Proprioception is the sense of movement of joints and muscles in the body. It
is different from interoception, the sense of the internal organs, including pain
and hunger, and exteroception, which is the sense of the external world through
sound, smell, outer-skin sensation etc. By its very nature, proprioception is an
individual experience, of the movement in space of one’s body segments, in
relation to each other, and to space and gravity.
When we begin to speak about proprioception, it is important to note the scale
of the spectrum of experience that it refers to. It can refer to large movements of
the limbs, such as the extension and abduction of the lower leg joint in a forward
step, or it can refer to the fine sense of a small percentage rotation of the index
finger in the transverse plane. So we are talking about a range of movements of
some 360 joints of the human body of which we can have conscious awareness,
to a greater or lesser degree of subtlety.
For movement and embodiment practitioners, whether dancers, martial artists,
yoga practitioners or sports people, proprioception is one of the primary
dimensions of the experience of awareness of the human body. Within this sense,
awareness can be developed and married to fine-motor control, as well as to
sustained concentration on large joint movements. Fine motor control and large
joint awareness and control can be melded to create conscious movement of an
entire segment of the body, such as the shoulders, neck and arms. An awareness
of whole body motion, as in the conscious awareness of a large number of joint
movements at one time, can be developed and become a staple of conscious daily
‘So what?’ might be a suitable response, but perhaps you might also permit me
to argue a particular sentiment; First: It is the universality of proprioception
that, seen clearly, allows a practitioner to work with the spatial dimension
of consciousness itself, preceding any externally derived systemic structure.
Second: ‘Creative Incarnation’ can be seen as the practice of developing
proprioception in an individual and flexible manner, according to one’s individual
desire or curiosity. Third: The spectrum of proprioception ability is such that a
creative attitude to developing one’s body map can lead to manifold equally valid
experiences of embodiment. Fourth and finally: The investment of attention in
one’s developing proprioception can be an end in and of itself.
Proprioception, the universal sense.
Techniques such as the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais are systems whose
goal is better movement function, through awareness of movement. Qi-gong
and Yoga are philosophically or spiritually orientated practices in which improved
proprioception is either symptomatic or causal of progression. Indeed, both could
be true. An Olympic swimming coach will train a swimmer to refine his stroke
to get the best results from the interaction between arm and water. Likewise,
a ballet instructor will teach a student to hold and move a limb in a precise
range of motion. Good instructors are working on this level, being aware of the
potential for awareness in the student. Essential to all of these embodiment
practices is a developed proprioception. Similarly if you take, for instance, walking
meditation and/or other ‘Zen’ orientated practices, or any practice of awareness
of movement, already we are talking about proprioception. The foundation of a
conscious walking practice is dependent on subtle proprioception. This universal
dimension of bodily awareness is ever-present, immediately accessible, and
perhaps most importantly, plastic. This is to say that the awareness is malleable.
One’s body map is not fixed, it is changeable and subject to deepening awareness
of movement. What this means is that any practice or learning of an action will
change the body map of the practitioner. The motivations to practice are varied,
and so we get in practitioners a wide range of results according to their practice.
A boxer will have a developed proprioception relating to arm, head, neck and
shoulder in the context of strike range and defensive maneuvers such as parries
and ducks. The utility of training such special awareness for the sport of boxing is
plain to see. Therefore we can say that proprioceptive development responds to
the intention of the practice.
Motivation is a complex topic to discuss, because it refers to a practitioner’s
sense of purpose and meaning. It is easy to see that a sports person, being a
competitive spirit, will train hard in order to win, to be the best they can be
at their sport. What might be less common, or obvious, is that it is possible to
cultivate a non-competitive practice (even dance can be highly competitive) of
developing proprioception. There is something that happens when we take off
the rigidity of competition or professionalism from the body. It can be described
as an individual practice of moving, for the sake of the expansion of the embodied
experience. It is true that external motivation is a powerful force, one that is
made good use of in learning of all kinds. There may come a time, however, when
ones practice, or the edges and context of one’s practice, (indeed the motivation
itself), become vague and obscure to the external observer. What happens when
there are experiences, available to and experienced by a person, which have no
cultural or professional context?
The human being in today’s world is shaped by powerful forces. It is true that
we are educated with certain ideas and information, and that we pick up certain
philosophies and attitudes towards life based on our intellectual atmosphere.
We inherit certain emotional patterns, and importantly, an attitude towards
ourselves. We develop a more or less functional sense of what it means to be a
human. However, what is talked about sometimes, but perhaps not enough, is
the way we are conditioned to relate to embodied, or incarnated experience, or
in many cases, the lack of such experience. Needless to say, the body has been a
scapegoat for much of humanities failings, and we are at a time when body image
and body experience are often very different from each other, not to mention
distorted by socio-cultural attitudes.
Each person is an incarnated experience, whether you take the view that we
are ‘fallen angels’ as in esoteric philosophy or ‘risen apes’, as in evolutionary
biology, it is no matter for this argument. The word incarnation here refers
to the embodiment of consciousness, meaning that more body awareness
is more incarnation; more awareness of subtle body experience is subtler
incarnation, and so on. The point being that each person has either inherited or
developed to a greater lesser degree, an individual set of patterns of incarnation.
Underneath the patterns is the natural body itself. If we take that our patterns
are malleable and respond to intention, we can see that incarnation is a flexible,
individual process. ‘Creative Incarnation’ then, is a creative or original practice of
incarnation. A painter paints, a guitar player plays guitar, a dancer dances, and
each has access to their creative medium to the degree they have familiarized
themselves with it. With the art of ‘Creative Incarnation’, there is never an action
where conscious familiarization is not possible. If a painter, for example, is taught
that good paintings only use the color red and vertical lines, they will have to
take some risks if they want to experiment with horizontal lines and blue paint.
Likewise, incarnation beyond the culturally, socially or religiously accepted norms
will require some courage. And we’re not talking extremes here; sitting or lying
down in an ‘inappropriate’ place has many social implications, let alone practicing
spinal undulation in public.
Projection and the Unknown
For better or worse, human beings have the ability to imagine scenarios. The
effectiveness of this ability in learning is obvious, and it is well documented
that visualizations of future events assist in the learning context. The unknown
aspects of life and experience are often liable to be subject to our imagination,
and the experience of security is enough motivation to engage in this habit.
What happens is that the gap of the unknown is filled, more or less, by our
imagination. This imagination is informed by conceptual and visual sources that
we have come in contact with. This might seem like a tangent, but I would like
to propose an idea. What if the unknown is a fundamental principle of learning,
and therefore life itself? We can intend to know everything, sure, but until we
reach this perhaps mythical level of understanding, the unknown will continue
to affect our experience. The motivation to explain or imagine away the anxiety
of the unknown is sound, but what happens is that concepts intended to aid
understanding can and often lead to limited experiences of life. Worse, when
those concepts refer to or attempt to explain ourselves and our experience, we
can end up with a limited experience of ourselves. Indeed, identity in the modern
world is an external affair. If the unknown is the trigger for our formulation of or
subscription to a particular conceptual paradigm, then does it not make sense to
reclaim the unknown as an internal dimension?
It is this final point which I would like to emphasize. It is the much unknown
nature of our own direct experience that might lead us to reach for abstracted
attitudes to life. In what ideas do we place our hopes, and how do these ideas
relate to our experience?
What happens if we cultivate a deliberate and conscious attitude towards
the unknown within us? In this context, ‘Creative Incarnation’ could be self
exploration, with no intention or desire to know the full extent of one’s
experience, but rather as a function of consciousness itself. As soon as the
unknown is supposedly eliminated within us, it must find a home, and therefore
a conceptual mask, in the external world. It is possible to develop a practice of
unfolding the unknown as a method of honoring it as the eternal unknown, with
no intention to mask it with concept. As mentioned above, the investment of
attention in one’s developing proprioception (in this case an internal, eternal
unknown) can be an end in and of itself.
Proprioception, our experience of movement through space, not only from
point A to point B, but of the space within us, responds to attentive practice by
unfolding and deepening.
If the doorway of immediacy is held open, life itself streams through.
Individuality and Insight
Perspective is one of the great elements of the human experience. To be able to see, to perceive from an angle unique to oneself, is an essential resource for life. The use of the metaphor of sight here is for the sake of discussion, but really, 'having perspective' is an experience that comes in the form of insight. Becoming aware of an element is the first part of a process in which the element is registered as part of a system of elements. Deriving meaning, then is a process of making sense of a perspective. Once the meaning is felt, we have integrated the perspective, and then can be said to have 'insight'. Insight is that sense of 'sense', that somehow something is seen for what it is (and here I mean 'is' in the fluid sense; isness changes), thereby making it possible to have a relationship with it. Before an objective relationship with aninsight is formed, it is difficult to accept it and thus respond. It is significant to define 'objective' here not as 'detachment', but as 'respect'. Insight is the resolution of this process, and is this a spring-board for a new process of life.
To be able to have perspective is one thing, but to contemplate it long enough to entertain its validity is quite another. Perhaps one the greatest barriers to this is a lack of faith in ones perspective, and indeed, ones contemplative process. Given time, an open relationship to perspective, (and an individual one at that) can give access the power of insight. What is faith in oneself? To speak of such a thing is to open a big can of worms.
Western culture carries with it two contradictory ideas about the individual. On the one hand, man is at base inherently evil, with animal instincts that need to be suppressed. This is the carry on of original sin. It manifests as distrust in humanity, and sets the stage for authoritarian ethics. I.e 'We are no good, and our salvation is the formation of the human according to principles derived from a higher authority'. This higher authority has been, variously religious and secular, the difference in practical terms for the individual is somewhat irrelevant. Particular to authoritarian ethics is that goodness, rightness and moral superiority comes from obedience and belief in the omnipotent power of such an external authority. The power of the authority can be overt, as in the Vatican, for example, or subtle, as in the anonymous presence of 'The greater good' in societies and in nation-states. On the other hand, the idea of individual achiever is celebrated, and we are encouraged to 'develop a good character, a good personality'. Who we are matters in the competitive marketplace of the professional world. Rather, who we appear to be matters. Excellence is to be striven for, and one must get ahead of the pack in order to stand out. Standing out makes us attractive, and being attractive gives us the edge in the world of status, employ-ability, and social recognition. Indeed, the 'self-improvement' is a compensation for the belief that at core we are bad. This contradiction, at worst, creates neurosis. How can an individual both be bad at the core, and convince others that shim is valuable? A very common manifestation of this psychic schism is that of 'altruistic self denial'. 'I'm no good, so the best I can do is serve the greater good'. This is not to say that there is no greater good, but rather that the faith in the goodness of humanity must begin with faith in oneself. An individual is not separate from humanity, indeed oneself is ones first port of call in the experience of humanity.
The epidemic of 'altruistic self-denial', in the form of self-image or self-concept worship is one of the great unspoken issues of our time. To understand this issue we can turn to ethics. The difference between authoritarian ethics and humanistic ethics is highly relevant to this discussion. The latter is concerned with faith in a person, and their feelings, as being legitimate and valuable indicators of ones welfare (or lack of). The denial of feelings, the distrust of emotional content, is an illness, symptomatic of which is the conviction that one doesn't really exist, or maybe that ones needs aren't real. The question of ones existence or non-existence is far less interesting here than the implied motivation for nihilism. Why would an individual entertain the idea that they are not individually important? Leaving aside 'mystical union' and other experiences of a 'transcended self', the individual is defined here as a body, a nexus of experience. It is true that not all experience is pleasurable, and it is normal to avoid pain (at least in most). What happens if the experience of pain is repeatedly attributed to existence of an individual self? Put simply, the sense (somatic) of self cannot withstand the repeated scape-goating of an authoritarian ethic (the manifestation of which is external or internal, overt or subtle) without interruption to the individuation process.
Ok, so what? If we manage somehow to reclaim the projection of power from an external authority (and correlating internal mental habit), we must still integrate all of the associated psychic elements, including the desire to dominate, hatred, and the violence inherent in categorical thinking and the competition between thought-forms. Evilness, then, can become an entity apart from any specific locus. This entity is the keeper of this power, and we can experience it as an adversary, or an ally, depending on our ability to work with it in the psychic landscape. Once we have moved through any negative material surrounding our understanding (physical and otherwise) of power, we can see power as neutral, and ultimately a resource for the creative potential of humanity. It easy to trick oneself into feeling 'holy' whilst maintaining malignant projection patterns. The real trick is to stay with the phenomenal (somatic) experience of the thought-form long enough to avoid attaching it to someone or something else in the external world, and this is altruistic, albeit less overt than charity fund-raising. Once an uninterrupted relationship with the particular phenomenon is achieved, it becomes part of the body-mind system as a whole. It is important to note that while the phenomenon doesn't cease to exist, it can become quietened, allowing room for whatever is the next material for contemplation. This conscious holding of energy is essential for a similarly conscious investment of that same energy in one's life.
The act of seeing objectively with respect, each thought-form as it passes through the experience nexus of the body, can be called perspective. The key point being that we must be able to see the power of thought forms clearly (right relation), using the lens of the body, before we have the time to have 'Insight'. Insight, as outlined above, is meaning derived from a system of elements. Meaning to whom? The individual, who is the body. An individual has the power (once reclaimed) to understand the meaning of power, in relation to the various tones of experience of the body.
Insight is the negotiation, of the central axis of the individual body, with the mandala of the psychic realm, arriving at a harmonious orientation. Harmony can be seen as the stablest foundation to respond (to life) from. The way the body experiences harmony (or lack of) is the best and primary material for examining the barriers to Insight. In the long run, the psychic landscape continues to become at once familiar and mysterious, deepening and expanding.
The early 1900’s saw the beginning of the progressive movement of labor and cultural reform in the USA, and its rise as a world power. They were starting to be taken seriously, and their foreign policy was driven by a powerful patriotic sentiment. 1917 saw the declaration of war on the Empire of Germany. Economic growth followed the end of the war, building through the ‘roaring 20’s’ and ending in economic disaster in the crash of 1929. The great depression lasted right through to 1940, when the Second World War fueled an economic rebound, as a result of war production. The 1940’s were the beginning of the ‘Baby Boomers’ generation. This population growth was supplemented by increasing immigration from Europe, continuing its artistic and intellectual influence on the USA, begun earlier.
Arthur Miller was born in 1915, and grew up during the Great Depression; indeed his family lost almost everything in the crash of 1929. Miller worked menial jobs to pay for his college tuition, studying Journalism at the University of Michigan. It was here that he wrote his first play No Villain. He enjoyed increasing acknowledgement as a playwright, both for his controversial subversive writing, and his first real success was All My Sons (1946), winning him the Tony Award for Best Author. The culture of theatre, within which Miller became established as a writer, had some particularly relevant elements. Indicative are some significant American plays from this period. A few include Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), The Skin of our Teeth (1942), and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Our Town deals with the familiar family microcosm, and the preciousness of life, as intimated through the relationships of his characters. The Abstractionist influenced The Skin of Our Teeth is a tribute to human durability in the face of disaster (a response to the Depression), and spotlights the struggling American family. A Streetcar Named Desire is a desperate tale of self -delusion and futility, set in the harsh and gritty New Orleans. It is interesting to consider that this period is the context in which Miller hit his stride (he received his BA in English in 1938).
Themes such the ‘American Dream’, family life affected by social and economic pressures, conflicting ideals and values, and the continuing rise of individualism all give rich subject matter to Death of a Salesman. The play is one the most influential of the 20th century, if not the most. It was the first play to win all three of the top theatre awards, the Pulitzer, the Tony and the Drama Critic’s. Perhaps one of the reasons for the play’s success is its incredibly effective melding of the public and private realms. The domestic drama draws attention to the cultural shifts of the time. It is set in a family home in Boston, in the 1940’s, and in the places the family members go during the story. In this limited environment, we peer into the life of an ordinary family. There is a dreamlike quality to the play, used to portray the worsening mental condition of the protagonist, Willy Loman. Willy is an ageing salesman, obsessed with greatness, though possessing none. A slow and painful process of disillusion takes place, and we observe the effects of the change through the relationships between the family member’s private interactions. Willy is married to Linda Loman, and has two sons, the recently returned eldest, Biff Loman, and Happy Loman. All three are affected by Willy’s worsening condition, and this is the main source of dramatic tension in the play. The content and themes are emotionally compelling, and give crucial weight to the subject matter. Whilst all of the dynamics between the characters are powerful, perhaps the most poignant is that between Willy and Biff. Central to the play is the conflict between the two, and powerful identity issues around idealistic expectations, self-aggrandizement, and the pressure to succeed are engaged with through the dysfunction of the father-son relationship. Biff is in many ways an antagonist. Because he is pressured to meet desperate expectations of success, he becomes a scapegoat for failure. His identity evolves through the play to eventually disown the unwanted projections. Thus, Biff cannot save his father from the doom of reality, that he is not great, that his dreams are dead. The final scene is intensely powerful, and in it we are shown the critical nature of the struggle of the common man against his condition. The play can be seen as a cross-section of the effects of the environmental pressures of the time, on a family made of people that we are endeared to because of their realness. There is no grand manifestation of heroism here, only the gritty truth of human imperfection. The domestic nature of the ancient theme of the ‘tragic fall’ is the source of its accessibility, and thus it continues to be an important text today.
Arthur Miller said, “The mission of theatre is to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities”. In this context, the actor can be seen as an agent of consciousness, working with the language of theatre to give expression to the perhaps obvious but unvoiced elements and dynamics of human experience. Death of a Salesman is a fine example of this at work. Elia Kazan, who was heavily influenced by Group Theatre, directed its first running. Group Theatre was intended as a springboard for the kind of theater its founders believed in, a forceful, naturalistic and socially conscious theatre. The teachings of Stanislavsky were developed through Group Theatre, into what was known as American Method, or Method Acting. This method involved a direct embodiment of genuine emotional experience, and so we see the actor being a vessel, or a channel for the shifting energies of the psyche, both individual and collective. This channeling process in the theatrical context gives a focus point, an arena for revelation, and thus the evolution of consciousness. Great tensions, internal and external, between humanity and our environment, are released through great art.
Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller – Penguin Plays 1961