I was first made aware of the influence on human behaviour of four vestibular reflexes, by the late Ray Evans, who was a marine engineer, a student of yoga, my Alexander head of training, and a lifelong striver in pursuit of understanding of the human condition. Following Ray's example, in 1998-99 I underwent a year of professional training under Peter Blythe in Chester in order to look into the reflexes more deeply. From then on the process of investigating the reflexes gestated slowly in me -- hindered by doubt about whether excursions into the body of sometimes reductionist scientific knowledge called neuro-physiology might be an escape from truly holistic work.
Then about a year ago I was asked to give a talk on the reflexes at the annual conference of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) in Reading. I chose as the title "Four Primitive Reflexes." The talk seemed to go well, much better than I expected. Preparing for the talk, and follow-up work since, has encouraged me to think again about the four reflexes as the necessary a priori basis of Alexander work, of sitting-meditation as taught by Gautama the Buddha and Zen Master Dogen -- indeed as the a priori basis of all efforts to bring about true constructive change.
Four Vestibular Reflexes
The four reflexes are all vestibular -- they are mediated at brainstem level by the vestibular nucleii and their development is broadly responsible for regulation of postural muscle tone. If the vestibular system is the foundation stone of human behaviour, the four reflexes can be seen as the four cornerstones. To give them their 'scientific' names -- the names by which neuro-physiologists refer to them, they are:
1. The Moro Reflex.
2. The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR).
3. The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR).
4. The Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR).
To give them more descriptive names that reflect my understanding of them, they are:
1. The panic & grasp reflex; - the reflex of instinctively breaking out of fear paralysis, stiffening the neck and throwing the arms out in panic, then clasping the arms in and grasping for security.
2. The head balance / vestibular training reflex;
3. The side-to-side pointing reflex; - the reflex of intention, which opposes the instinctive panic reflex in the same way that the panic reflex opposes fear paralysis.
4. The top-and-bottom bridging reflex.
I submit that underlying the four Alexander directions, underlying the four noble truths, underlying the underlying structure of four philosophies in Shobogenzo, and also underlying the four elements enumerated in the Maha-Satipattana Sutta, is this a priori foursome. The four vestibular reflexes constitute an a priori universal truth in that they are present in every human baby -- the first three reflexes at birth, the fourth when an infant comes onto hands and knees at around 6 months.
If it is true that any real change in human behaviour must take account of the four main reflexes, then maybe it should not be surprising that the number four, and multiples thereof, tend to crop up in practical teachings that are concerned with real (not only intellectual or psychological) change.
The Four Alexander Directions
To anybody used to working with the four directions that Alexander recommended us to give "altogether, one after the other," the connection with the four reflexes is obvious once attention has been drawn to it.
1. Let the NECK be free
2. To let the HEAD release out
3. To let the BACK widen
4. To let the LEGS out
The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha
In the four noble truths:
1. Suffering may be equated with emotional attachments and reactions that are fuelled by and associated with the panic/grasping reflex.
2. Grasping (or "end-gaining" in AT jargon) is the origin/accumulation of suffering because of the universal defect that Alexander identified as unreliable sensory appreciation -- essentially a vestibular problem associated with imperfect integration of all four reflexes but no. 2 in particular. The faultier a person's vestibular-proprioception is, then the more that person tends to create harmful side-effects by grasping for a result. A dog whose coordination is perfect does not create harmful side effects when chasing a stick. The movements of a well-coordinated person fully committed to gaining an end, similarly, emanate only beauty. But most of the time most of us are not like that.
3. Stopping suffering might depend primarily on inhibiting the panic/grasping reflex and thereby quieting all the unconscious attachments and reactions that are secondary to it. As a movement, the panic reflex is a symmetrical pattern, which is opposed or inhibited by reflex no. 3, the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex. At the same time, whereas panic is an instinctive, unconscious, involuntary state, the pointing (or punching) reflex may be seen as at the root of all intentional activity -- so on this level too, the ATNR opposes or inhibits the Moro pattern.
4. The establishment of right pathways involves bridging the gap between instinctive, unconscious, reactive behaviour and more enlightened, conscious, decisive behaviour. (In physical terms, this may be equated with a harmonization of the energy centres in the head, the heart, and the pelvis.) This bridging of the gap between unconsciousness and consciousness depends on the mature evolution of all four reflexes, but ultimately on integration of the STNR, the bridging reflex. It has been said that a crucial difference between monkeys and humans is that (some) humans are able to walk upright with neck, hips, and knees fully and easily extended, thereby demonstrating inhibition of the STNR.... Anybody care to join me for a banana?
The Four Abodes of Mindfulness in Sitting-Zen
In the Maha-Satipattana Sutta, the four elements are:
1. Kaya; body.
2. Vedana; feeling
3. Citta; intention
4. Dhamma; realizations
In light of the four reflexes and also in light of the four stages that can be observed in Master Dogen's rules of sitting-meditation, I offer the following interpretation of the four elements:
1. Bodily non-emotion. Just being physically present. Noticing how I am, without caring; being aware of what is going on in the body emotionally, without reacting further to bodily reactions that are already going on. If the ultimate aim is really to be free, to liberate the body from emotional attachment and reaction, the primary thing must be not to grasp, emotionally or intellectually, for that or any other result. In short, not to try to be a buddha. To be content to be the non-buddha.
2. Sensory non-perception. Being open to sensory feedback about where I am, especially about where the head is relative to the rest of the body. Relying on the unreliable (but not totally relying on it) -- like Ray Mears consulting a cheap compass.
3. Intentional non-thinking. Intending to allow. Willing fearless spontaneity, like a baby pointing (as if to say, "I want THAT one!"). Not only willing it, but also, eventually, intentionally doing something to get the ball rolling -- breathing out fully and swaying.
4. Non-doing. Not me doing it. It doing itself. A spontaneous upflow of energy. Sitting as a spontaneous process. Body and mind spontaneously dropping off. Realizations of non-constancy in all its manifestations
To express it in sum, in light of the integral upward direction that unites the four:
1. Allowing oneself to be not necessarily up.
2. Sensing the possibility of an upward direction.
3. Thinking up.
4. Going up