Before I begin any lecture, I notice that I pass through a ritual of movement that has not varied much over the years. I draw myself straight, I expand my shoulders, and I try to fill my face with an expression that is both intelligent and sincere. In short, I strike a pose. The dictionary says I “pretend to be something I am not.”
My audience never objects. We live in a society where striking poses is the norm. To move spontaneously and authentically is to invite disapproval. People would stare, they would wonder what was wrong with you and, if they couldn’t stop you in some way, they would turn their attention elsewhere. I don’t think I’m exaggerating here. Just try a little self-expression through movement in public and see what happens. It will probably work in front of your family as well.
Of course, in our culture, verbal expression is permitted, even honored. The more a person authentically and spontaneously speaks, the more they are encouraged by many of our institutions to advance, to ascend.
I understand that in China the converse is true. While verbal expression is carefully chosen and monitored for its political correctness, the parks each morning are filled with individuals doing tai chi. Al Hunang explains that tai chi is not really a series of movements or poses, but a physical expression of what the unconscious desires. He says, “true dancing is letting your awareness flow into movement.”
Physical and emotional pain are difficult to separate. David Morris says they are like two hands clasped together. But is seems clear to me that when we speak of our emotional pain, it is eased, and when we speak of our physical pain it is not. We know too, that the verbal expression that eases emotional pain cannot be scripted.
Would it follow that movement must be equally spontaneous if it were to relieve physical pain? Does this explain why choreographed regimes of exercise often don’t reduce pain in significant or prolonged ways? Is the epidemic of chronic physical pain in our society in some way the result of our cultural posturing, posing, and distaste for personal physical expression?
If I don’t say what I want to, my throat tightens. This is simply the isometric contraction of muscles that give voice to my thoughts once I permit verbal expression. Only then will the muscles relax. I wonder sometimes if the skeletal muscle tightness we see in patients with pain isn’t a similar process in the periphery, a process only completed once spontaneous movement is promoted. I tell my patients that the tightness they feel is movement unrequited, and they find it’s true.
When I pose before a lecture, I am playing the part I’ve chosen in my culture. Maybe my escape (so far) from chronic pain is the result of my tendency to honor and express my unconsciously motivated desire to move whenever I can. This is something my culture does not like.
I practiced a long time before I understood this and used such thinking to help myself and my patients. The time was spent working to see my own posing for what is was, and for what it did to me.
Huang A. Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain – The Essence of Tai Chi. Moab, Utah: Real People Press; 1973.
Morris D. The Culture of Pain. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press; 1991.