or, How Do We End Up With So Much Tension in the First Place?
(written in 2010)
At some point while studying the Alexander Technique or any other mindfulness practice, we realize just how much excess tension and effort we habitually bring to just about everything we do. And we ask ourselves, “Why do we carry so much tension?” That’s a big question and one many have tried to answer. Some say it’s society that damages us, others say that humans are ill-constructed. Still others will talk about environmental hazards, childhood traumas, weak muscles, karma, herniated disks, or psychological illness. But these arguments describe symptoms, not solutions. None answers a more fundamental reason for all that tension. So, what’s another way to understand the problem?
The Development of Ego
In his book, The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist monk Chogyam Trungpa speaks of meditation, mindfulness, and the development and trappings of our minds. One subject that comes up frequently is the ego. The process of ego, Chogyam Trungpa says, is “the effort to secure our happiness, to maintain ourselves in relation to something else.” He states this is ultimately futile because ego is not a solid thing, rather it is a process which consists of “a flicker of confusion, a flicker of aggression, [or] a flicker of grasping.” It is only because these flickers happen so quickly, “like watching a movie,” he states, that it seems like something solid–and it is this sense of solidity that we are trying to create.
The source of the effort to confirm our solidity is an uncertainty as to whether or not we exist. Driven by this uncertainty, we seek to prove our own existence... [Italics added by author.]
Is it possible that the process of proving to ourselves that we exist makes us tense?
Compensations, Proprioception, and Overstimulus
According to Chogyam Trunpga, the subtle “flickers” of ego are our unthinking compensation for a fundamental, subconscious confusion as to our own existence. What is the source of this confusion?
First, we have to examine our sense of self. Obviously this is a big and varied subject, and I certainly don’t mean to give a final answer here. However, a brief look at this subject is warranted. Where is our sense of self? Is it in our possessions, relationships, emotions, thoughts, body, awareness, or consciousness? Since so many people would have so many different answers to this question, I think we need to examine the sense of self. What do we sense? Beyond the five traditionally accepted senses – sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing – others exist as well. One of the most important of these other senses is your kinesthetic sense, or body awareness. How do you know to bring a cup to your lips when your eyes are closed? It’s your kinesthetic sense. How do you know how much effort you’re using at any point? It’s your kinesthetic sense. It is your sense of your body, your position is space, your movements, and, more than any of the “traditional” senses, it contributes to your sense of self.
However, kinesthesia is a subtle sense that can easily be ignored or put into the background of your awareness, much like the hum of the refrigerator or the din of traffic outside your window. Careful attention and a quiet mind are needed to attend to your kinesthetic sense, and most of us seem to have lost our awareness of our body. Perhaps we experience ourselves as being a little mind behind the eyes inside our head which controls the rest of our body like an automaton. Or perhaps we never pay attention to our body at all unless during a moment of pain or pleasure. In any case, the subtle, quiet nature of kinesthesia allows us to forget it quite easily.
Why does this matter? We live in a society with mind-numbing stimulation. It’s overwhelming. What happens to us when we become overwhelmed? Our awareness works in such a way that any new thing that arises gets priority over anything that’s been there for a long time. The refrigerator hums, but after a while, you just tune it out and you don’t notice it again unless the refrigerator suddenly turns off. The same thing happens with any of our senses. If we are being overwhelmed, say by a dramatic social situation, a TV, something that scares us, a difficult task requiring total skill and attention, or the engrossing constellation of our own neuroses, we might very easily lose awareness of our kinesthetic sense. Remember, our kinesthetic sense gives us a strong sense of self. If it is overwhelmed often enough, and with enough intensity, we can begin to lose our sense of self.
This is where Chogyam Trungpa’s insight into ego comes in. He states that ego is compensation for an “uncertainty as to whether or not we exist.” How could we be unsure of whether or not we exist? This may occur when we lose our sense of our body due to being overwhelmed by our environment and mind. When we are inundated with a thousand new things to do and think about and attend to, our minds become filled with a constant clutter of new information. We jump constantly from one new thing to another, leaving behind anything that’s been in our awareness for more than an instant – like our sense of our body. Over time, we become used to this constant jumping from one thing to another and then it seems normal and healthy.
What do we do when we begin to lose our proprioception, our primary sense of self? In an effort to “prove our own existence” we create more sensation within our body in order to compensate for the excessive sensation from without. Since our kinesthetic sense lives mainly in our muscles and joints, this is also where the sensation must be created. The most direct way for sensation to be created is thus by adding tension in our muscles. This extra sensation balances out the other sources of stimulation and restores some equilibrium to our sense of self. However, this new sense of our self is in the long-run unstable and unhealthy, leading to many negative consequences, including muscle pain, loss of range of motion, loss of vitality of movement, depression, and the enhancement of the ego, among others.
Mindfulness and the Return to Balance
Of course, none of us would let this happen to ourselves if we knew what was happening – except we didn’t know. It’s a slow, gradual process that takes form in a thousand little thoughts and misperceptions each day. Just like the hum of the refrigerator, something that happens as gradually as this recedes into the background and is no longer noticed. Over time, some of us come to the point where we have completely lost touch with our proprioception, and in response have created such an enormous amount of tension in ourselves that every muscle hurts and we can no longer do whatever it is we need to do. This is an extreme example, but some form of this – whether a “bad” back or a stiff neck – exists in most people alive today.
How can we overcome this pervasive problem? This is the work of mindfulness practices. Generally, when we practice mindfulness, we bring our attention to the present moment. We pay attention to the sensation of our body and, as the Buddhists put it, the “parade of thoughts” that stream through our mind so that we can come to know our own compensations, whether in the form of creating excess tension or letting ourselves be overwhelmed by external stimulus – the compensations can be hugely varied.
Every age has had its social stresses. Meditation, yoga, and other practices arose perhaps as methods to learn how to deal with the over-stimulation and distraction. This involves becoming fully aware of all the things we do to get in the way of ourselves – our compensations – including the “flickers” of ego and the excess tension that goes along with that. When we become aware of these things, they do not simply disappear and then we are free. True freedom from the stress of civilization and ego arises when we learn how to live in proper relation with them. Upright movement requires two things which are both its greatest limitations and the only means by which movement is possible: gravity and the ground. Likewise, we need to learn how to deal with our ego and our excess tension in order to be truly free. Learning how to be in relation to gravity, the ground, and ego is the work of mindfulness practice.
Our excess tension is not fundamentally due to poorly “designed” bodies, weakened muscles, or stress at work. In an environment where we are overwhelmed with stimulus, and without the training to know how to quiet our minds and release our bodies from excess tension, we begin to lose our sense of self. When this happens, we quite naturally compensate by bolstering our sense of self, trying to prove to ourselves that we exist. This happens simultaneously by increasing the sensation of our bodies by creating excess tension in our muscles and through the process of ego. Through a mindfulness training, such as meditation, T’ai Chi, or the Alexander Technique, we can begin see this process in action within ourselves. Thus, we can begin to untangle this web of compensation and free ourselves from excess tension and the trappings of ego.