Physical Curiosity

This piece started out with the idea that, as an athlete, a big part of what drives me forward is wondering what I’m capable of. What will my body do? How will it feel? Running, riding, hiking, climbing, surfing, skiing, all of it probes at the mind-body connection. All of those sports send bodily feedback to the central processing unit, and what I’m doing, as many days as I can manage, is soliciting feedback.

Put another way, I’m spinning the dial and checking all the stations for the music that sounds good or different or both.

That’s how this thing started, and it’s been parked in my drafts folder for a few months not quite moving forward, because I wasn’t sure I had the whole idea I was trying to express.

And then I read this: “If we’re not exploring, we’re not doing anything. We’re just waiting.” These are the words of a young physicist who does research on dark matter. I won’t dig too deep into that here, but you can get this book and follow along if you like.

MRI scan of human head (Colour Enhanced)

That simple idea that our curiosity and exploration define us helped tune my mental station to what I’m doing, the whole point of Dirt Soul Search, that I’m not only exploring an external physical landscape, but also an internal physical landscape, and that is inextricably linked to the mind as an organ, a chemistry set that begets consciousness and the reflexive, recursive processing of being a sentient being.

Shit. That was heavy. Sorry. Let’s start again.

We are born nothing, or close to it. Humans can’t talk or walk, lack manual dexterity, can’t feed themselves, can’t do math or hunt or pole vault. We exit the womb early, the theory goes, because our enormous crania won’t fit through the birth canal if we gestate long enough to add a skill set.

And so, curiosity gives life meaning. That’s a long, logical leap, but stick with it for a minute, because discovering the meaning of life is worth the time.

Listen, put yourself back in your just born body for a moment. Your eyes begin to dry out and you react by blinking. You’re hungry, and you reach out and there is a breast. Physical exigency turns you into a problem solver. Theoretically, you could not blink and not nurse, but it would induce discomfort, suffering, so life gains meaning (this is some Buddhist shit here) through your pursuit of not-suffering.

But that’s a pretty grim view, that the only thing that spurs us to any sort of physical action is to avoid pain. Game that out though, and it holds up. The very best an incurious and inert human can hope for is probably boredom. Boredom implies that we’ve met all our other needs, for food, safety, comfort, etc., and are left, as the young physicist said, “waiting.”

So what do we do with ourselves?

We move. And sometimes we move in ways that create suffering, and that suffering abates, and we move again, and we expand our range, both physically and geographically, and now we are exploring the outer and inner terrain, and we bore of immobility more and more quickly, and that begets more and more movement, so that all of this running around really does define us. This physical curiosity isn’t a thing we choose to do with our lives, it IS our lives.

That explains why extended periods of inactivity trigger my depression, an arrangement of chemicals I seem to have been gifted genetically, but that mostly submits to treatment by exercise, the outward expression of physical curiosity. The whole idea of not living, i.e. not exploring these things, is depressing.

And there’s an argument to be made that intellectual curiosity has the same power to alleviate suffering/boredom that physical curiosity does, but that presupposes that you can separate one from the other, that curiosity in either form can be sustained without testing our ideas, which is, itself, a physical act. I may just be biased on this count. The truth is, the more I think, the more likely I am to fall into downward spirals, into depression, that can only be climbed out of with action.

I don’t think you have to run marathons or climb Everest to be physically curious. In fact, in some ways, I think the pursuit of epic exploits is really a misunderstanding of physical curiosity, as though the only interesting information is to be found at the very limits of our capacity. That is not to say that those places aren’t fascinating and those experiences aren’t rich, but for those of us who haven’t covered the terrain between here and there, it might be shortcutting the process.

That’s the idea I was reaching for in The Marathon as Fad Diet, that we sometimes think we can change our lives with one bold move, rather than moving boldly every goddamned day. That’s not to say that running a marathon or trekking the Himalaya are bad things to do, only that those things alone don’t constitute a complete expression of physical curiosity.

Is it tautological to say that movement gives life meaning and therefore, movement is the of meaning life? The medium is the message? I don’t think so, but I’m open to an alternate explanation. If you need me, I’ll be in the woods, doing research.

2 thoughts on “Physical Curiosity

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  1. I think another interesting form of physical curiosity is performed by people who build things by trial and error. Treehouses. Backyard sheds. Patios. It’s definitely a brain/body combo, but it involves an impressive amount of spatial reasoning and stamina.

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    1. Interesting thought. I just built a new set of steps for my back deck. The spatial reasoning and problem solving is something I really enjoy – even though it can frustrate. I also really enjoy looking at the fully functional ‘masterpiece’ I constructed and feel pretty comfortable that they’ll be there for another 20 years, at least.

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