The Mirror of Awareness

The Mirror of Awareness in Structural Integration

Edward Maupin, Ph.D.

The purpose of this essay is to describe an approach to Structural Integration which emphasizes awareness – the awareness both of the practitioner and especially of the client – as the central agent which produces structural change.

While in the beginning many of us probably thought of mechanical force, how hard we were pushing, as the element producing results, most of us have evolved ways of softening the blow, at least, to reduce the pain. This is one of the ways.

Dr. Rolf foresaw that there would be divergent interpretations of her method of Structural Integration, and that different schools would grow up, each with its different set of emphases. I want to describe one such divergence, an emphasis upon awareness, leading to its own special results and discoveries within the practice of SI.

As I saw her, (in "my Ida Rolf" as one of my psychiatry professors would have said) she was a material scientist, a physiologist, albeit with a sculptor's eye.[1] The body she touched was the body of material science: anatomically correct and biochemically vital. She was awesomely accurate, penetrating with elegant precision to the special points of distortion and potential change. Sometimes — not always — it hurt like hell, but it was over quickly because of her accuracy.

She was not particularly interested in our subjective experience. The pain was unavoidable, a valuable part of the learning process as one discovered how to release it. If her hands contacted a pocket of grief or emotion she was respectful: she waited for the tears to clear, but she did not pursue their meaning. She was not a psychologist.

This is not to say she was not spiritual. She was the real thing, with a gleaming intelligence and deep, caring attention. "Momma Knows Best" was palpable in her presence, and there was no doubt that momma wanted the best for us. There were times I knew she was a bodhisattva, a realized being, from the Presence in her hands.

Still, she was not a psychologist, and furthermore she thought most psychological problems were the result of structural insecurity. She pursued the world's ills by straightening out its bones.

Time passed. Her early students were not precise and quick, and the pain was not over in a moment. It became apparent to most of us that we needed to refine our touch.

Her assumption that pain was a necessary part of the process came into question. Certainly it was not necessary so often for the process to be painful. There was also the interesting phenomenon that the pain of good bodywork often morphs into something profound and even pleasurable. Curiously, when one is not afraid of the sensation but learns to accept it without resistance, it changes character completely. I remember my former wife commenting that childbearing was a lot like being Rolfed from the inside, except that it wouldn't quit upon request.

Dr. Rolf knew this about pain, of course: it was an essential part of the learning she felt pain offered, but she didn't focus on how the morphing took place. She only told us to "stop resisting."

Consciousness, Awareness, and Attention

The experience of pain transforming into pleasure was a fertile opportunity for observing the important role of consciousness, awareness, and attention in the work.

Let's define some terms

The term 'consciousness' was introduced by the 18th Century English Philosopher, John Locke, to refer to what you are aware of bein g aware of. This is your consciousness: everything you can find in your awareness at this moment. If you can find it, it's conscious. It is highly organized by conceptual thought–how you understand things–and, on a more fundamental level, by the way in which consciousness mimics vision as it breaks things down into separate elements, analytically.[2]

'Awareness' is much larger. Your body is responding at every level to all sorts of stimuli. It adjusts to gravity, causes your heart to beat, transports molecules across membranes, exudes hormones, ensures the balance of muscles across joints. It is 'aware' in the sense that it is responding on all these different levels. It is even integrated and unitary, because all the systems have to work together. It is the Self, but mostly it is not conscious. Awareness and Consciousness are not the same.

Freud and his psychoanalytic followers, like many other traditions, have made a similar distinction between what is 'conscious,' what is 'preconscious' (which can be conscious if attention is brought to it) and what is 'unconscious' (and thus cannot be known).

'Attention' is the focus you can bring to bear upon what is in your field of consciousness. Not many things in our lives are free and subject to our own will, but though it is conditioned, habitual, and follows time-honored restraints, you can consciously choose to direct your attention! Though it is only free to a limited extent, it is nevertheless our one point of power. As it happens, this is very important in producing changes within the body as well in other realms of human experience.

Two Minds

We have arrived now at the idea that each of us contains two minds. There is the conscious mind of conceptualization and language. It is always engaged in 'explaining' the world to itself. But the other mind, the body awareness, has no need to explain: it knows. We can call the conscious mind 'the relative mind' because it is always relative to what is real, always an interpretation. The other mind we can call the absolute mind. Because it is taking in the world as it is to its senses (not necessarily how it is in itself, of course) and responding to what it knows, it is in a state of pure being rather than interpretation. It is extraordinarily intelligent in the way it is managing your physiology, and who is to say where pure physiology ends and potentially conscious body awareness begins? Does this mean it is always objectively correct? Of course not: it can be strongly influenced by the relative mind, by the world it 'thinks' it lives in (consider how often it responds inappropriately to the present in terms of past traumatic events, even to the point of creating illness). Still, it is not mediating its reactions through conceptual interpretation.

It is the non-conceptual nature of this awareness that makes it so inaccessible to 'consciousness.' The conscious mind proceeds by explaining reality with words and concepts. The pure awareness of being is 'void' because it is void of conceptualization. Only a trained consciousness can learn to be even partially aware of it. Direct, non-conceptual existence is very difficult to know. In fact, the most radical and extreme experiences of "Being" take place in states of mind so foreign to the 'ego' ("I) that they are 'ineffable' and so mystical as to be inexpressible in words. "The T'ao which can be named is not the T'ao."

Nevertheless, since the 'relative' mind is essential to our successful adaptation to the external world, and the 'absolute' mind is the process of our very being, it is clear that communication between the two is highly desirable.

How can this communication take place? The conscious mind must make room for something it cannot entirely know, or even notice. To do so is to be open to creativity and intuition. It requires being attentive and present in the moment rather than lost in thought.

Most simply put, the conscious mind must learn to shut up and pay attention to the sensory awareness, to what can be felt in the present moment. Shut up with all the thoughts and explanations: what is the physical experience now? That's the beauty of it: if the conscious conceptual mind can be induced to pay attention to the qualitative aspects of what is going on – to sensory experience – it steps temporarily out of the thought realm and into the external rind of being. Sensation takes place in the 'here-and-now'. That's the difference between concept and experience, between quantity (the analyzed) and quality, between the "I" and the "IS", between the brightness of the conscious mind and the void of Pure Being.

This has been the explicit goal of a good many consciousness traditions. The yogic union of the ida and pingala, masculine and feminine, knowledge and compassion, reason and energy – it's all about the union of the two minds under an innate awareness, a witness to both.

Lo and behold! Our profession is perfectly poised to bring these two minds together. Sensory experience is the outer rind of a being that extends all the way into unknowable levels of physiological response. When the thinking mind quiets down and pays attention to the sensory awareness of the being, we bring the two into unity.

As it happens, it is awareness that makes something change in the client's body. Mechanical force can only go so far, and when the fledgling SI practitioner begins to feel damage in the hands, he will do well to consider working more with awareness – his own and that of the client.

Awareness Makes the Change

Dr. Fritz Perls, the formulator of Gestalt Therapy, had a maxim: "Put your attention where your awareness is, and the next gestalt will take place." That is, by bringing one's attention into the more subtle parts of the field of awareness, changes which are already contained in the situation will take place.

He also said, "Don't push the river. It flows by itself"

This is particularly apt for people working deep into the body.

No need to go into detail about Perls' role in the spread of Rolfing. Because he was at Esalen, Dr. Rolf went there to work on him, and later to teach others of us who were drawn to her method. As Gestalt Therapy spread, Rolfing spread in its wake. It is probably accurate to say that the material scientism of Dr. Rolf was leavened by the experiential focus of humanistic psychology and the Human Potential Movement at Esalen.

Dr. Rolf's effect upon the body was very deep, and her early students were working much too hard to get that deep. To put it bluntly, we hurt like hell. We were applying mechanical pressure and struggling mightily. That kind of work hurts, and it isn't fully effective.

One solution is to take into account the experience, especially the physical experience, of the client as subject. There is someone there. That one is not so much the social-verbal "I-conscious" person who walked into your office as it is the body awareness at its most external level, its capacity to be aware of your touch. You are engaging with a profound and multi-layered creature through your use of touch, pressure, and movement.

To state it quite radically, you are not primarily touching the body; you are touching the awareness within the body. This engenders a radical shift of technique, both in terms of what you do and what you expect of your client.

Touching to Know

It is apparent in the 2006 IASI yearbook, that very many structural integrators (integrationists?) have developed sensitive or receptive touch along many interesting lines. For instance, Heather Keene writes about a very sensitive awareness of what the body wants. She is building on one of Dr. Rolf's most curious instructions about the work: "Let the body tell you what it wants." There were other approaches in the same yearbook, and all of them moving in a similar direction.

My own method I call "Touching to Know." Basically it involves shifting my attention from too much emphasis on what I am doing and toward what it is that I am sensing and feeling. Technique comes from perception.

Touching to know What? Open-minded awareness permits you to be aware of many things: the feeling of the flesh, the patterns of holding, the energetic vibration within the body and the energy you can feel inside your hands as well as more subtle things, such as the "being" of the client, images and feeling which arise in the contact and many other things. A strange phenomenon appears: when you become aware of something in the client – for example a holding-pattern - the client often becomes aware of the same thing and the pattern releases.

How does it start? When you begin to push into anywhere in somebody's body you will encounter a barrier beyond which you cannot push without causing pain. If you wait there, the barrier begins to shift. Something, an awareness, is shifting its boundary. Waiting and listening at the boundary is the beginning of communication with the client's body awareness.

Your hands are inviting attention; the body is responding. Structural Integration is a two-way street. In awareness-oriented work, the client remains engaged, participating, and as the bodyworker you need to know how to pay attention and listen, calling out the client in a profound interaction

There is more to say about the practitioner's state of mind, but first, the client needs to be trained to participate. It is not enough to lie down and receive the work passively: the client must learn to be actively involved.

Training the Client: Four Steps

1. "Pay attention to the touch." The client learns to focus on the point of contact. "When your mind wanders, bring it back to the touch." It's a somatic meditation. The conscious, external mind is paying attention. The fact that the touch is a qualitative feeling experience suspends verbal-conceptual activity.

2. "Draw me in (like a sponge or a magnet)." This is also a conscious function. The client chooses to want you to be there. Not all people understand at first how to draw you in, but you can train them. Receptivity is the skill of making a space for something to happen. In time your client will be able to draw you into places you couldn't otherwise reach.

3. "Pay attention to the pleasure." Now, when your client begins to notice those moments of pleasure, you have captured the attention of the body's own awareness below the conscious mind. You cannot make up fleshly pleasure, (for example the pleasure of scratching an itch,) but your body is guided by it. Some clients have trouble making the step. Pleasure may be forbidden, or they may be dissociated in some way from the body experience. Very constructive psychological work can be done at this juncture.

4. "Use my hands." This step can take many forms.[3] In structural integration we are often asking our clients to move in certain geometrically accurate ways. When the experienced client begins to participate on this level, these movements provide part of the stuff of improvisation. The body is telling you what to do, guiding with its sense of what is pleasurable, which is to say what is 'right.'

The Bodyworker's Mind

The bodyworker's awareness is of course is a much bigger subject, but it can be boiled down into two questions: what are you imagining, and what are you aware of?

What you imagine is what you touch

What are you imagining? This is the active, or yang side of our work. We are imposing a conceptual structure of how the body moves in gravity, of how a particular joint needs to be balanced to participate in a larger, more integrated whole. Above all, we are Thinking Bones because only with the bones and joints in mind can we understand the segmented nature of the body's adaptation to gravity. (I often encounter practitioners who are so focused on muscular anatomy that they miss this deeper skeletal perspective.) How we conceptualize the body we are touching has a powerful influence on what the client experiences. Visceral touch elicits visceral feeling, cranial-sacral touch elicits perception of the cranial-sacral pulses: Structural touch elicits awareness of the interior myoskeletal body.

But our technique is not yang. We are not caught up in what we are doing, but in what we are sensing. Technique follows perception, an improvisation in response to the situation.

What are you aware of? Notice that this is not "what are you doing?" Here we are yin. We receive; we listen; we use touch, pressure and movement to explore this body. The technique a response to what you feel.

What are you aware of?

Just as the client makes a space to draw you in, you make a space, a void, for something real to happen. I have to admit that one major area of learning at this point is how not to fall asleep. Maintaining this kind of focus, with so little distraction by thinking, is definitely an altered state. You are 'entranced', and the conceptual mind tends to fall asleep. However, you are not the first meditator who has had to learn this lesson.

At the very moment you have fully accepted the assumption that you are not touching a body so much as the awareness within the body, you begin to look for subtle cues. You wait to see how the barrier responds, how the boundary communicates. The technique of 'unwinding' comes to mind as a special case of this phenomenon. If one makes contact and then waits in the proper way, with some such question as 'what are you going to do with this?' the body begins to respond, to move, to 'unwind' and then the bodyworker can follow, rather than guide, the process of change.

The Mirror of Awareness

This is one formulation of the method. The aware bodyworker is touching the aware client. The body is guiding the work. Non-verbal, non-conceptual communication is taking place.

This is the goal. In addition to a host of structural improvements, the client has become present in the body in the here-and-now. The bodyworker also, has stepped out of personal limits into the creative mystery of an answering consciousness.

Such is the blessing of our work.


  1. Jeff Linn, a scholar of the Rolf archives, thinks Dr. Rolf started with the visual sense of where flesh is displaced in disorganized bodies, and then added the anatomy. It is also true that she warned against getting too caught up in anatomy. (Personal communication)
  2. This reflexive meaning of 'consciousness' is different from the meaning it has in certain spiritual contexts, where it refers to "Pure Consciousness which transcends all objects" (Zen) or "Divine Consciousness" (Arica)
  3. Think of a hog, scratching its back on a barbed-wire fence.