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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

The Excitement of Life*

by John Lawson 1993, 2010


    With respect to life, each individual may be considered an authority.  This is true, since each person is in touch - to one extent or another - with his or her own needs and experience.  In spite of the immediacy of personal experience, however, meaning and fulfillment in life frequently prove elusive.  While, superficially, human beings may direct their actions and thoughts to specific ends with seeming enthusiasm, much evidence suggests that a gnawing sense of emptiness and futility commonly lurks beneath the surface of awareness.  An underlying feeling of malaise regularly hides in the shadows.  Life is felt to be a dreary business, and only a mask of pretense appears capable of concealing the dark truth from oneself and others.  Such is the state of affairs described by many writers as characteristic of contemporary experience.  In this context, it may appear naive to assert the view that life is essentially and fundamentally exciting.  Nonetheless, I believe that this is the case.

    To equate life with excitement is not to identify superficial experiences of diversion, fun, entertainment, or merriment as the stuff of existence.  On the contrary, what is at issue is the nature of life as an excitatory process.  Without excitation, there is no movement.  We know this to be true in terms of biological activity.  There is a characteristic pulsatory behavior that can be seen in the multitude of diverse life forms.  This is observable in the cytoplasmic streaming of plant tissue as well as in the undulations of protozoa.  The cells of the human body pulsate in a state of continuous agitation, a fact which has been so clearly described by Joseph Hoffman in his book The Life and Death of Cells.  Just as the cells of the human body expand and contract in an alternating rhythm, the organs and organ systems also pulsate.  The heart beats, the digestive tract undulates, and the great diaphragmatic muscle - similar in its dome-like appearance to a jellyfish - moves in a constant state of rhythmicity, propelling the respiratory process.  Indeed, the respiratory process itself is the most obvious and unmistakable instance of pulsation in human beings.  It is in the alternating inhalation and exhalation of breathing that the tissues are supplied with the oxygen necessary to vital functioning.  Good breathing and the excitement of life go together.

    While all life involves some degree of excitation, it is true that we do not always find it "exciting" to be alive.  This is one of the problems which human beings face.  Life can be dull and full of despair as well as joyful and stimulating.  We all know the difference between being depressed and being excited.  There is a different quality to the two states of experience.  What is sometimes overlooked is that there is also a quantitative factor involved.  When we are excited, we have more energy than when we are depressed.  If this higher level of energy is functioning in a relatively uninhibited and graceful manner, we experience pleasure.  Our bodily processes run smoothly, and we sense in ourselves a condition of well-being.  We are literally "set in motion," which is what the word "excited" means.  Correspondingly, our spirits are lifted.  While we may naturally be expected to enjoy the added excitement that stimulating events and circumstances can bring to our existence, the fundamental and enduring basis of our excitement is the free-flowing excitation that is at the root of our being.  It is the presence of this basic excitement - identical with life itself - that makes the exciting events in our lives meaningful.

    What are we to say, then, of the compulsive search for excitement and the addiction to violent stimulation that are so characteristic of our contemporary society?  The irony is that the pervasive overstimulation which is prevalent in modern culture reflects a lack of genuine excitement in being alive.  If we are in touch with the natural excitement of life, we do not need the blasting stereo, the ubiquitous computer devices, the relentless competition, the incessant turmoil in relationships, or the countless other elements that are intended to compensate for an inner sense of numbness and deadness.  There is no substitute for life, and all of these measures are doomed to failure.  Beneath the surface, hiding in the background, is the despair that is the true register of the lack of genuine excitement in being alive.  At a fundamental level, this lack of excitement is anchored in the diminished and disturbed excitation that accompanies restricted breathing.

    Breathing is a basic biological activity.  Unfortunately, holding one's breath - which is a basic response to prolonged anxiety - is a widespread contemporary occurrence.  Naturally, a person does not completely cease to breath, or death would result.  Respiration, however, can be greatly curtailed without immediately jeopardizing survival.  What is jeopardized is the excitement of being alive.  Typically, functional restrictions in respiration, as Wilhelm Reich pointed out, begin during the period of early childhood.  Such restrictions are tied to characteristic patterns of structural imbalance resulting from chronic muscular tensions which may be seen as a form of defensive armoring.  The function of such armoring of the organism is to control anxiety.  This is accomplished by means of limiting the degree of excitation that is tolerated.  Essentially, one deadens the excitement of life in order to dilute anxiety.  What results from such a situation, often as not, is a desperate attempt to find some excitement that can be externally induced in order to compensate for the inner emptiness that exists in the depth of experience. 

    To say that people are shadowed by a sense of futility and plagued by a lack of genuine excitement in life does not mean that some primordial curse is lodged within the human soul.  Rather, life fails to be exciting because the basic excitatory processes in the personality are held at bay.  The inevitable counterpart of this situation is the presence of unresolved inner conflicts and unacknowledged degrees of anxiety.  Though the way to recovering and restoring the genuine excitement of being alive may be a difficult one, fraught with resistance, it is not mysterious.  The excitatory function of deep breathing must be revived; and anxiety must be confronted, clarified, and dissipated.  This means that the personal structure of the individual must be reorganized so that a higher level of excitement can be contained and tolerated.  When this is accomplished, life finds its place in the human spectrum as adventure, with the ups and downs that inevitably characterize any adventure.  The promise of easy living and the despair of broken promises dissolve into the simple excitement of being alive.


*This article appeared originally in the March, 1993 issue of Transformation Times.  It is reprinted here with a few minor revisions.

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