The Embodiment of Primary Respiration: Order, Organization and Transparency
Michael J Shea, PhD
Stillness in the midst of motion and commotion
is free of will, direction, and time.
It is a complete letting be of what is from moment to moment.
—Toni Packer, “Unmasking the Self”
Biodynamic practice is a study of embodied perception of Primary Respiration (PR). This discussion will include an attempt to define terms. It is not so easy to give words to embodied experience but we need a starting point! At the same time I must lay out the ground of perceiving PR by elaborating a set of principles I rediscover every time I am in practice with a client or even waiting in line in the grocery store. These principles are actually the groundwork for a personal discovery of the stages of perceiving PR as it unfolded in my own experience. They culminate in an embodiment of transparency such that PR is free to move in the body and mind of the practitioner with minimal restriction.
Definition: Embody – a verb
1. To be an expression of or give a tangible or visible form to (an idea, quality, or feeling).
“She embodies compassion and loving kindness.”
Synonyms: personify, incorporate, give human form/shape to, realize, manifest, express, concretize, symbolize, represent, epitomize, stand for, encapsulate, typify, exemplify;
“He embodies what everybody takes to be typical of the mindfulness meditation movement.”
Provide (a spirit) with a physical form.
“Nothing of the personality of the enlightened Heart as embodied in the Buddha will be lost.”
2. To include or contain (something) as a constituent part.
“the changes in attitude and intention as embodied in the perception of Primary Respiration”
Synonyms: incorporate, include, contain, take in, consolidate, encompass, assimilate, integrate, concentrate.
The embodied perception of PR as I use the term is the felt sense of order and organization in the body. Order and organization is episodic on a daily and lifelong basis. It comes and goes, waxes and wanes like the moon and the ocean tide. We are linked to a much larger intelligence in the natural world that permeates our body and is our body. To become embodied is to experience the pulses and breath in their cycles and rhythms. It is through the perception of PR that order and organization becomes embodied. Everyone has his or her own unique experience of the natural world inside and outside of the body. Like an embryo, we are constantly informing and outforming with a multitude of sense perceptions and trillions of metabolic processes occurring right now, mixing us together with the outside world. It is said in Buddhist Tantra: “as with out, so with in.”
Embodiment implies wholeness. Wholeness is our aliveness. To embody wholeness is to have a felt sense of the mind and body being synchronized. Conscious awareness automatically shifts between being in the mind with its cognitions, the environment, and the internal body with its sensations. Thus, embodiment is on a spectrum of interconnection with our mind, body and its relationship to the natural world via the senses. We have a mind sense and a body sense. Typically, there is too much mind sense and not enough body sense. Embodiment of wholeness strikes a balance that is constant. It can be buoyant and dense, earthy and airy, fluid and fixed, hot and cold, vulnerable and courageous. It seems like it is always automatically shifting. This is the embodiment of aliveness.
Again, as embodied beings we are constantly informing and outforming with the senses and with our mind. “There is a Tide in the affairs of men,” according to Shakespeare. These phases of our bodily moon and ocean tides are experienced throughout time, from mere seconds to years. Embodiment is developmental because of its changeability over time. It is not one thing or one experience like a plateau that is finally reached. It is a gathering and sorting, a type of ongoing integration of the total features of our body’s experience of vitality and aliveness.
Integration allows for different life qualities to become embodied, for example, what we accept and what we reject, both biologically and psychologically (and spiritually). We embody dietary choices, attitudes and emotions. In this way, everyone has his or her own timing of embodiment. There is a constant loss and gain of somatic experience, like putting on a pair of shoes to see if they fit or trying on a shirt that didn’t fit originally but fits now. Order and organization, however, depend on how we set the sails on the mast of our ship to catch the wind of PR. It is a slowing and becoming mindful of which way the wind is moving.
To sort through life experience and embody our preferences (if the shoe fits, wear it now or later or not at all!) further implies a degree of mindfulness. Mindfulness is attention to the present moment of experience. Where ever one is at during this or any other moment on the continuum of embodiment, it is viewed initially from a position of non-judgment and non-interpretation. Originally in somatic practice, mindfulness was called attending. It is a quality of attention that contains the subtle emotional states of equanimity and non-attachment. Thus body and mind can synchronize with discernment and panoramic awareness into a regularly unfolding new becoming. To embody a mindful attitude is an exploration of the present moment no matter how complex that moment is or seems to be. The present moment is the supreme spiritual teacher. And mindfulness of the body specifically can be cultivated, which enriches the being aspect of a human being, thus allowing for deeper and fuller felt states of order and organization.
The somatic experience of embodiment is an ebb and flow of both conscious awareness (mind sense) and our sensory systems. This includes our inherent fluid nature that precedes the nervous system of the body in early development. Our sensory systems are perceiving the density of the inside of the body and the environment outside on a living moving continuum of interconnection. To embody a sense of buoyancy or floatability within this continuum might take some somatic practice (there are many somatic methods from which to choose). When the interconnected whole of our universe is experienced internally with mindfulness and gradually over time with PR, then its natural order and organization becomes embodied.
Stages and Principles of Primary Respiration Sensory Awareness
I want to share my perception of PR within the context of what I call the Long Tide Model of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. I teach several biodynamic sensory awareness principles regarding PR. These principles actually transform into stages of sensory exploration. The first basic principle of sensing PR: It is the highway upon which embodiment of the whole moves. It is the wholeness and its pathways and distribution networks at the same time. Its only interest is to have each individual experience the felt sense of embodiment over time, and each individual in his or her own way without fear. In this way, PR is the activity of kindness and gentleness.
Embodiment from a biodynamic perspective is a very gradual and lifelong learning transmitted by PR to a willing receiver. We have forgotten our entire preexisting library of embodied wholeness and replaced it with a sensory library of seemingly disconnected parts associated with stress and trauma, likes and dislikes of sensation (and fast food of all kinds).
Secondly, PR in all of its nuances is the instinct for the reunification of the parts. It only seeks to become embodied. In order to embody as a living breathing moving reality, a ground of attending to the body must be established through mindfulness of the body – the density of being on the earth as the earth. There are many such mindfulness practices which I have written about and teach. PR is not given as an automatic perception. It is uncovered by the quality of the practitioner’s attention to the aliveness in his or her body. Aliveness is the totality of inner experience. This also includes the world of nature as an interconnected continuum with the body. The loss of embodiment is the loss of the instinct for healing via the natural world. PR wakes up and retrains that deep instinct. The sensory language of nature can be understood. Just as a pilot has a long check list to go through before takeoff, we to must go through the checklist for the embodiment of PR and to experience its priorities. As Thich Nhat Hanh says: “We Inter-Are.” We are one body.
The third basic principle: Primary Respiration and dynamic stillness are one thing constantly exchanging places with each other in a perceptual dance. Dr. Becker called it “the rhythmic balanced interchange of Primary Respiration and stillness.” It is the foreground and background of our perception constantly exchanging places in an endless dance of embodiment. There are no smaller subdivisions of life other than the whole, the totality. It is all one drop, one taste. This is not a model of causality. There is no cause, only the movement of our perception to thoroughly, periodically rest in a natural peace called stillness that permeates our hearts, blood and mind.
When I use the term Primary Respiration, I am always referring to both PR and stillness. With many students and practitioners able to sense it in their own way, different nuances are emerging, different experiences of the practitioners through continuity and connection to the environment and to their clients via their hands. My personal experience continues to mirror the collective worldwide community of PR practitioners.
Fourth, PR is a broad category of generative phenomena and interconnecting sensory experiences. PR has a thousand faces. It generates and maintains the ebb and flow of embodiment over time by connecting sensory experience to a living continuity and interconnection that includes the environment outside the body through our mind located in the heart. Its aliveness becomes embodied and yet remains formless, embedded within the trillions of cellular processes constantly occurring in the body. So embodiment is the reunion of form with the formless nature of PR. Much of the science of the human body is in the domain of the unseeable, from molecules and cells, neurotransmitters and hormones to immune factors and the gut microbiome. In the same way, this submicroscopic core of the body is form and formless coming together as one thing with PR. “As with out, so with in.”
It is important to state a fifth basic principle here: Primary Respiration is a polyrhythmic phenomenon. This means that it expresses itself many ways simultaneously because it is formless and yet embodied; it is thus constantly and automatically shifting its appearance to one’s inner sensibility and needs (a thousand faces). Clearly, the majority of such perceptions are nonlinear. Thus a different type of knowing (order) oriented to the expression of PR organizes and allows us to become embodied through its formless eyes. We embody transparency and become the next face. Our heart becomes transparent to life and the Tide of PR. Transparency is thus the starting point, not the end point, of our exploration.
The End – Embodiment Practice
PR has its own unique therapeutic progression and healing outcomes. It is simply a question of the correct sequence of perception for each practitioner. There is no universal method for embodying PR. In my classes I offer a very general embodiment practice in which students are free to accept or reject my language and direction in favor of their own.
First is to establish a posture of not too tight and not too loose in order to feel the whole body as it is breathing.
Second is where to place one’s attention, which is usually in one of the numerous embryonic fulcrums of the body and, specifically as I teach it, the Third Ventricle of the brain, heart movement, respiratory diaphragm movement and umbilicus.
Third is to develop the skills of noticing where one is located on the spectrum of embodiment in the present moment as the ripples of PR start to become waves breaking on the shore of one’s perception. I call this the cycle of attunement. The Tide of PR begins to spontaneously move the practitioner’s attention between his or her body, the hands on the client and the world of nature. Thus transparency and its embodiment with PR is the starting point rather than the end point of life on earth. Transparency is a state of relaxation.