Caring for Body and Soul – Reconsidering Spiritual Well-Being, Part II

Buddha statues in a temple on Jejudo, South Korea

Continued from yesterday . . .

“In both Buddhist psychology and Western experiential therapy, this process of experiencing and accepting the changing stream of sensations is central to the alchemy of transformation,” writes Tara Brach, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, DC, in her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. “Emotions, a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves, continue to cause suffering until we experience them fully where they live in our body.”5

For many people, though, it’s difficult to stay with whatever emerges around an experience–particularly if it’s related to trauma or other deep emotional/physical holding patterns–because we’re conditioned to not be there. That’s why they’re holding patterns: because we haven’t actually fully entered them and so we can’t exit or relate to them directly. Even if we can recognize a pattern, it doesn’t presuppose we have the skills to let it go. This is where Western psychotherapeutic processes, bodywork, and Eastern approaches for working with the body-mind can complement one another. Once we know how to recognize a pattern, we can then develop the skills to observe it, feel it without reactive patterns, and release it completely.

By understanding different approaches, we can integrate them at different moments in someone’s process, working with what’s appropriate in the moment, as an experience unfolds. For people who do bodywork, this skill is in great demand: how to assist people in contacting the feeling/sensation level of their experience before analysis and language interfere, or even disrupt, the process of accessing and staying with these deep feeling states. That’s not to say that speaking does not help, but timing is everything. Usually while we’re in those places, words aren’t necessary though words may be important later to convey the experience, they aren’t essential to experiencing it.

We sometimes bypass, or over-analyze, or rush past this space. Then stories enter to fill the void, muscles and fascia contract, and breath becomes constricted around those beliefs–and no real shift can happen. Through touch, breath work, or mindfulness-based practices, we can help clients contact the sensations in their body before they create stories about them. Those deep-feeling states can then offer an opening for change to occur. We’ve fallen out of relationship to what’s really happening. Suffering (to use a Buddhist term) or struggle arises when we resist, indulge in, or ignore these very natural movements as they unfold in our bodies and around us.

Mindfully Relating

Brach speaks of bringing attention to the physical sensation of an emotion, noticing but not dwelling in the stories about it. Then we can be fully present to and relate to what’s arising instead of our ideas of what’s arising. This is the basis of mindfulness-based practices. As we do this, we notice that sensations, like emotions, have a limited life span–they come, they go, they change, they fluctuate–but they no longer define (or confine) us into ideas about who we or others are. Stories, however, tend to linger much longer and entrench themselves much deeper.

“Mindfulness is a term that comes from various contemplative traditions, including Buddhism and yoga,” writes Stone in his blog. “[It] begins by going very slowly and noticing how one is affected by and how one responds to experience. Within a therapeutic context, mindfulness practice is often called ‘assisted meditation.’ In therapy, its greatest effect is simply staying present with experience longer. When we stay a little longer with what we notice–an emotion, tension in the body, a belief–we gather more information so that we can study this material without interfering with it.”6

We can’t have a physical holding pattern without a psychological holding pattern and the reverse is also true. Most bodyworkers have experienced this: as soon as we contact deep sensations in the body, people will start talking, either to try to stay in or to develop a story about their experience or sensation, without fully feeling it. Our intention then is to rest with what’s arising, to encourage a quietness and stillness that allows this resting. Our challenge, however, is to do this without being distracted by the stories we, or our clients, tell about what’s happening.

When we practice staying with an experience, without the need to interpret or interfere, we can observe from a place where physical and emotional reactions don’t pull us away from whatever is revealing itself. Our work is to bring awareness continually to these places and to encourage our capacity–and those of our clients–to hold those places in awareness, to just be with what is: different bodily sensations, movements of thoughts, turbulent or pleasant emotions, patterns of tension or release. This involves both releasing into and trusting our experience.

When we fully enter into our own or another’s experience, we realize there’s not that much difference: the stories about and reactions to our pain or tension or joy may change, but we all experience these states. This realization is the great equalizer: we are all interconnected by our very ability to feel deeply. We are intimately in relationship with all that is around us and within us–and because of this, we need to continue the work that we do, to remain awake to all that presents itself. This takes both courage and trust, but in truth, we cannot do otherwise.

Serving Health

As we become more aware of the points where Eastern and Western approaches to health converge, we notice more similarities than differences in the various techniques, disciplines, and philosophies of the body-mind. But what about the areas where these approaches don’t quite meet? Stone sees these places as fertile ground for change.

“As much as it’s important to see how these traditions complement each other, it’s also very exciting to see how they’re different and don’t quite work together,” he says. “Good science, like good spiritual practice, is about ongoing questioning. I’d say this to people who are coming out of any training program, whether as yoga teachers, bodyworkers, or psychologists: move past the paradigm that you’ve studied. Get back to that place where you can question things very deeply, so that when you’re actually working with someone, you can let go of your paradigm and really listen, feel, and learn something.”

This notion of serving whatever arises is the definition of compassion: to simply be present and open to whatever arises. For Stone, it is also the very definition of health. “Health is the ability to serve anything other than our ideas of how things are,” he says. “It’s the ability to feel the reality of interdependence, to consistently feel a sense of intimacy with all things, with the natural world, with other sentient beings. So, where Western medicine defines health mainly by symptom relief, what’s so promising about the convergence of Western psychology, yoga, and Buddhism is a re-thinking of the goal of our healing modalities. When I hear my client or students feeling ‘better,’ what I hear is a sense that they belong, that life is meaningful Self-centeredness is often what we’re left with when we’re caught up in habit and addictions, when we exclude all else. When we come out of this shell of self-centeredness, we reconnect to others and regain health.”

Perhaps bodywork therapy and contemplative practices are not about doing any work per se, but about undoing–just allowing patterns of physical and emotional holding to unravel and fall away, so that a natural process can unfold, and we can live our lives instead of an idea about it. Then, we find openness and freedom–within emotions, sensations, or experiences. We connect fully to our experience and know what to do and how to do it with compassion and with great skill. Then we move toward health as an ongoing commitment. This is really the relationship we commit to: to being fully alive and awake, to honoring all life in the best way that we can.

“Relationship is not a project, it is a grace,” writes Thomas Moore in Soul Mates. “Relationship is not only about the people who interact with each other. It is a vehicle as well to the absolute factors that shape human life fundamentally.”7

In this very process, almost irrespective of technique, we become more honest and real. It is from this place that true healing and transformation happens. When we’re not trying to do anything–unattached to our roles as therapist or client, teacher or student, no longer trying to do anything or to be anyone–then we can deeply feel whatever arises in ourselves and others. Then we know how to respond: maybe as therapists or as clients, but more so as human beings. That, in itself, is a genuine movement toward health and well-being at all levels–incorporating, but not limited to or by, any approach, technique, or tradition.

By Sonia Osorio a certified massage therapist and yoga teacher with a background in natural healthcare, dance, and movement. Her interest is in discovering the places where various traditions and practices meet, finding ways to cultivate our inner resources, and expanding that energy into our lives and out to others. Contact her at sonia@zensations.ca.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, July/August 2008. Copyright 2008. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
NOTES
1 Carolyn Reynolds, excerpted with permission from www.spiritual-fitness.com/pages/main.asp?section=spiritual&page=what_is. Accessed April 2008. Her text is Spiritual Fitness: How to Live in Truth and Trust (Los Angeles: DeVorss, 2005).
2. Ethan Nichtern, One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2007), 9-10.
3. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York: Delacorte Press, 1990), 280.
4. Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver, The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and in Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 18.
5. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003), 117.
6. Excerpted with permission from Michael Stone’s website www.centreofgravity.org/psychotherapy.htm. Accessed April 2008.
7. Thomas Moore, Soul Mates (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 256-257.
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