On Kinesthetic Knowledge

October 26, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

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When as a child I watched my great grandmother knit, I was mesmerized by how quickly and instinctively her hands moved to make the delicate stitches of her sweaters.  She did not think about or even look at each stitch. The stitches just flowed effortlessly from her hands as she talked to me. I remember those hands whenever I watch commercial fishermen filet their fish with the same kind of effortless, unthinking movements of hand and knife. And I remembered them again today when I watched the hands of the potter as she deftly and effortlessly turned a shapeless lump of clay into a bowl right before my very eyes.

Grandma's hands and those of the potter point to kinesthetic knowledge. Such knowledge is not of ideas or concepts. It's not of anything. It's instinctive know-how accumulated through hours of practice. It is an intuitive capacity for rhythmic movements and practiced gestures, all well-timed and economically executed in pursuit of a craft. Such knowledge is seated in the memory of muscles.  We only acquire it through the movements themselves. Movements that begin as clumsy, slow, and awkward become skilled, quick, and graceful the more we do them. When the fingers meet the mud and clay, they just go to work, reflexively increasing and decreasing the pressure first here and then there, adjusting effortlessly to the texture and thickness of the clay as the wheel turns. Such knowledge is not linear, conceptual, or verbal; it's intuitive, reflexive, and somatic. It's fluidic improvisation. The Taoist speaks of it as wu wei, "effortless effort."

Potter's Hands reminds us that such kinesthetic knowledge is beautiful to witness. When mud-slathered fingers conjure form from a formless lump of clay, we are reminded of our own connectedness to earth and mud. We are brought back to elemental things, to the ancient, primordial awareness that we are enfleshed spirits most at home in earthy mud. Potter's Hands calls us back to our flesh and beckons our spirits to embrace it and conjure up some fresh beauty of our own.


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