Part 8: The Muscle Settings of “Psychological Time”: Relationship Between the Ego and the Golgis

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
8th of 8 parts (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?

The muscle settings of psychological time” is a theory that convergences the works of Juhan and Tolle by suggesting a direct, interactive relationship between the gamma motor system and the ego (the sense of “I”).

Psychological time is the term Eckhart Tolle uses to refer to the thinking mind’s (a.k.a the ego’s) continual reference to the past and the future, rather than experiencing the present moment directly. The “thinking mind” is the part of our experience that is typically constantly commenting on everything. According to Tolle this constant commentary is one of the greatest sources of human suffering.

There are parallel processes between the ego and the gamma motor system which suggest that the “sense of I” is arising in tandem with, or as a result of, the unconscious feedback provided by the Golgis’ and spindles’ settings on the conscious feel of our muscles.

The hypothesis looks like this. The Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles adhere to previously established ways of movement and response, and basically, so does the ego. In fact, the “sense of I” has a familiar feel that is ongoing and physical, and part of this familiar physical feel by which we identify ourselves is muscular, emanating from and embedded in the deepest aspect of our neuromuscular system, the gamma motor system.

And, since our mind has a strong tendency to be perpetually preoccupied with the past and to constantly anticipate the future (psychological time), and because our mind also has a direct and continuous effect on the tension settings of our muscular system, we can see an intertwining of our thought patterns with the gamma motor system. It could even be said the habitual muscular organization created by this tandem mind-and-muscle process reinforces the inability to stay present in perpetuity.

By contrast, learning how to sustain attention on the Now includes a wholly physical experience of feeling directly the “inner energy body”. Tolle shows how the bringing alive of the physical body’s deepest felt sense of Being is essential in dissolving the fixation on psychological time.

However, until the practice of presence becomes an acquired habit there is an inevitable snap-back — literally, in the set tension loads of the Golgis and the lengths of the spindles — to how we are used to knowing ourselves; as the steadfast agitated feeling which results from always thinking about stuff. Seen this way, the gamma motor system could be serving to safeguard against the death of the ego. The reverse also occurs, that the fixation of the ego (of how things should be) and the fixation of the settings of the Golgis and spindles — are loosened through each moment of presence.

“It is not so much that you use your mind wrongly, you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over…
“The beginning of freedom is realizing you are not the possessing entity, the thinker… you then begin to realize there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought… you begin to awaken” (Tolle p. 17–18).

It is in the familiar we trust, and this is why we might sometimes inexplicably feel like we are going to die when doing or feeling something new; the gamma system colludes with the ego’s need for things to be as it thinks they should be, i.e., as what was learned in the past. It does this by sending signals to the brain that suggest it is not even a little okay to try to move differently than we are accustomed to moving. Seen this way, the gamma motor system could be serving to safeguard against the death of the ego.

The reverse also occurs, the fixation of the ego (of how things should be) and the fixation of the settings of the Golgis and spindles — are loosened through each moment of presence.

When the mind is working on an emotionally difficult situation and we find it difficult to be present to the task at hand, such as being present while washing the dishes, I think we may be literally, physiologically, pinned down through the settings of the Golgi tendon organs. We feel this pinning and react to the sensations — heaviness, for example — by wanting to escape the physical cues of discomfort.

Often we may get increasingly agitated or further lost in thought or other trance activities — TV, computer, anything that provides the illusion of transcending reality (Nakken, 2003) — rather than acknowledge that the physical heaviness is an unconsciously initiated neuromuscular activity that can be learned to be embodied (made conscious in the body) and engaged with.

Tolle calls emotional heaviness (or other such physical cues) a sign of “the pain body.” He urges us to pay attention to the first sign that the pain body has awakened from its dormant state (Tolle p. 37). The pain body can manifest as states of chronic emotional tension, which, according to Tolle, is a primary cause of physical pain (Tolle p. 31). Chronic physical and/or emotional tension lends to sensory-motor amnesia.

With sensory-motor amnesia we are unaware of what Tolle calls the inner energy body, and what Juhan describes as the more subtle and insidious level of muscular contraction that is inherent to chronic stress.

We learn from a phenomena called the Fenn Effect that chronic physical tension due to ongoing emotional distress (and sensory-motor amnesia) directly diminishes the health of the body’s tissues, because in states of chronic tension the muscles are contracting without actually working (Juhan, p.131).

The Fenn Effect says that for the health of the muscles, “chronic tension is worse than merely wasted effort” (Juhan p.131); at the same time that chronic muscular contraction is upping the ante for oxygen and other nutrients, the chronic contraction itself is simultaneously squeezing the arteries’ pumping action, inhibiting the muscle cells’ capacity to receive the supplies for which there is an increased need.

“The amounts of oxygen and other nutrients consumed by the muscle increases greatly when the muscle performs work rather than simply contracting without work” (Guyton 1977; Juhan p.131).

Once we learn to sustain attention on the pernicious effects that chronic thinking has on our bodies (as taught by Juhan and Tolle), we are less likely to gloss over the reality of the Fenn Effect that:

“[t]his is the first step in a circle that can become very vicious indeed — the more work, the more need; the more constant tension, the less the fuel delivery; the less the delivery, the more difficult the work and so on — until tissue exhaustion, with its discomforts, limitations, and toxic-side effects takes over in the area” (Juhan p.131).

In Conclusion

Endeavoring to engage the gamma motor system is the direct route for cooperating with the tenacious force that otherwise restrains us from altering habits with ease. It is life-changing because it is the way we may intercept limiting aspects of our past from predicting our fate.

Whenever we engage in the process of deconstructing acquired reflex responses, by including the Golgi tendon organs as a mooring for focusing attention we are reminded that this deeper process at play is preventing the changing of a bad habit. Although we are only directly aware of the results of the unconsciously self-programmed activity of the Golgis and spindles, we will be reminded that the gamma system has great power in the ways we feel familiar to ourselves, and therefore less likely to take our muscle settings for granted.

“A good deal of the work is simply reminding minds that they are supported by bodies, bodies that suffer continual contortions under the pressure of compelling ideas and emotions as much as from weight and physical stresses, bodies that can and will in turn choke off consciousness if consciousness does not regard them with sufficient attention and respect” (Juhan p. 175).

Like the breath, focusing attention on the functions of the Golgi tendon organs and the muscle spindles can serve as a portal for discovering presence in motion as we increasingly free ourselves from meandering, lost, in the maze of the thinking mind. We may then also experience that movement and action are in fact pinnacles of Being, since, as Juhan notes,

“lost in our thoughts…we can easily forget that the activities of the nervous system can have no external significance until they are expressed to our fellow men by muscular activity” (Juhan, p. 176).

Through somatic psychotherapy we play in and between the worlds of form and the Formless. We slow down to contact the forms by which we find ourselves stuck in uncomfortable, negative, repetitive patterns.

By reorienting and cultivating the ability to sustain attention from the felt baseline of Being, we are resetting the response-ability of our muscles, from which clarity for right action spontaneously arises.

I submit the Golgis are like a lock on our sense of self for which, ultimately, the only passkey is presence. The gradual re-setting of the base tonus of the gamma motor system increases access to the embodied state of presence. Honoring the gamma system’s territory of acquired reflexes, becoming as Eckhart Tolle describes, a bridge between the world of form and the Formless, we find liberation from habitual repetition and freedom to dip into the bottomless well of pure creativity.

To shift our muscles’ base tonus we attend to our resistance to presence by 1/ honing the ability to direct attention, and 2/ learning to turn off the thinking mind, while 3/ gradually accessing the deep, physical sense of inner stillness. With immunity from the tyranny of the thinking mind we are more likely to think of things we have never thought before. And to express these insights through righteous action.

(Re) Discovering Job’s Body

This essay only scratches the surface of the many intriguing, powerful lessons Deane Juhan reveals through Job’s Body. I hope I have sparked your desire to wade into Juhan’s epic narrative of the body-self.

I also hope this essay will inspire further study of the intersection between the timeless Now and the physiological aspects of existence that contribute to humans’ limited sense of identity.

See part 1 The Enigma of Changing Habits — You Have to Get Somatic: A Tribute to Deane Juhan’s Job’s Body