Dum Spiro SperoPosted: August 15, 2015
[A short snippet from my book The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg, describing the beautiful moment of lifting a heavy thing.]
You should see my Olympic weightlifter friend in action. First, she steps onto the mat and approaches the barbell—for a few moments she’s merely the friendly, cheerful person I know, walking casually along, a familiar smile on her face. Coming to a stop standing with her toes below the steel bar (which is elevated by the weight-plates at either end) she squats down and takes hold with a wide grip—hands pronated, elbows locked, spine straight, chin raised. Already a transformation is taking place. I’m not simply seeing a friend of mine anymore: I’m now seeing a physiological machine poised to explode into intense action—a kinetic sculpture; an artistic exploration of human capability. Somatic and mental evolution expressing themselves in a playful manipulation of force and matter. Chemical, cellular, musculoskeletal, nervous—every level of physical and psychological organization coming into a finely-tuned, automatically consolidated functional balance.
From this meticulously disciplined starting position (because the lift has already succeeded or failed in its preparation) she takes a deep breath, holds it (making her core a more solid base for what’s to follow by the increase of intra-abdominal pressure) and launches into motion. The muscles of the lower body supply the initial drive; legs extending, hips moving upwards and forwards; simultaneously, her tightened trunk draws backward, pulling her body towards a natural standing posture, very nearly “the anatomical position.” Agonist and antagonist muscles are precisely contracting isometrically and isotonically, locked in a seamless, reciprocal integration of movement—like members of an orchestra upholding their individual parts of a rigidly structured kinetic melody. The bar, rising in her grip as her body rises, slides first up her shins, past her knees as they lock, then to her waist; without the slightest break in the continuity of the movement, she makes a small hop off the ground—a fast-twitch muscle flourish, a subtle, easily-missed token of complete technical mastery of the physics at play—before dropping into a deep squatting position; knees fully flexed and tracking over the line of her toes, weight on heels, crease of hip below parallel to the floor; lumbar region of her back strong and active. Meanwhile, while she made her hop, her upper body was far from passive; shoulders shrugging upwards powerfully, she launched the barbell at the ends of her locked arms; bringing it up from her waist, she takes control of its rise and stops its motion as it comes directly overhead.
By this point, you have already witnessed a dazzling display of neurological communication and control—to say nothing of the counterbalanced muscular strength and diarthrotic joint flexibility involved. But you feel as though you haven’t only seen the movement performed once: rather, you’ve seen the culmination of a thousand (or more) repetitions. Over the course of long practice and entrainment, the complexities inherent have been internalized; their execution is, to a degree, automatic and unconscious, in the sense that they could not be properly performed in all their simultaneous aspects by the conscious mind alone. The brain as a whole, the central and peripheral nervous systems in their entirety, must be recruited. The lifter, for a fleeting instant of powerful motion, is displaying a human brain and body operating at functional capacity; motor cortex output traveling along efferent neurons, winding smoothly into an opposite stream of sensory input, as millions of afferent neurons carry the somatosensory signatures of every muscle’s position in space to a central executive will, a unifying cognition.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said that our first and foremost certainty is of our body. Immersed in a universe of mysterious and metagnostic dubiety, we are grounded throughout our lives by the continuity of our somatic experience. The body is the base of all our experiences—we are viscerally certain of it even when we are certain of nothing else. And so it is only natural that in moments where the body and the mind lock into the operational oneness they were born to enjoy, when every cell is working to a common goal—when the spontaneous and intermeshed expression of the body dominates the entire mind and has the whole attention rapt—it is only natural that everything should make sense. Everything is certain, because this moment is certain, and this moment is everything. In the subjective experience of complete functional integration, nothing falls outside the perfection of the execution.
We don’t ask anyone why they want to be happy; happiness justifies itself. In the same way, immersed in the optimality of integrated movement, the movement justifies itself; the experience, the moment, the body, all justify themselves through the expression of their perfection.
I doubt these are the thoughts going through the lifter’s mind, in the instant she’s coiled at the bottom of the squat, back tight, head raised, the barbell held above by perfectly straight arms. The experience of optimality is too complete, too focused, to allow for such meandering thoughts; it’s alive, and it only lives in motion; doesn’t stop to put itself in words. It can only be put in words after it’s already over; and even then, the words are always inadequate.
But the lift hasn’t ended yet. Extending her legs once again—as if attempting to press the floor beneath her away—she rises into a standing posture, the barbell high aloft, the very picture of triumph. Completion. The end of the kinetic score. The orchestra falls silent and only the reverberations remain to tell what has just occurred. Dumping it forward, she drops the dead weight of the barbell from its height to the floor. A quick bounce, a slight roll across the mat, and it is still: disengaged from the hands of the lifter, it has lost its living motion. It, which seemed such an active character in the preceding performance, is revealed to be lifeless without its connection to the honed proprioception of the athlete.
Turning away, she walks from the mat, a wide smile crossing her face. The barbell has returned, essentially, to the spot where it started. Nothing has been changed. But everything has changed. The lifter’s smile shows that she understands this; she, immersed in the motion, conducting the band, felt its relevance, its absolute self-justification. She has acted out the lyrics “Do not die without knowing what your limits were.”