Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Fourfold Criterion before Knowing and Seeing

I was first made aware of the influence on human behaviour of four vestibular reflexes, by the late Ray Evans, who was a marine engineer, a student of yoga, my Alexander head of training, and a lifelong striver in pursuit of understanding of the human condition. Following Ray's example, in 1998-99 I underwent a year of professional training under Peter Blythe in Chester in order to look into the reflexes more deeply. From then on the process of investigating the reflexes gestated slowly in me -- hindered by doubt about whether excursions into the body of sometimes reductionist scientific knowledge called neuro-physiology might be an escape from truly holistic work.

Then about a year ago I was asked to give a talk on the reflexes at the annual conference of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) in Reading. I chose as the title "Four Primitive Reflexes." The talk seemed to go well, much better than I expected. Preparing for the talk, and follow-up work since, has encouraged me to think again about the four reflexes as the necessary a priori basis of Alexander work, of sitting-meditation as taught by Gautama the Buddha and Zen Master Dogen -- indeed as the a priori basis of all efforts to bring about true constructive change.

The four reflexes are all vestibular -- they are mediated at brainstem level by the vestibular nucleii and their development is broadly responsible for regulation of postural muscle tone. If the vestibular system is the foundation stone of human behaviour, the four reflexes can be seen as the four cornerstones.

To give them their 'scientific' names -- the names by which neuro-physiologists refer to them, they are:
1. The Moro Reflex.
2. The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR).
3. The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR).
4. The Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR).

To give them more descriptive names that reflect my understanding of them, they are:
1. The panic & grasp reflex;
- the reflex of instinctively breaking out of fear paralysis, stiffening the neck and throwing the arms out in panic, then clasping the arms in and grasping for security.
2. The head balance / vestibular training reflex;
3. The side-to-side pointing reflex;
- the reflex of intention, which opposes the instinctive panic reflex in the same way that the panic reflex opposes fear paralysis.
4. The top-and-bottom bridging reflex

I submit that underlying the four Alexander directions, underlying the four noble truths, underlying the underlying structure of four philosophies in Shobogenzo, and also underlying the four elements enumerated in the Maha-Satipattana Sutta, is this a priori foursome. The four vestibular reflexes constitute an a priori universal truth in that they are present in every human baby -- the first three reflexes at birth, the fourth when an infant comes onto hands and knees at around 6 months.

If it is true that any real change in human behaviour must take account of the four main reflexes, then maybe it should not be surprising that the number four, and multiples thereof, tend to crop up in practical teachings that are concerned with real (not only intellectual or psychological) change.

To anybody used to working with the four directions that Alexander recommended us to give "altogether, one after the other," the connection with the four reflexes is obvious once attention has been drawn to it.
1. Let the NECK be free
2. To let the HEAD release out
3. To let the BACK widen
4. To let the LEGS out

In the four noble truths:
1. Suffering may be equated with emotional attachments and reactions that are fuelled by and associated with the panic/grasping reflex.
2. Grasping (or "end-gaining" in AT jargon) is the origin/accumulation of suffering because of the universal defect that Alexander identified as unreliable sensory appreciation -- essentially a vestibular problem associated with imperfect integration of all four reflexes but no. 2 in particular. The faultier a person's vestibular-proprioception is, then the more that person tends to create harmful side-effects by grasping for a result. A dog whose coordination is perfect does not create harmful side effects when chasing a stick. The movements of a well-coordinated person fully committed to gaining an end, similarly, emanate only beauty. But most of the time most of us are not like that.
3. Stopping suffering might depend primarily on inhibiting the panic/grasping reflex and thereby quieting all the unconscious attachments and reactions that are secondary to it. As a movement, the panic reflex is a symmetrical pattern, which is opposed or inhibited by reflex no. 3, the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex. At the same time, whereas panic is an instinctive, unconscious, involuntary state, the pointing (or punching) reflex may be seen as at the root of all intentional activity -- so on this level too, the ATNR opposes or inhibits the Moro pattern.
4. The establishment of right pathways involves bridging the gap between instinctive, unconscious, reactive behaviour and more enlightened, conscious, decisive behaviour. (In physical terms, this may be equated with a harmonization of the energy centres in the head, the heart, and the pelvis.) This bridging of the gap between unconsciousness and consciousness depends on the mature evolution of all four reflexes, but ultimately on integration of the STNR, the bridging reflex. It has been said that a crucial difference between monkeys and humans is that (some) humans are able to walk upright with neck, hips, and knees fully and easily extended, thereby demonstrating inhibition of the STNR.... Anybody care to join me for a banana?

In the Maha-Satipattana Sutta, the four elements are:
1. Kaya; body.
2. Vedana; feeling
3. Citta; intention
4. Dhamma; realizations

In light of the four reflexes and also in light of the four stages that can be observed in Master Dogen's rules of sitting-meditation, I offer the following interpretation of the four elements:
1. Bodily non-emotion.
Just being physically present. Noticing how I am, without caring; being aware of what is going on in the body emotionally, without reacting further to bodily reactions that are already going on. If the ultimate aim is really to be free, to liberate the body from emotional attachment and reaction, the primary thing must be not to grasp, emotionally or intellectually, for that or any other result. In short, not to try to be a buddha. To be content to be the non-buddha.
2. Sensory non-perception.
Being open to sensory feedback about where I am, especially about where the head is relative to the rest of the body. Relying on the unreliable (but not totally relying on it) -- like Ray Mears consulting a cheap compass.
3. Intentional non-thinking.
Intending to allow. Willing fearless spontaneity, like a baby pointing (as if to say, "I want THAT one!"). Not only willing it, but also, eventually, intentionally doing something to get the ball rolling -- breathing out fully and swaying.
4. Non-doing.
Not me doing it. It doing itself. A spontaneous upflow of energy. Sitting as a spontaneous process. Body and mind spontaneously dropping off. Realizations of non-constancy in all its manifestations

To express it in sum, in light of the integral upward direction that unites the four:
1. Allowing oneself to be not necessarily up.
2. Sensing the possibility of an upward direction.
3. Thinking up.
4. Going up


Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...


There is a lot here that is intellectually beyond me so I wont even bother you with it.
Something did catch my eye though: “To be content to be the non-buddha”

I would like to know how you define: “content, Buddha, Non-buddha.”

If I am content, who needs Buddha? Where is non-buddha?

This could open up a lot of tangent lines of thinking too. If I were content, why and would I continue to seek what is true? If I am non-buddha, who is not non-buddha? These questions could go on ad nausea.

A thought that may or may not be a common construct I have is that we all have the ability to wake up. Trying to pursue it is worthless. But without pursuit it wont ever happen. I have thought that Master Dogens admonishment that sitting Zazen was enlightenment was not so trivial. Is wholehearted practice pursuit? Is the means the end? Dose it mater? My thoughts are yes. But the how and why are almost as varied as snowflakes.

Unrelated, but I just realized a simialarty in your blogg title “A WAY THAT CAN BE TOLD (NOT THE REAL WAY)” is similar to Lau Tzu’s Ineffability.

Thank you again, I am glad you have decided to start posting again.


Friday, May 18, 2007  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you for your questions, Jordan.

The tendency to go off at a tangent, losing the central plot, is also a vestibular problem. Any loss of direction, or disorientation, any sense of being lost, is at root a vestibular problem.

I have the tendency to go off at a tangent myself.

So we have to make an effort, again and again, with every session of sitting-Zen, to come back to square one, back to the starting point of the main plot. The main plot, the essential pivot, the pivotal essence, the criterion before knowing and seeing, I am suggesting here, has to do with the vestibular system.

Being content to be the non-Buddha is a starting point because any discontentment I have in regard to my present situation as it is, is liable to further excite the conflict between fear paralysis and the panic reflex, which will then have a knock-on effect to all the other vestibular reflexes and to vestibular functioning in general.

All the best,


Friday, May 18, 2007  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Further thoughts:

At the end of his rules for sitting-Zen, Master Dogen exhorts us: SO-SO NO ZANMAI O TEKISHI SE YO! Authentically succeed to the Samadhi of the ancestors!

The transmission from teacher to student of the Samadhi of accepting and using the self is a practical matter which is accomplished in a process involving sympathetic resonance, like that between tuning forks. It involves face-to-face communication, and shoulder-to-shoulder practice. It cannot be done over the internet.

Still, my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, has strongly emphasized the value of a neuro-physiological explanation and understanding of what Samadhi is.

The Sanskrit word Samadhi means “putting together.” So I think, first of all, Samadhi has to do with integration.

In Chinese characters Samadhi is either rendered phonetically (ZANMAI), or represented by a character that expresses fixity. Fixity means, in other words, stillness, the balanced state. Hence, according to Gudo, Samadhi is just the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system.

From working closely with Gudo on the translation of Shobogenzo into English, I came to understand that Gudo paints with a very broad brush, and he is not given to worrying too much about whether his actions are good or bad. Hence he would sometimes assert very domineeringly the truth of something -- the English translation of a particular sentence for example -- which he saw to be impeccably true but which I could see left considerable scope for further clarification.

Sometimes, in other words, what he was asserting was just true, but the manner and words he was using to assert it were mistaken. And yes, in criticising the other, as always, I am demonstrating the mirror principle.

The King of Samadhis is sitting in the full lotus posture, to which I have devoted myself as best I could for the past 25 years. Somehow this practice itself -- stimulated from time to time by Gudo’s inscrutable, cunning, and manipulative interventions -- has led me to understand that Samadhi has a lot to do with the vestibular system.

Through the four main vestibular reflexes, the vestibular system influences not only the balanced state of autonomic nervous system, but also the stillness of the head, and the body’s sense of horizontal and vertical. More than that, the vestibular nuclei in the brainstem are responsible for integrating all sensory input -- not only from the ears, joints and muscles, but also from the eyes and skin -- that is relevant to remaining upright. So if Samadhi has to do with integration, it must have a lot to do with the vestibular system, and not only the autonomic nervous system.

Just as, when using a lens, we can experience the visual system instantly coming into focus; or, when listening to the first birdsong of a silent dawn, we can experience re-awakening of the auditory system; similarly, when in the lotus posture we bow forward and backward, sway left and right, and then just sit still, we can instantly experience re-focusing or re-awakening of the vestibular system -- like a dragon finding water.

Propagation of Samadhi is a practical mission. Armchair generals and think-tank consultants can pontificate safely from afar, but at some point in the process bodies have to be put on the line. Twenty-five years ago I put my body on the line, and (emotionally/metaphorically speaking) got my arse shot off. Maybe that is why I feel a certain empathy with soldiers, from whichever side, who put themselves in danger of getting their own arses shot off. So, Jordan, in the middle way between being too careless and too careful, take care!

All the best,


Saturday, May 19, 2007  

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