Part 7: Attention as Contact
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 7 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?”
What form of energy is human attention? One way to consider this is to acknowledge the physiological and psychological effects on a person of both the presence of and the lack of human attention.
Attention, especially sustained attention, is a form of contact. Furthermore, there is a cumulative effect on that which is focused upon. “Attention is like a beam of light. The focused power of your consciousness that transmutes everything into itself” (Tolle p. 120). And the focus of awareness also assists the healing effect of every other form of contact. For instance, the effects of bodywork can be increased when the recipient is focusing their attention on receiving, rather than thinking or talking about other things.
Tolle writes, “If the master is not present in the house, all kinds of shady characters will take up residence there. When you inhabit the body, it will be hard for unwanted guests to enter” (Tolle p.124). “Shady characters” in this context refers to habitual responses to life that are negative and unhelpful. And “inhabiting the body” includes being aware of feeling and energetic fluctuations as they happen.
When we sustain mindful attention with the felt sense of the body we are gradually, and literally, contacting the effects of the unconscious gamma system. The good news is as humans we have a greater potential than other animals to intentionally direct our attention, because our gamma system accounts for a much smaller fraction of our total motor neurons than it does in other mammals (Juhan p.216). Yet this unique capacity to focus and sustain attention is still too often utterly underutilized.
The choice of where attention is focused and sustained is connected to intention. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” means to me a lack of knowing how to willingly sustain focus of attention. Intentions are more likely to manifest when we are able to sustain focus with that which we choose to attend to. Failure to recognize the power to choose where attention is focused — along with a lack of ready options for precisely where attention could be directed in any given moment — makes us ripe for internal adversity.
“Almost no other animal even comes close to man with regard to the large size of our newer cortex relative to the older brain stem. This is why we are free to adopt or reject such a wide variety of attitudes and behavior patterns…This is also why man, more than the others, is a species that has the potential to be so deeply divided against itself, to be neurotic, psychotic, suicidal” (Juhan p. 226).
Honing the ability to focus attention is a primary therapeutic task of somatic psychotherapy. It is even considered a prerequisite of transformation (Gendlin 1981). Knowing the difference between thinking and experiencing is imperative, for example, according to Tolle, it is thought that causes this lethal division within the self (Tolle p.76). Being able to choose where, when and how attention is directed is vital to the locus of control. Either we’re able to choose what we put attention on, or we are being thought (Tolle p. 19).
There are endless reasons our attention will be pulled this way and that. Without a dedicated practice for training the nervous system to sustain attention, anything that hijacks the nervous system such as chronic pain, tension, or trauma (whether physical or emotional), will keep us in loops of reactivity and away from presence. The ability to distinguish between thinking and feeling is a prerequisite for the capacity to sustain attention within the body.
“Direct your attention into the body. Feel it from within. Is it alive?…Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and every cell? Can you feel it simultaneously in all parts of the body as a single field of energy?…Do not start to think about it. Feel it. The more attention you give it, the clearer and stronger this feeling will become” (Tolle p.112).
The micro views of the particular paths of the physiological relay of contact may be tracked, and we can also simply marvel at the felt sense that occurs when we have the direct experience of not only figuratively, but actually, receiving our own or another’s attention. As we register the felt shifts in energy patterns in our body, we can recognize contact has literally, physiologically taken place.
Contact through Bodywork
Yet the tendency towards overusing the thinking mind is strong, to regard the machinations of thought as if the brain is running the show. When the body’s felt senses go unrecognized during the processes of motivation, action and behavior, spontaneity is diminished and “my strongest tendency is to move in the same ways that I have always moved, guided by the same deeply seated postural habits, sensory cues, and mental images of my body” (Juhan p.xxvi).
Tolle concurs by describing how it is through identification with thinking that the sense of self is then derived “based on your personal and cultural conditioning” (Tolle p.22). Alternatively, it is through the body’s sensations that the inner energy body and True Nature is revealed (p. 110).
The beauty of bodywork is its effectiveness in bypassing the thinking mind’s defenses. Right touch invites the recipient to focus attention from within the entire body, not just the brain, by providing ongoing points for the sustaining of attention.
“[T]he entire musculature must learn to participate in the motion of any of its parts. And to do this, the entire musculature must feel its own activity, fully and in rich detail. Competent posture and movement are among the chief points of sensory self-awareness. The purpose of bodywork is to heighten and focus this awareness” (Juhan p. 224).
Both right touch and mindful movement of the body invite presence by guiding the observing part of the nervous system to come down into and direct attention from within the body (Bill Bowen, 2003), to experience directly that: Here is my body. Here is the boundary and container of my skin. Here I am.
Resisting a sudden change caused by an external force is one of the primary jobs of the muscles’ sensory system (Juhan p. 206), which renders force a counterproductive means for effecting change. We prevent triggering the reflexive defense system by going slowly and respecting the entirety of the organism we are engaging with — not only muscles but perceptions, attitudes, fears, feelings, concerns, values.
It should be clear that this body law that force is counterproductive to changing a habit applies not only to the physicality of muscles but also to the psychological aspect of lengthening muscles, since any change in behavior or feeling always involves changing muscle lengths during the new action. Try to make a change of any kind that does not involve changing the use of your muscles, however subtly.
“resistance is enforced by an automatic reflex that cannot be bullied or argued with…No matter what specific bodywork technique is being applied, only slow, patient, unthreatening pressures and stretches can avoid triggering more contractile responses through these reflex arcs, and only a growing trust and surrender in the mind of the client can succeed in calming the mental turmoil which has established increased tension settings and exaggerated responses” (Juhan p. 206).
The somatic approach of first identifying what is, and then experimenting with specific options for change of movement and perception (Bowen, 2003), is discussed by Juhan: “The exploration of tactile sensations can both reveal the counterproductive response, and provide the cues that suggest activities that will lead the way out of the vicious circle” (Juhan, p.230).
Bodywork (including moving one’s own body in mindfulness) assists in accessing sensation, in order to track that which arises before the normally lightning-fast speed of interpretation has a chance to overlay all the meaning our limbic brain has at the ready. Bodywork assists in interrupting the automaticity of the gamma motor system, so we can meet the moment with alive curiosity.
“Bodywork…can help us recall that we are…not just genetic blueprints for engines doomed to begin wearing out…that we are an interweaving of processes…It can demonstrate to us that we neither have to collapse before the forces of gravity, disease, and decay, nor exhaust ourselves in a blind struggle against them, that it is possible to enter into active relationships with these forces, to match their insidiousness with our own cleverness” (Juhan, Intro p.xxx).
Another compelling reason to bring the body into the therapy room is that while sitting still, much vital information passes from our awareness. As soon as we get up from sitting we are flooded with fresh sensory information both from within and without. Not to mention that as soon as a sensation arises and by the time it has been responded to it has gone through the maze of the mind’s interpretations (Juhan, Intro p. xxvi). Juhan weaves physiology with the plight of our philosophical giants’ existential inquiries as they wrestled to understand the basis of reality:
“It is not surprising that questions concerning essence and primary qualities should have fretted so many thinkers for so many centuries. When we sit still and contemplate the problem, the sensory information which might enlighten us is largely silenced; and when we are active, this information is processed largely by our unconscious” (Juhan p. 251).
By working with the body in psychotherapy,
“[f]eelings of heightened interest and an urge to explore these new sensations can begin to loom larger than the old feelings of fear and defensiveness, and the exploration of these new sensations can lead to new patterns of behavior. The body can start to move differently because the mind has felt something different” (Juhan p. 212).
As we track the body’s changing felt sense while the ego mobilizes in the transition from stillness to action and interaction, we can find ways to experience — while in relationship to others — that: Here I can breathe comfortably. Here I can stay present rather than withdraw. Here I can reach out rather than remain hidden or immobilized.
Next in Part 8: The Muscle Settings of “Psychological Time”: Relationship Between the Ego and the Golgis / Conclusion / Rediscovering Job’s Body