The Enigma of Changing Habits — You Have to Get Somatic (Part 1)

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.

“I am free to create a new stable pattern, but once it is established, I am not free to dismiss it with a snap of my fingers… I do not have to consciously think about what to do with all of my muscles; on the other hand, my muscles are not necessarily doing what I consciously think.”
— Deane Juhan, Job’s Body

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?”

This is the first of 8 parts

An artist doesn’t need to explain the chemistry of paint in order to paint, and it isn’t necessary for a somatic therapist to be familiar with myosin and actin, the protein filaments that enable muscles to move, in order to track a gesture and study its meaning. We don’t need to understand physics to know what we are feeling; without studying the physical sciences we already have intrinsic access to reality through sense perception, also called direct experience.

However, because of the unquestioned tendency of Western society to compartmentalize, many of us are living with at least some measure of sensory-motor amnesia, which is a limited ability to feel moment to moment what our body is doing. Living cut off from our body’s wisdom increases the likelihood we are misinterpreting essential messages. Misinterpretation, in turn, leads to skewed perception about what’s happening inside us and in the environment.

Learning a few of our body’s physiological processes can go a long way towards becoming more intimately acquainted with who we are and how we work. Specifically, understanding a few key principles about the relationship between our nervous system and our psychology can help to heal the mind-body split.

But where to start? The average physiology book doesn’t discuss how laws of physiology such as The Fenn Effect (described in part 8) relate to patterns of the mind. And many who discuss how the mind works do not reference, for example, the physiological mechanisms of muscles that contribute to psychological defensiveness.

What’s more, to omit the sensory (receiving) end of the nervous system — to not know absolutely that the skin is a direct extension of the brain, and that the muscles and the nervous system are two parts of the same whole (Juhan p.43), and most of all, to not be able to feel these truths kinesthetically — perpetuates abstraction in the process of working with a person’s mind through their body.

Job’s Body

Thirty years ago Deane Juhan picked up where a good deal of the literature of physiology and psychology leave off. With Job’s Body Juhan connects the dots between the vicissitudes of the self and the intricacies of matter. And through his rendering of the Story of Job (see the Introduction), Juhan shows us how reckoning with our own physiology is a crucial endeavor on the road to self-knowledge:

Deane Juhan

“New wisdom, it turned out, was not to be found in the accepted view of things, but in the acts of confrontation and introspection themselves…[Job] found within his own substance and his own sensibilities a relationship with the powers which was more direct, more intimate, and more complete than anything he had known before…the perception that God was in his very flesh” (Juhan p. 3).

It is important to note that the subtitle, A Handbook for Bodywork, does not mean Job’s Body is only for bodyworkers. Juhan includes the mind to succinctly demonstrate the circular causality of feeling, thinking, physiology and behavior, which makes this tour de force an enchanting, inestimable handbook for anyone working at the intersections of mind and body.

Through Job’s Body we are shown how the dominant themes of our mental lives manifest irrefutably in the ways we move, and in so doing, reinforce themselves.

“[I]f the only things affecting these unconscious sensorimotor processes were purely mechanical considerations, such as muscle length, rate of change, weight of the limb or object to be moved, forces of inertia, and so on, then we would probably all learn to stand and move in a manner very like one another… [In actuality], the rapid coming and going of our emotional states, slowly developed attitudes, biases, and prejudices, lingering reactions to physical or emotional traumas, the quality of our various trainings, our perceptual errors, depressions, elations, nightmares, daydreams — all these things and more commingle freely beneath the surface of our conscious awareness, sometimes harmonizing together and sometimes jostling sharply against one another, and each perpetually coloring the others as they circulate and develop. And since all mental events are eventually expressed in some form of motor response, all of these activities are interpolated into our mechanisms of muscular control as much as any objective data concerning physical forces” (Juhan pp. 231–232, bold added).

This message about the effects of the life of the mind on the vitality of the body cannot be overstated; there is so much that goes on with a simple muscular movement, for example, that if it weren’t for the “gamma” aspect of our nervous system managing the complexity for us, it would take us all day to get out of bed (Juhan p. 223).

An Intersection through the Works of Deane Juhan and Eckhart Tolle: Permeating Physiology with Presence

Through this essay I spotlight a few of the countless intriguing lessons of Job’s Body, each of them pointing to the need for directing attention to the physical body for transforming the quality of our experience. One of these lessons is how the gamma motor system (the involuntary aspect of our muscular system) plays a substantial, yet vastly underappreciated role in the resistance to changing any unwanted habit. While discussing some of the features of the gamma motor system, I underscore the implications of:

a/ the power of focusing attention


b/ two mechanisms in our muscles: the Golgi tendon organs and the muscle spindles (described in Part 2, We Need to Talk About the Gamma Motor System).

And even though the sensory feedback of the unconscious gamma motor system is not directly accessible, we do experience directly the effects of alpha-gamma co-activation through sensations, movement, and spontaneous gestures (the alpha system comprises voluntary muscular movement; gamma, involuntary, set muscular patterns).

Also 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. Studying the physical and psychological state of presence alongside the effects of the gamma motor system revealed an unexpected answer to the compelling question, Why is it so hard to change a habit? Combining aspects of physiology and presence opens a portal into the enigmatic mind-body relationship for more effectively accessing and changing ingrained habits.

I began reading Job’s Body in 1996 after the first continuing education class for bodywork I took with Deane Juhan. In his lectures Juhan moved deftly between the soma, the psyche and politics, connecting the dots between personal, interpersonal, and cultural challenges to embodiment. As well as the consequences these challenges bring to bear, for example, on the internal organs due to a depressed thorax. I thought, I want to be able to do THAT. But I was a novice to physiology and Job’s Body is not a beginner’s guide to the body. So I recorded the book onto cassette tape in order to immerse myself in the words, until eventually I began to grasp the connections.

Still, it wasn’t until seven years later, after beginning to study Psycho-Physical Therapy with Bill Bowen, that I started to apply the lessons of Juhan’s penetrating narrative of the body to psychotherapeutic tasks.

Throughout the past 21 years with Job’s Body as a touchstone for the body’s micro level of matter, and 14 years with Bill Bowen’s perennial guidance for how to contact the physiological in the psychotherapy session, the more I have been able to visualize the interior of the body, the more I could see what is likely happening in the inner body, the more I know there is internal bracing in response to any occurrence perceived as unacceptable. At the very least, I understand that in the maintenance of our individual identities, on a physiological level, we simply can’t not be tensing physically, and so much more than we realize.

Training with Bowen also prepared me to finally get what Eckhart Tolle is talking about. If I had thoroughly recognized the value of The Power of Now the first time I read it 16 years ago, I would not have put it back on the shelf after reading it once. But at the time I didn’t even know that I didn’t really know what Tolle meant by presence. It was not until 2013 while researching Job’s Body for this essay, I happened to also be once again intrigued with The Power of Now, this time the audio version, and I finally experienced Tolle’s message about presence.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

I think what is often missed about Tolle’s teaching is that presence is primarily a physical experience — rather than an idea or aspiration — of feeling directly the energy of aliveness. Getting it hinges on the ability to sustain attention on what Tolle calls the “inner body energy” (Tolle p. 112). This is summed up by the simple — which is not to say always immediately grasped — guidance: “to inhabit the body is to feel the body from within” (Tolle p. 110).

“Intellectual agreement is just another belief and won’t make much difference to your life. To realize this truth, you need to live it. When every cell of your body is so present that it feels vibrant with life, and when you can feel that life every moment as the joy of Being, then it can be said that you are free of time.” (Tolle p. 71).

Like Juhan’s physiological narrative of the mind, Tolle belongs on any somatic psychology hall-of-fame roster for his championing of somatic awareness as the pathway to presence.

The connection between physiology and presence — between the ego and the gamma motor system — came while alternately reviewing Job’s Body for this essay and listening to The Power of Now. As my attention oscillated between concepts of physiology and the experience of presence, I identified what seemed like a weight, or physical drag to “psychological time” (Tolle p. 59 on psychological time). All at once I saw a distinct junction between the physical lightness that accompanies the felt sense of presence (as described by Tolle), and the muscular tension that reconvenes when unwittingly resuming diminished presence (as described by Juhan).

The realization came through the contrast of a simple experience. I was feeling physically at ease while listening to The Power of Now, until the moment when a resentment popped up, “Oh yeah, I need to vacuum.” In an instant the spacious felt sense I had been feeling from following Tolle’s words changed to a marked heaviness and increased steadily as I proceeded to vacuum. It seemed even harder than usual to maneuver the large object even though only moments before I had felt physically serene and mentally alert.

The cause of the change was conspicuous and the effect was palpable — and involuntary. I realized, this involuntary heaviness is my gamma motor system taking the reigns. And not the gamma motor system as in just the brainstem portion of the brain, but also as in the unconscious sensory stimuli, the location from which the brain eventually receives its information: the sense organs themselves. I was feeling the effects.

In the throes of the hurriedness of daily life it is impossible to track the one-to-one causes and effects of all the un-ease available to be suffered. What’s more, throughout the day we can be utterly unaware of the completely involuntary nature of a good portion of our muscular responses.

We believe we are moving by virtue of our own free will, but a good deal of our movements and feelings are, fundamentally, a product of how we’ve conditioned ourselves to move and to feel. The practice of presence, on the other hand, can help to illuminate our shadowy muscular responses. (See Part 4 and Part 5.)

And, by developing our understanding of how tension unintentionally convenes via the gamma nervous system (Juhan pp. 141, 233), we have a portal to the nervous system’s built-in resistance to changing an acquired habit. Which for me, in the instance of remembering the need to vacuum, was the familiar felt sense of heaviness that accompanied the childlike resentment of not wanting to do that which I didn’t want to do.

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Next in Part 2: We Need to Talk About the Gamma Motor System / Reflex Arcs / Muscle Spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs / Is the Body the Self?