Following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of
On the Back of the Wildebeest,
by Audrey Jolly
What is Impulse?
Impulses are spontaneous firings that may or may not motivate action or a series of actions that follow in any particular moment in time. They may occur on various levels: physical, emotional, energetic, spiritual or intellectual.
I deliberately leave the intellect to the end of that list as it generally dominates our lives already. We have become "top-heavy" – relying excessively on the intellect and not enough on our physical, emotional and spiritual selves. Our reasoning faculties need to be given a break from all the heavy work they do for us. Too much thinking blocks creativity, pleasure and ease in the body. The intellect is a very important level of awareness but needs to be placed in proper balance with other aspects of our being. Let's give it a well-deserved rest.
We don't know what we don't know. Most of us haven't lived integrated lives. Even as children we may feel the longing and lack of self but not be able to do much about it due to our age and circumstance. As adults, we may have heard that we can change our bodies, emotions, spirit, energy and thoughts but we don't know how to follow through with it.
The "how" is more complex a question; our programming is set to stay with what is familiar and what is familiar is often limited for the purposes of keeping us safe. But the pathways to living with more integration are always there if one knows how to spot them and follow their cues.
The cues are not linear. The intellect will always try to make them make sense. It will question their value or significance, want to flit off to another thought that it finds more interesting or relevant rather than holding curiosity and inquiry, inviting 'more please' to the sensations and impulses as they unfold. Developing a capacity to be present, patient and engaged with the subtleties of the impulses takes time and practice.
Breath and bodywork can bring us into the present. It's all we really have anyway, the present moment. The rest is hypothetical or memory, both sketchy at best and capable of sending us into a whole host of tailspins.
Being able to observe the physical body patterns we fall into is helpful. For instance, as I'm writing this I notice that my spine curls forward as my concentration increases. I'm unaware of it until the physical tension becomes uncomfortable. That's the language of the body speaking to me in that moment through tension, and discomfort. I pause my work, stretching into a back arch, finding release. This may sound elementary and obvious because it's so familiar to us yet I find so many people who are missing the obvious connection of these sensations with the body telling us something about the moment we need to know.
In theatre, there is a saying, “I'll do it, but I won't watch” This beautifully describes one of these many internal disconnects that we have. It says, “I will do this move or this line or feel this feeling and express it, but I won’t bear witness to myself as I do it. I can strip naked while at the same time recede into hiding within myself so no one can see my core self.” Working women of the night are excellent at this.
Right now if you pause what you are doing and take your attention to your physical body you might notice an impulse to stretch or twist or massage or move a certain way. You might notice that your body would like to shake or sigh or blow out air.. Until you deliberately bring your attention to noticing these impulses, however, they stay in the purely physical realm, often unnoticed and unappreciated. Over time, they calcify, becoming more rigid and set in their ways.
Sometimes these impulses come as unwinding and releasing of gathered tension but not always. Starting with what feels tense is always good. I used to say in theatre every drop of tension holds an infinite supply of creative impulses. We don't want to get rid of our tension--we want to mine it for its creative content.
Find the tension in your body; place a hand or hands on it, give it recognition, ask yourself what you are storing in it, breathe into it, move with it and sound from it.
Explore its emotional content; is it grief, anger, joy, fear, disappointment, or something else? Fake it till you make it. Try various possibilities...explore freely giving yourself a wide playing field (with absolute permission to get it wrong multiple times if you need to and still not get it right or find it). Those thoughts and feelings are only thoughts and feelings anyway. Let all be welcome. None are wrong. There are no mistakes.
Physical impulse can be more of a deliberate exploration that seeks kinaesthetic awareness. How do these muscles, tendons, connective tissues or bones move?
We can try imitating the way a baby engages with its newly discovered fingers, exploring what they can do. This is an approach of ‘innocence,’ rediscovering the body's capabilities. But we could also try an approach of 'experience', following impulses in the current-age body or even imaginatively at a future age--ten, twenty or thirty years down the road. Is it stiff so the impulse is to stretch or shake to loosen body parts? Or is it antsy and jittery so the impulse is to hold and rock or curl up and squeeze?
An exploration in physical impulse can bring us into the present moment and into connection with what's here now. This may include what was present in the past that we still carry in the body, what is here now or what will be here in the future based on the patterns that we have developed. The more we become aware of our physical patterns, tensions or weaknesses, overworked or underworked muscles, the more we are able to build balance and stability where energy flows.
These same principles apply to emotional balance as well, although they are a bit harder to recognize. The more awareness and stability we have, the freer we become. We can choose what is working for us in the present and what is not so that we can gather or release what is necessary for our greatest good. By combining imagination and physical impulse, we connect with emotion, spirit and soul. This opens the possibility of living a full and vital life, beyond our wildest dreams of what is possible.
An exercise to identify and explore impulse:
1. Find a comfortable position to put your body in. It might be lying on the floor, sitting or on all fours (hands and knees); however, you are most comfortable. Let your body find the best spot for you today rather than deciding from your intellect. This might surprise you. We need to get the physical body back online, communicating clearly to us. Even as I write this, my body spontaneously breathes a bigger breath as my spine stretches up and back out of my slight curl forward over the page. My body responds to the words I am writing. Given an opportunity, our physical, creative, emotional, spirit selves have at least as much to say to us, if not more as our busy, overworked intellects.
Begin in a comfortable position, and say to yourself, silently or out loud, "I have a physical body" and then give yourself a set period (5 or 7 minutes, to begin with, building up to longer) observing your physical body.
As I write this, my physical body responds with my fingers fanning out and rippling in wave-like motions. Tension melts away and they tingle, feeling energized. This physical response occurs from just a moment of tuning into the physical body, with a single statement that names the body as the focus of attention. A little movement goes a long way, and a single impulse has worlds within it.
As I continue to bring my awareness to the body, listening for impulses, my jaw releases its (held) tension causing my forehead to relax. You might find that the first level of exploring physical impulse is recognizing where you are holding tension and deliberately letting it go. If you didn't get any further than that it would still be time well spent.
But if, after you have completed the exercise of letting go on a physical level, you find another level of physical impulse showing up that isn't driven from an awareness of tension and letting go, then Bravo! You are well on your way to exploring new worlds of physical impulse.
These various levels of impulse are all interconnected. An impulse in one realm may spark another impulse on a different level. For example, you might be exploring physical impulses only to have emotional impulses appear. That's fine; allow all impulses to be there without blocking them. Recognize each impulse for what it is, arriving from any level of awareness; physical, emotional, intellectual, creative, energetic or spiritual, and then return to the level you're exploring at the time. Feeling gratitude for whatever impulse appears and expresses itself is a good practice, especially the impulses that may be more difficult to be with. Your eyes might tear up and release grief during an exploration of letting go of physical tension or you might experience a flood of creative ideas or images for your next painting or well-up with a feeling of love for your child, your partner or your pet. Anything is possible. All is welcome!
Allow it--recognizing that you have activated another level--and then return to the statement "I have a physical body" until it feels complete for the time being. Also know that if at any time this exercise becomes too much to bear you can stop, step out of the exercise, take a break, then move to the next part of the exercise or stop altogether. Self-care is important to practice at all times.
2. Once this first part is complete then say "I have a physical body but that's not all that I am" and move on to the statement, "I have an emotional body" and tune next into emotional impulses that are here now.
This might be a bit more difficult for some people to access. I like to ask "What am I feeling in my body right now? Where am I feeling this? In my heart? My gut? My throat? Am I glad, sad, mad?" Be curious about an agitated state or any frustration. You might feel frustrated that you can't identify any emotional impulses. That is your intellect getting in the way. Gently ask it to step back a few steps, allowing it to remain in the room, and let yourself be with what else might be here. Move on to the next level of exploration whenever it feels right to do so. Don't beat yourself up or expect more from yourself than what is there in that moment.
In physical theatre we explore wheels of emotional impulse where the exploration of impulses in one emotion leads into another and so on. For example one might begin exploring an impulse for anger, which leads into sorrow then into joy, followed by a rest. Then it is repeated, dropping in deeper with each cycle.
The theatre rule of "fake it till you make it" applies here. Allow yourself to approximate an emotion until you reach it (or not). For example, faking a cough could lead to a fake (or real) cry or a lion's roar; that leads you to fake rage. Or a gasp of your breath, eyes wide with tense body to explore fear may get you moving towards connection to emotional impulse.
3. When this feels complete for today then close this part of the exercise with the statement, "I have an emotional body but that's not all that I am" and move on to the next level, "I have an energy body" and tune into your energy system. This level may be harder to access than physical or emotional impulses, but see what you can do. Ask yourself, How is my energy level today? Am I tired, sluggish? Am I jittery? Is one area of my body less comfortable than another and calling me to attend to it? Think nervous system and body wiring as you explore this level. It may take you into shaking or jerky movements, flicking, popping, hiccupping. Who knows? There are no mistakes – there are no wrong answers.
In any of these explorations, you might decide to have a buddy present. Also, you could set a timer that marks the end of each exploration. Stop if it becomes too challenging. Take breaks if you need to. Be kind to yourself so that you feel safe at all times.
4. When you are complete say, "I have an energy body but that's not all that I am," and move on to the statement, 'I have a creative body..." and see where this takes you.
In this moment, writing and thinking about this exercise, I went to an impulse towards exploring non-human form. If I was moving rather than writing I might have followed an impulse to become a four-legged animal prowling in the jungle moving gracefully, feeling my strength or I might have launched into a song or started to tap dance or drum out a rhythm on my leg. Anything is possible. Creative impulses freely flow from one level to another. Welcome them all. Try not to censor yourself, which is easier said than done. We are so good at censoring ourselves we often aren't even aware we're doing it. It's an ongoing practice to stop this suppression. Be kind to yourself as you explore this newfound freedom.
5. When this feels complete for now say "I have a creative body but that's not all that I am." Move to the next level, "I have a spiritual body," and again explore the impulses arriving as you hold and explore this level of being. Where does it take you? Do you access through the energy of your heart (that you may have explored already in one of the earlier parts of the exercise) and take it further? Do you tune into your soul? Where does this spiritual impulse live in your body? How does it feel? How does it want to express itself?
These levels are all integrated and connected. Allow a certain "coming together” of the levels in this exploration as a bit of a grand finale. Allow your spirit to express itself through impulses gathered from all the other levels but in service of the spirit/soul levels of you. Your creative, emotional, energetic, physical impulses collectively now serve the expression of your spirit or soul. You may find that these impulses now take on a different quality or combine in a different way. Give it a whirl. See what you find.
Does this level take you another layer deeper into your creative impulses? Try not hold any expectations that would leave you disappointed or frustrated. If that happens know that you are in the intellect and gently try to exhale and let that go.
For the purposes of this exercise, I'm not going to go into intellectual impulse. The intellect is the level we need to give a rest to -- it is overworked and exhausted by life so much of the time. Let's send it on a well-deserved break for now as we explore other levels of impulse in order to bring them forward. When this level feels complete you could say "I have a spiritual body but that's not all that I am." And move on.
You see by now that you could add a customized level of impulse here if you wish. What might that be? I have a sexual body; I have an instinctual body; I have an ethereal body; anything that comes to you at this time. Open it up to your imagination and follow the impulses that reveal themselves to you.
Then there is the pièce de résistance, the grand finale: be with the "I" that is speaking. You might sit in silence and stillness for this or not. Be with the 'I' that knows there are these various levels of awareness with various impulses and expressions — the "I" that observes all levels of us but isn't any one level in particular. The whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. See if you can open to this larger, all-inclusive perspective of the self without searching for or needing any specific outcome.
If that busy-ness creeps back in, know that your overactive intellect is being called into action and try to give it a rest once again. Let it know it does such a good job for you keeping you so smart and safe and liked by others but that you don't need to right now; it can rest its weary head for another moment or two before you pick it up again. And return to the I state, the overseer of all that is You and transcends all parts or levels of the self and their impulses.
You may find stillness and peace here or you may get even busier than you've been. Allow for any response.
As I write this my curiosity wonders to know how this went for you, what you discovered by doing it. It's never the same twice and never the same from one person to the next. It's always an exciting journey for those engaged in it.
This could become a weekly practice for you or, taken in parts, a daily practice that rotates through the levels at a gentle pace that suits you. This world of impulse is a rich and fertile field and it's waiting for you, so dip your toe in or go for a dive and rich, rewarding swim to your heart's content.