Today’s post comes from Return the Gayze, a blog I was alerted to by a Facebook post linked to me by a friend in a private message…you know how it goes. However I stumbled across it, I needed to share it with you.
The post is about massage, about pain, about buried trauma, about what we can offer one another as healer and client, as survivor and witness, as human beings who are made for touch.
Susan tells me that her job as a masseuse is not necessarily to get rid of the pain, but rather to bear witness to it. To recognize it. To affirm it. She says that we live in a country — a world — that teaches us at every level that our hurt is a story we made up. And we internalize that to our core and write it into every muscle in our body. “I am wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong.” She says that sometimes acknowledgment can be its own sort of antidote. That sometimes people just need to hear that what happened to them was not their fault. That people tend to know what is best for themselves, they’ve just been told over and over again that they don’t.
If you haven’t joined my mailing list yet…you should! I’ve started issuing monthly newsletters again, and I just put out May’s. In addition, you can keep up with blog updates, be apprised of my workshops and other Synergy-related events in the area, and get great pictures like this one, from my own back yard:
Yesterday I finished Bessel van der Kolk’s monumental work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This book, the result of more than three decades of research, direct service, and tireless curiosity by this Dutch psychiatrist, tracks the development of the profession’s understanding (or more often, lack of understanding) of post-traumatic stress. The most important piece for me: that the effective treatment of trauma requires not just a top-down approach (i.e., the use of talk therapy or other language and mind-based techniques), but a bottom-up approach as well. In short, the traumatized person needs healing that addresses their bodies as well as their minds.
Van der Kolk covers many bottom-up approaches, including yoga, theater, body psychotherapies like Somatic Experiencing, and even massage, and delves into the neuroscience, clinical data, and long-term outcomes of how it all works. The book is a tremendous win for bodymind modalities like Rubenfeld Synergy, which works with gentle touch and movement to help clients reconnect with their bodies and access the memories, emotions, and stories that live there. But it’s also a validation for me of the practices I’ve been doing with my more traumatized clients.
For those who suffer from the common long-term effects of PTSD, getting into your body is no mean feat. Dissociation – the sense of “leaving your body,” even to the point of feeling like you’re observing it from the outside – can happen easily; I’ve seen a few clients who “zone out” or dissociate merely from being asked to pay attention to their feet. Numbing, another common symptom, means such clients often can’t feel their body much at all – nor the emotions connected to it. For people who have flashbacks and experience what happened to them not as a story that happened long ago, but as an immediate, present, and intensely terrifying series of sensory impressions, anything that gets them in touch with their bodies too quickly – such as touch – is out of the question.
Among the multitudinous pearls of wisdom I got from this book was a word for what I do when this is the case: pendulation. Taken from Peter Levine, Dr. van der Kolk’s friend and colleague who developed Somatic Experiencing, pendulation refers to helping a traumatized person dip a toe, as it were, in and out of the intensity of memory. By guiding the client toward the experience that needs integration, then backing away from it before their tolerance runs out, a practitioner can help a traumatized person gradually approach and come to befriend previously intolerable feelings.
So if you come to me with a trauma history, I might keep us in chairs for a while rather than going to the table right away. I might ask you to pay attention to your breath, but might back off even from that if I sense that you’re starting to feel anxious or “leaving the room.” It’s a delicate balance, but little by little, we get back in touch with ourselves, and regain the strength, as van der Kolk repeatedly says, “to know what we know and feel what we feel.”
I’m excited to be doing this again, not least because I was specially asked to, which feels amazing. Secondly, though, I’m psyched to have another crack at this class, so I can revise and relax into it and really make it sing. I’m excited to maybe have more people in the room (this convention is about four times the size of Wicked Women), and to give them more of a chance to explore and share their experiences, and less of me yapping at them.
But if we are, as the man said, what we repeatedly do, then habits are what most profoundly shape us. At this time of year when there is a lot of pressure to “start fresh” with New Year’s resolutions, fraught with unrealistic fitness goals and promises we rarely manage to maintain past February, it’s important to look at how move from from habit, to choice, to better habits, in a way that is not doomed to failure.
Try this experiment this year: instead of making New Year’s resolutions like “get in shape,” “finish my novel,” and “call my mother more often,” consider making a single, specific habit-changing move each month. Establishing a new habit – or breaking an old one – takes time; the 21-day number turns out to be a myth, but doing something for many days in a row does help cement it. Starting on my birthday this year, I managed to establish a daily meditation practice after years of struggling. I even took off for the week of Christmas, and have gotten back on it again without any trouble.
How did I do it? Not by promising myself a 20 minute session every day. I got a meditation timer app for my phone, chose a pleasant sounding chime, set up a place to do it where I’d be comfortable, and pledged five minutes a day, preferably in the morning right when I wake up.
It worked, because the goal was specific, achievable, and not too time-consuming. Doing just five minutes meant that it wasn’t much time out of my day, so I didn’t have to really “set aside time” for it. (Now that I’m up to 7 minutes, I feel like a champ!) Doing it in the morning means I roll out of bed, brush my teeth, and light my candle, and though I’m barely awake I’m awake enough to sit still for five minutes, and then I feel the accomplishment of having done it. Doing it every day…makes it into a new habit, one that’s peaceful, good for me, and expandable. (I’m planning to go up to 10 minutes soon.)
You’re going to be much more successful, for example, if you decide to, say, not eat after 8pm for a month, or change out your lunchtime bag of chips for an apple, than if you decide to “change your diet.” Small, specific changes, sustained over a period, tend to accumulate.
So enjoy your New Year’s celebrations! Do whatever you do, make toasts, and make resolutions if that’s your thing. (I’ll be doing it. It’s a habit. 😉 But this year, see if lasting change is possible. Start small. Listen to your body. And hey, let me know how it goes.
It’s Christmas Eve today, for those who celebrate the holiday, and at this time of year, there’s often talk of miracles. I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing, but I do go in for wonder, curiosity, and the excitement that discoveries having nothing to do with the supernatural can bring. This week, in a season when expectations can have an awful lot of power, I want to draw your attention to an episode of Invisibilia, a show that investigates the invisible forces that shape our lives.
In this episode, titled “How To Become Batman,” our hosts follow a man who has been blind since the age of three, who nonetheless learned to ride a bike and indeed navigates the world just as a sighted person would. It’s his belief that the way sighted people treat the blind – they ways in which they expect blind people to be helpless – take away an incredible amount of functionality they could have if they were shown alternatives.
The section that really caught my attention was the opening, in which they introduce the idea of how profoundly expectations affect outcomes.
It starts with an experiment with rats, in which a scientist labeled basically identical rats as smart or stupid, then let lab techs work with them on mazes. To a rat, the ones the people thought were smart performed much better than the “stupid” ones. The subconscious ways in which the techs touched the rats, as well as what they expected from the rats given their beliefs about the rats’ abilities, changed the way the rats behaved.
It’s obvious if you think about it: workers, children, athletes, soldiers, anyone moving under someone else’s authority – the degree to which they excel can vary wildly depending on what those authority figures – bosses, parents, coaches, officers – expect from them. Over time, negativity from those who “handle” us the way those lab techs handled the rats can leave us unmotivated, unfulfilled, even disabled. But when we offer encouragement, belief, and support for others’ efforts, it’s amazing what we can achieve.
Whether you celebrate or not, I wish encouragement, hope, and support to you in the new year.
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 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 first stanza. Happy Thanksgiving, all, and thank you, thank you, thank you.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
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?
Last month, I gave a workshop on Embodied Consent, which I talked about a lot in this space. It went relatively well, but I had some criticism for myself, and I’m looking forward to doing it – and other workshops – again with this greater knowledge.
So what didn’t I like? I thought I talked too much. I ran out of time as I often do when I give talks, and couldn’t do all the exercises I wanted to. And as a result, I didn’t give as full and rich a presentation as I’d hoped.
So what would I change? Here are a few ways I plan to make my workshops in general more effective.
First off, I need to remember that giving workshops is not as hard as I think. I have really good material that tends to speak for itself: it’s powerful. I have a lot of material, too, which means I don’t need to worry about filling the time. In fact, I need to worry more about overspilling the time.
What makes workshops easy is letting the participants do a lot of the work for themselves. Every single time I presented them with an exercise, even a little one, they did three things:
Participated fully in the exercise;
Had strong responses to the exercise; and
Had a lot of awesome things to say about it.
When I let my audience have experiences with themselves and each other, then discuss them, it is far more powerful and gets the material across better than if I try to tell them about all of it in advance.
So why do I do that? It’s a question of self-confidence, of trust that what I’m talking about has merit, makes sense, and is resonant for my audience. Even though I know the material is important and resonant, I tend to keep yammering on about it, making a bunch of points and giving too many examples, rather than starting from the place I’m always talking about starting from: the body.
Show, don’t tell, is a super-old lesson, both from theatre and from writing, that I tend to abandon when I’m less sure of myself. But it is basically always true that getting my audience directly involved, even if they’re not sure what they’re doing yet, works far better than over-explaining.
In the next iteration, I’ll start with a few sentences, then an exercise. I’ve realized the structure should go: Short intro, exercise, discussion. Complication: next exercise, discussion. No more than 5-10 minutes of explanation before going on to another experiential piece. The experiential pieces tend to be so rich that the explanation does itself, after the fact.
It also empowers my audience, allowing them to collaborate with me and come to their own conclusions rather than being spoon-fed my ideas, which they might not be quite ready for, because they haven’t found them with their own bodies and minds.
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?