• From muscle memory to embodiment

  • From muscle memory to embodiment

    Air Acrobatics over Silverstone July 2016

    Try this. Fold your arms. Easy, effortless, no thought involved, right? Now try folding them the other way. Most likely unnatural, feels a bit weird and awkward, took some conscious thought and planning.

    You’ve just had the felt experience of the difference between something embodied and something not yet in muscle memory. Research suggests it takes three hundred repetitions of an action to get it into muscle memory, three thousand for embodiment (and ten thousand for mastery, as demonstrated by the aviation acrobats flying over Silverstone, amazing skill). 

    Most of us don’t give much thought to the notion we’re practicing something all the time. Yet if we pause and consider how we move through our lives, moment to moment, we are indeed practicing something all the time. Whether it’s how we hold our shoulders, worry, plan, attempt to control, smile, withdraw, meditate, be still, exercise or what beverage we choose to drink, we’re practicing something all the time. And we’re going to get very good at what we’re practicing. This is both the good news and the bad news. For we can just as easily practice something which serves us as does not.

    Let’s get concrete. I’m working with someone, let’s call her Amy, for whom breathing deeply doesn’t come naturally. She’s been practicing shallow breathing for most of her forty years on the planet, stemming from certain early circumstances we don’t need to go into here but definitely took care of her at the time. Shallow breathing has led to tightness through the chest and shoulders which creeps into the neck and jaw, sometimes causing intense headaches; it’s also led to holding through the belly and pelvic floor. The overall consequence is Amy maintains an almost constant state of fight/flight, adrenals overworked, a sense of tiredness and overwhelm. This way of being no longer serves her and we’re working on shifting her somatic state to something more supportive. 

    Change begins with awareness, and in Amy’s case, awareness around the breath. She’s almost completely unaware of her shallow breathing, it’s just how she breathes. The moment she brings her attention to the breath she can report on all the tightness I’ve just described and how effortful it is to breathe differently, more deeply, just like folding arms the other way. We have a long way to go. And we begin with taking a deeper breath, and another. And so on. Eventually it will be essential for Amy to attend to her breath beyond the times we spend together in session, for a dozen repetitions during one hour a week will be less effective than daily practice.

    Another scenario. Abdul wants to be recognised as a team player worthy of promotion into leadership. We’ve identified something getting in the way is his tendency to shrink from conflict. He disengages - drops eye contact, gets itchy feet, a deep impulse to move propelling him to flee the scene. As a leader he will need to not just tolerate conflict but be willing to initiate it sometimes (for the sake of conflict being generative). So we use somatic partner practices to stimulate the fight/flight impulse in his body, gradually building his capacity to sustain staying and facing into the relationship where conflict exist. How do we do this? By practicing, over and over again. How many times? You’ve guessed it. Three hundred just to get into muscle memory. And it will take three thousand for embodiment. 

    The difference between the two? Muscle memory reflects an action we can do, something possible yet consciously enacted (similar to conscious competence in the four stages of competency model), while embodiment is simply how we’re shaped, an automatic “second nature” response beneath conscious awareness (similar to unconscious competence). For example, someone beginning yoga may not be able to stand on one leg with any stability, while the yoga teacher, who’s been practicing for years, will do so with ease.

    Let’s follow Abdul on his journey to embodiment. From a family of high achievers, his deep commitment to being recognised and promoted buoyed a daily practice. Where others may have lost momentum, he endured. Initially his daily practice included grounding and centering, being curious about the sensations of the body to gradually expand his capacity to stay with the discomfort. As this became easier, he added a daily practice of leaning into conflict for the sake of building his capacity there. For example, rather than turn away from raised voices (commonplace at work) he would stand his ground, breathing and centering himself; he visualised hostility familiar in his family of origin and did the same thing, steadying himself in the here and  now. Abdul hasn’t chosen an easy path, yet it’s one he’s deeply committed to, and I’m happy to report he’s made significant progress in expanding his capacity to tolerate this particular type of discomfort.

    If either of these scenarios resonate with you, or if you have something similar to work with, feel free to reach out and initiate a conversation with me about how we could work together.