Nov 15
"Living in Japan, you learn not just the Japanese language, but a new kinesthetic language as well, such as bowing all the time like it’s an instinct, or getting used to sitting on a tatami mat instead of a chair, or bathing Japanese-style. It’s like a new vocabulary for living in your own body." (Martin Bentsen/City Headshots)

“Living in Japan, you learn not just the Japanese language, but a new kinesthetic language as well, such as bowing all the time like it’s an instinct, or getting used to sitting on a tatami mat instead of a chair, or bathing Japanese-style. It’s like a new vocabulary for living in your own body.” (Martin Bentsen/City Headshots)


By Rafael Villadiego (Nagasaki-ken, 2010-13) for JQ magazine. A member of JETAA New South Wales, Rafael is a collector of words on a journey still searching for a destination, who has a tendency to forget, we are all sometimes like the rain…

Lee-Sean Huang (Oita-ken, 2003-06) was an ALT in Nakatsu City. Upon returning to the United States, he became the webmaster for JETAA New York. In 2008, together with Steven Horowitz (Aichi-ken, 1992-94), he helped to found in 2008 as an avenue for connecting and giving voice to the JET alumni freelance and professional community.

A modern-day Renaissance man, Huang is the co-founder and creative director behind the community-centered design and social innovation firm Foossa. He is also a faculty member at SVA’s MFA Design for Social Innovation program and an instructor of the Brazilian martial art capoeira.

He recently joined the Wisdom Hackers collective together with other likeminded artists, activists and entrepreneurs, to which he contributed a chapter entitled “The Thinking Body,” which outlines his views behind the virtues of kinesthetic creativity. In this exclusive interview, Huang shares his journey and thought processes with JQ’s readers.

The philosophical dispatches from Wisdom Hackers are described as an “incubator for philosophers that compiles dispatches from young, edgy thinkers from major cities across the globe.” Can you tell us a little more about this initiative and how you got involved?

We are building a movement for critical inquiry and connecting ancient wisdom to our contemporary context. In our present form, we are partnered with e-publishers The Pigeonhole and releasing a dispatch a week over 10 weeks. Next year, we plan on releasing a limited edition physical book made by monks in Denmark. Beyond publishing our own ideas, we want to create a curriculum or “cookbook” of sorts, and get it into schools, colleges, and other learning environments. The Wisdom Hackers curriculum would provide a starting point for anybody to start asking deep questions, think critically, and create their own dispatch to tell their own story and perspective. The curriculum would also include a guide for how to build your own community of like-minded seekers. That’s a bit of a preview of where we are going with Wisdom Hackers.

My friend Alexa Clay is one of the original instigators of Wisdom Hackers. We were introduced a few years ago through a mutual friend, Alnoor Ladha, who is also a Wisdom Hackers seeker. I ended up becoming an advisor for Alexa’s book, The Misfit Economy, and on her project, League of Intrapreneurs. When Alexa approached me about Wisdom Hackers, I jumped at the idea. I had a bunch of ideas floating around in my head that did not fit in the format of the usual blog posts and articles that I write as part of my design and teaching career. I also liked the challenge of writing longer form content, something I was a little afraid of doing, but that is exactly why I said “yes.”

You are certainly amongst august company. Have you had any direct interaction with the other “seekers” of your collective, or have you developed your ideas primarily on your own?

I have become good friends with the New York-based Wisdom Hackers crew. We hosted a Wisdom Hackers panel discussion here in September. We have edited each other’s dispatches and also have a private Facebook group where we share ideas, so there is lots of cross-pollination happening.

As a former JET participant, do you think your thought processes were influenced by your time in Japan and your experiences on the Program, or were they primarily driven by your return to the society and structures back “home” in the United States?

Everywhere I have lived has left its mark on me. As a designer, I feel that Japanese visual culture and aesthetics have certainly had a big influence on my work.

I think just the very nature of living in a foreign culture teaches you how to see in a different way. You learn to observe social contexts more, and try to understand something “foreign” or “exotic.” When you live in your own culture, things are familiar, and you may not notice or try to analyze or ask “why” in the same way. Living in another culture gives you the perspective to question your own.

Living in Japan, you learn not just the Japanese language, but a new kinesthetic language as well, such as bowing all the time like it’s an instinct, or getting used to sitting on a tatami mat instead of a chair, or bathing Japanese-style. It’s like a new vocabulary for living in your own body.

Since you bring up JET and Japan, I happen to be heading to Tokyo for a friend’s wedding later this month. We are organizing a Wisdom Hackers Global Salon for seekers and readers in cities across the world on November 20, when I’ll be in Tokyo. If anybody reading this wants to join us in Tokyo, drop me a line at

What role do philosophies beyond our established Western ideologies have to play?

That’s a big question, but I’ll try to answer it with an example. Last year, I did a project with the Dalai Lama Center in Vancouver related to mindfulness education.

I learned about these studies that Western neuroscientists did with Tibetan monks. They put these brain scan sensors on the monks while they were meditating, and they discovered basically that Western science and Tibetan Buddhism were basically saying the same thing about the benefits of meditation, but they were just going about explaining things in a different way.

Western philosophy is just one of the many ways towards discovering universal truths about the human condition. Every cultural tradition and philosophy has its own unique perspective and way of pointing us in the right direction.

Can you briefly describe your concept of kinesthetic creativity/intelligence? Is kinesthetic creativity inherently in us, or is it a skill that can be taught and learned?

In my dispatch, I give the example of Einstein, who apparently discovered the basic principles of relativity in an unusual state of consciousness. He reported that most of the insights came to him in the form of kinesthetic sensations in his muscles. Of course, later on he did the math and the science to back it up, but the initial idea came from a bodily feeling, a kind of kinesthetic spider sense.

I think kinesthetic creativity is something that we are born with, but all too often as grown-ups socialized in contemporary Western industrial capitalist culture, we lose touch with our own kinesthetic creativity. Look at young kids anywhere: They play, dance, and improvise with their bodies. And that is how they understand and learn about the world around them. But then we grow up and are told to sit still, shut up, and work at our desks. There are the Einsteins of the world who somehow maintain a connection to their kinesthetic creativity. I think if we can teach people to ignore their kinesthetic creativity, we can certainly teach ourselves how to find it again.

Do you think movements such as TEDx have created a contemporary environment more conducive of public philosophical conversations and established fertile ground for collectives such as Wisdom Hackers to flourish?

Yes, TED has certainly helped pave the way for popularizing the conversation about “big ideas.” We definitely want to make “philosophy” accessible, and separate it from the usual stereotype of out-of-touch tweedy elitist academics and the impenetrable prose of long-dead angsty German thinkers.

Like TEDx, we want to grow from a content channel to a participatory movement. TED started out as a single elite conference where people went to listen to “thought leaders” talk on stage. With TEDx, people can organize their own local conferences and spread their own ideas. That’s something we would like to do with Wisdom Hackers, too.

The imperative to unabashedly explore “ancient questions in modern contexts” is quite bold and might be considered overly ambitious by some. Even though social media has given far more people a voice, conversations often remain quite shallow, with people still feeling the need to disguise poems as song lyrics. What makes you think the time is right to share these ideas, and what fuels your adamancy to confront such questions directly?

I think your question answers itself. The fact that more and more of our public discourse is being reduced to 140-character Tweets and cable news sound bites is exactly why we are doing what we are doing. In order for our cherished value systems like democracy and humanism to survive and thrive, we need to ask big questions, share ideas, and really get into in-depth conversations and deliberations with each other.

Your advocacy of “free range knowledge workers” is intriguing, and your imagery of humanity trapped in cubicle cages of our own devising quite evocative. Much like the production-line workers of the Industrial Revolution—which still exist today—do you think these white collar prisons are just as inhibiting, and in many ways, more insidious? Do you believe that we as a society have failed to progress to little more than cogs in the production line or exhibits in a self-imposed cage?

Well, let’s see. During the Industrial Revolution, I don’t think even the factory owners or the mine operators were pretending that those were acceptable conditions for humans to work in, but labor was cheap and plentiful, and the workers often didn’t have much in the way of options. Today, most of us in white collar jobs have a lot more choices than those factory workers in the Industrial Revolution. Yet we still stay in our self-imposed cages. Some of us even brag about how busy we are. It’s become a social prestige thing to be overworked. Or, we stay in our cubicles because of fear: Fear that our bosses and coworkers will think we are weak if we take more breaks, or leave work on time, or that we might fail if we try something else. If anything, the real failure is in our failure to imagine the kinds of alternatives that we could create to the status quo.

This stifling of kinesthetic creativity seems to stem largely from a lack of movement through confinement in sedentary desk work. How do you think globalization and travel stretch these kinesthetic muscles and expand the scope of our horizons?

Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp said “creativity is an act of defiance.” If you look at travel and migration in the context of globalization, they are in a sense, an act of defiance. As a traveler or an immigrant, I am basically saying that where I come from isn’t enough. I want to seek out something different, something new, something better. Borders be damned.

Remember that the political and economic status quo has a vested interest in our sedentary lives; they want us to stay sitting at our cubicles and in front of our television sets. Maybe we can engage in some clicktivism from our computers or phones, but it’s still not the same as getting up and taking to the streets to demand change and actively working with our whole bodies to build new human possibilities.

What role has technology played in limiting our kinesthetic potential, and what part can it play in unlocking it?

Well, my business partner David Colby Reed has one of those fitness tracker bracelets that reminds him to get up and walk if he’s been still for too long, and it also tracks how many steps he’s walked in a day. It works for him, but I feel like I have enough gadgets and devices. If you can have technology help you detach from technology, then more power to you.

You touch on how ergonomics have been overly concerned with occupational health and safety and driven primarily by maintaining and improving productivity. But without this economic imperative, do you believe the movement towards unfettered kinesthetic creativity can flourish?

I’m fine with economic incentives. They make sense. Companies invest in office ergonomics because they have done the math and realize that healthier workers produce more and better work.

The argument that I am making is that ergonomics are not enough, especially in creative industries where “innovation” is an imperative. The business world is pretty obsessed with innovation these days, and one of the buzz phrases is “out of the box” innovation. Well, how can we think and invent “out of the box” when we are still putting knowledge workers in the restrictive boxes that are the standard corporate cubicles and conference rooms?

There is a business case to be made here. If we really want “breakthrough” and “out of the box” innovations to solve the kinds of big problems we face as a planet, then we have to start looking at new ways to organize economic production, and freeing up our kinesthetic creativity is one part of that.

In your chapter, you state quite bluntly that capitalism and culture keep us from unlocking our full kinesthetic intelligence potential. Where do you think we lost touch of our kinesthetic creativity? Do you think it was an active choice on our part, or was it a sublimated process that took root over time?

As a business owner with my own design agency, I’m trying to do my part in building a more human kind of capitalism that takes into account our kinesthetic creativity. I think when our capitalist system gets too obsessed with scale and large profits, we end up creating these cages for ourselves; we end up thinking about workers, human beings, as cogs in a big corporate machine, a fine-tuned machine that should be optimized for productivity.

Industrial production at scale helps us address real problems of scarcity and has really increased the quality of life for millions. But, there was a tradeoff; it has also created new problems. Among those new problems was that of alienating us from our bodies. On the cultural side of things, I’m sure the legacy of the Puritans and the Victorians, among others, has something to do with it as well. None of these processes happened overnight; they probably slowly took root and before we noticed it, we ended up losing touch with a part of our shared humanity, our kinesthetic creativity.

Do you think this stifling of kinesthetic intelligence was a change we needed to have in order to develop the society we have today? Many might argue that every society requires structures, and some might even go as far as to call them necessary programmed control parameters designed to subliminally keep the masses in check in order to manage and maintain a cohesive whole. Is it really feasible to have a fully emancipated workforce?

Well, if we can have robots replace all of the tedious work, maybe. I don’t claim to have all of the answers here. Of course there are still professions that require a certain degree of control for the sake of safety and order and the like. But wouldn’t it be a more interesting world where office workers burst into a song and dance routine like a musical, or where heads of state greet each other with interpretive dance? We need more people to come up with wild ideas like that to push the envelope a bit on the status quo.

In your chapter, you suggest some active measures to stretch our kinesthetic imagination. Can you offer JQ readers any other practical advice about how we can best unlock our kinesthetic creativity? 

My friend Sean Bray told me about his kung fu training with a Shaolin monk, where every movement and exercise was called a “meditation”: Jogging warm up meditation. Hamstring stretch meditation. Roundhouse kick meditation.

The idea is that every move we make should be a mindful one that we treat with reverence and care. Being mindful helps us connect our body and mind, and also helps us unlock our kinesthetic imagination. Why not apply the idea of “meditation” to everything we do? Facebook status update meditation. Client conference call meditation. Third quarter earnings projection spreadsheet meditation.

Or, if you are going to think deeply about something like a creative project you have, why not think while doing something? Think while going for a walk, or playing on a swing set, or think while dancing.

How do your movements affect your body? How do they affect your mind? How do they affect others? Make everything a meditation.

You are quite accomplished as the owner of your own design practice, university lecturer, and capoeira teacher. Do you view this pursuit of kinesthetic creativity as a means of inspiring a new generation of Renaissance men and women?

I do what I do because I find that it works for me. I just needed a way to get out of my own head a bit, and I also needed a way to beat the drudgery of sitting still at a computer all the time. If what I do inspires a new generation, then awesome. Let’s build this movement together.

The Pigeonhole

The Pigeonhole

Your final line offers a direct challenge to readers and feels almost like a call to arms. So if I was to turn the question on you: How do you feel? What does your body in motion have to say?

I think that I’ve discovered that I have real inertia. When I’m in motion, I tend to stay in motion, and I end up getting a lot done, and feel good physically and emotionally. When I’m too still for too long, I get lazy and sick.

Actually, I had a bit of a scary incident last week: I woke up with a really stiff and sore lower back. I had no idea what caused it and went to the chiropractor, who figured out that the culprit was probably my sofa. It’s pretty ironic in my case because I train capoeira and practice flying kicks and acrobatics all the time, yet the thing that really messes me up is my sofa. Apparently, my sofa is too soft for sitting in it too long. The previous weekend I was mostly a couch potato, watching TV and working on my laptop from my sofa, and just that gave me back pain. Here I am preaching the importance of ergonomics and movement, and yet I had to learn my own lesson. Again. The hard way.

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one comment so far...

  • Jeffrey Said on November 17th, 2014 at 1:25 am:

    Comes across as a rather naive and self-important person.

    Talking about “building this movement together” is all very well; there are already many people working on the front line of education, healthcare, childcare and so on, slogging their guts out for a better world. They probably would find it slightly amusing that this kid thinks “office workers burst into a song and dance routine like a musical, or where heads of state greet each other with interpretive dance? We need more people to come up with wild ideas like that to push the envelope a bit on the status quo.”

    Why would anyone burst into song? To please you and your dilettante friends?

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