Mind-Body and Beyond
Sep 10, 2013 01:02AM
Mind-body is now a common phrase—mind-body-spirit too—and these are welcome signs of changing attitudes and growing awareness. Not too long ago, people mostly viewed mind and body as separate. The credibility of doctors who spoke about psychosomatic or mind-body illness was denounced.
We may now be ready for the next step. However, to prepare, briefly consider four common conditions: arthritis, back pain, anxiety and depression. According to dualistic models that view mind and body as separate, arthritis and back pain are caused by something wrong with bones, joints, muscles or other tissues. The problem is in the body, so the treatments must be physical, such as surgery, exercise and manipulation—or drugs, to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
Regarding anxiety and depression, dualistic concepts describe these as mental or emotional conditions. They are, according to the cliché, “in your mind.” Treatments include goal-setting, affirmations, hypnosis and such, with talking as a common feature. Various psychiatric drugs target brain chemistry, but psychiatric drugs effectively reinforce dualism by ignoring the body below the neck.
Those of us who practice mind-body modalities can readily see the fallacies. For people experiencing arthritis or back pain, visualization, meditation, goal-setting and diverse treatments that start with talking can often provide relief. Methods for relieving anxiety or depression can include herbs, vitamins, dietary changes, massage and exercise. All of these are effective and scientific research is increasingly documenting the efficacy. These are exciting times for mind-body wellness.
The next step is to lead the scientists and the general public toward an understanding that mind and body are never separate. Every physical act involves the way we sense, feel and think. All mental activity occurs in living, breathing embodied beings. We are whole.
In my journey toward these insights, an important teacher was Buckminster Fuller. He is known as an architect, the creator of the geodesic dome, though he called himself a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” In other words, he devoted his life to seeing the whole system. Among the ideas he popularized is “synergy.” In the past decade or so, synergy has become a buzz-word in the business world. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s a simple definition of synergy, though Bucky was more precise and tended to be a bit verbose. His concept of synergy emphasized the fact that the behavior of the whole system is independent of, and cannot be predicted by, the behavior of the separately-observed parts. Thus, mind-body is greater than mind plus body. And the behaviors of mind-body cannot be predicted when looking at mind or body separately.
These ideas about synergy can help us see the limits of conventional dualistic therapies. We cannot understand the whole system by only studying the parts, and we cannot predict behaviors in terms of the parts. Therefore, in order to reliably alter, modify or enhance behaviors—which is a fundamental aspect of healing and wellness practices, including conventional medicine—we have to respect the whole person. Our holistic mind-body wellness practices may one day prove to be more scientific, and more effective, than current conventional medicine.
Synergy also plays a vital role in the ideas of my mentor, Moshe Feldenkrais. Even though the Feldenkrais Method is sometimes described as a subtle form of “bodywork,” Feldenkrais was emphatic about the unity and integrity of our experience. Feldenkrais was an engineer, judo master and neuroscientist, and his methods combine these disciplines with insights into the way very young children learn and move. In very young children, prior to acquiring language, mind and body are inseparable, clearly. One way to apply these insights is to avoid talking about “uniting” or “integrating” mind and body. Such phrases assume a split or separation, two distinct things that are somehow brought together. But there is no separation in the new paradigm I am proposing. Never—not while we are alive.
During mind-body wellness practices, many of us focus on breathing. That’s particularly true of yoga, Tai chi, qigong, Pilates and related exercises. It is true also true with common forms of meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction. Thus, a good way to enhance our skills as teachers and practitioners is to be more aware of how we breathe.
In my experience of teaching and talking with thousands of people about their breathing, I find that most of us focus on inhaling. We tend to overlook exhaling and the pauses in between. We also overlook the fact that breathing involves moving the ribs. Breathing uses many muscles in addition to the diaphragm—muscles throughout the trunk, front, sides and back. With awareness of breathing, we move beyond mind-body and begin to more fully appreciate mind-body-spirit. After all, a synonym for inhaling is inspiring. And the root of inspiring is spirit, which is Latin for breath or to breathe. The linguistic connection between breathing and spirit is also in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Chinese and other languages.
Beyond current mind-body wellness practice, and beyond conventional medicine and therapy, is a new paradigm of whole person healing, whole person wellness. One day, perhaps, these four-letter words, mind and body, may be anachronisms, reminders of a time before we learned to fully appreciate our wholeness.
Steven Shafarman is the creator of FlexAware®, a fitness and healing practice that teaches people to breathe freely and move easily. He’s also a leading Feldenkrais Method practitioner, and studied directly with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. Steven is the author of six books, including Awareness Heals. Currently residing in Washington, D.C., he teaches individuals and groups, and educates new FlexAware teachers. He lives in Washington, DC. For more information, visit FlexAware.com.