Late last fall I was contacted by my high school, Marin Academy (MA), asking if I’d be interested to address current students and share my journey since graduation. Being aware of how little (read: nothing) I knew of spinal cord injury and paralysis-recovery when I was at MA, I knew this could be a great opportunity to expand understanding. So, what’s the topic?
At the time, I was both reading about and personally exploring the relationship between movement and personal identity: how we move and who we are. How do these two inform each other, and how can becoming aware of this interplay help us better understand ourselves?
I was totally digging this exploration for myself – of course, it relates quite a bit to the relearning of movement that I’m doing – and I thought that for teenagers going through the awkward time of self-discovery as their bodies are changing, linking the two could be really worthwhile. The date was a few months away, so instead of doing the standard “sharing my journey” presentation, I decided to dig deeper.
As a culture, we’re hyper-focused on bodies: ours and other people’s. We demand so much, and our bodies are amazingly able to deliver, yet we’re focused mainly on the athletic and aesthetic, but both of these are external.
What about the inside? Instead of the external nature of our bodies, how do we begin to tune our attention to the internal? Why would this even matter?
By tapping into an ‘internal connection’, what I mean is an awareness of what our bodies are telling us. Learning to listen, on the inside. Instead of the constant stream of commands from the top-down – go over there, walk this way, lift these bags, be quiet and relaxed so the brain can think – connecting internally is about opening up the conversation for a two-way dialogue between the head on top and the body below.
We have a word, or two, which describe just a part of this interaction: the ‘gut feeling’. This is a reaction or decision made with information that resides outside the brain. In fact, there’s a very clear anatomical reason for this: 80-90% of the signals carried by the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain directly to our heart and organs, are sent up, toward the brain, not down.
This makes sense given what we know about the plastic nature of the brain – simply put that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ – that learning motions and emotions at the same time would link them closely together.
In her book on Bartenieff Fundamentals and dance expression, Peggy Hackney writes in Making Connections, “Inner body connections are confirmed in action phrases during the time of the original neurophysiological patterning” (p. 32). With ‘original neurophysiological patterning’, Hackney is noting how these connections relate who we are with how we pattern our movement. Since this first occurred when we were young, becoming aware of these associations when we’re grown can teach us about our own personal development. Wild.
At least, it’s wild when you think about how these connections, this internal awareness, gives us new understanding of ourselves. What I am learning while incrementally connecting my own body again – consciously repeating the patterning process of my months-old self – is how integral these connections are to how I relate to the world outside of myself. Focusing on the former clarifies the latter.
So, all of this, to 50 teenagers, in 20 minutes, last week. I was impressed with the questions they had for me afterwards – some part of this very nebulous exploration resonated with them. I’ll be posting a video of the talk soon, so you’ll be able to see if the same is true for you…
Bergland, Christopher. "How Does the Vagus Nerve Convey Gut Instincts to the Brain?" Psychology Today. N.p., 23 May 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
Hackney, Peggy. Making connections: total body integration through Bartenieff fundamentals. Australia: Gordon and Breach Pub., 1998. Routledge, 2002. Print.