Halloween, Permission, and Being Something Else

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Halloween was always a thrilling time for me, both as a child and as an adult. It’s not that I was that into being scared; scary things were actually way too intense for me when I was little. And candy was nice, but given the weird scares of the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed to eat most of the candy I collected anyway. No: what really drew me was the opportunity to dress up and be someone different.

Costuming has always been powerful for me, especially as an actor. A different set of clothes, hair, makeup, shoes – it can all serve to change how you stand, walk, move, even think. The interaction between the body and the things we wrap it in is a source of constant fascination, changing our relationship to gender, age, place, season, cultural identity, time, and self.

If you think that’s a bit strong, think of how different you feel when you are sitting on the couch at home in your PJs, versus how you feel when you put on a suit, or dress up for church, or go out dancing on a Saturday night, or go to visit an elderly parent, or prepare to work on your car, or go hiking. If you’ve ever worn period clothing, you know how much a corset, or a loose tunic or robe, or a frock coat, or a flapper dress, can change how you stand, move, bend and carry yourself. Cross-dressing or deliberately queering gender through clothing has an effect on the wearer, as well as an effect on the viewer, depending on the culture in which it is done, the level of tolerance of the people involved, and the context. Today, a guy in my office won the costume contest dressed as Princess Leia – not, I think, because he looked silly, but because he looked so good without hiding any of his masculinity, and pulled it off proudly. Were he to show up dressed similarly on any other day, the context would have shifted, and the office would have a different response.

While it may be true that our “true selves” are inside us, what we express outwardly both reflects that internal state, and can shift it in minor and major ways. Halloween and other events like it – Carnival in various parts of the world, Purim in Judaism, and so on – offer people a chance to be something they are not, without any real consequences. As a result, it can offer a rare opportunity for people to explore something that they would like to be, or would like to play with being.

Even if you don’t go out to parties, or trick or treating, take some time this holiday to mess around with your outward appearance. What happens to your state of mind and the feeling in your body when you wear something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear? What becomes possible that wasn’t before?

The power of instinct

I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr

I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr.

Instinct. It’s a thing we tend to ignore a lot in our culture, preferring reasoned thought, logic, and thorough consideration. We “have a bad feeling” about someone we meet, but we give them a chance…and then another. We know what our gut is telling us about a situation, but we second-guess ourselves. We’ve been this way before and something is telling us that we should turn right here, but we follow Google maps instead and get lost.

Now granted, blind following of instinct or gut feeling is no better. Diving into unsafe situations without preparation because they seem like fun can get you injured or dead pretty quickly. Responding to physiological nervousness or fear even after it proves to be unfounded is classic anxiety. Following a hunch in spite of contrary evidence is what got us into the Iraq War.

But instinct is a valuable starting point for many investigations, experiences, and creative endeavors. The gut feeling is a literal thing, as it turns out, a sensation that comes from the complex nervous system of the gut. It is evolutionarily very old, and is our body’s way of telling us what seems good or bad, unsafe or comforting, exciting or frightening. We ignore such signals to our peril, and often, they can be powerful messengers.

I have found great value in following my instincts in Rubenfeld Synergy. But I had some practice long before, as part of theatrical training. Actors, when they are good, are often spoken of as having “good instincts” and making “strong choices.” These performers are open and flexible, taking what comes to them and making it into actions and characterizations that are compelling to watch.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, I have found that the most profound, helpful, and healing sessions and moments come about when I relax, get my feet under me, and follow my instincts. I’ll say what comes into my head (within reason), even if it doesn’t yet “make sense,” because I have already sensed it. Nine times out of ten, what comes to me ends up unlocking an “aha” for the client.

I worked recently with an actor in a Rubenfeld Synergy session, and I was having fun noticing the way her vocabulary and the way she experienced her body lined up with the way I worked. It was easy for her to feel and locate sensations, to access emotion through the body, and to feel subtle changes as they occurred.

After working on one side of her for a bit, I came to her opposite hip. For some reason, a silly German accent came into my head; I have been learning a bit of German recently and am planning a trip there soon. For no real reason other than that it was there, I said something like, “Und now ve come to dee right hip…vich for zome reason ist German…”

This moment of silliness opened up a whole line of inquiry for the client. “That’s my German side,” she said, after a little laugh. “The rule-follower.” And we were off and running on a thread about the division in herself, between the fun-loving, connected, relaxed and artistically free person, and the person with so many responsibilities that she sometimes feels like she’s holding on for dear life just to keep up the appearance of control.

This could have begun another way, but my choice to follow what seemed like a whimsical instinct to do a silly German accent was what helped that story emerge. And at the end of the session, the German – who developed a personality, a look, an entire image in her mind and body – was what she said she would take with her.

What might change for you if you paid attention to your gut feelings more often?

Great fun getting actors into their bodies at Theatre @ First

knight_of_burning_pestle_logoThe other night I had the opportunity to work with a large cast of actors in a crazy, little-known Elizabethan play called The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The play is a satire on Elizabethan theatre, written in the same time period. A couple of rowdy “audience members” interrupt the action constantly, insert their own apprentice as an actor into the proceedings, and in general spin the whole thing into chaos. It’s great fun.

Because the actors are all playing, well, actors, who are in turn playing broad stock characters, it’s a great opportunity to find larger-than-life physicality and use it to develop the character. I find that when you connect an actor to their breath, and then through their breath, to their bodies, the movement becomes very intuitive and clear – and the body connects to the voice, as well, creating the projection and voice you want.

We loosened up, moved all our joints around, found our feet under us. We walked around the room and moved our awareness to different parts of ourselves, seeing what it felt like to be pulled around by the head, chest, belly, hips, knees, toes. We explored gait: how far apart are the character’s feet? Do they walk heavily or lightly, on their toes or their heels, with big steps or little ones?

Then we put on some music and they walked around in the body-characters they’d found, stopping when the music stopped in a still posture that they could use when they were onstage and not moving. It was hilarious, and also helped them figure out how to be onstage: so much of acting is knowing what to do when you’re not doing anything.

I love working with actors and seeing them discover things, open up to possibilities, and stretch themselves. Getting them to connect with their bodies is such a rapid and excellent way to make it happen, too, and I love watching them light up as they get it.

If you want to work with me as an actor, check out my Body-Centered Performance Coaching page, and get in touch.

And go see Knight of the Burning Pestle at Theatre @ First in Somerville, April 23 – May 2!

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.

 

"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.

“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.

How Rubenfeld Synergy helped me work with actors

Back in 2009, I worked on a production of The Winter’s Tale that was my first full-length production in years.  I was 34 years old, and I found out two things that were amazingly helpful.  One was that I still had a sense of all the technical skills needed to do the job of directing: my training from undergrad days hadn’t left me, even though I hadn’t used it in a long time.  The other was that in the intervening time, I had learned a hell of a lot more than I knew when I was 21 about talking to people, working with emotions, establishing authority, and other adult stuff that I really think can only be learned with life experience.

What I didn’t expect would come in so handy was the fact that I was at that moment in my first year of RSM training.  When I entered rehearsals, I’d just finished up my third week-long intensive, and found that I had a ton to bring to actors.

Many actors are no doubt familiar with the idea of moving a ball of energy around in your body, and seeing what it feels like to walk around as if being pulled by that ball, placed at different body locations.  I.e., leading from your head, or your chest, or your pelvis, or your knees.  This wasn’t a new concept to me.  But in that training, we were also seeing what it was like to inhabit different parts of ourselves and try to listen to someone else tell a story.  And what happens when we embody the physical characteristics of our clients, and how much someone who doesn’t even know the client can learn about that client just by following us and walking in the same way.

More specifically: we did an exercise in which we paired up, then one of the pair told a story about something important to them, and the other listened.  The listener started by organizing ourselves in our shoulders – leading from them, holding energy in them.  It made me feel aggressive, forceful.  It made me lean forward in my chair, in the way that many people think “listening carefully” looks.  And two things happened: I couldn’t really hear what the other person was saying.  And the other person didn’t feel like I was listening.

When we instead organized from our hips – sat relaxed in our chairs, settled into our seats, had our feet on the ground – I felt at once more receptive.  I could not only clearly hear what the other person was saying, but was more interested in it.  She, responding, told her story more animatedly and with greater comfort.  A simple shift in body position – and all of the mental and emotional shifts that come with that – changed the entire interaction radically, and for the better.

In the other exercise, one of the pair adopted body postures of a practice client that they were seeing at home.  They would walk around the room, and the other half of the pair walked behind them and imitated what they did.  Then, the person in front – embodying the client – would call back to the other person, asking questions about his or her life.  Incredible revelations came with this.  One person spontaneously knew that their partner’s client’s father had recently died.  Many of us, while followers, answered questions in similar words to what our partners’ clients had said in sessions.  The body, we were learning over and over again, holds such deep truths that even just imitating someone third-hand, we can learn astounding things about their lives.

Needless to say, this was amazingly useful when I got to rehearsals.  The actor playing King Leontes figured out that the insanely jealous king leads from the head, and he found that it helped Leontes make more sense to him: why he doesn’t listen to his most trusted counselors, why he is so dedicated to his consuming idea, is because his heart is buried and his head is so far out in front he’s in danger of falling forward.  Just try and listen, to be receptive, to trust yourself or anyone, when you’re letting your forehead lead you like an arrow.

Hermione – the Queen – is pregnant at the start of the show, and the actress easily found herself leading with her belly.  The combination of pride and vulnerability that this brought to her physicality did more than just make her convincing as a pregnant woman: it allowed her first to blossom as the gentle and patient mother that the character is, and then to feel the full weight of the betrayal as it nearly literally punches her in the gut.

More than even most theatrical training, RSM has given me insights into how to shortcut emotional truth through physicality.  I watch some actors work so very hard to get themselves into an emotional state, and burn themselves out doing it.  What I’ve learned is that there are ways of accessing those feelings through simple body posture and movement.  It’s been an incredibly useful set of tools that I didn’t fully expect would be transferable, and I’m terribly grateful for it, especially now that I’ve gotten as interested as I have in movement-based theatre.

 

Out of my comfort zone

Last week was something of a process of getting out of my comfort zone and doing things I’d long wanted to, but never quite had the nerve.  In particular, I applied for a theatrical directing slot at a local respected theatre company, proposing a couple of really classic shows.

I write a bit about the arts here, particularly theatre, but I haven’t previously shared my background: I majored in theatre arts in my undergraduate years, and found my voice there much more as a director than as an actor.  After the end of my time there, I faced some discouragement, in particular a shakedown by a local artistic director at a theatre where I was applying for an internship.  She – seemingly deliberately – made me feel as if I were completely incompetent, and shouldn’t even bother pursuing directing, based on what she had observed of my work at the university level.

Now, being 21 at the time, I could only be crushed; I couldn’t have the perspective that hey, I was only 21, and if I had made some mistakes and not been utterly brilliant as a director at 20, perhaps some life experience and training would help with that.  I did go on to apply to a couple of directing MFAs, but I set myself up for defeat: I was 22, applying to Columbia and NYU and other top programs, and everybody basically said, “That’s very nice, dear, but what exactly have you done?”

It was ten years, a creative writing MFA and a totally different life later that I once again stepped into the director’s chair, and as soon as I did it, I remembered what was so wonderful about it, and why I should be doing it all the time.  Actors told me they wanted to work with me again; after I did The Winter’s Tale at Theatre@First, people kept telling me it was the best thing they’d ever seen there.

But the trauma of that college experience was still – is still – deep enough within me that it’s hard for me to believe that this is something I’m good at.  And the idea of moving from the small pond of my local community theatre into larger waters – other theatres in my area, or even local MFA programs! – is frightening, and makes me feel like an impostor.

But it finally dawned on me that I have nothing to lose by trying.  Last week: applied to some directing jobs.  Saturday: a trip to Amherst to check out their MFA program.  Today: a proposal for a staged reading.

It’s never too late to move forward.

Holiday ephemera

It’s Christmas Eve, and I thought I’d share a few of the things that make this time of year work for me.  True, these days I’m a practicing Pagan and celebrate Yule, which I did the other night with flame and food and reading and watching most of the night through for the sunrise.  But I was raised vaguely Catholic, not to mention generally American, and Christmas has always been a big part of my life whether I was celebrating the birth of Jesus or not.  (Mostly not.)

I try to be a deeply thinking person, with depth of feeling and a giving soul and all of that good stuff.  But it’s also true that I was brought up in the ’80s, and media has always suffused my holiday celebrations in a way that is indelible to my adult self.  Thus, I give you my Top Eight Shows, Movies and Music Without Which It is Simply Not Christmas.  Warning: this list is going to be extremely conventional.  Enjoy.

8. How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

I’m talking original, Boris Karloff stuff here, none of this Jim Carrey movie or whatever this godforsaken musical is.  2-D cartoon, Thurl Ravenscroft (true story! awesome name, right?) rumbling through “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes and making me cry.  Oh, yeah.

7. A Charlie Brown Christmas. 

Even if I don’t get a chance to watch the classic cartoon, with it’s still-supremely-odd real kids’ voices saying frightfully adult things, I always manage to give a listen or twelve to Vince Guaraldi’s fantastic jazz soundtrack.  The wistful “Christmastime Is Here” always bespeaks to me the complexity of trying to celebrate peace, light, and the spirit of giving in our anxious modern age.

6. George Winston’s December.

Some years ago I picked up this album by the minimalist piano composer, and have always loved his icy, contemplative take on a number of traditionals, plus a few originals of his own, which sparkle. I can’t listen to this without imagining ice-coated branches and the sound of boots crunching and creaking in fresh snow.

5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  

This Rankin-Bass classic stop-motion special is full of sexist language, weird violence, bad lip-matching and strange messages about conformity, not to mention one of the most annoying Christmas carols ever.  It’s AWESOME.

4. Frosty the Snowman.

Rudolph and Frosty were my big two back in the day. Sure, it was important to see the other specials, but if I missed these when they were on, it was all over. I cried every time Karen found Frosty as a melted puddle in the greenhouse. Plus, dude, Jimmy Durante.

3. It’s A Wonderful Life. 

I almost never see this movie in its entirety; it’s really long and front-loaded. But I almost always catch at least some of it this season. It truly is a fantastic movie, corny as it may seem. Thomas Garvey, my current favorite theatre reviewer, has a fantastic, fresh review of it here.

2. The Bishop’s Wife. 

Folks might not be familiar with this movie, which was remade maybe ten years ago as The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington.  The original, though, starred David Niven as an Anglican bishop, the radiant Loretta Young as his increasingly discontented wife, and Cary Grant as an extremely dapper and charming angel.  This movie is so splendidly corny and wonderful, and everyone looks so luminous.  It’s really a must.

1. Alastair Sim’s Scrooge (1951).  

There have been countless adaptations of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, but for my money none of them matches this sublime effort by Alastair Sim, who with goggle-eyed specificity makes both a perfect pinched, cruel old man, and the most delightful, fleet-footed redeemed Ebeneezer you ever saw.

Whatever you celebrate, enjoy your holidays, everyone!

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.