Listening to the Sounds of Sensation

We live in a demanding time and culture.  I don’t mean demanding as in “difficult for us”, although that is quite true as well, but rather I mean to say that we are constantly demanding that things be a certain way. Another way to put this is that we like to impose our ideas upon basically every aspect of the world. I could very easily launch into commentary and analysis of our culture here but that has been done to death already and I’m much more interested in a more immediate, intimate piece of the world that we can actually affect the relationship of in a serious way: our bodies.

I speak here both from my own experience with my body and from observing how I see the vast majority of others relate to their bodies. I spent a great deal of my own practice history making quite significant demands of my body and imposing particular ideas of how my mind wanted my body to be (as well as doing the same thing to my mind, but that is a whole other story!).  For a long time I was almost constantly insisting that it be a particular way – stronger, more flexible, more supple, more coordinated, less painful, and so on. The list of demands were quite endless and as soon as something was achieved, several more things would be added to the list. This is quite a typical relationship those in the realms of performance and well-being have with their body from what I have observed.

On the other side of this spectrum are those who appear to simply want their body to be quiet already and leave them in peace. It is a situation not unlike someone getting a pet dog, completely ignoring it, and then wondering why it spends the majority of its time howling, whining or barking. Attempts to pacify the cries may lead to a short period of silence but will ultimately lead to more and more outbursts. The only difference here is we didn’t have a choice about getting a body.

Whether we like it or not we are all in a relationship with our bodies and our minds. We can allow the strange ideas of our mind to whip the body into whichever shape or state is currently ‘most-desirable’, and turn the body into an excellent servant that will obey our every command. But the mind’s attention span is short and it is never satisfied for long, so this approach ultimately leaves one in a permanent state of chasing phantoms. From a performance perspective this quite clearly can and does work, as a cursory glance at those around us will show. One may even say it’s necessary if you want to be competitive. But I am not interested in relationships of slavery, even if it means the world’s best performance.

Instead I opted to learn the language of the body: sensation. Like learning any language, it was (and still is) quite a mammoth task – think months and years rather than days and weeks. Sensations are not quite as clear cut as words are in their meaning and the body is not really governed by the logic, reason and rationale that the mind operates under. In the beginning there wasn’t much to work with. There seemed to only be 2 sensations: the normal, neutral body (good!) or intense sensation that was generally labelled ‘pain’ (bad!).

Practice began to reveal something wonderful, however.  An entire spectrum of sensations are becoming ever-more apparent, ranging from the most subtle to the most super intense. And very slowly it became clear that just because a sensation was extremely subtle did not necessarily mean it was a good sensation, and just because a sensation was extraordinarily intense did not mean it was bad. On the contrary, some of the most severe warnings came through in a very subtle way and some of the loudest most intense sensations amounted to something like the body shouting for joy and wanting to keep going. Very few of the multitude of sensations actually implied immediate danger.

With practice I am becoming more and more proficient in understanding the sensations of my body and what they mean. But the mind is very tricksy, as gollum would say. In a subtle subterfuge, it began using this new capacity to speak the bodies language to order the body about in a more efficient way and continue imposing its will. Learning the language of the body was only half of the puzzle it would seem.

The other half, and perhaps the more important half, was learning how to listen. A body, especially a neglected body, has a whole host of its own requests and needs. Needs that are often vastly different to those imagined by the mind. Listening does not mean the mind is waiting for its turn to impose nor does it necessarily mean offering up solutions to whatever is ‘said’. Sometimes, often, the body just needs to have the sensations be allowed into full awareness. Awareness through and through, without the mind trying to solve them like some kind of puzzle – not unlike how a good counsellor genuinely listens to their patient’s recount of tragedy and suffering. You may be surprised what lies at the eye of the storm when the body is giving all kinds of intense and painful sensations, if only you would pay close attention to it instead of scrambling for any way to make it stop.

This is skillful ground to navigate and the mind will often find ways to lay an agenda subtly underneath whatever is going on. “If I just listen long enough, this sensation of pain might go away” or “if I get good enough at listening than I can finally perform that skill that I always wanted”. The reality is that listening often means sacrifice and not getting what the mind wanted.  Maybe the body doesn’t actually want to have anything to do with whatever particular performance the mind is interested in, and maybe it never will want anything to do with that. Perhaps that pain is there simply as a request to be heard and has nothing to do with any kind of physical damage.

Most of the exercises I make use of in my teachings are essentially ways of giving certain, often long-forgotten areas of the body a stage and a loudspeaker. This offers two opportunities. One is to learn what all the vast array of sensations that may come forth mean and the other is an opportunity to simply listen. One of the most common questions I get asked is how long should a certain exercise be done for and I can feel the person just waiting for some more ammunition of imposition; another shiny new way of telling the body how to go about bodying. The actual answer is “as long as the body wants to do it for” – anything else would be to go against the point entirely. And if you really pay attention and listen, the body will very obviously tell you when it’s done with a particular practice. Of course in the beginning we do not understand the language of the body so we throw an arbitrary number at the mind to keep it satiated while the body gets its chance to be front and centre for once.

It is amusing to watch mind struggle with the intense sensations that the body is actually revelling in. There’s no need to find this in other people either, watching your own mind is plenty enough entertainment for a lifetime. Go to the proper depth in a stretch and the mind almost immediately pipes up: “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, NOPE. WE ARE CERTAINLY GOING TO DIE IF WE STAY HERE FOR ONE SECOND LONGER”.  But tune into the bodily sensations and it becomes apparent that a great shift and unravelling is occuring which the body is very much liking despite its intensity. Also you don’t die, so there’s that little hiccup in the story of the mind. It is similar with Jibengong; an intensity arrives almost immediately in many exercises that the mind wants nothing to do with but the body is quite enjoying and very capable of proceeding for a long time before it will stop. The gap between the mind giving up and the body wanting to stop is more like a ginormous chasm.

On the flip side you have the situation of many exercises (probably most of the exercises I teach, to be honest) being really boring for the mind. But the body is interested and wanting to pursue them in depth. Boredom itself is only ever a state of mind, it is not something the body knows in any way.

You’ve probably heard both Dave and I say this with a lot of our respective work: it’s not really about what you are doing but rather how. We have regularly used the term ‘Repatterning to describe the difference between our approaches and regular physical practices. I might be so brave to suggest that at the core of these differences is the act of imposing upon the body in regular physical training versus that of listening to the body in Physical Repatterning Work. You could very easily adopt an attitude of listening amidst strength training, gymnastics, parkour or anything else.  And you could just as easily do Jibengong or partner stretching with an attitude of imposition and go for years without understanding this point at all.

It’s not that we never want to impose upon the body ever again, but rather we are aiming to repair the harmony of the relationship between the mind and the body.  The body actually starts to become happy when this relationship becomes more of a two way street, and will also be more inclined to help out the mind when it is in need too. This happiness presents itself as a wonderful song of sensations that will sing you through the day if you so let it – and warn you of possible problems approaching well in advance of their actualization, if you are indeed listening.

The body will also begin to exhibit an intelligence that is completely beyond the understanding of the reasonable and rational mind. Why and how are really not in the repertoire of the body and many things can be done without reason or rationality, simply because that’s the way they should be done. This physical intuition can appear on many levels. In my experience I am often struck with an impression that the body wants to do things in a particular way. It is an urge that appears without thought or an idea behind it. If someone were to ask me why I did that particular thing, the only honest answer I could give is “I don’t know”, or at a stretch “my body wanted to” (although this essentially amounts to the mind trying to act like it has any idea about what went on). Of course in retrospect it becomes clear that these bodily actions have a tangible and sometimes extraordinary effect that would have not been possible with the mind taking the lead.

What happens with time and experience is that the body shifts from being a slave to being an extraordinarily reliable friend, one with which you share a most intimate trust. This trust goes both ways and the body also begins to trust the wild and wacky ideas of the mind which, as you can imagine, starts to make life a whole lot more colourful.

It’s not terribly complex to begin to practice with this approach if it’s something that takes your fancy. Of course it’s generally a better idea to engage in it using a system that is specifically oriented for such things (I take online students and have video tutorials by the way ;)). But for the most part all it needs is a willingness to actually go into your practice honestly. Drop every idea you have about how you think it’s meant to be, or what other people think of what you’re doing and you’ll be doing just fine – listening to ideas means you are not listening to the body. Oh, and relax about it all.  There’s no sense in forcing a relationship to be immediately fruitful. Forcing it works in this situation about as well as forcing relationships with other people does (i.e. it doesn’t work at all). Take your time, slow down, and enjoy the process of rediscovering a long forgotten friend!