Double Edge, again: becoming one with presence

Yesterday, I spent more time with the wonderful folks at Double Edge Theatre, out in Ashfield, MA.  Their highly physical Open Trainings, as I’ve described here before, are rigorous, inspirational, and transformative, and I would encourage anyone who is not mobility-challenged to try one.

Here are some moments from this one, particularly as they relate to the mind-body connection, my own emotional/physical journey, and my practice of Rubenfeld Synergy:

…I am in a clutch of people; the training has broken up into two groups.  My group is making a tighter and tighter bunch, closing in, breathing hard, urgent, while the other group circles us.  I feel an unmistakable sense of menace and danger from the outside group, while in my group I feel the huddling together as fearful.  Soon we are packed together, hunched with our heads close, and I feel as if I will cry from the fear.  Just as suddenly, we break away and go running joyfully through the circle that surrounds us, and the mood is over.  A simple change from one type of physicality to another shifts my emotional state instantly.

…Our group is making its way up the side of a large wooden see-saw.  Our leader – Matthew Glassman – has me by the arm and we are working our way toward the middle of it.  The grade is steep and the wood is old and smooth, slippery under my bare feet in the sun.  My heart is pounding and I feel with every step I will fall.  And then we go over the balance point and slide down…and I learn, as I do again and again here, how closely fear and joy are related.  Facing fear, moving through it, I learn what triumphant rewards are on the other side.

…Doing this training, surrounded by many beautiful, lithe, graceful people who have clearly been doing this for some time, I feel the struggles of my size, my flexibility, my strength.  It taps me directly in to the feelings of exclusion I had as a child: cautious, quiet, brainy and physically awkward, I spent most of my childhood excluded from friendship and peer groups, either by my own choice or active ostracizing.  Even though I’m now fitter than I’ve ever been, the activity still touches those old wounds: I feel slower, more awkward, less beautiful than everyone else.  A constant voice in my head says, “Am I doing it right?  Am I responding quickly enough?  Will they see that I’m not really one of them?”  And then someone grabs me by the hand and pulls me onward as we run, or someone puts their arm around me in the group, or someone sees that I’m not as tightly into a cluster of people as I could be, loops my arm, and draws me in.  Over and over, I’m included, embraced, held.  I belong here.

Theatre is a place where I’m often reminded – or re-bodied, if you will – of how these connections work.  And Double Edge is a place where I find, not only the things above, but a place of total presence: when it gets physically demanding enough, and when I’m able to let go, those persistent, insecure thoughts are silenced, and I am no longer a shy, awkward girl alone, but rather a shining body and spirit in community.

I encourage anyone in the performing arts to come and see me if you want to enhance presence, body confidence, or any other aspect of performance.

 

The Classic Sequence: The Head Roll

Getting back to this series, after this weird couple of weeks made it difficult to write about normal things.  Now, though, to continue with the progression of moves in the so-called “classic sequence” of a Rubenfeld Synergy session.

After the first touch at the head, the Synergist will often attempt a head roll.  The point of this, as with so many things in Synergy, is not to get the head to roll back and forth.  Rather, it is to get a sense of the current level of movement available in the client’s neck.  The Synergist places her fingertips on the occipital ridge, near the client’s ears, and more encourages than pushes the client’s head in one direction and then the other.

The point of this is several-fold.  First, giving the client a baseline for how easily – or not – his head rolls on his neck is a good metric for when you reach the end of the session: the hope is that there will be more freedom in the neck once the shoulders have had some release, and after any release of emotion.  Second, the neck is a place where many people hold a lot of tension.  The head roll is the first opportunity to increase awareness in the client of how tight or loose she is, how much tension she’s holding, and to begin a conversation with her body.

Finally, the amount of movement available in the neck can serve as a powerful metaphor for a client’s ability to give or withhold consent.  I’ve seen several instances of clients getting greater freedom in their neck, particularly to move it back and forth, and comment that they got their ‘no’ back.  Often, trauma survivors have experienced repeated disempowerment, and in some sense have had their ability to say ‘no’ taken away from them.  Choice is critical to agency, and freeing the neck can be a powerful physical basis for restoring a client’s ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to them.

Increasing range of motion in the neck also increases perspective, as it literally allows a person to look around more freely and in a broader visual range.  Having a broader perspective – in both the literal and figurative senses – increases possibility for all aspects of a person’s life.  It allows a person to see more choices, rather than the fight/flight/freeze that are the only options available at moments of extreme stress.  It can offer a broader range of opinions on a topic, a more fluid and adaptable mindset, and a more relaxed, less guarded, and therefore more responsive (as opposed to reactive) emotional state.

In the next phase, we’ll move down to the feet, to connect both ends of the body to one another.

Carmina Burana, the bombings, and being an artistic first responder

On Monday night, I returned to rehearsal with the Back Bay Chorale. We rehearse on Newbury Street, about a block from where the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, and since we rehearse on Mondays, last week’s rehearsal was a no-go.  But this past Monday, we were back, and our fearless leader Scott Allen Jarrett had some beautiful things to say.

Many of us probably felt a bit helpless on the day of the event, but many of us also tried to find ways to respond that would be productive in some way.  As not all of us can be first responders, or firefighters, or police, or doctors, we looked for ways to connect.  To help the grieving.  To begin the healing.  Scott plugged us choristers in to what it is that we do, and how much it truly helps.  Here is an excerpt from his letter to us:

As creative people, we feel the impulse to actively participate in making music, as affirmation of our communities. And in so doing, we each become ‘first responders’ of a sort. Some of you sang the Brahms Requiem last night. Others of us sang Messiah Saturday night. Still others raised the roof of the Garden with the National Anthem at the Bruins game.

Tonight we’ll gather to rehearse Carmina Burana. There is no In Paradisum or Selig sind die Toten, a Heaney sonnet, or even an energetic Et vitam venturi. But these texts are in our shared musical vocabulary. They are the reason we can so ably and readily respond in time of need. We have practiced being a community before. And we will do just that tonight and next Monday and in all our future rehearsals and performances….

Most of the time, I’m interested to care for the music, and in so doing, care for one another, each receiving in her own way. And so tonight, come and sing, work hard and sing more right notes, get better, learn a few more words. But let’s ‘lean forward’ together and look for ways to care for one another. This practice of community is and will be a healing and necessary affirmation for us all.

At the rehearsal itself, he drew us together still more, his voice breaking a few times as he gave his earnest self to us, and to the music, yet again.

I am struck, again and again, by how healing music is, and how intimately related it is to the body, especially for singers.  The ability to literally move vibrations through our bodies and produce sound, which then enters our own ears and others’, and which literally moves us and changes us, is a powerful gift.  Sound, as psychology professor Anne Fernald explains, is like touch at a distance, and so the intimate relationship between Ilana Rubenfeld’s musicianship and her healing work begins to make more sense.

I feel blessed to be able to work with singers as a singer, and also, to work with performing artists as a healer.  As we work together, we help each other to become more responsive – rather than reactive – in situations where what is called for is contact, community, and harmony.

 

Shelter in place

Today the weirdness around the Boston Marathon bombings continues, as Boston and surrounding areas are in lockdown, the police are on a supermilitarized manhunt, and residents are being ordered to stay inside with their doors locked.  I am just outside the lockdown area (by a town), and I for one will be going out of town as planned.  The idea of being locked inside my house for my own safety chills me deeply, especially as I look at the innocence on the face of young Dzhokhar Tsarnayev – just a kid, really, who nobody suspected of anything.

It’s all so surreal, and sad, and strange.

We’re being told to shelter in place.  Wherever you are now, I wish that for you: that you may find shelter there, in your home, in your town, in your families, in your bodies.

Be safe, everyone.

"We are not built for this."

Once again, in the face of unthinkable tragedy – this time much closer to home than any of us here in Boston would like – Mark Morford says the thing I need to hear, and that I wanted to say myself.

I’ve asked here before how we humans are meant to deal with the tragedies that erupt around us every day, especially now that we hear about it instantly and relentlessly.  Increasingly, trauma happens to us not just when we are directly faced with a tragedy, but secondarily, when we are exposed to constant atrocities in our world.

Says Mark Morford:

We are not built for this. We are not designed, at our core, to be able to absorb, at a glance and a click, a tweet and a ruthless video feed, all the ills and horrors of the world, all at once, all manner of chaos and destruction in a nonstop bloody flood over which we are powerless to influence and impotent to stop.

So what do you do when something like this happens – as it seems to, increasingly, in recent times?

You gather in, hold tight, and take care of those close to you. As feeble as it sounds, as meek as you feel, this is the only way. This is also the best way. To help. To be a part. To avoid shutting down, hardening, adding more suspicion and mistrust to the world.

The outpouring of love and support not just locally but globally; the inspiring vision of marathoners completing the race, then continuing to run to hospitals to donate blood; the heroism of first responders, firefighters and others – it’s all made for one inspiring week in the face of tragedy.  And unlike the aftermath of 9/11, it feels like the first response here isn’t one of revenge, of hardening against whatever enemy emerges.  It feels like it may be, really this time, about banding together.

This is the most essential reminder of all, is it not? A handful of violent sociopaths will never match, much less defeat, the support and care of tens of millions. Those who wish harm and damage upon humanity will never outnumber those who enable, empower and heal. The odds are in our favor. They always are. This is why we are still alive. Maybe the only reason.

We are still here, supporting each other, enabling, empowering and healing.  My wish for all reading this is that you might find it in yourself to stay open during this time, to reach out to others, to bring caring and love to those who need it, and to not shut down, grow hard, let this event – the onslaught of events – close you off to humanity.

And anyway, as Stephen Colbert reminds us: we’re tougher than that.

“We are not built for this.”

Once again, in the face of unthinkable tragedy – this time much closer to home than any of us here in Boston would like – Mark Morford says the thing I need to hear, and that I wanted to say myself.

I’ve asked here before how we humans are meant to deal with the tragedies that erupt around us every day, especially now that we hear about it instantly and relentlessly.  Increasingly, trauma happens to us not just when we are directly faced with a tragedy, but secondarily, when we are exposed to constant atrocities in our world.

Says Mark Morford:

We are not built for this. We are not designed, at our core, to be able to absorb, at a glance and a click, a tweet and a ruthless video feed, all the ills and horrors of the world, all at once, all manner of chaos and destruction in a nonstop bloody flood over which we are powerless to influence and impotent to stop.

So what do you do when something like this happens – as it seems to, increasingly, in recent times?

You gather in, hold tight, and take care of those close to you. As feeble as it sounds, as meek as you feel, this is the only way. This is also the best way. To help. To be a part. To avoid shutting down, hardening, adding more suspicion and mistrust to the world.

The outpouring of love and support not just locally but globally; the inspiring vision of marathoners completing the race, then continuing to run to hospitals to donate blood; the heroism of first responders, firefighters and others – it’s all made for one inspiring week in the face of tragedy.  And unlike the aftermath of 9/11, it feels like the first response here isn’t one of revenge, of hardening against whatever enemy emerges.  It feels like it may be, really this time, about banding together.

This is the most essential reminder of all, is it not? A handful of violent sociopaths will never match, much less defeat, the support and care of tens of millions. Those who wish harm and damage upon humanity will never outnumber those who enable, empower and heal. The odds are in our favor. They always are. This is why we are still alive. Maybe the only reason.

We are still here, supporting each other, enabling, empowering and healing.  My wish for all reading this is that you might find it in yourself to stay open during this time, to reach out to others, to bring caring and love to those who need it, and to not shut down, grow hard, let this event – the onslaught of events – close you off to humanity.

And anyway, as Stephen Colbert reminds us: we’re tougher than that.

How our brains and bodies work together to create empathy


Photo by Fer Kazalz

Two new studies in neuroscience, revealed at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience earlier this month, show the ways our bodies respond to and mirror other people’s emotional states.

I’ve written a bit here about empathy and emotional mirroring, and how powerful our bodies can be at not just recognizing but assuming another’s emotional state.  The two studies in the above article both looked at how our brains and bodies work together to make our emotional perceptions more accurate and intense.

The second study was of greatest interest to me in Rubenfeld Synergy terms.  It turns out that there’s a part of our brain that’s responsible for empathic mirroring in the body: the somatosensory cortex.  This bit of our brains helps our bodies perceive touch, pain, temperature changes, and proprioceptive sensations – like knowing where our bodies are in space.  It has also been found that it responds when we see faces that are registering an emotion – such as fear, which was the expression used in this study.  When we see a face that appears fearful, our somatosensory cortex sends empathy-signals to the body: basically telling it to have physiological responses that mirror the fear in another human’s face.

“In order to understand other people’s emotions,” said Dr. Alejandra Sel, the lead on the study, “we need to experience the same observed emotions in our body. Specifically, observing an emotional face, as opposed to a neutral face, is associated with an increased activity in the somatosensory cortex as if we were expressing and experiencing our own emotions” [emphasis mine].

The study sought to discover whether this part of our brain responds independently of visual processing, and found that indeed, this part of us works on its own to help us understand others’ emotions.  Most interesting to me here, though, is the explanation of how the somatosensory cortex is involved not just in sending signals to the body, but receiving signals from it and helping us to synthesize that information. While the primary part of this cortex receives signals directly from the body, the secondary part “combines sensory information from the body with information related to body movement and other information, such as memories of previous, sensitive experiences.”

This, to me, says a lot about emotional and traumatic “triggers”: when we see someone else apparently experiencing fear or pain, not only do our bodies echo that fear and pain, but our bodymind assembles memories and sensations to fill out the experience. Depending on our individual histories, this process may open us to intense empathy, or may trigger a trauma response that causes us to shut down and dissociate.

From a Synergy perspective, I want to emphasize yet again how powerful and critical our bodies are in determining and shifting our emotional states.  Focusing on another’s pain can cause us to feel that pain just as acutely; by the same token, focusing on our own bodily sensations can both clarify our own emotions to ourselves, and give us the means to change our emotional state if we so desire.  One of the many benefits of RSM is that it teaches us how to become aware of our emotional states, fully experience them in our bodies, and have the tools to move beyond them.

The more we add to our understanding of how our brains – which are, after all, part of our bodies! – interact with the rest of our bodies, the more we can come into our self-sovereignty: not dominion over our emotions, but an aligned understanding of where our emotions, sensations, and thoughts are coming from, and how to bring them into agreement.  When we can do that, navigating the world becomes a lot easier.

Read the article on the studies here; make an appointment with me here.

What are you reading?

ImageFolks, I want to start engaging the blogosphere more, but I tend to find the search for what I’m looking for difficult and disappointing.  Which brings me to two subtly different yet related questions:

1. How do you go about finding blogs you love to read, engage with, and signal boost, based on your interests?

2. If you had a blog like mine, what search terms might you be using, either in blog-finding or Google-send-me-articles finding, to get the kind of material that’s worth looking at?

Thanks, all!  I’m off for the weekend on a little getaway, in which I will attempt to climb Mount Washington.  I’m hoping I can listen to my body well enough to know whether I’m capable of it or not!  Wish me luck.

The Classic Sequence: First Touch at the Head

As promised, I’m beginning my series on the Classic Sequence of moves in a Rubenfeld Synergy session.  The first move is a gentle touch at the head, and in this post I’ll describe the quality of that touch, the reasons we do it, and what we’re attempting to determine from it.

A word on the first touch, to begin.  The first time a Synergist lays hands on a client is, of course, a moment that requires tremendous awareness of boundaries and a previous establishment of trust.  Even when I’ve been seeing a client for a long time, I will still always ask before the first touch.  Especially for clients who have experienced significant trauma, it is critical that the client have their safety continually reinforced, and part of this is placing the control of the session in their hands.  It may seem like overkill to some, but I’ve watched master Synergists repeatedly ask a demo client whether they may touch them, throughout the session – and I’ve watched the client visibly relax and appreciate the constant reaffirmation of consent.

The head, too, is a very intimate place to touch.  My hairdresser confided to me once that he felt that the reason people tend to talk so intimately with their hairdressers is because of the intimate contact with the head and neck, which rapidly evaporates a certain social barrier in a safe, understood way.  In RSM, it’s important to recall that many people coming into it aren’t familiar with how things are done, and so the extra time to adjust and extra requests for consent become extra important.

Once consent is established, the Synergist very gently approaches the client (who is lying face-up on the table), and places the fingertips of both hands at the base of the client’s skull.  The placement is right where the head meets the neck, called the occipital ridge.  This area is rich in nerves which connect to all points of the body.  For this reason, it is both a place that massage therapists and other bodyworkers address frequently, and a place where martial artists strike to cause immediate blackouts.  Point is, it’s a vulnerable spot, and a gentle touch there tends to “wake up” the nervous system.

The purpose of this touch is a kind of “saying hello” to the person; the goal is not to hang out there for a long time, but rather to establish contact, get a sense of what the person is experiencing as you make that contact, and then move on.  I personally find that this initial touch, for me, serves to either reinforce or establish what is going on with the client overall in this moment.  If a client is in a state of numbness, this touch may confirm for the Synergist that the client is feeling “nothing.”  If a client is relaxed, the touch will likely intensify that sensation as well as make the client more aware of it.  If a client is nervous, this touch may increase that sense of alert; sometimes, if I feel a client is fearful, I will go straight to the feet first, rather than the head, about which more later.

The point is, we are saying hello and touching people where most of them literally  live: in their heads.  The head is where many Westerners locate their sense of self, and beginning here honors this reality even as we are ultimately working to get clients to live from their whole bodies.

Next: the head roll.

"We are missing the experience of our own being."

I had a great article passed along to me today from the Sun, which I’ve since subscribed to.  Called “Out of Our Heads,” it is an interview between writer and filmmaker Amnon Buchbinder, and author Philip Shepherd, on his book New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the 21st Century.  Most key to my interests, though, is his extensive discussion of what’s been called our “second brain:” a complex, bundled network of neurons located in our digestive systems.

I highly recommend reading the entire interview, or at least the portion that is available to non-subscribers online.  It is absolutely game-changing, and even makes me feel like in my own work, I need to go beyond the principle of listening to the body to something even deeper.  But I will share some key quotations here without further comment.

“There is a good reason that we talk about ‘gut instinct.’ If cranial thinking sets us apart from the world, the thinking in the belly joins us to it. If the cranial brain believes itself surrounded by a knowable world that can be controlled, the brain in our belly is in touch with the world’s mystery.”

[Our cultural story] tells us that the head should be in charge, because it knows the answers, and the body is little more than a vehicle for transporting the head to its next engagement. It tells us that doing is the primary value, while being is secondary. It shapes our perceptions, actions, and experiences of life. It separates us from the sensations of the body and alienates us from the world. And there is no escaping this story; it’s embedded in our language, our architecture, our customs, and our hierarchies. It’s like the ocean, and we are like fish who swim in it and barely notice it because we’ve lived with it since infancy.

“Our culture doesn’t recognize that hub in the belly, and most of us don’t trust it enough to come to rest there….The best we can do is put our ear to the imaginary wall separating us from it and ‘listen to the body,’ a phrase that means well but actually keeps us in the head, gathering information from the outside. But the body is not outside. The body is you. We are missing the experience of our own being.

You cannot reason your way into being present. You cannot reason your way into love. You cannot reason your way into fulfillment. If you wish to be present, you need to submit to the present, and suddenly you find yourself at one with it.”

The precondition to sensitivity is stillness. In the same way that a pond on a still day will visibly register the smallest insect alighting on its surface, but on a windy day it won’t, our ability to feel the whole is directly proportional to our ability to become still within ourselves.”

Our bodies typically carry so much habitual and residual tension within them that our intelligence is confused by all that white noise. The tension is a result of emotions and ideas that haven’t been integrated. You get a certain abstract idea that seems right to you, but if you hold on to it too tightly, it will stand between you and your responsiveness to the world, disrupting the information coming to you through the body. It’s the same with emotions. To survive, we sometimes put our emotions on hold for decades before we’re strong enough to integrate them.

“Where there is no harmony, there will be stress and strife and tension. The tragedy of our culture is that we misunderstand harmony to mean order, because when you’re living in your head, order is all you can perceive. And the more you order things and systematize things and get them ‘right,’ the safer you feel. But harmony is the opposite of control: it’s an organic whole in which every part answers to every other part. That also describes the reality of the universe.”

“The more sensitive you are to the world around you, the more responsive you are. That ability to respond is the basis of responsibility.”

“A lot of those wonderful body-work practices still emphasize how important it is to ‘listen’ to the body. My work is not about ‘listening to the body.’ It’s about listening to the world through the body. Once you come to rest in the body, you come to rest in the wholeness that is the trembling world itself.”

“There’s a restless emptiness at our core, an emptiness that has obliterated our sense of ‘enough.’ Our relationship with our body is broken, but it is always the last thing we think about. We try to fix our lives or the world.”

Read the beginning of the article here, and get the free trial subscription to read the rest.