My first experience of using somatics as a tool for self-assessment was during my shiatsu class when we regularly practiced "Zen Imagery Exercises." These gentle stretches use the breath to contract and relax the meridians, often called rivers of chi or energy. Developed by Shizuto Masunaga, creator of Zen Shiatsu, these exercises help the soma to balance itself by going through the daily cycle.
I was astonished at the far-reaching effects of this moving meditation, which were realized quickly. My curiosity piqued, I investigated further. These meridian pathways, which I experienced in my body, were related to specific organs and functions, which in turn were related to elements found in all creation. The elements are known as Fire, Earth, Metal (or Air), Water, and Wood.
The Five Elements, or Transformations, have been the basis for Chinese medicine for about five thousand years. Each element flows into the next, while at the same time controlling another. They are also assigned smells, sounds, colors, seasons, and emotions. Interestingly, in this system there are no "negative" emotions, just relative balance or imbalance within the soma. Thus fear is not bad if expressed, but represents an imbalance if repressed or expressed instead as anger (or another emotion).
Most people associate the meridians with acupuncture. The points used in acupuncture are located on the meridians. They are powerful information junctions, much like computer terminals in a large office system. In the East acupuncture was used instead of surgery prior to the westernization of their cultures. Here, in my opinion, we do not take the power of this work seriously. Who would have surgery for a headache or PMS? The most experienced acupuncturist will use few or just one needle to encourage balance. There is a danger of this work becoming allopathic, or symptom-oriented in its approach.
I encourage clients and students to notice, when doing the zen stretches, which meridians have the least resistance (are the easiest). This indicates a deficiency and by putting our focus there we draw energy away from symptomatic areas, creating balance. People are surprised that I tell them to avoid the hard exercises and concentrate on the pleasant ones. This is the basic difference in holistic therapy vs. a reductionistic "problem"-oriented approach. We are grateful to the symptom for alerting us to the imbalance. It is just an alarm clock telling us to wake up and we must look deeper to find the actual cause.
I really like the Five Elements because they give me a simple yet sophisticated way of seeing the interrelationships of the bodymind. The meridian system seems to be have preceded our nervous system and brain in the evolutionary process. This would explain many phenomena where we react faster than the nervous system can work. Perhaps someday we will appreciate the vast wisdom incorporated in the limbic and reptilian areas of our brain. For now I’ll continue with the process of getting to know myself. Till next time….
Resources Shizuto Masunaga, Zen Imagery Exercises. New York, Japan Publications, 1987.
______________, Zen Shiatsu. New York, Japan Publications, 1977.