Power In Your Hands

“I don’t need to describe what relaxation is like. I’m in it, right now.”
-A client, near the end of a session

The other day, a client I’ve been seeing for some months came in after a bit of an absence and, after lying on the table for a couple minutes, described the sensations of her body. She noted that her legs, in particular, felt very sunk into the table, and, she thought, “fairly relaxed.” The last phrase had some uncertainty to it, the ending going up, like a question.

Touching her feet and moving her legs a little in what we Synergists sometimes call the “windshield wiper” move, I noted that her legs hardly moved at all, and felt heavy and stiff to me. “Relaxed” wasn’t a word that came to my mind, and in a moment, the client herself withdrew it, noting that in fact her legs felt tired, resistant, and wary. As I moved to her knee and we brought some more attention to her feet and legs, she noticed tension starting to gather in her hips and upper legs. She felt as if her legs were reluctant to reveal more, that being vulnerable was too risky. Yet she longed to let go of whatever she was carrying, or at least, not to carry it alone.

The way we use language to talk about bodymind states is fascinating, and one of the thorniest paradoxes I’ve found is the apparent dichotomy of attention and relaxation. So often in sessions, when people bring attention to a place, they also bring tension. The body speaks its own, impressionistic language, and many bodies seem to respond to the fact that the words sound alike. It doesn’t help, either, that the word “attention” has so much baggage in our culture. Soldiers and servants are meant to stand at attention: that is, stiffly, formally, awaiting orders from some outside authority. Children are constantly being told to pay attention, and that idiom doesn’t end with childhood: as adults learn what it means to pay for things, attention becomes another form of rare currency, not to be spent lightly. When I was growing up in the ‘80s, we “the MTV generation” were forever being told that we had short attention spans; today, the subsequent rise in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder – and the attendant overprescription of medication – remind us again and again that attention is in short supply, and moreover, that paying attention is difficult, tedious, and anything but relaxing. Attention and tension become almost synonymous.

Relaxation, meanwhile, is a word that evokes a total lack of tension – and further, a lack of attention. Attention, we believe, takes a lot of work. Relaxation, therefore, is about lying inert on a beach, or sinking into a hot tub, or “vegging out” in front of the TV or a video game. We even use the word vacation when talking about taking time off of work, as if we were going to vacate our minds and bodies altogether in favor of some mysterious state where no tension – or attention – is required. (It is an interesting side note that these vacations often wind up being more stressful and non-renewing to our spirits than we expect.)

But a curious thing happened to during my session with this client – a thing I’ve seen happen with clients repeatedly. By the end of the session, as she kept bringing her attention – her awareness – to parts of herself she had been neglecting, she began to feel more relaxed. Her legs began to move much more freely, and her feet, rather than being splayed out to the sides, were much more upright – at attention – than they had been. Near the end of the session, she noted that her body – especially her lower body, where we had spent more time – felt much more alert and awake than it had at the beginning, and much more relaxed – genuinely relaxed – than it had been when we started. She felt relaxed, alert but not on guard, grounded, enlivened, and like the outside world wasn’t nearly so overwhelming as it had been.

I’m going encapsulate and boil down this idea, because it struck me and continues to strike me as very important: Attention and relaxation are not opposites. In fact, I might go so far as to say that true relaxation and attention require each other. Relaxation is not vacation. Relaxation is attention without tension.

One of the wonderful things Rubenfeld Synergy does for people is help them to pay close, loving attention to themselves, in a way that people often don’t have time, energy, or, frankly, inclincation to do. There are many things at play here, culturally: the separation of mind and body, the Judeo-Christian valuation of spirit over flesh, a Protestant urge to not be “self-indulgent,” a mass media culture that pushes us to punish ourselves in order to be the best. Whatever the web of causes, there isn’t a lot of space in this modern world for people to just sit or lie down and really pay attention to their bodies. But when they do, the surprising result is often a sense of enlivened peace, relaxed attention. A sense of being here, awake to the fact that we are, in fact, our bodies.

And this state, this grounded, relaxed alertness, is what true attention feels like. When it is available, it is much harder for anxiety and overwhelm to take over. Outside circumstances seem more manageable. One is allied with one’s body, instead of treating it as an ornery, unwelcome intrusion, a vehicle to get you from here to there, whose aches and pains you ignore and push through. And this alliance, this state of having body, mind, emotions and spirit all in one place, keeps us in touch with the resources we need to get through the struggles of our lives – and to fully appreciate the joys.

catalog-coverI’ve said quite a bit about gratitude in this space in the past, but this year I want to let someone say it better than I could. This week on NPR, I heard a review of a new book by poet Ross Gay, called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. His description of the book really says it all:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. That is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.

The titular poem, published in Waxwing to be read for free, oh glory, made me cry (several times) upon reading it. I invite you to give yourself ten minutes – it is a long poem, and Gay repeatedly thanks the reader “for hanging tight, dear friend. / I know I can be long winded sometimes” – and enjoy the ways in which he repeatedly makes the specific universal, opens the lovely limitless chest of nature and lets the treasures of that chest, that heart, pour forth.

Below is the entire poem, or you can read it here. Happy Thanksgiving, all, and thank you, thank you, thank you.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
Friends, will you bear with me today,
for I have awakened
from a dream in which a robin
made with its shabby wings a kind of veil
behind which it shimmied and stomped something from the south
of Spain, its breast a’flare,
looking me dead in the eye
from the branch that grew into my window,
coochie-cooing my chin,
the bird shuffling its little talons left, then right,
while the leaves bristled
against the plaster wall, two of them drifting
onto my blanket while the bird
opened and closed its wings like a matador
giving up on murder,
jutting its beak, turning a circle,
and flashing, again,
the ruddy bombast of its breast
by which I knew upon waking
it was telling me
in no uncertain terms
to bellow forth the tubas and sousaphones,
the whole rusty brass band of gratitude
not quite dormant in my belly —
it said so in a human voice,
“Bellow forth” —
and who among us could ignore such odd
and precise counsel?


prisonI had the pleasure recently of listening to Invisibilia, the relatively new podcast that spun off from Radiolab with Lulu Miller. The first episode concerns thoughts – one of the many invisible forces that powerfully influence our lives.

The second story in the podcast follows a very bright young man named Martin, who, at 12, suddenly fell ill with meningitis. It completely paralyzed and debilitated him, and left him in a vegetative state for about two years.

But after that time, he emerged from it, fully conscious, intelligent and aware…only to find that he could not move his body at all.

This, of course, ties into many of our worst nightmares: we are paralyzed during surgery, but conscious and cognizant of pain. Or we are trying to run from something, only to find our limbs feel like we’re trying to drag them through concrete. One of the most common fears – being buried alive – also comes to mind. You’re alive, conscious, living, breathing, and in full possession of your faculties. But you’re completely and utterly powerless to change your position, or communicate, or…anything.

In this state, the man in question thought endlessly about how pathetic, how helpless, he was. Until he chose to begin ignoring these thoughts, to let them float away. At which point he became detached to the point where each day, he wished to die. “It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish,” says Martin, who now communicates through a computer much like Stephen Hawking’s. “Days, if not weeks, can go by as I close myself down and become entirely black within – a nothingness that is washed and fed, lifted from wheelchair to bed.”

But the remarkable thing about this story was that, shortly before he began to restore some functionality, he chose to return to engaging his thoughts, to draw attention to them, to wrestle with the darker thoughts as they came up. He began focusing on the few things he could control, like teaching himself to tell time by the shadows as they moved through the room. And over time, through many neurological developments, he began to regain some small amounts of movement – the ability to squeeze a hand, or hold himself upright in his chair. It was one nurse – a woman who believed that there was more going on inside than the doctors believed – who urged his parents to have him tested for intelligence.

Once he began to have the tools to communicate, he began to return – not just his mind, but his body as well. Not full functionality, but over several years and with a lot of physical therapy and training, the ability to have a job, to fix computers, to go to college. And, recently, he got married, and is planning on learning to drive.

Listening to this story, I teared up, remembering a story on Radiolab with a similar theme that blew me apart when I listened to it the first time. Here were two examples of people who had been abandoned, left for dead, treated like a houseplant that needs regular feeding and watering and maintenance, but has no way of letting the world outside know what is going on inside. Until through some combination of love and hope from the outside, and hard work linking the mind and the body back together on the inside, the person emerges again.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we so often work with the body as an access point to the emotions and spirit, as a way to let the mind light upon associations and make sense of life. Here, though, is a way in from the other side: using the mind and its capacity for deep attention to restore function to the body, and indeed, restore a person to life.

Listen to the whole thing here.

succulentI wanted to take a moment this week to that Janet Kessenich and Carolyn Romano at the Boston Theosophical Society again for asking me in to do their Day of Healing and Insight last Saturday! I got to put my hands on some people, help them listen to themselves, bring some relaxation and calm, and help most of them tune in to what’s really important for them right now.

It’s always interesting to do short sessions like that (these were 25 minutes start to finish). I feel like I had a better time containing them this time than I did a couple years ago when I did the summer event. Part of that was due to the help of my mentor Joan Brooks, who gave me great ideas for making RSM effective in such a brief window: focus it on one question the client is coming in with. Keep bringing it back to the body. Have them notice how they feel when they get on the table and how they feel before they get up. Ask them how the feelings they are having will help them in their lives.

It was useful and powerful, and I’m pleased that I had the opportunity. I hope that more folks will go and check out their events.

When I was about 17 years old, I remember getting sunburned on my face. I particularly hurt on the skin around and under my eyes, but being out with family at the pool in the complex where my grandmother lived, I needed to hang out for a bit longer. I was reading a book – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as I recall – and was having a hell of a time concentrating on it. But lying face down on a beach chair, I began a chant inside my head. It doesn’t hurt, I kept thinking. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.

I remember my astonishment when I realized, a few minutes later, that in fact it didn’t. I returned to my reading and, as I recall, the pain did not return.

People have been using the expression “mind over matter” for ages, but research is coming around more and more to the idea that this process is quite literal. A recent article in the Daily Mail sensationalizes it somewhat (it is, after all, in the Daily Mail), but the implications are clear: with practice, we can rewire our brains to ignore pain, so that it does not become or stay chronic.

One of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, as the ability of the brain to change and adapt is called, is that neurons that fire together, wire together. It is by this mechanism – the brain making associations, sometimes between seemingly unrelated things – that habits form, thought patterns become ingrained, some sexual proclivities develop, and trauma keeps hold of us over time.

With pain, the grooves in the brain can become very deep. “The role of acute pain is to alert us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain,” says Dr. Norman Doidge in the article. “But sometimes an injury affects the body and the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. As acute pain continues, these neurons become hypersensitive, firing more easily with less stimulation.” Opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone can increase this effect over time, driving the neurological grooves deeper until even a small stimulus can trigger pain, even in areas of the body that weren’t directly affected by the injury.

Another doctor who studied this phenomenon after his own severe injury, pain specialist Michael Moskowitz, “realised that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they are not processing pain, that is.

This explains why, when we’re in pain, we can’t concentrate, tolerate certain sounds or light, or control our emotions well, because areas that regulate these activities have been hijacked to process the pain signal.

Working from the knowledge that two parts of the brain process both pain signals and visual signals, he developed a way of using visualization to overcome the pain when it arose. Focusing on an image of his own brain in pain, he then imagined the areas of pain getting smaller and smaller. By repeatedly telling the brain to process this visual image rather than focusing on the pain itself, he achieved a reduction of pain in 3 weeks, a major reduction in 6, and a near-pain-free existence after a year.

These findings, which he has begun putting into practice for patients for several years with surprising success, dovetail with the work that Synergists and other bodymind therapists have been doing for some time. Because awareness is the first key to change, getting clients to focus on different parts of their bodies, on their pain, on their emotion, or on whatever is happening inside them and describe it in detail can help the client regain some control over bodily responses to stimuli. By observing our state in detail, we can then take action to change that state.

I’m again remembering a certain demo session that Ilana Rubenfeld ran in our training, with a classmate who had been in a serious car accident more than 20 years ago, and sometimes still had pain from it. In that session, she helped him rewrite the memory: starting the process of rewiring the part of his brain that had built a groove around that event, a groove that kept saying remember, and helping him to remember it differently, to tell the brain that in fact it had been a near miss, to let those pain signals stop firing at last. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

Image courtesy of Mme Scherzo

I was taken with David Kanigan’s post the other day, quoting Florida Scott-Maxwell on aging, and including this beautiful photograph of I-know-not-whom, but surely one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen of any age.

I include the entirely of the quotation he included here, because it is worthwhile:

Age is truly a time of heroic helplessness. One is confronted by one’s own incorrigibility. I am always saying to myself, “Look at you, and after a lifetime of trying.” I still have the vices that I have known and struggled with— well it seems like since birth. Many of them are modified, but not much. I can neither order nor command the hubbub of my mind. Or is it my nervous sensibility? This is not the effect of age; age only defines one’s boundaries. Life has changed me greatly, it has improved me greatly, but it has also left me practically the same. I cannot spell, I am over critical, egocentric and vulnerable. I cannot be simple. In my effort to be clear I become complicated. I know my faults so well that I pay them small heed. They are stronger than I am. They are me.

~ Florida Scott-Maxwell, Measure of My Days 

As I crest 40, and go through massive changes in my own life and subtler ones in my own body, I consider what it means to age.  I came across another quotation I loved just the other day, from my man Carl Jung: “Life really does begin at forty. Up until then you are just doing research.”  As I see my first wrinkles, my first grey hairs start to set up shop in the streets of my skin, I consider what my research has led me to thus far.  Research slowly becomes knowledge, but it seems to take much of a lifetime.  And as Maxwell says, over time, those things we know – and perhaps dislike – most about ourselves can become what defines us, even as experience leads us to better choices and more settled lives.

I am overly sensitive and at times gullible (one of my loved ones is kind enough to call it “credulous”). I cannot resist a good argument. I love to sleep and enjoy wine. I cannot express things in an uncomplicated way (In my effort to be clear I become complicated).  I would always rather be doing something creative and different, at times to the foolish exclusion of the mundane. I am in love with love.

What are the faults which define you?  How can you grow to love them more?


Scott Allen Jarrett, center, with some of the residents of Compass in Hopkinton

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to do something wonderful with the Back Bay Chorale – a great volunteer chorus I’ve talked about here in the past.  Under the auspices of their new Bridges program, we have been visiting nursing homes and assisted living facilities in small groups, singing well-known songs to seniors in all stages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Our foray this weekend was to Hopkinton, where 15 of us sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Ave Verum Corpus,” standards like “Moonglow” and “All the Things You Are,” and a sing-along medley of The Sound of Music.  The audience consisted of a cohort of Alzheimer’s patients – this was the first facility we’ve gone to that was entirely a locked Alzheimer’s unit – and an energetic, positive staff.

Our mini-chorus

Our mini-chorus

One sharp old character – a former professor at BU whom the director addressed as “Doctor” – kept asking to see the words of the songs so he could better sing along.  One woman in the front row kept saying “wonderful,” and sang along to the standards, knowing every word.  Others were less responsive, but one woman simply opened her mouth and sang.

The response we received reminded me powerfully of a video I shared in another post, in which an almost entirely unresponsive man is brought to sudden lucidity by listening to a familiar song.  Aw heck, it’s so good, here it is again:

I keep being floored by the effect that music can have on the brains and hearts of people who are watching their lives and memories fade.  After we sang one of the jazz standards, one woman exclaimed, “That takes me back, oh, about 25 years!”  The brightness that came into these people’s eyes, the clarity, was at moments stunning.

I’m looking forward to more of this, and more research on how music can help restore, even temporarily, a person’s sense of self, time, and place.

Not what’s going on here.

One of the main dangers, of course, of working with sexuality is that some people – in fact, many people – will try to take advantage of you.  There is a tricky line to be walked between being open about the topic – and at times the presence – of sexuality in a healing context; and engaging the client in a sexual experience.  That is: a client may call me or come to me to talk about issues of sexuality, sexual identity, fetishes, or whatever, and in the course of discussion, the client might become aroused.  As I’ve previously written, said arousal can be acknowledged, accepted, and some of the shame and embarrassment thereby lessened for the client.  In other instances, the arousal can even be followed, through exploration of imagery and body sensation, to information about what is troubling the client.  However, it also sometimes happens that a client is looking to engage a therapist or other practitioner in a fantasy scenario, and is inappropriately using the therapeutic context to do so.  Naturally, avoiding this becomes more difficult when you’ve chosen to work with sexuality directly.

I’ve been lucky enough to attract many respectful and kind clients with issues around sexuality who have finally found someone to talk to, and who are on a journey of figuring out who they are and what they want through their bodies.  Some, though, whether because of deep disturbance or just an inflated sense of entitlement or hostility, will attempt to engage my services but then demonstrate that they’re just out to “get off.”

This happens with especial frequency online in chat or on the phone, where, without the body language and other signals that are readily available in person, a prospective client can easily either mistake my sexual openness for a willingness to engage sexually, or take advantage of and abuse it for his own amusement or spite.  It is a sad commentary on how screwed up our culture is about sex that there are people who feel the need to do this, or who are damaged enough that the slightest opening has them jumping in without discussion or consent.

Luckily, with a little practice it becomes fairly easy to recognize these types.  Working intuitively within Rubenfeld Synergy for so long, I’ve grown to trust my body’s signals and can tell pretty quickly when, say, someone is masturbating on the phone, or when, in email, someone is not self-aware enough to be seeking treatment rather than thrills.

Unfortunately, working with sexuality tends to come with this side effect, and figuring out where my boundaries are and holding to them is even more critical than it might be if I chose not to work with this topic.  However, in a way working this openly has an advantage, in that those who might take advantage of any therapeutic situation tend to be revealed more quickly.  After all, issues of transference and counter-transference can often cause unresolved sexual tensions between therapists and clients of all kinds.  Being a healer who works with sexuality means that such issues can be raised and addressed more directly, and generally more quickly.

In a future post, I will talk about boundary-setting in this type of work.

By chance on BBC this morning, I caught a story about the fact that today is World Listening Day, as established by the World Listening Project.  Given that the work I do has a strong basis in listening, and that in fact Ilana Rubenfeld’s book is called The Listening Hand…well, my ears perked up, so to speak.

The World Listening Project is interested in acoustic ecology: not so much the visual features of a place (the landscape), but the auditory ones – the soundscape.  This is fascinating to me, as I have always been very sensitive to noises, aware of sounds, and attuned to music.  In the BBC piece, they mentioned how the 6-year-old son of the founder of the group is doing a comparative project on electric hand dryers – that’s right, the things you find in public restrooms – and how loud they are.  I was thrilled and vindicated to hear them mention that small children are often terrified by the sound of these dryers: as a child, I was sent into hysterics regularly by hand dryers, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners.

So today is a day for focusing on the sounds around you, and exploring their effects.

What’s with me as I think about this is how sound and touch are related: the way sounds literally touch us, vibrate our cells and shift our emotional states.  (I’m not even being woo-woo here: click the link!)  Today is a day in which I will, amidst the hectic pace of my day, pay attention to how sounds enter my consciousness, how music shifts my emotions, how the constant white noise of the air conditioner soothes, how the little alert noises my computer and phone make raise my blood pressure.  It’s also a great way of cultivating attention.

Try it now.  Stop, close your eyes, and listen to what’s around you.  What do you notice?