“So sometimes I need to be reminded that my body is mine.”

Today’s post comes from Return the Gayze, a blog I was alerted to by a Facebook post linked to me by a friend in a private message…you know how it goes. However I stumbled across it, I needed to share it with you.

The post is about massage, about pain, about buried trauma, about what we can offer one another as healer and client, as survivor and witness, as human beings who are made for touch.

Susan tells me that her job as a masseuse is not necessarily to get rid of the pain, but rather to bear witness to it. To recognize it. To affirm it. She says that we live in a country — a world — that teaches us at every level that our hurt is a story we made up. And we internalize that to our core and write it into every muscle in our body. “I am wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong.” She says that sometimes acknowledgment can be its own sort of antidote. That sometimes people just need to hear that what happened to them was not their fault. That people tend to know what is best for themselves, they’ve just been told over and over again that they don’t.

Read the whole thing, by Alok Vaid-Menon, here.

The Body Keeps the Score – but we knew that

18693771Yesterday I finished Bessel van der Kolk’s monumental work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This book, the result of more than three decades of research, direct service, and tireless curiosity by this Dutch psychiatrist, tracks the development of the profession’s understanding (or more often, lack of understanding) of post-traumatic stress. The most important piece for me: that the effective treatment of trauma requires not just a top-down approach (i.e., the use of talk therapy or other language and mind-based techniques), but a bottom-up approach as well. In short, the traumatized person needs healing that addresses their bodies as well as their minds.

Van der Kolk covers many bottom-up approaches, including yoga, theater, body psychotherapies like Somatic Experiencing, and even massage, and delves into the neuroscience, clinical data, and long-term outcomes of how it all works. The book is a tremendous win for bodymind modalities like Rubenfeld Synergy, which works with gentle touch and movement to help clients reconnect with their bodies and access the memories, emotions, and stories that live there. But it’s also a validation for me of the practices I’ve been doing with my more traumatized clients.

For those who suffer from the common long-term effects of PTSD, getting into your body is no mean feat. Dissociation – the sense of “leaving your body,” even to the point of feeling like you’re observing it from the outside – can happen easily; I’ve seen a few clients who “zone out” or dissociate merely from being asked to pay attention to their feet. Numbing, another common symptom, means such clients often can’t feel their body much at all – nor the emotions connected to it. For people who have flashbacks and experience what happened to them not as a story that happened long ago, but as an immediate, present, and intensely terrifying series of sensory impressions, anything that gets them in touch with their bodies too quickly – such as touch – is out of the question.

Among the multitudinous pearls of wisdom I got from this book was a word for what I do when this is the case: pendulation. Taken from Peter Levine, Dr. van der Kolk’s friend and colleague who developed Somatic Experiencing, pendulation refers to helping a traumatized person dip a toe, as it were, in and out of the intensity of memory. By guiding the client toward the experience that needs integration, then backing away from it before their tolerance runs out, a practitioner can help a traumatized person gradually approach and come to befriend previously intolerable feelings.

So if you come to me with a trauma history, I might keep us in chairs for a while rather than going to the table right away. I might ask you to pay attention to your breath, but might back off even from that if I sense that you’re starting to feel anxious or “leaving the room.” It’s a delicate balance, but little by little, we get back in touch with ourselves, and regain the strength, as van der Kolk repeatedly says, “to know what we know and feel what we feel.”

 

 

Halloween, Permission, and Being Something Else

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Halloween was always a thrilling time for me, both as a child and as an adult. It’s not that I was that into being scared; scary things were actually way too intense for me when I was little. And candy was nice, but given the weird scares of the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed to eat most of the candy I collected anyway. No: what really drew me was the opportunity to dress up and be someone different.

Costuming has always been powerful for me, especially as an actor. A different set of clothes, hair, makeup, shoes – it can all serve to change how you stand, walk, move, even think. The interaction between the body and the things we wrap it in is a source of constant fascination, changing our relationship to gender, age, place, season, cultural identity, time, and self.

If you think that’s a bit strong, think of how different you feel when you are sitting on the couch at home in your PJs, versus how you feel when you put on a suit, or dress up for church, or go out dancing on a Saturday night, or go to visit an elderly parent, or prepare to work on your car, or go hiking. If you’ve ever worn period clothing, you know how much a corset, or a loose tunic or robe, or a frock coat, or a flapper dress, can change how you stand, move, bend and carry yourself. Cross-dressing or deliberately queering gender through clothing has an effect on the wearer, as well as an effect on the viewer, depending on the culture in which it is done, the level of tolerance of the people involved, and the context. Today, a guy in my office won the costume contest dressed as Princess Leia – not, I think, because he looked silly, but because he looked so good without hiding any of his masculinity, and pulled it off proudly. Were he to show up dressed similarly on any other day, the context would have shifted, and the office would have a different response.

While it may be true that our “true selves” are inside us, what we express outwardly both reflects that internal state, and can shift it in minor and major ways. Halloween and other events like it – Carnival in various parts of the world, Purim in Judaism, and so on – offer people a chance to be something they are not, without any real consequences. As a result, it can offer a rare opportunity for people to explore something that they would like to be, or would like to play with being.

Even if you don’t go out to parties, or trick or treating, take some time this holiday to mess around with your outward appearance. What happens to your state of mind and the feeling in your body when you wear something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear? What becomes possible that wasn’t before?

[Rerun] Self-care made simple

From Dr. Kathleen Young's blogOne of the most potent things I have found, both in my training and with my clients, is the utmost importance of self-care. For every acute problem, every chronic stress, every relationship explosion, cancer diagnosis, loathed job or existential crisis, self-care comes up again and again as not just the most important, but the very first thing that needs doing.

This is true not just for my clients, but for me, and other practitioners.  As they say, you’ve gotta make sure your own oxygen mask is secure before helping others.  And as the Rubenfeld principle goes, self care is the first step to client care.  And, lest we forget that other principle: each client is ultimately responsible for his or her own healing.

So it’s not all that surprising that when a client tells me something difficult, and I can feel my mirror neurons firing and my shoulders tightening, my breath growing shallow…the first thing I need to do, before I can even respond, is to check my own breath, my own body, return to my center, and respond from there.  If I do anything else, I put myself in it with them.  And, as anyone who has had someone so upset over something that happened to you that you ended up taking care of them knows, nothing good can come of that.

In my own continuing therapeutic journey, I’ve recently been introduced to Oasis in the Overwhelm, a little book by ex-Catholic nun, nightclub singer, type A go-getter, and Rubenfeld Synergist Millie Grenough.  Its essential core is four 60-second strategies for re-centering and calming yourself, basically at any time and place.

I already have a number of strategies that I use for this, and I pass them on to my clients when I feel they are needed. And of course there are more involved self-care pieces: working out more, eating better, getting enough sleep – all those things that your doctor is always telling you to do.

But for people who want solutions that they can learn quickly and use anywhere…I have to say that this is pretty fabulous.  Once I internalize them myself, I will definitely be incorporating them into my practice. Hint: they involve stretching, breathing, checking in with your body, and focusing on an object of comfort.

Go check it out.

 

The power of instinct

I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr

I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr.

Instinct. It’s a thing we tend to ignore a lot in our culture, preferring reasoned thought, logic, and thorough consideration. We “have a bad feeling” about someone we meet, but we give them a chance…and then another. We know what our gut is telling us about a situation, but we second-guess ourselves. We’ve been this way before and something is telling us that we should turn right here, but we follow Google maps instead and get lost.

Now granted, blind following of instinct or gut feeling is no better. Diving into unsafe situations without preparation because they seem like fun can get you injured or dead pretty quickly. Responding to physiological nervousness or fear even after it proves to be unfounded is classic anxiety. Following a hunch in spite of contrary evidence is what got us into the Iraq War.

But instinct is a valuable starting point for many investigations, experiences, and creative endeavors. The gut feeling is a literal thing, as it turns out, a sensation that comes from the complex nervous system of the gut. It is evolutionarily very old, and is our body’s way of telling us what seems good or bad, unsafe or comforting, exciting or frightening. We ignore such signals to our peril, and often, they can be powerful messengers.

I have found great value in following my instincts in Rubenfeld Synergy. But I had some practice long before, as part of theatrical training. Actors, when they are good, are often spoken of as having “good instincts” and making “strong choices.” These performers are open and flexible, taking what comes to them and making it into actions and characterizations that are compelling to watch.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, I have found that the most profound, helpful, and healing sessions and moments come about when I relax, get my feet under me, and follow my instincts. I’ll say what comes into my head (within reason), even if it doesn’t yet “make sense,” because I have already sensed it. Nine times out of ten, what comes to me ends up unlocking an “aha” for the client.

I worked recently with an actor in a Rubenfeld Synergy session, and I was having fun noticing the way her vocabulary and the way she experienced her body lined up with the way I worked. It was easy for her to feel and locate sensations, to access emotion through the body, and to feel subtle changes as they occurred.

After working on one side of her for a bit, I came to her opposite hip. For some reason, a silly German accent came into my head; I have been learning a bit of German recently and am planning a trip there soon. For no real reason other than that it was there, I said something like, “Und now ve come to dee right hip…vich for zome reason ist German…”

This moment of silliness opened up a whole line of inquiry for the client. “That’s my German side,” she said, after a little laugh. “The rule-follower.” And we were off and running on a thread about the division in herself, between the fun-loving, connected, relaxed and artistically free person, and the person with so many responsibilities that she sometimes feels like she’s holding on for dear life just to keep up the appearance of control.

This could have begun another way, but my choice to follow what seemed like a whimsical instinct to do a silly German accent was what helped that story emerge. And at the end of the session, the German – who developed a personality, a look, an entire image in her mind and body – was what she said she would take with her.

What might change for you if you paid attention to your gut feelings more often?

When your body is a prison

prisonI had the pleasure recently of listening to Invisibilia, the relatively new podcast that spun off from Radiolab with Lulu Miller. The first episode concerns thoughts – one of the many invisible forces that powerfully influence our lives.

The second story in the podcast follows a very bright young man named Martin, who, at 12, suddenly fell ill with meningitis. It completely paralyzed and debilitated him, and left him in a vegetative state for about two years.

But after that time, he emerged from it, fully conscious, intelligent and aware…only to find that he could not move his body at all.

This, of course, ties into many of our worst nightmares: we are paralyzed during surgery, but conscious and cognizant of pain. Or we are trying to run from something, only to find our limbs feel like we’re trying to drag them through concrete. One of the most common fears – being buried alive – also comes to mind. You’re alive, conscious, living, breathing, and in full possession of your faculties. But you’re completely and utterly powerless to change your position, or communicate, or…anything.

In this state, the man in question thought endlessly about how pathetic, how helpless, he was. Until he chose to begin ignoring these thoughts, to let them float away. At which point he became detached to the point where each day, he wished to die. “It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish,” says Martin, who now communicates through a computer much like Stephen Hawking’s. “Days, if not weeks, can go by as I close myself down and become entirely black within – a nothingness that is washed and fed, lifted from wheelchair to bed.”

But the remarkable thing about this story was that, shortly before he began to restore some functionality, he chose to return to engaging his thoughts, to draw attention to them, to wrestle with the darker thoughts as they came up. He began focusing on the few things he could control, like teaching himself to tell time by the shadows as they moved through the room. And over time, through many neurological developments, he began to regain some small amounts of movement – the ability to squeeze a hand, or hold himself upright in his chair. It was one nurse – a woman who believed that there was more going on inside than the doctors believed – who urged his parents to have him tested for intelligence.

Once he began to have the tools to communicate, he began to return – not just his mind, but his body as well. Not full functionality, but over several years and with a lot of physical therapy and training, the ability to have a job, to fix computers, to go to college. And, recently, he got married, and is planning on learning to drive.

Listening to this story, I teared up, remembering a story on Radiolab with a similar theme that blew me apart when I listened to it the first time. Here were two examples of people who had been abandoned, left for dead, treated like a houseplant that needs regular feeding and watering and maintenance, but has no way of letting the world outside know what is going on inside. Until through some combination of love and hope from the outside, and hard work linking the mind and the body back together on the inside, the person emerges again.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we so often work with the body as an access point to the emotions and spirit, as a way to let the mind light upon associations and make sense of life. Here, though, is a way in from the other side: using the mind and its capacity for deep attention to restore function to the body, and indeed, restore a person to life.

Listen to the whole thing here.

Shakespeare helps restore the body's story to prisoners

At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

Shakespeare helps restore the body’s story to prisoners

At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

More awesome body-mind connection techniques at the Mind Your Body Expo

expo

The show floor at the Natural Awakenings Mind Body Expo

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to an exhibition of dozens of workshop presenters and vendors on more holistic approaches to health at the Natural Awakenings Mind-Body Event. Amid some things that admittedly felt quite woo-woo, I found some really great practitioners and doctors doing work in ways that align with what I’m seeing in my own work, and the day was well-attended, enthusiastic, and inspiring.

The show floor was filled with healers of all kinds, vendors of healthy foods, people giving demonstrations and hands-on work. The highlight for me, though, was the workshops, and I got to attend three and meet some great people.

First for me was a crash course in Biofeedback, with Kim Larsson at Boston Behavioral Medicine. I hadn’t been familiar with what biofeedback was before, and its principles are very cool. Essentially, they take readings from people of their heart rate, muscle tension, breathing, skin conductivity (sweat and gooseflesh response), heart rate variability, surface skin temperature, and other markers that are known to respond when the body is in a state of stress or relaxation. Through getting immediate, externalized feedback of how your body responds to stress by seeing the readouts on the screen, biofeedback practitioners then train patients to self-regulate their own stress responses, thereby keeping their bodies at a healthier baseline in a conscious way and learning how to consciously relax. What I noted about it most is how much it aligns with Rubenfeld Synergy’s strategy of teaching increased somatic awareness, and how that awareness is the first step to opening up possibilities for change. I liked the idea of actually being able to see what is happening, and develop a concrete sense of agency over your own body’s responses to stress, anxiety, and trauma triggers.

The other talk I really enjoyed was by Barbara Gosselin, a physical therapist who does cranio-sacral therapy. She spoke about the importance of working with the body with trauma. Her profound interest in and expertise in the body, including the much-overlooked fascial system, overcame any skepticism I had about CST, and it became clear that she, too, is doing work very closely aligned with RSM: gentle, listening touch, waiting for subtle change and release, and noting that with trauma, sometimes you don’t need the whole story – you just need to help the body return to a more relaxed, parasympathetic response to stimuli rather than the hyper-response that often gets stuck in the body in people who have experienced trauma.

I’m looking forward to being in touch with both practitioners, and making more connections across the Boston area with people who are doing grounded, effective mind/body work. If you want to know how to increase relaxation, diminish stress, and heal from trauma, I hope you’ll contact me.

What was taken from you? Where do we get it back?

I went to the INARS conference this past week, and I’ve taken away so many learnings that I don’t know where to begin. But I was inspired today when I walked into a cafe for lunch and heard a song.

If you were conscious during the early ’90s, you undoubtedly know this song. It starts with the repeated words: “In the middle of the – I go walking in the – In the middle of the – I go walking in the – ”

Are we there? Yeah. The song is Billy Joel’s mega-hit from 1993, “River of Dreams.” Now, before I left for the conference, I hadn’t heard this song, or hadn’t paid attention to it, in years. But in a bar in Landsdowne Street with friends, having dinner before a They Might Be Giants concert with dear friends, I heard it, and my friend did too. We both started singing along together:

In the middle of the night (middle of the night)
I go walking in my sleep (walking in my sleep)
From the mountains of faith (mountains of faith)
To a river so deep (river so deep)…

We sang along and boogied from the bar to our tables and commented on how long it had been since we’d heard that song, and what a good song it was. I mumbled along to a lot of the faster lyrics, and we moved on to dinner.

Today, after therapy, after talking about everything I’d been through at the conference, I heard it again in the cafe: In the middle of the night…

And I stopped, because I was hearing words I’d never heard before.

And I’ve been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I would never lose
Something somebody stole

This weekend, we focused on soul: what feeds us, where we feel at home, how we connect to passion, to center, to power, to connection itself. As part of that, we talked about the thwarts to passion: what does your passion call you to do, and what gets our way?

An important learning from this was that most of the time, the thing thwarting us is not of us. We may have internalized it, sure, but it was something done to us. “Something taken out of my soul. Something I would never lose. Something somebody stole.” Or, something somebody put there, something that doesn’t belong, that we should never have been forced to carry.

One fellow Synergist felt the sense of the thwart so deeply that she was convinced it was all her, and said it felt like a bunch of heavy locks. Gently but with laser clarity as always, one of the program heads, Noel Wight, told her: Very few people put locks inside themselves, just naturally, on purpose. It’s possible that this Synergist was the one who put them there. But what drove that action? What was the message she received that told her: lock yourself away. You are too much to take. Your passion burns too hot. Be quiet. Keep it to yourself.

What was stolen from her? What was put in its place?

And how do we get those things back? How do we return to ourselves, to a place where our passion, our will, can flow freely?

The answer differs for each person, but it starts with the body. What movement is restricted now, as a result of that thwarting, that theft, that abuse, that grasping, that constant imposition? Whatever it was, what movement can we use to restore ourselves to ourselves?

Here’s an example: for me, it was space. I got the message repeatedly that I took up too much space: I was too big, my laugh was too loud, I ate too much, and I needed to follow the rules, keep my legs together, and be a lady. So is is any surprise that now my hips are tight, I squeeze my shoulders into their sockets, my ribs get compressed, and I can’t take a full breath?

The restoration of my width, my length, my breath, my available space – this is the work that I need to do to restore my connection to passion, my soul, my source, and my sense of direction: where I am going in my life, and who gets to decide?

When we turn to the body and seek the source of our tensions, our aches, our habitual movements that hold us back, we begin to see other possibilities for movement, other ways that we can be, move, and live.

Contact me if you want some help doing this for your own life.