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.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Building Energy

Images of Health

What attracts me about Christian Science, and why I continue to read Mary Baker Eddy, is not so much the healing, but the attitude toward health. She stresses that where the mind focuses leads the body. Focusing on sickness and death give them power. In regard to the practice of testing everything just in case there’s a sign of future sickness, and making decisions based on numbers so prevalent in today’s medicine, I say, “Why go looking for trouble?”
It’s not denial. That kind of vigilance is a fear based attitude that in itself can be the seed of illness. Tests are symbols of distrust regarding the body’s ability to communicate what it needs. An attitude that feeds on fear of death will create more stress chemicals that in turn take a toll on the immune system.
I’ve been very grateful for the knowledgeable interventions by doctors when serious sickness hits. I appreciate and respect the practice of medicine, but worry about healthy people going to a doctor and coming out with three prescriptions. It’s an obvious conclusion of visual comprehension. Someone goes to a checkup with a spring in his step and comes out sagging and depressed. Something is wrong with this picture, of giving up living to build walls against inevitable death.
A person’s condition is an expression of something about them, age, wear and tear, involvement in life. It has meaning. It is not a problem to be solved but an image to be understood. My childhood experience with our family doctor made a deep positive impression. His diagnosis depended on what he saw. I remember him telling a woman her chronic pain was because her girdle was too tight (you could hear him through the door). That’s probably why when I have a physical pain of some kind the first thing I look at is how I sit when I’m drawing, perhaps with some inner tension, how I may have created that pain. I don’t think of it as external or random. The metaphors of illness speak to me directly. When I’m having stomach trouble I wonder what I can’t digest or haven’t the guts for or where my intestinal fortitude isn’t up to the job. Negative emotions pathologize if they can’t get attention any other way. People get into trouble when they ignore the signals of the body. Unlike the Christian Scientist, I take an aspirin if something hurts because my body is communicating with my conscious mind and cooperative action requires attention to those messages. If I get really sick I’m glad to have my doctor and her expertise.
To focus on health is an active practice. Exercise can help you appreciate having a body. The physical self is our vehicle for experience and every system works hard non-stop. They deserve our positive attention and not just worry and complaint when something’s not right. Music and art can assist the achievement of harmony, were used to that effect in ancient Egypt where the place of healing was called Temple Beautiful. Beauty has a long history as guiding principle. I turn to Beethoven or Gregorian chants when I’m in pain and it helps. How can there be any doubt about the bodymind’s intelligence. It deserves our trust.
Happiness research has shown the importance of having goals, even small short term ones. The focus of mental attention on something to be accomplished is an integrating influence. Having challenges results in good brain chemistry and increased skills, and keeps that most toxic of emotions, frustration, at bay. We need challenge to focus and coordinate body and mind, to feel alive. Like a plant reaching toward the sun, if we’re living we’re not dying. It’s a better image for health.