The “spirit” part of Rubenfeld Synergy

“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

~ Simone Weil

I picked up this quotation from David Kanigan’s blog, and have been mulling it over ever since.

Rubenfeld Synergy Method’s official, trademarked tagline is, “A dynamic system for the integration of body, mind, emotions and spirit.” Our teachers told us, however, that until our particular training, the “spirit” part of the equation was mostly implied, not directly addressed. Spirit is a difficult thing to talk about these days, especially in the context of healing: most of the context for the word’s use is either overtly Christian faith-healing kind of stuff, or New-Agey, unscientific crystal-waving. For many good reasons, the word “spirit” has come under suspicion by critically-thinking people, and in a field that is largely unknown to many as mine is, it’s a word I use carefully.

In our training, we had a “spirit night” every Friday during the week-long trainings. (This had nothing to do with a pep rally, though I realize that’s how it sounds.) These were always intense, often very moving, and always addressed a part of ourselves that is hard to define: the bit that is transcendent, that considers questions of mortality, that taps our inner strength and our inner voices. We walked a labyrinth one night, that the faculty had built inside a hotel ballroom. We listened to the messages of our hearts and our geniuses. We created collages, poems, and other tokens that we could take to remind us of the deep work we’d done. No “God” or “gods” were ever mentioned, no religion invoked, nor were we even asked explicitly to believe in any kind of soul. But we were doing the intangible work of spirit, and making it as tangible as possible. We were engaging deeply with that part of us that decides, every day, to go on living, and that helps us do it in the best way we possibly can. In an intensive training that focused greatly on the body and its interplay with the mind, those evenings of spirit are some of my fondest and strongest memories.

The word “prayer,” though, is even more loaded than the word “spirit.” Which is possibly why I liked this quotation so much: it bespeaks what I know about Rubenfeld as a practice involving deep and focused attention – “unmixed” attention, even. And this attention, this deep listening, is what I mean when I talk about the sacredness of this work.

Whatever it is that is happening to the client, there is a thing that happens to me, the practitioner, when I am in right spiritual relationship to the client. It is something that I cannot achieve in every moment of this practice, but it’s something I strive to cultivate so that it is there more and more often. The fact that it is difficult to name this quality is what lets me know that I’m dealing in the realm of spirit: it is a skill that can be practiced, yes, but it is difficult to say what part of my mind or body I use to do it. It’s something that, when it’s in place, I am doing with my entire being. Rubenfeld Synergists tend to call it listening; others might call it empathy, or emotional intelligence, or communion.

I don’t yet know what I call it. I just know that when I’m in that state, the client is the most interesting person I have ever met. Their troubles move me utterly; their lives are fascinating; I find them, for lack of a better word, extremely beautiful. I feel that I am completely with them, and that I will know what to say, how to move, where to touch next, without thinking about it. It is a state of complete presence.

I have experienced this at other times: during certain kinds of rituals, at moments of extreme joy or pain, while drumming or singing with a group, while making love. All of these are kinds of prayer, whether they are addressing any transcendent being or not. Prayer, as Abraham Heschel said, is not as much about petitioning for things as it is about singing, about opening our hearts to greater experience.

Absolutely unmixed attention. In today’s society, it’s hard to come by. But worth striving for. And quite possibly, what the idea of spirit comes down to: that place of mystery where all of our parts coalesce to a single point.

For whatever you’re celebrating, or praying for, this weekend

A dear friend sent these quotations to me the other morning, and they made my day.  Spirituality is a complicated thing, but these words by the great Jewish mystic – who famously said that the opposite of good was not evil, but indifference – bring home to me the essence of being alive.

The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song.

Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.

People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel


Whether you pray, whether you celebrate anything this weekend, may you confront it fiercely, filled with the joy and purpose of your life.

Principles of RSM: 1. Each individual is unique.

Unique feetLike so many other things in Rubenfeld Synergy, this principle appears simple, almost simplistic, at first blush. It may even appear as sentimental pap: a touchy-feely, New-Age-y belief that we are all special snowflakes.

In reality, though, it harkens back to the idea of specificity and keeping an open attitude of discovery.

Human beings, after all, aren’t all that different. We eat and sleep and breathe, love and hate, work and play, raise families, break hearts and have our hearts broken. We live and die. But the stories of each of our lives have a richness, a specificity, and those stories resonate in our bodies in vastly different ways, revealing more uniqueness with each passing day of our lives.

Some bodywork techniques have a kind of code: if something is happening in your back, that means it’s in your past; if your shoulders are tight it means you’re carrying a heavy burden; if your hands shake it means you’re nervous about your profession. It’s all very interesting, but none of it takes into account this first and perhaps most important principle of RSM work.

While there are some things in the body that give us very good clues, it is paramount that we recognize that the messages of each person’s body are going to be unique to that person. For instance, we work a great deal with the feet. We conceptualize the feet in particular ways: they are literally the place where the client is standing. The feet can tell us various stories: can the client really feel their feet? If not, it’s possible this person is ungrounded, or that they live in their head. Are the feet pointing in two different directions when the client lies on the table? We might begin to explore whether the person is experiencing indecision about their path in life.

But the key word here is “explore.” If we jump ahead and decide that we know exactly what something means before exploring and getting that information from the client, we’ve closed off the path of inquiry and shut down one possibility of healing. As Synergists, it is incumbent upon us to honor each client’s unique story: what Mary’s feet are trying to tell her is not going to be the same as what John’s feet are trying to tell him.

The very first week of our RSM training began with a foundation in the “GROUND” of RSM: Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, Noticing, and Discovery. This one silly acronym is truly the foundation of our work, and all of the words point to this first principle of meeting a client where they are. Probably most important here, though, is “discovery”: the work we do with each client to uncover their very particular story, and help them to find the next step on their path, without judgment.

Next: The body, mind, emotions and spirit are dynamically interrelated.

The principles of Rubenfeld Synergy – an introduction

Rubenfeld Synergy Method operates from a platform of 18 principles, each of which constitutes a kind of belief or intention with which we go into a session with a client. The full list is here at Janet Cook’s blog, but I find myself wanting to expand on each principle in a series of posts.

For the next 18 weeks, then, I will endeavor to write a substantive post on each of the principles, to give readers here a deeper sense of the work and of how I view it.

Some of the principles – having to do with “life force” and “souls” – may strike some of my readers as wifty, and be alienating to those who prefer a hard science approach to healing. Some others – like “confusion facilitates change” – probably need further expansion just to explain. My main hope in this endeavor, then, is to demonstrate my understanding of this work, and to facilitate greater understanding in those who aren’t yet familiar with it.

As always, please feel free to comment here; I welcome discussion and debate, and I’m always learning.

For now, here is the list of the 18 principles; I’ll return to this post and link each one to the entry describing it.

The 18 principles of Rubenfeld Synergy Method (RSM)

1. Each individual is unique.

2. The body, mind, emotions and spirit are dynamically interrelated.

3. Awareness is the first key to change.

4. Change occurs in the present moment.

5. The ultimate responsibility for change rests with the client.

6. Clients have the natural capacity for self-healing and self-regulation.

7. The body’s energy field and life force exist and can be sensed.

8. Touch is a viable system of communication.

9. The body is a metaphor.

10. The body tells the truth.

11. The body is the sanctuary of the soul.

12. Pleasure needs to be supported to balance pain.

13. Humor can lighten and heal.

14. Reflecting clients’ verbal expressions validates their experience.

15. Confusion facilitates change.

16. Altered states of consciousness can enhance healing.

17. Integration is necessary for lasting results.

18. Self-care is the first step to client care.

An integral approach to optimal health

Presented without too much comment, here is Part 1 of a series of six short but dense blog posts detailing the general dissociation of our modern culture, and the quest for a more embodied, integrated approach to life. I stumbled across Part 6 today thanks to Google alerts; I’ll link it here because it contains all the links to the rest of the series. But start with part 1. You’ll be glad you did.

Moving from habit to choice

Today I came across this very simple and straightforward blog post from Kristen Barton Cuthriell about behaviors and consequences. The post is full of sound advice about what happens when you make particular choices, and how thinking through the consequences can help you make the right ones. A few examples:

When you choose to stay up too late, you choose to be tired the next day. Do you want to be tired?

When you choose to show up late for work three days in a row, you choose to lose your job. Do you want your job?

When you choose to eat unhealthy foods, you choose to be unhealthy. Do you want to be unhealthy?

When you choose to be kind, you choose to have friends. Do you want friends?

And so on. It’s simple, or so it seems. So then why is it that so many of us have so much trouble making the right choices so much of the time? As Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple writes in his post on akrasia, or acting against one’s own better judgment,

Staying up late to watch one more episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ will leave us comatose in tomorrow’s big meeting. Skipping yet another workout keeps us on track to lose all the gains we’ve built up the last few months. Stewing over the day’s stresses and playing out angry scenarios in our heads will keep our kids and partner at arm’s length and us up half the night with stomach pain.

But damned if we don’t make the choice anyway. Why? What’s wrong with us that we go down these roads when we clearly understand the fallout?

And it’s a good question, one that philosophers have pored over for millennia and that keeps the diet and fitness industry in business, not to mention liquor stores, bakeries, and therapists’ offices.

Cuthriell’s simple action/consequence layout is inspiring, and a good reminder. But I wonder at its efficacy, given the strong tendency of the human being toward akrasia. Sisson’s approach to this problem is self-knowledge: getting to be aware of the things that knock you off track, and cultivating healthy self-interest. I especially love this formulation of his: “If we’ve decided what rational self-interest looks like for our life, what do the forces that contest it look like in our imaginations – relics of the past or ambiguities of the present as they so often are? What shape do they take? What voices do they have?”

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we call this process “moving from habit to choice,” and according to my mentor Joan Brooks, it’s one of the biggest things that draws clients to her practice. What does it take for a person to get to the place of making those simple decisions well, in light of the consequences, most of the time?

Listening to the voices is a good first step; in this work we often find ourselves tuning into and giving voice to those parts of ourselves that are usually silent, or at least unconscious. We’d like our shoulders to be more relaxed and not painfully bunched up around our ears, and we would make that choice if we could, but it’s often not so simple as that. Frequently, it’s not even as simple as getting regular massage, or going to physical therapy, though both things can be very helpful. Sometimes, there’s a story in those shoulders – a “relic of the past” that works against our rational self-interest. We’d love to move more freely and without pain. But something is holding us back. A cascade of more conscious choices against our best interest might follow from this: we don’t exercise as much, we load up on anti-inflammatory drugs to the detriment of our stomach lining. We may even make different social choices, as our tight, closed shoulders make us feel distrustful or cold toward others without knowing why – or make others see us that way.

In this work, through talk and touch, we initiate a conversation with that part of us. Not to judge, not to eradicate, not to stuff it down and tell it to be quiet because we’ve got rational decision-making to do. But to find out what its story is. What put our shoulders in that position? What’s keeping them there? What are they holding onto for us, in case we need it? What burden are they carrying, that they haven’t been told it’s okay to put down now? In what ways did they act as shields for us in the past, shields that were crucial then, but are no longer necessary?

Until we engage in these dialogues, we can’t know what keeps drawing us back to the habits that harm us, in order to come around to the choices that free us. “Akrasia” comes from the Greek, “lacking command over oneself.” But in RSM, it’s often more about coming to an understanding with oneself. If we approach a client from the “GROUND” of RSM – that is, Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, and Discovery – then moving from habit to choice becomes a question not of making the “right” choice, but of actually understanding what the choices are, and being able to see them clearly.

From there…well, it’s not a straight line. But awareness is the first key to change.

Quotation of great beauty for your consideration.

“When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are.”

― Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Treating the whole person – autism, science and skepticism

Yesterday, I stumbled across this wonderful article in WBUR’s Common Health blog, with a book excerpt by Dr. Martha Herbert, who has been studying autism for 15 years or so. In it, she describes how some kids with autism have managed to be essentially cured of it, and how others have been helped to a manageable state using a variety of tools. This is a radical departure from what was previously thought about the disorder:

For decades, doctors have told parents that autism was a genetic problem in their child’s brain, and that it wasn’t going anywhere – that they should expect their toddler’s troubles would be with him/her forever. Autism has long been defined by its deficits, by what the child is believed unable to do: communicate, control himself, function like everyone else. Parents might make improvements around the edges – reduce the tantrums, limit the crazy behaviors, get the child to follow directions – but the essential deficits would remain.

But Herbert refused to believe this, given what she had seen: kids who previously couldn’t even speak growing up to be A students with many friends, or productive adults who just have “a few quirks,” or even remaining non-verbal but communicating beautifully through painting, music, or a computer keyboard. “The more I worked with my patients,” says Herbert, “the more I realized I had a choice: to ‘see what I believed,’ or to ‘believe what I see.'” What she saw frequently was astonishing improvement in certain cases, in particular when the patient was treated as a whole person, rather than just a defective brain. Herbert’s conclusion is that autism is “a problem of the whole body, including the brain, from molecules to cells, from organs to metabolism, from immune to digestive systems,” and that persistence in the belief that someone with autism can be brought to his or her full potential can effect dramatic improvements.

The strange part of reading this for me was receiving, the same day, an article from a friend detailing the finding of genetic deficits in young people with autism, and a greater understanding of the abnormal brain development that tends to lead to the disorder. The articles were literally published on the same day, and they made me think about the way medicine tends to approach these profound and poorly-understood problems.

My main worry, having seen the two articles, was as follows: on the one hand, here’s a Harvard neurologist who has treated children with autism for years, saying things like, “In all my research and reading, I have never found proof of the genes-hopelessly-mess-up-the-brain-for-life model of autism….I believe that autism is not a genetic tragedy, but an unfolding and unprecedented catastrophe, related to many other health and environmental crises. Our world is making us sick. We need to build a world that makes us healthy.” What a beautiful thought from the evidence-based scientific community; what a message of hope for parents, kids, and even doctors who are dealing with the rising incidence and seeming hopelessness of this disease! Yet on the very same day, an article on new findings in genetics research. “Until now,” the article at states, “few studies have been able to investigate whole-genome gene expression and genotype variation in the brains of young patients with autism, especially in regions such as the prefrontal cortex that display the greatest growth abnormality.” While one finding doesn’t necessarily undermine the other, in a debate that has always been heated and rife with inaccuracies and hysteria, it would be easy to shoot down someone like Dr. Herbert – look, we’ve found the genetic cause and the brain abnormalities! You can stop all your crazy holistic nonsense now!

And yet it’s a holistic combination of factors that has been consistently shown to help kids with autism: dietary changes, environmental changes, and as Dr. Herbert says, a somewhat intangible thing called belief: the incredible patience and love of parents who can see the full potential of their children and are willing to do everything imaginable to try and fulfill it.

Both of these articles are excellent good news for people with autism and the people who love them: a pinning down of the underlying genetics on one hand, and a whole-body approach to management on the other. I just hope that as the hard science data slowly mounts, the efficacy of treating the whole person isn’t discounted.

Moving and being moved – Rubenfeld and performing Shakespeare

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at what I can learn about healing from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The other night, I had the pleasure of watching another episode of Playing Shakespeare with my husband. We kept pausing it and excitedly discussing our understandings of what the great John Barton – then head of the Royal Shakespeare Company – was doing with his troupe of actors – Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench – in this landmark early-80s series. The episode was concentrating on set speeches and soliloquies: those difficult stretches of poetic text that Shakespeare gives to so many of his characters in moments of narrative importance.

The main point that Barton was focusing on brought me around again to ideas from Rubenfeld Synergy: namely, that emotion is not just a feeling, but an action. Or, to focus on the seeming coincidences in the way we language things in English: in order to move someone emotionally, you have to literally move.

I’ll unpack that a bit. Barton speaks about how, when listening to an actor give a long, complex speech, he tends to drift a bit unless the actor holds him. (There is that languaging again: he even gestures in a way that looks like the actor would literally hold him in the palm of his hand.) So, what does an actor need to do with such a speech in order to make it compelling?

The answer, as it almost always is in art, is specificity. In this instance, what that translates to is always playing the intention, the action, rather than playing the emotion. Probably the most illustrative example of this is the work he does with Patrick Stewart on a speech from Titus Andronicus (shown in the video above). The speech occurs after the character’s daughter has been raped and mutilated, and the character’s own hand cut off – in other words, a moment of such extraordinary physical and emotional anguish that it would be difficult to imagine saying these poetic words in such a moment.

Often, an actor will make the mistake of finding the emotional state, then playing that through the words. Stewart does this first, and it’s definitely arresting, and made me feel some sympathy for his obvious suffering. However, a little way through, I lost track of what he was saying and couldn’t fathom the meaning. Also, he starts at a very high level and has nowhere to go; the speech becomes stuck, and I have a hard time believing it. Stewart is working against the words, in a way, and the speech becomes generalized. All I could see was a wail of pain. I felt bad, but I couldn’t fully connect.

Barton then has him do it again, this time working off of a line earlier in the scene, which is simply, “What now shall we do?” He has Stewart treat the speech as the character’s effort at the impossible task of making sense of what has just happened, and looking for a next course of action. In this iteration of the speech, Stewart seems to discover each line for the first time, to consider each moment, to be grasping desperately for some kernel of meaning. His tone gets much softer and more plaintive, almost hopeful, his affect less anguished and more like someone in shock from a great trauma. By the end of the speech I was crying.

For a highly emotional speech to work, the actor needs to take us with him – to move us in order to move us. Generalizing an emotional state makes the speech static, in the way big emotions aren’t in reality. Emotions are motion; as Titus says in that speech, “I am the sea; hark, how her sighs do blow!…Then must my sea be moved with her sighs.” Titus’ emotion here is compared to natural disasters, movements of air and water and earth that are unstoppable. Only by discovering these moments with the audience, however, can the full weight of emotion be realized and expressed. Otherwise, the speech gets moored on the rocks.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, one of the key skills we learn is openness and continual curiosity. The work of the Synergist is never to jump on a thing and identify it right away, but rather to explore, to stay curious, to maintain an open hand and an open heart. To keep listening. To discover it fully and specifically, with the client. The temptation to label, to believe that you know the whole story from one piece of information, is great, just as the temptation to play the general emotion of a speech is great. A client may say, “It feels like your hands are making a bridge between my shoulders.” I know that for me, my mind goes all over the place. All of the possible literary images and symbolic possibilities frolic through my head. “Ah,” a part of me says, “I know what that is.” But that’s not all that useful to the client: when I think I know what something is, I have closed off the possibility of further exploration. I have learned that the best thing to say at that moment is, “Say more about the bridge.” Or, my favorite go-to, “What’s that like?”

It’s impressive to watch Patrick Stewart rage and blow like Lear’s storm cracking its cheeks; it evinced some feeling in me. But I ultimately didn’t know what he was saying, and I couldn’t relate to the speech. It was unfocused, and didn’t take me anywhere. In the second, much smaller, much more careful exploration of the words, I could feel him discovering the story as if for the first time – and I could discover it with him. At the end of it, I was in a different place from where I started.

When I say to a client, “What’s that like?,” she knows that I am with her. Further, she knows that I haven’t pinned down her image like a butterfly to a board. Instead, we’re watching it together in the wild, studying the colors, seeing how it moves. How it moves us. We’re finding the specificity. We’re discovering rather than diagnosing. We’re moving together.

And this is possibly what RSM is about above all else: movement. Helping our clients to access their emotions in their bodies and allow them to move, so that they can move more freely in their bodies, and move to a place of greater freedom in their lives. If I can keep an attitude of open discovery, if I can help my client follow her story where it leads without deciding that I already know the ending, the places a session can go are surprising and often transformative.

I’ve happily just discovered David Kanigan’s blog, full of non-corny inspirational material. This post describes a phenomenon I wish more people would get into their heads (and bodies!): that a more relaxed approach to life and especially more sleep leads not just to a happier existence, but to more powerful performance in your work. To my mind, it goes back to giving your body love if you want to thrive in your life.

Live & Learn

“Study Hacks” answers the question “Why elite players are better than the average players?” in his post titled “If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers.”  Interesting conclusions…

  1. The obvious guess is that the elite players are more dedicated to their craft. That is, they’re willing to put in the long,Tiger Mom-style hours required to get good, while the average players are off goofing around and enjoying life.  The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…The time diaries revealed that both groups spent, on average, the same number of hours on music per week (around 50).
  2. The difference was in how they spent this time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice — the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.
  3. But the researchers weren’t done.  They…

View original post 277 more words

%d bloggers like this: