In Movement We Find Rest

Sounds strange, but it’s been my experience, over and over again. Whether my mind is racing to fulfill a thousand chores, or my body exhausted at end of day, organized movement gathers scattered energies from head, heart, and body into a new relationship with the complex being that I am.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas, tells the disciples, “If they ask you: ‘What is the sign of your Father in you?’ tell them: ‘It is a movement and a rest.’” That statement has served me as a koan for many years. How can two opposite states exist at the same time? The Taoists would certainly agree with it — Tai Chi is born out of the stillness of Wu Chi and contained in it at the same time. And modern science has come to the conclusion that everything is in movement, even the immovable mountains.

Here’s the Big Question: how can we take an active part in our own neural dance when we feel alienated from ourselves by life’s demands and our own reactions to them? A non-verbal of answer appears when we begin the slow movements of Tai Chi or sink into a mindful Yoga pose, or even urge our sad or angry self out into the world for a brisk walk. When this is done with intention, when we bring our conscious self into rapport with unconscious thoughts and feelings through bodywork, we live in “a movement and a rest.”

The fact is that bodywork is soul and spirit work as well, and the more we close the conceptual gap between mind and body, the better we will feel, sense and be more connected to all the parts of ourselves. F.M. Alexander has said “we organize ourselves through movement,” and the word organize offers a key. While we automatically tend to separate ourselves into different parts — all our attention either focused on turning thoughts, reactive emotions, or bodily comfort/discomfort — what will unite us again is a repeated reorganization of our disparate parts from above. We could also think of it as the descent of consciousness from the prefrontal cortex, calling us into relationship.

Speaking of the prefrontal cortex, where the subtlest organization takes place, it was lucky for all of us that the ancient inner work of meditation became the focus of experiments by Dr. Richard Davidson, a pioneer in contemplative neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His experiments making MRIs of Tibetan monks in such meditative states as visualization, one-pointed concentration, and the generation of compassion, revolutionized neuroscience. According to Davidson, “the brain can be transformed through engagement with purely mental practices derived from the world’s great religious traditions…the brain, more than any other organ in our body, is the organ built to change in response to experience.”

When the Dalai Lama was asked what greater benefit he hoped for from this line of research, His Holiness replied: “Through training the mind people can become more calm—especially those who suffer from too many ups and downs. That’s the conclusion from these studies of Buddhist mind training. And that’s my main end: I’m not thinking how to further Buddhism, but how the Buddhist tradition can make some contribution to the benefit of society. Of course, as Buddhists, we always pray for all sentient beings. But we’re only human beings; the main thing you can do is train your own mind.”

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Daniel Siegel explains that, “ for a person to change, the mind must change.” adding that “we now know ‘mind’ is coming both from interpersonal processes and from brain structure or neurobiology. The brain is the social organ of the body, where one hundred billion neurons reach out to other neurons. The release of neurotransmitters will excite or inhibit, fire or not fire. It’s the firing patterns that lead, in part, to the experience of mind.”

He gives an example of the movement from neural firing to mental experience, and how mental experience creates neural firing. When someone says the words, “Eiffel Tower,” you have an immediate visual experience because, when you hear the word, an electrical current running through the acoustic nerve fires, sending a message to the left brain, where it is decoded. A visual image is then created in other parts of the brain. “The neural representation of the Eiffel Tower, or what’s called its neural net profile, is created by experience as the mind links past, present, and anticipation of the future,” he adds. “No one on the planet knows how a neural firing turns into a mental image but we know where it happens and that it somehow leads to a subjective mental process. The mind emerges at the interface of neurobiology and the interpersonal transactions of experience between minds.”

The good news is that while some of our interpersonal experiences may have created detrimental repetitive patterns, new patterns are formed all through our life span. We can move away from negative patterns by making new neural connections. And Siegel believes interpersonal relationships are key to new forms of mental flow that shape the focus of our attention and what we envision. “Since the mental processes of attention and imagination change the firing in the brain,” he says, “the brain can be changed by the mind.”

Siegel is convinced that the development of attention through meditative exercises is a crucial aspect of inner balance, and tells his patients that mindfulness helps people regulate their internal states, including their immune system, their emotions, their attention, and even their interpersonal interactions. “Now, for me,” he adds, “that’s not a surprise. Because mindfulness promotes the growth of integrative fibers in the brain, which are what’s needed for regulation across all these domains. Integration is the fundamental mechanism of self-regulation.”

Surely integration is a movement devoutly to be wished for, by all of us!

prayer image

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