Monday, October 01, 2007

Working with our hands

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons…
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music…
And in keeping yourself with labor you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labor is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.
But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written…
Work is love made visible.

From The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

* * *

One of the absurdities of modern culture is our attitude towards work.

The common conception, and that promoted in our educational institutions and popular media, is that the summit of human achievement is a high paying job that involves no work. For those of us not “fortunate” enough to, like wealthy stockholders, “let our money work for us,” then to the extent that we can avoid work, can “appear busy” when the boss is around and return to non-work when unsupervised, we supposedly gain an advantage. And if one does have at some point to “do some work,” then heaven forbid one get dirty or break a sweat doing it.

In India, as in most countries, “developing” and otherwise, you can tell a lot about a person by their hands. You can tell if a person works with their hands doing physical labor. And you can make a fairly accurate guess what social class they belong to. Manual workers have rough hands and are socially denigrated because of “a prejudice that begins in the idea that work is bad, and that manual work outdoors is the worst work of all. The superstition is that since all work is bad, all ‘labor-saving’ is good,” according to Mr. Wendell Berry, a farmer and essayist from Henry County, Kentucky.

A Ladakhi man praying at a gathering with the Dalai Lama near Leh, Ladakh.

The trend in a highly technologized society, like the US already is and India is fast becoming, is towards the creation of ever more “labor-saving” devices to help us avoid having to do work with our hands. Ironically, despite the proliferation of such devices in the typical Western household, we find ourselves short on time most of the time.

In Ladakh, or “Little Tibet,” a high elevation desert region of northernmost India, time is something the people have plenty of, despite the conspicuous lack of “labor-saving” devices and the leather-worn character of the peoples’ hands. Also conspicuously absent in Ladakh are obesity, diabetes and other diseases related to lack of exercise and poor diet, as well as health clubs, pilates studios, and joggers.

An ornery dzomo (female yak and cow crossbreed) overlooks Hemis Shukpachan village, Ladakh.

I found out how rare are joggers in Ladakh, how rare are “exercise nuts” like myself in general, while I was living with a family in the remote village of Hemis Shukpachan. I was there in affiliation with the International Society for Ecology and Culture, doing a participant-observation study of the Ladakhi’s traditional culture and subsistence agrarian livelihood – at least what’s left of it since the influence of economic globalization and “development” have crept into this tucked-away corner of the universe over the past three decades.

The author posing for a photo before carrying a bale of mustard from the field to the threshing area.

I deduced the rarity of joggers in Ladakh by my Ama-le’s (host mother’s) reaction to my daily runs. Poking fun at me, she altered the words of a popular Ladakhi tune with the lyric Norbu sgnha-ba la skyot le, along with some other Ladakhi phrases to the effect of “Norbu (my Ladakhi name) is going crazy…Norbu is having mental problems…” She referred to my activity with the same phraseology applied in conversation to describe dzos (cross-breed of yak and cow) that go wild and run off up the mountains passes. I recognized the phrase since it was my job, on an almost daily basis, to chase after the blinkered dzos and bring them back to the corral.

A Ladakhi man carrying wheat.

In a way, Ama-le was right – my running is the result of mental problems. I tried to explain, mostly unsuccessfully, I think, that running for me is a kind of meditation, of mental healing. I thought she would understand this because of the emphasis on meditation in Buddhism. But I think running, or really any gratuitous form of non-utilitarian physical exertion, was just too weird – especially during the harvest, when we were already spending plenty of energy carrying massive bundles of barley and brimming baskets of apricots up through the fields and pathways of our steeply inclined mountain village.

A Ladakhi woman winnowing the threshed wheat.

My body does feel better when I run, or swim, or bike, or get some kind of regular endurance exercise, but it’s really a brain-thing. The mental benefits outweigh the physical, at least 90% : 10%. And when you’re a farmer, especially at 12,000 feet elevation in Ladakh, your body doesn’t need much exercise on top of all the farm work.

A young Ladakhi woman at the barley harvest.

But in the typical occupations in the modern economy – the jobs we’re supposed to aspire to that pay a lot and involve no work, or at least don’t involve work where you’d risk getting dirty or breaking a sweat – the physical component is really lacking. Most of these jobs plant your keister in front of a computer screen for forty or fifty or sixty hours per week. Add to that the hours that your keister is planted in a car seat on the commute to and from work, and planted on the sofa at home in front of the TV, and you find your keister has been so well planted it’s started to grow.

A Ladakhi man harvesting barley.

So the common thing to do, in this modern, high-tech world-of-the-future, full of computer controlled, downloadable, BlueTooth-compatible, automatic whiz-bang gizmos and labor-saving devices, is to carve a big hunk out of your salary to give to the health and fitness club industry. This industry is stocked with eager professionals who will devise for you your very own personal routine of activities that will for certain result in getting dirty and breaking a sweat and involve the lifting of heavy objects, the climbing of simulated stairs, the running or quick walking along automated virtual pathways, plus all the bending, stooping, reaching, punching, pulling, grabbing, hauling, stretching, swinging, crunching, jumping, jousting and even crawling that you’re missing out on while inhabiting a cubicle instead of out working on the farm like your not-too-distant forebears did.

The author carrying a bale of mustard.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “It is a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions of people have ceased to use their hands as hands. Nature has bestowed upon us this gift which is our hands. If the craze for machinery methods continues, it is highly likely that a time will come when we shall be so incapacitated and weak that we shall begin to curse ourselves for having forgotten the use of the living machines given to us by God. Millions cannot keep fit by games and athletics and why should they exchange the useful productive hardy occupations for the useless, unproductive and expensive sports and games.”

A Ladakhi grandfather at the barley harvest.

The agrarian lifestyle keeps our hands busy with meaningful work and our bodies tuned to labor according to their design. It is immoral to aspire to a high paying job that involves no work, and it is absurd to expect to look and feel good and healthy while leading a sedentary life and eating bad foods. A modest amount of “frivolous” exercise suffices to provide meditation and mental benefits; let us enjoin the “productive hardy occupations,” such as farming, to fit our bodies to their intended uses.

A Ladakhi mother and her dzo.

1 comment:

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