Part 4: A Physical Anchor for Unconscious Resistance
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 4 of 8. See part 1)
This essay offers an interdisciplinary synthesis between aspects of Deane Juhan’s Job’s Body and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. Linking physiology with presence revealed an unexpected answer to the enduring question, “Why is it so hard to change a habit?”
All our acquired reflexes combined create an individual gestalt which is identified as “myself.” By acquired reflexes I refer to all the ways we have habituated to living, including habitual responses, habitual attitudes, and habitual feelings. It is the automatic reflexive responses to perceived threats to one’s sense of self that we often engage with in somatic psychotherapy through the study of gestures, impulses and movement. We look for “anchors” for each part of a feeling; sets of sensations that would help us remember, like breadcrumbs, the physical organization of the feeling we would want to return to in order to learn from and evolve.
Each acquired reflex has an individualized physical signature. Such as the way, long ago, in response to a perceived insult, I spontaneously became very still, set my jaw muscles, intensified the energy of my eyes and held my breath, while fear and anger welled in my chest. Over time I repeated this response until it became an acquired reflex in response to a perceived insult. I never liked the feeling of that particular response, but the more I did it the more it felt like me. The more it seemed like me, the more I was unable to respond differently.
Imagining the Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles faithfully maintain the settings that contribute to the familiar feeling of our muscles — and hence our sense of self — provides a physical anchor for the otherwise amorphous experience of resistance to doing something differently than we have learned. In the effort to change a complex habit, it can be vital to have an identifiable physical location other than the brain for unconscious aspects of experience.
When I refer to resistance (to anything), I am not implying the resistance should be gotten rid of it. I believe in resistance. I also believe in liberation from our resistance having us, which it does whenever it remains below awareness. Resistance is the impulse to slow or to halt something, so I regard signs of resistance as a cue to slow down and increase mindfulness.
It is helpful to identify whether the resistance is a creative or a survival response (Bowen 2015). Resistance as a creative response to life could look like nature busting through concrete, or the ways we actively say “No!”, speaking even when our voice shakes. Resistance as survival can look like ineffective arguing and things staying the same. Whether survival or creative, by learning to claim our resistance we can more effectively engage with that which we do not abide by.
Any feeling of resistance — whether external in relationship with a physical object, or internal in relationship with a psychological object — is measured by the Golgi tendon organs as a change in tension load. Our conscious brain registers the physical feel of resistance, which may have us search for something or someone to blame for the discomfort, but this would be a distraction from sustaining attention with the physical feeling itself. Here Eckhart Tolle describes the relationship between physical tension and the ego:
“Resistance is the mind…Non-surrender hardens your psychological form, the shell of the ego…Not only your psychological form but also your physical form — your body becomes hard and rigid through resistance. Tension arises in different parts of the body… The free flow of life energy through the body…is greatly restricted” (Tolle pp. 206–207).
The Golgis and the spindles adhere to previously established ways of moving and they also respond to conscious shifts of intention (Juhan p. 233). While you cannot order your Golgis and spindles to permanently change their settings, you can mindfully embody a different intention.
When I can trust, for example, that the critical feedback I am getting is offered with positive intent, I am more inclined to relax the muscles of my face and breathe a little more while receiving the message. Yet until I have repeatedly practiced this new response, the old way of defense feels more like me, and so the tension would still be poised to spring through the settings of my gamma motor system even when I really do want to hear what is being said.
This is because any new conscious intent does not initially have the built-in enduring power of the acquired habit. So when your mind wanders and for a moment you do not maintain conscious awareness of how you are intending to move differently, you will automatically revert to the default muscular settings established in the past.
The Golgis: A Visualization
In order to deepen embodiment of the gamma motor system, this somatic visualization practice is intended to accompany the process of changing a habit in a somatically-oriented psychotherapy or coaching session:
1/ Visualize that your muscles have inherent power and innate intelligence.
2/ In your mind’s eye, see as clearly as you can the Golgi apparatuses throughout your muscular system. This invites the gravity of your awareness to shift from the centralized location of your brain to your whole body.
3/ Next, imagine sensing into, or seeing as with an inner light, from the tendons of your muscles (tendons connect muscle to bone).
4/ Become increasingly aware of the tiny apparatuses throughout all the tendons of all your muscles that scream “Noooooo!” anytime you suddenly move differently than you have previously learned to.
5/ Practice intentionally exaggerating, and gradually owning, this feeling of resistance that is literally, physically built-in to your muscular structure. Imagine the tendons of all your muscles as tangible points of reference any time you are aware of resistance to doing something new or different.
6/ Ideally you could relax a bit in relation to your own resistance to changing an acquired bad habit, knowing a primary aspect of the experience of resistance to change is a totally impersonal, inherent part of the human nervous system. This recognition may eventually serve to increase your inclination to surrender the struggle with yourself. Which is when change can actually occur.
Sensory-Motor Development of the Sense of “Me”
It seems we come into this world with particular genetic predispositions, and a certain temperament; we are not merely blank slates when we start out. At the same time, the development of the personality can be perceived to be a creatively constructed mechanism by which we learn to relate to the worlds we live in, and which on the road to becoming self sufficient takes many years to concretize. Sensory-motor processing is so individualized we ultimately become, as Juhan writes, a species unto ourselves (Juhan p. 230).
During our first years of life the basic templates of how we know ourselves are created in relationship to our primary caregivers and the surround. Juhan illustrates the complications and the benefits of this lengthy growth process by contrasting the development of the human baby with the colt.
He writes how the colt achieves near complete competence in its first day of life because it is born with all the reflex patterns it will ever need, while the human baby is born with relatively few inherited reflexes and requires years of small incremental gains in motor control. During all this time:
“it is not only the collective wisdom of my ancestors that determines how I will stand and walk; all the accidents, the felicities and traumas, the personal attitudes and emotions, all the thoughts and experiences that I have while I am learning become a part of my developing patterns of movement as well” (Juhan p. 229).
Juhan explains how humans’ greater cortical control allows for a tremendous amount more freedom of choice than other animals, but that inherent in every repetitious action — including those born of conscious choice — is a distinct limitation.
“This is indeed the crux of the advantage that humans enjoy over most other creatures: We are capable of mastering any number of new skills, and of radically modifying our behavior as conditions demand. In a word, almost everything that is not given to us can be learned… It is of extreme importance for us to realize, however, that this great freedom cannot be extended to mean that I can do anything I want any time I want… And the more stable a behavior becomes — for a species or an individual — the more difficult it is to change it or stop it” (Juhan, p. 230).
Here Juhan writes how the character — the sense of “me” that is formed through mirroring and contending with familial and cultural norms — is a process of gradual construction, inherited and adopted, physical and idea.
All along our musculature is engaged in a perpetual feedback loop with every thought and feeling, and the more we repeat a particular mannerism or behavior the deeper into the grooves of the nervous system it registers, until it is secured by the gamma motor system. “We have, as it were, a brain within our brain and a muscle system within our muscle system to monitor the constantly shifting values of background tonus” (Juhan p.223).
And so we see that the Golgis’ function of maintaining skeletal muscles at pre-determined lengths is more than a mere support mechanism, as it is commonly regarded. The gamma motor system functions so that we don’t have to pay attention to how we are moving while we busy ourselves making other plans.
In exchange, the unconscious process of the gamma system lays claim to our sense of what feels normal or right, which on the journey of self-actualization is not always synonymous with optimal (on normal vs. optimal see Juhan p. 231).
Next in Part 5: The Sensory End of the Nervous System / Cut Off From Being / The Inner Energy Body