The Evocation of Unique States of Consciousness as a Consequence of Somatic Practices (reprint)

Pages: 24-26
Year: 2008

I have been a practitioner of Rolfing for more than twenty-five years and it has been even longer since I received my first sessions from Dr. Rolf. From the beginning, I have experienced in myself and my clients changes in states of consciousness that accompany this work. In fact, the appeal of this work has often been precisely the combination of the increased physical ease and the change in awareness that is produced by the gain in structural integration that characterizes Rolfing.

As a practitioner with a large clinical practice and an Instructor for the Rolf Institute, my time at my desk is usually devoted to the affairs of a busy practice, preparing for classes and the mastery of new, clinical, manipulative skills. It has been an interesting exercise to take time and think through some of the issues related to our common interest in “The evocation of unique states of consciousness as a consequence of Somatic practices”. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this discussion and hopeful that the increased understanding we may gain will result in our greater ability to nourish the biological topsoil in which our being has it’s roots.

As I think most of you are aware, Rolfing is a manipulative technique, a form of manual therapy, which aims to improve the organization of human, physical structure, what Dr. Rolf, the founder, called Structural Integration. The question “what are the characteristics of human Structural Integration’?” is still being answered. We have come a long way from Dr. Rolf’s first formulations but only by building on her fundamental ideas.

Primarily, as physical bodies, we are sentenced to an abiding relationship with gravity and our physical ease is to a great extent determined by our ability to deal with this force successfully. The trauma and random injuries of life reduce our physical plasticity and this in turn opens the door to the disintegrative effects of a mal adaptation to gravity. Rolfing seeks to reverse this process by restoring the plasticity of the connective tissue and guiding people to a more economical, easy structural organization in the gravity field.

I am describing a process that is concerned with the material properties of human bodies. Ignoring the implications of modern theoretical physics and the way in which our understanding of material substance has been thereby changed, we are dealing here with forces expressed by the laws of mechanics. Freeing human bodies to function more economically in gravity should result in greater ease of motion and a reduction in the compressive forces that ultimately lead to degenerative changes and immobility. However, aside from the obvious gain in the physiological well being of the tissues involved and the resultant sense of comfort or well being that this entails, we are inquiring today into the way in which such a process as “Structural Integration” and other Somatic practices affect states of consciousness. To do this we must necessarily look beyond the traditional kinesiological models of human biomechanics and inquire into other properties of physical organization.

I would like to approach this question in two ways. First, I would like to describe an experience that seems to have frequently accompanied the appearance of gains in physical order or ‘integration’, independently of any conscious reorientation of awareness or intention. That is, a sort of consequence of this gain in physical organization. Second, I would like to discuss the nature of the process of releasing restrictions in the body whereby changes in shape are made possible and the shift in consciousness that this entails. I will also suggest possible neurological indicators of this state shift.

Rolfing grew up in the Human Potential movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s and was and is used as a tool for self-development, aside from it’s utility in relieving physical pain and dysfunction as a result of injury or degeneration. The “self development” promulgated by the Human Potential movement involved the exploration of “altered” or “heightened” states of consciousness which, aside from their entertainment potential, promised access to an inner technology of transformation, closely allied with traditional notions of healing. It was Dr. Rolf’s belief and experience that access to these “states” could be promoted by a careful alignment of the body. She drew upon her experience with yoga, which acknowledges that physical position and characteristics influence “transformational” states and upon her training in Gurdjieff’s epistemological system, which cultivated these “states” with physical practices. What was unique about Dr. Rolf’s application of her training was the extent to which she identified access to these “transformational” states with an optimal shape, governed by the principles of mechanics and the action of gravity. It has been my experience, and I think the experience of many others who have been Rolfed, that “moving” into alignment with gravity is often accompanied by heightened “energetic,” perceptual and intentional or volitional awareness and control. It does not seem to be the case that pushing or stretching tissues alone produces this “heightened”, “clarified” state. “Deep tissue” massage or massage in general produce obvious changes in consciousness related to relaxation and improved “flow” but I am suggesting that there are unique attributes to the “state” produced when human shape changes in the direction of greater order or organization of the constituent parts. Alignment with the gravitational field is one criterion for establishing a particular pattern of order and is at the heart of Dr. Rolf’s teaching.

This is a somewhat radical notion and deserves a closer look. What I believe is most relevant for our discussions is the notion, explicit in Dr. Rolf’s work, that patterns of order in the body may be constitutive of “states of consciousness”. My emphasis here is on the notion “patterns of order”. The innovative aspect of Dr. Rolf’s work was her emphasis on “order” or “pattern” as the fundamental notion. It is the way in which the parts are related that produces the desired effects. Different patterns of relationship produce different effects. This is a profoundly structural list view and may provide one useful attribute of physical systems which can be identified as constitutive of associated states of consciousness.

Proper relationship among the parts of the body entails a notion of wholeness. The experiences I mentioned earlier, arising out of the Rolfing experience, seem to be an emergent property of the presence of pattern adequate to imply a sense of the whole. It is my sense that the energetic, perceptual and intentional aspects of consciousness affected by the Rolfing experience emerge when there is adequate pattern present.

Thus, I am suggesting that two aspects of this experience may be useful in our discussions. First, that the pattern of order present in bodies may be a constituent of the associated states of consciousness. Second, that the aspects of consciousness affected by bodily states or present in bodily states emerge when adequate pattern is present to imply some sense of the whole. That is, that there must be sufficient relatedness, according to the principles of the model. I categorize these as structural considerations or the influence of “shape” on consciousness.

The early enthusiasm for the Rolfing “shape” led to excesses of effort which did not seem to yield the desired result. Some students identified with the “shape” and attempted to mimic or copy it onto their own bodies. The result, which is predictable, was rigidity and compulsion, which seem to be inimical to states of heightened awareness. Although physical shape seems an objective aspect of human life (which it is and from which its value for somatic practices derives), it matters very much how one gets there; which in fact, influences the qualities characterizing that shape.

“It is not what you do but how you do it” has been, for me, one of Dr. Rolf’s most provocative remarks and it raises the second issue I would like to discuss; namely, the way in which Somatic practices accomplish their ends. It seems that almost every Somatic system involves some notion of release from limitation or restriction or education of some dysfunctional aspect and that one of the great benefits of Somatic practices is the increased ability one gains to do these things for oneself. It is my sense that these “changes” induced in people by Somatic practices involve access to states of consciousness which are often quite out of the range of ordinary experience for most people and that the learning that goes on in Somatic practices often occurs in an altered state. At least, that these changes involve states of consciousness that are not commonly reinforced by contemporary culture. I believe that these states are immensely beneficial, that they are part of learning how to heal oneself, that they are related to ancient, primitive healing states that are our neglected birthright and that they offer a vast unused medical resource.

Our failure as early Rolfers was to think that our new shape could be put on like a new suit of clothes and that we could be sculpted into it by our Rolfer. In fact, we discovered that we were much more intimately involved in the process and that only by attending to our inner sensory experience could we learn to “be” in a new way. Understanding something about an optimal relationship with gravity was not enough. The practitioner could release restricted tissues but we had to allow it. We had to grow into our new shape and that involved paying attention to our inner sensory experience. All self-healing systems involve the development of an inner focused awareness. What seems to be unique to Somatic practices is their emphasis on the sensory aspects of inner experience, as opposed to the visual, symbolic or linguistic. And it is this inward focused development of sensory discrimination that I think makes possible access to unique states of consciousness in which self-healing is possible.

Once consciousness is directed inward and focused on sensation several things become apparent. First, that the experience of space in the body is not homogeneous and that attending with consciousness to the sensations of different aspects of the body creates distinct experiences. It is more than sensing the differences between one’s foot and ones face, although this is usually the starting place. What is most interesting here are the consequences for consciousness of being located in different places in the body. The act of locating consciousness in sensory experience and then noticing the consequences of spatial differences involves a radical change in most people’s normal conscious state. Once consciousness attends to inner sensation it becomes spatialized because inner sensations have by nature locations. It is the way we know ourselves in space. The inclusion of spatial attributes in descriptions of consciousness, although innate, involves a significant shift in the way most people normally know themselves. This knowledge has historically, been a part of esoteric and meditative practices which cultivate access to transformational states through attention to specific sites in inner sensation. For our discussions, an inward focus on sensation and the derivative spatial implications may be useful aspects of the bodily rooting of states of consciousness.

Another aspect of inner sensory experience that I believe is relevant to a discussion of the bodily roots of states of consciousness is the apparent “flow” of sensations that one encounters. Careful attention to this world of inner sensations will reveal that the body is in motion and that this motion seems to be autonomous and independent of conscious volition. When asked what he knew for certain, Einstein replied, “Something is moving” and this seems to be one accurate description of our inner sensory world. The small, autonomous motions and flows, the streaming and pulsation that characterize much of our inner sensation I term “motility” to distinguish these “inner” motions from the more well known, voluntary motions of the musculoskeletal system, which I term mobility. What is so important about this “inner” movement is that it is autonomous and the encounter with inner, autonomous movement is almost always transformative. Much of what I believe I accomplish with my clients ultimately comes from the introductions I make to this inner movement.

“The experience of inner motility can promote a dramatic reordering of one’s psychic world”

Once one is aware of the presence of inner, autonomous motion, a relationship between the center of control in consciousness (for discussion purposes, the ego), and the autonomous motion is inevitable. This creates the possibility of co-operation and it is the experience of opening to inner, autonomous motion and the resultant co-operation that occurs that I believe, makes accessible the most significant shifts in states of consciousness that arise from Somatic practices.

As Freud pointed out, the neurotic is over controlled. Lack of authenticity is a lack of contact with the autonomous forces in our lives. The experience of inner motility can promote a dramatic reordering of one’s psychic world. Relinquishing control, without relinquishing awareness, opening to this inner motility is accomplished by a change of state. It is a different state of consciousness, a different point of view. It seems to be the essence of opening or releasing and characterizes the way in which we move into new patterns of order. It is a skill that is essential to self-healing and it can be learned by paying attention to inner sensation.

If what we as Somatic practitioners term ?dysfunctional movement patterns? are characterized by over control and there exists the possibility of releasing this over control and allowing new, less controlled patterns to emerge, then I suspect, this change of mind, from extreme voluntary control to the emergence of a more “involuntary” driven movement pattern may be characterizable by changes in observable brain states, by a reduction in cortical override or inhibition and an increase in brain stem or instinctive patterns of organization. A sort of reclamation of instinctual wisdom. At least, there may be neurological indications of the change in state associated with what we know as release or letting go; the process of opening that allows for the uninhibited action of motility.

The Rolfing community has looked at one aspect of this process in a very limited way. Dr. Stephen Porges, a psychophysiologist and John Cottingham a Rolfer, physical therapist and graduate student in physiology have demonstrated that certain structural shifts in body organization and the release that accompanies them are associated with changes in activity of the vagus nerve, the principle outflow of the parasympathetic aspect of the autonomic nervous system. Preliminary studies indicate that this change correlates increased vagal tone with this release and subsequent gain in structural organization. In other words, that release and gains in organization are accompanied by a shift in balance in the autonomic nervous system away from sympathetic dominance, by a shift toward more vegetative functions and away from the fight or flight mechanisms. While these are very preliminary studies, I think they suggest that it may be possible to correlate the changes in state that occur in Somatic practices with changes occurring in neural organization.

I believe that the presence of autonomous motion or motility in the body (whether it is the pulsation of the craniosacral system, the flow of chi or the well known motility of peristalsis), indicates the action of an adaptive and organizing intelligence that is often out of reach when movement becomes over controlled or dominated by attitudes that inhibit motility and that access to this inner, sensory based intelligence results in states of consciousness sharing attributes with the states of awareness in primitive, shamanic healing systems. It is as if we have forgotten what we once knew and must now consciously and deliberately retrace our steps in order to reclaim what threatens to become lost. I do not advocate a romantic regression to some non-existent shamanic world but I do suggest that Somatic practices make available states of consciousness from which other ways of knowing ourselves and our world emerge and that these states are useful critiques of the culturally dominant states and that they are much needed for the adaptive demands of the present and future world.

I am reminded of one rendering of the hero’s task. Traditionally, the heroic task has been to establish some outpost of civilization and order amidst the rampant, vegetative power of nature. The hero’s task was to rise each morning and with his or her machete, beat back the incursion of the jungle that threatens to overgrow the village. Now, we know this has changed. The hero’s task is very different. It is now necessary to rise each morning and with watering can in hand, water and nourish the jungle because it is endangered. This change has occurred very recently, within our lifetimes and involves a radical reorientation of our attitude to nature and our value systems. I believe the emergence of a vigorous community of Somatic practitioners is but another way of watering the jungle.

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