Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Intellectual vs. Physical

Reading Time ~ 4 minutes.

Have you ever wondered about the interplay between intellectual and physical work? Do they even go together? My recent thought was they go together, closely, like yin and yang. There, I said it.
The above was a result of a number of thoughts coalescing, the most important one being a thought-spiral that began one day last week, when my house cleaner brought along two friends. They chatted, made jokes and laughed, all the working while. They were speaking in Spanish which I don't follow so I can only hope that not all the jokes were about me.

That's the thing- (no, not me, silly!)- intellectual work seldom brings cheer. Satisfaction, pride – yes. Often times it is a solitary pursuit. Physical or manual work on the other hand, clears and refreshes the mind. A friend in grad school used to clean her kitchen, room, house and even the car before she could settle down and study for a mid-term!
Also, when disturbed by conflict some have a tendency to attend to chores. I wonder what happens, if the brain is doing some kind of executive planning to attend to tasks that can take the mind off things.
The working of the limbs and the trunk, as in cleaning, washing, sawing etc., can clear the mind, free the cerebral cortex from decision making thoughts and refresh the mind even when the body may be tired.
You may have seen images of shared manual work as in farm-work (when in good times) bringing cheer and joy especially when enlivened with banter or singing. The same effect is missing when working on a treadmill or a gym but where we may still be thinking. The body feels energized with the workout but the mind may not feel as refreshed as in purposeful physical work.

It is likely that different parts of the brain get activated in either type of work, the physical or intellectual. I feel these different areas are complementary, in a way that is both beautiful and primitive.

Usually, people with intellectual pursuits are prone to stay away from manual work. People who rely on manual work for a living, when their needs are sufficiently met, tend to stay away from direct intellectual pursuits. They generally exude a contented disposition and a certain gravity. But they sometimes, in kindness, may translate an intellectual outburst of someone in their midst into a real life example and thus make sense for all concerned.

Doing only intellectual work, only thinking, even artistic work, accumulates nervous energy. It tires the brain and the nervous system, especially if one is trying to cross-link ideas and sensations. Occasionally there is a feeling of being overwhelmed. Sure, we can write about it or talk to someone. Somehow that isn't sufficient to channel out the nervous energy. Over time it gets in the way of productivity and progress. There is also the danger of overload, life and brain getting imbalanced into a spiral-down in functionality, aided by genetics and habits.
Manual work, as in bending, sitting, standing and using the limbs towards a purpose has the effect of dissipating nervous energy. It clears the head. Something about the back-bending - the spinal cord releases energy. Like in Yoga and TaiChi. And unlike them, actual work has an ego humbling feeling, showing our place in the large scheme of things- the need to do our able share in the running of things.

Gardening works for me. I like working with the soil, with earth, the seeds and the plants. I like using the tools, watering and seeing the change. Working within greenery also brings a quietness. But this is not everyday work nor is it proportional to the amount of desk work I do. I wish it is. But on the few days I work enough, a cycle set in: hard-work, balance, good-sleep, repeat. Happy happy.

Take camping in the wild. We have to put aside our urban, polished selves and come to terms with ourselves and our companions in the same light. Away in the wild, banter and derivative longings seem vain with each passing day and moment. Surviving takes work. Our deepest self comes out of layers and finds easy expression. I once heard someone or read somewhere that the best way to know if you get along with someone is to go camping with them.
There is something about the tending to the physical and basic aspects of the business of survival that can integrate and release the whole.

There is an interesting episode in Star Trek Next Generation where Captain Picard returns home after he is rescued from the Borg. He goes home to his brother's vineyard in France. Ostensibly to recover. But he is angry, frustrated and bottled up. He trades barbs and petulance with the brother, who in turn, doesn't hold out any flowers. One day, they run into each other in the grove and have an argument which escalates into the physical. See it for yourself-

Of course, we cannot get into physical fights to resolve severe disagreements. Thank heavens we have a civil society and rule of the law. The above fight was between two brothers who knew their boundaries. It was still extraordinary and of course, entertaining.
On the other side of same spectrum, movie makers make full use of tension between a two, to lure us, the audience, into the drama. Similar stuff. Once resolved, let's say with a kiss, or more, the truer feelings of romance unfold. Love or no_love!

So what is intellectual work?
I don't think it is about acquisition of information. Tons of information comes at us everyday from all sides. It is being able to consolidate this into a knowledge base. Being able to instinctively filter incoming information using this base. Having a clarity in the resulting thought and expression. 
This stands in direct contrast to collecting or spouting reams of gathered information at a query or at a discussion. I don't know what that is called. But many of us do that!

Another aspect is one of the ego: I believe one who works to decrease the feeding of the ever-hungry personal ego while in an intellectual or even artistic pursuit, is termed wise, maybe can even be called a philosopher. Just as long as he is also doing the daily dishes and she is mowing the lawn..
Henry David Thoreau would not have been the kind of intellectual and philosopher he was if he did not build his cabin by himself. Mahatma Gandhi was relentless in his (and others!) physical contribution to running of the ashram.
Long ago, Krishna (of the Mahabharata) was known to have said that Karma Yoga (the path of disinterested work) and Jnana work (the path of discriminating knowledge) go together. Simple and elegant.

Is intellectualism an end in itself? Is physical work? What about when they are together?
Philosophies of 'stillness in action' say that one has to utilize the intellect but get past 'thinking' to 'being'. Many religions focus on devotion to somewhat get there. But interestingly, many views seem to indicate that dedicated physical work can be an end in itself.

So what are you still doing here? Go, go wash the car or scrub the stove! Go!