In the course of mindfulness practice people often discover how deeply they’ve allowed concepts, rather than direct perception, to guide their lives. Thinking is, of course, a necessary function. But we have become so stimulated by thinking and information that we’ve lost touch with the wisdom of our visceral life. In The Anatomy of Change Richard Heckler, cofounder of the Lomi School and an Aikido instructor, encourages us to reclaim our bodily life. Drawing on Aikido and other psycho-physical disciplines, Heckler maps out a way to more fully contact and shape our somatic rhythms.
Throughout The Anatomy of Change Heckler rightly criticizes our overly cognitive approaches to learning. We are not really educated about how we go through the process of change. Usually we project a conditioned image or pattern upon our uncertain future and try to fulfill it. In somatic work we pay attention to the sensations we feel in the moment and allow bodily messages to guide us through transitions. Bodily messages become, as Heckler states, “a living language which tells us when it is time to extend ourselves, express feelings, or contain them and build upon our sensations.”
Using vignettes from his therapeutic work, Heckler gives us a sense of how our experiences shape our body. A man whose father repeatedly told him when young to keep his mouth shut and look alert often finds he clenches his jaw in situations where he seeks approval from others. Speaking directly to people also proves difficult. Another man has trouble sustaining intimate relationships. When people come too close to him physically and emotionally he withdraws by squeezing his throat, chest and pelvis into what feel like separate compartments. These stories clearly show that being embodied involves a formative process which organizes our bodily shapes. Our bodies change constantly in response to our surroundings and inner urges.
Heckler encourages us to recognize how this shaping process forms the body–mind we call ourselves. Through simple exercises that can be done with a partner he illustrates several bodily skills for moving through change. He suggests how to use our attention in moving through a series of steps. By centering we establish a willingness to see what is actually happening. Grounding allows us to make these perceptions tangible by feeling how our legs connect us to the earth. Through entering and blending we become aligned to and then join with the movement of a change. In union we are the change itself.
In doing these exercises we find an innate wisdom which spontaneously suggests a way to move through transitions. This wisdom reveals itself in the unfolding events of our biological processes: the growth of our sensations and feelings, their containment and expression. Through being this process of change, rather than creating a sense of separation from it, we learn how we organize and disorganize the bodily shapes which form our existence.
What often prevents us from contacting these guiding rhythms are our conditioned tendencies—the choices we made which enabled us to survive in the past. We resort to these rehearsed responses because they’ve been reliable (before). But by doing so, we lose touch with the sensations and excitatory processes which might shape a different response.
Our conditioned responses however, can also be helpful in revealing the rules we have used to form our bodies. When told not to speak too loudly a person initiates a sequence of muscular events. By constricting his throat, rounding his shoulders and tightening his diaphragm he diminishes his excitement. These patterns cannot easily be replaced without learning the function they serve. Once that function is felt viscerally, we can play with its organization. By exaggerating or constricting a tight diaphragm, for example, a person might observe how he constricts sensations in his chest. Decreasing the tightness of the diaphragm could lead to feeling excitement in his upper body. By learning how we organize the neuromuscular events that constitute our behavior, we also discover how to disorganize inappropriate habits.
Heckler cautions against developing somatic exploration as just another technique. He describes the pitfalls that can occur with each of the bodily skills one learns. By constantly working to stay centered a person may try to remain unaffected by transitions. Or, by overemphasizing grounding, he may become too rooted to move in a flexible way. Skills and techniques are simply a means that leads to the essence of somatic work: a deeper connection with ourselves. Contact with others will then be a natural outgrowth of this connection.
Heckler honors the body as a revelation of life. He recognizes that bodies not only change, grow and die, but also form shapes and that part of the gift of being human is to be embodied. The more deeply we come in touch with our biological rhythms, the more we realize that they spring from universal sources. Our bodies are brought forth, sustained and eventually transformed by a network of forces which are much greater than that which we identify as “I.”
Heckler also ties this personal kind of work into a larger social view. The way that we deal with aggression socially, he says, is a reflection of how we deal with it in ourselves. Separating ourselves from what we feel and sense often leads us to commit atrocities against nature and other beings.
By dominating or dissociating from the rushes of excitement we experience bodily, we create a struggle with ourselves that tends to spill out into the other areas of our lives. We are simply not taught how to be personally responsible for the power and wisdom of our bodily life. Because of this failure, society is becoming increasingly oriented toward violence and mechanized behavior.
I agree with Heckler’s ideas. If our contact with life were more intimate we would feel how sacred life is. We might discover how we can love life and not just our idea of it. Our activities would reflect our feelings. We would embody what might be called spiritual presence in the ordinary movements which shape our lives.