"I carry my stress in my shoulders" -- Ego, Apes, & Altlas
In my years of practice as a massage therapist, the number one statement that I’ve heard from clients is this, "I carry my stress in my shoulders." Verbatim. It is as if every client received a pamphlet in the mail that said, "Tell your massage therapist this!". It's kind of funny. There are many reasons why this seems so universal. I’d like to explore with you a few things that I believe are contributing factors to this “pain in the neck” while tying together Greek mythology, Eastern mysticism, psychology and evolution.
The Story of Atlas
Let’s begin with Joseph Campbell. A professor and author, Joseph Campbell examined comparative mythology and comparative world religion. Campbell's concept of the monomyth was the theory that all narratives of myth are variations of one great story. He believed that mythologys were the poetic or symbolic expression of the psychic unity of all mankind: we are all connected. His central pattern which he referred to as “the hero’s journey” was so special it even inspired rewrites to George Lucas's epic stories in Star Wars. Campbell believed that all myths and legends throughout history spoke to some fundamental human psychological truth. Now, to our connection with the story of Atlas.
The titan Atlas was condemned by Zeus to stand at the Western edge of the world and hold the sky aloft with his head and hands. That poetic description is also why classical anatomists nicknamed the first cervical vertebrae "Atlas". According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Atlas was one of the Titans who took part in their war against Zeus, for which as a punishment he was condemned to hold up the heavens, the celestial globe. In some myths, such as in Homer’s Odyssey, he was a marine creature of sorts who held heaven and earth apart just beyond the western horizon. In another tale, he was transformed into a mountain range in northwestern Africa. When Perseus demanded hospitality from Atlas, Atlas refused. (He was afraid that Perseus would steal his “golden apples.” Why is it always apples?) So, using the Gorgon Medusa’s head, Perseus transformed Atlas to stone. He became a mountain; his head it’s peak, his shoulders the ridges and his hair the woods.
ATLAS personifies endurance. His punishment is symbolic of separation of heaven and earth. The weight of the cosmos is upon his shoulders. His guilt is a physical burden. Atlas' struggle with the weight of life upon his shoulders is a universal one. We each are the hero, it is our journey now. It is our burden with which to struggle.
Does that sound a little familiar? The tale of some sort of punishment for defying a God? The sin causes a separation from the father and an initiation into suffering. It is also a tale of personal sacrifice, pain and suffering being necessary to hold the cosmos aloft. We all can relate to that feeling of carrying some kind of burden. Whether it's the responsibility of raising a family, finishing our studies, or even paying our bills, though perhaps not a punishment, they are symbolically ours to carry. These responsibilities at times feel like a divine punishment. So when you feel that tension from “carry the weight of the world on your shoulders,” remember that you’re not being punished by Zeus, and you’re not imprisoned in stone. We do not need to endure for eternity. We can set down our burdens for a few moments here and there!
An Awareness of Muscular Tension
Before jumping into Alan Watts, let’s take a Freudian terminology refresher. Freud’s structure of the mind comprised the Id (instinct), Ego (reality) and SuperEgo (morality). The word “ego” has worked its way into our language and our culture. It is interesting to note that Freud never used the term. He wrote in German. The term Ego came from the translation of his term that meant, “the I”. Ego is the Latin word for “I”. Now, enter Alan Watts and the statement that Ego is only an illusion. What we perceive as “the I”, is only an awareness of tension. When we focus on an area we create a kind of tension in that area. Example, we cannot see the back of our head or neck, but we believe them to be there. So, by focusing on the area that is behind us, neck, head, shoulders, we manifest the tension, “the I” awareness in that area; stiff neck. It’s an interesting concept.
Because we cannot truly see ourselves, what we see as “I” is an illusion created by the self. Alan Watts was a self proclaimed, "Spiritual Entertainer". He studied Christianity and later in life was noted for bringing many Eastern Zen teachings to the West. His belief, evolved through contemplative practice, was that the ego was simply an awareness of muscular tension. During meditation a person observes their thoughts without judgement, There are the thoughts, the body (feeling sensations, breathing, a beating heart, etc.) and then the relationship between the thoughts, and the body. That thing that is observing all the goings on is called in Sanskrit “tathata” or “suchness”: the ultimate inexpressible nature of all things. Some refer to this as the "Super conscious" or the "Higher self". And since we see other people who, like us, have heads, and bodies, but only catch a glimpse of certain parts of our bodies in the mirror from time to time. We're not 100% certain that we do, in fact, have a back to our head, or a top to our shoulders. When you look around you can see your legs, your body, hour hands, and a little bit of your nose. But there's no constant present reference that we have a back of our head, or an upper part to our back and shoulders. Thus, in order to make sense of it all, we’re presently reassured that it exists through an awareness of muscular tension. Watts called that the ego: an awareness of muscular tension in the back of the head, neck, and upper back. So remember to acknowledge in times of stress, that a thought is just a thought, you are so much more than your thoughts. You make trillions of new cells a day, automatically. You are a breathing machine, you’re a heart that beats all by itself. This being that is you has tremendous capacity for healing and thriving. And while you are not your thoughts, every cell in your body is aware of your thoughts, and it is listening. Every cell is listening to your thoughts and intentions.
Evolutionary and Societal Factors to Consider
The final observations are extremely simple. We are creatures influenced by evolution and social conditioning. In the animal kingdom, we are one of the only genus and species silly enough to walk upright with all of our vitals exposed right in the front of our bodies. Most other animals at least have their vitals underneath them. When any animal in the world encounters a dangerous situation, they first are startled. This is called the startle response. They lower their head, and curl their body in, then either run, fight, or freeze (for our furry friends equipped with great camouflage, or possums that play dead). After the dangerous situation is resolved by getting free, killing or successfully defending against the predator, or hiding from the predator, most animals then return to their original, healthy posture. The startle response disappears. The way our psychology works is quite different. If you saw a tiger behind a bush once, then it’s now safe to assume that there is a tiger behind every bush. We’ll call this “paper tigers”, and it’s actually a good thing, to a point.
We tend to be much more intelligent than other animals in the animal kingdom, but this “paper tigers concept has inappropriately evolved into an all encompassing response. . We might experience certain situations as life threatening, that are not in fact physically dangerous, like stress from bills, debt, social situations, running late. So we’re chronically protecting our vitals, by raising our shoulders to protect our neck, and slouching to shrink the target size of our guts. There’s even some evidence that simulating a fight or flight even can actually help remedy this issue. Like doing a quick sprint workout, or lifting heavy weights to the point of momentary muscle failure or fatigue. Now I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t think everything is life threatening!” And you’re right. The other cause of the startle response is social. You fear that if you don’t complete a task, or that you will not be accepted by peers. Both have social, emotional and physical consequences. And that’s the next part of the story. The fear of exile!
Our social conditioning and its physical (chemical) effects on our tension, posture and wellbeing is fascinating. We do have a bit of a mammalian primate brain, but essentially the more social situations you “win” in your life, the better your posture will be. But there are misconceptions about what constitutes “winning”. Winning doesn’t necessarily equate to being physically superior, like it does in the rest of the animal kingdom. It can be as simple as having a good conversation, not being bullied, or just having more positive, stress-free interactions with fellow human beings. Being an “alpha” human is much different than our primate relatives too, because we exist in an extremely complex and even incomprehensibly large society. And consider that in our world, there are more people than we’re evolutionarily designed to comprehend, so actual “dominance” may be only situational.
Alphas typically have an assertive attitude, calm temperament and better posture. They can handle stressful situations, make decisions, and are good at convincing others to follow them because the decisions they make are a win for them, their pack, and the world. (Win-win-win). Aggressive behavior often leads to exile from the pack, timid behavior leads to being more of a follower, or resentment for not being heard. So, we can let go of that belief that in order to be alpha you have to bully everyone into submission, or that we have to covertly manipulate people into doing our bidding. Those strategies are considered to be counterproductive. These all influence our posture-behavior.
Most of our good posture behavior comes from playing well with others. You have more positive interactions, you have more serotonin, you get more skin on skin touch, you have more oxytocin. Good brain chemistry leads to good posture, and vice versa. Remember from the previous section that our bodies, our cells are listening to our thoughts? Thoughts have a chemical reaction. Let go of resentments, forgive yourself, let go of judgements and cooperate with your pack. Alpha behavior also is quick to act in defense of its own pack. So, stand up for yourself, and take action in life. Do. Create. Move. It’s good for you.
Having an awareness of how societal and evolutionary structures influence our bodies may be useful in our best “being”. It is also good to remember that our thoughts physically affect our bodies. It is possible then to rewire that paper tiger response through observation and retraining. We can reassess our innate reactions. We can retrain our responses. If we avoid reacting and tying identity to every situation, the ranking and “winning” therein, we can keep our chemistry and our posture more inline with the positive. “Shake it off,” really is a good catch phrase.
“Don’t get lost in your pain, you know that one day your pain will become your cure.” -- Rumi
Written by: Adam J. Clayton & Dawn M. Dunsmoor