Awareness is about focusing our attention — specifically, it is about focusing in the moment. Awareness is a commitment to being present both to our external and internal environment, to our bodies and to our lives. We are used to defining ourselves through our senses, by what and who we pay attention to and with what we come in contact. But if we expand this field of perception to truly notice all that arises within and around us, we could also expand and enrich our experience of the world, of how we move through and are moved by life, and of how we are touched and touch others.
It was Aristotle who first defined our five senses. Each gives us information about our environment and our bodies, yet it is only touch that involves the entire body and our largest organ, the skin. All other sensory organs (eyes, ears, mouth, nose) are in the head, yet the information they provide is directly related to touch. These other four senses are actually sensitizations of neural cells to certain kinds of touch: compressions of air upon the ear drum, chemicals on the nasal membrane and taste buds, and photons on the retina.
These places where the external world meets the internal one are
sensory-dependent and have been since before birth. Just six weeks following conception, our sense of touch is already developed, and other senses will quickly follow. At birth and throughout our lives, our senses become essential to our survival, our well-being, and our sense of self.
“Sensory feelings, emotional feelings, and muscular responses are never more solidly fused together than during birth, and from the intensity of this fusion come some of the most long-lasting and generally influential behavior patterns that we will ever develop,” writes Deane Juhan in his book Job’s Body.
Sensations, in effect, define not only where we are in the world, but who we are in the world. Our senses help us to assess our environment and to determine the appropriate response to it, both in terms of physiological reactions and in how we react emotionally to situations. As our senses inform us about the objects and people around us, there is always a corresponding reaction within us. There really is no fixed point where we begin and the world stops. The further in or out we go, the more we find that the boundary between our environment and our physiological and psychological feelings is blurred — or maybe cleared, if we choose to listen with all of our being and to feel internally as much as we do externally.
Like Body, Like Mind
How we feel and what we feel are intimately related. Our senses both define and are defined by our emotional and physiological states. Our body and mind are continually receiving input through our senses, just as our senses are altered by our physical and emotional shifts. Neuropeptides, amino acids that function as biochemical messengers, regulate almost all life processes. Neuropeptides are one of three types of biochemicals classified as ligands, neurotransmitters and steroids are the other two types. However neuropeptides comprise 95 percent of all ligands and circulate throughout the blood, lymph, and cerebrospinal fluid.
Molecular biologist Candace Pert‘s research into neuropeptides and their receptors significantly changed the previously held view that there were only two kinds of neuroactive chemicals: norepinephrine, which was excitatory, and acetylcholine, which was inhibitory. Pert documented nearly 100 neuropeptides and estimated that 300 would likely be discovered, each producing a different action on the body and affecting overall behavior. In fact, Pert calls these peptides and receptors “the biochemical correlate of emotion,” which unites mind and body.
Though neuropeptides are produced primarily in the brain, almost every tissue in the body produces and has receptor sites for neuropeptides, including the intestines, muscles, glands, lungs, and cells in the immune system. So prevalent and essential is this two-way communication between mind-body and body-mind that Pert refers to neuropeptides and receptors as “tiny eyes, or ears, or taste buds,” continually receiving and transmitting sensory information.
Sensation is information … is emotion … is body function. The work of such bodyworkers as Ida Rolf, Joseph Heller, Janet Travell (trigger point therapy), John Barnes (myofascial release), and John Upledger (craniosacral therapy) is based on this notion that feelings (physical sensations and emotional reactions) influence muscular and motor patterns and vice-versa. And, for nearly two decades, ongoing research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has explored the interrelation of behavioral, neural, and endocrine factors and the functioning of the immune system, that place where our bodies decide what is and is not “us.”
While many studies have shown a direct correlation between degenerative conditions and sustained states of stress, anger, or grief, the inverse is also true: Positive states can have restorative effects. PNI research has identified a variety of body-centered practices — including acupuncture, tai chi, mediation, yoga, and bodywork — as having value in the promotion of wellness and in the management of chronic illness by giving people a sense of control over their condition and their response to it. As we change thought and behavior patterns, corresponding changes occur in the receptor-neuropeptide connections. Our bodies and minds quite literally create a more healthy and healing response.
A Healing Response
The yogic tradition, often called a science, has for centuries incorporated meditation, breathwork, and movement as methods for cultivating healthy functioning of both body and mind, where all approaches work in concert, through and with the body. Interestingly, where such practices begin is by focusing on sensations, noticing what arises in and around us, yet remaining in a state of calm observation, without judgment. We calm the mind to calm the body, or calm the body to calm the mind — the net result is the same. Our bodies inherently do this at a chemical-cellular level through neuropeptides. But to engage this natural tendency in a conscious way means we can initiate healthier responses from a place of greater awareness, where we assume responsibility for our actions and well-being. Working toward health in this sense can then become part of a process of self-discovery and personal evolution.
States of deep relaxation, such as those that occur during meditation or sessions of focused bodywork, can produce physiological changes that promote calmness while encouraging self-awareness. In these states, although breath and heartbeat slow down, blood flow to skeletal and visceral muscles increases, which reduces lactate levels. Lactate, a toxic waste product of anaerobic glycosis, accumulates when muscles are overworked without a sufficient oxygen supply, for instance when tension inhibits blood flow to certain areas. High levels of lactate in the blood increase sensitivity to pain and raise levels of anxiety. The electrical resistance of the skin also increases during deep relaxation, indicating a calmer state of mind, while the brain produces alpha waves, indicating a relaxed yet alert state. Overall, we become more physically and emotionally relaxed yet still aware and in control, able to function from a place of calmness and deep awareness. We feel, we listen, we become more conscious. In this way, mind and body reconnect.
By simply witnessing events, experiencing our environment, and observing our physical and emotional sensations to whatever arises, we can become more open and curious and awaken to life and to ourselves. When this awareness shuts down, we cease to experience sensations and set the ground for long-term tension and habitual thought and movement patterns that compromise how we engage with our bodies, with others, and with the world. In effect, by remaining unaware of the full-spectrum of sensory information, we shut off to our bodies and to our lives.
“We have a basic biological need for lots of interest in and curiosity about our world,” says Christine Caldwell, Ph.D., founder of the Somatic Psychology Department at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. “If this need is interfered with, we will experience the pain of need-deprivation and will attempt to assuage this pain and find a substitute for gratification.” Caldwell believes that interpreting, judging, and attempting to control our experiences and sensations lies at the root of addictive behavior, which can be observed in repeated patterns of thought and movement.
When a client’s movement or breath is restricted, or when sensations and emotions have been numbed out through trauma, injury, or stress, bodywork can provide much-needed positive input, gently bringing awareness back to the body as a whole. Though we can work on and around areas of injury or tension, it is also important to remind the body there are other areas where relaxation, release, and pleasure can be experienced. In this way, we send a self-healing message communicating to clients they can feel, and perhaps move and think, in ways that are not restricted or unconscious. As we convey this, we encourage the body itself to tap into its own capacity to consciously integrate positive sensory information in a way that challenges preconditioned ways of moving in and responding to the world. As we learn to feel more, we listen more and we learn more. Sensory awareness thus becomes self-awareness.
The foundation for what is known today as sensory awareness began with Elsa Gindler in Germany around 1910. While working alone to cure herself of tuberculosis, Gindler developed insights into the functioning of the human body in its totality: outside itself, within itself, and in its relationship to the earth. Her work, which focused on becoming deeply aware of and responsive to her breathing and movements, led her to develop the somatic work she called Arbeit am Menschen or “Work on the Whole Person.” Gindler discovered that people’s attitudes are manifested in the physical tissue as well as in their thoughts. Her approach was to set up situations in which her students could consciously experience a state of being in balance, both physically and mentally, by using their senses to both feel where their bodies were in space and what their emotions were in that moment.
Among Gindler’s students was Charlotte Selver, who brought the work to the United States in 1938 and coined the term “sensory awareness.” Sensory awareness is intimately involved in many of the body-mind-spirit approaches and somatic modalities that have evolved during the 20th century. Wilhelm Reich investigated it in his formative years, Moshe Feldenkrais studied with its founders, Fritz Perls, Eric Fromm, and Alan Watts were all among Selver’s students. In 1963, Selver was the first to present an experiential workshop at the newly-founded Esalen Institute.
Underlying this work is the notion that stress-induced diseases do not happen to a person, they result from what a person is doing — that is, from habitual muscular responses formed after injuries or from stress. The somatic approach says we respond according to what we sense — both externally in the world and internally as our sense of self — and that those responses affect our physiology, sometimes with lasting consequences. Somatic education seeks to provide a way to replace habitual responses with ones that are consciously chosen and which eventually become integrated into both body and mind as a healthier method of functioning.
Somatic work is not so much theoretical as experiential, and its basis is attentive, regular practice. It may begin with something as simple as standing and becoming aware of our own weight and the way the floor supports us. It’s such a simple thing, but we may never have done it with full awareness. The notion is that by performing simple movements consciously, a person can eventually assume control of more complex habitual responses. If these are not addressed, then no amount of bodywork or medication will have long-term benefits, since one’s sense of control and of self remains dependent on external factors.
While the foundation for sensory awareness came from Europe and evolved in North America, its roots can be found in much more ancient traditions such as yoga, Zen Buddhism, and martial arts. Although these traditions have some slightly different approaches, it is their similarities, not their differences, that stand out. The focus in each of these is on cultivating awareness, internally and externally, through different practices that reveal the interrelation of body-mind-spirit and nature, which then becomes an exploration into how we function in the world and in our lives. Their basis, too, is regular, attentive practice.
By consciously surrendering to the moment and awakening to what is happening in the present through the body, we become more aware. This awareness is an act of freedom from the illusion of separateness, what Caldwell refers to as “the pain of need deprivation.” When we feel our interconnectedness, our reliance on short-term, external means to satisfy our sense of “deprivation” diminishes. We discover the roots of those needs, and we become attuned to deeper ways to meet them. Most importantly, we feel our fullness, our aliveness — not as a concept but as a bodily reality. And, as we reconnect body and mind, we reconnect to ourselves, to others, and to the world in which we live.
Though we can remind clients of this during a massage session, we should be able to cultivate sensory awareness and return to the present moment throughout our daily activities. In our society, our capacity to fully engage our senses is often compromised, whether through trauma, chronic stress, or simply by continual media messages that manufacture false needs and simultaneously provide temporary means to fulfill them. Recovering our natural ability to be completely aware of our bodies and our internal resources therefore requires an ongoing commitment. There are prime opportunities to practice awareness throughout the day: focusing on our senses as we eat and drink, as we shower or wash dishes, as we walk — or during a massage session while giving or receiving.
Often, conditioned, habitual attitudes, embedded in our tissues as physical tensions, prevent us from being fully aware of all that our senses perceive in the moment. We tense, we view the world through old stories, move with old patterns, touch or receive touch unconsciously — we miss the fullness of the present moment. Practicing sensory awareness helps us to rediscover our natural balance, to nurture self-confidence, and to better understand how we relate to others and to ourselves.
As we practice sensory awareness, we notice not only the information our five senses bring us, but also the thoughts and emotions that accompany these sensations, so we become increasingly aware of what’s truly happening in and around us. This is the key to interacting with people and our environment more genuinely and compassionately. We notice that many fears and their resulting tensions may be unfounded — or perhaps even shared. We notice that our anger and sadness rises and falls, and that our joy is never far away. We perceive the moment as it is and people as they are, without focusing on how they “should” be. To fully experience and accept our sensations is to fully understand the feelings of others. In so doing, we become better therapists, friends, parents, partners — better human beings. When we touch life and are touched by it, the quality of our relationship to ourselves and others significantly changes.
Movements of Life
Sometimes, a client’s sensory perception is so compromised that only extreme pain or pleasure registers. And, in some cases, extreme pleasure may be as unbearable as extreme pain, so foreign a sensation is it to one’s body and psyche. Extremes are rarely where life truly flows, though it can be where we reconnect with it. This can be a starting point for many — the place where they do feel, the place a massage therapist can touch, delving not simply into fascia and musculature, but working to bring consciousness to the places where more subtle sensations have been forgotten (though rarely lost). It’s here where we can explore the emotions lying along the continuum of those extremes of pain and pleasure, awakening awareness not just of what lies within, but also of where one’s body touches the world without.
Hypertonic muscles signal movement or emotion that is withheld through effort (as in anger), while hypotonic muscles signal areas where movement or emotion is not being engaged through lack of effort (as in depression). In both cases, these are areas of reduced sensation, places where we connect with life a bit less than we should.
Awareness travels on the breath, as does sensation. Breath, awareness, sensation, and movement are all motions of life. To engage them is to engage with life. It is not coincidence that these same principles form the foundation of all yogic disciplines, meditative approaches, and bodywork practices. We experience the interconnectedness of all life through our senses. We witness the rise and fall of sensations and emotions, without trying to cling to the “good” and avoid the “bad,” or perhaps hold onto our pain or tension and deny ourselves relaxation and release. Attempting to cling to any sensation simply serves to create more tension, making us more “unfeeling” and distancing us further from ourselves, from others, and from that which we seek.
Our job as bodyworkers is to encourage not simply release of tension, but release of expectations and judgment, to simply witness and compassionately be with all that arises as it arises — both in ourselves and in our clients — in the confidence that it will change because that is the nature of sensation, both physical and emotional: It is always in flux. To simply acknowledge all sensations in our clients and ourselves is in itself a movement toward change. It is an act of grace, where we remind ourselves that every part of who we are and what we feel is acceptable — capable of being touched and of being loved. Only when we have felt that place of unconditional acceptance in ourselves can our touch and our presence communicate that to others.
By Sonia Osorio a certified massage therapist with a background in yoga, dance, and tantric practices. She is a regular contributor to various healthcare publications as both a writer and editor. Her work encourages others to creatively move through life with pleasure and joy. The work outlined in this article forms the basis of a series of workshops in body awareness, mindfulness, and compassionate touch offered by Osorio and David Altmann in Montreal, Canada, and surrounding areas. For more information, visit www.zensations.ca. Reach Osorio at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2005.
Copyright 2005. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
- Awakening the Senses – Rediscovering Ourselves (hofholistichealingcenters.com)
- The Power of Yes: Affirmation and Intention – Energy Medicine (hofholistichealingcenters.com)
- Dharma Medicine – Insight Bodywork (hofholistichealingcenters.com)
- Creating Spirit Through Structure and Energy – Is It Part of Our Future? (hofholistichealingcenters.com)