|Beyond Bodies in Revolt
|Year of Publication
|Somatics: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences
SOMATICS, Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Volume VIII, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1991, pp.22-27
HOW CAN I communicate with you and not lose you on the way? That's going to be the problem. Do you think you might try to commune with me, to listen a bit while I share with you some things I know and some possibilities I live with? It is beautiful with the night birds and their calls, but I want someone to share them with me, someone to accept the invitation to explore that seeming darkness we enter as we move away from the familiar security of the flickering brazier.
Possibilities and communication: that's more or less what I'm concerned with. As far as I can see, that's all we need to tighten and transform the universe. What I have to say will not be long; it's not a matter of spelling it out in detail. Either you will dig it, or you won't — which seems fair enough. The possibilities I'm speaking of are conjointly ours: they are within you and within me. If we truly communicate, then they will jointly be our possibilities.
For me it has been a long, heavily eventful year — a time in which I have learned much and have unlearned even more. A year ago, I left my own hearth; after twenty years of happy fire gazing, I finally ended a well-spent marriage. I ended many things — none of them because I intended to, but because they all came due at one time.
A good part of my adult life has been spent in universities. Not only was I an academic philosopher, but most of the time I was a departmental chairman. When I gave up marriage, I also gave up administration — both at the same time. All of my acquaintances around the academic and marital fires saw me walk off into the darkness and, effectively, cease to exist. Even though I was right there, still within touching and calling distance, they neither touched nor called to me. Communication ceased. They were confirmed in their feelings when I no longer was comfortable with ties wrapped around my neck, with creased and pristine clothing around my body, and with a neat part in my shorn hair. And all the rest. I was becoming very comfortable, and the ice in my spine and in my heart was beginning to melt. I was growing warmer, more accepting, much more loving. And, to the degree that I did so, I seemed to grow farther and farther away from my traditional acquaintances who took one uncomfortable look and saw a lost soul, cast into the outer darkness.
So it became a long and eventful year, learning new things and unlearning many old things. By the time the summer came around, I fled once again to the sweet tonic of Mexico to play Job and see if I could light a few matches to my new darkness.
Let me tell you about where I am: Cuernavaca. Erich Fromm, Ivan Illich, and my good friends Art and Jane Sheldin live here. That's what drew me here. Once I arrived however, it wasn't any of these people who became my refuge, but a deep, water-choked barranca. Cuernavaca lies to the south of a vast and splendid valley where perhaps the world's loveliest vegetables grow during the wet summer season. All the rain that falls in the valley and in the mountains which encircle it flows southward toward Cuernavaca, and the creek beds deepen until they become profound, precipitous gorges, crammed with rushing water and fanning out snake-like throughout the city. You can look either down or up in Cuernavaca, and on fine days in late autumn you can gaze across to the east and see the preposterous and serene thrust of Mount Popocatepetl, with its snowcapped summit-looking for all the world like the beginning of an old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film.
I found a small house perched on the ledge of one of the baffancas; all it would take would be a good nudge and down the house would fall, two hundred feet into the narrow, constricted gorge where for four months the water has been roaring without ceasing. Across the barranca is a green swath of tropical trees and a small corn field clinging to the falling terrain. Through the summer I watched the corn ripen slowly under the cool sun and the torrential rains, and now the stalks are autumn-yellow in the November afternoon.
Even though I am perched high above the barranca, still I am far down the slopes of a hill, It's another good two hundred feet to walk up to the road. So for four months I have been living suspended between the barranca's roar beneath me and the road's traffic above me. I am on the point of believing that one can't make a move without coming face to face with another metaphor.
That's where I've been these past months, living alone and in silence, without clocks and without calendars, suspended in time as well as in space, with the unceasing roar of water and the unceasing rumbling of road traffic to frame my own quietude.
But now I want to talk a bit. I feel a need to communicate — not because I had planned to while I was in Mexico, but because, after all these months of suspension, I suddenly have to. It is my birthday: forty-three years of life are now mine. And this difficult year of stretching, awakening, and forgetting has now completed its circle.
It is time to talk about transformation and growing and new possibilities. I want to talk about new ways of seeing and touching and feeling, because I can now speak of these things from my own experience; they have happened to me. I would not tell you the things I am about to tell you unless they were part of my own life, unless they had the substantiality of my being behind them.
You see, I don't believe for one minute that the transformation that I have gone through is in the least unique. It is a personal change — an inner revolution that is becoming common in this land of the Americas with many people like myself in their middle years and with millions of Americans in their younger years. What began happening to me a year ago and what is now happening to hosts of Americans is something which none of us intended or planned. These are events which are happening to us, and we can be neither blamed nor pride ourselves for them. They are happening, they are inevitable, and they are irrevocable. None of us have any option except to look full face at what is happening to us, to understand the reasons why it is happening and, finally, to accept and grow with this event. It is important to look at it, understand it, and accept it, simply because what is happening appears to be the most important evolutionary transition in the past fifty thousand years of our species' history. We are all gradually waking up to the fullness, the wholeness of our humanity; as we do so, we are beginning to catch glimpses of prodigious possibilities within human experiencepossibilities hidden out there in what formerly seemed a frightening and impenetrable darkness.
If I were speaking to the traditional-minded American, I might entitle this: How to Lose Your Mind for Fun and Profit. That would clear the decks in half a minute. As for those who remained on deck, I would ask them to be guided by the firelit metaphor which invites us to stretch our backs, stand up, and then walk away from the secure and ancient warmth of that glowing fire; it is not dark out there. Rather, our eyes have never before had the chance of becoming accustomed to the expansive world which lies on the other side of our darkling fears. The city of man lies there about us in the obscurity. We need only to walk out and claim it.
WHY DON'T WE begin, very simply, by talking about life and about biology. If we are to do it properly and meaningfully, you might stop for a moment and tune in to the gentle, subterranean rhythm of your own heartbeat. That sound, that feeling, that autonomous surging and waning is indeed the heart of what we are talking about: life.
That pulse — that systole-diastole, that rhythmic ebb and flow of protoplasm — is at the heart of all living things on this planet, whether slow and seasonal as with plants or more rapid and motile as with animals. That rhythmic, protoplasmic flow has existed and survived only to the degree that living organisms could contrive to communicate with the energy and sustenance provided by this planet. Biologists have one general term for this process whereby life survives: adaptation.
Whether it be amoebae, mosquitoes, mice or men, all of these somatic beings guarantee this pulsing of life only by being capable of adapting to the changing possibilities and contingencies of the environment which surrounds them. There is no exception to this: all somatic beings must be capable of adapting to their environment, or else they perish. This is a simple biological truth; but this same simple truth is crucial to an understanding of the evolutionrevolution that we of the human species are now undergoing.
This adaptational interchange between each of us as organisms and our environment is a supple interchange. In order to adapt, sometimes the organism makes the environment give in and yield its benefits to the organism; it controls and orders the environment in an aggressive way so that the environment is made to adapt to the organism and its needs. Animals build nests, construct dams, or burrow holes in order to adapt beneficially with what the environment presents them. Animals have mandibles, beaks, or teeth to break down substances in the environment so that they can be assimilated into that organism's system. That's one way that somatic beings of any and all species adapt to the environment: by assimilating the environment to their own structures.
But there's another way, and it's a way that flows back in the opposite direction. At times, the only way for a soma to adapt to its environment is by giving in and accommodating itself to the structure of the environment. Obviously, there are some aspects of the environment about us that we cannot change; and if we are to relate to these aspects and profitably adapt with them, we must adapt toaccommodate with-the structure of the environment. There is no way to navigate in water or fly through the air without gradually giving in and developing either fins, gills, and scales or wings, lungs, and feathers. That is the other way that somatic beings of any and all species adapt to the environment: by accommodating themselves to the structures of the environment.
So far, so good: the name of the game of life is adaptation. Adaptation between pulsing somas and their environment can sometimes happen through assimilation of the environment or through accommodation to the environment.
But these commonplace observations about the rules of life might not carry us very far, except for what some very groovy biologists have discovered during the last few decades. I'm referring to those fascinating scientists who call themselves ethologists. Maybe you have heard of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, or Irendus Eibl-Eibesfeldt: they are major researchers in ethology. Or perhaps you have seen the very readable and popular books of Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris; they have helped spread the fascinating news about ethology.
Ethologists are biologists — that's the first thing to note — but their special interest is with the way in which different species of animals behave: they are biologists of behavior. What they are doing is nothing more than what Charles Darwin first formulated a century ago when he published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.
What Darwin saw — and what the ethologists followed up on — was the curious fact that each species of animal has its own particular way of behaving. Each species appeared to possess specific ways of hunting, or courting, or fleeing, or home building-any number of characteristic ways of behaving in the environment. These were all different ways which each species possessed for adapting to its environment.
But the fascinating part about ethology is this: these characteristically fixed ways in which each species of animal copes with its environment — whether it be amoebae, mosquitoes, mice or men-are innate and unlearned. These specific ways of behaving and adapting are, in the jargon of biology, phylogenetic: they are inherited as part of the somatic equipment with which each species of animal is born.
What is remarkable is that these unlearned, phylogenetic modes of behaving are so characteristic of each species. Without looking at an animal, an ethologist can be told the particular ways in which any given animal hunts, eats, mates, nests, and so forth, and identify the species being described — purely from this information. What this means is that the phylogenetic program of behavior of any animal is just as characteristic of the species as is the visible and characteristic anatomical structure of any species of animal. Ethologists discovered that all of us, as animals, have an ancient repertoire of ways of acting, reacting, and experiencing which are preprogrammed and ingrained into the substance of our being. The characteristic ways in which each of us, as animal species, live and move are not all learned after we are born into this environment; many are prelearned and ingrained within us before we are born. Just as our specific kind of skeleton supports the characteristic ways in which all animals move, so does a specific group of neuromuscular fixed motor patterns underlie the way in which weand all other animals-actively adapt with our environment.
It is eye-opening to discover from ethologists that the general blueprint for the development of social behavior is the same in all vertebrates. All vertebrates means all fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Yet in all these myriad animals — ourselves being included — the same behavior pattern appears without being learned. The very young are watched over either by one or both parents (an early protective behavior which obviously has high survival value); then during the middle stage of development, the young leave the nest, or family, and go about together in packs of young males and females. It is a time for exploring and adventuring. Eventually, as adulthood approaches, the females begin to split off from their youthful groups, and so do the males from their gangs. The males go off by themselves to begin establishing nests or territories of their own, defending the areas from encroachment by others of their species and usually engaging in some kind of prenuptial preparations. As the males encounter individual females, a specific courtship ceremony occurs that, if successful, leads to a mating of the two, the procreation of young, and the protection of the young until they abandon the nest for their packs and continue through the same cycle. This is the kind of blueprint for behavior which ethologists find operating in all animals, whether they are describing the most general features of phyla, classes, and orders of animals or whether they are pointing out the specific blueprint of behavior ingrained in particular species.
What is quite enlightening is that at the most general level of behavioral description, ethologists see all animals as being motivated by four basic adaptive drives, each of which is very practical: flight, aggression, nutrition, and mating — or, if you prefer a subjective listing: fear, anger, hunger, and lust. All animals display these major "big four" drives — as Lorenz terms them-a-nd each species displays each of these drives in very particular ways, according to its phylogenetic blueprint.
An animal flees from a threat if it is too formidable to repel. An animal aggresses against a threat if he is capable of repelling it. Also, an animal will show specific ways of seeking and hunting for nutrition and equally specific ways of courtship and mating.
Even more intriguing are the ways in which the mutations of evolutionary history have brought about neurophysiological coordinations between these "big four" drives. The male in certain fish, upon achieving young adulthood, establishes his nutritional territory, works within it, and defends it. If another male of his species (remember that members of the same species are competitors for the same food and mates) happens to swim into his territory, the resident male flushes, flares out his fins like the Spanish Armada, and attacks. The intruding male, in the face of this aggressive behavior, pales, tucks fins beneath his belly, and flees — and he flees right back to his own centrum. But once he reaches his nesting territory, a dramatic change automatically takes place. Suddenly, he stops, and the pale, beaten look fades as he turns to face his pursuer: his fins become stiffly erect, his color darkens, and he is the one who now becomes puffed up with power and rage as he rushes at the intruder in his own territory. And — you guessed it — the pursuer, now faced with a totally different situation, shows the typical signs of flight behavior and palely flees back toward his own home territory.
It is in this way that the territorial males manage to live as separate neighbors, spreading out in spaced sections throughout the nutritional biotope, so that there is a balanced amount of nutrition for all members of that species. In this simple illustration we have seen how drives of nutrition, aggression, and flight all operate phylogenetically not only to guarantee the survival of each individual, but also to create an optimal social distribution so that the whole species may survive.
The way in which the mating drive may correlate with the other three drives is also an intriguing affair. The bachelor male, let us say, is minding his own business, swimming about his own territory, and feeding. Suddenly, another member of his own species, a competitor, intrudes within his realm. Automatically, the fins come out strongly, the flesh swells and colors, and he charges toward the intruding fish. However, there is a difference: In this case, the intruding cospecific is not a male, but a female. A cospecific intruder she is, and so charge he must to defend his feeding area. However, something arresting takes place: even though he begins his charge directly at the female intruder, he misses her. Somehow or other, he just doesn't manage to ram into her. Instead, he charges, then slips to one side, and engages in a series of vigorous, furious, zigzag movements which push mighty waves of water toward the intruder.
The female, for her part, is apparently frightened, and automatically shows signs of flight behavior when the male charges. She turns to fleebut not very far. Lingering a bit, as if overwhelmed before the ferocious charge, she observes as the male energetically zigzags to show how powerful and invincible a defender of the nest he can be; and the female, fleeing but not quite escaping, seems hesitant and awed, as if saying, "Oh my, what a big, strong brute you are!"
In his ambiguous behavior, the male has demonstrated how the practical imperative of defensive aggression has become allied with the practical imperative of mating to produce a unique form of courtship behavior. The female has shown how the automatic triggering of flight behavior has become phylogenetically intertwined with the mating drive, producing in her a type of coy behavior.
Examples of these phylogenetic blueprintings of behavior are as many and varied as are the many and varied species of animals existing on this planet. Such behavior is delightful and instructive to us because the animal we know as man has always enjoyed and profited from the similarity-despite-difference which he finds in other species of animals. Our common evolutionary pilgrimage and our common, primeval origin from simple life forms relate us to the entire kingdom of animal life as equal members of an old and familiar family.
I mention these things about ethology, not only because it represents a crucial and revelatory extension of biology but also because it allows us to fill in some specifics about the two modes of survival and adaptation, namely, assimilation and accommodation.
The prime modes of assimilatory adaptation — those which defend, protect, and preserve the structure of any animal — are the modes of flight and aggression. That is their ancient and practical function when the organism must hold its own against some threatening presence within the environment: remove yourself from that threat, or remove the threat from yourself.
The prime modes of accommodative adaptation — those which reach out, flow with, and merge with the structure of the environment — are the modes of nutrition and mating. That is their ancient and practical function when the organism must surrender to some hungered-for presence within the environment: ingest the desired presence or be ingested by it.
Fear and anger are assimilative events which, when the occasion arises, aid in the survival of living creatures. Hunger and lust are accommodative events which, when other occasions arise, also aid in the survival of living creatures. Both forms of adaptational behavior are necessary. None of these is any more important for survival than the other; they are equally important. Out of the phylogenetic repertoire of drive systems, the type of behavior which adaptively comes forth is that which is appropriate to the organism's environmental situation at that moment. We must bear in mind the perennial business of life, of adaptation, is to relate appropriately to the environmental situation. An assimilative response to an inviting situation is, in the long run, destructive: in the same way, an accommodative response to a menacing situation is, in the long run, equally a farewell to survival.
With these considerations of evolutionary biology now set before us, it would be well if both of us once more slipped down from our heads into our hearts and again refreshed our consciousness with an awareness of the soft welling and waning of that pulse which is the somatic sponsor of our writing or reading these words. Notice the rhythm of that pulsation within you. It moves back and forth, it repeats itself cyclically, like an antiphonal chorus: the tug inward of the systole and the inflation outward of the diastole; the tightening and the loosening-, the constriction and the dilation; the holding in and the giving way; the squeeze and the relaxation; the tightening of the structure and the surrendering of the structure.
It is not simply a matter of knowing life with our heads, through verbally examining the data of evolutionary biology; it is also a matter of tuning in and literally knowing life with our hearts, so that we will know that life is not an abstraction of the head "out there," but a living presence within our hearts. We are the creatures of lifeborn and separated from the umbilical yesterday, but formed and molded and learned in life's ways long before that yesterday of our birth — creatures so ancient, so primeval, so long-lived within a chain of ova and spermatozoa and umbilical cords and cell division and diversification that stretches through ten billion and more mutational adjustments, so ancient that the depth of our being finally grounds itself and finds its source in the primeval pulsing of that first simple cell which is the mother and father of us all.
If we open up our perception and become aware of our hearts as well as our heads, we will become aware of just how old we are and just how simple we are: as old as life itself and as simple as the rhythmic pulse of life. If we open our perceptions to our hearts, as well as to our heads, we enter into the arena of somatic experience, we enter into an understanding of the evolution-revolution of our times, and we enter into the wholeness of ourselves.
No matter how complex the evolvement of our species or any species of animal, within the throbbing of our hearts and our history is the perennial constriction and dilation of life. It is that constriction which tightens the heart in systolic action, which tightens the diaphragm in inhalation, which squeezes the alimentary canal in the peristaltic push downward, which constricts our musculature when we are afraid or when we are angry, which causes the membrane and protoplasm of protozoa to retrench and draw inward before the probe of a biologist's needle. And it is that dilation which loosens the heart in diastolic action, which relaxes the diaphragm in exhalation, which relieves the alimentary canal as it expands with the peristaltic push, which dilates our musculature when we are hungering for food or for love, which causes the membrane and protoplasm of onecelled beings to flow outward to encompass and merge with the fulfillment of their hungering.
It is all the same. It is all the same life — complex in its evolved structures, simple in its abiding stratagem. If we use all of our heads and all of our hearts, we can put it together. None of us who have so understood life — that common life of ourselves and all our animal brothers — will ever again, in the same fashion, suffer loneliness, will ever feel cut off and isolated, because the wholeness of our ancient somatic being has informed us of the prodigious community of life which is our irrevocable family. Primitive humans have always known this community of the living, and it is this that civilized humans are recovering once again as they ease off from alienation and solitude to reclaim the commonality at the heart of all things.
But I am anticipating myself about matters which we'll broach in due course. What I wish to share with you initially is a wholistic understanding, head and heart, of the basic pattern of adaptation and evolution of which we have always been a part — and shall always be a part.
Fear and anger (flight and aggression) are assimilative forms of behavior which involve retrenchment and neuromuscular constriction in order to preserve and defend our integrity against threats from the environment. Hunger and lust (nutrition and mating) are accommodative forms of behavior which entail expansion and neuromuscular dilation in order to give in plastically to an invitation within the environment and to merge with it. The very structure of our two-fold autonomic nervous system supports these alternating phases of our everyday adaptive behavior: the sympathetic nervous system sponsors the many aspects of our constrictive, assimilative behaviorwithout our asking, there it is, bringing hypertension to our entire being when the environment occasions our fear or our anger; the parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, automatically sponsors all of the somatic events which arise during our dilational, accommodative behavior. We do not make all these somatic events happen, not deliberately; we are not even "consciously" aware of these countless adaptive events. They simply happen — and they happen during the ongoing, ever-changing course of adapting ourselves with the environment in which all of us must make our way.
From SOMATICS, Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Volume VIII, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1991, pp.22-27.