“Submission – Movement as Identity,” by Charles Humphrey

“We pronounce death based on absence of movement. So strange then that we are so poor at understanding the very quality upon which we define and judge life”

I sat in my family living room a few hours ago, staring out the window as the sun began to lower itself casting innumerable long shadows through the pines. I was greeted by the sight of a friend I had not seen through all the long winter months – a little chipmunk scurrying about between the gaps in our wood pile. Something seized me, a new perception or rather a consolidation of an old one. I saw the movement of the chipmunk. More accurately, I saw the movement as the chipmunk. I have over the past three or four years gradually begun to see movement as a quality in itself. But for a moment today the gestalt shift took place and the chipmunk in its material identity of shape, colour size etc., faded out and I saw “chipmunk” as a wholly dynamic, energetic identity instead. This provided some insight into something in some religious text I read somewhere (I can’t remember whether it was Eastern or Western… probably in both) about seeing the nature of creatures, of revealing a common truth in them. For while a chipmunk looks very different from a tree as matter, their dynamic nature in movement rather than their static nature in matter-constitution, makes them appear much more similar. The chipmunk is a pair of spherical nodes, now at rest and nonexistent in quietude now one end now the other darts up rapidly, sometimes one following the other, making forward movement possible, sometimes to shift position or direction of observation, sometimes for apparently no reason but to enjoy the abundance of its nature as dynamic being.

This was not such a dramatic thing as it sounds when put into writing. I did not consider it so but it was an interesting property to observe more fully in nature, a clarification of the nature of life and being captured in the movement of a chipmunk. Its little 法 (fa, po), rapid, sudden movements gave it an identity which at once both distinguished it more from other creatures but also united it more closely with the rest of creation by the relative simplicity of comparing movement signatures to material characteristics. It made me realize that the correct observation of movement simultaneously provides greater unity to the environment and greater diversity.

When I have such observations I laugh in reminding myself no wonder I feel so alienated from the mass of my own North American cultural milieu. A place where my parents walk hunched over with hips and torsos nearly locked up as they do their “exercise walk”, furiously attacking the pavement all the while looking for all the world like they are still hunched over the same desks they claim to have retired from forever. Or where a woman who is a senior police officer and fitness instructor waddles around with no hip movement, looking like she ate a tire some years ago and now has to swing her upper body to and fro around the inanimate piece of rubber lodged in her midsection. Where young girls try to appeal to me at bars with bodies screaming self-consciousness, locked into a pitiful replica of the well-rehearsed and no less artificial sensuality that has infected their brains through television images.

It is an observation I have made that the women I have ended up dating seriously are all ones with whom I have danced with or had some kind of physical interaction prior to any conversation or even clear idea of what their bodies (or sometimes even faces) looked like. If a woman is willing to dance, that is a start. If she is willing and able to enter into the physical conversation that is a partnered dance, all the better. My current partner judged me on the basis of my material characteristics first (I looked like a “little boy” to her at the time) but then reevaluated me on the basis of how I moved during taiji partner practice. The fact that she judged my movement really sealed the deal for me.

The purpose of these observations is to drive the point home that more than your face, physical composition, job, clothes, car, house, opinions, eating habits and all the rest of the junk that we use to evaluate ourselves and others, you are your movement. In a very fundamental, deep down, ultimate truth kind of way, that is all you are and ever will be. Note the fact that when we call a person “dead,” the things we use to judge them during their life (physical body, material possessions) persist for some time before decaying and being transferred to new owners. We pronounce death based on absence of movement. So strange then that we are so poor at understanding the very quality upon which we define and judge life.

Once movement is properly understood and perceived as a quality of its own, one gains keys of immense value. One becomes reintegrated and revitalized as a living being for one finally understands what life and one is! In one’s journey there comes a point where one becomes mistrustful of the organ that says “I do this….” and “I think that….” and “This is this way, that is that way….” and feels a sense of disorientation and groundlessness. Movement, at least as far as I have come, comes to the rescue. When one is living properly and acting rightly, movement is good and unobstructed. False thinking and false action muddies movement, stiffens and puts sand in movement, makes one sluggish and slow or jumpy and uncomfortable. A clean mind makes clean movement. And vice versa. This not only has ethical/moral implications but relates to one’s survivability under conditions of attrition. Clear mind makes clear movement, clear movement is movement that is more likely to continue to move unimpeded when it buts up against other movement. This is the innate justice of the universe hinted at by many martial and spiritual writers.

Understanding of one’s identity resting within one’s movement makes the world a very different place. People become very easy to understand, one would almost be tempted to call it “mind reading” if it weren’t for the fact that most people consider “mind reading” to mean the ability to listen to the verbal garbage running through most minds every waking moment. It is not mind reading, but life-reading, movement-reading. Such literacy is much more interesting and useful both in a normal everyday context and in a martial context. This is the awareness that protects life well before any chance of conflict can arise. The mind develops the habit of cataloguing identities on the basis of movement without even really being conscious of it – “meth head, keep distance”, “con artist, don’t give the time of day”, “salt of the earth, look for opportunity to establish relation,” and so on become the natural, kinesthetic responses to people’s movement.

There are many ways to develop this relationship to movement and to life. I found my own way to this through martial arts and related practices. Whatever one’s way to this relationship with life, its importance should take precedence over all other things until it is properly understood. It is not a theory, it is not a “style” or a “religion” or “belief”, “philosophy” or any other word. It is a necessary step to understanding one’s true self and how to properly function in harmony with the environment around one. It is one’s true voice and nature contained in the ever-shifting freedom of a dynamic being. From the perspective of this young man, as far as I’ve experienced anything in life, it is the most important perception and experience one can have.


  1. Tom Collings says:

    Mr. Humphrey you recognize how central movemnt is to life, to the core of our being. This morning I spotted a small cat in the street that was being rapidly approached by a dog who had keyed in on it. At a certain moment when the dog was about 4 paces away the cat dramatically arched its back and seemed to double in size. That movement combined with a ferocious piercing gaze stopped the dog in its tracks and sent it trotting away in the opposite direction. Movement is communication, it can also be skillful illusion and deception. It is most definitely a source of great power. Your essay rings clear and true.

  2. WOW!

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