Respect: honoring where you end and I begin

Part of a series on the GROUND of RSM – a foundational acronym introduced by Joe Weldon and Noël Wight at the 17th Rubenfeld Synergy Training.

The second piece of our GROUND, after Gentleness, is Respect, which probably sounds pretty basic.  Again, though, these concepts are foundational: both literally and figuratively, they are the ground of our work.

Respect, in any kind of therapy or healing, should be obvious; the dignity and integrity of the patient or client must be upheld above all else.  The tremendous trust that clients tend to put in therapists makes this doubly the case; people are coming to us and telling us their most personal stories, and counting on us to be confidantes, healers and even mentors.  In Synergy, the trust is even more profound, as we also incorporate touch into our work.  There are reasons why touch has been expunged from most practice involving mental health: in the early days of psychotherapy, abuse was rampant.  Yet touch is one of the most profound pathways to healing, and lack of safe, boundaried, non-sexual touch is, I believe, one of our modern plagues.  Incorporating touch into counseling, then, requires an extra layer of respect.

When approaching a client to initiate touch, Synergists are trained to obtain verbal consent, not just once, but often throughout the session.  At times, especially as the Synergist and client get to know each other over several sessions, this constant checking in is no longer necessary, but for my own part, I still always ask consent for first contact at the beginning of a session.  Often, clients have experienced trauma, perhaps had their boundaries violated, their integrity blown apart.  One of the first steps to healing is according a client the respect that all human beings deserve.  Again, as with practicing gentleness, this can help a client begin to feel what it’s like when they are respected – a feeling they may not have had in a long time.

One of our main goals as Synergists is to help a person reach a place of integrity: a congruence of body, mind, emotions and spirit.  When a client who has been sexually abused, for example, feels that someone can both be totally respectful of his boundaries and offer loving, safe touch, he may begin to learn something new about how his body can receive touch without violation.  When a client who feels uncomfortable asks the Synergist to move away and she does, immediately and without question, that client can begin to feel that she can indeed have her boundaries respected.  Respect is perhaps the most important tool we can use to help restore integrity to our clients: to help them feel again that their bodies, minds, emotions and spirits belong to them.

Once it becomes clear that proper respect is present, the way opens for the next foundational concept: openness.

Trauma and streaming, or, why I was shaking this morning after falling down the stairs

Yes, this morning I fell down the stairs.  I had put on comfy fuzzy socks, and was looking at my phone a little, and my foot slipped and I tumbled down a half-flight to the landing, bracing myself with my left hand.  My forearm got bruised up and I’m still figuring out what’s going on with my neck (the chiropractor might get a visit), but I’m mostly fine.

What interested me, though, was the aftermath, once my body realized I was no longer in danger and hadn’t been badly hurt.  In a few minutes, my hands started to shake, and I was buzzy and shaky for a while as the adrenaline rush left my body.  Luckily, my body is pretty good at doing this; most of ours are.  But for people who have experienced serious trauma, things can be a bit different.

In our training, we called it “streaming.”  This is distinct from “flooding,” where a client becomes overwhelmed by an emotion and needs to be brought down from it to safer ground.  Streaming is a phenomenon that may or may not be accompanied by emotion, but generally is far more physical.  I’ve seen it many times in the training, a time or two in my office, and have experienced it personally once.  It can be disconcerting and is certainly uncomfortable, and it’s not very well understood, but for whatever reason, Synergy really lends itself to it.

So what is it?  Basically, a client will be lying on the table.  The Synergist will make contact in one way or another.  And the client’s body will start to shake.  Often, their jaw will shake as well, as you might if you were very cold and shivering.  One colleague of mine described the sensation as moving in waves down her body.  For another, her eyes moved around a lot as well, and tended to fill with tears, though she didn’t feel sad.  The movement is involuntary, like shivering, and tends to come up especially for people who have experienced trauma in their childhoods.

In my own experience, I became very angry during the training one year, and got caught up in some drama surrounding a fellow student.  I carried the anger with me over a few days, then had a Synergy session, as we do in the course of our training.  During that session, I began to process through the emotions I was having, and as I did so, my body began to shake.  It almost felt like I was going to cry, but I didn’t, and instead I felt waves of shudders moving through me, top to bottom.  It was bizarre, and a little frightening, and my Synergist just held my head and helped me move through it safely.  It stopped after a few minutes, and I felt freer and cleaner than I had in days.  And a lot less angry.

At some point prior to this, one of the faculty explained how an animal – like, say, a deer – will shudder after an encounter with a predator or some other danger that it manages to escape.  In such moments, when our fight-or-flight response kicks in, adrenaline and cortisol flood our systems, and afterwards, when the danger has passed, it needs to be cleared.  An animal’s muscles will spasm quickly to clear the stress hormones and move them toward their eliminatory systems more quickly.

But sometimes, an animal – usually a domesticated animal, or especially, a human – will not clear the experience right away.  Sometimes the trauma is too great, or is repeated often, or for some other reason, the moment of stress becomes frozen in the body.  The muscles lock around the feeling of danger and terror, and the trauma becomes imprinted.  Instead of having a traumatic experience, but then moving toward healing, the body and mind develop a new loop: the experience is re-lived, fully, vividly, triggered by words, images, smells, and mundane experiences.

It’s only later, then, that the streaming occurs: while meditating, or receiving healing, or lying awake at night.

Or that’s the theory, anyway: that streaming is one of the ways the body gets triggered, an attempt to clear old wounds long after they’ve happened.  For me, it was the accumulation of a few days’ rancor.  For others, it seems to repeat for them, over and over, like flashbacks of the trauma itself.  Over time, one hopes that it improves, as the accumulated stress is released.

I was grateful this morning to feel my body shivering as it cleared the fear: the danger was past, and I’m merely bruised and sore, not traumatized.  But what happens to the child who is hit constantly by his father?  Pretty soon, just the sound of his key in the lock will cause the adrenaline response; just the sound of his voice will put the child’s body on alert; just the father turning to look at him too quickly will cause him to flinch back.  In such an environment, one’s guard can never be down.  It’s never safe to just let the hormones clear and go on with life as normal.  And, unlike prey animals, we have sophisticated mental and emotional systems: memory, pattern recognition, prediction, and consciousness.  All of those flinches go somewhere; it makes sense that all of that accumulated tension might come spilling out later in life in a physical way.

RSM, among all the other things it is, seems to be a way to access and begin to clear those traumas somatically – without having to re-live the trauma, or even know what it was.  We’re making contact with the body and helping it learn to feel safe again, to return to a state where calm is possible, and being constantly on alert is no longer necessary.  For some people, streaming appears to be a necessary part of this process.

Here’s a pretty great article on this phenomenon, from someone who does Jin Shin Do Acupressure.  I’m not familiar with the practice, but the descriptions of what I’m talking about are very useful.  Bonus story about a horse, too.

Gentleness: the first word in our work

Part of a series on the GROUND of RSM – a foundational acronym introduced by Joe Weldon and Noël Wight at the 17th Rubenfeld Synergy Training.

Gentleness may have been the first thing I noticed about Joe Weldon, the co-head of my training.  I may have noticed his size at about the same time: though he is by no means an enormous man, he was the tallest person in our training, and one of the few men.  Though I believe that he is gentle by nature, I get the sense that he also carefully cultivates gentleness, probably in part to compensate for a tendency to seem imposing.  The intensity of his focus, his fierce intelligence, and his penetrating insight may have contributed to an all-around sense of intimidation, were it not for his warm heart and gentle approach.

In fact, in that first week of training when I was so closed and skeptical, Joe’s equanimity and gentleness were part of what made me so suspicious.  I felt I was being lulled into something, perhaps made to accept some kind of touchy-feely, New Age pabulum.  (Only much later would it occur to me, with a painful shock: somehow I had been taught to fear genuine kindness, to be suspicious of sentiment, to believe that if it wasn’t genuine poetry, it wasn’t genuine feeling.  When, I wondered, did I become so infected with irony that I couldn’t receive uncomplicated love?)

With time, though, I recognized that Joe epitomized the first rule of Rubenfeld Synergy Method: gentleness.  Approaching our clients this way also communicates a deep kind of attention: when we are being gentle, we are listening, and leaving space for the client’s truth to emerge.

Gentleness, though, as my own experience showed, can be complicated.  To me, gentleness implied condescension.  I wasn’t used to receiving it, and had a hard shell that needed cracking.  Ultimately it was gentleness that melted it, so that it didn’t have to break.

Some clients may also have the experience of not receiving gentleness; it’s not a highly valued thing in our culture of independence, striving, athleticism and innovation.  The quality of nurturance is seen as feminine, and therefore inferior.  We’re told to “grow up,” “get over it,” “just do it.”  The young generation today is seen as too coddled and entitled, and tremendous value is placed on having had a rough time, pulled yourself together, and made it to where you are today all on your own.  I know people – am even personally very close to some – who respond to gentleness with suspicion, either because they believe they are being drawn into a trap, or because it was never safe for them to be vulnerable.

But gentleness doesn’t mean coddling, or condescending, or even going easy or letting someone get away with things.  Gentleness is an overall approach, even an effective way of being tough, of helping someone see themselves clearly.  I think of the beautiful scene near the end of the film Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams, as the one psychiatrist who is able to get through to Matt Damon’s character, Will, simply holds onto him and repeats, gently, “It’s not your fault.”  At first Will is bristly and brushes him off, but he just keeps repeating it, softly, patiently, until Will can hear it and let it in, and the locked emotion comes pouring out.

The world can be a very un-gentle place, but all of us need and deserve a place where we can feel like someone cares for us, lets us be vulnerable, won’t ever attack us or make us feel like our feelings are weakness.  For some people, therapy might be the only place they get this.  And so it is the place where we start, part of the foundation of the work.  When I answer the phone, when I open the door, when I listen, when I make contact: I stand in gentleness first.  Everything else follows from this.

Spreading the word wider

I’ve recently been made the Admin of the Rubenfeld Synergy Method blog, which means I’m posting over there, plus managing and approving posts from other contributors.  I’m excited to have a wider community of Synergists, clients, and other healing professionals see my writings about this, and excited to help bring other voices in the discussion to your attention as well.

Please, go ahead and check it out!



The entire GROUND series is now available at the following links: Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, Noticing, and Discovery.

I’ll never forget the moment.  It was May of 2008, and I was walking into my first module of Rubenfeld Synergy training.  I had recently arrived at the beautiful Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and didn’t at all know what to expect.  After a tasty vegetarian dinner at the dining hall (oh, how much I’d complain about the food in the coming years!), I was off to meet the colleagues and faculty I’d be working with for the next four years.

All of my education experience thus far had been more formal: college and university, degrees and classrooms.  Before deciding to study Rubenfeld Synergy, I had looked into – and been accepted in – a few graduate programs in psychology.  So when I walked into the little meeting building – called Juniper – at Omega, I wasn’t quite ready for what I found.

The room had altars around the sides, little gatherings of fabric and stones and pictures and objects, loving creations.  There was a circle of chairs, and a series of stones on the floor making a path.  There were paper cutouts on the wall, spelling out the words “The GROUND of RSM.”  The faculty I began to meet all seemed to be smiling a bit too widely.  I wasn’t sure whether I’d walked into a kindergarten classroom or a cult meeting.

My defenses went up immediately.  (Later that week, after so much journeying, I would play an over-the-top version of my surly, armored self in a sketch: my hood pulled over my head, shifty-eyed and sullen like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club.) I became even more suspicious and doubtful when I found a fancy-looking binder, with the RSM logo and everything, on my chair, only to find it was empty.  Where was my curriculum, a syllabus, forms to fill out?  Where was any formality?  What was this educational process to be?  And why are they taking out crayons and paper now?

We spent the evening talking about what the ground we felt we were on looked like, and then drawing it.  Mine was a twisting black road, full of uncertainty, a desert highway with a vague yellow road sign and a threatening sky.  I didn’t know what I was in for, or whether I wanted to be there.

Only as the week progressed did I learn how much this was part of the process for me.  As I’d hear – and later say – countless times in the subsequent years, “that’s information, too.”  My ground was shaky because I was breaking new ground: I had to open myself to a different kind of learning experience, one that involved my whole self.

As I’d learn, GROUND was an acronym: standing for the fundamentals with which we approach our work.  The six words: Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, Noticing, and Discovery.  Turned out, I had something to learn about all of them.

In the coming weeks, I’ll explore these concepts one by one as they apply to this work.  Stay tuned.

Fearless, together and free: an afternoon at Double Edge Theatre

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in Double Edge Theatre’s Open Training, out in the wilds of Ashfield, MA.  The Berkshires are lovely this time of year, of course, but what I got to experience was far more than the usual New England leaf-peep.  Rather, I had my body worked, my mind expanded, and my spirit uplifted.  (Also, my toes blood-blistered.  But that’s another part of this tale.)

Double Edge is what I can only call a holistic theatre company.  They are housed on an old dairy farm in Western MA, where they have extensive gardens and some chickens and pigs.  Much of their 100 acres is protected agricultural land, and the artists in residence are doing their best to run the place in a sustainable way, including switching to wood heating and getting their water from an artesian well.  More importantly, though, they create amazing performative art, large, highly physical pieces that take years of development and tend to be based on well-known stories like Don Quixote, The Firebird, and The Odyssey.  Their latest touring piece, currently in development, is called The Grand Parade of the Twentieth Century, and I for one can’t wait to see it.

I wasn’t clear what I expected when I went into the afternoon workshop.  I went because an actress I respect told me about it, and since seeing Transcontinental Love Affair in Minneapolis, I’ve wanted to do more with physical theatre.  I knew it was going to be physical; I didn’t know exactly how or to what degree.  I thought at least some things might be explained, or discussed.  No: this was to be entirely experiential.  Strenuous, ecstatic, playful, and almost entirely without words.

When my friend and I entered, there were probably about 40 people there.  Many looked like they’d attended one of these before; I’m sure many were new.  Everyone was stretching out, so we followed their leads.

This turned out to be a good plan, since the next nearly two hours were to be an extended, complex, and beautiful game of follow-the-leader, where the leader keeps changing, and then there are several, and tribes and groups and bands form, fighting, cooperating, dancing, strutting, cowering, and carrying each other through an organically evolving, entirely improvised story.

But it started with a jog.

The magnificent Matthew Glassman – though we didn’t know who he was yet – entered, said something like, “Okay, let’s start,” and began to lightly run around the room – a medium-sized community hall with benches around the sides and a low stage at the front.  At first it felt like a martial arts class warmup: we all began to jog around the room.  But soon it became clear that we weren’t all jogging in the same direction.  Then we weren’t just running in different directions but trying to avoid collisions.  We began to encounter each other, dodge, confront, play.  It became clear in a short time that we were meant to follow Matthew’s other movements, too, and he eventually guided us into a large circle, skipping sideways around it.  Soon another leader emerged: Carlos Uriona, another core member of the group, and he and Matthew split the group between them without much preamble.  Before the end there were at least four groups that I could count.  The group I was a part of ended up running out of the hall – barefoot – our hands behind our backs, and running along the street and the sidewalk of the little town, into a church yard, through the leaves and mud and puddles, sitting on a rock wall, looking at the sky, peering about suspiciously at the spirits of Puritans looking disdainfully at us.  When we came back in, some people were wearing vests and hats, and a large cable spool had been rolled into the center of the room.  People were taking turns balancing and walking on it.  A smaller one was introduced.  Then long lengths of sheer fabric, which groups of us moved with, hid under, swept into the air and down again.  The hall became like an organized chaos of circusness.  Every one of us was soaked in sweat.

In the midst of all of this, a number of things happened.  I’ve felt this kind of thing before, most notably in ritual space and at times in less organized dance events.  First, the physical activity, which was intense, thrust all of us out of our heads.  When you’re working that hard, committing that passionately to movement, and making sure that you and others aren’t getting hurt, there’s no space for doubt, or fear, or wondering what you’re going to do next.  You do it, and that’s all there is to it.

I noticed almost immediately how easy it was to invoke an emotional state using my body and others’ bodies.  I could tiptoe around and not just appear, but feel, sneaky and mysterious.  I jumped back and changed direction in fear and alarm.  I leapt into the the air with elation.  I flung myself to the ground in despair.  All of this at the physical prompting of the leaders, and I felt how my heart changed as my body changed, how much I could change my state at will.

Once I was thoroughly warmed up, and so enmeshed in the physicality of it all that I forgot to be self-conscious, I also began to feel the powerful connection that forms between people who are doing something intense together.  There’s a trust that forms almost instantly, and the energy of the group – in this case, both the larger group and the smaller subgroups – becomes its own thing, an organism outside of the individual.  The movement becomes collaborative, the breath becomes a thing that you are moving together.  Touch becomes easier, and a kind of radical intimacy develops.  The sense of safety, of co-creation, of togetherness, becomes intensely moving – to the extent that you can process it in the moment.  In the moment, it’s really just something that’s happening to you: an ecstasy of change.  And for me, a reminder of what human interaction can truly be like, even between strangers.

It’s hard to say what exactly happened.  We moved: we ran, crawled, knelt, reached, jumped, pushed and pulled, leapt and twirled, balanced and twisted, held each other.  We draped the fabric over another group of fallen comrades and either tucked them in for a nap or mourned the dead.  We touched and were touched.  We moved and were moved.

At the end, we stretched out and breathed, rested and reflected.  I wasn’t sure what we had created but it felt profound and important and true, and yet ephemeral, an ongoing work, the work of a lifetime.

I know I will return.

New series ideas

As reported last week, I’ve finished my series on the 18 Principles of Rubenfeld Synergy Method.  About which I’m pretty psyched.  So I’m taking this Wednesday to put forth a couple of ideas on what the next series might be.  If you have opinions or thoughts as to what you’d like to hear about, please let me know!

The Classic Sequence.
I’ve written about the classic sequence in the context of describing a typical RSM session, but I believe that it can be broken down quite a bit more in the context of each body part touched, what they tend to carry and signify in this work, and how we tend to interact with them as Synergists.  I figure people might like to know more about why we go to the different parts in the order that we do, how the moves work and what their goals are.

The Body.
In the training, our first couple of years of week-long modules were centered around different areas of the body, starting with the feet and moving up to the knees, hips, spine, shoulders, and head.  What sorts of metaphors do these places exemplify?  What can we learn by listening to them?  What are the stories they tend to hold?  And how can we make our bodies better allies?

The “GROUND” of RSM.
In our very first week of training in RSM, we were introduced to the acronym “GROUND,” which describes the basis for the practice of Rubenfeld Synergy.  Not so much principles – which are beliefs we invest in when doing this work and seek to instill in our clients – as guidelines for practice, the letters stand for: Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, Noticing, and Discovery.  Each seems like a fairly simple concept, but they have some specific meanings and applications in this work, and taken together, form an approach that is singularly different in some ways from conventional psychotherapy.


Other ideas will occur to me, I’m sure, and I will continue to do one-off posts on various topics as well.  Please let me know if you like any one of these ideas better than the others – or if there’s any other topics or questions you’d like me to write on in this space.

Principles of RSM #18: Self-care is the first step to client care

This is it, folks: the last in the series of 18 Principles of Rubenfeld Synergy Method!  It took a little more than 18 weeks to do it, but this is it!

There’s plenty more to write about RSM, but if you have anything you’d really like to hear about, please, let me know by commenting here or contacting me.

This principle – self care is the first step to client care – may be my favorite.  It should be obvious by now that I am rather into self-care; I try to pay attention to my body’s messages, be conscious of undue self-criticism, and focus on the present both when I’m feeling low and when I’m having a great day.  I don’t always succeed perfectly, but all things considered, I tend to be pretty compassionate with myself.

But all of us, especially those of us in the healing professions or who care for young children, elderly folks, or sick family members, would be wise to remember this principle at least once a day.

Too often, doctors, massage therapists, chiropractors – name your choice of healthcare folks – grind themselves into the ground, supposedly in the service of the greater good: i.e., the health of their patients and clients.  In the process, however, they not only ruin their own health, but they can also put their clients’ safety in question.  The underslept doc who makes a crucial mistake with a patient in the middle of the night is a stock plot device on medical shows for a reason.  So many massage therapists I’ve known have stopped doing it after a few years because they’ve overtaxed their bodies, and some have had their relationship to touch skewed by boundary problems, some of which can occur when a person isn’t watching their own self-care closely enough.  And in Rubenfeld Synergy, where the practitioner is in direct contact with the client, it can be easy to become wrapped up in the client’s emotions, stories, and even physical problems if the Synergist isn’t careful.

When working with clients, Synergists seek to maintain a posture we call BOMA: Balance of Mechanical Advantage.  Before it got named all fancy, Ilana used to call it “monkey,” because it involves softening the knees, moving your pelvis back and down, letting your shoulders drop, and moving from a low, grounded place in the body.  It looks a little like a monkey-stance, a little like a balletic plié.  Moving from this place looks a bit like Tai Chi.  In the training, it is one of the first things we learn how to do – because it helps enormously in self-care.  Before we ever lay hands on a fellow student, let alone a client, we are taught the essential physical posture that will help us return to ourselves when we start to get lost.

Because it’s easy to get lost.  Massage therapists overtax their bodies so often because they are so focused on helping the client feel better that they don’t pay attention to their own posture and body mechanics.  As a Synergist, the tendency can be even worse, as we also deal with emotional material.  It’s happened to me: I’ve got my hands under someone’s head, I’m feeling in my own body how tense they are, and I’m listening to them talk about their sadness and sense of abandonment.  I’m so absorbed, and suddenly I realize that my knees are straight, my shoulders are forward and held, and I’m half-leaning over the client!  Meanwhile, I’m wondering why my back is starting to hurt – not to mention why I suddenly feel so sad and abandoned.

It can feel like a virtue to get so involved with a client’s story that you feel moved by it – I feel your pain – but it’s not actually especially useful to the client.  Being able to gently pull back in that moment, take a breath, maybe remove my hands, then come in and make contact again from a more centered place – is almost invariably the best thing I can do for that client in that moment.  But won’t they feel even more abandoned if I walk away at that moment?  No, probably not.  More importantly, how will they feel when they realize that you’re just as tense and scared as they are?

Self-care is the first step to client care – not just because an unhealthy Synergist can’t perform at as high a level, but because touch actually communicates what is going on in the Synergist’s body, not just what is going on in the client’s.  It is a two-way street, and as I’ll discuss in a future post, change happens in the relationship, not in isolation.

If you haven’t yet, go read the other Principles in the series.  The full list is here.

The things that shift me

From a coffee shop in Somerville, I text to a loved one, “Grey and white clouds blowing in a fall breeze, good French roast, and Death Cab on the speakers.  Good day so far.”

On Friday afternoon, in the depths of a never-ending rainstorm, I wrote in a more personal journal what a hard day I was having.  How easy it was to feel suddenly worthless, just because I’d had one day where getting things done was a trial, where I meant to exercise, write, work in the kitchen, do all kinds of productive things – and yet I couldn’t seem to do more than start dinner in a crockpot and screw around on the Internet.

This morning I got up, ate oatmeal, took care of some finances, and walked 2 miles in about half an hour to meet a friend for coffee.  Good conversation, and now, work.

It can be really hard to keep track of the big picture.  To know when I’m actually largely doing well, and when I’m in a rough patch.  Because each day is so vivid: the moods we find ourselves in can be so strong.

And often the bad ones are stronger than the good ones.  The fact I’m writing about this good Monday at all is a good sign.  On Friday I wrote about my mood because it was so powerful that I couldn’t do anything else.  I’ve mostly gotten out of the habit of whining at the Internet, but from time to time, it still feels necessary.  Because it can just be so overwhelming.  It is so easy to fall back into old patterns from healthier, newer ones.

Today, I want to appreciate the sun, and the clouds, and the sweater and scarf I’m wearing for the first time this year, and the feeling of getting things done.  Today I want to appreciate the friendly old guy on my walk who said “Good morning!” to me, then enthused, “What a day!”  I want to appreciate the dude with the mohawk crossing the street outside the window of the coffee shop, and the people with strollers, and the wistful, poignant voice of Ben Gibbard.

I joked to that same loved one on Friday that I read the web comic “a softer world” because I need my heart broken a little every day in order to stay an artist.  But I also recognize that I kind of mean it.  There are many kinds of heartbreak, and today’s burst of autumnal beauty and energy is as piercing as Friday’s malaise was crippling.  Honoring both is what keeps me alive.

How can we better pay attention, to be sure that the good days, the beauty and energy, have as much weight as the bad?  How can I be more present?  Not always necessarily more happy, but more awake?