4 Ounces of Force
I’d like to start by thanking you all for reading that last message and even more so for the beautiful, positive, funny, profound and often poignant responses in return. Yvonne’s spent a lot of this last week forwarding on your messages and I’ve spent most of it smiling, sometimes laughing and a couple of times crying while replying. I know I have a few to get to still and I promise I will. I didn’t realise this was such a large part of what my dad did all day. No wonder he was so into algae—it had nothing to do with surviving Armageddon, it was just a time-saving measure. Slurping slop from a rock takes no time compared to cooking, and leaves hours free for emails. I get it now.
I’m only joking of course. I imagine, and I think I know, he was honoured to be in communication with so many people all the time. And I’ve felt privileged and proud to read what he meant to so many of you.
Plus he wasn’t at all interested in spending time in the kitchen anyway. He did appear on an episode of Celebrity Ready Steady Cook once though, which was a rather strange decision for the very simple fact that he didn’t know how to cook. Needless to say, his Algae Al Dente caused a storm and the world of prime-time TV cuisine was never the same again.
Speaking of worlds never being the same again, I’ve been wondering a lot—as I imagine you have too—about the kinds of changes this coronavirus crisis might indelibly leave on ours.
The optimistic part of me sees how we might emerge from this with a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for simply being alive, for being part of this global show, for the relationships in our lives, for being able to touch and kiss and hold, for the food we eat, for how it gets to the supermarket shelves to begin with, for the people who teach in our schools, for the doctors and nurses and all the supporting cast in our hospitals.
The optimistic part of me sees how this pause in predictable proceedings provides the perfect opportunity to examine everything – social, cultural, political, economic, ecological, spiritual – and question whether the body of values that appear to dominate our culture, bound up in a blind and mindless devotion to consumerism, materialism and individualism, might now, finally and fully, reveal itself to be the slithering, self-chomping serpent it surely is. Which isn’t to reject the need to consume, the definitive of the material, or the importance of the individual. Not at all. But the scales had tipped too far, the world had so clearly been batted and battered out of balance. Surely now, surely, we’ll wake up from this reverie as one.
And yet, and yet…the pessimist in me sees how the second the quarantine cordons come down, the starting gates reopen, we’ll burst back out of our houses champing at the bit like a pack of thoughtless horse-lemmings intent on making up for lost time, leaving all the potential goodness, gratitude and camaraderie, the introspecting, the soulful inspecting, the crucial questioning, the lack of needless spending on material objects and vanity projects, not to mention the essential pollution-denting that’s happening as a consequence of our forced stoppage, to fizz away and plummet like a hastily deflating, farting-as-it’s-departing balloon. A cartoonish curtain call signalling a pathetic final demise.
Which is too tragic, or maybe too comedic, to bear. And so I realise I’ve been investing heavily in the optimistic view instead, trying to wish it into existence like a child throwing coins to a fountain.
But, as we begin to come to terms with the new size and pace of our lives in confinement, still shocked by the madness, but-also-isn’t-it-surprising-how-quickly-we-normalise-it, accepting the restrictions, understanding the finances, the packages and permutations, relearning to call on our resilience and wherewithal, both individually and as a collective, I’m beginning to come to terms with the fact that I can’t control the outcome of this pandemic, of how the world will look on the other side.
I have no control over anyone’s response and behaviours, let alone the macro politico-economic model of our entire civilization and the overarching and invisible power structures that contain us. Which is a bit of a shame, really. But I must accept it is the case. Thus, to invest so large a proportion of mental and emotional stock in my preferred fantasy outcome is a fool’s errand, to say the least.
When I was younger and I really wanted something, or wanted something specific to happen, my dad would remind me the Taoist approach would be to hold onto those thoughts or desires with the equivalent of 4 ounces of force or pressure.
I think it was 4 ounces, it might’ve been 4 pounds. 4 grams? It was definitely 4 somethings. I confess I’d sometimes switch off when he was talking. Him telling us to relate to our desires with a Taoist mindset was the equivalent of a normal parent telling their child to eat their carrots.
Nevertheless, he’d say hold onto whatever it is you want (be it a new BMX bike, a new job, a new vaccine, or a whole new way of being in the world) with just enough force – let’s agree on 4oz for now – to keep it from wandering off but not too much to throttle it.
And so I’m trying to do exactly that. 4oz isn’t anywhere near enough to make wholesale changes to the world and its existent structures, I’d be deluded to think otherwise. But my 4oz of force is sufficient to maintain my own course, to be civil, to be kind, to be grateful, to be useful, to contribute, to recognise that this pause in events can be a beautiful, fruitful opening, a sun-lit patch to plant the seeds of the life I truly want for myself. And if others choose to do likewise then how delightful. But I can’t and shan’t impose my will on anyone else, least of all on Life itself.
So, keep a light touch on the vision of a better planet and delicately nurture this urge and inclination in myself. That’s all I, or anyone, can do, I think.
And with all that in mind I’ve decided to keep writing these messages, if you’ll have me do so—I’d certainly like to—maybe once a week on a Monday, at least for the duration of this corona-hiatus, and then let’s see.
I’d like to keep up the connection and conversation. Perhaps this is our dad’s legacy, at least in part. It certainly wasn’t cooking. Joe, Michael and I are speaking about other things we might be able to do too, but we’ll get to them when we do.
One such thing we can get to right now is a reminder to keep moving. While we’re in some form of lockdown or another it’s imperative we don’t lock up our bodies by mistake. We must keep moving and staying fit. Sitting for long periods of time, at a desk or couch or what have you, weakens, shortens and stiffens what ought to be strong, long and loose.
So, in order to strengthen, lengthen and loosen, have a butchers at the following:
Here’s a clip, from a relatively recent retreat, of Stephen demonstrating some gentle Qi Gong exercises you can do every day (a big thank you to Emma for sending it). The sequence only takes 6 minutes, or thereabouts, so give it a twirl: https://youtu.be/eUVI5vnsZlI
And if you're reading this on the barefoot doctor facebook page or through his email send-out, I’d like to point you in the direction of my own site, https://www.cobsalad.com/, fresh out the proverbial kitchen (maybe he taught us how to cook after all, just a different form of cooking), where I’ll also post each of these weekly pieces, and perhaps a little more as things develop, as well as regular videos demonstrating simple bodyweight movements and exercises designed to do at home without any equipment. Resistance training of some kind, with free weights or just your body—and I prefer the latter because it encourages the creation and exploration of new movement patterns and therefore greater all-round mobility and strength—is essential in maintaining muscle and joint health and keeping bones suitably sturdy and dense.
Then finally, if you fancy a spot of online yoga or breathwork to keep your lungs pumping with aplomb while Covid-19 threatens to drop its respiratory bombs, my mum, Liz, a yoga teacher of 40 odd years, who helped develop baby massage with my dad back in the early ‘80s, can be contacted through her site at: http://www.lisbethrussellyoga.com/
I hope you find this helpful; I hope I can be useful. Let’s all try to stay healthy and strong, let’s keep moving and making new shapes and patterns even while our field of play temporarily shrinks in size. And if you find yourself in a wish-filled pickle, like me and my fantasy of a better world, or whatever yours might be, remember to hold it with 4oz of pressure no more and no less. Then, as my dad would say, carry on as you were.
And, in the interim, I continue to wish you love in the time of quarantine,