Saturday, 27 August 2016

Who are you to decide?

In my previous post I was talking about Peter Levine's amazing book called "In an Unspoken Voice". It summarises what Levine has found over a career of over 40 years in the field of stress and trauma. Specifically I was talking about a section of the book from near the end where he discusses emotions and embodiment.

In this post I'm going to take another aspect from this same section of the book where he talks about change, and the concept of free will.

Free will

As I mentioned in the previous post, at the turn of 19th century psychologist William James concluded that rather than acting because we feel an emotion, we feel the emotion because we are (re)acting.

In his book, Levine discusses how this realisation highlights the illusory nature of perception. He says "We commonly think that when we touch something hot, we draw our hand away because of the pain. However, the reality is that if we waited until we experienced the pain, our hand might be damaged beyond repair. First there is a reflex, then comes the sensation of pain." Makes sense when you think about it...

There have now been many experiments that show that when you "decide" to do something, seemingly of free will, the activity in the brain starts about 1/2 sec (or more even) before you’re consciously aware of making that decision (the first experiment to show this was done in 1985). The brain starts by unconsciously preparing the motor action (springing to life as it were), then the awareness of the decision to move comes, then the action is made.
“Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done." – Dr. John-Dylan Haynes (a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)
William James argued that a person’s passing states of consciousness create a false sense of I or "ego" that runs the show – like a little man (or alien) inside our heads controlling things!

A little man in the head controlling things. From "Men in Black"

When we look at the reality of things, we see this is simply an illusion. The idea that we have a separate self that needs nurturing and protecting is simply not true.


Levine suggests that instead of "I think therefore I am" it should be "I prepare to move, I act, I sense, I feel, I perceive, I reflect, I think and therefore I am". (This sounds remarkably like the Buddha's 12-linked chain of causation.)

It's this unconscious preparation for action (or pre movement as he calls it) that's so interesting. Levine suggests that it's "because we are unaware of our environmentally triggered premovement that we falsely believe we are consciously initiating and constructing the movement. Furthermore, when the (unacknowledged) premovement drive is strong, we may feel compelled to fully enact the entire movement sequence." He then gives two examples:

Interrupting the premovement

The first is about his dog, who has a strong instinctual urge to chase other animals (don't they all!). He found that breaking his "habit" by reprimanding him after the chase never worked. However, "if at the very moment his posture changed as he noticed an animal up ahead (hinting at his readiness to leap forward), I would firmly but gently say "No, heel" then he would calmly continue on his walk." So he interrupted his dog in the premovement stage so the action was never carried out.

The other example is a Zen story.

A young, brash samurai swordsman confronted a venerated Zen master with the following demand: "I want you to tell me the truth about the existence of heaven and hell." The master replied gently and with delicate curiosity, "How is it that such an ugly and untalented man as you can become a samurai?" Immediately, the wrathful young samurai pulled out his sword and raised it above his head, ready to strike the old man and cut him in half. Without fear, and in complete calm, the Zen master gazed upward and spoke softly: "This is hell." The samurai paused, sword held above his head. His arms fell like leaves to his side, while his face softened from its angry glare. He quietly reflected. Placing his sword back into its sheath, he bowed to the teacher in reverence. "And this," the master replied again with equal calm, "is heaven."


Here the Zen master showed the samurai how to become aware and restrain his rage at the peak of feeling (just as this mind and body were preparing the action), so he could transform his "hell" of rage to a "heaven" of peace.

So here is the key to transforming our habits and moving from unconscious reactions to conscious responses. Bring awareness to the stages of premovement (I prepare, I sense, I feel, I perceive, I reflect, I think) before they graduate into a full-blown movement sequence. In Buddhism they say "to cool and extinguish the glowing embers before they ignite into a consuming flame".

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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