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A Conversation with Thomas Hanna, Ph.D. by Helmut Milz, M.D.

Milz: Intellectual knowledge is knowledge for its own sake, but somatic knowledge is knowledge for oneself that allows us to have control and self-responsibility. Your own development and your learning process are examples of overcoming the traditional Western body-mind split. Could you briefly tell us about some stages in your own journey?

Hanna: All my life I have been profoundly concerned with being free. I have always understood that to be free does not merely mean to be without external hindrances. Rather, the prime requisite for being free is to have the internal power and the internal skills, judgment, perception, and intelligence in order to be autonomous, because freedom is essentially self-responsibility and independence. Not to be a subservient part of an institution is very much a theme of my life. You can’t be independent unless you can stand on your own two feet, and it’s not a matter of just rebelliously standing on your own two feet, but of knowing who you are, knowing your powers, and being able to be creative and productive on your own. I think that this has, more and more, become a main theme of my thinking as well as my life. What I seek to encourage in other human beings is a growing selfcompetence, so that they can become freer. This marks everything that I do, practically, in my own work at the Novato Institute. It haunts my own work and editorial interests in publishing, and it is the constant theme in what I think about and write about as a philosopher.

What I seek to encourage in other human beings is a growing self-competence.

Originally, I had very strong religious interests and spent three years studying theology and the philosophy of religion. I even have a theology degree from the University of Chicago-but I received the theology degree, I might mention, as an atheist. I was, to my knowledge, the first atheist ever to receive a divinity degree from the University of Chicago. I was, however, a very popular atheist because I was, perhaps, less an atheist than I was a non-Christian, and they graciously allowed me to study as a free religious philosopher. I was delighted to be studying at a divinity school, which was at that time the best divinity school in the United States, if not the world. Paul Tillich ended up teaching there, and Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion, and others. In any case, this theme of independence and freedom that had led me into religious areas then led me more and more into philosophical areas that were called existential and phenomenological. Existentialismthrough Marcel, Chestov, Tillich, Bultmann, and other Christian existentialists--overlaps the religious, the moral, and the philosophical regions. You really can’t separate them.

I was beginning to see that theoretically psychological forms are rooted in bodily structures.As I deepened my understanding of the existential and phenomenological traditions, I saw how much they led into the area of psychotherapy and psychology. The more I moved into the area of psychotherapy and psychology, the more I began to see how none of this field made any sense whatsoever without reference to the human body. The traditional way of thinking about psychology was as if the mind was indeed something whose process took place in some place, but it did not relate to the practical affairs of one’s life. So I took a year out, while I was still chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Florida, to study in the Medical School. They gave me permission to spend the first year just studying the neurosciences. I wanted to study neurology, and I went through that first year of medical school training, which was the time that I wrote Bodies in Revolt--a time when was beginning to see that theoretically, beginning as early as Kant’s categories and as late as Piaget’s schemes, psychological forms are rooted in bodily structures. You see this in contemporary behavioral genetics, and you can see it in the notion of fixed motor patterns of Konrad Lorenz. We now are seeing how these things operate in human life.

A soma isn’t a body and it isn’t a mind; it’s the living process.This led me, finally, into direct practical involvement in bodily affairs by studying the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, which I saw to be the most consistently effective way in which one could work in the area, not just of psychology and not just of the body, but with the whole living human process-with what I began to call the somatic realm. The soma indicates both mental and physiological eventsall functions of the body-as a single process, a process that is called a soma. A soma isn’t a body, and it isn’t a mind; it’s the living process. That is essentially the way in which my history and my thinking and my life come together, thematically.

Milz: Now you’re working on a daily basis with what have been traditionally separated areas--philosophy and bodywork.

Hanna: I’m a philosopher who works with his hands; other philosophers, like Spinoza, ground lenses. I do it in another fashion.

Milz: In the early ’seventies, you wrote Bodies in Revolt, where you summarized the major Western contributions to the understanding of our human existence, our individuation process, and our connectedness to our total environment. You looked at the historical context of human environments and envisioned an uprising somatic culture. What do you mean by “somatic culture” ?

Hanna: A somatic culture is a culture that has respect for the given genetic potentialities of the human being in general and the human individual in particular. It wishes to encourage the free development, exploration, and discovery of those potentials, whatever they may be. Specifically, I think a somatic culture is a culture which encourages sensing; it encourages the kind of sensory perception that is not primarily environmentally oriented, but a sensory perception that is proprioceptive-self--sensing of the “body” by the “mind.” It’s this which has been absolutely neglected in the history of Western educational systems. We have trained our sensory awareness to be essentially external, relying on visual and oral input. If you limit your sensory information to just those things, you automatically, by definition, end up by limiting the individual’s motor possibilities and motor programs, because all living processes are, after all, sensory-motor.

A somatic culture is a culture which encourages sensing.Therefore, if we have a culture that encourages only certain kinds of survival-oriented, practical, engineering-types of sensory awareness, which is externally directed, we blind individuals to their own genetic capacities. The exteroceptors are terribly important in all traditional education. If you encourage only this, you limit the development of human beings to motor patterns which move people to dependency on other experts. Everybody feels, “I can’t look at myself; I can only look at you. You can’t look at yourself; you can only look at me.” Therefore, if I need help internally, I have to get you to look at me as if the world of reality is all objective and there’s no subjective awareness. Subjectivity is the traditional nineteenth-century word for that which has been lacking in our Western culture. But in my contemporary terms, we have not encouraged proprioception. Proprioception, I think, is very much the seed of what a somatic culture is all about.

Milz: Growing up, becoming an adult means, in traditional terms, to forget one’s own primary needs and not pay sufficient attention to our complex somatic existence-an outer orientation, for the sake of social and economic rewards. You call this growth process “atrophy of our proprioceptive senses” and “neural ignorance to ourselves.”

Hanna: Our educational system has focused upon the youthful, the preparation of youths to become “adults,” that is, helpful, surviving members of society. But why is growth stopped at that point? What I see happening to individuals from, say, their twenties on, is that there is no conception of growth after the teenage period, no conception of improvement, no conception that life is just beginning to grow; and, therefore, there’s no expectation of this genetic possibility. The notion of growth expectation has been confined to the first twenty-five or thirty years of life. Our culture just leaves things at that. Now that’s a survivaloriented culture: a training of the troops to get ready. What we’re discovering, both medically and in terms of our increasingly older population, is that as of now, during our youth, we have to start planning and educating ourselves for adulthood and for our whole lifetime. That is, human beings have never been trained to expect to grow and to be educated and to improve over their entire lifespan. Because of research discoveries about self-control and autonomic controls of internal bodily states, we now know that we can control the aging process. Indeed, we can reverse it. The normal diseases that we associate with “aging” have nothing whatsoever to do with age. There is no longer a given category of “old age.”

Proprioception is very much the seed of what a somatic culture is all about.

Milz: You have written that the “myth of aging” has to be replaced by a “myth of growth.” How do you look at this possible change of concepts? What is its necessary basis?

Hanna: I think the basis is first of all, to spread the news that in terms of what we know in the light of gerontological research-that is, in terms of what are considered to be the presumed “diseases of old age” that there are no such things as genetically programmed central nervous system deficits, loss of brain tissue, and other similar events that were assumed to take place both in the central nervous system and motor system during aging. They do not happen, except in cases of trauma or shock, nutritional deficiencies, various sorts of stress-related events. But there’s nothing programmed.The “myth of aging” has to be replaced by a “myth of growth.”

Milz: Is it programmed by nonuse?

Hanna: The effects of aging are environmentally and culturally programmed. The first thing is to take the gerontological research and point out that the diseases and deficits of aging do not exist. It is false-it is a myth. The second thing is to help people come into possession of selftraining procedures and to give this information to everyone by letting it be part of the educational systemand not by making it “professional” and hiding it behind psychotherapists, doctors, or specialists of some kind. Information on somatic self-governance should be public; it should be given out on cassettes; it should be on radio programs. There should be video programs of this kind, so that the population is in possession of ways in which they can cultivate a “myth of growth.” The thing is to get rid of they myth of aging, namely, by realizing we’re not programmed to decline. We’re bound to die, but we’re not bound to deteriorate or degenerate; that’s a different thing. And then we must point out that we have the ways of correcting these largely traumatic and stress-related illnesses. That’s what seems more and more obvious: the major public health problems, in Europe and in the United States, are essentially stressrelated problems. They’re cardiovascular problems, respiratory problems, and cancer; and these diseases are indigenous to high-stress, technological societies.

We’re bound to die, but we’re not bound to deteriorate or degenerate.

Milz: Do you know the saying of some anonymous Italian, “That death find us alive, but life not find us dead”?

Hanna: That’s beautiful. It’s that kind of change that I envision. It is certain, from my point of view, that the major public health problems of the United States and of all advanced industrial countries will simply disappear, if you have people who are aware that they themselves can be responsible for their whole somatic process. Again, the theme is freedom, independence.

Milz: Self-awareness means first learning to acknowledge and discriminate incoming patterns of sensory information both from the inside and the outside, before we then can create new options for active control of formerly supposed involuntary processes. How do you define “somatic education” ? Who’s teaching and who’s taught?

Hanna: Somatic education is essentially a brief event whereby one teaches another person how to be self-teaching. It has to be that, because somatic education is education for independence. Now, this is the case in my practice of working with sensory-motor training which is what Functional Integration is. I often see people with “medically incurable” diseases. That’s a quote, because they’re not “incurable,” obviously, but their physicians say that there’s nothing they can do, whether it includes the extreme cases, such as various forms of paralysis, stroke, MS, polio, brain damage, and even cerebral palsy, which are all essentially the same kind of “incurable” debility; or the more obviously traumatic and stress-related ailments, such as constant aches for years and years within the cervical area or within the lumbar area, which are ailments that are typical of all industrial societies, but not of peasant societies. People who suffer from these various diseases are taught how to control their condition. I first do manipulations to let them become more comfortable, and they gradually become aware of how they can maintain this comfort. I do not release people until I know that they know how to maintain themselves-that they can proprioceptively sense what is happening, for example, in their lower back-so they can sense what they have been doing to themselves unconsciously. The procedure of somatic education is to make conscious that which was previously an unconscious and pernicious habit. Once they have this sensory awareness-which is proprioceptive awareness-they then have the necessary motor control. In the ten years of doing this work, I have rarely seen clients again. They write me letters and they’re very appreciative and I see them on the street, but they’re now self-maintaining.

Once they have this sensory awareness-proprioceptive awareness-they then have the necessary motor control.Somatic education in this general sense is teaching people to teach themselves; it is the teaching of selfcontrol. Self-control at the level I’m speaking of is self-awareness-not a vacuous, “spiritual” category, but self-awareness as actual sensory selfawareness. I think that all human beings could remain extremely healthy and productive and perhaps even creative if, at fairly frequent intervals, they would undergo a kind of sensory, proprioceptive inventory-being made aware of the functions of their feet, of their toes, of their ankles, of their calf muscles, and so forth-and literally survey their whole body sensorily. The work of Feldenkrais certainly induces this. Awareness through Movement does exactly this, as does the work of Gerda Alexander(Eutonie) and the tradition of “Gymnastik,” especially that of Elsa Gindler, out of Berlin, and her student, Charlotte Biihler, who is now a very old lady in Paris, and Charlotte Selver in Sausalito. Carola Speads is another Gindler student in New York City. These are all German ladies, and they trained with Elsa Gindler in Berlin back in the 1920’s. These various exercises in sensory awareness, these inventories-children could do them. I think that physical education instructors must go more and more into teaching sensory awareness, and they can do it with various forms of exercises. In a pinch, they can do it via cassette recordings. At a very early age children must become somatically aware of themselves. I believe taking a proprioceptive inventory is probably one basic way of guaranteeing optimal public health-mental and emotional, as well as physical. This is something that is still far, far off in being done, but not so far off in actual possibility.

At a very early age children must become somatically aware.

Milz: Function and structure of the human body are, as you pointed out, correlative terms, embodied in the same existence, depending on the observer’s specific attention. You laid out a working hypothesis for a somatic science in presenting six primordial somatic functions. Could you briefly summarize your hypothesis?

Hanna: I can repeat this, in general: in order for there to be a soma, that is, a living process in this universe, with its own molecular structure and its own gravitational force, this living soma must be in accord with, and work with, the particular natural laws of this universe. It can’t work against them in the way that Bergson originally thought: namely, that life was a contradiction to matter; that life was an exception in the cosmos. That’s a spiritualist view. That’s an extreme mind-body view. Whereas, what is so obvious now is that life has emerged from the universe and from its own forces. I think that life, with its components and processes, is indeed prefigured in the very beginning of the universe. Otherwise, the history of the cosmos does not make sense; life would not fit, it would not be. Carbon atoms have so many sides, and they fit in a certain way-not this or the other way, but in a certain way. Because the form of material possibility is preformed, there’s nothing arbitrary about the possibility that if we throw the dice so many times, certain combinations are going to occur.

In the animal, the primordial event is that all living things stand against gravity: they stand up.

When those combinations occur in living forms, not just in human life, they occur in very special ways. In the animal, the primordial event is that all things stand against gravity: they stand up. Gravity is in a sense used. Life is built against the weight of gravity, which is exuded by the whole universe. Thus, the primordial verticality of life. Presumably, first life had to float to achieve this. But once you had an exoskeleton--or, later on, an endoskeleton--then you again neutralized gravity so that you could move. In general, Feldenkrais is quite correct in saying that “life is movement.” And, of course, beyond that everything is movement. I mean, everything whatsoever is movement: reality is movement. Life is a movement process, and the soma is a process of unified movement. This process stands, and it therefore moves forward. But if it moves forward, it has a front and a back, and gradually it develops such a structure. The function of standing creates a structure. In all genetics function precedes structure. Structure comes later. Structure is what we study as scientists, but structure is created. That’s what embryology is all about: you see nothing genetically, but suddenly it forms; the eggs divide and divide, and a few weeks later from this bundle you have one egg, then you have two eggs, then you have a number of little eggs dividing; and, finally, you have this shape-just in the space of three or four weeks-and already you have created structure. Now, what is that somatic shape? It’s a shape that’s designed to stand. It’s a shape that already has a function of moving-and to move means to move always in a direction: fo rw ard-there fore, it always has a head, a face. All living structures, somas, have faces and heads. And why is that? It’s a reflection of the fact that the essence of the universe is to move: life takes this universal movement and puts it into a concretized form, which is to stand over gravity, free to move. Then it “heads” forward; therefore, there’s a head and a tail.

Life is a movement process, and the soma is a process of unified movement.

This forward movement is guided, it is directed, and we have the general fact that all living things have a way of what I call handling their movements in the world. Somas possess laterality--pivoting movement which is yet another stage of sophistication in the life process. Movement can go left or right: there are those two sides to every soma. Now all these movements correspond to what we call the “three dimensions of space,” and these three abstract geometrical dimensions of the roundness of space are essentially a projection of our own somatic awareness. It is our own fundamental projection of ourselves.

Space is a three-dimensional process; therefore, it takes place in time. All somas, including human somas, are fundamentally fourdimensional entities; that is to say, a soma is a living process, with four dimensions, whose structure is a reflection of their function. Therefore our attention to life should in every instance-not just in medicine or physiologybe focused on the functions themselves, because the functions are operating right now in my life and in yours, creating and maintaining what we see as the “structure.” It’s not as if what happened to us in our first years of life has determined our structure to finally be what it is, mentally or physically, or what happened to us before adolescence. It’s not just a Freudian notion of what happened the first four years, or the more general notion of the years up until adolescence, or even the broader notions of what happened to us up to eighteen or twenty-one years of age that structures us. We are never permanently structured in any sense, somatically. Therefore, function is always creating structure, and function can always recreate it.

Somas possess laterality — pivoting movement.

Milz: This adds a development dimension to anatomy.

Hanna: I think these are revolutionary concepts that we’re talking about. A soma is a body of functions, so described in this fourdimensional way, and the more general fact is that all somas operate by intentions. Intentions can be genetically fixed intentions, which are fixed sensorimotor patterns that decrease as we move up the vertebrate line and into human beings--at which point we see that learning and culture take the place of the genetically fixed intention. Human somas operate as free intentional beings. They always intend, and the intention is that which mobilizes their functions. A propos, as we were saying earlier about the myth of aging, if one expects to lose a function and to deteriorate and if this is the expectation of our culture, then this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy because, as we know, expectation is the profoundest of all psychological and physiological mobilizing forces. In medicine, that is what the placebo is all about. As soon as you have an expectation of a certain kind, suddenly you mobilize your functions. The expectation is the thing that helps mobilize the intention.

The expectation helps mobilize the intention.In general--to get back to the topic of a somatic culture--I think that a somatic culture is one that gives toleration and encouragement to very unusual, experimental, and adventurous intentions of individual humans-to ways of mobilizing to create things. I think that no one has any notion of all that the human being is capable of-if given this cultural toleration and encouragement. You may remember, there’s the motto of Bodies in Revolt which underlines all these thoughts: “Anything is possible.” I think we have to say that. Unless we feel that anything is possible, we do not really sense the genius of human life.

Milz: There’s a growing scientific interest in understanding the neurophysiological pathways of emotions. Where do you see the boundary between humanistic science which emphasizes personal growth and autonomy and behavioral science with a narrow positivistic goal of human engineering for outer social control and manipulation as a continued tendency “to exploit every human blind spot”? All the ideas we’re talking about, how can they lead to more autonomy, or how can they be used by political powers to replace insufficient concepts of control?

Unless we feel that anything is possible, we do not really sense the genius of human life.

Hanna: These are very profound concerns of mine. I think that we have arrived at a stage of our technology, especially communicative technology, where it becomes exceedingly easy for all of the manipulative techniques that the behavioral sciences have produced to be brought into play-if one conceives of human society on the model of a beehive or an anthill. There is a limited conception of social organization-one that we have had during all of the history of mankind, except in certain very small, special societies-that the most efficient way of operating is for every individual to repress the larger portion of personal activities and behavior in order to fit as a cog within a social machine. This, in general, is the totalitarian view. It has become the dominant view of the Marxist societies, which I must point out, is a profound violation of Marxism. Any Marxist who is a true Marxist knows that the Soviet Union is a vicious, totalitarian organization of a kind that certainly the young Marx gives no basis for. It’s gone off in the opposite direction. Now, I think that behavioral science in the United States, as represented by such a person as B.F. Skinner, is a true humanoid psychology, a psychology of the human who is limited and who fits into a certain function, so that in the total functions of the social organism you achieve a very efficient organism for industrial production or for making war. Now, if the highest conception of human life is this social view, then the behavioral techniques and the manipulative techniques of humanoid psychology have their best application. That’s the great contemporary temptation. In some sense, I think we see that kind of society, the beehive society, happening in some third world countries-in places like Singapore. Singapore is a deliberately constructed human beehive: a community that’s highly productive; everyone has enough to eat, they have their creature comforts, and the system works. Already we see that this kind of society is possible-if you give up the notion of individuality and freedom and independence--but it’s highly destructive of individuals. It’s highly destructive of somas, that is, of human psychophysiological functions.Singapore is a deliberately constructed human beehive: a community that’s highly productive.The other possibility is to avoid conceiving the individual in the form of the state, which is the great nineteenth-century “discovery” that, as Thomas Hobbes earlier expressed it, the state is really each person as a “member of the body” of the state. In some sense, this conception began with the image of St. Paul: that we’re all part of the body of Christ. But this image of individuals as part of a large body is, I think, the most humanly vicious of all traditions that we have in our Western Christian society. It comes back to haunt us now that we have the technology to manipulate and control information and to create true ants. What is so fascinating to me is that the conception of the totalized state, or the corporate state, is really the conception of an individual writ large, where we take our own conception of free individuals and project it on a state level.

What the arts and sciences of the somatic area suggest is that we’ve now come to the point where we can actually educate human beings to attain a maximum human individuality, a maximum self-maintenance, a maximum ability to adjust-to adapt so that they can be freely and fully themselves. In a society of such free, adaptable individuals, you have the possibility of a meshing of interests and intentionality which is almost like E = mc2 at a social level. That is to say, I do not see individuality and somatic education as destructive for the state. To the contrary, I think they are our only hope for the future of our species, because we cannot live any longer as we’re living now and expect to survive.

Milz: Your somatic vision is an optimistic vision of human development, but the realization of this vision is under enormous pressure from of individuals. It’s highly destructive of somas, that is, of human psychophysiological functions.We have the technology to manipulate and control information and to create true ants.Hanna: Somatic culture is already happening, here and in Europe. This is why we’re talking about it. All changes happen through individuals. One, two, three, you and I are doing it right now. You and I represent somatic culture right here and now on this spot. The fact that you want to spread these ideas and that I want to spread these ideas is this event already taking place. It is “subversive” to the state, but it’s subversive in every good sense. A state is just a collection of individuals; and, traditionally, people who run the state are confused and somewhat deluded individuals who are doing the best they can. Usually, the most incompetent people assume the leadership roles that they have attained.

You ask how, given the tremendous economic and other pressures, can this somatic society grow? For example, there is a great vested interest in the United States for the American Medical Association to maintain its given form of medicine against the inroads of holistic, preventive health care--many of the things that we’re talking about. But the problem is that the medical establishment is a crushing economic failure: it cannot be afforded by anyone any more. You can’t even take it over within a socialized economy, because in the United States the medical establishment has grown to a stage where it can’t support itself. I think that the individual movement towards self-maintenance is going to take over: one, because it is cheap; two, because it’s successful. It’s going to take over, because it will spread from individual to individual. Why? Because in the kind of technological, communicative society we live in you can’t keep a secret any longer. I believe that the traditional view that the socioeconomic forces are so massive that individuals have no power is not true any more. Once information is as free as it is now, then you can’t, for example, have an unjust war in Vietnam, with American troops doing what they were doing and lying about what was going on, and keep it a secret. Before, we didn’t know what was happening in wars; we had our own official view, and we didn’t have access to others; that’s how all wars took place. Now, we are as aware of the other side as we are of our side, and people begin to have sympathy for the intentions of the other side. It’s an extraordinary event, communicatively.

Somatic culture is already happening, here and in Europe. All changes happen through individuals.

Milz: But it means that communication has to be also used as a “subversive” tool, that we have to take action in spreading different views to broaden communication, often against massive state pressure. For example, in Germany we have only public television and radio stations which are run by the state. This has some advantages, but it is also more difficult to spread information augmenting or contradicting that supplied by the state’s monopoly.

Hanna: When you think about it it’s just as difficult in the United States, where you have all private commercial stations, because the needs of the state and the needs of large businesses are just as contrary to the needs of individuals. They’re both incompetent to speak for authentic human needs. But what is significant is that the Germans know — just as the French know what is transpiring. You already feel a negation of the importance of official information. In some sense, it’s the state networks of information which are the least effective in doing what they want to do, simply because they’re owned by the state. Everybody knows that. In the end, the principal thing we have to be sure of is that there’s freedom of publication and freedom of distribution of information. As long as we can freely read and we can freely write and we have freedom of assembly, our communicative technology will see us through. When this freedom is lacking, as it is in the Eastern European block, in certain South American countries, and in other kinds of militaristic countries, then you’re back to a primitive situation. But where there’s basic democracy and where free voting takes place, there’s no way of stopping the evolution of what we’re talking about. In Germany, for example, the young people of the “Greens” are open to these things. These Greens will become the old people twenty-five years from now. You see, it is already happening. You can’t have an advanced industrial technology in a country without having that country’s individuals become more and more disaffected and aware of these things. Humans need freedom, they want freedom, and that’s a beautiful thing. Once you allow the taste of freedom, then it’s too late to stop it.

From SOMATICS: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Vol VIII, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1991, pp.50-56.

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