Part 3: Reclaiming Locus of Control

30 years ago this year Job’s Body was published. This 8-part essay is a tribute to Deane Juhan’s unparalleled narrative of the body.

The Enigma of Changing Habits — You Have to Get Somatic (Part 3 of 8. See part 1)

Included in this essay is an interdisciplinary synthesis between aspects of Deane Juhan’s “Job’s Body” and Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” Infusing physiology with presence reveals an unexpected answer to the compelling question, “Why is it so hard to change a habit?

In a never-ending feedback loop, attitudes and emotions create shifting tensions in our muscles; changing states of mind affect muscle tone just as much as any external force.

“Mind and Body Dilemma” by Frank Yang (used with permission by the artist)

Just try having an emotion without involving your body (note the difference between thinking about and feeling the emotion). All along, through all the shifting mental and emotional states, the Golgi tendon organs (see Part 2) are noting the varying tension loads, which are communicated to the spindles, to which our skeletal muscles faithfully respond.

To the degree our movements are not habituated, our conscious brain may become aware of the muscular sensations. However, when we’re moving quickly and not taking the time to freshly interpret muscular sensations, the habitual interpretation of the sensations can even serve as justification for the attitude or emotion, thereby strengthening the unconscious feedback loop of sensations and meaning (Juhan pp. 198–200, 231). When I am thinking an angry thought, for example, my muscular system assumes a tense posture, and the sensations from the tension in my muscles fuels the angry thought.

“Chronic anxiety…wreaks havoc with muscle tone, driving values everywhere up to higher levels…Here the reassuring feeling of our muscles holding us together is seized upon and elevated to an exaggerated psychological significance: The tightening down of all the muscles in an attempt to combat the sense that things are about to “fly into pieces” is a normal neuromuscular response to the disoriented feelings associated with extreme emotional distress” (Juhan p. 141).

Much of our current muscular organization was initially established through voluntary decisions, by information that came from the cerebral cortex — although typically based on incoming sensory information that was not processed consciously.

This is where things get interesting, and more unconscious: As the original voluntary action was repeated, the settings became fixed out of conscious awareness — and this is the fine point of it — the locus of control shifted from the conscious brain to the gamma motor system’s Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles. The reclaiming of voluntary muscular response in a habitual, involuntary emotional reaction is the literal, physical shift in perspective I encourage be considered during any attempt to transform a habit.

Why We Don’t Already Include the Spindles and the Golgis In the Changing of a Habit

There are three reasons we don’t commonly refer to the spindles and the Golgis when considering what is in the way of changing a habit.

First, because the muscles are frequently misunderstood as having no intrinsic power of their own except when stimulated by the nervous system, the nervous system usually gets the bulk of the credit for movement and behavior, while the muscles are relegated “insentient workhorses” (Juhan p. 249.)

While the Golgis and the spindles are considered part of the nervous system, they are located in, and are sending signals from the muscles. With all our body systems, as with the body-mind conundrum itself, we tend to create impossible separations between the parts. Muscles wouldn’t be muscles without the Golgis and the spindles. So it is important to question, do the Golgis and spindles really belong to the nervous system, or to the muscles?

Second, when it comes to considering the nervous system, the brain end of the nervous system often receives more love than the sensory end. In research, for example, there seems to be more focus on what the brain is doing, yet without sensory feedback it would be impossible to even repeat a movement (p. 265). This false hierarchy of the body’s systems occludes directly knowing our true power — the direct experience that all the body’s systems are equally, mutually influencing.

And of all the sensory mechanisms, it turns out the muscle spindles “are the most elaborate sensory structures in the body outside the eyes and ears” (Vander, Sherman and Luciano, p. 541, Juhan p. 191). Merely knowing the location of the Golgis and spindles in the muscles and muscle tendons is significant for the visualization exercise of redistributing and rebalancing focus from the brain to the entire body.

Third, we naturally tend to pay more attention to what is more accessible and in our immediate control (the alpha motor system), rather than slow down enough to include awareness of that which is not in our direct control (the gamma system), even though there are ways to access this deeper system that is responsible for coloring everything we experience.

The Patterns We Live By: Osteoblasts and Osteoclasts

…to be living a perpetually fast-paced life is in some ways to be living in the past.

We engage the effects of the gamma motor system every time we slow down to explore the how of what we are doing. Throughout Job’s Body, Juhan illustrates how the self gains leverage by engaging with the laws of physiology. He notes that we can study:

“[t]he laws of physics and chemistry [that] dictate the conditions which [the mind] has at its disposal, but so far no one has been even remotely successful in identifying any combination of these laws as the motivating factor behind the developing of consciousness and behavior” (Juhan p. xxii).

In other words, we understand the brain as the organizer of experience, but since we still do not have a clue how consciousness or thought arises, we can, in the meantime, continue studying the body’s identifiable laws and, as Juhan suggests, work with the body the way it works with itself (Juhan p. xxv, 92), in order to increase a person’s options for experience (Bill Bowen, 2015).

In addition to the principal body law explored here about the gamma motor system, another of the body’s laws explored in Job’s Body helps us to understand the interplay of physiology, personality, and presence: the co-occurrence of the breaking down and the building up of living matter, demonstrated by healthy bone tissue in the living body.

“As osteoblasts…deposit new layers of mineral salts on the outside surfaces…the osteoclasts in the inner endosteum dissolve the inner surfaces away…in exactly those patterns which most efficiently strengthen the bone to support the habitual stresses that are put upon it” (Juhan p.102).

This intermingling of deconstruction with construction is a principle of a healthy immune system’s successful excavation and regeneration. And this balancing act can be seen at work in a healthy psyche as well. We each accumulate a unique constellation of beliefs that reflects our personal understanding of the nature of existence. These scaffoldings of understanding are the basis for our everyday decisions.

There are consequences to living a life without periodic reflection on the building blocks of our intentions, and without some deconstruction, from time to time, of all that our psyches are amassing. We see this principle at play in Eckhart Tolle’s warning about unchecked thinking:

“[t]hinking has become a disease. Disease happens when things get out of balance. For example, there is nothing wrong with cells dividing and multiplying in the body, but when this process continues in disregard of the total organism, cells proliferate and we have disease” (Tolle p.16).

Another way to consider how this physiological principle applies to the mind is in the way we make choices about how we are living. Unless we have thoughtfully and deliberately chosen the ingrained habits we live by, and unless we keep updating these decisions, then we are by default living according to pre-patterned habits which were previously selected by us — often only partly consciously — in the past. Thus, to be living a perpetually fast-paced life is in some ways to be living in the past.

A fast paced day thrives on the perpetual synthesis of large quantities of data by the gamma motor system, and with every reflexive response, whether physical or psychological, there is an intrinsic forgoing of present-time interpretation of incoming stimuli, consequently omitting other possibilities for a spontaneous or nuanced response. Through somatic psychotherapy we inquire of acquired reflexes: what is being traded for the sake of this convenience, for maintaining a rapid pace? And a deeper question, to what end is all the streamlining propelling us?

Just as the bones either build themselves up or deteriorate in tandem with the habitual demands made on them by the muscles, it can be a worthy venture to assess the vital demands in our lives — or lack thereof — in relation to which, like our bones, we are either growing or deteriorating. Optimally there is a balanced synthesis between the stability provided by our learned patterns (both physical and psychological) and the spontaneity and mobility (also, both physical and psychological) available through the mind state of presence. (The concept of the dynamic relationship between psychological stability and mobility is from the work of Bill Bowen, 2015).

Next in Part 4: A Physical Anchor for Unconscious Resistance / The Golgis: A Visualization / Sensory-Motor Development of the Sense of “Me”