Monday, March 26, 2012

Body Meaning

It may have been the taste of cake and tea that prompted Proust’s
stream of memories, but for me the trigger is more often an action. I
was shaping an old flat sable brush with a sharp knife, and a cloud of
memories unfurled from deep in my past. As I pressed the flat side to
my worktable and scraped the side, I was back in a friend’s dining
room and an intense bearded man was demonstrating how to renew the
brush there at the table after dinner. Then the image shifted to the
friend who had the dinner party, who was himself the hub of a wheel of
memories associated with Maryland Institute, as we called it then. A
very specific action spurred my memory to an extensive network of
associations. I often think of the body like a pliable tuning fork
that depending on the position resonates with and evokes imagery of
the past that is associated with being in that position. As bodies in
motion it makes sense that our habitual ways of moving would reinforce
certain attitudes in our minds. And there are psychological treatments
based on the idea, change the body to change the mind. One of these is
the Alexander Technique, which addresses the amount of tension that
accumulates in the body over time. Its underlying philosophy points
out the correlation between the beginnings of bad posture in childhood
and the first awareness of what others expect of us. Clearly there’s a
deep connection between how our body expresses its uncertainty and our
sense of others’ expectations. The body contracts with anxiety and
confusion where mixed messages or coercion are involved. The treatment
offers corrective motions to help pull the body out of its habitual
positions and release that accumulation of tension that drains energy.
Moshe Feldenkrais was a judo master who had a similar idea. He thought
people were frustrated and unhappy because they’d never learned to use
their bodies properly, thought too much energy was lost to wasted
movement. His books and methods educate people on how to recognize
self-defeating body positions and provide exercises that demonstrate
better ones.
New research has shown how exercise is good for the mind as well as
the emotions. Chemically there’s the increase in dopamine and BDNF
that’s been shown to promote growth of new neurons. In addition, our
conceptual structure is built on the foundation of embodiment, the
body’s experience of the world. From our travels we know what
obstruction is and apply it not just physically but also to what gets
in the way of our mental progress on a task or project. Most of our
conceptual understanding and scientific reasoning depends on physical
experience of weight, balance and movement. Hundreds of years ago
Leonardo da Vinci emphasized that exercise was not just important to
health and vitality but to the improvement of mental functioning.
Continuing to extend bodily experience is especially important in a
time when so much daily activity is done sitting in one place.
The signals of core wisdom begin in the body. As we adjust to our
circumstances the feelings we experience reflect the meaning we attach
to that adjustment, the overall assessment of the physical or
psychological environment. Understanding the meanings of the body can
provide a path to psychological understanding and help us sort out
contradictions in our thinking, the wasted mental activity that drains
our energy. Development of our mental and psychological health
requires physical participation.

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