Gravity, the first reflex


From the minute sperm and egg meet, we are becoming. Each cellular shift is a kind of unfolding, an emerging within the fluid of the womb. For these first nine months, this is all we know. Fluid, in the beginning without clear boundary and, as we get closer to birth, fluid that is contained on all sides by a wall we can't yet cross.

Our first and earliest becoming is in the space of infinite possibility. That's what it means to grow within water. Every single direction is possible, all at the same time. We can lengthen and widen without coming against a boundary. And yet, because it is fluid, we also get the constant reassurance, light pressure against our emerging skin, that we are not alone. We are contained. Supported. Infinite space and complete containment, all at the same time.

Because this is all that we know, once we are born, the first reflex that kicks in* is the reflex that helps our body build a relationship with gravity. Try to think of it! No matter how we get out of the body, down through the birth canal or lifted up out of the abdomen, our tissues go from only knowing fluid to suddenly feeling the heavy relentless pull of gravity. Whether you believe in evolution or loving creation, it's the same thing: the first reflex that kicks in is one that helps our heart and lungs, blood vessels and lymph, and eventually intestines, muscles and bones, find their way to move against the demanding heaviness of a gravitational pull.

Reflexes are like those teachers that used to pop up on microsoft word when you first downloaded a new program. Remember the little paper clip with the startled expression that suddenly popped in to the lower right hand of your screen, asking you if you wanted help on formatting a document? Well, reflexes are like that, only less annoying. They pop up in the body at the appropriate time, giving a nudge to nerve endings which nudge muscles which means that suddenly, without being taught, the baby rolls over, lifts their head, starts doing the back and forth swimming movement that leads to crawling, reaches for the table and pulls themselves up, takes that first unsteady step that resolves into walking, and then learns to jump away from the gravity that holds its body down. Reflexes are made up of thousands of tiny concrete details that, over time, most often although not always come together in a body that, in jumping up to grab an apple off the highest branches, finds out how to move against gravity even as gravity continues supporting it.

As we develop and age, our bodies don't forget those reflexes. They are always there, ready to support a reboot, ready to remind the map of cells and awareness how it was that we started. To share with us again that first experience of coming into our own life, as something physically separate from the body that grew us within their womb.

I have never studied yoga. I do not know enough about the rich and complex history of its lineage, its teachings to explain why any particular pose or asana exists. But the first time I was invited to do shivasana, I immediately thought, look! It's the first reflex! Lying on the ground or sitting/leaning against any surface, soft and open, and being with our cells as they fall into and push against gravity.

Alright, in a second I'm going to ask you to put this down. To seriously put this blog down, even if your mind pops in and says, sure, sure, I'll do that after I finish reading this thing.  Seriously, I want you to put your phone, laptop, tablet, whatever you got down on the table or the floor. I want you to bring your body to gravity and listen. If you are able, lie on your back on the floor, arms and legs relaxed and open, head supported and mouth gently open. If the floor is not an option for your body, then stay in our chair or lean your back against a wall, letting gravity support as much of you as you are physically able, and then just listen.

Do this now and then, after 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 or 30 depending on what feels right when you are there, come back to this page.

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What did you notice? What did you feel your body, this mix of fluid and membrane, do? Did you sink into the floor, chair or wall? Did your body pull away from the force, staying somewhat suspended, almost hovering just on top of the surface? Did your body sink down so far that you could barely pull yourself up, as though the surface overcame you and you felt like you disappeared? Did you notice emotions, physical sensations, a desire to move get stronger the longer that you stayed there? Was it impossible to notice anything because of how much your mind was chattering?

As you reflect over all of it, are you getting that "oh shit, I didn't do it right!" or some version of how you're not a good enough healer, person, life form because you couldn't still yourself for two minutes? Be wary, systems of supremacy have long ago found the cracks in the self care and mindfulness industries and have already shoved perfectionism and the protestant work ethic right down into its peacefully beating heart. It's managed to make "being present" another item on the to do list, one you can fail and or succeed at, meaning that your struggles are, again, all your fault. If that's coming up in you, then that's information. Notice how that old conditioning that best serves capitalism and not life has got into you.

Healing is about noticing what is here, right now. All of it, whether we like it or not. Sensing in and feeling noticing what is true at this moment. And then building enough space around what is true to be able to shift or change what comes next, if it serves your life or your kin's life better than what you were doing/being before. Bringing your body to gravity, or as close to gravity as you can get, is to intentionally let this first and very early relationship sniff around your life right now and share with you what it's experiencing. It lets this first early relationship with gravity help your cells remember themselves as they are and on their own terms.

Everything is information, including if the felt sense, the physical message that is rising up in you as soon as you bring your weight to gravity, is that it is not safe to rest. There is information here if trying to settle into weight makes every nerve ending in you scream that you have to get up and run. Bringing our body to this first reflex makes even more visible what our lives already know: what happens when we try to rest?

The first part of healing is stopping the violence. Always. That is true whether or not the violence is happening  in the present moment or if the violence is held in the tissues, a moment in the past that hasn't yet settled. Coming to this first reflex lifts up just how much of that present or past violence is impacting our ability to rest. As a healer, I look at violence as a range of things including the US normative conditioning that says your worth is bound up with what you do and not who you are. No single one of us can be healed or free until all are healed and free. It is possible to stop the impact of the violence still held in your tissues by controlling the space you are in and having enough time to let your bodies very slowly and fully feel that space around you, like a scared mammal slowly sniffing its way into someplace new, sniffing to find a corner to curl up in that is hidden and quiet.  It is also possible to stop the impact of that violence in your tissues by being raised with a range of race, class and gender privileges so that your conditioning numbs you and you can't feel the violence even when it is loud and screaming right outside your window. The first is about creating healing spaces. The second is about living your own life at the expense of others. Both of these scenarios are about violence that needs healing.

Coming to our first relationship with gravity, whether we do it by ourselves and for our individual bodies, or we do it as part of a group, it is always about taking a moment to listen, to integrate without thinking, and to notice what is true. Right now. In this moment.

And like all things, this is about practice. (Go ahead, I know you read that and want to lie down again. Go ahead and do it and then come back. This blog piece is almost done.)

We can't build a practice of rest if we don't know how to rest. This is the place of contradiction, the wrapped up tight knot that generations of living within and overriding violence have created. It is very difficult, although not impossible, to bring our body's to gravity's weight if we don't believe we can let go of our weight. That we can rest.

The gift of this is that gravity is not going anywhere. For the rest of your life and beyond, gravity is going to be this living relational thing that is with you, wherever you are. It was there to greet you immediately upon being born and, after you pass, it will help pull your body down and back into your most basic elements. It is always here. Always. And remembering your, our relationship to it is something you can do on your own or, even better, something you can do with others. Nothing I am writing here is new. Instead, this is all ancient and so many healers and teachers across literally thousands of years have practiced what it means to bring a body back into its ability to rest. Rest is how life remembers itself, reflects over what it has learned and slowly remakes itself in response to that learning. All of this is why systems of supremacy hijack the body's survival responses, keeping our nervous systems at the ready for disaster. Unable to rest.

I wish for you the ability to rest. I wish for you, no matter what has happened in your life or is happening now, the space and time, for five seconds or five hours, to remember this first and very loyal relationship.  Right now. As I finish writing this blog, I will practice. My daughter and partner are both still asleep. It is cold enough outside that the windows are shut so this room is quiet and contained. I will practice with and for you, remembering gravity, and wishing its patient steady pull as a kindness that only wants to hold your bones so that you are contained, held still, not falling into space or falling apart.

* This isn't exactly how the study of developmental reflexes names this first reflex. They focus more on what the set of specific reflexes moves towards. I am grateful to my teacher Suzanne River, who has since passed, for how she taught these reflexes as a series of reflexes and movements within the larger reflexes.