Principles of RSM #9: The body is a metaphor

In Rubenfeld Synergy Method, we like to say that the story of our bodies is the story of our lives.  Like most storytellers, the body uses metaphors to tell that story.  The way we language our experiences, the expressions we use in everyday life, bear this out.  Our feet tell the story of our sense of groundedness: I don’t know where I stand.  I can’t stand it anymore!  She keeps me on my toes.  He knocked me back on my heels.  She swept me off my feet.  Or even: I don’t understand.  Our heads tend to have things to say about presence or temperament: His head’s always in the clouds.  Keep a cool head.  He’s a hothead.  Keep your head in the game.  Where was your head?  Her head’s not screwed on right.  I’m going out of my head.  Or direction: where are you headed?

We talk of shouldering a burden, of people who get your back up, of getting a leg up, of arming ourselves.  We talk to get something off our chests, because someone is a pain in the neck who makes us sick to our stomachs.  Sometimes we stand tall; sometimes we’re on our knees.  Our bodies tell us what direction we’re going in: when we’re feeling up, our spines are straight, our shoulders back, our heads high, and our step light. When we’re down, our heads drop, our shoulders hunch, and our feet feel like lead.  We turn up, turn down, have a complete turnaround, and don’t know where to turn.

The metaphors of the body can give us tremendous information about what is going on right now: while the body holds our histories, it lives only in the present.  You may not even realize you’re in a lousy mood until someone points it out to you: “You’re looking kind of down,” they might say, “Keep your chin up.”

And on the table, during a session, a client’s body can communicate a tremendous amount.  Sometimes, a client’s feet will literally be pointing in two different directions – one straight up, for example, and one to the side, and you will discover together that he is struggling with two possible paths in his life.  A client’s neck may be so stiff that she can’t turn it from side to side, and you find out that she’s forgotten how to say “no” in her life.  One client told me that her feet are for running away.  Another, that one of her feet felt stuck in mud, but the other wanted to dance.

These metaphors come directly from the body’s experience: far from mere figures of speech, they describe the physical experience of emotional states.  The remarkable thing is that once we become aware of what our bodies are telling us, we can shift our experiences from the ground up.  Most of us are used to thinking of changing our situations with our minds only, deciding to make a change and trusting that our bodies will follow.  But often our bodies have another agenda for us, because while rationally we may “know” that we want to move on, to not feel an unpleasant emotion, to not react to triggers, our bodies are still responding according to old patterns.  The place to begin to change this is in the body itself.

Ilana used to have groups throw their arms over the heads, their shoulders back and their heads high, then say to the world, “I’m so depressed!”  It always got a laugh, because no matter how the people in question were feeling, they could feel right away how incongruous it was: it’s near-impossible to actually feel depressed in that position.  In Synergy sessions, part of the work is trying out new possibilities for the body: sometimes a body has gotten so used to something that it doesn’t know anything else.  What happens when someone gets to feel softer in her neck – and can get her “no” back?  What becomes possible when the hips are free to move from side to side, and a person who felt stuck in the mud now has options to “turn” to?  A person who can feel his feet under him suddenly has a place to stand.  A supportive hand at the sacrum can make someone feel that you’ve got their back.  Make a move, change a thought.

What kinds of body metaphors do you notice yourself using a lot?

Next: The body tells the truth.

Today in "well, duh"

A new study looked at how people make financial decisions, and found that people tended to reject offers that their guts told them were unfair, even if they stood to benefit from them. “‘Humans are highly attuned to unfairness and we are sometimes required to weigh up the demands of maintaining justice with preserving our own economic self-interest,’ study researcher Barney Dunn of the University of Exeter, said in a statement.”

While this research is an interesting insight into human conceptions of fairness, the part that really caught my eye was the following:

The researchers say that evidence is mounting to indicate that our bodies can sometimes govern how we think and feel, rather than the other way round. It also reveals that those people who are more in tune with their bodies are more likely to be led by their ‘gut feelings’.

“This research supports the idea that what happens in our bodies can sometimes shape how we think and feel in our minds,” Dunn said. “Everyday phrases like ‘following your heart’ and ‘trusting your gut’ can often, it seems, be accurate.”

To put it bluntly: well, duh. I love looking at scientific studies that support the work I do, but I’m often entertained when it makes me think, “Did I really need science to tell me that?”

Probably my favorite part is this, where the report uses language I’m very familiar with to talk about study participants’ ability to follow their gut:

Those people who showed a bigger physical response to unfair offers were more likely to reject them, but this was only the case if individuals were also able to accurately ‘listen’ to what their bodies were telling them.

You heard it here first, folks: notice your physical reactions, listen to the wisdom of your body, and decision-making becomes a whole lot clearer.  In my training, we used to call this not an ‘aha’ moment, as Ilana had it, but a ‘duh-huh’ moment.

Today in “well, duh”

A new study looked at how people make financial decisions, and found that people tended to reject offers that their guts told them were unfair, even if they stood to benefit from them. “‘Humans are highly attuned to unfairness and we are sometimes required to weigh up the demands of maintaining justice with preserving our own economic self-interest,’ study researcher Barney Dunn of the University of Exeter, said in a statement.”

While this research is an interesting insight into human conceptions of fairness, the part that really caught my eye was the following:

The researchers say that evidence is mounting to indicate that our bodies can sometimes govern how we think and feel, rather than the other way round. It also reveals that those people who are more in tune with their bodies are more likely to be led by their ‘gut feelings’.

“This research supports the idea that what happens in our bodies can sometimes shape how we think and feel in our minds,” Dunn said. “Everyday phrases like ‘following your heart’ and ‘trusting your gut’ can often, it seems, be accurate.”

To put it bluntly: well, duh. I love looking at scientific studies that support the work I do, but I’m often entertained when it makes me think, “Did I really need science to tell me that?”

Probably my favorite part is this, where the report uses language I’m very familiar with to talk about study participants’ ability to follow their gut:

Those people who showed a bigger physical response to unfair offers were more likely to reject them, but this was only the case if individuals were also able to accurately ‘listen’ to what their bodies were telling them.

You heard it here first, folks: notice your physical reactions, listen to the wisdom of your body, and decision-making becomes a whole lot clearer.  In my training, we used to call this not an ‘aha’ moment, as Ilana had it, but a ‘duh-huh’ moment.

"And, just like that, all my anger uncoiled and slithered away."

Today’s little gem comes from speaker, author, and CEO-advising type Peter Bregman, who asks the simple question, “Do you know what you are feeling?”

What good, he asks, is all the therapy and yoga and navel-gazing activities that he and his wife have engaged in over the years? The answer is simple: now when something affects them, they can identify their feelings and talk about them.

It sounds simplistic at first blush, but just think about it: how often do we go around being affected by things, reacting to them, then deciding that those feelings are silly and repressing them? Or not identifying the feelings at all? Maybe we think it’s not necessary to do so, and that tamping down our feelings sometimes will have no effect. But what about that headache you have later? Or the way you lose patience with your kids that evening?

Unacknowledged feelings simmer under the surface, waiting to lunge at unsuspecting, undeserving bystanders. Your manager doesn’t answer an email, which leaves you feeling vulnerable — though you don’t acknowledge it — and then you end up yelling at an employee for something unrelated. Why? Because your anger is coiled in your body, primed, tense, aching to get out. And it’s a lot safer to yell at an employee than bring up an uncomfortable complaint with a manager.

It’s clear that many of us do this all the time, and it’s harmful, both to us and to the people around us. But knowing what’s going on – and how to handle it – isn’t easy. Bregman has a simple metric:

How do you get to those feelings? Take a little time and space to ask yourself what you are really feeling. Keep asking until you sense something that feels a little dangerous, a little risky. That sensation is probably why you’re hesitant to feel it and a good sign that you’re now ready to communicate.

That’s right: once again, where there is fear, there is power. Moving into vulnerability is a powerful way to connect with another person – and dispel all the ways that anger and fear can turn into steamrollers.

Read the whole post here.

“And, just like that, all my anger uncoiled and slithered away.”

Today’s little gem comes from speaker, author, and CEO-advising type Peter Bregman, who asks the simple question, “Do you know what you are feeling?”

What good, he asks, is all the therapy and yoga and navel-gazing activities that he and his wife have engaged in over the years? The answer is simple: now when something affects them, they can identify their feelings and talk about them.

It sounds simplistic at first blush, but just think about it: how often do we go around being affected by things, reacting to them, then deciding that those feelings are silly and repressing them? Or not identifying the feelings at all? Maybe we think it’s not necessary to do so, and that tamping down our feelings sometimes will have no effect. But what about that headache you have later? Or the way you lose patience with your kids that evening?

Unacknowledged feelings simmer under the surface, waiting to lunge at unsuspecting, undeserving bystanders. Your manager doesn’t answer an email, which leaves you feeling vulnerable — though you don’t acknowledge it — and then you end up yelling at an employee for something unrelated. Why? Because your anger is coiled in your body, primed, tense, aching to get out. And it’s a lot safer to yell at an employee than bring up an uncomfortable complaint with a manager.

It’s clear that many of us do this all the time, and it’s harmful, both to us and to the people around us. But knowing what’s going on – and how to handle it – isn’t easy. Bregman has a simple metric:

How do you get to those feelings? Take a little time and space to ask yourself what you are really feeling. Keep asking until you sense something that feels a little dangerous, a little risky. That sensation is probably why you’re hesitant to feel it and a good sign that you’re now ready to communicate.

That’s right: once again, where there is fear, there is power. Moving into vulnerability is a powerful way to connect with another person – and dispel all the ways that anger and fear can turn into steamrollers.

Read the whole post here.

Principles of RSM #8: Touch is a viable system of communication.

Touch can communicate so much. When a baby, who cannot understand speech, is held and cuddled in calming arms, its system begins to slow down and match the calm rhythms of the caretaker. The touch of a lover can be electrifying. Touching a friend who is grieving can help them release some of the grief; holding them can give them the support they need to let it go. When a child is afraid, he is comforted by an adult’s hand or hug. When we shake hands of someone we’re first meeting, we can feel from their handshake what they want to communicate: a limp handshake implies daintiness, shyness or coyness; an overly firm handshake initiates a dominance game; a warm clasp for a few seconds longer than usual can make you feel the person is truly pleased to meet you. In extreme circumstances, everything you need to know can be expressed with a touch: a slap, a kiss, a pull by the arm, a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, touch is an essential part of the work. Synergists often talk about gentle touch. But we use touch in many ways. The lightness of a butterfly landing on a client’s feet in first contact is one type. But we may also cradle a client’s head or shoulder or leg. We may “noodle” with our fingers in the muscle of a shoulder, offer firm, smooth contact as we travel down a leg or arm, provide full support for a hip or lower back, and even squeeze a person’s feet or hands when they need grounding in a difficult emotion.

The most important commonality in all of these touches is safety. Some clients come to us with a history of physical or sexual abuse. Some may have sensory integration problems, or, like many of program head Joe Weldon’s clients, multiple sclerosis or other neurological issues. Touch, for all of these cases, is a complicated issue.

The first and most powerful concern of the Synergist is to make touch safe for whatever client he or she is seeing. If it is not possible at first to make the touch safe, then the Synergist must work with the client in chairs for a while, helping the client get in tune with his or her own body in a different way. I have already seen a few clients where the most that is possible, at least in the beginning, is to have them place their hands on their own bodies, to learn how to comfort themselves, tune into themselves, and hear the messages that their bodies have for them without my hands becoming involved.

One client I saw in my trainee years kept becoming sexually aroused with the touch. He was embarrassed by this, but honest about it. I simply let him know that such arousal was normal, especially because there is generally so little outlet for men to be touched, as adults, in a non-sexual way. Over time he revealed that he’d been abused as a teenager, and because I was in training and not yet certified as a Synergist, we stopped the sessions and he entered therapy. Even here, though, the safety of my touch proved a powerful tool for healing: it was through his responses and my acceptance of them that he remembered the abuse, realized what was happening, and made the connection that he needed further help. He continues to contact me on occasion, reporting on the progress of his healing and considering starting sessions again.

Touch, as that example and many others show, can be a very tricky business when dealing with matters of mental or emotional health. Part of what makes RSM unique is the combination of talk and touch: psychotherapy in most of its current forms expressly forbids any kind of touch, and most bodyworkers are not trained to deal with emotional content. There are good reasons for this: the abuses that were so prevalent in the early part of the history of psychoanalysis, and the boundary-smashing behavior that reached its apex in the 60s when Ilana was training with Fritz Perls, have meant that touch, with all of its possibilities for abuse, has been largely banished from talk therapy.

Yet the power of touch is such that, used safely, it can provide insights, emotional shifts, and healing with great speed and efficacy. If you think of the moments of greatest emotion and power, there are generally no words. Touch is what does the communicating. Touch can teach us to listen more closely, feel more deeply, let the hamster-wheel of our minds shut off for a moment, and get us to the truth of something.

What’s wonderful, of course, is that we also have our words available to us in RSM. Our clients can tell us when something feels wrong. They can describe what the touch feels like or evokes. The Synergist can ask questions, affirm and re-affirm consent for each touch if necessary, and can help support the client with both touch and words to stay with something that is difficult, or to retreat from something too difficult to manage in the moment.

Touch, though, goes straight to the truth of the body, and that makes it perhaps the most powerful communication tool available.

Next: The body is a metaphor.

The world of pain

Two articles on pain came into my inbox last week, both of which point to the intricacies of the body-mind connection.

Live Science reports that chronic pain may be due in part to the brain creating and maintaining inaccurate maps of the body.

Sort of awesome highlights:

Researchers have known for some time that the brain stores maps of the body that are integrated with neurological systems that survey, regulate, and protect the integrity of the body physically and psychologically.

These cortical maps govern movement, sensation and perception, and there is growing evidence showing that disruptions of brain maps occur in people with chronic pain, like phantom limb pain.

It is possible for the body to be unharmed but the brain will respond by causing pain because it misinterpreted a benign stimulus as an attack. “We want to gradually train the brain to stop trying to protect body tissue that doesn’t need protecting.” (G. Lorimer Moseley, of University of South Australia)

So if you, say, break your arm, your brain’s map of your body gets disrupted, and sometimes doesn’t get rebuilt the same way. Result: your brain thinks you should still be experiencing pain in a place that is no longer damaged.

This is astonishing for a number of reasons, and it strikes me as yet another way that getting our brains and our bodies “on the same page” by increasing and focusing on somatic awareness may help “train the brain” as the researcher suggests above.

Another pain study, reported by Fox News, shows how distraction can help alleviate pain. This is a phenomenon that most of us have probably observed: keeping busy can help lessen the intensity of pain. But where it was thought that the distraction was mainly psychological (again, I find myself wondering if that phrase even has any meaning), now a study published in Current Biology suggests that pain signals in the brain are actually blocked when the brain is occupied by a difficult task. A followup study suggests that pain-relieving chemicals – opioids – are released in the brain when the brain is distracted.

One principle that permeates Rubenfeld Synergy is that attention intensifies whatever it’s turned toward. We can use this in practice to achieve any number of results: focusing on pain, physical or emotional, that has had attention diverted from it can bring it to the surface so it can be examined and perhaps discarded. When pain is too extreme to deal with all at once, however, giving some other part of the system attention can help the pain lessen. Knowing that there is a physiological basis for this phenomenon is exciting, if for no other reason than that it’s always fun to see things we’ve known for some time borne out by science.

Peace like a river

From Maureena Bivins’ blog, today I learn of a study showing that emotions are primarily social occurrences: rather than being more internal, cognitive, individual responses, argues Brian Parkinson, they are “social phenomena” that are “interpersonally, institutionally, or culturally defined.”

This may seem like a “well, duh” kind of finding, but I think it has important implications for the ways in which we deal with emotion. Firstly, with the assertion that emotions are social and therefore have consequences for others, it’s more difficult to decide that how another person feels is “their problem.” Recognizing emotion as a thing essentially shared between people, as opposed to a thing that happens in isolation inside one person, seems like a step toward a more compassionate society.

Second, it sheds some light on the incredible bombardment of emotional material that assaults us daily in the modern world. I for one have lost entire days sometimes to mountains of depressing news stories, or to arguing angrily on the Internet about racial injustice or feminism. I don’t think that the rise of Facebook and the rise of incidence of depression correlate in time due to some accident: I think that it’s an example of how our capacity to deal with emotion is only so great, and our monkey-spheres – the number of people we can reasonably care about with any depth – are in conflict with our participation in and awareness of an ever-expanding world.

This reminder of the social nature of emotions is helpful as I look at my own life, at the people in it, and at what I spend most of my time doing. How many of my emotional resources are being taken up by Syria, how many by Trayvon Martin, how many by my husband and how many by my household? And how callous does it make us feel when we have to cut off our responses to world events – or even neighborhood events – just in order to function within our smaller worlds, communities, families?

This strikes me as one of the ways in which we become un-integrated beings: we feel, sometimes deeply, about everything around us. And as modernity brings us all closer and closer together, and as everything seems to be happening at once, we need to make rational decisions about what we’re going to allow ourselves to feel.

One of the things I love about Rubenfeld Synergy Method is how it tends to make space for emotions to occur in the moment, be felt, and to move through. One concept of emotion in our training was “energy in motion: the idea that emotion is not a thing that lives in us but a thing that moves through us. Emotion can change us, certainly – the same way a river moving through a valley changes its shape. But as this study shows, they are not necessary a part of us; they are a force that works on us.

My essential sense is that the more easily we allow emotions to arise and move through us, the more easily we can manage more when it comes – as it invariably will. Make a wider channel, and everything moves more easily. Don’t allow your rational mind to shut off too many possibilities, and while life may become more poignant and painful, it might become more joyful and rich as well. It’s when we try to control the flow that it either dries up or becomes an unmanageable flood. “Stuck” emotions, or grooves that have been riven deep by repeated negative experiences, are what create patterns that are fiendishly difficult to change.  This is where “triggering” happens, or where automatic responses to certain actions become habituated.  As even more research shows, habits are generally very hard to change, and moving from habit to choice may be even more difficult than it sounds.

Yet thinking of emotion this way may be a first step toward recognizing, not just that we are all connected, but that what we feel and what we do about it can be teased apart in a way that doesn’t shut us off from experience.

Principles of RSM #7: The body’s energy field and life force exist and can be sensed.

Of all of the principles of Rubenfeld Synergy, this is the one I have the most trouble explaining. There are few subjects that set some of my friends off more than a discussion of “energy,” as it evokes a wifty, woo-woo concept that has no scientific basis.

All of that being said, I have too much personal experience with this phenomenon to discount it myself, and as far as this principle, I simply need to go forward and explain the way I experience the energy field and life force, and how they apply when doing this work. I’ve had skeptical friends tell me they’ve done Reiki or Acupuncture, and had it work for them even though they “don’t believe in it.” On the one hand, belief plays a big role in things like the placebo effect. But on the other, if something works, and seems to have a mysterious component…sometimes you just have to go with it. If an improvement occurs due to your belief that it something will help…to me that’s a pretty big indicator of the power of our minds. (Is there, after all, such a thing as a “purely psychological” effect?) If an improvement occurs even if you don’t believe in it…well then, that seems an even more compelling argument for a treatment’s efficacy.

All of this aside, here’s how I conceive of this principle.

Our bodies have a certain field around them: call it electromagnetism, call it what you will. Whatever it is, it’s clear that just as we might not be comfortable with a stranger touching us, we also tend not to be comfortable with them standing too close. We tend to call this “personal space.” This is the simplest way of thinking about the body’s energy field without getting too esoteric.

But my further experience of it reveals that there are other things going on: eddies, currents, pulsations, tinglings, and other phenomena that can help cue me in, when I’m in contact with someone’s body, as to what they might be experiencing. Because our systems are so interconnected, it can be hard to pin down whether what I’m feeling is muscle tension, a nervous twitch, a softening, an opening, a closing. But the sensations are there, and my clients often experience and describe them at the same time as I am feeling them in my hands and keeping silent about it.

There are many systems, Eastern and Western, for understanding “energy” and “life force;” they all seem to me to be useful metaphors for the way aliveness, or electricity, or whatever it is, moves through the body. The same way you can feel the way a living thing breathes, one can also feel the way something’s life force is moving.

Even at a distance, the body’s energies and emotions can have reverberations. Ever walk into a room and feel tension you could cut with a knife? Or overwhelming sadness? Or welcome and joy? Ever run into someone at a party and feel immediately that they could use a hug, or want to be left alone?  There are many things that human beings do with body language and facial expression that give us these cues, but sometimes even in the first seconds entering a room where a conversation has been happening, we can feel the energy of the emotions present.

Whatever you call it – chi, energy, ki, prana, life force, mana – it is what animates us, and sensitivity to its shifting currents can be healing when a client is moving through changes. And helping a client become aware of, and be able to listen to, his or her own energy can be yet another resource to call upon for safety in difficult situations, or extra power in challenges.  It helps a person to know where his or her boundaries are, how and when he’s “throwing off” emotions that are affecting others, and how to better read other people.

While Rubenfeld Synergy Method doesn’t concern itself chiefly with energy work – as something like, say, Reiki does, awareness of an interaction with the energy field and life force is an important component of the work, giving practitioners another dimension by which to know their clients.

Next: Touch is a viable system of communication.

The secret to happiness is right here

The magnificent Mark Morford, fabulous columnist for the SF Gate, offered up this fanstastic article about the power of gratitude, not just for the good things, but for everything.

Some highlights:

Be cynical if you want. Be jaded and sneery and think the world is a razor blade of anger and pain, just waiting to slash you across the heart. This is your choice.

But the fact is, a thousand things go right for you every day. From the moment you wake up, the universe aligns in countless miraculous ways to make your life happen fluidly, effortlessly, incredibly. Your heart is working, your systems function, you do not instantly collapse, lose a limb or spontaneously combust. Amazing.

The car starts. The elevator works. Your legs transport you rather beautifully, hither and yon. The coffee is hot. The food placed before you is all kinds of stunning in how it connects you to the world. There’s sunlight. Your eyes receive that light and create everything in existence. Also, trees! Nice.

It’s a simple concept, one we hear all the time: give thanks. Be grateful. But it’s surprisingly hard to remember to do: we wolf our food without thinking about it, we complain and mutter in traffic, we forget how much of a simple miracle it is that we’re here – let alone healthy, let alone housed, fed, able to get from here to there, possessing of friends and loved ones, or whatever our particular blessings are. And sure, it sounds corny, but there’s probably a reason, as Morford says, that it appears in every religious text and poetic expression from time immemorial. “Hell,” Morford adds, “it’s probably drawn on a cave wall somewhere: You gotta give thanks. Not just for the big things, but for everything. All the time. Like breath. Like mantra. Like, duh.”

The most profound lesson, though, may be his next-to-last paragraph, about the times we are even more likely to forget to practice gratitude:

The things that suck and cause pain and give massive emotional challenge? They are worthy of thanks, too. Sometimes even more so. They are just another form of the divine. They are offering profound lessons, showing us where we need to grow and evolve. Thank you, we say, through gritted teeth. Thank you thank you thank you. F–k.

Thank you thank you thank you f–k. That may be my new mantra.

Try it for a bit, as Morford suggests.  Make it a practice for a week, or a month: give thanks for every little thing, and see how it changes how you move in the world.  (Make a move, change a thought.  There it is again.)