I am surrounded by babies—bovine, human, and avian–a bull calf named Dutch, my four month old Leif, and twenty-six two-week old chicks. I am watching them all closely for signs. Who are we animals anyway?
What do I notice? How they move. Babies move. They move constantly. Even when they suddenly collapse into a heap, fast asleep, their bodies balloon in and out with the beats of their breathing.
Take the chicks. From the moment we opened the peeping package we picked up at the post office, these fluff balls on toothpicks have been moving constantly—pecking, preening, poking, scratching, scooping water and tipping up their chins so that the drink runs down their throats.
Then one by one, they crash. Heads loll, legs splay, and wings curl as the chicks flop over, between, and through one another in a mound of pulsing puff. In the next instant, a sound startles. One head lifts, and the mass comes alive, peeping and pecking again, stronger, louder, and bigger. You can see them grow.
Leif is the same—a veritable whirligig of wriggling and waving until the moment when all he wants to do is suck himself into sleep. Tucked in my arms he falls over some unseen edge into a rest so deep you can feel his cells inhale. No anxieties about the day rev his small self; no anticipation or regret props his eyelids open. He pulses, present to his rhythms of bodily becoming.
Movement is who he is. His movement is making him.
In our contemporary age, movement has been co-opted by the language of exercise and fitness, and moralized into a task we should perform. We congratulate ourselves when we succeed in spurring our seemingly sluggish bodies into action, and then measure the minutes spent, the miles clocked, and calories counted. We treat our bodies like pets we must put through their paces, so they will continue to obey our commands. We earn our just reward of fitting in to clothes, cliques, or the conceptions of beauty that barrage us.
Our view of movement is reinforced in our experience by our sedentary values. We prize the ability to sit still as a measure of our success in thinking and learning. To sit is the goal of a day’s work. When our energy pools in our toes, and we don’t feel like moving, we assume it’s because our body blocks don’t want to. We forget that we are no longer feeling through our bodily selves.
Mind over body is what we have become. Our movements are making us.
Leif found his foot. Or, his foot found him. Or rather, his foot and his fingers found each other. Grasping and grasped, he found himself, but it’s not a matter of agency. He didn’t decide to link upper and lower digits. His parts found each other, as they moved.
He found himself by moving.
How could this be? The movements that we make are neither fully conscious, nor fully planned, but neither are they arbitrary or accidental to our evolving sense of self.
The beating and breathing that we are pulls nutrients and elements into places where they burn. Energy emerges, wanting its own expenditure. Cells act, muscles contract, nerves fire, and movements happen along the trajectories of our physiological form. As these movements pass through us, they create sensations of their happening—patterns of coordination the movement requires.
The movements also invite effects—a smile evokes another, a cry calls for arms, a sucking warms the belly. The impress of these effects remains. So overtime, as we move, we gather patterns of sensing and responding that guide us in discerning what we need and how to get it. A sense of agency forms, as an after-thought. Suck, reach, cry, can I.
I is an afterthought. It is a thought we can think based on the bodily movements we have made. It is a word that gives unity to the splash of sensations we gather as we move through space and time, toward and away, with and against, up and down, in and out and around.
I is an afterthought that becomes a forethought. Once it emerges, it serves as a powerful hook on which to hang further patterns of sensing and responding. It becomes a sense of ourselves we want to protect, so we learn new movements that do—avoiding, deflecting, attacking, retreating, and repressing all those aspects of ourselves that don’t conform to who we want our “I” to be. We want to believe that “I” comes first.
It is when we identify too strongly with our I-protecting patterns of sensation and response that we stop moving. We forget that our bodily movement is making us, and we lose the sensory awareness that would allow us to discern new patterns of sensing and responding. We lose degrees of freedom. Faced with the challenges of our lives, we rearrange the furniture in our minds, unable to find a way out.
Watching the babes, I remember. It is time to move.
Movement is our birthright. We are born moving. We are born to move, and when we are not too tired or stressed or hungry or preoccupied, movement is what we want to do. When we move we breathe, when we breathe we feel, and when we feel we have available to us resources for greeting every challenge in our lives as a potential for pleasure we have yet to unfold.
When we move, we bring sense to life.