The Rhythm of Contemplation   3 comments

When I was young, I loved to play basketball. I played in the street, on a pair of facing hoops in the cul-de-sac where my family lived. At times, I played games with other neighborhood children, but I more often played on my own, shooting on both baskets, practicing my layups and turnaround jumpers, the fundamental off-balance three. Sometimes I did what so many children do, pretending to be in the last seconds of the fourth quarter of a critical game, my team down by one and me taking the final shot for the win. Still other times I slipped into the steady rhythm of running, dribbling, shooting, retrieving the ball, running, dribbling, shooting and so on, over and over, until my breath came hard and steady, each pull and release of my lungs a recognized necessity. During these stretches of play, my actions never quite followed the same pattern on a micro level, but they did on the macro and thus provided a steady rhythm. I would run up to the basket, make a lay up, grab the ball–never stopping–and rush out to where I imagined the free throw line would be, taking a quick, long step and flinging my body round as I rocketed off my right foot, falling back, tossing the ball at the basket and half the time nearly killing myself as I landed awkwardly on the pavement, sometimes stumbling. This was terrible form, of course, but I didn’t care. It was exhilarating and the extreme actions pushed my body–burning lungs, dripping sweat, flushed skin–to the point that I began to feel it all, to be aware of the full depth of my limbs, the beating heat of my torso.

After perhaps fifteen minutes of this physical rhythm, this tiring play, another love of mine began to assert its presence: the imagining and writing of stories. I often best constructed the plot and characters of these stories within this realm of physical exertion. As my body succumbed to the labor of play, the tempo of my breath and blood would focus my mind, allowing me to continually engage in physical activity while existing to a large degree within an internal world. The movements between baskets became automatic–the ball an extension of my body, the basket’s whereabouts a constant underlying knowledge, my musculature’s actions programmed and unconscious–and I could slip ever-further into these constructed realities, fleshing them out and devising plot points, providing myself the particular therapy of self-imagined worlds. My mind and body worked together, but toward different goals. It all happened simultaneously and provided for some of my more joyous moments as a child.

As a teenager and adult, I’ve been a regular hiker. I don’t backpack, but I take day hikes, immersing myself in beautiful places. Typically these places involve significant numbers of trees and often a good amount of elevation climb. As such, my hikes prove good exercise, providing burning muscles and strained lungs, as well as moments of turning a bend to see only more elevation gain and thinking, son of a bitch. During these climbs, though, I often find myself slipping into a steady rhythm of steps and breaths and swinging arms and there typically comes a point–if I allow for a continuous process and don’t stop too often for breaks–when the various functions of my body that serve to propel me up the path sync up into a kind of balance that suggests sustainability. It’s not that in that precision I could hike forever, but there is a stretch in which it feels that way. For a transcendent moment of time, the exhaustion of the hike becomes a fuel in and of itself and I think I might never have to slow–that I could take myself anywhere.

Of course, there’s the inevitable moment when I must stop to fumble for my water bottle or the grade becomes a bit too steep or my breath too hard and I pause, beneath the trees, and succumb to the realities of being human, being of a body that can only take me so far. And yet, those moments when everything syncs up become something particularly special–a stretch of time during which I can do some of my best thinking, my mind able to function clear and robust, undisturbed by physical discomforts because those discomforts have been elevated to a point of brief transparency.

This is not a state I can reach outside of physical activity. It’s part and parcel with the functioning of my body. In other words, it’s only in the use of my body that I can most effectively use my mind.

In 2009, when I first began to farm, I read Anna Karenina with a good friend. We both made note of a particular passage in the book: Part 3, Chapter 4. In this chapter, Levin–the owner of a farm in the countryside–chooses to help mow with a scythe alongside the muzhiks, or Russian peasants. He does so because he enjoys the work but also because he “need[s] physical movement, otherwise [his] character definitely deteriorates” (from page 248 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, linked above.) As Levin finds the rhythm of the work, Tolstoy writes that he “lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light” (p. 251).

I loved this passage then as I love it now. I find it a wonderful illustration of the phenomenon I noted above. But I also love it’s placement within the context of farming. There are certain aspects of farming that I particularly enjoy, and they tend to be the more laborious aspects. For instance, two of my favorite jobs on the farm is broadforking and 3-tooth cultivating. The former involves using a tool that looks suspiciously like a large, broad fork to aerate the soil. You place the tines in the bed you’re working, step down on the tool as you would a shovel to sink the tines down as far as they’ll go, then pull back to gently break up the soil beneath. It provides better drainage and looser dirt for the plants to grow within without actually turning over the soil and destroying its structure. The latter–the 3-tooth cultivator–makes use of a tool designed by Eliot Coleman to stir the top soil of a bed, incorporating fertilizer and compost. You do this by placing the three claws of the tool into the soil and then pushing and pulling it back and forth, keeping the tool in the dirt. It’s surprisingly good exercise, working core muscles and inspiring a sweat in short order.

These two jobs tend more toward the manual labor side of farming and I appreciated them greatly. Both tools involve rhythmic and challenging work and, given a long enough bed, they provide me a few moments of the sort of exertion-inspired concentration that basketball and hiking can provide me. There’s a certain uncomplicated pleasure in knowing that both jobs are straightforward and involve not the application of complex thinking, but of work of sufficient strength and duration. That frees my mind for other pursuits, allowing the consideration of ideas or the observation of my surroundings (or, in many cases, conversation with a co-worker.)

In December 2010, I attended a ten day course in Vipassana meditation. It wasn’t for me, for a variety of reasons I likely will write about in a future essay. It was, however, a helpful and, in certain ways, a rewarding experience. It taught me lessons, one of which being that I am not particularly adept at sitting very still and meditating. I begin to focus on every slight physical discomfort and my mind looks for distractions. It’s likely that I should spend some time working on this tendency, as it may be a challenge I should attempt to overcome. However, I also think this was the simple realization that I am often better able to think in conjunction with physical activity.

During the course’s specified free times, I would walk the limited trails on the center’s grounds. I found my time on those trails a consistent source of insight and revelation. I would walk and circle and mix up my routes a bit but still slip eventually into a rhythm of movement and breath and pulse. And in that rhythm, I began to uncover thought processes I simply was unable to access while attempting to sit motionless on a cushion, in a meditation hall. There, the process was constricting. Outside, the process opened itself, thriving on my body’s movement in and reaction to the natural world.

I gained multiple insights during that time and, after the ten days, walked away with a greater understanding of my place in the world. But I don’t think those insights would have arrived without my daily walks. Yes, the contrast between that time of walking and  my time inside, trying to sit still, was a significant driver of those insights. But I still needed the physical movement to complete the picture. It was what allowed me to understand my place.

For now, this is simply a series of experiences within which I’ve noticed relations. I believe there are greater implications here–implications that I have yet to fully uncover. Perhaps a long hike would help me to discover them.

Posted December 19, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farming, Hiking, Work

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3 responses to “The Rhythm of Contemplation

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  1. I definitely feel the same way about the connection between physical activity and proper brain functioning! I get stuck in my own head too often, and a walk, or a vigorous hike (depending on the seriousness of the matter) shakes me loose and gets the gears in my head turning smoothly again. SO great. I have found that rhythm that you talk about during hiking too – when every motion flows together and my body and mind sync up. It’s so much fun! An amazing, empowering experience.

    I have the feeling that I will enjoy many aspects of farming, based on my experiences with gardening and working in a greenhouse for awhile, but also based on what you talk about above, regarding the rhythm of the work. I am so looking forward to working outside and reaching the end of a day, maybe a little sore and tired, but satisfied with having done good work and done it well (written as I sit inside at the shop where I work, with little to do but tidy merchandise, dust, and read – meanwhile it is warm and sunny outside and I wish I was hiking!)

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post. :)

    • Oh man, I know how you feel. I think you’ll enjoy the work, too. I had similar thoughts when getting ready to start my farming adventure and they certainly panned out. It’s hard work at times, yes, but it’s very rewarding.

      Something I’ve consistently loved is the sense that, at the end of a good day of work, you’ve earned your sleep. There’s something very satisfying about that. I think it’s a sensation that’s often missing in our society. I know I rarely ever felt that way when I worked retail—usually having trouble getting to sleep, if anything. That’s not typically a problem after a day of farming.

  2. Pingback: Tree Hugger | Of The Hands

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