Return from the mountains, and link round-up!

I’ve returned from the wilds of the California Sierra mountains, and am still in re-entry.  I plan to bring you a report on my trip and its lessons on Monday, but for now, here’s a collection of links I’ve had open for a while that I think relate well to my work.

By the way, if you know anyone who you think might enjoy, benefit from, or contribute to discussion on this blog, please send them my way!  I’m still building audience here, and it’s important to me that Rubenfeld Synergy reach as many people as possible.

This is a rather dense article by a psychotherapist, laying out what he has learned about the psychotherapeutic process.  Highly worthwhile, though, for gems like “Ulcers are not, in themselves, a good thing,” “Looking toward your feeling will get us further than looking away from it,” and “Even the worst thing you might find in yourself can change if we allow it to be felt.”

An article on ways to help your child be more embodied, and thus, happier.

Meditation shown to alter brain wiring after just a month, potentially providing a new approach to treating mental disorders.

See y’all Monday!

[Re-run] 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 where 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, Noticing, 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.

[Re-run] The "spirit" part of Rubenfeld Synergy

“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

~ Simone Weil

I picked up this quotation from David Kanigan’s blog, and have been mulling it over ever since.

Rubenfeld Synergy Method’s official, trademarked tagline is, “A dynamic system for the integration of body, mind, emotions and spirit.” Our teachers told us, however, that until our particular training, the “spirit” part of the equation was mostly implied, not directly addressed. Spirit is a difficult thing to talk about these days, especially in the context of healing: most of the context for the word’s use is either overtly Christian faith-healing kind of stuff, or New-Agey, unscientific crystal-waving. For many good reasons, the word “spirit” has come under suspicion by critically-thinking people, and in a field that is largely unknown to many as mine is, it’s a word I use carefully.

In our training, we had a “spirit night” every Friday during the week-long trainings. (This had nothing to do with a pep rally, though I realize that’s how it sounds.) These were always intense, often very moving, and always addressed a part of ourselves that is hard to define: the bit that is transcendent, that considers questions of mortality, that taps our inner strength and our inner voices. We walked a labyrinth one night, that the faculty had built inside a hotel ballroom. We listened to the messages of our hearts and our geniuses. We created collages, poems, and other tokens that we could take to remind us of the deep work we’d done. No “God” or “gods” were ever mentioned, no religion invoked, nor were we even asked explicitly to believe in any kind of soul. But we were doing the intangible work of spirit, and making it as tangible as possible. We were engaging deeply with that part of us that decides, every day, to go on living, and that helps us do it in the best way we possibly can. In an intensive training that focused greatly on the body and its interplay with the mind, those evenings of spirit are some of my fondest and strongest memories.

The word “prayer,” though, is even more loaded than the word “spirit.” Which is possibly why I liked this quotation so much: it bespeaks what I know about Rubenfeld as a practice involving deep and focused attention – “unmixed” attention, even. And this attention, this deep listening, is what I mean when I talk about the sacredness of this work.

Whatever it is that is happening to the client, there is a thing that happens to me, the practitioner, when I am in right spiritual relationship to the client. It is something that I cannot achieve in every moment of this practice, but it’s something I strive to cultivate so that it is there more and more often. The fact that it is difficult to name this quality is what lets me know that I’m dealing in the realm of spirit: it is a skill that can be practiced, yes, but it is difficult to say what part of my mind or body I use to do it. It’s something that, when it’s in place, I am doing with my entire being. Rubenfeld Synergists tend to call it listening; others might call it empathy, or emotional intelligence, or communion.

I don’t yet know what I call it. I just know that when I’m in that state, the client is the most interesting person I have ever met. Their troubles move me utterly; their lives are fascinating; I find them, for lack of a better word, extremely beautiful. I feel that I am completely with them, and that I will know what to say, how to move, where to touch next, without thinking about it. It is a state of complete presence.

I have experienced this at other times: during certain kinds of rituals, at moments of extreme joy or pain, while drumming or singing with a group, while making love. All of these are kinds of prayer, whether they are addressing any transcendent being or not. Prayer, as Abraham Heschel said, is not as much about petitioning for things as it is about singing, about opening our hearts to greater experience.

Absolutely unmixed attention. In today’s society, it’s hard to come by. But worth striving for. And quite possibly, what the idea of spirit comes down to: that place of mystery where all of our parts coalesce to a single point.

[Re-run] The “spirit” part of Rubenfeld Synergy

“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

~ Simone Weil

I picked up this quotation from David Kanigan’s blog, and have been mulling it over ever since.

Rubenfeld Synergy Method’s official, trademarked tagline is, “A dynamic system for the integration of body, mind, emotions and spirit.” Our teachers told us, however, that until our particular training, the “spirit” part of the equation was mostly implied, not directly addressed. Spirit is a difficult thing to talk about these days, especially in the context of healing: most of the context for the word’s use is either overtly Christian faith-healing kind of stuff, or New-Agey, unscientific crystal-waving. For many good reasons, the word “spirit” has come under suspicion by critically-thinking people, and in a field that is largely unknown to many as mine is, it’s a word I use carefully.

In our training, we had a “spirit night” every Friday during the week-long trainings. (This had nothing to do with a pep rally, though I realize that’s how it sounds.) These were always intense, often very moving, and always addressed a part of ourselves that is hard to define: the bit that is transcendent, that considers questions of mortality, that taps our inner strength and our inner voices. We walked a labyrinth one night, that the faculty had built inside a hotel ballroom. We listened to the messages of our hearts and our geniuses. We created collages, poems, and other tokens that we could take to remind us of the deep work we’d done. No “God” or “gods” were ever mentioned, no religion invoked, nor were we even asked explicitly to believe in any kind of soul. But we were doing the intangible work of spirit, and making it as tangible as possible. We were engaging deeply with that part of us that decides, every day, to go on living, and that helps us do it in the best way we possibly can. In an intensive training that focused greatly on the body and its interplay with the mind, those evenings of spirit are some of my fondest and strongest memories.

The word “prayer,” though, is even more loaded than the word “spirit.” Which is possibly why I liked this quotation so much: it bespeaks what I know about Rubenfeld as a practice involving deep and focused attention – “unmixed” attention, even. And this attention, this deep listening, is what I mean when I talk about the sacredness of this work.

Whatever it is that is happening to the client, there is a thing that happens to me, the practitioner, when I am in right spiritual relationship to the client. It is something that I cannot achieve in every moment of this practice, but it’s something I strive to cultivate so that it is there more and more often. The fact that it is difficult to name this quality is what lets me know that I’m dealing in the realm of spirit: it is a skill that can be practiced, yes, but it is difficult to say what part of my mind or body I use to do it. It’s something that, when it’s in place, I am doing with my entire being. Rubenfeld Synergists tend to call it listening; others might call it empathy, or emotional intelligence, or communion.

I don’t yet know what I call it. I just know that when I’m in that state, the client is the most interesting person I have ever met. Their troubles move me utterly; their lives are fascinating; I find them, for lack of a better word, extremely beautiful. I feel that I am completely with them, and that I will know what to say, how to move, where to touch next, without thinking about it. It is a state of complete presence.

I have experienced this at other times: during certain kinds of rituals, at moments of extreme joy or pain, while drumming or singing with a group, while making love. All of these are kinds of prayer, whether they are addressing any transcendent being or not. Prayer, as Abraham Heschel said, is not as much about petitioning for things as it is about singing, about opening our hearts to greater experience.

Absolutely unmixed attention. In today’s society, it’s hard to come by. But worth striving for. And quite possibly, what the idea of spirit comes down to: that place of mystery where all of our parts coalesce to a single point.

[Re-run] Hack Yourself

Sorting through some old emails yesterday, I found a link that a friend sent to me long ago, that I probably wasn’t ready for around then. Yesterday I clicked that link and, to my delight, it was still there. Or rather, its author – horror and fantasy writer Michael Montoure – had pulled it from the depths of his archives, near the end of last year, just in time for me to rediscover it.

You can be happy. You can live the life you want to live. You can become the person you want to be.

This is what I’ve figured out so far.

The main thrust of the article? That we – very like fantasy writers, actually – can create our own realities. That we don’t have to listen to the ever-present inner demons that hold us back. That we can, in fact, choose to become the people we want to be – largely by acting like we already are.

The concept of “fake it til you make it” has always been one that resonated with me, and I’ve found that it almost always works. I believe that this phenomenon relates to the second principle of Rubenfeld Synergy: that the body, mind, emotions and spirit are dynamically interrelated. One part of the system affects all of the others, and no one of them is more powerful than the others in creating our realities. Like the smile research shows, sometimes we smile because we feel happy, but sometimes we feel happy because we smile.

In the modern, industrialized world, most people think of our minds as the top dogs. We use our big brains to make decisions, work through problems, and achieve our goals. We tend to think of our minds as “us,” and locate our consciousness, our identities, in our heads. Everything below the head is not “me” but “my body,” disconnected from identity and treated more like a possession than like a part of us.

We’re excellent pattern-matchers. That’s what the human mind does — it’s a pattern-matching engine. So we look at ourselves, at our history, at our behaviors, and we draw straight lines between the points — we assume that just because we’ve done things a certain way in the past, we’ll always do them that way in the future. If we’ve failed before, we’ll always fail.

Screw that.

Surprise yourself. No — amaze yourself.

It’s true that our brains are very powerful machines. But deciding that they are the totality of our identity is a mistake – especially when following those straight lines leads you straight to more failure. The truth is that sometimes it’s our bodies that are doing the driving; athletes will tell you that in moments of true physical achievement, their minds “shut off” and their bodies do what they know how to do. Sometimes our hearts – which research is showing to be more complex and powerful than we even knew – are doing the leading, drawing us toward a person, a dream, a desire, or through a process of mourning.

Try this: spread your arms wide and over your head, open your chest, throw your head back, and then say, “I’m so depressed!” Ilana used to do this with workshops all the time. See how depressed you can feel in that posture, even if you were feeling down beforehand. We can make changes in one part of the system, and cause a cascade of changes in the others.

[The demon is] the little voice in the back of your head that’s always whispering, “You can’t.” You know the demon. You may think you hate the demon, but you don’t. You love it. You let it own you. You do everything it says. Everytime there’s something you want, you consult the demon first, to see if it will say, “You can’t have that.”

Exorcise yourself.

You can take me literally or not, as suits you. But do, please, the next time you hear that voice in your head, imagine it, visualize it, as something physical that you can get hold of; tear it out of you, feel its fingers weaken and lose their grip on your spine, and grind it to dust, to nothing, under your boot heel on your way out to dance in the streets.

You can. You think you can’t; but it’s telling you that. You can.

There’s a bit of oversimplifying here, which he even apologizes for early on; some of the article smacks of the “Just Do It” culture that can be so damaging to people who find their histories, traumas, or environments too poisonous to easily escape by force of will. But I do love the idea that, as the name I chose for my business suggests, the power is in your hands. It may be difficult, and we may need to approach it from a different perspective than we’re used to. But – more RSM principles coming up! – we have the natural capacity for self-healing and self-regulation, and the responsibility for change ultimately rests with us.

Even more important to this discussion, though, is the principle I’ll look at next week: change happens in the present moment.

If we’re not talking about something that is real and present and in your life right now, then it doesn’t matter. Nothing can be done about it. If nothing can be done about it, then don’t spend your energy dwelling on it — you have other things to do.

This is not to say that traumas don’t need healing, that we don’t need to understand our pasts in order to move forward. Quite the contrary: we need to understand and know them well in order to move from them in a new direction. Our bodies tell the stories of our lives, but we can also shape those stories with our bodies, and with our minds, our hearts, and our souls.

We’re nothing but the stories we tell ourselves. We know in our hearts what kind of people we are, what we’re capable of, because we’ve told ourselves what kind of people we are. You’re a carefully-rehearsed list of weaknesses and strengths you’ve told yourself you have….

You owe no allegiance to that self-image if it harms you. If you don’t like the story your life has become — tell yourself a better one.

Think about the person you want to be and do what that person would do. Act the way that person would act.

Amazingly enough, once you start acting like that person, people will start treating you like that person.

And you’ll start to believe it. And then it will be true.

Welcome to your new self.

[Rerun] So what if I am being defensive?

One of the favorite refuges of arguers and old-school psychotherapists everywhere is to invoke the old Freudian saw, “Why are you being so defensive?”

Now while it’s true that sometimes, people are being defensive, this line of argument tends to be almost completely useless – unless your goal is to escalate the argument. Telling someone they’re being defensive is a sure way to get their defenses up even higher. And for the person accused, there is no escape: anything they say will be construed as further defensiveness, while the other person sits smug in their knowledge that they did nothing wrong.

Joe Weldon, one of the co-heads of the RSM training program and possibly my favorite teacher in the history of my personal universe, used to tell a story on this topic that I now find myself retelling constantly. Besides being a Master Synergist and having taught Rubenfeld Synergy Method for 30 years, Joe is a clinical psychologist and has been for even longer. He often had clashes with his colleagues, due to his unorthodox approaches, and apparently, nobody is more manipulative to psychologists than other psychologists. Once, in a meeting with a number of them that became heated, they told him, “You’re just being defensive!”

“Yes,” he said to them. “That’s because you’re attacking me.”

This was both the simplest and the best response I’d ever heard to that pointless accusation, in part because it draws on the wisdom of the body. One RSM principle states that the body always tells the truth, and if we pay attention, we know when we’re on alert – on the defense. And because the body has integrity, there is generally a reason why that’s happening: because we feel attacked.

“Attacked” may not always be literal, of course: the “attack” may be a feeling of neglect, of being pushed aside or taken for granted. It may be a sense of feeling unheard. It may be that you’re feeling manipulated, or taken advantage of. The point is that the body’s response to an attack is to defend. If you’re feeling defensive, look for where the attack is coming from.

This isn’t to say that it’s always the case that you’re being “attacked” from without. Trauma triggers, even what my own Synergist calls “lowercase-t trauma,” can cause the body to go on defense even when the intentions of someone on the outside are not to attack. Even without a major life trauma, there are habits and patterns our bodies learn: an old lover hurt us badly, and a situation with a new lover that resembles the situation with the old one may cause our feelings to be magnified beyond what is appropriate to the situation. We were laughed at as a child for being clumsy, and a lighthearted response to our dropping something makes us furious. The question in Synergy becomes: where is the wound? What was it that brought you to this place, and how can we shift it in the here and now?

This is a question I carry with me constantly these days. When someone cuts me off in traffic and makes violent gestures, I wonder: where is the wound? When I see someone abused, I wonder about the abuser: where is the wound? Even when I’m reminded of something like the horrors perpetrated in Sierra Leone by yesterday’s news of Charles Taylor’s conviction, I still wonder: for a man to orchestrate the systematic torture, rape, enslavement and killing of millions, what horrible things must have happened to him? Where is the wound?

Because nothing we do is without story. No defenses are built from nothing. Nobody erects fortresses who have never been harmed.

Why are you being defensive?

[Re-run] 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 give 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.

Off to refresh and revive

Folks, I’m leaving Monday morning early on a week-and-change odyssey to the wilds of Northern California, to spend time in wine country and in the ancestral mountain cabin belonging to my girlfriend’s family.  Very excited about this, and also very aware that for the majority of it, I will be out of cell reception and Internet-land.  I’m excited to see what happens to me when my phone is not yelling at me every five seconds.

This also means that I won’t be blogging here again until probably Friday the 29th (I return Wednesday the 27th after a redeye).  I’m going to set up the blog to auto-repeat some key posts, in case people missed them.

Meantime, if you know anybody whom you think might enjoy this blog or benefit from Rubenfeld Synergy, please send them my way; I am still in the process of building my practice, and that process is long and slow and I need all the help I can get.  As always, if you have any questions, let me know.

Happy summer to you all.

Principles of RSM #11: The body is the sanctuary of the soul

In case you were wondering, gentle reader: yes, this is the other Rubenfeld Synergy Method principle I find hard to explain to those atheists, physicalists, and scientists in my life.  Heck, I find it a bit hard to explain to myself – certainly harder than number 7, about the energy field.  That one I have some experience with, evidence for, and way of explaining that doesn’t involve much of a leap of faith.  But talking about the soul gets tricky, and forces some discussion of spiritual matters that I’m not always comfortable imposing on others.

Still, though I hardly think it is the most important principle, it is one of the 18, and merits examination.  What do we mean by the body being the sanctuary of the soul, and why is it important?

Whether or not you believe in the concept of a soul, most folks can agree that there is some aspect of ourselves that we are more likely to think of as “I.”  For many in the modern world, this self is located in the brain, and the fact that we do our thinking and receive much of our sensory input – four out of the five senses – exclusively through openings in our heads make us experience ourselves largely as head-creatures – and mere owners of bodies.  Our bodies, as we in Western culture are largely taught to experience them, are like vehicles we drive our selves around in.  We feed them fuel, take them to the shop when they get injured, try not to run them too hard, and expect that they’ll break down someday.  Some few of us take the tack that “the body is a temple,” and treat it with great care toward what goes into it, how it gets moved, and what it is exposed to.  But in the end, this attitude is still rather like imagining your body as a classic vintage Rolls rather than a coffee-stained ’04 Taurus.

I’ve already discussed in other places in this blog some of my thinking about this way of looking at the body: as some kind of possession, separate from ourselves, which is located where, exactly?  I believe that as human beings attain greater self-integration, we can begin to see our bodies as not just vehicles but the expressive media through which we transmit our thoughts, movements, and other creative outputs of the self.  And then, more than that: we can recognize that the body is the self: our brains, hearts, senses, thoughts, emotions – all emanate from and resonate through our bodies.

If this is the case, then, what is this “soul” of which the principle speaks?  Ilana, in The Listening Hand, talks of people seeking “aspects of themselves that transcend the material life,” and of “‘soul’ issues” like family, relationships, community and values.  Neither of these quite pins the question down for me, but it may also be true that the soul is by its nature an abstraction, and I would define it as something like: the part of you that you most deeply think of as You.  Or perhaps: that thing which is greater than the sum of all of your thoughts, yearnings, emotions, beliefs, experiences and core values.

I think, though, that the more important part of this principle than defining the soul is “the body is the sanctuary.”  More than “the body is a temple,” this phrase frames the body as a safe place, a sacred space, and the best possible instrument for the expression of the soul.  Not just a shell, or a vehicle, or the gross clay that we shed when our time on this earth is done with.

Of course, looking at it this way can be especially difficult for people with disabilities, or people facing advanced age and death, or people who feel they were born with bodies of the wrong sex.  And indeed, it is often especially with people who feel their bodies have betrayed them somehow that we find out what the soul is: the incredible mind and heart and consciousness of a person.

But if, rather than desiring to escape their bodies, we can help people to practice self-compassion and heed their bodies’ wisdom, there’s a chance that our souls can shine even more brightly through them.  And if we think of our bodies as the sanctuary for the Self, then it becomes harder to treat our bodies with indifference, impersonality, or contempt.

Next: Pleasure needs to be supported to balance pain.

Rock climbing for mind, body, emotions and spirit

Yesterday, I went rock climbing at Metro Rock in Everett for the fourth time.  I had heard many wax poetic about the wonders of this sport, not least Norman Mailer in Harlot’s Ghost, and the writer whom I’d love to have as a closer friend, Kij Johnson, who seems to have had her life saved by the practice.  But I never quite understood it until I tried it for the first time, with a loved one, and then kept going with wonderful, supportive climbing partners.

I have never been much of an athlete.  Early in life, taller than everyone in my class and enduring a rapid see-saw of growth – chubby, then stretched tall and thin, then chubby, then stretched again – I received the imprint that I was slow, clumsy and graceless.  I couldn’t run nearly as fast as my cousin, even when he gave me a ten-second head start; I’m fairly sure I had exercise-induced asthma that made me wheeze and taste blood after just a few minutes of running, but they didn’t treat asthma back then unless it was acute and obvious.  I didn’t pay attention in the outfield, so I was useless at tee-ball.  My mother pulled me out of ballet when I was four, just because I told her I didn’t like it; I could never get my heavy legs over my own head to do a cartwheel, a prerequisite for proper girlhood.  Gym class was the usual nightmare; picked last for kickball and so on.  By high school I had decided that the safest thing to do was make fun of myself for how useless I was at physical activity, and skip gym, claiming menstrual cramps, as often as possible.

Some time in college, though, I discovered weight-lifting, and then yoga, martial arts, and tai chi.  I learned that using my body in these ways felt good, and that physical effort didn’t have to be about team sports and competition.  I so wish to this day that someone in my youth had taught me that there are other ways to play and be physical, and how fun and fulfilling it could be.  But nobody did.  I had to learn it as an adult, with big, heavy bones and underdeveloped muscles and loose joints.  I’m now 36, and it has been and continues to be quite a journey, listening to and getting to know my own body in movement and effort, progress and injury.

But this was a post about climbing.

Of all of the things I’ve tried since finding myself as a physical creature – aerial silks (hated it), yoga (still doing it), contact improv dance (still looking for the right class), Krav Maga (scared the crap out of myself with the level of violence), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (re-injured my neck in warm-ups; haven’t been back) – rock climbing feels the most holistic.  There is enormous physical effort; mental problem-solving; emotional strain, elation and trust; and spiritual fulfillment.

For the uninitiated, the climbing I’m talking about is top-roping.  This means that you are climbing a vertical surface with various holds on it, rated for varying levels of difficulty between (for some reason) 5.5 and 5.12.  You are wearing a harness, which is tied in to a rope that goes up to the top of the wall, over a pulley, and down to your partner, who has your life in his hands through a process called belaying.  Having a partner belaying you means that you have the freedom to try hard things and fall, and if your partner is paying attention the worst that will happen is you will slip and bang against the wall a little.

The first few climbs, 5.5s and 5.6s, are a bit like ladders.  They’re designed to be very easy, and to get you used to the idea.  Still, there’s a certain triumph, even at the beginning, to getting to the top.  Once you get into 5.7s and 5.8s, the routes start to be trickier.  Climbers call routes “problems,” because a big part of it is taking the long view and figuring out how you will need to use your body to get to the next height.  These problems always have more than one solution, but the harder the route, the less you can rely on brute strength or simple movements.  Skill building happens quickly, and it’s a total-system process.

Body.  I’m hyper-aware, as I begin my first 5.8, of my strength limitations.  I already know what it’s like to be on the wall, know what I need to do next, and feel that I just don’t have it in me to do it.  I’m not yet used to pushing so hard with my legs, trusting them to throw me upward to that next hand-hold.  Not yet used to falling when that doesn’t work.  Nothing at the gym prepares you for the kind of explosive effort that is so often required on the wall: that place where you have to gather all of your strength and all of your will and push yourself to the next hold…then do it again.  But doing it brings elation, and an ever-increasing self-belief.  My partner, Chris, said afterward that there are some climbs where you spend 3/4 of the time going, “Okay, there’s no way I’m going to reach that next thing, but I’m going to try it anyway,” and then making it, and going through it again for the next hold.  Eventually, you start to believe that you can do it.  Riding that edge, over and over again, brings a sense of strength I’ve never before experienced.

Mind.  There are moments where my brain is so full, my body so tired, that I don’t know what to do next.  I’ve begun to call this state “climbing brain,” where I am in a daze walking around the gym, looking for the next adventure to try, and realize that my brain just isn’t working.  Up on the wall, though, there are moments when my body and mind come into harmony, moments that are like putting the last piece into a puzzle that’s been fighting you for days.  Top-roping with a trusted partner allows you the luxury, sometimes, of giving yourself a breath: backing up from the wall, hanging and resting your hands, and looking at the problem until it comes into focus.  Sometimes, a hold appears where you didn’t realize there was one.  You picture your body doing the move, and the restoration of just 30 seconds of rest gives you the strength to do it.  The activity joins the mind and body in ways I’m not used to: suddenly my body is smarter, my mind stronger than before.

Emotions.  Climbing is teaching me what to do with frustration.  On my first attempted 5.7, I tried and tried and simply couldn’t beat it.  All the humiliation of gym class, my idea of myself as a klutz and total non-athlete, came back to me.  “Forget it, I’m coming down,” I yelled down, and, dejected and pissed, bumped my way down the wall to the ground.  Back to 5.6s.  Yet that same day, later, I managed it.  It was a short wall, but I hit the top.  Triumph filled me, and frustration was forgotten.  Now, when I feel frustration, I know that it’s a choice point.  I can take a rest and go on trying, or I can stop, do something else, and come back to it with a fresher mind and body.  Frustration can be a motivation-killer and a stopping point, or it can be a sign that you need to go in another direction for a while, then return to difficulty.  Yesterday, I climbed two 5.7s with such apparent non-effort that Chris joked to me, “Okay, you’re only allowed to climb 5.8s from now on.”  The joy and the thrill of that was hard to measure in numbers.

Spirit.  Despite the above, after defeating my first hard 5.8, I took a hard 5.7 as my final climb of the day.  My hands were becoming non-functional, and climbing-brain had set in pretty deeply, but I knew I had one more in me.  My partner gave me permission to fail, which is a deep gift, and I went for it.

Most of the way up the wall – a sideways climb over an outcropping, ending leftward – I ran out of steam.  “Take!” I cried, the invaluable, one-syllable command that means “I’m about to fall” or “I need a rest.”  “I’ve got you,” I heard.

There’s an astonishing level of trust and bonding that occurs here, in the place where your partner is holding your life by a string.  I feel the tenuousness of it in how reluctant I am to fully let go of the wall, to let myself truly hang.  I have felt, before, the profundity of being at the other end of this, of catching him in the air when he falls.  It fills me with a feeling I seek wherever I can get it: awe.

I soldier onward, but reach a place where the fight goes out of me, and I say, “Bring me down, I’ve stopped caring.”  “But you’re so close!” he says.  “Want to take a rest for a minute?”  It’s a lovely offer, an option, not a command or an imprecation, the soul of gentleness.  I say “Sure,” and swing out a little.  “Let go of the wall,” he says, and I do, shaking my hands out.  I breathe, and he is silent, just holding me there.  I look up at the wall, at the top, less than ten feet away.  I take a few more breaths.

Then I swing my right leg up to that little chip, push my left hand to the next hold, pull myself up, slap the top of the route and say with force, “Now bring me down!”

As I lowered to the ground, my spirit flew skyward, then came back down to embrace me on the bouncy blue floor of the gym.  I still haven’t stopped smiling.