By: Marenka Cerney
30 years ago this year Job’s Body was published. This 8-part essay is a tribute to Deane Juhan’s unparalleled narrative of the body.
Included in this essay is an interdisciplinary synthesis between aspects of Deane Juhan’s “Job’s Body” and Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” Infusing physiology with presence reveals an unexpected answer to the compelling question, “Why is it so hard to change a habit?”
An artist doesn’t need to explain the chemistry of paint in order to paint, and it isn’t necessary for a somatic therapist to be familiar with myosin and actin, the protein filaments that enable muscles to move, in order to track a gesture and study its meaning. We don’t need to understand physics to know what we are feeling; without studying the physical sciences we already have intrinsic access to reality through sense perception, also called direct experience.
However, because of the unquestioned tendency of Western society to compartmentalize, many of us are living with at least some measure of sensory-motor amnesia, which is a limited ability to feel moment to moment what our body is doing. Living cut off from our body’s wisdom increases the likelihood we are misinterpreting essential messages. Misinterpretation, in turn, leads to skewed perception about what’s happening inside us and in the environment.
Learning a few of our body’s physiological processes can go a long way towards becoming more intimately acquainted with who we are and how we work. Specifically, understanding a few key principles about the relationship between our nervous system and our psychology can help to heal the mind-body split.
The alpha aspect of our “alpha-gamma” muscular-nervous system gets most of the attention. The alpha system is the part of the nervous system through which we have conscious control of our muscles via the cerebral cortex.
The study of the gamma aspect of the alpha-gamma muscular-nervous system is the study of how we default to habituated patterns. The gamma system holds clues for why suddenly moving in a way we’re not used to — or the anticipation of a new movement — feels so wrong. The gamma system governs our reflexes and has tremendous power over both our physical form and our sense of self — power we unconsciously hand over in exchange for not having to attend to how we are moving as we go about the busy-ness of living (Juhan p.223).
It is through this system that an action which initially arose as a choice, then, repeatedly performed, became a habit; what was at first an original and spontaneous response (“x”), eventually fell from awareness, lost the quality of choice, and we came to know the “feeling” of doing “x” as “me” (Juhan pp. 232, 263). The gamma system is a mirror reflecting back: unless we maintain presence, the default position is the accumulation of previously established, conditioned muscular responses.
Just try having an emotion without involving your body (note the difference between thinking about and feeling the emotion). All along, through all the shifting mental and emotional states, the Golgi tendon organs (see Part 2) are noting the varying tension loads, which are communicated to the spindles, to which our skeletal muscles faithfully respond.
To the degree our movements are not habituated, our conscious brain may become aware of the muscular sensations. However, when we’re moving quickly and not taking the time to freshly interpret muscular sensations, the habitual interpretation of the sensations can even serve as justification for the attitude or emotion, thereby strengthening the unconscious feedback loop of sensations and meaning (Juhan pp. 198–200, 231). When I am thinking an angry thought, for example, my muscular system assumes a tense posture, and the sensations from the tension in my muscles fuels the angry thought.
All our acquired reflexes combined create an individual gestalt which is identified as “myself.” By acquired reflexes I refer to all the ways we have habituated to living, including habitual responses, habitual attitudes, and habitual feelings. It is the automatic reflexive responses to perceived threats to one’s sense of self that we often engage with in somatic psychotherapy through the study of gestures, impulses and movement. We look for “anchors” for each part of a feeling; sets of sensations that would help us remember, like breadcrumbs, the physical organization of the feeling we would want to return to in order to learn from and evolve.
Each acquired reflex has an individualized physical signature. Such as the way, long ago, in response to a perceived insult, I spontaneously became very still, set my jaw muscles, intensified the energy of my eyes and held my breath, while fear and anger welled in my chest. Over time I repeated this response until it became an acquired reflex in response to a perceived insult. I never liked the feeling of that particular response, but the more I did it the more it felt like me. The more it seemed like me, the more I was unable to respond differently.
Imagining the Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles faithfully maintain the settings that contribute to the familiar feeling of our muscles — and hence our sense of self — provides a physical anchor for the otherwise amorphous experience of resistance to doing something differently than we have learned. In the effort to change a complex habit, it can be vital to have an identifiable physical location other than the brain for unconscious aspects of experience.
Cut off From Being
If you’ve ever heard yourself say “that’s just me” about a trait you would really rather transform, yet feel resigned to, or if you have the sense that your true nature is not apparent, consider the somatic practice presented by Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now.
Tolle concisely connects thought and embodiment, and has us reconsider how we conceive of “me.” He advocates becoming increasingly aware of the tendency to be perpetually engaged in thinking, and he describes how this awareness is proportionate to our degree of presence.
“You are cut off from Being as long as your mind takes up all your attention. When this happens — and it happens continuously for most people — you are not in your body. The mind absorbs all your consciousness and transforms it into mind stuff. You cannot stop thinking. Compulsive thinking has become a collective disease. Your whole sense of who you are is then derived from mind activity…To become conscious of Being, you need to reclaim consciousness from the mind” (Tolle, p.111).
Tolle explains that the effects of perpetual thought are insidious and deceitful, and that reclaiming consciousness from the thinking mind occurs by increasing the felt experience of your inner body energy.
“Let me ask you this. Can you be free of your mind whenever you want to? Have you found the “off” button?…Then the mind is using you. You are unconsciously identified with it, so you don’t even know that you are its slave. It’s almost as if you were possessed without knowing it, and so you take the possessing entity to be yourself” (Tolle pp.17–18).
One way to begin dis-identifying from the thinking mind, Tolle encourages, is to practice turning attention to the “space between the thoughts” and towards the inner energy body. Increasing awareness of the sensory end of your nervous system (elaborated upon below) can bring relief from the tyranny of the thinking mind, and wakes up to the physical experience of the ever-present energy in the body that Tolle refers to with the sublime phrase: “the life underneath your life circumstances” (Tolle pp.19, 62).
When it comes to altering our life’s circumstances, sometimes it feels like there is a chasm between what we know we should do and the actual doing. We may know the right thing to think or to do, yet too often we still don’t just do it, or even remember to think it. If we have bought the idea that what creates change is merely changing a thought, then we have put all our money on the new idea itself to change us once and for all and lead us out of Groundhog Day.
Because presence affects every other state of mind (see part 5), presence also opens the path for clear action. Yet even when we discover the portal to the ever-present moment and experience satori — the felt experience when we disidentify with psychological time, when thoughts recede to the background, and the inner body energy of pure consciousness rises to the fore (Tolle p.96) — why can’t we stay here? What is it that makes changing habitual ways of being such an enigma?
By now, you know my answer. Beyond having the requisite skills to perform the task, it is that we either do not recognize…
our true nature,
or the role our muscles have as sense organs in our experience. Or both.
With this point of view, the common way of conceiving of procrastination becomes irrelevant. When a behavior or experience isn’t changing the way you would like, be assured your nervous system is designed to not relinquish the old patterns without…
a whole lot of repetition.
Attention, especially sustained attention, is a form of contact. Furthermore, there is a cumulative effect on that which is focused upon. “Attention is like a beam of light. The focused power of your consciousness that transmutes everything into itself” (Tolle p. 120). And the focus of awareness also assists the healing effect of every other form of contact. For instance, the effects of bodywork can be increased when the recipient is focusing their attention on receiving, rather than thinking or talking about other things.
Tolle writes, “If the master is not present in the house, all kinds of shady characters will take up residence there. When you inhabit the body, it will be hard for unwanted guests to enter” (Tolle p.124). “Shady characters” in this context refers to habitual responses to life that are negative and unhelpful. And “inhabiting the body” includes being aware of feeling and energetic fluctuations as they happen.
When we sustain mindful attention with the felt sense of the body we are gradually, and literally, contacting the effects of the unconscious gamma system. The good news is as humans we have a greater potential than other animals to intentionally direct our attention, because our gamma system accounts for a much smaller fraction of our total motor neurons than it does in other mammals (Juhan p.216). Yet this unique capacity to focus and sustain attention is still too often utterly underutilized.
The muscle settings of psychological time” is a theory that convergences the works of Juhan and Tolle by suggesting a direct, interactive relationship between the gamma motor system and the ego (the sense of “I”).
Psychological time is the term Eckhart Tolle uses to refer to the thinking mind’s (a.k.a the ego’s) continual reference to the past and the future, rather than experiencing the present moment directly. The “thinking mind” is the part of our experience that is typically constantly commenting on everything. According to Tolle this constant commentary is one of the greatest sources of human suffering.
There are parallel processes between the ego and the gamma motor system which suggest that the “sense of I” is arising in tandem with, or as a result of, the unconscious feedback provided by the Golgis’ and spindles’ settings on the conscious feel of our muscles.