At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.
So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.
It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame. What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?
I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.
In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.
These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.
I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.
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.
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.
This remarkable article, “What if Age is Just a Mindset?”, about the work of psychologist Ellen Langer, ran this week in the New York Times. Its basic idea – that our minds have more power over the youth and health of our bodies than we’ve dared to imagine – is one that is near and dear to me and my work in ways that any readers of this blog already know.
[Langer]’s one of the people at Harvard who really gets it…That health and illness are much more rooted in our minds and in our hearts and how we experience ourselves in the world than our models even begin to understand.
Langer – a plainly dynamic and driven woman from the Bronx who reminds me not a little of Ilana Rubenfeld in this profile – has done experiments throughout her career that show the ways that our mindset can profoundly affect our physical health. Over time, “she came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological ‘prime’ — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.”
Perhaps the most famous of these experiments occurred in 1981, when Langer took a group of people in their 70s, and put them in a temporary time-warp: for five days, they lived, behaved, and were immersed in an environment that mirrored 1959. They were asked not just to reminisce, but to speak and behave as if they were 22 years younger. At the end of the five days, by several biological metrics, “they were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had ‘put their mind in an earlier time,’ and their bodies went along for the ride.”
They had been pulled out of mothballs and made to feel important again, and perhaps, Langer later mused, that rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.
In the course of many years of work, Langer has continued to find that “mind-set manipulation can counteract presumed physiological limits,” with the ultimate goal being to “return the control of our health back to ourselves.”
Like Rubenfeld Synergists, Langer also places a strong importance on mindfulness, “on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms. When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual‘ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”
The implications of her work are profound for those of us who work in the knowledge that when we help shift people’s relationship to their bodies, we can help them change how their bodies move in the world – and therefore, how rich and engaged their lives are.
Since the Fourth of July weekend is coming up, I figured I’d blog a little early and leave you all with something inspiring to take you into it.
In case you haven’t seen them yet, here are two great videos put together by the Rubenfeld Synergy Training Institute. The first, What Is RSM?, was filmed at the Omega Institute while I was in the training, and features my teachers Noël Wight and Joe Weldon, plus Ilana Rubenfeld herself, talking about the work and demonstrating a little of it. The second, Why Befriend Your Body?, was filmed last year, led by another great teacher of mine, Theresa Pettersen-Chu, and features a bunch of clients talking about what Rubenfeld Synergy has done for them.
Both are pretty fabulous, and give a simple idea of what this work is all about. Give them a look – each is less than five minutes long!
In the past little while, I’ve been tweaking and rearranging some of the content on this site, and ultimately, i hope to host my entire site here at WordPress, with the blog integrated in. For now, here are some of the new things you might take a look at!
I’ve revised my “Make an Appointment,” “Services,” and “About Kamela” pages somewhat. Go check them out if you want to know more about what I do, who I am, and how to get in touch with me. In time, I’ll be adding sub-pages to the Services section, to give a rounder idea of the types of help I provide.
I’ve added a Recommended Reading list near the top of the sidebar. Right now, this includes the 18 Principles of Rubenfeld Synergy series, the description of a typical first RSM session, and the GROUND series (Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, Noticing, and Discovery). More foundational posts will end up as pages soon, so that the foundational material is easily accessible by anyone who wants to check it out before coming to see me.
What would you like to see more front-and-center on this site?
The latest from the “but we knew that, right?” department: a study showing how infants process the sensation of “pleasant” touch – and how young they learn it.
Touch is critical to human development, and in fact, as my friend Christine Kraemer pointed out, most baby mammals will die without it. Much writing has been done on the topic of the crucial role of touch in bonding, healthy development, and general emotional and social health. But it’s always nice to see more detailed studies like these, that begin to examine the mechanisms by which these things work.
Of greatest interest to me was the following quote. For context, the researchers were brushing the infants’ skin with a paintbrush:
Interestingly, infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. That is, the more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant’s heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.
This brings powerfully to mind the relationship between the synergist and the client in an RSM session, and how the energy and mood of the synergist communicates through to the client through touch, and vice versa. It’s also remarkable to me that this happened in the research even though the caregivers weren’t touching the infants directly.
Think about what it’s like to be near someone who is warm and calm and welcoming, and then think about what it’s like to be around someone high-strung, nervous, or angry. Mood is contagious, and touch amplifies it. This research seems to show, at least by correlation, that sensitivity can also be contagious.
I had a great insight from a client this week, and as usual, it was something so simple, yet so hard to grasp for most people. Ilana Rubenfeld used to talk about “a-ha moments,” and a wonderful classmate of mine in the Rubenfeld training talked about “duh-huh moments.” Coming to realizations like this can seem like the latter at times, but in my experience, that’s when you know they’re really important.
The realization was this: to go inward, the very first step is to breathe.
In this fast-paced world, it can be very easy for us to forget ourselves, to forget self-care, and to forget that in order to be effective in the world and helpful to others, we have to make sure we are clear. But some people don’t even know how to begin to go inward, rather than constantly reaching out for validation, for activity, for distraction, for love.
Here’s the answer: breathe, and pay attention to your breathing.
There is nothing so simple and effective as listening to your own breath to bring you into the moment, to connect you with yourself, and to begin to understand what is going on inside your own body and heart. You don’t need to believe in chakras or chi, you don’t have to hold crystals or light candles or believe in any gods or even take long walks in the woods (though I recommend that). You don’t even have to do anything as radical as talking to your body and seeing what it says back. Just take ten seconds, right now, to breathe out whatever is currently clogging up your mental works, then slowly let your lungs fill up again. Then, do it again. One more time.
Just breathe, as the song says. And see what happens to your mind, your body, your heart.
I dare you.
Everyone knows how a song can open us to emotion. Most of us probably have songs that make us cry, songs that make us nostalgic for our youth, songs that make it impossible not to dance. And as we go into the holiday season, there are doubtless songs that make us homicidal, particularly the ones that get repeated endlessly on piped-in mall music.
Some of this can be attributed to memory and meaning: the song was playing during our first kiss, or the words remind us of a lost love. But some of it is purely the music itself. Have you ever had the experience of a particular violin or cello strain cracking you open? Of certain music making you cry, because, for whatever reason, it aches?
Science is still studying why it’s the case that music can have such a powerful emotional effect. A recent study showed that listening to music can affect how we perceive neutral human faces: happy music makes us see them as happier, for example. But why it has this effect is not fully known.
One theory the writer of the Scientific American article linked above has is that music is connected with human movement. Music, after all, is a series of sounds made possible by human movement: breath, pressure, bowing, pressing keys, strumming strings, striking drums, and so on. And music inspires us to dance, or to close our eyes and go inside ourselves to listen.
Ilana Rubenfeld trained as a symphonic conductor at Julliard, and was herself a violinist. Her approach to her work was highly musical, and she knew how powerfully music was connected to emotion. She saw our bodies as our most valuable instruments, and our lives as ongoing symphonies. That may sound Pollyannic, but it may actually be literally true, and may be the key to discovering why music is so – literally – moving.
In my sessions, I strive to connect the person I’m working with to their own internal instrument. To listen to their own breath, to be moved by their own movements (interesting that sections of symphonies and concertos are also called “movements”), to discover what their song sounds like right now. Some people are more musical than others, but most people can be connected to their rhythms, to the pulse of what makes them human and alive.