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?

Owning yourself fully: Bessel van der Kolk and healing trauma through the body

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.

-Bessel van der Kolk

In the course of thinking about Rubenfeld Synergy Method in the context of trauma, I’ve been looking at the marvelous Bessel van der Kolk, known by many in the area as the head of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. Krista Tippett interviewed him for On Being late last year, and the result is a remarkable look into the man’s life, work, and personality. He has been working with trauma since his time with Vietnam veterans at a VA hospital during his training as a psychiatrist. It was there that he first became fascinated with the idea what trauma is and what it does for us: a soldier refused to take the drugs prescribed for nightmares, because to him, the nightmares were a way of keeping the memory of his friends alive.

His recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, is being cited more and more in the healing circles I travel in. It is an exploration of a lifetime working with people who have become living memorials in some way: their bodies unchanging testaments of traumatic events. Trauma, he says, happens when the mind is unable to synthesize a narrative about what has happened, and the events get “stuck” in the body, replaying themselves. Even Darwin, as early as 1872, wrote “how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.”

I have seen this phenomenon in my practice, where clients often cannot feel what is happening in their bodies, or are unaware of what their bodies are doing, or they “leave the room,” in essence, dissociating whenever their awareness is called to their bodies. The experiences that they have had there are too intense to be repeatedly endured, and they have found ways to disconnect from their somatic experience. And so the process of addressing trauma somatically starts with helping people reconnect with their bodies in ways that can begin to feel safe.

van der Kolk has worked with yoga, eye movement therapy, and other somatic practices to help people return to their bodies. “It was very striking in our yoga study,” he says, “even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.” In his work, as in Rubenfeld Synergy, van der Kolk has found that “something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.” It can take a while to help someone reconnect with their own breath, to have a sense of their skin and bones and muscles, to have a relationship to their own sensations and emotions that is not simply another way of triggering the trauma. But the research is clearer and clearer that returning people to their bodies is a clear route out of the cycle.

One of my favorite bits of the interview was about stress hormones and their value, and how what really prevents overwhelming experiences from becoming trauma is movement:

“The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations…What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system.

But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active and they like to help and they like to do things and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.”

This links back to a post I wrote years ago that continues to be popular, about trauma and streaming. When action is possible in a moment of crisis, it is less likely to become “stuck.” But when trauma is repeated, or when movement or action isn’t safe, then the event or events can become “frozen” in the body, stuck in a repeat loop until we can return a sense of safety to the body, and a sense of consciousness to the ongoing experience of being embodied.

Except for a small number of practitioners, the connection between trauma and the body is a minority voice in psychology. Luckily, it is expanding, but it has taken some time. I am hoping to connect with Dr. van der Kolk and the Trauma Center soon to talk about how Rubenfeld Synergy can contribute to this process of healing from trauma. For now, I recommend listening to the whole interview here , or reading the transcript here.

What was taken from you? Where do we get it back?

I went to the INARS conference this past week, and I’ve taken away so many learnings that I don’t know where to begin. But I was inspired today when I walked into a cafe for lunch and heard a song.

If you were conscious during the early ’90s, you undoubtedly know this song. It starts with the repeated words: “In the middle of the – I go walking in the – In the middle of the – I go walking in the – ”

Are we there? Yeah. The song is Billy Joel’s mega-hit from 1993, “River of Dreams.” Now, before I left for the conference, I hadn’t heard this song, or hadn’t paid attention to it, in years. But in a bar in Landsdowne Street with friends, having dinner before a They Might Be Giants concert with dear friends, I heard it, and my friend did too. We both started singing along together:

In the middle of the night (middle of the night)
I go walking in my sleep (walking in my sleep)
From the mountains of faith (mountains of faith)
To a river so deep (river so deep)…

We sang along and boogied from the bar to our tables and commented on how long it had been since we’d heard that song, and what a good song it was. I mumbled along to a lot of the faster lyrics, and we moved on to dinner.

Today, after therapy, after talking about everything I’d been through at the conference, I heard it again in the cafe: In the middle of the night…

And I stopped, because I was hearing words I’d never heard before.

And I’ve been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I would never lose
Something somebody stole

This weekend, we focused on soul: what feeds us, where we feel at home, how we connect to passion, to center, to power, to connection itself. As part of that, we talked about the thwarts to passion: what does your passion call you to do, and what gets our way?

An important learning from this was that most of the time, the thing thwarting us is not of us. We may have internalized it, sure, but it was something done to us. “Something taken out of my soul. Something I would never lose. Something somebody stole.” Or, something somebody put there, something that doesn’t belong, that we should never have been forced to carry.

One fellow Synergist felt the sense of the thwart so deeply that she was convinced it was all her, and said it felt like a bunch of heavy locks. Gently but with laser clarity as always, one of the program heads, Noel Wight, told her: Very few people put locks inside themselves, just naturally, on purpose. It’s possible that this Synergist was the one who put them there. But what drove that action? What was the message she received that told her: lock yourself away. You are too much to take. Your passion burns too hot. Be quiet. Keep it to yourself.

What was stolen from her? What was put in its place?

And how do we get those things back? How do we return to ourselves, to a place where our passion, our will, can flow freely?

The answer differs for each person, but it starts with the body. What movement is restricted now, as a result of that thwarting, that theft, that abuse, that grasping, that constant imposition? Whatever it was, what movement can we use to restore ourselves to ourselves?

Here’s an example: for me, it was space. I got the message repeatedly that I took up too much space: I was too big, my laugh was too loud, I ate too much, and I needed to follow the rules, keep my legs together, and be a lady. So is is any surprise that now my hips are tight, I squeeze my shoulders into their sockets, my ribs get compressed, and I can’t take a full breath?

The restoration of my width, my length, my breath, my available space – this is the work that I need to do to restore my connection to passion, my soul, my source, and my sense of direction: where I am going in my life, and who gets to decide?

When we turn to the body and seek the source of our tensions, our aches, our habitual movements that hold us back, we begin to see other possibilities for movement, other ways that we can be, move, and live.

Contact me if you want some help doing this for your own life.

Listening to your heart may be more literal than you think

A man in Brazil, having received a cardiac implant, found – not all that surprisingly – that his body image shifted: he had the odd feeling off having a heart in his belly rather than his chest. But rather more surprisingly, the introduction of the implant “seemed to have markedly altered certain social and emotional skills,” according to David Robson at BBC Future. The article that came out this week, “The mind-bending effects of feeling two hearts,” delves into recent research that shows that our hearts – and body-awareness in general – have a more profound effect on our emotional functioning than even the poets may have known.

A recent experiment asked participants to count their own heartbeats, without putting their hands over their hearts or having any other aid in perceiving them. About 1 in 4 people get something like 50% accuracy; some folks are not very good at perceiving what’s going on inside of them, as I have observed in my own practice. A few, though – also around 1-4 – can achieve an accuracy of 80%. This ability, incidentally, is called introception, a word I’ll definitely be adopting.

After this, the groups were asked to do a series of tests around emotional awareness. The results were astounding:

People with more bodily awareness tend have more intense reactions to emotive pictures and report being more greatly moved by them; they are also better at describing their feelings. Importantly, this sensitivity seems to extend to others’ feelings – they are better at recognising emotions in others’ faces – and they are also quicker to learn to avoid a threat, such as a small electric shock in the lab, perhaps because those more intense bodily feelings saturate their memories, making the aversion more visceral.

In another study aimed at looking at intuition, people who had a more accurate sense of their hearts followed their intuition more. They were asked to pick cards that would win them money if they matched the color of a card on the table. “The game was rigged so that you were slightly more likely to win from two of the decks, and lose if you picked from the other two. Dunn [the researcher] found that the people who could track their heartbeat with the most accuracy would tend to pick from certain decks, whereas those with poor interoception were more likely to choose at random.”

It is not so much that the hunches the more body-aware people followed were always right – quite the contrary. It is more than they tended to follow their hearts, as the saying goes, more often. People with increased body awareness are being found to have richer emotional awareness as well, resulting in a richer experience of life. And those with reduced bodily awareness – including those with certain neurological flaws in the connection between the body and the brain – can suffer everything from depression to depersonalization disorders.

Naturally all of this is exciting for someone who works primarily on helping people increase their body awareness. It is also no wonder that Rubenfeld Synergy can be so powerful: tuning in to the body’s sensations can unlock emotions that are lying dormant and allow them to flow when they have been trapped.

What happens when you listen to your heart?

5 Things Not to Do If You're Over 40

Image Copyright Brian Robertson

Last month, I hit the big 4-0. While I don’t go in much for chronological age meaning anything, there are tremendous cultural tropes around what it means to turn 20, to turn 30, to turn 40. 40 always seems more momentous, perhaps because, in this day and age when we are living longer and delaying things like marriage and child-rearing more and more, 40 is still an undeniable start of mid-life: fertility drops precipitously, you’re out of the coveted youth target demographic, and magazines start to tell you what you should and should not do at your advanced age.

I am undergoing a lot of changes around this milestone, personally and professionally, and it is definitely a journey. But my transition to 40 wouldn’t be complete without my giving you, my readers, some unsolicited advice in the form of a listicle.

5 Things Not to Do If You’re Over 40

1. Let other people tell you what you should and should not wear. Magazines and online lists love to tell “women over 35” or whatever (as if we were a monolith) what we should wear. Respectfully, I say: f— that. If you want to wear leopard capris and gladiator sandals, go for it. If you want to show off your cleavage, or wear skinny jeans, or bedeck your arms in a bunch of bangles, strut your stuff! If you like high-necked tops, if you feel best in your sweatpants, if you’re a guy who wants to wear skirts or a woman who wants to wear a suit, if you want to go out in the street looking like Bozo the Clown, it is absolutely none of my business, nor that of any media outlet. Wear what makes you feel awesome, no matter your age!

2. Hate your own body. Many of us spend our teen years, 20s, 30s, hell, our entire lives – hating their bodies. Turning 40 turned me on to a number of things, but one of them was letting go of the idea of perfection. This is my body. I live in it. The best I can do is take care of it, be kind to it, move it around a lot, and listen to its song. Cursing myself for having stretch marks (since I was 13!) or cellulite or too big a butt or too small breasts or whatever is a waste of time and emotional energy. With each passing year I keep getting stronger, more graceful, more aware of myself in space, and the more I love my body the more it gives back.

3. Lie about your age. Being forever 29 is not a virtue; it’s a way of buying into the dominant culture’s obsession with remaining young forever. It’s true that you are as young as you feel, and lying about your age doesn’t make you seem wiser for your years: it makes you seem shallow. Age, after all, is where we learn who we are, and what things about ourselves we can and cannot change. In this process we can refine our energies and choose what we spend our time on more wisely. I choose to spend more time being who I am, where and when I am.

4. Be a grown-up. 40 is an age where it’s easy to imagine that you should have learned everything by now, that you have no more growing to do, that you should Be An Adult, Dammit, And No More Screwing Around. While responsible adulthood is a good thing to aspire to, being 40 doesn’t mean you no longer get to play, learn, evolve, change your mind radically, or take up a new hobby or life-threatening sport. Behaving youthfully has been shown to actually keep you young, and a flexible, open mind and active body tend to be self-perpetuating.

5. Believe You Should Have Arrived By Now. Some people are late bloomers. My favorite example is Grandma Moses, who only started painting in earnest at age 78 and became an icon of American art. One of my major anxieties about hitting 40 is this notion that I Haven’t Done Anything Yet: I haven’t published a novel, or started a family, or Built a Career. (Notice all of these things in Initial Caps, and how seriously I take them. 🙂 But I’ve done many things that other people haven’t: run a small business, directed several plays, acted in several others, sung at Symphony Hall. I’ve had an adventurous life so far, and it’s been a winding path with no clear destination. It’s my belief that all lives are basically like that: there is no arrival. Wherever you go, there you are. 40 is a milestone, but not a millstone. Don’t worry about whether you’ve arrived. You’re still on the journey.

What things do you want to keep in mind as you get older?

 

5 Things Not to Do If You’re Over 40

Image Copyright Brian Robertson

Last month, I hit the big 4-0. While I don’t go in much for chronological age meaning anything, there are tremendous cultural tropes around what it means to turn 20, to turn 30, to turn 40. 40 always seems more momentous, perhaps because, in this day and age when we are living longer and delaying things like marriage and child-rearing more and more, 40 is still an undeniable start of mid-life: fertility drops precipitously, you’re out of the coveted youth target demographic, and magazines start to tell you what you should and should not do at your advanced age.

I am undergoing a lot of changes around this milestone, personally and professionally, and it is definitely a journey. But my transition to 40 wouldn’t be complete without my giving you, my readers, some unsolicited advice in the form of a listicle.

5 Things Not to Do If You’re Over 40

1. Let other people tell you what you should and should not wear. Magazines and online lists love to tell “women over 35” or whatever (as if we were a monolith) what we should wear. Respectfully, I say: f— that. If you want to wear leopard capris and gladiator sandals, go for it. If you want to show off your cleavage, or wear skinny jeans, or bedeck your arms in a bunch of bangles, strut your stuff! If you like high-necked tops, if you feel best in your sweatpants, if you’re a guy who wants to wear skirts or a woman who wants to wear a suit, if you want to go out in the street looking like Bozo the Clown, it is absolutely none of my business, nor that of any media outlet. Wear what makes you feel awesome, no matter your age!

2. Hate your own body. Many of us spend our teen years, 20s, 30s, hell, our entire lives – hating their bodies. Turning 40 turned me on to a number of things, but one of them was letting go of the idea of perfection. This is my body. I live in it. The best I can do is take care of it, be kind to it, move it around a lot, and listen to its song. Cursing myself for having stretch marks (since I was 13!) or cellulite or too big a butt or too small breasts or whatever is a waste of time and emotional energy. With each passing year I keep getting stronger, more graceful, more aware of myself in space, and the more I love my body the more it gives back.

3. Lie about your age. Being forever 29 is not a virtue; it’s a way of buying into the dominant culture’s obsession with remaining young forever. It’s true that you are as young as you feel, and lying about your age doesn’t make you seem wiser for your years: it makes you seem shallow. Age, after all, is where we learn who we are, and what things about ourselves we can and cannot change. In this process we can refine our energies and choose what we spend our time on more wisely. I choose to spend more time being who I am, where and when I am.

4. Be a grown-up. 40 is an age where it’s easy to imagine that you should have learned everything by now, that you have no more growing to do, that you should Be An Adult, Dammit, And No More Screwing Around. While responsible adulthood is a good thing to aspire to, being 40 doesn’t mean you no longer get to play, learn, evolve, change your mind radically, or take up a new hobby or life-threatening sport. Behaving youthfully has been shown to actually keep you young, and a flexible, open mind and active body tend to be self-perpetuating.

5. Believe You Should Have Arrived By Now. Some people are late bloomers. My favorite example is Grandma Moses, who only started painting in earnest at age 78 and became an icon of American art. One of my major anxieties about hitting 40 is this notion that I Haven’t Done Anything Yet: I haven’t published a novel, or started a family, or Built a Career. (Notice all of these things in Initial Caps, and how seriously I take them. 🙂 But I’ve done many things that other people haven’t: run a small business, directed several plays, acted in several others, sung at Symphony Hall. I’ve had an adventurous life so far, and it’s been a winding path with no clear destination. It’s my belief that all lives are basically like that: there is no arrival. Wherever you go, there you are. 40 is a milestone, but not a millstone. Don’t worry about whether you’ve arrived. You’re still on the journey.

What things do you want to keep in mind as you get older?

 

What if we could not waste one more moment hating our bodies?

Image by Andrea Perrish-Geyer

Image by Andrea Perrish-Geyer

A moving column in CNN last month revealed the thing that the dying often regret the most: all the time they spent hating their own bodies.

Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain, shared her experiences of talking with the dying. A 75-year-old woman dying of cancer just wants one more piece of caramel cake. But her diet, even in her last days, is being severely restricted.

‘Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends (told me), even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick.’

She looked up and this time tears trembled along her bottom eyelids.

‘But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?’

Even in this very article, the ironic click bait that comes in the midst of this statement is a linked line that says, “The link between fat and cancer.” It seems that nothing, not even an article explicitly about how we should appreciate our bodies more, can escape fat-shaming.

But Egan makes the read worth it.

What does it mean that so many voices out there insist that the body is something to despise because it is too fat, sinful, ugly, sexual, old or brown? That we teach each other, in thousands of blatant and quiet ways, to think we are shameful? That our bodies are something to be overcome, beaten into submission or to be despised?

How do these voices telling us that we are supposed to hate our bodies affect our notions of how we care for the sick, disabled, elderly, children, mothers, soldiers, workers, immigrants, men and women? What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other.

How we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other. How we treat our own bodies is how we treat ourselves. How can you treat your own body with more gentleness, more forgiveness, more enjoyment, more dancing?

Hugs, but only if you want them.

More and more articles lately on consent culture and how to raise a generation of people who are secure in their own bodily autonomy, and respect others’ as well. Here’s one I liked this week: Why I Will Never Tell My Daughter to Give You a Hug.

In short: forcing kids to hug and kiss or be hugged and kiss when they don’t want to is a seemingly innocent part of an overall culture where we’re made to believe that our bodies are not our own.

If there’s one thing I’d like every child on the planet to learn and internalize, it is this:

Your body is yours. It is your home, your best friend, and the physical instrument of your will and your heart. If someone violates it, that is wrong.

In my work with clients, I try to help them connect with that place in themselves where their bodies – which they may see as burdens, as betrayers, as sites of pain, as limiting lumps of clay – are in fact their healers, their guardians, their homes, and their places of possibility. Having and feeling control over when and how you are touched is a huge part of the process of bringing a body back together with the mind that inhabits it.

Contact me if this sounds like something you could use help with. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sexism hurts all of us.

I stumbled across this entire series a few days ago. The first part is about how women often experience sexism. This second part, below, is about how boys and men are affected.

While I powerfully related to the part about women’s experiences, the part about men’s really touched me. From my time in high school, when I took it upon myself to defend my gay best friend from relentless bullying, through today, where I work with so many men who have spent their lives in a culture that has made them feel they must live up to unrealistic ideals of masculinity, and, like so many women, are trying to find their own value in the bodies and minds and hearts that they have.

The artist is Rasenth at Tumblr.

Stand like Wonder Woman, and change your life

More research, this time out of Harvard Business School, is emerging around the ways in which body language, body position, and other clear, controllable physical actions can not only change the way others think and feel about us, but how we feel and think about ourselves. Amy Cuddy’s research showed a two-minute change in body posture changed hormone levels in the body, affected self-confidence, and influenced job interviewers.

I’ve talked here some about Ilana Rubenfeld’s principle that the way you move in your body is the way you move in your life. The video below is a fantastic TED talk that shows how this is literally true.

In Cuddy’s experiments, just two minutes of assuming “power poses” significantly raised testosterone levels, lowered cortisol levels, improved people’s sense of self-worth and made interviewers much more likely to want to hire them. Two minutes of sitting curled up and making themselves small had the opposite effect: lowered testosterone, elevated cortisol, feelings of insecurity, and unattractiveness for hiring.

The implications of this would be almost alarming if they weren’t so accessible. In my work, we do a lot of imagining around what different options might be like. What if a client who has spent his whole life with his shoulders curled around his body could open up? What would that feel like? What might become possible? We might talk to the physical pain that trying this would be likely to cause: what protective mechanism has his body had in place for so long, but might be ready to let go and become something else?

For some, this process of healing, of becoming, can be slow, but it is possible. This science shows how it works. What is remarkable to me is how the power positions are all about being open, taking up space, being seen. Opening yourself up like this is exposing – relating back to the Brene Brown talks I’ve linked to here before on vulnerability. This relationship between vulnerability and power continues to intrigue me, and I’m sure you’ll hear more from me about it in this space.

For now, though, watch below, and don’t miss Cuddy’s own story, near the end, of how she, personally, overcome near-crippling self-doubt.