Nunani: Physical intelligence (Part one)



He who knows others is wise;
Yet he who knows himself is enlightened.
He who conquers others is strong;
Yet he who conquers himself is mighty.
He who is sated is rich;
Yet he who directs himself has power.

– Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

How shall I go to compose this important song?
How shall I invent it to help me?
I am wholly ignorant.
Those who dance with elegance,
I will get inspiration from them.

– Ogpingalik, a Netsilingmiut songstress, 1960

Inuit have always believed that physicality is a sort of intelligence unto itself – and a vital one at that. Southerners who have travelled with Inuit have remarked that Inuit show an amazing ability to fix nearly anything, constantly finding new uses for old parts and tools. An Inuk can take one object, made for a single purpose, and find a dozen new uses for it.

Similarly, explorers have expressed a great deal of amazement at Inuit endurance and pain tolerance: a hunter’s ability to run full-tilt for several hours; the ability to stand utterly immobile over an aglu (seal breathing-hole) for an interminable amount of time; the ability to haul a heavy kill, perhaps more than the hunter’s own body weight, over vast distances. These are all good examples of the kind of physical prowess Inuit have needed simply to exist at all.

And it doesn’t end there. When a tool or toggle or part of a qamotik (sled) breaks on a hunt, a substitute must be made fast. Lashings and traces must be fixed, detached, or untangled with utter urgency. Shelters must be erected or taken down as quickly as possible, depending on sudden shifts in the weather.

Human existence itself can hinge upon improvisation. Improvisation with speed. With these kinds of needs, it is no wonder, then, that Inuit have come to depend not only upon the intelligence characteristic of the conscious mind, but that of the unconsciousness as well. Their survival has come to depend upon a physical intelligence, that which exhibits itself when there is no time for thought.

While this kind of physical intelligence is to some degree genetic, a result of Inuit having been engineered by the extreme environmental conditions, it is also a result of culture. Inuit culture has almost obsessively emphasized the importance of spatial coordination and athleticism. Whether the ajajaaq (string games) taught to children as soon as they were able to learn them, or the amazing traditional athletics still exhibited at the Arctic Winter Games, these were all training methods of one kind or another.

As a girl, I was privileged, in that my father allowed me to assist in his hunting. I became used to running for lengthy periods of time alongside a qamotik, and I became able to untangle multiple dog-traces in record time.

But it did not come easily. I had to be conditioned first. So, one day, near Prince of Wales Island, my father decided to train me. His demeanor suddenly changed from gentle, indulgent parent, to barking hellion. Nothing I did was quick enough, good enough. Lift this, toss that, coil that rope, set this up, make this, go here, faster, faster, not fast enough. I wept. I was sore day after day. Comfort became a stranger.

Yet I cannot dispute the fact that it improved me. I learned to act from reflex rather than thought, and I loved it. I was proud like never before.

I later learned that this was one traditional way of introducing Inuit youth to the adult world. But since Inuit don’t practice this kind of thing anymore, it has left us with a sticky problem: How can future generations still gain the personal benefits of traditional conditioning? How can the natural physical intelligence be used to improve modern existence?

Sports are a good way. Whether through southern sports, or the more traditional nature of the Arctic Winter Games, such athleticism is indisputably valuable. Nevertheless, the one flaw of a sport is its competitive nature, a nature that tends to repel those with no interest in testing themselves against others. Conversely, the traditional Inuktitut way of developing physical intellect is characterized more by its tendency to test the self.

Yet there is one activity that accomplishes such self-testing quite adequately, a physical intelligence with roots in Asia.

(Concluded in part two.)

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