Muscles, Molecules, and Freedom

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Muscle Ultrastructure

Muscles are living looms of motion. Viewed molecularly, they consist of filaments that wind past one another as tension builds, then settle back when the muscle relaxes. Arrayed in three dimensions, millions of these threads weave and unweave with every motion. Even when the body rests, muscles are working. The heart beats, the chest expands and contracts, the intestines churn. Postural muscles support our bodies whether sitting or standing. So much action is ongoing, what we call relaxation is always relative. Complete absence of muscle tone means death.

And yet, we often harbor more tension than we need. Tightness accumulates in the the face, jaws, neck, shoulders, back, belly, and groin. Wilhelm Reich called layers of contracted musculature “armor,” and the word fits. Beset with trauma and shame, the body tries to protect itself by building up walls. The safety the armor promises is an illusion, but the rigidity and loss of spontaneity are all-too-real. Armoring hardens the living looms, which shrink into painful bands of spasm.

When a muscle contracts, filaments called actin and myosin pull on one another. (The ‘Sliding Filament’ video to the left explains how this works–there is a lot of biochemical detail in the narration, but if you focus on the animation, you’ll gain a good picture of how fibers interact.) When there is chronic tension, there is chronic binding of actin and myosin.

Mindfulness informed by biology can help reverse this process.  We peer inward, visualizing the strands inside the muscle, while encouraging them to unwind under the warmth of attention. We can mentally ease individual muscles using knowledge of their structure and attachments. 

Masseter Muscle

Masseter Muscle

As an example, take a moment to tune in to your masseter muscle. That’s the one that forms a knot in your cheek when you clench your teeth. Connecting upper and lower jaws, it runs vertically in line with the molars. Using your mind’s eye, see if you can feel that muscle now. If you have trouble finding it in your field of sensation, palpate your cheek and roll the masseter belly under your fingertips as they slide forward and back. People often carry a lot of tension in this muscle.

Mindful Biology builds on time-honored techniques of relaxation training, using life science to help melt the unneeded armor. As you tune into your masseter, use the image of bound fibers to soften and release some of its excess tone. With a slow exhale, visualize the tightened filaments easing slightly, perhaps just five percent. Let your jaw drop open a bit. With the next out breath, invite the weave to loosen another percent or two, working bit-by-bit with mindful curiosity.

Tension generalizes in the body. Tight jaws lead to tight neck and shoulder muscles.  Relaxation spreads too. See if you can feel softness flow outward from the masseter in the cheek to loosen facial tone around your eyes and mouth. The straps of muscle running down your neck might slacken also.

Muscle texture can be explored with Mindful Biology. The interwoven threads of actin and myosin can be visualized, so muscle tone can be felt more richly. An invitation to relax can be offered. And even if only a little release is gained, one better appreciates the deep structure and unconscious actions of this body that gives us life.