"The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it in not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine."
-Henri Poincaré, Mathematician/Founder of Process Philosophy
To me, bipedalism is a kind of take-no-prisoners adaptive advantage. Whatever the reasons for its evolution, the structural results of a large, upright body perched on two narrow feet has made quick demands on our bodies that we are still paying the price for.
Perhaps that’s why most of us love to lie down (and why I am writing this in bed.)
When we lie down, anti-gravity muscles (like the large extensor in the back) can finally relax, and all the habits triggered standing and walking and sitting, by “fighting gravity” and coping in the world, can recede.
Often, though, this “receding” doesn’t quite happen as we might expect it to.
If you were to close your eyes and feel how your sitting bones were making contact with whatever surface you are on, you would most likely feel that one is heavier than the other, that one sitting bone feels flatter and is making more contact than the other. In fact, one entire leg might feel heavier against the chair. You might start to wonder how you could have overlooked such a thing before and may feel the urge to quickly open your eyes to check out this gigantic discrepancy. When you do, you will be relieved to see that your legs still look very much the same size.
If you were to lie down on a neutral, flat surface, on your back, the differences between the right and left sides of your body might feel more pronounced. The whole right side of your back, for example, might at first feel much flatter than the left, like it’s making more contact with the floor. And if you move down to your legs, and sensed the length of each, from buttock to heel, your left leg could feel much longer than the right. This doesn’t mean that your left leg is structurally longer (though mine is by a centimeter or two). What we do to cope with gravity, and with life, in the day to day, accumulates into patterns of holding and resistance that actually affect the picture— the internal map— we have of ourselves.
Why don’t these habits and resistances simply “melt away” immediately when we are lying down and we don’t need them anymore? Some of them do, but many of these patterns developed for reasons, through past experiences associated with survival and hyper-vigilance, and have become tenaciously “second-nature” to us. How second-nature grows clear only when we take the time to notice.
The experience of hemispheric differences can feel strange at first— but all of us have differences between our right and left sides, and these shift and change through a day or week or lifetime. And it doesn't really matter— these differences aren’t there for us to “fix” and adjust and try to even out. These differences are opportunities for us to step out of our own way, and let "the smarter part of ourselves" step in and take over.
How? By lying down and doing (almost) nothing.
Sharing Our Most Intimate Subjectivities with Our Own Nervous Systems
Body mapping is forming an internal picture of your body, as a whole, and in parts, and as a whole again. When you lie on the floor, and close your eyes, the floor becomes a mirror and shows you what parts of your body are making contact with the floor and what parts aren’t, what parts feel heavier and what parts feel lighter. Your brain loves to look for differences, to differentiate, in the external world and in the internal, and to use this information for a supple and spontaneous relationship with your surroundings— to have choices and to optimize. And luckily, the two hemispheres of our bodies make for a great template for this unending process. Hemispheric difference in our bodies is then an opportunity for the nervous system to sharpen and refine what it already loves to do. By just noticing, in precise detail, a kind of secret dialogue can start between you and your nervous system:
How many edges of the right shoulder blade’s triangle can you detect on the floor? Ahhh… all three, yes. In fact, my right shoulder blade feels like a thick ink blot on the floor. And what about the left shoulder blade? Just one edge. The inside edge close to my spine, like a pencil line, but there. Oh, maybe there’s a second edge on the outside…
Often this is enough. By the end of this process, which asks for awareness and accuracy but never interference, the internal landscape of our bodies become much more visible to us. We have a clearer sense of ourselves.
Though the skills that we’re building are never about using our will, in thought or movement, to release or “let go,” something a little weird does start to happen. At the end of the body mapping, when we return to places we scanned before, we might notice that differences have actually decreased: the right and left sides of the back, for example, are now making a more even contact with the floor. I find that body mapping is different than yoga’s Sivasana (my favorite pose when I did yoga.) Rather than resting at the end of a lesson and giving ourselves time to integrate all the work we did in some general experience of relaxation or “letting go,” body mapping is about engaging deeply, curiously, effortlessly with what is, our subjective selves, our deeper intricacies, and letting that be enough. Refined, differentiated awareness combined with not trying to do anything gives the nervous system a chance to step in and do its thing, and that thing will always be a little mysterious.
The Smarter Part of Ourselves
And this is where almost every Sense Writing sequence starts, whether in class or one-on-one. On the floor. It’s a way of experiencing a part of ourselves that is, in ways, “smarter than ourselves.” Williams James called this smarter part of ourselves "fringe consciousness" and the mathematician Henri Poincare referred to it as "the subliminal self." The Sense Writing sequences-- in thought, sensation, emotion and movement— are rigorous yet tender duets with this part of ourselves. And like all good dance partners, we learn that, indeed, it has tact, delicacy, and knows how to choose.