Fundamental patterns of orientation: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly

June 11th, 2007
The familiar figures of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly provide a fine example of two very different movement styles. In the picture above, a moment frozen in time, Fred Astaire embodies lightness with a sense of space and grace. It is as if he were suspended by invisible strings, weightless. Gene Kelly’s form is much more muscular; instead of taking off in flight, he seems to be ready to return to the ground. There is a sense of strength and weight about him, compared to Astaire’s airy style.

Below, we see the two dancers off-stage. The difference is even more apparent. Gene Kelly rests into the seat; there is a sense of weight supported. Fred Astaire appears light; even when sitting there is a sense of the space above.

The differences I am pointing out* could be attributed to a fundamentally different way of organizing “orientation, ” the basic approach to managing movement in the gravitational field. In Fred’s case, the orientation suggests a sense of space. Every movement begins with reaching up or out. In Gene’s case, the orientation is to the sense of weight or to the ground. He rests into the seat or the floor before moving. All the other complex moves unfold from this initial starting point. **

Orienting is the action that precedes all other movements–the “pre-movement”– the set-up that provides the starting point for a whole sequence, such as throwing a ball, or walking, or using our keyboards at the computer. Even the most basic actions, like looking at something or breathing, begin with a fundamental orientation to gravity. Orienting is the movement we repeat the most often, but because it is “pre-movement,” before we pick up the barbell, or see any visible sign of action, its importance often goes unrecognized. The basic pattern of orientation, as we see in the example of these famous dancers, is reflected in the actual physical shape of each one’s body, as well as in each of his steps. Kelly’s pushing off the ground leads to a more muscular frame; Astaire’s floating style keeps his muscles long and lithe.*** Orienting, the movement we do the most often, shapes us. It creates or contributes to the tension and overuse of certain muscles that is often the basis of chronic pain.

Regardless of their differences, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were both fabulous dancers. Although Ida Rolf had a preference for Astaire’s style, neither orientation is right or wrong. The key, as usual, is balance and awareness: Whether it is originally innate or acquired, once recognized, we can work with our habit of orientation; we can practice selecting a different perception to make up our pre-movement: We can develop such strong invisible marionette strings that we rest all the way into the ground, or we can learn to go from the ground to find the sky.

*The fundamental patterns of orientation were first introduced to me by Hubert Godard in 1990.

**A skit in the Ziegfield Follies, “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” provides a good opportunity for further investigation of the patterns in motion as the two dancers do the same steps at the same time throughout.

***I am not able to address the origin of the movement style–the proverbial chicken or egg issue–but I can say from experience that the shape of our bodies can change as we work with these preferences.

Organs, Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

May 10th, 2007

Organs and Emotions

In Chinese medicine and in Taoist meditation practices, caring for the energy flow through the organs is considered as important as cardiovascular health and muscle tone are to us here in the West.

The functioning of each organ also is associated with a specific emotional continuum:
the heart: with impatience, hastiness, and joy, respect, love
the lungs: with grief and courage
the kidneys: with fear and gentleness
the liver: with anger and kindness
and the spleen and pancreas: with worry, fairness and openness.


One way to approach caring for the organs involves attention, spending some time with the organs, the related sensations and associated emotions. One of the morning prayers in traditional Judaism thanks God that all the vessels that should be open are open, and all the ones that should be closed are closed–bringing our attention first thing in the morning back to the basic physical phenomenon of body. Our organs could be more than mere industrial chemical factories, more than strangers to us. In one meditation practice, Mantak Chia’s “Inner Smile,” you send a smile to each organ in turn, locating it physically and also bowing to the archetypal emotional principle each one embodies.

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East meets West: Emotion and the Autonomic Nervous System

This is a shift from our most common approaches to emotions, which usually involve trying to understand them, rationalizing, analyzing or denying, and a lot of blame of others or oneself. From the Taoist point of view emotion can be met more directly. Interestingly, this corresponds to Western science’s growing understanding of the role of the autonomic nervous system, the one in control of the famous “fight or flight” response. Before emotion gets involved with all the thinking about a feeling (and the further feelings this engenders), it begins below the level of consciousness, in the amygdala deep in the brain, and in sensations related to the responses thus triggered: sweating, rapid heart-beat and shallow breathing, muscular tension, etc. The act of smiling, or the process of allowing the breath to release and deepen, speaks directly to the animal nervous system that has already jumped into action, calming it back down. The approach of Eastern systems finds support in information from our very own scientific tradition. After all, everywhere, human beings are observing the same processes.

The inner dog

The responses of the nervous system would make complete sense for an animal in the wild. They prepare it to address an immediate threat by either mobilizing to fight or to run away. Unfortunately, we are the heirs to this very same nervous system; while it may be a jungle out there, most situations in which we find ourselves are not best met by fight or flight. Society has evolved more rapidly than our nervous systems.

What can we do to address this situation? I like to say that along with the well-known “inner child,” we might think of ourselves as having an “inner dog.” A major difficulty for “inner dog” is being able to detect what constitutes a true threat. Our brains associate life and death conditions with all kinds of situations: the boss yelling, the truck’s din as it passes by, and many, many topics of thought. (especially ones involving threats to anything which has become identified with “me”–my country, my baseball team, my self-image etc.). Each one of these circumstances triggers similar processes in our brain/body. The job for whoever is in charge of the dog, is to notice the signs of the reaction: the thoughts arising are already several steps behind the physical sensations which can be detected with practice. Changes in breathing, an increase in muscular tension, temperature shifts, any or all let us know that the autonomic (automatic) nervous system is reacting. These are the same signals that, when left unchecked, turn into what we call panic attacks.

The issue here is to incorporate into our world view the needs of this animal, living in society as we find it. We need to recognize the communications via body sensations and we need to attend to them instead of ignoring them, to learn to tune into them not to tune them out. They are behind so much of the tension which leads to so many of our chronic health problems. We must apply our scientific understanding to our daily experience of life so we can stay at ease in complex situations that we confront.

Further reading:

The Emotional Brain– Joseph LeDoux
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers– Robert Sapolsky
William James–
The Stress of Life– Hans Selye
Waking the Tiger– Peter Levine

Sitting practice

May 7th, 2007

Sitting posture. The most important thing is to have the sacrum free to respond to the breath. That’s true in every situation, and more so in meditation practice. One of my early Rolfing teachers used to say: “Don’t sit on your brain.” In one of the Taoist meditations, spine rocking–starting at the tailbone–is one of the basics for energy flow. As a starting point, the basic question of whether the sacrum is free, whether we can find tiny movement at the tailbone, is a principle that could serve as a guide for our individual differences when meeting the many options traditions offer. Better to sit in a chair if it allows the sacrum to breathe, than to sit in seemingly perfect lotus with the base of the spine locked. Opting for form alone, we could sacrifice the essential. On our knees, as in Zazen, will work for some; up on cushions until the space is made for the slight movement in the pelvic floor, for others. A sacrum free to respond to the breath is a good benchmark for standing practice also.

Sitting. What kind of stillness is present? Is it the mind that wants to move, undisciplined? or does stopping all the other activity reveal the movements that simply are; the body that inherently moves? We have to be so careful not to turn meditation into another project of the dominating ego. What is the body saying? Can we listen without assumptions?

Experiment Results

May 4th, 2007

I was introduced to the basketball pass experiment (see the post “Try this Experiment”) at a lecture by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Museum of Science. We were carefully instructed to count the passes among the white-shirted players. At the end of the video, we had succeeded–14, 15 passes–but not a one of the 250 people had seen a gorilla-suited person walk across the scene. In order to focus on the white shirts, to succeed at our task, our brains chose to screen out the entire category of “black movers,” no matter how unusual.

Attention/perception is most often selective. Even when we are not as deliberately focused as in the situation described above, even right from birth, we meet the world with preferences; we are making choices about what matters. The question, though, is who is choosing? There’s a famous image of all of knowledge as a pie, where one slice represents what we know, one slice what we know we don’t know, and the whole rest of the pie: what we don’t know we don’t know. What information are we screening out without even realizing it? Open attention, in which we try to open the doors of perception, not to choose or evaluate, seems to have to be practiced. (see post “Meditation and the Mind”). It is not clear that it ever just comes naturally. Our brains come with certain predispositions. What assumptions may we be making? How do they shape our experience of life, of relationships? Can we see into our conditioning at all?

Try this experiment

May 1st, 2007

Follow the link to try this experiment.

When viewing the video, see if you can count the total number of times that the people wearing white pass the basketball. How many passes?

Then watch it again.

More at

My comments coming in the post titled “Experiment Results.”

Meditation and the mind

April 30th, 2007

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist researching the effect of meditation on the brain*, reports that in the state of open attention, non-directed awareness, there was diminished activity in an area of the brain that normally assigns emotional value, the orbitofrontal cortex. The results were consistent in all 6 of the adepts that were being studied. It seems that the practice of open presence could be a way to train ourselves out of the need to associate immediately a positive or negative assessment to a thought, sounds, the range of sensory experiences–to condition the mind away from immediate judgments. Evolutionarily, the habit of rapid association of value with experiences once could have been very important for human survival. Today, it seems almost the opposite: most of the situations in which we find ourselves would be better served by greater perspective, not snap judgments.

During the practices that are designed to generate compassion, there was a huge increase in the left-side activity in prefrontal regions which is associated with an increased level of positive emotion. Aside from what it might do for others, the practice of generating compassion might truly benefit the practitioner as much or more!

Both these results imply that meditation–practicing choice in how we use our attention–seems to be able to have an impact on the workings of our brains. Though it can seem that we have little choice in where our minds go, it turns out that the mind is actually more like a muscle. It is being conditioned through activity. While the capacity to be conditioned may be hardwired, this research shows that we can have an impact on it: with practice, we can direct the conditioning of our minds. Could this practice be just as important for our health as a well-conditioned cardiovascular system?

*Resource: The Dalai Lama at MIT (These are conference proceedings from the 2003 meeting between the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks and scholars and Western scientists) 2006

Imagining the body

April 29th, 2007

After seeing the Bodyworlds exhibit and after reading Shigehisa Kuriyama’s book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine.

The Bodyworlds exhibit offers an unusual point of view for those who have never seen a dissection: plastinated corpses exposed in various positions–but it also dramatically reinforces the false but common notion of the body as an inert object. Kuriyama’s beautiful book reminds us that there are many other ways to imagine the body.
In the minds of the very ancient Greeks and Chinese, the concept of muscle barely existed. Homer’s Iliad speaks of sinews and flesh, but what moved their heroes were the gods. The ancient Chinese spoke of a vital force, “mo,” in poetic language: It could be slippery or rough, floating, hollow, flooding, hidden, leathery or faint. What moved human beings into action, illness or health, was always elusive, mysterious, perhaps divine. The importance of “muscle” that we take so for granted today came into common use only with the rise of the personal will, the individual as prime mover–the muscles, agonist and antagonist. Kuriyama offers the possibility of remembering another option. How much more inspiring to reach for the possibility of experiencing “body” as a relationship– breath, weight, balance–interactions with the world from which we can never be truly separated.

Living with Uncertainty

April 20th, 2007

Anyone suffering with chronic pain is intimately familiar with the problem of living with uncertainty. Each specialist may offer a strong opinion about what is wrong (it’s your back;it’s your disc; it’s your muscles; it’s your mind) with a solution that follows ( exercise, surgery, stretching or strengthening, meditation, drugs)–but with no guarantee. The patient (from patiens, to endure) is usually left, paying out of pocket, to put together all these opinions on her or his own.
In his book A Different Universe, Robert Laughlin (nobel physicist) points out a fundamental difference in attitude about uncertainty in science: In physics, which comes from the same stream as chemistry and engineering, uncertainty is just considered bad science, whereas “the essence of biology is living with uncertainty.” Biology, Laughlin writes, evolved from agriculture and medicine, presumably paths used to valuing the educated guess.

When it comes to many kinds of chronic body (somatic) problems, the frustration of not knowing exactly what’s wrong (we only know that it hurts) may be as bad as the pain itself. Chronic problems invite us to a new relationship with ourselves: instead of labels, we have experiences, instead of certainty, we have the process of discovery. As with all our relationships, we may not have learned to value finding out as much as knowing. But when generic solutions fail, we are invited to meet our individuality and to discover many dimensions of meaning and a myriad of possibilities. We are invited to experience the wholeness of problems: to bring the physical therapist, the specialist, the psychotherapist, the general practitioner all into the room together; we are invited to find the willingness to invite it all in and thereby, to find out something new.
My favorite quote attributed to Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler.”