Let’s Get Psychophysical - Newsletter #2
A list of 5 things to integrate "mind," "body" and "spirit."
Hello, it’s Kevin. Welcome to Let’s Get Psychophysical.
Every Friday, I send you 5 things I’ve found that promote wholeness, integration and “waking up” - rather than fragmentation, dis-integration and falling asleep.
Let me know what you think/feel/do…
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson
This is one of my favourite “books about books.” In general, I think you should just read the source material - multiple times, in different versions - rather than read about it (see Newsletter 1 for recommendations on Homer.) But this book is one of the exceptions for me.
It really helps bring the Homeric world alive for today (“the gang versus the city”), and a lot of the author’s insights came from real world experiences which I will call psychophysical events. For example, sailing his boat through a storm (while only having one book to read on the voyage: The Odyssey, of course), and a horrible personal experience that happened to him in Syria when younger, which even in a book about Homer is quite shocking. Both of these are what I call psychophysical events - times when the person’s whole being becomes involved: before, during and after, and will never be the same again.
Cognitive scientist & linguist George Lakoff on metaphors and the body
“Our concepts are not out there in the world. They come from our interactions with the world.”
Based on my work with posture, one of the metaphors most people seem to have - usually held unconsciously - is that the body is like a pile of blocks stacked up on top of each other. This probably comes from the child playing with his toys.
Many things flow from this metaphor, such as the ideal posture must therefore be some sort of straight line with, for example, the head directly above the lower spine. It seems logical. And if we have a stack of blocks to be held up, then these are to lifted by muscles, and so to have bigger, stronger muscles means to have better posture.
But our body is not a stack of blocks - we are a dynamic relational system. A more accurate metaphor for how posture works is that of a bow and arrow, or a stringed instrument like a harp. The body is full of enormous sheets of elastic connective tissue. It’s not just muscles that maintain your balance and postures. But in order to use these “elastic bands” correctly, you need to have movements in opposite directions that stretch the elastic in between. You need to stretch them.
Think of a bow and arrow the string and the wood oppose each other, and in between comes the force that propels the arrow. Notice how at the moment of the release, with maximum pulling, everything looks still - you are pulling, but not seen to be moving.
Now this is the same system we have throughout our bodies especially all over our middle and lower back. But if you don’t stretch both ends then the elastic doesn’t work. We need to use gravity intelligently for this - by understanding the interrelationships between rigid bony parts - and with a certain postural shape the elastic will hold things in place. (The resulting shape surprises people.) You use the muscles to move into position, but then the elastic keeps you in place, for free. You can sit for hours without fidgeting.
But most people aren’t using this “free energy” and are relying on muscle power alone, in order to hold up an apparent stack of blocks. So when I work with people I teach them the new movements that will get all their body’s “bow and arrows” working for them. You learn to use muscles to create postures and coordinations that bring into play the elastic connective tissues.
This can only be demonstrated 1-to-1 but the important thing here is that changing this “invisible” conceptual metaphor, first, is the key to changing the physical movements and posture we can see later.
On the relation between knowledge and structure
"A thinker is very much like a draughtsman whose aim it is to represent all the interrelations between things."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
I love these kinds of “intellectual-to-physical” metaphors, similes and analogies. A draughtsman is someone who prepares detailed drawings of buildings and machinery - from the plans and designs of architects and engineers. The important point in the quote is that thinking is knowledge of order, relations and structure.
This is the same method I use in the “psychophysical exercises” I teach people who want to improve their posture. I give you the plan/design of what I consider good posture (with my reasoning), and then teach you a method for turning the theory into practice, for translating my verbal instructions and diagrams into concrete actions that we can see on video. Like the draughtsman, your job is to fill in the details, “to represent all the interrelations between things,” where specific body parts should be in relation to one another, and then implement this new understanding in your posture.
You do this by first learning the structure we want (intellectual), and then by performing the exercises I give you which enact this new understanding. We then analysis the results to compare your new structure with the original plans and designs. At first your “house” falls down. But you get better with practice. (The plans and designs are evolving all the time as I get better at this and work with more people.)
In other words, it is an applied mental model: the goal is not just to understand your anatomical structure, but to change it. The more we understand the structure, the more we can manipulate the relations between things (mentally and/or physically) and see what happens.
Laconic Kylix with Prometheus and Atlas (circa 560-550 B.C)
These are the Titans, Atlas (left) and his brother Prometheus (right.) These are psychophysical punishments arranged by Zeus in tyrant mode. First, let’s look at the physical effect shown on their bodies.
Atlas has a sore back (look where his right hand is), unable to stand or sit properly, forced to hold up the celestial sphere in order to keep heaven and earth separated. Meanwhile, Prometheus is pinned back in an uncomfortable “torture” position, having his ever-regenerating liver pecked out by an eagle night after night, for the crime of stealing fire and giving it to humans.
The Atlas myth is related to structure. The starry heavens provided order and structure through time (mapping the changing positions of the planets and stars) and through space (using the stars for navigating at sea - Homer again.) Keeping the heavens and earth separated could also refer to the separation of mind and body. Understanding the relations between things is mental (you can’t see/touch principles or rules) while experiencing those things directly is physical. The two are intertwined and interactive in some mysterious way, but the split made science and technology possible, although our modern over-splitting has caused many problems. Astronomy (the first science?) was learned via navigation. No Atlas, no science. But it’s hurting our backs…
The Prometheus myth recounts what must be the most psychophysical event in all of human history: the invention/control of fire. I will talk a lot more about him in future newsletters, but for now let’s focus on the meaning of the eagle. For the ancient greeks, animal livers were used as a tool for “divining the future” - basically, reading tea leaves for the warrior class. So, Zeus wants his eagle (vigilance) to learn the knowledge of the future, which only Prometheus knows (his name probably means something like “forethought”) and therefore this horrible physical punishment is actually something even more psychological, and spiritual, and mystical - all at the same time. Not to mention the effects that fire has had on human evolution and history. No Prometheus, no arts or technology. But we are losing control of the fire…
Are you stacking blocks, or stringing your bow?
The purpose of this experiment is to introduce you psychophysically to the “bow and arrow” metaphor I described above.
Take a video of you standing side on to the camera.
Look at your lower and middle back - the whole area from (roughly) the sacrum to the back of the armpit. What shape do you see? Does it curve inward, or curve outward?
Now, imagine there is a thick elastic band between these two areas (there kind of is by the way!) - are both ends being pulled away from one another vertically? Or are you curving them towards each other at the ends?
Think of an elastic band - does it curve in the middle when stretched, or is it a straight line?! So… is your habitual standing position using these elastic connective tissues or not?
And if you tried to stretch this area directly, what happened to your shoulders? You maybe pulled them up and/or forward, while taking your head down at the same time! Are your shoulder and head really hardwired to your lower back in this way?
These “interrelations” between body parts are probably more complex than you think, and definitely more complex than you feel…
Have fun & enjoy your weekend!
Thanks for reading,
P.S. If you want to learn “psychophysical exercises” to improve your posture, focus & self-talk, then reply to this email, or message me on Twitter.
Great point about primary sources. It’s amusing (in a grim way) that it is now easier than ever to be original and have interesting ideas as all primary sources are virgin territory- unread and neglected. People have seen a reaction video to a Peterson lecture about a book about a book about Nietzsche, but no one has read Nietzsche directly, as it were.
Funny old world.
Great piece! I'm especially grateful for the exercises you put here.