Chapter 4 of the Book

Lesson 10 Chapter 1 Module 5

Body Sense – Physical Intelligence

This chapter is about physical intelligence.

Many of us work to improve our physical intelligence, although we may not think of it in these terms. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but many of our techniques and ideas originated in India and the Far East. For instance, Judo shows you how to defeat your opponent using the minimum effort. 

An accompanying video - a conversation with Chris Thomson. 

Since it is a way of using your body wisely and effectively, it counts as part of physical intelligence. Yoga and Qigong, although very different from each other, have some things in common. They are both ways of maintaining your body in a good state, and of getting your energy to flow easily and well. Therefore, they also count as ways of improving your physical intelligence. In fact, anything you do to improve the state of your body, and the way you use it, raises your physical intelligence.

What do you do, if anything, to improve your physical intelligence?

If you have seen the Bourne movies, with Matt Damon playing the hero, you will recall that Jason Bourne went through a special training before he was sent out into the field. That training included techniques to improve his awareness as well as his survival and self-defence skills. He was so aware that he would notice things long before most of us would, and he would notice things that we would probably never notice. For example, he wondered why it was that he knew where the nearest gun would be. As it happened, it was in the glove compartment of a lorry parked nearby. He was clearly very aware. But he could also do things that most of us will never do. His body knew how to respond automatically in difficult situations, hence his skill at self-defence. He was also adept at surviving in extreme conditions.

A physically intelligent person is very alert, although in a relaxed kind of way, and he is very aware of what is going on around him. He moves elegantly and effortlessly. He is physically healthy, and has reserves of energy. He is able to cope with challenging physical situations. He is very much in the here and now, and he seems to blend in with the natural world, no doubt because he feels that he is part of it.

Do you recognise yourself in any part of this description?

Where do you think you are (i) strongest and (ii) weakest in physical intelligence?

Before we explore the three stages of the physical intelligence process, I would like to say a few words about some of the things that prevent us from being as physically intelligent as we could be. Ask yourself - do any of them apply to you. If they do, then do whatever it takes to minimise or remove them.

Poor physical health: I don’t think I need to say much about this. If you are in less than perfect health – even if it is just a common cold – your awareness and your responses will be dulled to some extent. It may seem strange to hear this, but if you want to be intelligent, look after your health!

Physical stress: We get stressed because we are afraid, or worried, or because we have too much to do. All of us are familiar with this kind of stress. It is unpleasant, and it can interfere with our normal functioning. Anyone going through a divorce or the loss of a job knows this very well. Physical stress is different, but its consequences can be similar. If you live and work in a large city, you will know what it is. It consists of noise, congestion, pollution, competition for space, and much else. When I am surrounded by the stresses of the city, I am not at my best. My awareness and responses are not as good as they could be. This means that I am less intelligent than I could be. This is why I now live in the Pyrenees.

Here are a few questions to help you assess how physically intelligent you are. The more you answer in the affirmative, the more physically intelligent you are likely to be:

  • Are you physically healthy?
  • Are you sensitive to what your body needs…food, drink, rest, exercise, repairing?
  • Do you use the minimum energy to achieve things?
  • When you are in unfamiliar places or situations, do you have a good sense of where (i) danger and (ii) safety are?
  • Do you tread lightly on the planet? Or do you leave a messy trail behind you?

Physical Awareness

A falcon can spot a mouse a mile away. Just as impressive, a shark can sense light directly through its skull with its pineal gland. I am particularly impressed by the little honey bee. We use maps, compasses and satellite navigation to ascertain where we are and how to get to where we want to be, but some bees have built-in GPS systems. Worker bees have a tiny ring of iron oxide on their abdomens that is believed to detect minute changes in the earth’s magnetic field as they fly around. This tells them where they are and where they are heading. As for homing pigeons, they know how to home as soon as they learn to fly.

There are many things other species can do that we cannot. Some of them can see and hear things that we would normally never see or hear. However, we have learned to compensate for our sensory inadequacy. We invented technology. Unaided, the eagle and the hawk can see much farther and clearer than we can. But when we put a powerful telescope to our eyes, we are the ones who can see much farther. A shark and a dog can detect smells where we detect none. A shark, for example, can sense the presence of fish at concentrations of less than one part in 10 billion. That is an unimaginably low concentration. We would detect absolutely nothing. It is true that we cannot compensate by wearing “tele-noses”, but we do have technology that is even more sensitive than the shark’s astonishing sense of smell. 

As a species, we have managed to compensate remarkably well for our relatively insensitive physical senses. No doubt we will continue to find ingenious ways to do this. However, I think that we have become too reliant on technology, and not reliant enough on our unaided senses. As a consequence, we do not make the best use of them, and our intelligence suffers accordingly. There is much that we can do to improve our physical awareness. Here are some ways of doing this.

The One Block Game

The game consists in walking along any street the length of one block. If you do not live in a city, then walking about 200 metres will do. The point of the game is to imagine that when you get to the end of the block (or the 200 metres), someone is waiting to test you on what you observed. You might be asked, for example, for vehicle registration numbers, or the names of shops, or how many people were wearing glasses. It all depends on what you happen to pass as you walk. You may find that you are not very good at this at first. But if you persist, you will get better. If you keep at it, you will eventually find that you have become more aware generally, and not just when walking the one block. You will start noticing more as a matter of course. When this happens, you will be a little more physically intelligent.

First Time and Last Time

It is important not just to notice more things, but also to notice more about the same things. For this, there is another game you can play. I call it First Time and Last Time. We take a lot of things for granted, and therefore pay little or no attention to them. This covers a multitude of things. It could be what we see, without really seeing, on the journey to work. It could be our own bedroom. It could be anything that forms part of the familiar background to our daily life. The game, in this case, is that you imagine that you are seeing these things for the first time in your life. You come at them fresh, so that they have the feeling of novelty that they had when you first encountered them. When you play this game, you will probably find that even the most mundane, uninteresting objects, such as the mug you use each day for your coffee, acquire new life. You start noticing things about them that you had not registered before, something about the colour perhaps, or the shape. I hope you experience this sense of novelty because in the next section of this chapter, we will see that even the most “uninteresting” things are packed with meaning.

The variant of this game is to imagine that you are seeing things for the last time in your life. When you do this, you will almost certainly find that everything feels more interesting and more significant. For example, imagine that you are in one of your favourite places. In my case, I would be in the valley of Glencoe in Scotland. It is where I became a mountaineer. You love being in the place of your choice. You love its beauty, its buildings if you are in a town or city, its people, and the wonderful sense of contentment you feel each time you go there. Now you are told that you can never go there again. This has to be the last time, and you have only one more hour before you have to leave forever. The exercise is to imagine what you would feel, what you would look at or listen to, and what memories you would want to take away with you. Whatever your answers to these questions, you will probably have a heightened awareness of the place and notice things about it that you had not noticed before. Now try to imagine the same thing happening with a much-loved friend, or a piece of music that you really like. I can almost guarantee that you will become aware of things you were not aware of before. Your awareness will improve, and thus you will become a little more intelligent.

Physical Understanding

If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and especially if you have seen Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV series, you have probably marvelled at his powers of observation. He does more than just see very clearly. He also deduces at the same time. He understands the meaning of what he sees. Although few of us can observe and deduce as well as Holmes does, there is much that we can do to improve our understanding of the things we see and hear. The key is to recognise that everything is telling us something. Yes, absolutely everything, even the most seemingly insignificant. Sherlock Holmes knew this well, which is why he was able to find meaning and useful information in things that most of us would barely notice. For example, he would find useful clues in the way a car had been parked or in the way someone was holding a pen. What to us would be trivial and unimportant would be to Holmes a vital clue. So, how can you become more like Holmes in this respect?

This is what I suggest. Wherever you happen to be – at home, at work, on holiday – choose just one thing to look at, something very normal. Then imagine a “chain of causation”. What caused this thing to be there, or to be the way it is? And then ask yourself: what caused the cause? And so on. Try to go as far as you can back along the chain of causation, to see where it leads you. If you persist, you will see that nothing is insignificant, and that everything is telling you something. You will be surprised at just how much meaning there is out there, and at how many useful clues you can pick up when you really look and think. It will not be easy at first. You are probably not in the habit of finding meaning in everything. But I encourage you to get into the habit, because it will do wonders for your intelligence. Not only will you become more observant, you will also realise, possibly for the first time, that the world is constantly sending us useful information, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Physical Response

There is much I could say about the wise and effective use of your body. Instead, I would just like to focus on one thing – the Law of Reverse Effort.

Never heard of it? I am not surprised. We live in a world where being busy is considered a virtue, and where putting in a lot of effort is assumed to be a reliable route to success. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that the Industrial Age is over, and that we now live in a world where different rules apply. We do not yet know exactly what all the new rules are, but I am sure that one of them is the Law of Reverse Effort. It is no accident that the advent of the Industrial Age coincided with the rise of Protestantism, a belief system based on the importance of hard work and the denial of enjoyment. That, in essence, was the ethic of the Victorian Era, and of the first European settlers in North America. Despite calls from politicians and others telling us that we have to work even harder, that era is well and truly over. We are shifting away from an emphasis on “more” towards an emphasis on “better”.

In this context I have always thought it odd that people in the Far East, especially Japan, are associated with hard work and effort, but also with the opposite of this. Japan, for example, is the home of Zen (“quiet contemplation”), Cha-no-Yu (the unhurried tea ceremony) and Judo (“the gentle way”). I would like to say something about Judo.

When I practised Judo at Leeds University in the early 1970s, I was regularly defeated by Kunimitsu, a Japanese guy quite a bit smaller than me. We used to joke about it afterwards over a beer, but he was very serious when he said to me, “Chris, the only reason I win is because you try too hard. You put too much energy into trying. It is your trying that lets me win.” I never forgot his words. When I thought about it later, I began to realise that when I tried too hard, things often went wrong. Conversely, when I eased off and allowed things to happen naturally, they usually went well.

I had another fascinating example of the Law of Reverse Effort in 1987 when climbing Mont Blanc. My friend Andrew and I stayed overnight at 11,000 feet at the Refuge de Goǔter. It was very busy because it was the last weekend of the summer season. Since we knew that climbers usually departed for the summit by 2:00am at the latest, we set out at midnight to avoid the crowds. For a while we were alone on the mountain, picking out a route by the light of our head-torches. It was not long, however, before we could see lines of lights coming up behind us, and they were getting closer. I thought this was strange because we were both fit, and I felt that we were moving quickly. I was very surprised when the leading group caught up with us. It turned out to be a guided party, led by a man from Chamonix who looked as if he was in his 70s. I never forgot his comment when I asked him how his group had managed to overtake us. He said, “You were probably going too fast.” I knew exactly what he meant. He had been doing the equivalent of good Judo on the mountain!

As I said, the word Judo means “the gentle way”. This is because the essence of Judo is to use the minimum effort to achieve the optimum effect. You use your opponent’s energy and momentum to defeat him. You use as little as possible of your own energy. While it is true that Judo as practised in the West looks very energetic, with a lot of grunting and pulling, that is not the real Judo. Its top exponents are quiet people, who make everything look effortless. This skill does not come easy, and it can feel unnatural. This is no doubt because we have been conditioned to believe that we have to make a big effort to achieve anything worthwhile. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. What matters is that you make the optimum effort, which may not be the biggest. Optimum effort is all about “going with the flow” and “being natural”. Top sports people, great craftsmen and good artists know what this is. They know how to get into the “zone”, which is the zone of reverse effort. This is why their performances and work seem effortless.

Here is something you could start doing right now. Each time you feel yourself rushing or making a big effort, ease off, relax a little, and use less effort. Throttle back! You will find that it makes a big difference.

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