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My process of embodiment

Here's an essay I did for the IBMT diploma course.

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between a rock and a soft place

In this piece of writing I will be reflecting on my understanding of the materials covered in relation to my personal journey of embodiment during modules one (Infant Movement Development) and two (Authentic Movement and Therapeutic Presence) that I have undertaken for the IBMT diploma during the academic year 2021-2022.

I came across the IBMT diploma course during the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020, when, like many of us, I was pushed to be outside more. More walking, more moving in nature, more being in natural surroundings.  I joined a group which incorporated Authentic Movement principles that met in a local arboretum. I came to truly appreciate an approach which involved pausing, taking the time to give myself my full attention before I moved an inch:

“I am standing still, my eyes are closed, I sense my chest rise and fall as I breathe, the sound of the birds, the wind passing through the trees, the noise of distant traffic. My feet are rooted to the earth. I have no thought, no idea of what will follow. I sense my body moving; my heart is opening. I am seen. I am a part of everything.”

In these movement experiences there was often a recurring theme. It was of a time which I could only describe as being minutes or hours or days (I cannot be sure) after my birth:

“I am on the ground. I am cold, I am numb, I want comfort and warmth and it is not there; I want contact and connection. I imagine doors swinging back and forth and people going past without paying me attention.”

I was interested that I was experiencing the same movement pattern over and over without any intention on my part to do so. Adler (2002) writes:

              “Often insight occurs in direct relationship to a developing embodied consciousness of a movement pattern ….. A movement pattern is a gesture or a series of gestures that spontaneously repeats itself”

If I merely surrendered to my experience after closing my eyes and waited for an inner impulse, this is what emerged. Not every time but with sufficient regularity and similarity that I could not ignore that something was calling me here. There is a sense I was trying to resolve something I had not been consciously aware of before.

In terms of my process of embodiment I would say this was my first experience of a developing conscious awareness of an experience which had previously been hidden. I call it authentic as it arose not from having a story or an idea about this experience or trying to deliberately re-create the scenario. It arose spontaneously from a surrendering of self. It felt as if I had discovered a truth about myself.

It’s interesting that in this practice, Whitehouse (1979) describes the opposite of authentic as being invisible:

“Authentic was the only word I could think of that meant truth – truth of a kind unlearned but there to be seen at moments. The opposite of authentic came to be ‘invisible.’ When one is …. encouraging (people) to become familiar with themselves – one quickly runs into their lack of awareness in certain areas. They have thrown whole parts of themselves away. ….. Not until these areas are brought into conscious belonging can their movement become authentic and the invisibility disappear.”

So it was with this insight I began the diploma course. My reading of the experiences and ideas of Janet Adler and Mary Starks Whitehouse who describe the process of ‘being moved’ rather than ‘moving’ has led me to an enquiry about what embodiment is?

One dictionary definition of embodiment describes it as “a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling”. I wondered if I could embody an experience by just feeling it in my body and then reporting on my experience. This simplistic view of embodiment was my starting point. Through further reading and personal experience, I have discovered it’s a lot more complex than that - there is also the interplay between our conscious and unconscious mind, the need for the integration of different aspects of body and mind and then Body-Mind Centering language which speaks of the “mind” of a particular body system: skeletal, muscular, organ etc. Overlaying all that we have movement patterns leading to an ever changing and dynamic experience of the here and now.

It is complex and I was pleased to discover that Shepherd (2017) had given this some thought:

Embodiment isn’t about quieting the thoughts in the head and noticing the sensations of the body from there—it’s about bringing the abstract intelligence of the head into relationship with the body’s intelligence.

This is in line with the whole philosophy of Body-Mind Centering which is founded on the understanding that mind and body are integrally connected and mutually interactive expressions of being. The starting point for this process is the focus on the individual cell. My intuitive drawing of a cell (right) gives some clue to my felt experience of them. There’s a lot going on in each individual one. The structure is complex. I find it hard to imagine that we all started as a single one of them and with the addition of some other genetic material, the sperm, is all the information that is needed to determine who we are and who we will become. 

 

Somewhere inside of each of us is the early experience of wholeness, as a cell or a collection of cells, the embryo, which stays with us all of our lives. Michael Shea develops this theme when he states in an interview:

“Many healing rituals on this planet depend on taking people back so they can experience their embryo before it became fragmented with their diseases or disorders”

Hartley (1989) points to the importance of the cell in our educational, therapeutic or healing work.

              “Central to the work is the process of awakening awareness at the cellular level to contact the innate intelligence of the body”

The innate intelligence of the body is one of the sources we need to tap into in order to be able to fully process our embodiment. Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen describes the process of embodiment as a being process, not a doing process, not a thinking process. She describes it as an awareness practice in which the guide and the witness dissolve into cellular consciousness.

The content of the course and a kinaesthetic learning approach guided me to an exploration of cellular consciousness. My focus shifted in my movement practices. I developed a deliberate intention to focus my attention on my experiences at a cellular level. I have noticed it’s really difficult to describe these experiences in words and convey what’s actually going on. When I have another person as a witness I have appreciated their presence and sometimes their touch to assist my focus on the cellular, however I have been unable to give a running commentary on what my experience is at the time:

              “I am in a trance, a deep trance where words do not and cannot exist. Every now and again I have a thought or an image and as soon as I attempt to relate this to my witness the thoughts or images are gone. My mouth is open, my breathing is gentle, my body is relaxed, my head is still.”

My external witness reported, afterwards, that I seemed to have entered a deep state of relaxation. My internal witness had been aware of a very different way of being. A place where I was completely in touch with my internal and external world, belonging to neither and both at the same time. Now and again I experienced sensations or thoughts and these did not interfere with a very deep sense of being where I was.

My description of this experience seems inadequate. Is this the experience of cellular consciousness? I cannot say with any certainty and yet a door was opened to another level of awareness which I can and do return to again and again.

My felt experience seems to fit with a description of the process that Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen (1993) gives:

              “Embodiment is the cells’ awareness of themselves. You let go of your conscious mapping. It is a direct experience; there are no intermediary steps or translations. There is no guide, no witness. There is the fully known consciousness of the experienced moment initiated from the cells themselves”

I find it really exciting to think I can access experiences which are apparently long forgotten and yet are still accessible through paying attention to my body. Being open to the possibility of the unconscious becoming conscious has been a revelation and one that seems to work on many levels.

For example, I have found it immensely interesting to note that within the development of each of our individual selves is a reflection, a mirroring of the evolution of us as human animals. In learning about my own development I have been able to experience first-hand some of the stages which make up our evolutionary journey that spans millions of years:

“I’m standing near trees, it’s early morning, it’s cold and frosty, the dappled sunlight falls on my face. Eyes closed, I’m breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. On the out breath I’m making an ‘Ah’ sound. My breathing changes and I begin to open and close my mouth. I must be breathing still, though there is little evidence of this. I am a fish and I move with my soft spine. I twist and turn, back and forth, side to side. I find my way to the forest floor and continue with my flexible soft spine movements, my ankles together as if tied…. Now on my back, my hands and feet are outstretched…. As I turn onto my side I curl up. I’m comfortable and it’s like I’m in the womb. ….. It’s like I have been breathing as if in water and now I’m back to breathing in the air….. On my front. I look around and see a large tree just a little way from where I am. I turn over onto all fours. My weight supported by my hands and my knees and lower legs. I bring my right leg up so I am pressing down with my right foot and put my weight on it. I push off the ground with my hands and get to an upright, vertical position. I walk towards the tree. I lean into the tree with my back against it. I feel the support of the tree. It is solid and strong. I rest a while. I feel safe.” 11th February 2022.

In the space of about fifteen or twenty minutes I seem to have had an experience which I can only describe, on reflection, as the embodiment of human evolutionary development (in brief!). I have somehow been able to access some other memory which I know in my body rather than in my head.

On another occasion I am in the woods again and this time after a period of time with my eyes closed I open them. I’m drawn to exploring the natural environment around me. I find a large pile of wood, mostly in the form of small sticks with some larger branches making an enclosed oval shape. I climb on top of the pile and find myself enclosed by the larger branches. I’m again in the womb. A time before birth, supported and held. This time as well as experiencing a time before birth I had the sense and the images of being on a funeral pyre. I’m waiting for someone to set the wood alight and I will be consumed by the flames and reduced to ashes.

The theme of life and death, arising here and occurring together led me to another stage in my process of embodiment, an interest in polarities. I have already mentioned a few arising out of my experiences above; outside and inside, authentic and invisible, conscious and unconscious, life and death. Some polarities are easily identified along different planes and axis in the body. The horizontal, the vertical, the sagittal, the frontal and so on. In a peer session, at the yoga studio in Harbertonford, I began as I often do with a surrendering of self:

“I find the wall. I think that I cannot relate to an inanimate object that’s cold and hard. It’s painted wood, a pastel purple. My body contracts initially until I put my weight through my back into the wall. I feel the support of the wall. I wonder what the opposite qualities to a cold, hard, firm wall might be. Something soft and warm I imagine. I open my eyes and see my witness across the room sitting on the floor. She embodies softness and warmth. I walk slowly to the centre of the room. It’s now as if I am the rope in a tug o’ war contest. Which way will I go? How can I have both of these ‘qualities’? It is a choice surely?

My witness speaks: “Where do you feel the support of the wall in your body?”

That’s easy it’s in my spine.

“Where do you feel softness and warmth in your body?”

That’s also easy, it’s in my belly.

I become aware of my back body and my front body and the space in between. I already have both polarities existing within me. There is no need to look elsewhere!”

22nd April 2022

Whitehouse (1979) in her article ‘C G Jung and Dance Therapy; Two major principles’, writes at length about polarity:

“Life is never either/or but always the paradox of both/and. This statement looks simple but it is not the way individuals live. Individuals live as if things were always a matter of either/or. They have but to choose and the opposite will go away. It is not true, is it? If you choose in life, you do not get rid of what you did not choose. There is no such thing as choosing only one end of the scale; the other end simply disappears from your awareness, exerting its heaviness, as in a seesaw, from below your consciousness. ….. Applied physically, it is astonishing that no action can be accomplished without the operation of two sets of muscles – one contracting and one extending.”

I had come across the idea of the front body and the back body before and it was not until my session, outlined above that I had a strong embodied experience of it. Shepherd (2017) writes about how, in our culture we value the front body over the back body.

“In our culture, we are all about the front: being up front, facing up to things, presenting ourselves and our opinions and even outfacing our opponents or circumstances. Presentation mode is our go-to option.”

I can relate to this. I know I can ‘do’ a presentation. I can face up to things. It’s easy, though, in this mode to become self-conscious, to present what I wish other people to see, to leave a big part of me behind, literally. My back body is ignored, my spine, my background, my ancestors, my support, my substance. If I am to truly embody all that I am in my life, I cannot leave the parts I would rather ignore or throw away out of the picture. In my movement piece above I initially thought I couldn’t relate to the wall, an inanimate object that’s cold and hard. Now I can see that whilst I do not acknowledge this part of myself it means I am not all here. I am between a rock and a soft place rather than finding both elements in the substance of who I truly am.

My experience of individual movement therapy sessions with accredited practitioners has opened my eyes to a method which respects all of who I am. The conscious and unconscious, the front and the back, the up and the down, the hard and the soft, the yin and the yang, the verbal and the non-verbal, the attractive and the unattractive. There is real support to embrace what is.

My process of embodiment does not end here. My curiosity has been aroused and now my quest for wholeness has begun. I now find myself checking in with my body in any situation, giving myself space to feel into where I am. I am a novice in this process and deeply grateful for the discovery or maybe the re-discovery of my body and deeply grateful for the path I am on.

My understanding of somatic therapy is that it encompasses and works with all aspects of who we are, body and mind. We are also reminded that we have an animal body and we are part of natural life too. The more I can connect to this the more whole I can become. The more whole I can become, the more trustworthy, sincere, sensitive and thoughtful too, based on an aware understanding, acknowledgement and feeling the existence of everything.

June 2022

 

Bibliography

Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow v. 1 (p. 77). Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 1999

Offering from the Conscious Body: Janet Adler. Inner Traditions Publishers. 2002

Wisdom of the Body Moving: Linda Hartley: North Atlantic Books 1995

The First Year and the Rest of Your Life: Ruella Frank, Frances La Barre. Routledge. 2011

Working with the Dreaming Body: Arnold Mindell. Lao Tse Press 1985

Somatic Reality: Stanley Keleman. Center Press 1979

Radical Wholeness: Shepherd, Philip. North Atlantic Books. 2017

Momma and the meaning of life: Yalom. Judy Piatkus (Publishers). 1999

Job’s Body (third edition): Deane Juhan. Barrytown/Station Hill Press 1987, 1998, 2003

The Secret Life of Babies: Mia Kalef. North Atlantic Books. 2014

Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere: A. Westbrook and O. Ratti. Tuttle Publishing 1970

 

References from Websites:

Embryology & The Fluid Core: An Interview with Michael Shea

Embryology & The Fluid Core: An Interview with Michael Shea (coreawareness.com)

Dance/Movement Therapy: Tina Stromsted. Dance/Movement Therapy: Authentic Movement - YouTube

 

References through document:

Offering from the Conscious Body: Janet Adler. Inner Traditions Publishers. 2002, p19-20

 

Whitehouse, Mary Starks (1979); C.G. Jung and Dance Therapy; P.L. Bernstein (ed); Eight theoretical approaches in Dance Movement Therapy; Dubuque, Iowa: Kendal/Hunt

 

Shepherd, Philip. Radical Wholeness (p. 52). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

 

Embryology & The Fluid Core: An Interview with Michael Shea Embryology & The Fluid Core: An Interview with Michael Shea (coreawareness.com)

 

Wisdom of the Body Moving, Linda Hartley. North Atlantic Books. Introduction (p xxx)

 

Sensing, Feeling and Action, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen(1993). Contact Collaborations (third edition, 2012) (p157)

Published in P.L. Bernstein (ed) (1979) Eight Theoretical Approaches in Dance/Movement Therapy. Dubuque, Iowa:Kendall/Hunt

Shepherd, Philip. Radical Wholeness (pp. 264-265). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

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