Accessing the mind through body awareness

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Human_body-1The disciplined practice of being aware of bodily sensations is common to a number of meditative and psychological techniques, ranging from mindfulness meditation to the various species of humanistic psychology (especially those influenced by Wilhem Reich). Here's an example from Perls, Hefferline and Goodman's book “Gestalt Therapy”:

Concentrate on your `body' sensation as a whole. Let your attention wander through every part of your body. How much of yourself can you feel? To what degree and with what accuracy and clarity does your body—and thus you—exist? Notice pains, aches and twinges ordinarily ignored. What muscular tensions can you feel? Attending to them, permit them to continue and do not attempt prematurely to relax them. Try to shape their precise limits. Notice your skin sensations. Can you feel your body as a whole? Can you feel where your head is in relation to your torso? Where are your genitals? Where is your chest? Your limbs?

Walk, talk, or sit down; be aware of the proprioceptive details without in any way interfering with them. As you sit or lie comfortably, aware of different body-sensations and motions (breathing, clutching, contracting the stomach, etc.), see if you can notice any combinations or structures—things that seem to go together and form a pattern—among the various tensions, aches and sensations. Notice that frequently you stop breathing and hold your breath. Do any tensions in the arm or fingers or contractions of the stomach and genitals seem to go with this? Or is there a relationships between holding your breath and straining your ears? Or between holding your breath and certain skin sensations? What combinations can you discover?

Similar exercises exist in Buddhist meditations under the framework of mindfulness of the body (considered one of the four foundations of mindfulness), and in yogic exercises. It's intriguing to try to figure out what these techniques are doing, why awareness of bodily configurations should appear in practices that are aimed at insight into the nature of one's thought and cognitive life, and whether the justification for these practices can be usefully translated into some sort of scientific framework (or at least a language that is friendly to what we know of the brain and the biology).

The simplest and least specific theory suggests that these practices are trying to develop concentration and awareness, which are generally useful skills (as anyone who has ever had Internet access knows). Since bodily sensations are always present, they are a good training ground for concentration. In this context, bodily sensations are useful not in themselves but simply for their convenience, and what is important is the ability to focus the mind or to pay attention to experience that training bodily awareness allows one to practice.

However, more specific and interesting perspectives are suggested by theories of emotion and of how we operate in the world. This is something of a caricature, but approaches to understanding emotion tend to lie between two poles. On one end is the idea that sadness, happiness, fear etc. are internal states and that we then express them by crying, laughing, running away and so on. At least implicitly, this seems to fit with folk psychology and the way we commonly use language. On the other end is the view that emotions are intrinsically embodied, intrinsically tied up in forms of life and that thinking about them purely as internal states is misleading. Instead, we should think about them as configurations of behavior and disposition. So, for example, we don't cry because we are expressing sadness; instead, crying and a variety of other behaviors are part of what it means to be sad. Of course the correspondence isn't one-to-one, but sadness is a convenient index for a family of behaviors and dispositions.

While this view of emotions is less common, it's far from marginal and crops up frequently with different emphases everywhere from William James to the behaviorists to modern neuroscientists. It also has a number of appealing features. It fits quite nicely with experimental observations that are otherwise puzzling, like the observation that we are more likely to be happy if we move our facial muscles into a smile (even without realizing it) or more likely to be confident if we adopt a confident posture. Rather than this being a cognitive misperception or us somehow being tricked into the emotion, it very simply is the case that we are more happy or more confident if we adopt the appropriate posture or muscular configuration and our folk psychological language has mislead us about the nature of our emotions. Similarly, for a while it puzzled me that we are more likely to say we like someone if we do them a favor. This seems like a confusion of cause and effect. But if doing favors is part of what it means to like someone the paradox dissolves.

The idea that what we call mental states are embodied and rely to some degree on expression is broadly useful beyond just emotions, and it is compatible with observations from neuroscience. Brecht somewhere says that art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it. There is evidence that the same is true for our brains: that they evolved in order to shape action and to interact with the world rather than to represent it or to hold up some sort of mirror to nature. Loops between sensation and action exist at every level of neural processing, and even early sensory areas in the brain send outputs to motor structures. Similarly a number of experiments suggest that so-called cognitive faculties are quite tied to action. For example, paying attention to a location in the visual field (or remembering it) seems broadly subserved by the same parts of the brain that help you move your eyes about the visual field, almost as if paying attention to a visual location is sublimated or interrupted movement.

This is a philosophically satisfying way of looking at things, in that we don't needlessly duplicate entities (though of course it can and has been carried too far). Emotions and thoughts are automatically embodied, automatically embedded in a social and physical context rather than being expressions of some interior homunculus. From this perspective, paying attention to bodily sensations should not be understood in opposition to paying attention to the workings of the mind but rather as another way of accessing the mental. Bodily sensations can potentially give us access to a large part of our subconscious and precognitive life: to the emotional textures that we are unaware of (either because we repress them or simply because they have sunk too deeply into our ways of inhabiting the world) and to the automatic processes that make up a large part of our existence but we do not recognize because they don't fall within the narrow spotlight of attention. They can reveal to us our fleeting irrational reactions to things, our likes and dislikes, our half-formed intuitions, the times when we are sad or happy or afraid and don't know, and all the parts of our experience that don't conform to our idea of our self or current narrative

The consequences of this can be read in two different ways that are only superficially opposed. On the one hand, this observational process weakens the idea of a single unified self, as the Buddhists might want. And this is a picture well grounded in what we know about our minds. Biologically, psychologically, cognitively, the evidence for a single unified identity seems weak. There are simply too many semi-conscious processes, too many ways of being conditioned, perhaps too many separate cognitive modules. Our unified conscious self totters precariously on top of this mess of desires and orientations towards the world and perhaps most of our accounts of our behavior and reactions are post facto justifications rather than actual descriptions of cause and effect. Realizing how much of our life happens outside this narrow sphere, outside the putatively unified cognitive self that seems to structure and control our experience, inevitably weakens our sense of a unified self.

On the other hand, from a more psychoanalytic angle, this realization allows for a more grounded and comprehensive ego. The process of bodily awareness opens up and makes accessible all these factors that are present and that shape our life whether we like it or not. By getting to know this unconscious terrain we start to be able to incorporate it into consciousness and the ego and to mould it, even if only to compensate for all the petty dislikes, accidental conditioning and reflex irrationality. This offers the potential to expand the scope of our possible action. The self is still a contingent created entity, and we still probably have much less freedom than we hope, but it's increased ever so slightly, and anything that extends our small space of freedom seems worth cultivating.