A Body Lens On Purpose
What is it that we call purpose?
And what is it that’s so damn necessary about it?
Why is it that we feel groundless and disoriented without it, unable to move?
I think we can take steps towards the compelling start of an answer when we get the body involved. After all we are bodies. It’s by means of the body that we’re able to perceive and engage in the world. If nothing else, considering the body affords us another lens by which we might examine the matter at hand.
First, however, we have to develop a working sense of what we mean by purpose. It’s the reason-for-doing, right? When we’re acting purposefully, we’re nearer to an alignment with ourselves. It’s that which propels us forward.
Already I think we have a clue.
What is it in the body that propels us forward?
If you’re going to take the next step, from where are you moved?
What’s the fulcrum around which you organize yourself to move forward in space?
In human gait it’s the big toe.
And as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance, I’d like to make an argument that your sense of purpose lives in — and is enlivened by — your big toe.
Now please keep in mind that I’m speaking metaphorically when I say that purpose lives in the big toe. This is not to be taken literally, but we’ll see again and again that the intention shapes the experience.
The big toe is a hotspot in human movement. Inhibitions in range of motion and control in the metatarsophalangeal joint (the one where the big toe meets the foot) create a lot of upstream problems for a body.
In so-called normal walking, the metatarsophalangeal joint provides a fulcrum around which the foot can hinge. When there is a limitation in the mobility of the joint, pronation and supination are natural compensations. The foot is barred from moving through the sagittal plane of motion, so it must move around that plane.
When this happens, it naturally creates an incredible amount of shear through the hip joint. The weight of the torso has no clear skeletal support coming up from the legs, and compresses the hip joint with every step forward. This is further exacerbated when a limitation in the range of motion of the big toe prohibits hip extension in walking. Short, faltering steps are the norm for dysfunctional big toes. And without the full elastic recoil provided by the extension of the hip, every step requires much more work.
Furthermore these compensations through the feet and legs strain our ability to maintain upright alignment. We’re forced into a tricky relationship with gravity and have difficulty maintaining easy organization of the body weight centers of the head and pelvis.
The big toe helps us understand the differences between shuffling and striding.
Without the ability to propel oneself forward, shuffling is the only option. The feet drag along the ground because there is no support to allow for a real lift of the foot away from the ground. The characteristic drag of the foot becomes a protective compensation to reduce instability with each movement of the leg. However, what the shuffle gains in stability it sacrifices in responsiveness, speed, and power.
Try it yourself.
Shuffle through the room for a few moments. See what — if anything — you’re able to notice in the feet. Discover what sort of relationship to gravity and the surrounding world this conveys. Few people shuffle their way toward an inspiring future.
Striding on the other hand is — by definition — characterized by long, decisive steps. These are the steps that propel us. These are the steps that allow us to put our best foot forward, so to speak. And these steps are only possible if the foot can find adequate support beneath it. A stride demands clear contact with the floor and the ability to lift up and through oneself from that point of contact. It isn’t to say that each step springs you upward; rather each step prevents you from collapsing into yourself.
It’s worth exploring a few steps that way as well. As you stride through the room, what is conveyed now? Does this communicate something different about your internal state with the external world? We can feel the meaning of the phrase take it in stride when walking like this.
This, quite frankly, is more important than the idea that purpose lives in the big toe. It’s the idea that when we are clearly connected to a sense of support through our structures, we’re able to maintain movement toward a particular aim without being derailed by externals. They influence us, sure, but we’re able to maintain a sense of responsiveness and versatility that a mere shuffling through life doesn’t afford.
We may very well take fumbling steps forward now and then in life, but when we are clearly connected to our sense of purpose (read: the big toe and the ground), it’s difficult to derail us. We’re able to align ourselves with our intention, to keep our heads up, and carry much more of the load.
I mean that last part quite literally.
I’ve been having fun lately exploring the big toe’s role in our antigravity capacity — from deadlifts and kettlebell swings to loaded carries and sprints. Anything you do that involves extending the hip benefits from an awareness of the big toe.
If we want to lighten the load for those around us, we must be able to stand strong under duress. We must be able to take strides forward even as we shoulder more and more responsibility. I feel that some of us must because others can’t or won’t.
I’ll leave you with this for now.
Some of you will be quite familiar with The Achilles Practice through our conversations together, others less so. If this is new territory for you, I encourage you to consider the transitions available between a squat and a kneel, finding stability and control through the “toe stand.” Next time you go to pick up something heavy (be it bags of groceries or a barbell), notice how your big toe does or doesn’t root into the ground. As you walk the neighborhood or the trails, investigate to what degree you propel yourself forward from this point.
And all the while bear in mind the metaphorical frame of purpose. It isn’t a cure-all, but it isn’t merely a mental trick either. The alignment of intention and action creates a profound change, and it’s only by becoming aware both of what we’re doing and what we want that we can hope to link the two.
Originally published on The Ecosomatics Institute Blog