Cart Before the Horse?
It was 400 years ago that Descartes convinced us that we think therefore we are, and we have believed it ever since. Which inevitably leads to living mostly in our heads. What a heavy weight to carry as we go about our daily business!
If our head is who we believe ourselves to be, what happens when something goes wrong with the vehicle it lives in? Remember the Pfizer cartoon of a big head on a scrawny body? The head is talking about all the wonderful things it can do. Then it adds, kind of ashamed, “I also have a body. It looks best in a winter coat. Anyway, I guess I’m stuck with it. BUT If I didn’t need it to carry me around, out it would go!”
So let’s look at an alternative to I think therefore I am. How about, “I am, therefore I think and feel and act.” The fact is, our intellectual, problem-solving energy will never be powerful enough to take us home in ourselves. While mental focus is fundamental to our search for understanding. there’s a quality beyond intellect—another level of intelligence—that includes both intellectual functioning and the deeper action of feeling.
Intellect can compare. Intelligence can choose wisely and with heart. And to activate that intelligence all we need to do is turn the great searchlight of the mind consciously on the enlivening experience of our Body Being. At that moment we become present to ourselves, here on earth, doing our best to survive the slings and arrows, joys and sorrows, that life offers us.
If we can develop Body Consciousness—our fundamental power—we can work to prepare the ground (ourselves), so that mind, heart, and body can come together in a living moment of experience.
Easy to say! But how to bring body, mind, and heart into a balanced relationship with each other under a common authority—your essential self? You could start by noticing, as you move through the rest of your day, which of those three portals is engaged in processing and reacting to what’s going on at the moment.
You will soon discover how hard it is to slow down the flow of turning thoughts when your head sits firmly on the throne of your inner castle. You will also observe that you have even less control over the emotions stirring in your chest.
But each time you focus consciously on the movements and sensations of your Body Being, all those busy thoughts and emotional reactions tend to quiet down. Your attention starts to gather right here where you are. Tensions release. Breathing deepens. Then, as the fresh experience of yourself-here-and-now expands to include your thoughts, feelings and the world around you, you may even sense a finer energy, as if heaven has come down to fill your personal earth. At the same time, a different quality of vitality may enter you from below, because our life’s energy is fed from both directions. You are grounding yourself on Mother Earth.
As I become present to this flow of energy from both earth and heaven, Body Consciousness expands. I become aware of my feelings and my physical presence along my thoughts. I am more here, right where I am, sitting or standing in the present moment.
Here’s how cutting-edge neuroscience sees it: we take in impressions of the world and ourselves either through top-down or bottom-up information processing. Our thought-oriented efforts start with the big picture, and break it down into smaller parts, refining each part several times to reduce it to its basic elements.
However, we often function within an automatic flow of thoughts and associations—each bumping into the next without our conscious participation. It is only when we intentionally focus our attention on a specific topic that this mental current of mixed judgments, opinions, commentaries, and criticisms of ourselves (and everyone else) temporarily ceases. At that point the automatic flow is replaced by a more conscious effort to solve a problem, make a decision, or simply become increasingly aware of what’s happening right now.
On the other hand, bottom-up processing starts with sensory experience and works toward integration in the mind. Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel calls it Beginner’s Mind. He explains that while the brain can change states very fast, the body is unable to keep up with it, so we need to tune in more often to it. Neuro-psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk agrees. In The Body Keeps the Score, heinsists that any hope of staying in control of your world depends on having a friendly relationship with your body. Without it, you grab for outside help “from medication, drugs like alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the wishes of others.” Decades of research with sufferers of PTSD have led him to emphasize the fundamental importance of bodywork in rehabilitation. Think yoga, tai chi, and the many forms of mindfulness meditation and activity. Van der Kolk insists that creating a deeper connection with the body is often more successful in relieving the effects of trauma than talk therapy or pills.
These are some of the reasons I wrote Awakening Body Consciousness. The fact is, “Life is fired at us point blank,” as Ortega y Gasset says. And we know it to be true from our own experience. Are we ready for it?
And what is readiness? As our energy flows through us day and night, it becomes a part of everything we thing or feel or do. But are we free to engage in whatever comes toward us “point blank?” And if not, what stands in our way?
Surely that’s a good subject for another blog!
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