Body plan is a word I had never heard until I read it in Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.
In this fascinating book, the author, a teacher of history and philosophy of science at the university of Sydney, asks and replies to many interesting questions, among them: How did a nervous system come to be what it is? What roles does it fulfil amongst different groups of animals? What is intelligence? What is the difference between subjective experience and consciousness?
“When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all,” says Godfrey-Smith, an avid scuba diver.
And so the journey begins there, at the dawn of time, when unicellular life was tentatively settling in the womb of Earth’s sea. As he depicts the likely scenario of our common origins in this vast brine expanse, I picture tiny protoplasmic-type ‘creatures’ that lie in stillness. Peaceful ‘grazers’, who at one crucial stage, decide to start partnerships: a cooperation bestowed by the chemistry of commonness and complementarity.
I remember the stillness of our inner beings as I deeply listen in through my hands and my whole body during a craniosacral session. This “original blueprint” and matrix osteopath Dr James Jealous talks about. Somewhere within us, in the interstitial spaces of our cells we hold that far distant memory of this first dream-like layer, the original canvas, Earth’s primal sparks, her cellular imagining of being within the morphological fields of the sea.
These ‘grazers’, rocked by the motions of the sea and fed by sunlight also remind me of cranial osteopath Dr Rollin Becker’s descriptions of the rhythmic dynamic interchanges between our fluids, our tissues and the tidal motions of the Breath of Life.
And it is when osteopath Dr William Garner Sutherland perceived the subtle movements in the bones of the cranium and noticed how the petrous squamous portions of a temporal bone were, “Bevelled like the gills of a fish, indicating respiratory motion for an articular mechanism”, that osteopathy in the cranial field was born.
It is no accident that Sutherland chose ocean words like the Tides when naming these peculiar rhythms that rock our whole bodies along the axis of the spine. They were born of felt observations of fluctuating wave-like currents breathing the entire organism.
Our bodies are mostly fluids held together by connective tissues imprinted with an elemental memory of this original gestation at the bottom of the sea.
I wonder whether it is this ancient oceanic memory that craniosacral practitioners attune to when we anchor within and listen to these slow motions, the Tides, when we witness and are at one with stillness?
Godfrey-Smith notes, “The chemistry of life is an aquatic chemistry. We can get by on land only by carrying a huge amount of salt water around with us.”
It is within this brine, this fluid cradle that the first cells will very slowly organise and grow distinctive features. Godfrey-Smith posits that a central nervous system was born out of this necessity for orchestration of what was separate into a coordinated whole.
These original partnerships then developed different sensing 'palettes' along with unique morphological features or body plans such as eyes, shell, armour, gills…
The presence of different others and the adjoining need for sensing, cognition and protection came next, birthing another essential role for a nervous system: the initiating of action and reaction.
It is quite inspiring to think that our unique body plan arose from this original cooperation between cellular lives, via a complex, and lengthy, evolving path.
Godfrey-Smith argues that it is during that time that subjective experience and consciousness was formed. I infer that as animals learnt to move and be moved, they grew more competent, engaged with others, protected themselves and felt to varying degrees. Some probably questioned and wondered too.
Homo Sapiens is one of these conscious animals. The humble octopus and other members of the cephalopod family (cuttlefish, squid, nautilus) could be another.
Cephalopods are absolutely awe-inspiring in that they have no body shells, no armour, no bones, they are a “body of pure possibility”, explains Godfrey Smith. For that very reason they have had to become masters at the art of camouflage and at sensing their surrounds in order to survive.
They are surprising by the size of their brains compared to their relatively short life-span of about two years. The females die shortly after their eggs begin to hatch.
They are colour-blind yet their ‘skin’ is covered with chromatophores that play a language of mesmerising hues which scientists barely understand.
They are “protean in behavior as well as in body”, remarks Godfrey-Smith who wonders at their range of abilities and apparent reasoning, sensing, even feeling abilities through an elaborate nervous system that appears to 'multiply' as each tentacular arm bears more nerve endings than the brain.
So much so that he affirms that, “Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over.”
I read this wonderful reflection on the origin of life and the evolution of Intelligence and then just a few days ago watched a beautiful documentary on Netflix, My Octopus Teacher. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3s0LTDhqe5A)
A visual retelling of what I had read, through stunningly moving images, this documentary reveals diver Craig Foster's evolving relationship with an octopus off the South African coast.
Through both the spoken and the written accounts, the actual and the visualised imagery, an awe, a fascination, a wonder, a deep respect, and affection are conveyed. Like an encounter with a long lost relative whose origins we share at the bottom of the primal sea of Life, sparking a renewed sense of meaningful belonging in its narrator.
As I watched the octopus’ long, serpentine, fleshy tendrils grabbing Foster’s fingers to pull him towards her den and carefully examine him through her sensors. As I saw her wallowing on his chest in the most beautiful hug-like gesture. As I saw her gracefully dancing with a school of fishes just days before mating. As I heard him talk about the complex behaviour of this wondrous animal I was reminded of Godfrey-Smith’s own words when speaking about his various encounters: ‘curious’, ‘playful’, ‘mischief’, 'craft', ‘embracing novelty’, ‘sentient’…
During one startling experience, Godfrey-Smith observes a cuttlefish who is ‘playing’ a symphony of colours while ‘sitting’ still. Wondering whether he is dreaming, he recalls, “I was reminded of dogs dreaming, their paws moving while they make tiny yip-like sounds. He made almost no movement, except small adjustments of siphon and fin that kept him hovering in the same place. He seemed to be maintaining as little physical activity as possible, except for the ceaseless turnover and patterns on his skin.”
I heard this question in another stunning film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which seems apt in this context: "If you're staring at me, what am I staring at?"
These experiences of pure enchantment with a creature whose body plan is so strikingly different from ours and yet whose mind is so advanced makes one wonder indeed: are cephalopods another apex of Intelligent expression at the end of a fundamentally different evolutionary branch?
But then why not question the actual classification process itself? Sure it helps to ‘grasp’ and retrace the evolutionary paths of animals and plants but it is a man-made tracking, scientific in nature, but far from exact, as the evidence, mainly fossil records, is scarce, and the filtering criteria and hypotheses are limiting.
When I read Godfrey-Smith exclaim, “ The mind evolved in the sea”, I also see a tumbling down of these arbitrary walls between species, and a re-shuffling of definitions too, which is what the author does to some extent, although within an existing framework.
Likewise when I watch Craig Foster fervently visit his 'teacher' daily beneath the sea, the emotionally-charged subjective experience supersedes a narrow scientific reading and makes for a far richer witnessing of an oh so delicate intimacy.
Watching Foster swimming alongside this beautifully friendly octopus I linger on their common fluidity, these fluid bodies' ease in the brine.
We may not display multiple feeling tentacles but our skin is replete with nerve endings that sense, notice, filter, interpret and ‘dialogue’ with the surrounds to bridge the inner with the outer.
As I receive and give craniosacral therapy, my fluid body dances as if it were floating in the sea because it is. Skin is an interface within which we float.
We are breathed fluids in constant movement.
Biodynamic craniosacral teacher and author Franklyn Sills talks about our "tidal body", "within which the midline, ordering matrix, fluid body, physical body and body-mind system is suspended and breathed" by the Breath of Life (http://www.craniosacral-biodynamics.org/threebodies.html)
Conventional science discounts this whole body perception and the depth of listening of biodynamic craniosacral therapists as it cannot be verified and reproduced in a lab. Indeed it is a very subjective experience: every session is quite different and tells of a unique style of neutral holding and relating with many stories happening at once in different parts of the body.
I, like every craniosacral therapist, have trained my hands to perceive way beyond where they make gentle contact with my client’s body. In time, my whole body also learnt to attune, listen, notice, witness from a place of anchored and vast stillness. I have written before of our very peculiar multifocal perception. This is possible thanks to biotensegrity principles underlying our tissues and fluids, thanks to a body plan that consists in tensile, flexible structured form, basking in fluid as well as containing it, in constant interchange.
I am ever so grateful to have these skills but I strongly believe that anyone committing to training and practising can acquire them.
Our whole skin is an ultra sensitive organ whose perceptive potential and memory is underestimated and undervalued, definitely underused and understudied.
Because of the apparent independence of each of the octopus’ tentacles with their thousands of feelers and nerve endings, they are said to have a brain in each arm. Godfrey-Smith goes as far as saying that, “For an octopus, its arms are partly self.”
I would boldly venture that our holding is somewhat related to the octopus' apprehension of reality in that it is from the whole body as well as honing in on many happenings wherever and whenever they occur. We sense through skin, time and space. Cephalopods are pure connective tissue without the extra filtering membrane formed by our epidermis.
But as I am making contact with tissue, fluids and potency through my hands, our skin and fascia complex, just like the feelers and nerve endings of tentacles, appear to act independently as well as in connection with the whole, in many more ways than just via sending and receiving messages to and from our central nervous system.
As I listen to an ‘unlocking’ and an adjustment in the cervical vertebrae of my client for example, as I feel the accompanying surge of potency from her fourth ventricle flooding in the space created by this opening, I can also ‘hear’, ‘see’, feel her pelvis lifting and expanding and her gut releasing and resounding.
All of this can be sequential or happening at the same time while I quietly hold the whole. And so much more takes place at once. The more practised we are, the further back in this original primal stillness we can sit, the more we can attune to the subtlest details.
“Force yourself to see more deeply,” urges Robert MacFarlane in another excellent book, Underland.
There is a deep underland we have not dared to explore as a whole species like we would an underwater cave or an underground river in a limestone rich geological terrain. One that I gratefully explore each time I give a craniosacral session.
It requires a very different set of perceptive lenses and awareness than what we are used to but the journey is all the more astounding.
It also speaks of sparks, of breaths, of currents, of rhythms, of amazing discoveries and emotional unveilings and a renewed embodiment that is like a rekindling of “being of the Earth, not just on Earth.” (My Octopus Teacher)
Reading Peter Godfrey-Smith's Other Minds and watching My Octopus Teacher reinforces my sense that we could be witnessing the dawn of a world of possibility far more enchanting than the one we have 'constructed' through the dominant prism and set confines of an 'objective' and objectifying scientific framework.
One where the distance between the human and non-human worlds is reducing to naught.
One where there is no longer a need to talk about a body plan and 'distinctive features'
One that does not segregate, label and classify, thus allowing for discrimination and hierarchy to arise
One as vast and timeless as an Ocean mind.