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Nobody likes being confused.  It’s disorienting, frustrating, and sometimes frightening.  We also know that it’s hard to take in new information or function effectively when we’re confused: most people are familiar with the experience of trying to tell someone one thing while looking at different words on a screen, or trying to drive somewhere new when your GPS is telling you one thing and your passenger another.  So this principle can be a bit difficult to swallow: how could confusion facilitate change?

As has doubtless become apparent, Rubenfeld Synergists are fond of taking apart words and looking at how people use them and how they create various meanings in the mind and body.  The word “confusion” contains the word “fusion,” and the prefix “con” can mean, interestingly, either “with” or “against.”  Confusion, then, is “both a pulling apart and a joining,” as Ilana puts it in her book, The Listening Hand (20).  Confusion is what happens when our normal, habitual behavior patterns are interrupted, and we’re asked to enter new waters.  This is always an uncomfortable experience, but absolutely necessary to break out of worn-out or dysfunctional behaviors, and to adopt new patterns and skills.

Think about when you’re learning to do something.  One evening, I watched as one friend taught another friend how to spin poi – the fire-juggling technique where you swing small flaming wicks at the ends of chains around your body in interesting rhythmic patterns.  My friend who was learning tends not to be especially dexterous, and over and over again I watched him swing the two practice poi around himself, get tangled, and hit himself in the groin.  (Then I tried not to laugh.)  Luckily the poi were not on fire at the time.

Now naturally, this was a (literally!) painful and confusing experience for my friend.  At points, it became frustrating – another emotional state that tends to occur on the threshold of learning.  But he kept going throughout the night, even though he never once got the move right.

The next day we went out to Central Park and hung out, and brought the practice poi with us.  He picked them up, swung them through the air, and got the move at last.  Sleep, and the brain working on the problem, was what finally allowed competence to emerge.  But the confusion of newness came first, and made room for the acquisition of the new skill.

The same thing can happen to people on the table in a session.  Sometimes a part of the body that has been held a particular way for a long time becomes loosened by a move, and while greater relaxation is usually seen as a good thing, it can be disorienting, even frightening.  A person who has been holding her shoulder tight into her body for protection for years may even feel rising panic as those muscles begin to feel freer for the first time.  But it is that very confusion – and sometimes the concomitant fear – that allows for other possibilities to enter.  What might happen, confusion seems to ask us, if you chose something else?  That shoulder may have protected her for a long time, when she needed protection.  But what might she achieve once she realizes she doesn’t need to hold herself in anymore?

Humans are profoundly creatures of habit – an incredibly useful evolutionary adaptation that has allows us, as a species, to adapt and thrive in a wildly diverse array of circumstances.  But the place where growth – physical improvement, mental alacrity, emotional strength, spiritual development – truly occurs is at the precipice of the unknown, the edge between what we’re familiar with and what else is possible.  To get over that edge, we need to allow ourselves to be confused: to break apart the things that get us by from day to day, and imagine new pairings – new fusions of possibility.

All of the best things that have happened to me have been as result of riding this edge.  It was that little place in me that said: Maybe I can love more than one person.  Maybe I can become a healer.  Maybe I can direct a Shakespeare play.  And more, lately: Maybe I can climb a rock face.  Maybe I can start a business.  Maybe I can consider graduate work in directing.  Is it all scary?  Sure.  Is it all worth it?  Absolutely.

Next time you feel confused, stop and notice it.  Thank it for whatever it’s bringing, even though you probably won’t know what it is yet.

And tell me about it in comments!

Next: Altered states of consciousness can enhance healing.

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