet of a thread about how, in comparison to modern humans, non-moderns had vastly superior physical capabilities.
Which spurred Ran to write this:
“And Physical Feats of Past Peoples is loosely related to last week’s subject, because if past humans could do things that seem miraculous to us, then maybe we can do things that would seem miraculous to them. I mean obviously we can do stuff with the aid of technology. I’m thinking of internal adaptations to a technological world. For example, in ancient Rome, Augustine amazed people with his ability to read silently — everyone else could only understand the written word by reading it out loud. Now we can sit all day at a computer screen, switching between written words and videos, taking in information on a hundred different subjects without getting burned out.”
I read through much of the original thread and, whilst there are lots of great stories and much sensible comment there, one thing that stood out for me was that many people were trying to ascertain what the ‘magic ingredient’ was in traditional/East Asian lifestyles that enabled such amazing feats.
This is another instance where a solid grounding in civilisational critique helps out; the question is not “what did they do to have these abilities?” but “what did we do to lose them?”.
I first thought about this subject when I heard that William the Conqueror could vault straight on to his horse in full armour. Admittedly, Norman horses were probably a little shorter, and his armour was ‘only’ chainmail - but I’ve since heard it said of knights involved in C15th battles, who would have been wearing full plate.
It makes sense to me that people back in the day, being closer to “natural, unspoilt” humans, would have had a clearer Qi flow in their bodies, enabling this kind of activity. A number of causes for the change suggest themselves. Consider just a few of them:
- Modern babies: left to lie in cots; spines distorted and core stability compromised by car seats and buggies/strollers (check out how much they scream when you put them into one - they’re trying to tell you something!).
- Old-school babies: carried in slings next to the mother’s body, responding with muscular resistance to g-forces, movement, changing shape of the mother’ body against theirs.
- Modern children: forced to suppress their natural Qi flow by sitting still in chairs attending to symbolic abstractions from the age of 5, at risk of punishment and verbal assault if they move too much. Eventually the fidgets die off and the energy flow in the body is permanently impaired.
- Old-school children: walking, running, climbing, swimming, fishing, hunting, and yes, being introduced to purposeful and socially meaningful work from an early age.
Modern adults: Cut off from natural processes, the natural Qi of the earth and sun, forced to subsist in dead-Qi environments of strip-lighting, electronic smog and air-conditioned air; drinking dead-Qi water from industrial recycling systems; sitting 9 hours a day in front of screens bombarding them with more negative electro-magnetic energy; nerves strained to the limit by information and urban noise pollution; overdosing on sugar and caffeine and other legal stimulants; holding back their natural emotional responses to their boss, the people who bump into them in the street, the government employee, the inescapable totality of the system that contains them; suppressing their bodies’ natural desire to operate as a complete system, becoming instead nothing more than a support vehicle for a disembodied consciousness interfacing with a virtual world.
Old-school adults: not.
As Norbert Elias points out in The Civilising Process, changing social conditions in the Mediaeval Age (or the equivalent stage in other civilisations) began to advantage those who could break the connection between emotional response and immediate physical action.
This is the beginning of the development of civilised consciousness as we know it - though, for the first few centuries, only a select few could turn the naturally outward-flowing libidinal energy back inside themselves to fully develop a world of internal thought and consideration at the cost of physical skill and assertion; monks and scholars were thus a kind of specialised aberration, whose uniquely distorted energetic systems supported the technology of literacy, mathematical calculation etc.
This new form of psychological calibration operates in conjunction with a subtle web of permanent bodily tensions - Reich’s ‘character armour’. This further impedes clear Qi flow and probably uses up a fair bit of energy just through maintaining the chronic tension. Overall, we can say that the interruption of the natural physical capacities of the human is not merely the result of different physical conditions and activities, but also enables and is enabled by the growing split between mind and body and the growing dictatorship of rational consciousness.
Of course, the more this trend develops, and the larger the proportion of society who are altered in this fashion, the more alienated from sensitivity and connection to the body people, and society as a whole, become and the more tolerant they become of further measures, technologies, arrangements that will extend the alienation yet further - and so the civilisational ratchet works its way up to the dizzy heights we see today.
I think, for the last century or so, we have been progressing into an even later stage, where the clear flow of Qi is disrupted not just by the presence of intense internalised consciousness itself, but by the failure of the various justificatory myths and ideologies that had been developed to maintain some connection with the outside world.
We are so used to thinking of these kind of things as ‘purely’ intellectual constructs that the idea that they might have an impact on the physical and energetic self seems quite odd at first glance; it is because there is a continuity - from physis, to energetic self, through emotions, to consciousness and out into the differentiated structures of thought and understanding - that the ideational structure of understanding, and its level of congruence with the experienced world, can impact on the deeper, more material levels of the self (indeed, it is precisely because of the intense mind/body split - around which modern Western consciousness has been structured for half a millennium - that this truth seems so unlikely to us).
The effect of a lack on congruence between a mindbody system’s ideational models of reality and experience - ‘cogitive dissonance’, we might say, except that it is far from merely cognitive - is to condition the mindbody system towards an expectation that outflows of energy will meet with punishment, conflict or failure, and thus to condition the system to suppress such outflows. More and more I see people - at a younger and younger age - give up on the projection of energy out into the world, shorn of any belief that they will ever have effective agency over their environment, and either fall into total depression or re-direct their energy into internal worlds of fantasy, cyberspace or drug use.
But it doesn’t need to be like this. The ‘magic’ of internal martial arts training, re-establishing appropriate body alignment, qi work, yoga etc., is simply testament to how alienated we have become from our own natural capacity - it is a measure of our surprise at what we are capable of when the blocks put in place of our biological effectiveness are removed. People often note how strong animals are; an adult male chimpanzee weighs less than an adult male human, but is said to be at least 3 times stronger. One wonders whether this ratio would still be as high if a feral human - one whose natural Qi flow had never been interrupted by politico-social considerations or the predations of linguistic consciousness - could be found.
Clearly, we don’t need to go that far, though - the stories of Japanese samurai running up near-vertical tree-trunks, or the long-distance athletic feats of the Tarahumara indians in Born to Run suggest that such abilities can co-exist with relatively modern consciousness, and at only a little distance from the living conditions of modern urban humans.
We should also consider the implications of all this for Civilisation itself, and for the critique thereof. Once we begin to understand the feedback loops between physical wellbeing, energetic flow, psychological state, social organisation and the kinds of living conditions human beings will find tolerable, it becomes clear that the work to reform or replace late-industrial Civilisation with something better must operate at multiple levels beyond the merely intellectual: many people are so alienated from their own alienation that they don’t know what they are missing out on, so that normal human functioning begins to look miraculous; indeed, our current psycho-physical condition becomes so impaired that our motivation to change things itself begins to decline.
So (and I think I mostly mean here to remind myself of this): Get outside. Breathe some clean air. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Drink real water. This is not ancillary to the change you want to make. This is, in essence and in fact, a radically political act. Reclaim your birth-right as a human animal. Assume you do not - yet - know what real wellness can feel like.
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