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.