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During one module of my training, Ilana Rubenfeld visited us and taught for part of the week. She told stories, ran exercises, and most importantly, did demos. Watching Ilana work is a bit like magic at times; she makes the method she created look like wizardry as she delves deep into a client’s experience with almost unerring accuracy. But what she is doing is simply an expert-level deep listening, and helping a client to make changes in the now.

One demo client – let’s call him Dan – had a memory while on the table of a car accident he had been in many years ago. Dan is in his sixties, and this accident happened when he was a much younger man. But the crushing injury he received in his leg still has a story to tell.

Through touch and dialogue, Ilana recognized that this old injury was a distant enough memory, and he had healed from it enough, that its vestiges in the body were no longer useful to his system. When traumas happen to us, our bodies store them and remember. Often this is very useful to survival: we know not to touch that hot stove, or we learn not to drive too fast on slick roads. Other times, though, the protective mechanisms our bodies build around traumas can limit and trap us: we become overcautious or fearful, we startle too easily or lash out inappropriately. In extreme versions of this, we call it PTSD.

Often, when we have these kinds of symptoms or other relics of an old wound, we can get angry at ourselves. We tense up, or feel tears coming, and we wonder, “What’s the matter with me?” We may even repeat scripts we heard as children to our own bodies. “What’s wrong with you?” “There’s nothing to be afraid of, stupid.” “What are you crying for? Stop being so emotional.” We try and shut down our bodies’ responses, denigrating them: keep it together, be strong, get over it. What we fail to realize is that these responses have become integral to our systems somehow. And while they may not be responses appropriate to the present moment, they are nonetheless occurring in the present moment, and can only be healed there. Telling the story of what happened is only part of the process. Recalibrating your body’s responses to the current reality is where the healing occurs.

Dan felt the pain and tension in his leg, remembering, as he told the story of that long-ago crash. He’d been in the back of the car, asleep, when it happened. He awoke only when the crash occurred, after he’d already been hurt. The revelation that he’d been asleep became an “aha” moment for Ilana and Dan alike: he had no narrative for the trauma, no sense of control over what had happened. Not only was there nothing he could have done differently; he wasn’t even able to consider any choices, as he was literally unconscious. The leg had healed, but the story remained an empty question mark in his body, a sense of powerlessness and fear.

We cannot change our pasts. Many of us spend years in therapy, going over our old wounds, rehashing our histories. People with trauma are tell their stories again and again, though this is changing as research shows that it tends to retraumatize more than it helps. Even for people who are not suffering PTSD, dwelling on past mistakes, wrongs done them, or unhappy childhoods often doesn’t lead anywhere.

It’s important to know the truth, yes, and sometimes the damage done has to do with not knowing, fully, what happened. At times, though, we can never know, and even when we do know, we often can’t confront the person who did this to us directly. The only means we have for healing is healing our relationship to ourselves, in the present moment.

Dan knew what had happened; he’d been told after the accident. There was nothing he could have done about it. Yet something in his body still hesitated and held him back. Ilana realized that it was time to change the story.

Gently, she took Dan back to the night of the accident. Deep in the therapeutic trance now, Dan was ready and willing to go. In this version, he was awake, looking out the window into the rainy night. He saw the truck coming toward the car, the lights blaring, and readied himself for the impact. But at the last moment, the driver managed to swerve – and the accident that shattered his leg was transformed into a near-miss.

“That was close,” Dan said, and Ilana moved her hands down his leg. We could all see how loose and free it was, how much tension had been released from it in that moment. “Say that one again,” Ilana said. “That was close,” Dan said again, more softly. “But I’m okay.”

I questioned Ilana afterward about the path she’d chosen: it struck me as odd and maybe even harmful to rewrite history like that. But she had had that instinct because the wound was so old and Dan knew it so well that it was time for him to let it go, and rewriting is one way of doing that. It’s also a great example of this principle: change occurs in the present moment. What we cannot go back and change, we can sometimes honor, and then release. We can meet our bodies where they are now, see the old wound, and instead of decrying it, we can listen to it, find out its story, even thank it for being there for us.

The defenses we build up over time are not often things we have conscious control over. In fact, they often have more control over us. Addressing these defenses by going to the body can help a system adjust to the present reality, rather than responding to an old one.

Next: The ultimate responsibility for change rests with the client.

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