When mind-body coaching clients have been with me for a little while and have learned the foundations of structure, balance, and breathwork, I introduce the cane. Well, more of a staff really, or somewhere in between. From the old martial arts toolkit, evasion was something I started at the age of 10 or so, at that time with a padded blocker.
I find the sting of wood is a faster teacher.
This exercise isn’t terribly complicated at face value, but does provide a great deal of insight within somatic coaching. The staff or cane is swung in three directions only, at first: vertically from top to bottom, horizontally at the head, and horizontally at the feet. There are three responses we practice - an angled long lunge to evade the downward strike, ducking, to avoid getting hit in the head, and jumping, to avoid the sweep.
In between these movements the trainee should return to center - literal center - with symmetrical structure akin to standing meditation, eyes fixed, and breath in the abdomen.
This has been a workhorse tool for me for two reasons. The first is that it allows for the application of stress in a safe manner, minus bumps and bruises. The second is it reveals somatic faults to me and the trainee - mind-body mechanics that suggest a loss of self-control.
Pressure testing is perhaps the most overlooked factor in mind-body training and somatic coaching. It takes those with extensive performance backgrounds, most likely in sports performance or other competitive settings, to understand this point without further explanation.
I went into the physiological changes when discussing the symptoms of stress and anxiety in the Problem of the Rope. But there’s more.
When those shifts begin to occur, the untrained individual begins to deteriorate in visibly predictable ways. The primary somatic faults that I look for when swinging the cane are the placement of the eyes, the structure of the body, and the location of the breath.
I’ll break these down below. But first, a hippie anecdote.
It doesn’t matter if you’re being chased by a tiger or in a heated conversation, the symptoms of stress are universal. And the patterns of the body reveal all. Just a couple weeks ago I was chatting with a man I’d met for the first time. I’d describe him as a well intentioned socialist who hated white people. He was white.
As the conversation progressed, through no intention of my own, I triggered the hell out of him. I know I triggered the hell out of him because his face literally started twitching uncontrollably. Add to that his upper chest breathing and folded posture, and we had a perfect somatic shitstorm.
This gathering was around an old friend’s recent passing, and where I’d normally care less about hippie sensitivities (I’m kidding, I love hippies), I didn’t want whatever was unfolding to stain the experience for everyone else. So I went over and sat next to him and made physical contact, hand on his knee, and asked point blank with a smile, “Why are you so angry? We’re all friends here.”
I made contact to elevate the threat while at the same time desensitizing him to the more innocuous conversation. It wasn’t going to get worse than a perceived capitalist touching him, so once we cleared that, it gave us the opportunity to settle in to more civil conversation. And we did.
We couldn’t have been more different, but we’re human, and no reason we couldn’t have a human experience.
The face twitch is a deep reveal - a strong somatic fault, that, if one doesn’t have prior mind-body training, CANNOT be released until their nervous system down-regulates. The adrenaline and cortisol coursing through his veins were too much for his system to process without crystal clear (physical) deterioration.
If he was my student, I’d have told him to fix his structure (which was slumped and coiled, not unlike a cat with claws drawn. Or Golem from Lord of the Rings.), relax his shoulders, fix his eyes, and drop his breath (into the abdomen, rather than the breathing from the chest). He wasn’t my student, so I made contact, reminded him we’re all friends, and told him to cut the shit.
Deterioration of that order rarely happens in public, unless you happen upon a Karen chastising neighborhood skateboarders. For the most part people avoid confrontations that could lead to trigger level 9000. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole lotta levels between 0 and 9000, many of which seem tolerable, yet pull us out of our better selves. Or we simply reserve 9000 for at-home rage.
Learning first to organize and center the mind-body with technical skill, and later, adding the volatility of pressure and risk, creates a high-stress simulation not unlike sparring in martial arts. It’s relatively safe, provides an opportunity to apply one's skills, and will elicit a proper stress response, until one learns to control it.
And until one learns to control it, they’re potential victims of their own biology, personal values and best intentions taking a back seat to fight-or-flight self preservation.
To the trained mind-body aficionado, this process of deterioration should be a point of awareness and at high levels, under conscious control. With enough training, there’s no there there, no ‘ego’ to be offended, supported by a nervous system that can handle extreme stress - the predictable outcomes of effective meditation and strength training, respectively.
But what if we find ourselves at odds with the world, denied our desires. The somatic competence to perceive those shifts in biology in real time, and re-center with effortless ease is the hallmark of mind-body mastery.
Just to set expectations here, you’re never going to be a saint. Well, you maybe. I won’t. I accept that. I will fail, and I will fall. And I will do things that I regret. But I’m working to do them less, to know myself more deeply, and to cultivate the skills that translate to self-control.
It’s not a path for the many. It’s a great deal of work. But for those of you reading this, and perhaps for your clients, there is so much hope in this path that we can all take a deep sigh of relief.
The tools exist.
The model works.
We can become the strength we want to see in the world.
“Jump!” I’d shout, having noticed your mind is distracted by visions of a better world, and you, serene, at the center of it. “Where were your eyes? Shoulders back!”
Make no mistake here, if you fail to duck or jump or pivot, you will get stung. “Center!”
If you aren’t starting from and returning to center between every evasive move you’re doing my job for me. You’re eliminating your chances of calling on your fullest capacities.
And it’ll be the next strike that gets you.
Somatic Fault #1: Fix Your Eyes!
One of the first principles taught in martial arts is placement of the eyes, for one simple reason. The eyes are a gateway to the mind. Steady, fixed eyes reveal a mind that is focused. Wandering eyes betray a mind scattered. And fallen eyes a mind defeated.
While eye focus can unwind instantly under pressure as in the early stages of cane evasion, so quickly that it may not bear significance for revealing underlying mental conditions, it can dictate them!
Just as the eyes can reveal the quality of mind, they can also determine it in the moments that follow.
Drop your eyes long enough, and watch your confidence sink. Raise and fix your eyes, and realize improved quality of focus, and greater confidence. And allow your eyes to be stolen by random stimuli, and your mind will be a bag of cats.
The eyes will want to escape, because if the eyes escape, chances are, the body is safe. Many people approach life this way. Look away. If you don’t observe it, it can’t affect you.
As a side note on dominance in martial arts: If you want to break a person mentally, steal their eyes. This can be done through distraction and misdirection, pain, or overwhelming technical dominance. When they cower as a guilty dog might, they are defeated. Eyes that can still raise to meet yours contain danger in them, even if they appear otherwise broken. The eyes matter.
Having brunch with a client mere minutes after she was jumping and bobbing and recovering from the sting of the cane, she demonstrated deterioration in the most ironic of ways. We were literally consolidating the lesson, discussing structural and somatic faults and points to improve upon, and highlighting the need for greater focus, when a bee buzzed near her head.
She flinched spasmodically and left the conversation entirely.
An externality stole her eyes, and with them, her mind. She surrendered her control.
“Do you have a bee allergy?”
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
“I can get stung.”
“Will you survive?”
“Was it worth the loss of the lesson?”
I’m not suggesting we need to surrender our faces to the bee gods, I’m suggesting it’s not either-or. It’s not lose your mind and flail and allow distraction to override the present moment, and it’s not supreme indifference to external stimuli.
Presence would have given her time to assess, to feel through the experience, and if cause for caution was real, move with intention.
That’s the difference training provides.
It doesn’t mean we don’t react. It means we act with conscious intention.
But to do so, the eyes must be under control.
If you fail to do so, you cannot set your structure.
Somatic Fault #2: Set Your Structure!
I use the word structure, rather than posture, because it insinuates more than formality visible to the eye. It also includes tensional balance and alignment. For our purposes here, let’s summarize it as relatively neutral spine (straight-ish back), shoulders back, down, and relaxed, with a slight bend in the knees.
“No… do not round your shoulders, eyes up when you duck!”
“No… do not remove your eyes from your opponent. Maintain neutral spine.”
In seconds, deep somatic faults reveal themselves under physical threat. The very same faults that manifested during The Great Hippie Unraveling and Bee-pocalypse.
Centering is more than a mental state, it’s an embodied experience.
And just as it sounds, to facilitate mental unburdening and focus, the body must attain symmetrical balance (at least in the early stages of training). Without doing so, one runs the risk of re-living disempowering patterns conditioned into one's psychobiology (with accompanying hormonal states and stored memories), as well as the risk of accumulating and sustaining tensions to accommodate external stressors or compensate for poor structural alignment (against the force of gravity). That tension exacerbates stress in the mind and inhibits executive function.
At best, it leads to chronic, low grade stress and anxiety.
At worst, it makes us animals, unrecognizable to our grounded selves.
The body tells this story.
This somatic fault, and this is important, isn’t always a betrayal of the current mindset, but it’s always a predictor of mindset in the moments that follow. When this fault is revealed by the cane, it may have occurred during successful evasion - structure may have been sacrificed to safely clear the threat. But if it isn’t corrected post-haste, it’ll dictate the outcome of the second or third evasion attempt - most likely a hit.
Mind-body centering is both present correction AND future preparation.
It’s a fluid dynamic that doesn’t start and stop with singular points of conflict.
The cane is coming for you my dear readers, and it’s not stopping.
Set your structure!
If you fail to do so, you cannot regulate your breath.
Somatic Fault #3: Drop Your Breath!
The breath, like the eyes and one’s structure, tells the state of one’s mind - at peace and in control, or under duress, which can manifest as a hyper-sharpening of the mind or flight from conflict, depending on one's degree of training.
This skill, more so than those above, requires tremendous training. It isn’t enough to drop one’s breath into the abdomen and clear the mind in the quiet solitude of a yoga studio, an ashram, or alone in nature. These are locales that facilitate a calm mind, but which fail to reflect the realities of day to day life.
As such, they have incredible therapeutic effect, but don’t offer a lot of preventative (or predictive) value, unless one is at a very high level.
The breath must not only be trained in environments that allow the nervous system, and the mind, to relax. It must also be pressure tested, studied, and refined. For as soon as pressures rise, the eyes wander, structure deteriorates, and the breath rises in the chest and quickens, guaranteeing sufficient energy and sympathetic arousal to fight the good fight.
The rising and quickening of the breath, because it charges your system for battle, removes blood from the brain and sends it to skeletal muscles to empower you to fight. Ever feel butterflies in the stomach when nervous? That’s blood leaving your gut as well, as digestion takes a back seat to immediate survival.
The adrenaline that comes with stress (and anger and fear) can have a sharpening effect if the mind isn’t stolen away by your biology. The determinant of that control, of whether or not your executive function or your biology reins, is your breath. If the breath is unconscious and elevated in the chest, probabilities lead to your biology controlling your mind.
You're a lion or a gazelle, but you're not an emotionally intelligent, grounded individual.
When the breath is under conscious control, diaphragmatically regulated, and pumped by the abdomen, possibilities for mind-body connection and the drawing on cognitive resources are limitless.
“Where is your breath? Release your abdomen! Relax your shoulders!”
“Center! Drop your breath."
"Keep your mind in your body. Eyes on mine.”
Just as with my triggered hippie - whose breath was elevated in his chest, housed in a hunched posture unconsciously protecting his organs, and eyes sunken to the earth - the breath is a gateway to self awareness and mental control in this present moment.
By necessity, the fight or flight response produces more physical tension and numbs you to pain. But it also numbs you to sensation of any kind. Embodied awareness and somatic intelligence are crippled by this biological response, but they can be regained and controlled through the activation of deep, abdominal breathing in real time… with practice.
As a mentor of mine once said, it’s great if your training is at a level where you don’t get triggered or shaken from center anymore. But that's not very realistic, even for those with decades of practice. A second, near equal measure of skill, is ready recognition of somatic deterioration in real time, and the speed at which one can self-regulate and return to center.
In early stages of training, you might need hours to days to ‘come down’ from a triggering event. With practice, that can come down to minutes to hours. And at expert levels, we might see that as somatic shifting and conscious mind-body integration (aligning eyes, structure, and breath, surveying the body for tension, and observing how your physiology is processing elevated emotion) to regain emotional control within seconds to minutes, occurring even within the same triggering conversation or event.
With the cane, you have split-seconds.
Fix your eyes. Set your structure. Drop your breath!
If you fail to do so, you’ll forever be a victim of unconscious forces that have one preset outcome - you’ll fight or cower. But you will not feel. And you will not organize intelligent, aligned responses from an integrated mind-body.
Respect the Cane, and...