Somatic Movement is Woo. Meditation is Serious – What Warrants Scientific Study and Why?
Starting with “how experience feels”
One hope I have here is to foster understanding between scientists, the general public and practices which investigate how experience feels. But what does this mean, how experience feels?
Words such as somatic practice, embodied practice, awareness practice, conscious practice, mindful practice, phenomenological practice, etc, are all names used to describe – practices which investigate what one can sense, what being alive is like, what one can feel of their experience.
Being alive always feels like something. It is in this manner that I use the word feels. Alternately, one could use the terms sense or sensations. For example, what sensations do you notice as you breath? What can you sense of the air around you? Whether we are speaking of more mental aspects, emotions, or physical aspects, all of these experiences happen within the context of being alive, in a body. Being alive in a body involves moving tissue such as neurons firing, tear ducts opening, muscles contract, etc.
Common distinctions are made in everyday life and academic studies, labeling different types of experience thinking, emotional or physical. I certainly experience these things as different sorts of life activity. What I want to emphasis here is that they all still happen within the context of having a body and they all feel like something. Thinking in a frantic loop feels a particular way, quite different than how it feels to think in a flow state, or to be unable to think. Similarly, an emotional experience of sadness is particular and quite different than an experience of joy. Meanwhile, the experience of twisting an ankle is felt in a particular way.
No matter how experience is classified, each moment of life always feels like something. (Damasio, 1994i; Davidson and Sutton, 1997ii). Some of this on-going life activity can be easily felt, sensed. Some of the activity can be felt after many hours of practicing to feel more. Some of this on-going life activity might remain forever beyond one’s awareness.
An investigation of what you sense can be practiced with almost limitless variations. For example, one might be sensing inside their skin (sometimes called interoception); one may be exploring their experience with a laser sharp point of interest or with a wide, soft lens of awareness; one can sense into the world (such as noticing how a building smells or how the person near you is breathing, sometimes called exteroception); one might practice for one moment, one might practice for hours on end; one might practice in stillness (such as sitting), one might practice in movement (such as qi gong, dance, walking); one might explore when alone, one might explore with others; one might explore with great care, one might explore with a half-hearted interest; one might explore what sensations arise with a memory, what sensations arise in a visualization, one might explore the here-and-now; one might divide their attention, such as 50% inside of their own skin and 50% into sensing the person/environment around themselves. Any such exploration might be described as profound, distracted, one might feel virtually nothing. One might combine any variation of these aspects and more.
To be practicing it is not important how or what aspects that one explores of their experience, nor what is or is not found during practice. The important aspect is that one tries, one actively engages in noticing what it’s like to be alive. This active engagement of noticing is quite different than the more common auto-pilot/not-noticing way of living in the world. To do sensing is something different than ordinary life.
The more one practices, the more this way of being becomes habitual. Just as doing push ups bring forth bulging muscles after consistent practice, so to, sensing practice can bring forth bulging “noticing muscles”. Often (not always) people find that this expanded sensing brings forth a greater capacity to move more skillfully, to calm their nervous system, to shift their thought patterns.
Again, there are many names used to describe a variety of practices. In order to not prioritize one form of practice over another, in this writing I refer to all styles as sensing practice. (In my own work I most often use the word somatic – this is simply in relation to cultural context). Dr Tamara Russell notes, “…we know from the research that the embodiment of mindfulness in the[practitioner] is far more important than anything else they’re doing.…”.
Meditation and Other Sensing Practices
I consistently hear the viewpoint that sitting meditation is something more important than, for example, somatic dance. While the definition of what meditation varies, in general I find that the word meditation seems to be largely regarded as science-worthy, serious monk stuff.
In my experience, whether a practice has a famous name or not, does not matter. One can “do the moves” in any sitting or movement class and still not engage in sensing into their experience. Conversely, one can be living their daily life, perhaps shopping in a market, and be delicately engaged in sensing practice. Being/doing any bit of life while also actively noticing how it feels is a particular experience, significantly different than being/doing the same activity while not noticing how it feels. Of course, no matter the sensing activity in question, there is a great deal of difference between an experienced, dedicated practitioner and someone who has just begun practicing.
For scientists interested in studying meditation and mindfulness, my emphasis here is that every bit of life can be lived with awareness of how it feels, and that any activity lived in this way is as legitimate and potentially important to study as sitting meditation
In the words of martial artist Jackie Chan, “Kung Fu is in everything we do. It is in how we put on a jacket, how we take off the jacket, how we treat people. Everything is Kung Fu.” In the words of Buddhist monk Tich Naht Hahn, “washing the dishes … being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands … each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred … the everyday mind is called the Buddha’s mind. In the words of dancer and sensing expert Martin Kilvady, “… Through trial and error process one finds moves that are surprising in their function yet for an outside eye don’t reveal what is really going on… one can easily miss the point just looking at moves.”
Comparative Sensing Studies
In addition to any activity having the potential to be done mindfully, each sensing practice is subtly different from the next. Science studies comparing a variety of sensing practices are emerging, finding quantitative and qualitative differences between practices.
Every sensing practice is different, whether it be sitting or moving, set-form or improvisational. In my own practice I notice that I feel one way in sitting, Metta meditation, I feel another way if I am focusing on my breath, and yet another way if I practice having an empty mind. I feel my experience differently when comparing set-form, dynamic movement – such as Ba Gua, Kung Fu, Hatha yoga – or unnamed, set-form practices offered in a wide variety of theater and dance practice. I feel my experience differently between improvisation-form, dynamic movement – such as Contact Improvisation, 5 Rhythms, natural horsemanship, tantra practice, Gendlin’s Focusing, conscious breathwork, and, again, an endless variety of unnamed practices found in theater, dance, and throughout my everyday life.
My point here is that the breadth and depth of scientific studies dealing with mindfulness could be greatly expanded if scientists became more informed about a wide variety of sensing practices before developing their experiments.
Huge societal shifts are fostered by mindful, scientific research. Such as, being able to prescribe a specific style of sensing practice to fit a particular person during a doctor visit (similar to precision medicine); insurance companies may start to cover somatic therapists; public schools may change the style and environment of their teaching.
As journalist Dan Harris notes, “Science is the lingua franca of [western] culture”. Until more scientists take a variety of sensing practices seriously, there will be few serious studies to report about such practices. Until more, serious science reports emerge about a variety of sensing practices, science and culture at large, will continue to regard these practices as some fluffy stuff (F. Varela).
If you ask yourself, “is sitting practice more legitimate than, say, somatic dance?” what responses emerge? – erin christine bell 2019 ———
MORE on social cognition and sensation-based research: HERE.
iDamasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ Error and the Future of Human Life. Scientific American, 271(4), 144–144. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican1094-144
iiSutton, S. K., & Davidson, R. J. (1997). Prefrontal Brain Asymmetry: A Biological Substrate of the Behavioral Approach and Inhibition Systems. Psychological Science, 8(3), 204–210. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00413.x
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