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The Body of Humanity - An Individual Experience

by Mary Alice Roche

The theme of this section of Lifwynn Correspondence Vol. V is: "The Body of Humanity - Individual and Communal Dimensions." The idea that all humanity is one body, a community of distinct but non-separate individuals who must work together or fall apart, is not new. But we don't live as if we knew it. As a purely intellectual idea it has not impressed us deeply enough to change our lives - and thus the course of humanity. My hypothesis is, however, that this idea can become embodied, realized (made real) in our inner, bodily experience, and that the resulting change in the attitude and behavior of the individual experiencer(s) could change the world. This paper deals with a practice which makes possible such an experience, and a research program testing whether the understandings arising from this experience offer a possible cure for humanity's destructive tendencies toward conflict within and among individuals, groups, and nations.

This individual body (within which can be experienced the body of all humanity) is you and me - each of us having distinct characteristics of size, shape and coloration, but each of us having the same evolutionary history and biological equipment that identify us as "human." We are all conceived, born, and die according to this biological equipment, walk, talk, think and feel within its bounds.

Although we may each have a different personal history, different personal talent, and most certainly different ideas and opinions, we all feel hot and cold, rough and smooth, see light and dark, hear loud and soft, smell fragrance and stench, taste sweet and sour, feel the stretching of our muscles as we move, and their releasing as we come back to rest. These sensations are the common ground of human experience. In this sense, each one of us - each single body - represents the entire human species. So, the way in which this species behaves, thinks, and feels can be studied by giving attention to what is going on in you and me, not just what we think, but what we experience through all our senses, throughout our entire organism.
However, our noticing what is going on in either one of us soon reveals that any fruitful study of human behavior has to include both of us. It becomes obvious that, though I stand on my own two feet, and think with my own genetically formed and societally conditioned brain - as do you - neither one of us stands alone. My interaction with all the "yous," and yours with all the "mes," is always affecting us in whatever we are doing. In this respect, our lives consist of relationships which extend limitlessly, in all directions.

Trigant Burrow, M.D. Ph.D. (1875-1950), the first American psychoanalyst, came to an early recognition of the body of all of humanity as the interpenetrating relationship of individual bodies. He also saw how people suffer from a social neurosis in which we think we are isolated individuals, separate from each other, when, in actuality, each one of us belongs to a body of humanity which is neither individual nor communal, but both at once.

Through many years of research, first with his patients, and later with co-workers, Burrow came to believe that each of us is born with an intuitive sense of wholeness, but loses touch with it as the faculties of thought, verbal language, and self-consciousness become more and more important in our lives. So, under the pressure of separative familial and societal beliefs and customs, the sense of "myself" as being separate from "yourself" has come to outweigh the sense of "ourselves" as the whole, interdependent human-species-within-its-environment - with devastating results in every area of life.

An article in the New York Times Magazine (Nov. 29, 1998), told of the suicide of a brilliant chemistry student at Harvard. Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist on call to the university's chemistry department, was quoted as saying, "I think the kind of supports that used to be there for people aren't there any more, like family and extended family and community and religion, so you get more isolation ... and isolation is the big enemy." The article went on to give an idea of the enormous pressure - from mentor, institution, and society - brought to bear on graduate students to perform on their own, and to succeed spectacularly in an atmosphere of the most intense personal competition.

Isolation, and the neurotic attitude and behavior to which it can lead, has been recognized for a long time. For thousands of years religions have been telling us that All is One; that we are distinct but not separate, while modern physics tells us that everything is the same thing manifesting itself in various forms. But we don't hear this news, or it doesn't really touch us. We continue to be subject to anger, hate, and aggression leading to murder, war, and genocide. Ideas of wholeness, oneness, when only talked and written about, do not seem to bring about any great change.

In his research, Burrow discovered something that resulted in a different kind of attitude and behavior, "a more internally poised and self-possessed basis of adaptation than we usually observe in the behavior reactions of either the normal or the psychoneurotic personality." This basis of adaptation occurred when there was a physiological continuity of what he called the "preconscious foundations of human behavior."

In his foreword to the book of this title, Nathan Ackerman writes of the core of Burrow's theory: "Fundamental to human nature is the principle of the biosocial union of mother and infant, or individual and group . . . a basic oneness and unity. It is the 'I and thou,' the 'thee and me.' Basic to all else in the development of mind is a current of physiological continuity of child and mother, person and world."

Ackerman continues: "The failure to maintain [this physiological continuity] results in . . . a kind of sick individuation which fortifies the divisive, separative, oppositional trends . . . It foredooms the individual to aloneness. It cripples vitality and the creative unfolding of the person in society. . . Cooperation and joining in human relations rest on a more fundamental principle than do competitiveness, separateness, and destructive exploitation."

As Burrow, himself, reports: ". . .many subjective experiences occurring in the individual's later development indicate their close relationship to the primary preconscious phase of the organism. These experiences or modes of behavior contain no element of the competitive and the contentious, no driving urge to get for oneself; they are not characterized by satisfaction, either in domination and aggression or in abject subordination and sentimental dependence. In the fleeting intimations of this later behavior, in which there is carried over into adult life the organism's primary mode of indentification and unity, there is no opposite, no like and dislike, no "me" versus "you," no "right" and no "wrong." On the contrary, the sensations and reactions belonging to this mode intimate a subjectively quieter, more collected mood."
The significance of the oneness of the unborn and newly born infant with the mother is well-known. However, after all these years, the recognition that the sense of oneness is not just ideological but physiological - and that its continuity into adulthood must also be physiological - is still new. Perhaps it is just generally unacceptable - because this "physiological continuity," which we name and think about with words, refers to a non-verbal, bodily experience, which is just what our preoccupation with symbols and language keeps us from experiencing.

However, if I, as an infant, did not have this basic sense of unity which brings about poise and self-possession, or if I had it but life in this cut-throat world has conditioned it out of me and I want to re-establish it, just reading about it doesn't seem to make it happen Nor does just thinking of my body as representative of the biologically human body necessarily change my feeling of isolation to a feeling of unity - unless the thought is part of a bodily experience which changes me through and through.

Such a change - a change from the feelings of isolation and competitiveness, and their concomitant physical tensions and strain, to a state of being which is more functionally appropriate to the performance of any task, to relating, to all of living - can come about through awareness of bodily sensations Such awareness and the changes it can bring about were a part of Burrow's research into human behavior which he called group analysis, or social self-inquiry (SSI).

He called this work "group analysis" because the group did not come together as a therapy for the individuals involved - with a trained analyst "in charge" - but as an analysis of group interactions - of human relationship. This inquiry was carried out by the group as a whole, a group of peers, and was directed to the attitude and behavior of each individual in regard to how it affected the mood of the group, and how the mood of the group affected the individuals.

In an SSI group, each participant notes in herself or himself any feelings of competitiveness, or any of the other human emotions such as joy, despair, desire, fear, love, or hate. In doing this, he or she is identified, to one degree or another, with all other humans who are each one subject to the arousal of these powerful emotions. For instance, take the competitiveness of classmates, university and society which overwhelmed that chemistry student at Harvard. If I allow myself to do so, I can recognize in myself the urge to compete - maybe something as seemingly insignificant as wanting my apple pie to be better than Mrs. So-and-So's - but I can still taste in me the attitude and behavior of the society which isolated that student and pushed him to suicide. I recognize that I am that competitive society. But if that recognition is only in my head, it does not bring about any lasting change in my attitude. That happens only if the recognition, the identification, becomes "heart-felt," if I feel it "in my gut."

I need to sense the physiological manifestations of my emotions. It is in sensing the patterns of tensions and releasings throughout my total organism that I know what I am. I may recognize the expansiveness, the fullness of breathing which comes with joy or compassion. Or I may recognize the contraction in my belly as I begin to disagree with something that is being said, the thrust forward of my chin when I'm sure I'm right - and you're wrong, the tensing in my shoulders as I wait with impatience for a pause in the discussion when I can state my opinion.

In these strained postures, I recognize the mental attitude, the affect in which I feel the need to defend or enhance what Burrow called the "'I'-persona." The "I"-persona is the idea, the symbol, the abstract image of myself which has been constructed over the years by family, teachers, friends, society - with my own cooperation, of course. It is the extraordinary power of this imaginary "me" which keeps me feeling isolated, which separates that me from others. Even more importantly, it also separates me from myself - from my essential Self, that consciousness which lives the body of humanity in each individual body.

So, what can liberate me from my subservience to the influence of the insidious "I"-persona? First there is the recognition of the affect it has brought about. Then there is quiet attention to the sensations of physical tension which cause/are caused by the emotions - in all the areas where the affect is felt in my body. Such awareness is not just a cerebral activity, but an activity of the entire, living organism, sensing itself. In it a "miracle" may occur: the physical tensions may release (maybe only a little at first, but more and more as attention remains quiet and steady.) And even more miraculous: as the physical tensions release, so does the emotional affect, which is replaced by a less self-concerned attitude. Experience expands to include more of the ever-present but heretofore unnoticed relationships. I can sense the basic connections and support below the superficial exchanges among my colleagues.
I can also sense the support of the floor under my feet, the chair under my bottom, and the breath coming and going through my whole body. Feeling the breath coming and going, air-without-boundaries coming in and going out, I am experiencing that which supports all humanity. And, in experiencing how my weight contacts and is supported by the chair or floor beneath me, I am experiencing the pull of gravity throughout the organism: this glue which holds the universe together, this force of nature with which everyone of us is in interplay at every moment of our lives. I am experiencing, with all the yous, the most fundamental activities of life.

This awareness helps me to feel, see, and hear without interference from the fears and desires of the "I"-persona. When that happens, the sense of isolation fades: There is a return to "the organism's primary mode of identification and oneness." At such a moment I can be open and interested in things as they are, hear what is being said, and see how the faces and the bodies of the people in the group are responding - and trust myself to give a whole-hearted response to the situation, no matter what it may be.

In the above description of what happens in an SSI meeting, I am, of course, speaking of my own, individual experience, the only kind of which I can speak with authority. Experiencing is part of everything, including thought and words. Fundamentally, however, experiencing is non-dualistic, non-verbal. So why do I try to speak of it with words, which are essentially dualistic and therefore can never communicate my actual experience to another? If it had such meaning in my life that I want to tell you about it, I have nothing else to use, and must attempt the impossible. Which, in itself, is another way I can identify with the rest of humankind: We're all doing just that much of the time - attempting to do that which is necessary though impossible.

But only when I am aware of it does my experience have meaning. Such awareness begins for me in sensing the tensional patterns in various parts of my body as I am engaged in any action, even the smallest, such as opening or closing my eyes. Gradually I become aware of the interaction of the distinct parts - until, with longer practice, and longer periods of attention, there is an awareness of the organism as a whole. This includes its connectedness among inner parts and its connectedness with its outer fellow members of the organism called humanity - as well as those of the earth organism, and so on. According to my thesis, it is this individual experience which can effect changes not just in me, but in the society with which I am in constant interaction, which I affect just by my way of being. Let me illustrate.
I remember the first time I identified intense (and highly emotional) hurt and anger as physiological activity in my body. I became aware of the uprush of blood to my head; held breathing and a constriction in my chest; a tension to the point of rigidity all through me, particularly in my outthrust jaw, and my clenched fingers. It was a real shock to recognize what my anger was doing to my body, to all of me, and to the people around me. Then it was a great surprise to recognize that, once I had seen the connection, I could experience the anger as physical activity, and observe it with interest. There was a kind of detached participation that deprived the emotion of fuel and allowed both the physical tensions and the mental distress to subside, leaving a strangely blissful sense of release and peace.

In this state of impersonal interest, the cause of the anger and hurt could be addressed and a question asked, one which is most pertinent to SSI: "Is this hurt only to the small self of my personal desires and fears?" When I found it was, the anger/energy could be used in cleaning the house. If the anger had been found to be against something actually injurious to the big Self of all humanity, the anger/energy could have be used in a direct attempt to repair the injury. In either case, a resolution arose through attention to sensations.

It is an exhilarating recognition: that my body can attend to itself, can feel what is functionally inappropriate, and change. There is a certain sense of power, even though it is not a personal power - except in my decision to let it happen and not to allow the "I"-persona's fears and desires to block attention and response. But it is also an uncomfortable, humbling, and even scary recognition. It indicates that placing blame on an outer object is a poor way for me to deal with destructive emotions. Instead, it places responsibility for a return to sanity on me, on my subjective, organismic awareness - awareness of "myself" in hitherto unexplored aspects and dimensions. However, with practice, the fear can dissipate and be replaced with trust, not in myself, personally, but in the innate wisdom of the human organism.

Quiet attention to the sensations of bodily tension is very important in SSI: It is crucial in experiencing not only the manifestations of the "I"-persona, but also the physiological continuity which relieves the sense of isolation. For Burrow, attention was the basic mode in which the human being relates to the whole environment. He felt that the type of attention with which we live our lives governs the way we are with ourselves and others. One type he named "ditention." In ditention direct attention is fragmented by constant, "I"-persona thoughts about the past and future. The other type, which he called "cotention," is direct attention to things as they are at this moment - without interference from the "I"-persona. That is not easy even after a great deal of practice.

My ability to participate in SSI is aided by many years of work in Sensory Awareness. Both SSI and Sensory Awareness are practice as well as research. In either inquiry the inclusiveness and depth of the findings depends upon the depth and inclusiveness of the practice - practice meaning the process of doing something rather than theorizing or speculating. In this instance, the process demands a kind of attention which is unfamiliar, and a non-ego-oriented honesty that is very difficult - though it can also be extraordinarily satisfying on many levels.

The practice of Sensory Awareness is direct, unmediated, non-verbal attention to sensations which inform me of my way of being. It is non-exclusive: It shuts out from awareness no feeling, no thought. It makes no moral judgement such as: "This is good; this is bad." The intent is simply to be aware of "things as it is," to use Zen master Shunryu Suzuki's creative grammar, which contains both the distinctiveness of individual things, and the oneness of all. In these classes I can discover how simple, "bare" attention can bring about changes in "unskillful" posture and movement, but also in attitude and behavior, leading to a more functionally appropriate behavior in everyday life.

Giving this kind of attention to bodily sensations, just to find out what they have to tell us about ourselves, our organism - its misuse, needs, joys, and powers - is more than unfamiliar in a society where intellect rules and the body is something that is dressed and perfumed, made love to, beaten up, dosed, operated on, exercised, reduced, built up and soothed down - usually to fulfill a socially imposed image. We're always doing something to the body, but seldom listen to the fundamental wisdom it is offering all the time. Very rare is respectful attention to one's body as an always present intelligent, regenerative organism whose messages are "sensible" and can come into awareness at any moment - if they are allowed to do so.

SSI meetings ask that the type of attention and understanding learned in Sensory Awareness be tested in the world of verbal exchange, intellectual ideas, and "I"-persona-inspired opinions and beliefs in my "rightness." The practice of SSI includes attention to sensations, but the emphasis is on them as physiological manifestations of my thoughts and emotions. I note whether these thoughts/emotions/sensations are an unprejudiced response to the situation of the moment, the task at hand, or whether they are dictated by the fears and desires of my "I"-persona. If it is found to be the latter, quiet attention to the physiological tensions can allow them to subside - along with the dangerously constricting thoughts and emotions.
It is difficult, this demand for honesty, for accepting what we discover, for recognizing what our postures, movements, way of speaking are saying about how we are - who we are, as individuals and as a group - as society, as humankind. But in simply staying with that recognition, something changes, something opens; fresh air comes in, and there is an expansion of body/mind/spirit. There is space where there was constriction.

For me, experiencing "the body of humanity" demands space, an inner space big enough to receive impressions of outer space. I find that inner space expands in taking in an ever-expanding perception of outer space and all it contains. At some point, the two together simply become spaciousness, openness, the ground of being in which we are all at home together. Your body may be outside of mine as mine is outside of yours, but my sense of you (and all others) is inside me, as your sense of me (and all others) is inside you - so that when we truly see each other, sense each other, the perception is inside each of us. This inner is where we are one. And, unlike the infant, we adults can become aware of it.

Since the actual moment/event of awareness is non-verbal, the experiencer can only say what it "feels like." One friend says it feels as if her body had gone into everything around her, while I would say that it feels as if my body has lost its boundaries and contains everything, including myself. In either case there seems to be a sense of expansion and limitlessness within an individual self which suddenly finds itself containing - and being contained by - an all inclusive Self.

This awareness is so far from the ordinary way of being in our divisive, oppositional, anxiety-ridden society, that it might be considered a mystical experience, which the American Dictionary calls "an immediate intuition of a truth believed to transcend ordinary understanding." Certainly, the understanding of my body as containing and being contained by the body of humanity could be thought to fit that description. But these "intuitions" don't necessarily happen in a "mystical" or mysterious way. They can be quite "ordinary:" sensible, logical - physiological.

Take the case of outer space becoming one with inner space. Outer can come into inner if there is room for it. This is not just an idea; it is a fact you can try out for yourself. Just notice your breathing (which is always there to notice as long as you're alive.) In inhalation, air comes in and expands the entire organism - as far as our outer and inner boundaries allow. Unlike a balloon, we don't burst when the air-pressure reaches our boundary-of-the-moment; the organism just expels the air. Then there is room for fresh air to come in again - to the degree that the exhalation has expelled the stale air. If the stale, toxic air does not go out, there is not much room for fresh air to enter. The more thorough the exhalation, the more room for a fresh inhalation. And (still different from a balloon) human "boundaries" can change: our narrow chest can expand, and so can every constricted bit of us - if we notice the constrictions and let attention to breathing release them. Eventually there could be an inner space big enough to take in the air needed to sing the most demanding operatic aria without breaking the musical line.

The same process happens in the psychological realm. The world around us can come in - through our eyes, ears, taste, touch, smell - but only if there is an inner space to receive and accommodate these sensory impressions of phenomena. The consuming and fearful thoughts of an organism that suffers from depression or paranoia can block the entrance and awareness of sensations coming from the environing world, thus adding to the sense of isolation and lack of support.

However, as in breathing, where the intake of air expands me physiologically, the intake of sensory impressions can expand me psychologically, bringing about a new perspective. And the impressions my organism finds toxic can be released more and more easily - "exhaling" them both psychologically and physiologically. For instance, my eye-doctor is a behavioral optometrist: He works on the principle that as you see, so you are; as you are, so you see. Body/mind and eyes are not separate, to be treated by two separate practices. Children and adults can do better in their lives - in school, on the job, in relationship - when they learn to see differently the world-and-themselves-in-it. They don't just see things in better focus, they experience themselves in an expanded world in which they find a new sense of connection, greater depth and meaning in their lives.

One woman who was depressed and introverted, usually had her eyes directed downward, right in front of her, toward her feet. Along with eye-exercises, Dr. K. gave her special glasses through which her eyes were directed upward. Later there were glasses and exercises which encouraged use of the peripheral vision. She began to see the world around her, to find she was not alone in it, and could interact in it with greater interest and confidence.

When I was in my seventies, I felt my life was drawing to a close. One symptom was loss of acuity in my eyesight. Along with eye-exercises, Dr. K. had me work with biofeedback, wherein a sound accelerated or decreased as the symbol in front of my eyes came more or less into focus. I discovered that by "relaxing" (giving up thinking, feeling my breathing coming and going, letting the chair support my weight, and allowing the muscles of my eyes to do what they wanted to do in order to see more clearly) my vision improved. And then the sound accelerated. It was very stimulating to be the witness of the behavior of my organism when thoughts of performance, of doing it right, did not get in the way.

Walking down the street afterward, the whole world looked different. I could let it come into focus - allow the seeing to happen. There was lightness in my step, and I felt I was actually in control of my own life! But I knew that it was not just the "thinking I" that was in control. It was the "whole-organism I" that was simply being allowed to take charge of its own natural functioning. I was regaining connection to and trust in what is basic to all humans: the life process of the human organism.

It is wonderful to realize that my eyes can focus on something specific, that I can come to know it in great detail. And, when my eyes let go of concentration which is full of strain and effort - just letting in whatever is there, letting it in and experiencing what it feels like - any object, a dewdrop or an ocean, can be a particular opening to non-particularity, to vastness.
In many forms of meditation (and the martial arts which have grown out of them) there is something called "soft eyes," where the eyes do not focus sharply on a particular object, but take in the surroundings as a whole. Soft eyes is not a condition of the eyes alone, it is a condition of the whole being - a condition of relaxed readiness. In this readiness there is no specific anticipation, simply vitality at rest, open to whatever situation arises and ready to respond spontaneously out of the innate, non-fragmented wisdom of the organism. The eyes are not closed in complete rejection of visual perception of the outer world; instead, awareness of the inner world includes a non-grasping vision of the outer. The experience of one does not exclude the experience of the other but leads to the infinite space where they are not-two.

There are other ways to reach this space. When I broke my shoulder my pain was so intense that, at first, I could only try to endure it - mainly by holding my breath. Afterward, when I began to breathe again, the thought suddenly came, "This isn't just my pain, it is pain which has been and is being experienced by all beings." And the quality of the pain changed. Of course, the idea of pain as common to all humanity was essential to the transformation, but the alteration of condition was in the whole body, not just in my thinking. The pain was experiential, and it was in the experience that the idea was realized, when the pain was no longer a personal focal-point, but part of a limitless landscape of being.

Commonality can be experienced in other sensations and emotions besides pain. And there are also communal activities when we build together, sing together, dance together, laugh together. We can really feel the joy and goodwill of those with whom we are singing or dancing. That is the bright side. The dark side is when we hate together, destroy together, and kill together. It seems that the darker tendencies arise when communal feeling comes from membership in a kind of "group 'I'-persona," in which individuals who feel isolated, alienated, join with others of like mind in aligning themselves against other groups with a differing idea of right and wrong, good and bad.

But we don't have to be part of a group to have the experience of community. I can be alone on a mountain top, or in a closet, and still experience being breathed by that which breathes all humanity - if I give it my attention, if I am aware of it. In the end it is this attention, this awareness of what is happening at this moment in me, in my body, which quiets my mind and brings liberation from the prison of the "I"-persona and conditioned alienation. There is the realization that I am not alone, I am not isolated: I am humanity - in all of its aspects: joyful and painful, hateful and compassionate, distinct and not-separate.

Living all the time in this extraordinary state of attention is not possible for me, but even as a sometimes-experience it changes the way I am in my ordinary life: the tying of shoelaces, the cooking of oatmeal, the saying, "Good morning," to the bus driver. And, beneath every movement, every thought, every moment of relating is the awareness of that which exists at the heart of all being - that which exists in me and in you, and where we are truly one.

In this awareness, cognition and sensation merge into a consciousness without a name. My entrance into it is through conscious attention to sensations: feeling the big breath when I hear a certain phrase in a Mozart sonata; the startled tensing at the blare of the fire siren; the long, slow stretching of every bit of me as I awake in the morning; the pinching of my heart when I see a picture of my grandson holding his first child in his arms; the sudden stillness at the unexpected meeting of eyes with an unknown woman in the subway. These are moments when time stops and "I" disappear. At these moments this living, mortal, individual body is the body of humanity.

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