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Institute of Manual Neuroscience


Chapter Two: The Life That Awaits Us

By Dr. Jeff Rockwell

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of life, and the marvelous structures of reality. It is enough if one tries to merely comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity." – Albert Einstein

Perhaps the "patron saint" of bodyworkers, movement therapists, and their students and clients should be Curious George. I've always been curious about how things work, including and especially manual therapy and movement education. As a child my parents sometimes admonished me for this trait for, in all honesty, it often got me in trouble. My mother would parrot the tired maxim, "curiosity killed the cat." I guess I was supposed to file that information along with other lines of wisdom such as "Money doesn't grow on trees." It wasn't until years later, when I was living in the South, that someone told me the rest of the saying: "Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back."

In recent years, we saw the explosive success of the book and film "The Secret." Many people's lives were, and continue to be, impacted in a positive way by such books and movies. But often the results are not long-lasting. There is a piece missing that short-circuits the process unless it's incorporated into the changing of one's mind. I believe that missing piece is bodywork and movement therapy and, especially, the adoption of a somatic viewpoint.

Most of us were raised in families, churches, and other social communities where we were taught what – and even how – to think. Rather than exposing us to their values, people imposed them on us. No one is to blame here. This is how things are done in a “subluxated” world. In the first seven years of life, we are all like "little Buddhists," effortlessly slipping into altered states, seeing "energy," talking with “imaginary” friends, and soaking up our world and sensory experiences like thirsty sponges. But not every belief we were exposed to was healthy for our nervous systems, not to mention the rest of our lives.

In general, living somatically means, in part, living by the conclusions of our own thinking. It also means thinking with our body, listening to the biological wisdom speaking through our cells. Dogma is living by the conclusion of someone else's thinking. Entraining ourselves to the dogmas of the external world marks the beginning of forfeiting our inborn somatic relationship with our reality. Some experts in child development consider the typical indoctrination process to be a form of child abuse, a violation of a child's spirit, the human spirit. Dr. Andrew Newburg, of the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted studies showing that dogmatic, separatist thinking, especially one accentuated by anger, damages the brain. If this is not a form of insanity, I don't know what is.

As we move further into the 21st century, we are recognizing that subluxation, a clinical term used by the chiropractic profession, is not necessarily a vertebral phenomenon, but a neurological one. This really shouldn't be news to anyone, as traditional chiropractors have long intended to engage the nervous system to facilitate the expression of health in their patients.

Many of the beliefs stirring up the most trouble in the world today date back to the Iron Age. While some claim "believing never hurt anyone," we see many beliefs being played out that are not the least bit benign. As we find ourselves in increasingly sophisticated technological territory, there are rather grave consequences to holding onto antiquated beliefs.

Consider for example that, without the aid of today's technology, humans have killed more than 160 million other humans in warfare based on religious and nationalistic ideologies.

In 2015, there are more than twenty religious conflicts going on, according to Amnesty International. The destruction that used to require armies of thousands can now be created by a single "believer" with a suitcase bomb.

Chiropractors speak about changing the world "one spine at a time." Advocates of the Law of Attraction may talk about changing the world "one thought at a time." There's truth in both positions, and we can leverage those truths for greater gain if we exercise our curiosity regarding this "thing" called the subluxation.

Subluxation is a disease. That was not a typo. I did not mean to say subluxation is "dis-ease." You read it right the first time. Subluxation is a disease of perception, in which outdated beliefs become and remain somatized as part of our neurology – and lives – if left unchallenged. A stress-filled life, in which we take our cues from the culture rather than from our internal biology – produces stiffness and pain and, even more significantly, a disconnection or forgetfulness on the part of the brain regarding areas of the body, mind and spirit. Perhaps you've heard about muscle memory or have heard the saying, "the issues are in the tissues." These are apt descriptions of sensorimotor amnesia, in which people suffer needlessly because "what you cannot sense you cannot move. And what you cannot move you cannot sense."

Dr. Bruce Lipton has demonstrated that when we repeat the same beliefs over and over, we become a closed system functioning on autopilot. He's noted that taking a living system as profound as the human organism, and rendering it into a sophisticated sort of automaton, causes the brain to undergo structural changes. The hindbrain, with its propensity for reactive emotions and dualistic perceptions of the world, enlarges, while the prefrontal cortex, with its capacity for compassionate thinking, empathy and unitive awareness, shrinks.

I recall a time, back in the 1980s, when some chiropractic and bodywork detractors said things like, "Well, these therapies may help those with back pain," or "chiropractic adjustments may, at least, help people become more flexible." I find the latter statement intriguing. To me, one of the healthiest and most loving things we could do for ourselves is to consistently court flexibility of body and consciousness through bodywork and movement therapy.

Functional MRI studies are now revealing that strong, inflexible beliefs, especially negative ones, do not make "neurological sense" to the brain. In response, it builds up tension in its emotional centers – which include the posterior portion of the spinal cord, and cause the production of nociceptive irritants--noxious chemicals, keeping a person in a sustained "fight or flight" neurological state.

We may read a library full of self-help books, or listen to one positive thinking guru after another, and we may change for a few days or weeks. With enough effort we may feel “brand new” for even a few months. Without embodying these ideas—taking them into the body and “digesting” them, long-term happiness is unlikely to result. Motivational thinking is often a substitute for real thinking. Neither body nor mind are truly engaged.

If you turn on talk radio and listen to everybody complain about everything going on in the world, you will soon feel negative yourself. This is because we have mirror neurons in the brain that entrain to and reflect another’s state. Conversely, if you listen to someone who speaks in a positive manner, whether it's a minister or a priest or simply an inspiring family member or friend, your mirror neurons will cause you to engender positive feelings and emotions within yourself. Each of us has the opportunity to consciously bring our mind and concentration to bear on ideas and concepts that are more positive and bring us to a more optimistic and faithful way of looking at things. If we can do this on a regular basis, as a type of spiritual practice, we will optimize those kinds of feelings within ourselves. The more we continue to focus on positive ideas – which are different than "positive thinking" – the more the brain literally rewires itself to be more positive and resourceful.

When asked what makes people think what they believe is true, many respond that they "just feel it." Of course they do. The beliefs have become embedded into their emotional neurology, causing adverse nervous system changes, increasing the likelihood that they will continue beating up on anyone who doesn't agree with them, regardless of whether or not their beliefs are true. This includes beating up on ourselves, as we fight with the voices and conditioning of our early past, information that becomes, to the extent that we are subluxated (i.e. perceptually challenged), cemented in place. We have all seen this in our patients and clients and, if we are honest, in ourselves. We are fighting a losing battle because, in a very real sense, we are fighting rather than flowing with life. A flexible neurology and a flexible consciousness allow us to flow with the ever-changing mystery that life is. Sensorimotor awareness and somatic consciousness allow us to draw our own conclusions about life--and who we share life with--on our own, from the inside out.

This all sounds sweetly poetic, but what do I really mean? You may be familiar with the late neurobiologist Candace Pert, PhD., who authored the best-selling book, "Molecules of Emotion." She was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in medicine in the early 1970s for her work in identifying the chemical cause of the "runner's high," endorphins. Her later work demonstrated that these types of chemicals, called neuropeptides, were not only produced by the brain but in other parts of the body as well. It was these chemicals that she dubbed the "molecules of emotion."

Suppose you were to win the lottery tonight. Great thought, right? If that were to happen, a group of chemicals would be produced that would enable you to experience the elation worthy of a person who had just won a large sum of money. If on the other hand, you fell madly in love with the man or woman of your dreams, your body would produce a different array of protein molecules that would lead to some version of the intoxicating, melting feelings we associate with romance. If, instead, you had a religious conversion experience, you might experience divine ecstasy.

Some people have resistance to thinking of love, joy, or ecstasy as chemistry. Obviously, these feelings are more than mere chemical phenomena. They, you might say, transcend and include chemistry. But, we have all struggled, at some point, trying to change a habit. Perhaps it was attempting to stop smoking or drinking coffee. Maybe it was trying to eliminate procrastination or improve one’s self-esteem. Probably it was difficult, our own personal version of "insanity… Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result." So, what's the deal?

The molecules of emotion are like chemical "keys" that need to find the right shaped "locks" in order to produce a specific feeling. These "locks" are called receptor sites and, according to Dr. Pert, the "keys" or emotional molecules, must locate, as they circulate through the body, receptor sites on cells that are structurally suited to receive them. If the receptor site has had a shape altered, due to mechanical or emotional stress for example, the molecules cannot bind with them. You can win the lottery, fall in love, and find God all on the same day, and what should be the best day of your life will be minimized by the inability of these neuropeptides to find a "home." How often have we seen clients come into our offices whose "ceiling of happiness" or "ceiling of health and wellness" is so low that the person has tremendous difficulty being present to their life?

Pert writes, "Memories and beliefs are stored not only in the brain, but in the psychosomatic network extending into the body, particularly in the ubiquitous receptors between nerves and bundles of cell bodies called ganglia, which are distributed not just in and near the spinal cord, but all the way out along nerve pathways to internal organs and the very surface of our skin.

"An element I think we are skipping in our discussion of practical applications for mind-body health is bodywork: the touch therapies of chiropractic and other modalities that include the body as a means of healing the mind and emotions. It is true that we do store some memory in the brain but, by far, the deeper, older messages are stored in the body and must be accessed through the body. Your body is your subconscious mind, and you cannot heal it by talk alone!"

At a research conference, I once heard Dr. Pert say, "How we experience our world is in large part governed by the structure and function of our spine." Remember those receptor sites? The region of the body that has the largest population of them is the posterior portion of the spinal cord, specifically the dorsal horn. Dr. Pert feels that this is the anatomical location of a major part of the subconscious mind and refers to it as an extension of the brain's limbic – or emotional – system.

Subluxation, as in faulty movement patterns of the spine, alters the function of those many joints. Dysfunction of the spine can cause ischemia or lack of blood flow to the associated spinal cord and spinal nerve root tissues, inhibiting their physiology. This includes, very specifically, the receptor sites we are talking about. Such alterations of physiology make it difficult for high-quality molecules of emotion to bind there, thus limiting one's experience, embodiment, and expression of health, happiness, and wholeness. This distorts our emotional experience of ourselves and our world, making it, by necessity, a more stressful and frightening one. Molehills become mountains. We shift our physiology from safety and trust to defensiveness and divisiveness, misperceiving signs of threat where there are none. That is why, to me, subluxation represents a disease of perception.

Pert continues, "The body becomes the battlefield for the war-games of the mind. All the unresolved thoughts and emotions, the negativity we hold onto, show up in the body and makes us sick."

Joseph Campbell once said, "We must be willing to get into the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is awaiting us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one is to come." This is what happens every day in the greatest of clinicians’ offices. Growth and transformation requires a sacrifice, a shedding of old skin. Practice members commit to bodywork and movement therapy as part of their lifestyle. They dive further into the life they have dreamed about. Through touch, we communicate messages of health to one’s nervous system and allow the body to work as a dynamic whole. We meet our clients and their bodies without judgment. We touch the stories stored within their tissues, while listening and paying attention to their muffled biographies. We practice awareness, acknowledgment and acceptance and, in so doing, our clients meet – perhaps for the first time – the life that awaits them.

Manual neuroscience--the wide array of mindful bodywork and movement modalities, is a holistic science. It is also an art. Today we know that the three classically separated areas of neuroscience, endocrinology, and immunology are actually joined to each other in a multidirectional network of communication, linked by information carriers known as neuropeptides. What I am talking about throughout this chapter is information. I'd like to speculate that "mental force," as discussed in early chiropractic literature, is the flow of energy and information as it moves among the cells, organs, and systems of the body. The health and integrity of our core-- the central nervous system, permits this holistic information-network to flourish. We can then see, right in front of our eyes, that there truly is an intelligence animating and coordinating thing: what many of us are privileged to intimately know as "the wisdom of our cell(ve)s."


Nothing Is Bigger than Life

"The soul moves in circles, said Plotinus. Hence our lives are not moving straight ahead; instead, they are hovering, wavering, returning, renewing, repeating.” – James Hillman

"Tell me what you think of time, and I will tell you what I think of you." – Dr. Humphry Osmond

"You've got to outlast yourself." – Clint Eastwood

Our patients and clients come in to us not only in all shapes and sizes, but in varying degrees of readiness to heal. Sometimes it is easy to become angry or, at the least, frustrated with someone who obviously doesn't want to take responsibility for their own well-being. We can look at them and say they are needy, or irresponsible, lazy or still in the thralls of the modern medical model that confuses curing with healing. But who else is that patient? It is our job to see someone else in there besides that which frustrates us. It is our job as health educators to help the people that come to us to uncover their own capacity to be bigger than they have been living, to love and to heal themselves.

A long, long time ago a mind-game, called the Riddle of the Sphinx was popular. Apparently, an enormous Sphinx used to guard the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes and required of all passersby that they answer this “simple” question: "Who is it that awakes at sunrise with four legs, has two legs when the sun is highest in the sky, and, as the sun sets, has three legs?" If the person answered the riddle correctly they were allowed to enter the city. If they were unsuccessful, they were devoured by the Sphinx. The answer, of course, is a human being, who was born on all fours, grows up to walk on two legs, and by some unspecified time requires a third leg, a cane. Today, the answer would have to be updated to allow the aging person to have six legs, the two that they had when they were younger and the four legs of a walker. This answers the riddle of the Sphinx, but it does not answer the more concerning question which is, "Why do we except this as normal aging?" Why do so many people, even in their early middle years, feel painfully stiff and complain about growing old. Why do so few people experience every breath they take and every movement they make as an opportunity to experience pleasure?

The average person fifty years of age, in the United States at least, takes a minimum of five prescription drugs. It is hard enough to track the side effects of one or two medications, but when someone is taking this many drugs doing so becomes impossible, so much so that the leading cause of preventable death is the taking of medications in the right amount for the right illnesses. This, obviously, is part of the problem. How we move, think, and eat – not to mention how well we connect with others and life – determines, in large part, the quality and quantity of our years. Another, more insidious, factor is that we view average this style of aging as normal. We see "aging as degeneration" all around us and assume and accept that this is the way it is going to be. Sadly, though, how we live is how we age and how we age is how we have lived.

We have all had the experience of a client coming into our office, perhaps in their later years and often much younger, angry at their physician who, when they complained of their back hurting or their joints feeling stiff, told them, "What do you expect? You're getting older." Or they might have been told, "You're not as young as you used to be." What an irresponsible – even ludicrous – thing to tell someone: at seven years of age we were not as young as we used to be. What is the magic number, having attained which, that we should expect to feel the all-to-common physical burdens of aging?

The Greek word for aging is aetus, which simply means "experience." Life is an experience; we have early experiences, later experiences, and still later ones, but nowhere in this simple one word descriptor is it implied that at a certain stage of experience life should cease to be pleasurable.

Until fairly recently there were at least four cultures in the world where people aged very differently than we do in the Western world. The Vilcabamba people of Ecuador, the Hunzas of North Pakistan, the inhabitants of the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, and the men and women of the Okinawan islands routinely enjoyed health well into their late 90s, and produced an impressive number of centenarians. They aged like fine wine. In the United States it is not uncommon for people to lie about their age, subtracting years from their real age in an attempt to appear younger. The value system of the peoples mentioned above is, however, quite different. People lie about their ages there, as well, but they add years to their age because greater respect is afforded them as they grow more "experienced."

I visited the land of the Hunzas in the mid-1970s, while I was spending time studying yoga and meditation in India. I came across an article in National Geographic describing their lifestyle and longevity. Photos showed people of all ages working and playing together in a beautiful, natural environment. Researchers had visited them numerous times attempting to discover their "secret." Some said it was the minerals in the glacial waters that they drank that added years to their lives, while others felt that their diet, being low in fat and animal meat content, was the primary reason. One photograph showed a very "experienced" couple who claimed to have been married over 80 years and who complained that in their advanced years they only made love once a day. I was impressed and had to see such people in such a place with my own eyes. The magazine article was not exaggerating. Although life there was not a utopia – these people worked hard and lived without most of the luxuries that we take for granted – they really did get along with each other, had no chronic, degenerative diseases that are so prevalent in the West, and had many men and women who claimed to be centenarians. I recall a long-distance race that occurred while I was there. The prize went not to the person who ran the fastest, but to whoever ran the farthest. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the winner was a man claiming to be in his 80s. This, I was informed, was typical. The younger people were simply to "immature" to be able to run distances of 100 miles or more at one time.

Sadly, today this culture barely exists as it was only 30 or so years ago. Western amenities, such as Coca-Cola and processed food, have made their inroads into this land and, in the span of a couple of generations, has shortened their lifespan to just a little over 70 years of age. When I think of what constituted any sort of "fountain of youth" for these people, the conclusion I come to is that they had great attitudes, a strong sense of community, and they moved – God, did they move. Some drank alcohol, many smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, but every one of them began the day stretching in the early morning sunlight and walked, on average, 10 miles or more just "doing their life."

I want to say this as clearly as I can: how we live is how we age and how we age is how we lived. And one more thing: how we age (live) is governed in large part by the quantity and quality of our experiences, especially as they relate to movement.

Buckminster Fuller used to say that we cannot learn anything from experiences we are not having. Brain researchers today emphasize the benefits of novel experiences on the health and integrity of brain function. Learning new languages, making new friends, driving a different way home from work even, can improve the function of our brain which, of course, improves the function of our overall health. But there is something extra important about the experience of movement – both quantitatively and qualitatively – that we avail ourselves of. Quantity of movement refers to whether we are couch potatoes or not. Do we get outside and walk?; do we stretch on a regular basis?; do we participate in sports?; do we still play?

In 2011 article in the journal Manual Therapy entitled "The Dangers of Inactivity; Exercise and Inactivity Physiology for the Manual Therapist, H. Wittink thoroughly described what he termed "inactivity physiology." In our increasingly sedentary culture, there has been a rapid reduction in demand for energy expenditure as we sit more while driving, working, watching TV, playing video games, reading, studying and relaxing. Sitting, obviously, has an extremely low demand for energy expenditure because there is virtually no muscle contraction of any major trunk or lower extremity muscles. With this reduction in energy demand for approximately 70-80% of our waking day, muscle fibers do not use their stored glycogen and resist the inflow of additional glucose which can be toxic to cells in excess amounts. Thus, insulin resistance, as the article discusses, develops along with elevated blood sugar – hyperglycemia – which is then converted to fat, which then raises serum triglyceride levels and an increase in the size and number of fat cells. This insulin resistance creates what is known as Metabolic Syndrome – hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension – which greatly contributes to the various diseases associated with obesity. These metabolic derangements leave individuals at a greatly increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type III diabetes, suffering death from cardiac failure, as well as an increased mortality rate.

Quantity of movement is associated with healthy conditioning of the body’s physiology, whereas a decrease in quantitative movement is known as deconditioning and is associated with a host of adverse physiological changes. These include a decrease in muscle mass, along with loss of muscle strength; a decline in capillary density, along with mitochondrial enzyme activity and ATP production leading to the loss of muscle energy and increased fatigability of muscle tissues; a decline of cardiac output; a decrease of aerobic capacity; a decrease in bone strength through increased resorption of bone; a decrease in collagen turnover in tendons and muscles, weakening the attachments of muscles and ligaments to bone, increasing one's susceptibility to injury; a disorganization of collagen fibers, also predisposing one to injury as well as non-injury related pain; a degeneration in proprioception, balance and coordination, again increasing the risk of injury; metabolic changes leading to increased risk of cardiovascular disease; metabolic changes leading to increased risk of type II diabetes and a decline in sensitivity to insulin-mediated glucose uptake or insulin resistance; a shift towards increased reliance on carbohydrates for energy and a decrease in contributions from lipid metabolism; an increase in blood lactate concentration resulting in a higher heart rate, fatigue and shortness of breath; a further reduction in or avoidance of exercise, causing a further decline in physical functioning; the development of a vicious cycle in which activity is reduced, walking speed is lower, energy levels are lower, and physical fitness deteriorates.

On the other hand, quality of movement has to do with the kind of flexibility of mind and body that comes with pursuing disciplines such as yoga, tai chi, Chi gong, Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement, Continuum Movement Hanna Somatics, bodywork and such, as part of our lifestyle. Even more so, it has to do with our ability to sense our bodies from within and to connect with and locate not only our tension, but also our inner biological wisdom and to release internal interferences to the expression and embodiment of our basic goodness.