An integral approach to optimal health

Presented without too much comment, here is Part 1 of a series of six short but dense blog posts detailing the general dissociation of our modern culture, and the quest for a more embodied, integrated approach to life. I stumbled across Part 6 today thanks to Google alerts; I’ll link it here because it contains all the links to the rest of the series. But start with part 1. You’ll be glad you did.

Moving from habit to choice

Today I came across this very simple and straightforward blog post from Kristen Barton Cuthriell about behaviors and consequences. The post is full of sound advice about what happens when you make particular choices, and how thinking through the consequences can help you make the right ones. A few examples:

When you choose to stay up too late, you choose to be tired the next day. Do you want to be tired?

When you choose to show up late for work three days in a row, you choose to lose your job. Do you want your job?

When you choose to eat unhealthy foods, you choose to be unhealthy. Do you want to be unhealthy?

When you choose to be kind, you choose to have friends. Do you want friends?

And so on. It’s simple, or so it seems. So then why is it that so many of us have so much trouble making the right choices so much of the time? As Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple writes in his post on akrasia, or acting against one’s own better judgment,

Staying up late to watch one more episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ will leave us comatose in tomorrow’s big meeting. Skipping yet another workout keeps us on track to lose all the gains we’ve built up the last few months. Stewing over the day’s stresses and playing out angry scenarios in our heads will keep our kids and partner at arm’s length and us up half the night with stomach pain.

But damned if we don’t make the choice anyway. Why? What’s wrong with us that we go down these roads when we clearly understand the fallout?

And it’s a good question, one that philosophers have pored over for millennia and that keeps the diet and fitness industry in business, not to mention liquor stores, bakeries, and therapists’ offices.

Cuthriell’s simple action/consequence layout is inspiring, and a good reminder. But I wonder at its efficacy, given the strong tendency of the human being toward akrasia. Sisson’s approach to this problem is self-knowledge: getting to be aware of the things that knock you off track, and cultivating healthy self-interest. I especially love this formulation of his: “If we’ve decided what rational self-interest looks like for our life, what do the forces that contest it look like in our imaginations – relics of the past or ambiguities of the present as they so often are? What shape do they take? What voices do they have?”

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we call this process “moving from habit to choice,” and according to my mentor Joan Brooks, it’s one of the biggest things that draws clients to her practice. What does it take for a person to get to the place of making those simple decisions well, in light of the consequences, most of the time?

Listening to the voices is a good first step; in this work we often find ourselves tuning into and giving voice to those parts of ourselves that are usually silent, or at least unconscious. We’d like our shoulders to be more relaxed and not painfully bunched up around our ears, and we would make that choice if we could, but it’s often not so simple as that. Frequently, it’s not even as simple as getting regular massage, or going to physical therapy, though both things can be very helpful. Sometimes, there’s a story in those shoulders – a “relic of the past” that works against our rational self-interest. We’d love to move more freely and without pain. But something is holding us back. A cascade of more conscious choices against our best interest might follow from this: we don’t exercise as much, we load up on anti-inflammatory drugs to the detriment of our stomach lining. We may even make different social choices, as our tight, closed shoulders make us feel distrustful or cold toward others without knowing why – or make others see us that way.

In this work, through talk and touch, we initiate a conversation with that part of us. Not to judge, not to eradicate, not to stuff it down and tell it to be quiet because we’ve got rational decision-making to do. But to find out what its story is. What put our shoulders in that position? What’s keeping them there? What are they holding onto for us, in case we need it? What burden are they carrying, that they haven’t been told it’s okay to put down now? In what ways did they act as shields for us in the past, shields that were crucial then, but are no longer necessary?

Until we engage in these dialogues, we can’t know what keeps drawing us back to the habits that harm us, in order to come around to the choices that free us. “Akrasia” comes from the Greek, “lacking command over oneself.” But in RSM, it’s often more about coming to an understanding with oneself. If we approach a client from the “GROUND” of RSM – that is, Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, and Discovery – then moving from habit to choice becomes a question not of making the “right” choice, but of actually understanding what the choices are, and being able to see them clearly.

From there…well, it’s not a straight line. But awareness is the first key to change.

Quotation of great beauty for your consideration.

“When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are.”

― Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Treating the whole person – autism, science and skepticism

Yesterday, I stumbled across this wonderful article in WBUR’s Common Health blog, with a book excerpt by Dr. Martha Herbert, who has been studying autism for 15 years or so. In it, she describes how some kids with autism have managed to be essentially cured of it, and how others have been helped to a manageable state using a variety of tools. This is a radical departure from what was previously thought about the disorder:

For decades, doctors have told parents that autism was a genetic problem in their child’s brain, and that it wasn’t going anywhere – that they should expect their toddler’s troubles would be with him/her forever. Autism has long been defined by its deficits, by what the child is believed unable to do: communicate, control himself, function like everyone else. Parents might make improvements around the edges – reduce the tantrums, limit the crazy behaviors, get the child to follow directions – but the essential deficits would remain.

But Herbert refused to believe this, given what she had seen: kids who previously couldn’t even speak growing up to be A students with many friends, or productive adults who just have “a few quirks,” or even remaining non-verbal but communicating beautifully through painting, music, or a computer keyboard. “The more I worked with my patients,” says Herbert, “the more I realized I had a choice: to ‘see what I believed,’ or to ‘believe what I see.'” What she saw frequently was astonishing improvement in certain cases, in particular when the patient was treated as a whole person, rather than just a defective brain. Herbert’s conclusion is that autism is “a problem of the whole body, including the brain, from molecules to cells, from organs to metabolism, from immune to digestive systems,” and that persistence in the belief that someone with autism can be brought to his or her full potential can effect dramatic improvements.

The strange part of reading this for me was receiving, the same day, an article from a friend detailing the finding of genetic deficits in young people with autism, and a greater understanding of the abnormal brain development that tends to lead to the disorder. The articles were literally published on the same day, and they made me think about the way medicine tends to approach these profound and poorly-understood problems.

My main worry, having seen the two articles, was as follows: on the one hand, here’s a Harvard neurologist who has treated children with autism for years, saying things like, “In all my research and reading, I have never found proof of the genes-hopelessly-mess-up-the-brain-for-life model of autism….I believe that autism is not a genetic tragedy, but an unfolding and unprecedented catastrophe, related to many other health and environmental crises. Our world is making us sick. We need to build a world that makes us healthy.” What a beautiful thought from the evidence-based scientific community; what a message of hope for parents, kids, and even doctors who are dealing with the rising incidence and seeming hopelessness of this disease! Yet on the very same day, an article on new findings in genetics research. “Until now,” the article at ICare4Autism.org states, “few studies have been able to investigate whole-genome gene expression and genotype variation in the brains of young patients with autism, especially in regions such as the prefrontal cortex that display the greatest growth abnormality.” While one finding doesn’t necessarily undermine the other, in a debate that has always been heated and rife with inaccuracies and hysteria, it would be easy to shoot down someone like Dr. Herbert – look, we’ve found the genetic cause and the brain abnormalities! You can stop all your crazy holistic nonsense now!

And yet it’s a holistic combination of factors that has been consistently shown to help kids with autism: dietary changes, environmental changes, and as Dr. Herbert says, a somewhat intangible thing called belief: the incredible patience and love of parents who can see the full potential of their children and are willing to do everything imaginable to try and fulfill it.

Both of these articles are excellent good news for people with autism and the people who love them: a pinning down of the underlying genetics on one hand, and a whole-body approach to management on the other. I just hope that as the hard science data slowly mounts, the efficacy of treating the whole person isn’t discounted.

Moving and being moved – Rubenfeld and performing Shakespeare

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at what I can learn about healing from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The other night, I had the pleasure of watching another episode of Playing Shakespeare with my husband. We kept pausing it and excitedly discussing our understandings of what the great John Barton – then head of the Royal Shakespeare Company – was doing with his troupe of actors – Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench – in this landmark early-80s series. The episode was concentrating on set speeches and soliloquies: those difficult stretches of poetic text that Shakespeare gives to so many of his characters in moments of narrative importance.

The main point that Barton was focusing on brought me around again to ideas from Rubenfeld Synergy: namely, that emotion is not just a feeling, but an action. Or, to focus on the seeming coincidences in the way we language things in English: in order to move someone emotionally, you have to literally move.

I’ll unpack that a bit. Barton speaks about how, when listening to an actor gives a long, complex speech, he tends to drift a bit unless the actor holds him. (There is that languaging again: he even gestures in a way that looks like the actor would literally hold him in the palm of his hand.) So, what does an actor need to do with such a speech in order to make it compelling?

The answer, as it almost always is in art, is specificity. In this instance, what that translates to is always playing the intention, the action, rather than playing the emotion. Probably the most illustrative example of this is the work he does with Patrick Stewart on a speech from Titus Andronicus (shown in the video above). The speech occurs after the character’s daughter has been raped and mutilated, and the character’s own hand cut off – in other words, a moment of such extraordinary physical and emotional anguish that it would be difficult to imagine saying these poetic words in such a moment.

Often, an actor will make the mistake of finding the emotional state, then playing that through the words. Stewart does this first, and it’s definitely arresting, and made me feel some sympathy for his obvious suffering. However, a little way through, I lost track of what he was saying and couldn’t fathom the meaning. Also, he starts at a very high level and has nowhere to go; the speech becomes stuck, and I have a hard time believing it. Stewart is working against the words, in a way, and the speech becomes generalized. All I could see was a wail of pain. I felt bad, but I couldn’t fully connect.

Barton then has him do it again, this time working off of a line earlier in the scene, which is simply, “What now shall we do?” He has Stewart treat the speech as the character’s effort at the impossible task of making sense of what has just happened, and looking for a next course of action. In this iteration of the speech, Stewart seems to discover each line for the first time, to consider each moment, to be grasping desperately for some kernel of meaning. His tone gets much softer and more plaintive, almost hopeful, his affect less anguished and more like someone in shock from a great trauma. By the end of the speech I was crying.

For a highly emotional speech to work, the actor needs to take us with him – to move us in order to move us. Generalizing an emotional state makes the speech static, in the way big emotions aren’t in reality. Emotions are motion; as Titus says in that speech, “I am the sea; hark, how her sighs do blow!…Then must my sea be moved with her sighs.” Titus’ emotion here is compared to natural disasters, movements of air and water and earth that are unstoppable. Only by discovering these moments with the audience, however, can the full weight of emotion be realized and expressed. Otherwise, the speech gets moored on the rocks.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, one of the key skills we learn is openness and continual curiosity. The work of the Synergist is never to jump on a thing and identify it right away, but rather to explore, to stay curious, to maintain an open hand and an open heart. To keep listening. To discover it fully and specifically, with the client. The temptation to label, to believe that you know the whole story from one piece of information, is great, just as the temptation to play the general emotion of a speech is great. A client may say, “It feels like your hands are making a bridge between my shoulders.” I know that for me, my mind goes all over the place. All of the possible literary images and symbolic possibilities frolic through my head. “Ah,” a part of me says, “I know what that is.” But that’s not all that useful to the client: when I think I know what something is, I have closed off the possibility of further exploration. I have learned that the best thing to say at that moment is, “Say more about the bridge.” Or, my favorite go-to, “What’s that like?”

It’s impressive to watch Patrick Stewart rage and blow like Lear’s storm cracking its cheeks; it evinced some feeling in me. But I ultimately didn’t know what he was saying, and I couldn’t relate to the speech. It was unfocused, and didn’t take me anywhere. In the second, much smaller, much more careful exploration of the words, I could feel him discovering the story as if for the first time – and I could discover it with him. At the end of it, I was in a different place from where I started.

When I say to a client, “What’s that like?,” she knows that I am with her. Further, she knows that I haven’t pinned down her image like a butterfly to a board. Instead, we’re watching it together in the wild, studying the colors, seeing how it moves. How it moves us. We’re finding the specificity. We’re discovering rather than diagnosing. We’re moving together.

And this is possibly what RSM is about above all else: movement. Helping our clients to access their emotions in their bodies and allow them to move, so that they can move more freely in their bodies, and move to a place of greater freedom in their lives. If I can keep an attitude of open discovery, if I can help my client follow her story where it leads without deciding that I already know the ending, the places a session can go are surprising and often transformative.

I’ve happily just discovered David Kanigan’s blog, full of non-corny inspirational material. This post describes a phenomenon I wish more people would get into their heads (and bodies!): that a more relaxed approach to life and especially more sleep leads not just to a happier existence, but to more powerful performance in your work. To my mind, it goes back to giving your body love if you want to thrive in your life.

Fail Better – the joys of gentle and respectful leadership

My good friend Michel recently pointed to this article about the importance of allowing failure if you want kids to do better in school. In brief: researchers found that kids who were told that problems were difficult and failure was common did much better on subsequent tests than kids who were not given that explicit encouragement.

This got me thinking quite a bit about my experiences with The Back Bay Chorale, an excellent amateur chorus here in Boston. It may seem strange for one of my first posts here to be about my experiences in choral music, but this struck me as the right place to write about it. Singing, perhaps especially with a large group, is such an embodied experience, concerned with breath, muscle control, placement of subtle shapes in the mouth and throat, and emotional expression. It engages me in all my parts – mind, body, emotions and spirit. It is also concerned, in a large choir, with an exquisite communion between the group and the person directing it, bringing all of these pieces together into one great voice. And of course Ilana Rubenfeld, the mother of this work, started out as a symphonic conductor, and Rubenfeld Synergy is deeply informed by her experiences in music. An RSM session can proceed like a piece of music: each movement happening in its own time, with crescendos and diminuendos, climaxes and rests.

I’ve been singing in some formal group or other for most of my life, but I’ve never experienced as much pleasure and satisfaction – not to mention marked improvement of ability – as I have since I started singing with this chorus.

I tend to blame this fact on Scott Jarrett, the marvelous director of the group. For a long time I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is that makes his direction so inspiring, so precise, so effective. Sure, he really knows his stuff; you can tell at every rehearsal that he has learned the music inside out and could probably sing the entire Bach St. John Passion – for example – from memory. But I’ve known plenty of conductors with this kind of expertise – great professionals – but I still haven’t enjoyed working with them.

So many conductors, especially orchestral ones, seem to prefer the use of shame and fear to get the desired results. “How many times do I have to tell you the same thing?” “No, no, no, NO!” Imitating our tone in a mocking voice. Questioning the man- or woman-hood of choristers. Yelling, berating, and belittling are all popular tools. I don’t know whether this comes from a tradition of eccentric geniuses crossed with corporally punishing boarding school dons, or whether it is encouraged in conducting school: you must be a jerk to make an orchestra or chorus respond to your demands. The musical results can be good from this technique, just as training a dog with fear promotes obedience. But it doesn’t infuse the musicians with joy in the work.

With an amateur chorus, you would think things would be different. Generally they are not, but at Back Bay they are, and people stay with it in spite of the sometimes grueling schedule and hard work because they love the music, yes, but also because they love Scott.

And I think I know why. The thing that most profoundly characterizes his style is a winning combination of gentle encouragement, and the findings of the study above: he lets us know he knows it’s hard, and that he knows we’re working hard. And he does work us hard: rhythmic precision, cleanness, gorgeousness (and appropriateness!) of tone is incredibly important to him. He does a tremendous job getting us to articulate the music in the proper style, and brings the emotional components to it as well. The most frustrated I’ve ever seen him get had him saying to us firmly – not yelling – “Come on, guys! Just – don’t do that. You know better than that. Just…do better.”

Because we do know better. We can do better. And the best encouragement he can give us is that reminder: this is hard, but I know you can do it.

And we do. Each concert I’ve sung with this 120-voice chorus has been better than the last, and I believe it is because this director shows us respect, allows us to rise to his level of excellence – the excellence he demands of us, with a gentle hand. I discovered early on that I didn’t just want to do this music. I wanted to do this music for Scott, because he deserved that I give back at least 1/120th as much as he was putting into it.

And the respect he offers makes this not only possible, but so much more likely. He has a subtlety of bodily communication that is so lucid that we as a chorus respond with him. Sometimes he tests this in rehearsal, saying things like, “Okay, sing what I show.” It always amazes me how highly developed his gestural language is, and how the chorus responds; it’s especially funny when he wants us to do something “wrong,” then correct it to what he’s looking for. When we tune our bodies to his, it works beautifully.

Over and over it seems, and in so many different venues, I learn that the best thing I can give to any effort is to connect with the person or people involved, meet them where they are, and be an encouraging guide. I’m grateful to have Scott and the Chorale in my life, and I hope someday to be as inspiring to my clients as he is to me.

Master Synergists Joe Weldon and Noel Wight introducing RSM at Omega in June

My teachers and mentors in this wonderful work, Joe Weldon and Noel Wight, will be teaching an introduction to Rubenfeld Synergy at the Omega Institute in June.

Omega was the place where I did so many of the trainings – long weeks from Sunday to Sunday eating vegan food and dealing with the tumbledown buildings. But the landscape is beautiful at every time of year, the lake glitters in the early morning, and the sacred spaces that the staff makes all over the campus are always delightful and serene. There are also regular yoga, tai chi, and dance classes available to people staying on campus for a program.

Joe and Noel are absolutely brilliant healers and amazing people – Joe a warm, fatherly and incisive presence, full of terrifically bad puns and bottomless compassion; Noel a laser beam of insightfulness and clarity, bringing reverence and magnifying the eternal in each individual.

I hope that you will register for and attend what is bound to be an amazing, transformative weekend.