Thursday, October 2, 2008

Checking in with the Senses (Chapter 1)

On a Saturday afternoon in early September I went running on my favorite local trail, the Dipsea. It is very close to my house, and it provides a great workout as well as beautiful views. I usually park at a roadside trailhead and run down a steep hill, cross Muir Woods parking lot, and continue on the trail beyond, hiking up another long hill until it reaches a series of open hillside areas. The trail goes up and down gentler grassy slopes, through redwood groves, then up a steeper hill again to the intersection with the Coastal RidgeTrail, where I can see both the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. There I turn around and go back. Saturday I was enjoying the exhilarating sensations of running, walking, being in the open spaces, and smelling plants and soil. I tried to hold an awareness of my feet and their relationship to the changing ground, feeling how my body automatically made adjustments to the slopes and to the changing surface of the trail. 
   Enjoyment is the key, I thought, to youthfulness of body and mind. Do I enjoy my whole body, from head to toe? Do I really appreciate being able to move every part of it? I am making it my business to do so, I resolved. Although I do enjoy moving my body in a lot of ways, I could enjoy it even more by feeling within my senses more often - as opposed to observing as if my body were a doll in a mirror, or moving it like a puppeteer moves a puppet.
   Our culture does not generally celebrate awareness from within. We live in a culture dominated by the visual: the surfaces of people and things. Our body awareness is channeled into creating a presentation of our bodies for the eyes of others, predicting how they will react to the shape of our bodies and how they will read the style of our clothing. This way of thinking has especially been instilled in women, although many men have absorbed it, too. The observer's approach to the body is to treat it mainly as a mannequin upon which to drape signifying costumes.  When I was growing up, my mother passed down her belief that our costumes were to signify "attractive but modest, Christian and feminine."  She enjoyed looking at fashion magazines - she had even worked as a model in a New York store in her 20's - but she conveniently ignored the main intent of the fashion industry: display of the body as a desirable sex object. Contradictory messages were definitely received by my sister and me. Mom dressed us in matching, pretty, well-made outfits when we were small, always posing us carefully for photos. She taught us how to sew, a skill we enjoy to this day. My father also encouraged "mirror-consciousness," because of course he wanted his girls to look attractive.
    The way of a tradition which opposes the spirit to the flesh is to hide the body - or at least to make a show in public that it is under control. My mother's ideal was a combination of Protestant puritanism and 1950's American style: skirts had to hide the leg at least to below the knee, of course with pantyhose beneath, brassieres had to be worn so that everyone knew that the woman was obediently trying to hide the shape and bounce of her breasts (even if she didn't really succeed.) In the '70's and '80's, when I was a kid, although I knew nothing of the women's liberation movement which was going on, intuitively I was part of it. I hated what felt to me like an artificial show of "femininity" - which translated to me as "submissive, sexually repressed, domesticated, soft and sweet." As my sister and I got into our teenage years, the modesty issue became a subject for heated conflict. The pictures I pulled out of Mom's magazines and posted on my bedroom walls were of powerful, sexy women, ones who looked like adventurous barbarians in leather and furs and metal and velvet. That was how my science fiction and fantasy heroines looked. Although I resisted the image my mother wanted to impose, I fully absorbed the concept of presenting an image: mirror-consciousness.
    Mirror mode - creating and presenting an image - didn't ruin my life. I don't believe it to be all negative. To the contrary, I believe that the creation of an image can be an artistic expression, and it can be loads of fun for the wearer and the observer. The body naked or adorned can be a beautiful thing to look at. I have no ethical problem with a woman or a man willingly presenting him- or herself as an object of admiration and desire. I am not going to deal here with the issues having to do with social pressure to conform to a certain image, which can lead to deep psychological conflicts for some. My belief is that we can appreciate different kinds of beauty in ourselves and others. And as self-determining adults in a relatively free society, we can choose how to present ourselves, regardless of media propaganda. Whether we conform to the norm or challenge convention, body presentation is an important part of communication in every society. However, it has taken me many years to get to this point: clearly defining an alternative mode of body awareness and claiming the intentional practice of it as integral to my life. This alternative mode is: paying attention to the messages of the senses from within.
    Certainly this is not a new idea. People meditate to practice mindfulness. Maybe I haven't done enough of that. Much meditation in religious traditions, however, seems to aim at transcending the physical, instead of becoming more aware of it. I am interested in how I can use my awareness not just sitting still, but as part of my activities: playing the violin, walking, running, biking, dancing. My sphere of awareness could be more complete and more sensitive. I keep coming up against mental "blind spots" which impede the flow of activity, causing clumsiness. Saturday, when I was running, and enjoying it so much, I started thinking about the lovely essay I was going to write on this subject, and my consciousness became completely engaged in the mental world, and lost all contact with my feet. I found myself crash-diving on the trail, skidding to a stop on my right elbow, shoulder, hip and knee. UUNNNGGGH! There's a nice reality check. My mind was elsewhere, and my body was a puppet on automatic pilot. I paid for it in bruises and scrapes (healed up just fine by now.)
    Objectification does not of itself have to mean blocked awareness from within. It does not matter how someone else looks at me if I am able to keep in touch with my inner point of view. This inner vantage point is like a window which has been boarded up - covered over by our own mental habits. We block out the body's signals in favor of inhabiting mental worlds. Giving dominance within ourselves to the symbol-making, abstract-reasoning mind over the feeling, somatic-relational mind obstructs sensory awareness. Our whole educational system is geared to produce this result. "Sit down, be still, don't look out the window, read this, write that." Reading, watching television and using the computer demand the a narrow focus on the visual-symbolic world. From an early age our system cultivates a narrow focus on the abstract reasoning mind and ignores other ways of using the brain and senses. We become so accustomed to this thought patterning that our own bodies are just other objects in a symbolic world. Again, I am not making the point that abstraction and narrow focus are "bad." We need to cultivate our reasoning, symbolic minds - the ability to do this may even define us as a species. I love reading - an ancient cultivator of the abstract mind. I was a bookworm from a very young age. It was wonderful - but with too much bookworm-mind comes absent-minded body: clumsiness and bruised shins, spilled drinks and broken objects, missed notes on the violin. No-one trained me in how to use my mind-body awareness, my somatic consciousness - not violin teachers, not even dance teachers.
    How is one to make a practice of inhabiting the body, really being present in all our physical senses? It is tricky for people - for us abstract-thinking types particularly - who are attached to our symbolic minds, our reasoning powers, and our creative fantasies. There is also the bombardment by the entertainment media to contend with. Can we keep the valuable aspects of those mental activities - and also cultivate our precious body awareness? It seems to me that one should never completely exclude the other: there must be a cycling between different modes of consciousness. This would mean making a habit of constantly "checking in" with one's different levels, not allowing a narrow focus to prevail for too long a time. It has to do with giving oneself instructions, programming oneself, about which stimuli are important to notice. First stop: sensory awareness. This would include sensations of all nerve endings on the skin's surface and throughout the body. It would include registering all audible sounds, smells and tastes, and the field of vision, including the peripheral. All of the sensations can be grouped together as the physical, one aspect of the awareness cycle. The other stops on the cycle could be in varying order, depending on what one is doing and feeling: acknowledging one's emotional state, feeling one's relationship to other beings or objects, engaging in the symbolic/verbal layers of mental activity. Some people believe in other levels of consciousness as well, encompassing intuitive and spiritual realms. But my main objective now is integrating physical consciousness with the mental - and giving the physical the attention it deserves.
    So, the practice is: constantly reminding the mind to check in with the body. Re-minding the body, re-bodying the mind. If the cycling of "checking in" is frequent enough - even practiced to the point of being very fast - all levels of awareness could be operating harmoniously in parallel. There is no division between them really: the mind is a function of the physical brain, as far as we can prove without getting into the realm of metaphysics. The head is connected to the body by the neck. The nervous system throughout the body is really an extension of the brain. Why do we become like heads cut off - heads floating around without bodies? Check in, self! How's my neck? Is my face tense? What are my toes and fingers feeling? Am I breathing? Is my spine aligned and fluid? Is my butt becoming numb from sitting too long while I'm writing this? Wouldn't it feel good to stretch? What objects are around me as I stretch out my arms and legs? Any people to hit, or liquids to spill? Is the path clear? Stretch, walk, dance. Eat, drink. Think. Check in: sense, feel. Move. Think while sensing, move while feeling.
    Consciously cultivating our senses increases the quality of our lives. That is seemingly a blatantly obvious statement - but maybe we need to remind ourselves of this in a culture which pushes us toward narrow focus, sedentary habits, insensitivity, even deadening of the senses. Our physical senses give us so much pleasure when we allow ourselves to hear their messages. I should say - MY senses give me so much pleasure when I let them! I am motivated to continue living because it feels good to be alive.

1 comment:

Scott Robinson said...

"Re-minding the body, re-bodying the mind." I like that a lot!

Vivekananda talked about becoming aware of the prana, the vital force animating the body--being aware from within. This post made me think of him.

Have you encountered Pema Chödrön? She teaches meditation in a couple different styles, one of which is singlemindedly focused on awareness--in fact, it's done with the eyes open. Nothing "transcendent" about it.