Authentic Movement,Embodied Witnessing of Transpersonal Experience
Embodied Witnessing of Transpersonal Experience
John F. Kennedy University
For the past four years, in a group with three other women, I am mentoring under the guidance of Janet Adler, a reputed dance movement therapist, a key figure in the development of Authentic Movement, a film-maker, academic writer, wife and mother. Together we explore the practice of Authentic Movement as container and form for moving and witnessing our direct experience of personal and transpersonal material, of physical and energetic phenomena. Both as movers and as witnesses we discover states of being which we struggle to put into language. Our intention is to learn to welcome and withstand transpersonal states in our embodied experience and to come to know the difference between personal and non-personal direct-experience in the body. As we discover certain attributes of transpersonal experience we also work to discover how language may offer a bridge from unitive states back into relationship with one another. Always we share our longing to communicate a perfume or a glimpse of these experiences back to the collective circle. And often we are pointed back to a shared experience of silence and stillness which we recognize as the backdrop of Awareness for all experience. Through this work we open over and over again to personal and transpersonal energy, sometimes as mover and sometimes as witness and we step again and again into the paradox of speaking the unspeakable to one another.
Concurrent to my practice of Authentic Movement, I have been sitting with clients in the context of psychotherapy. Each client is a different constellation and each meeting elicits presence and invites witnessing in a unique way. Most of us as clients bring to therapy the density of our personal struggle, the layers of our ego, the intricate web of individual circumstances, the narrative of our external circumstances and all the patterns which we most commonly identify with in individual life. In the course of a session we relate as therapist and client, from our respective positions on chair and couch, using our role-determined compass to navigate the 50 minutes that we share. And then there may come a moment in which a shift is felt. It is often sudden and difficult to locate in time and space. No objective tracing of causality is really possible, yet from one moment to the next, all feels different: there may be a palpable silence enveloping the room, a stillness which wraps every gesture in peace, a gaze devoid of personal agenda, a waiting which no longer feels like waiting, a spontaneous expression of expansive connection with self and/or other…These are the moments which may never be predicted or made to happen. These are the moments in which therapist and client’s sense of being separate may dissolve into a vaster presence of witnessing; moments in which the spaciousness within which all events arise (movement, tears, words, events…) is known directly as vibrantly alive and may be recognized as the Self we all share as our deepest essence.
I cannot know this space in an objective manner, nor do I want to approach it in any other way then with awe and respect. Yet I find a recurrent longing and necessity to open myself more and more to this realm of phenomena and explore what is known directly through such experience.
In this paper, I wish to focus the inquiry on the act of witnessing another’s movement and presence in the practice of Authentic Movement and more particularly the act and experience of witnessing transpersonal phenomena. Such an investigation may help illuminate the act of presence in the broader context of psychotherapy and perhaps stretch the usual understanding of presence to include a wider range of experience.
In Authentic Movement, there are one or many movers and one or many witnesses. As mover(s) enter the empty space and close their eyes, they wait for an impulse to move, and are invited to surrender to this impulse moment after moment, allowing to be moved into the unknown rather then to direct their expression in any determined way. At the edge of the circle sit(s) the witness(es). Their intention is to offer the mover(s) their clear open presence, attending to the moment by moment experience elicited through their own perception: what do I see and how do I see? Can I physically discern movements and embodiments sourced in the personal body and those sourced in transpersonal phenomena? What am I aware of in my perceptions, in my sensations, at the level of physical boundaries, and in my emotions as the personal appears to dissolve into transpersonal experience? How does the experience of time and space shift in such moments? Do both personal and trans-personal experience co-exist and what does this mean at the level of experience? May I come closer to a respectful exploration of the mysterious qualities of timelessness, spaciousness, peace and clarity which sometimes pervades direct experience of witnessing? What do I learn about Presence? These questions although not formally posed at the moment of witnessing are the questions that propel my cognitive interest and support the longing to develop a spontaneous yet discriminating witness, familiar and at ease with different states of being and various qualities of experience and presence.
As I come closer to conscious relationship with another, with “you” and at the same time remain dwelling in my direct experience, I am touched over and over by a living mystery, an unfolding intelligence.
1- A PERSONAL JOURNEY TOWARDS THE ACT OF WITNESSING NUMINOUS PHENOMENA IN THE PRACTICE OF AUTHENTIC MOVEMENT.
· READING JANET ADLER’S WRITINGS.
In the late 90’s I read a book titled: Arching Backward, the mystical initiation of a contemporary woman. In it, the author, Janet Adler (1995) shares the intimate and poignant story of her spontaneous and dramatic energetic awakening. She describes and transcribes in poetic prose her direct experience of the powerful and often terrifying primal energy which erupted through her body and psyche and required total surrender for over five years of her life. Her words are an offering from her inner witness as she diligently returned to her practice of Authentic Movement over and over again both as a mover and as a witness. Janet Adler’s gift through her book and her work in the discipline of Authentic Movement have profoundly impacted my journey and mirrored my own quest in ways I do not yet understand.
Through the gift of her written words, I as reader am called into deep witnessing.
Janet Adler (1995) shares in words how her whole existence was shaken through and through, as she faced extreme physiological and psychological challenges. She writes: “But death became an active and consistent companion. As though with intention to change my form, it entered my cells through the direct impact of the energy itself and it entered my mind through recurring themes in the vision imagery…the depletion of my physical body became a serious problem, a problem that at times became life threatening”(pp.xvi).
With little knowledge of transpersonal experience or mystical initiation, Janet Adler (1995) faced tremendous solitude. She knew not where to turn to and received little guidance from Western medicine. Receiving teachings from the energy itself, she tells of her experience of surrender to the energy, of not knowing and of receiving. She writes: “This fusion occurred within my body, creating my devotion to a path of not knowing, yet trusting, a path of direct embodied experience of divine energy” (pp.xvi).
Reading her words, I remember feeling deep recognition. Although I knew some of what she was describing at the level of phenomena and its equivalent in my own body, it was the quality of awareness infusing her words and her commitment to surrendering and relating to direct experience through witnessing, that spoke to me so deeply and directly. I was especially moved by the depth of the inner witnessing as she navigated the layers of personal and numinous experience. The attention and presence shinning through her prose was beautifully directed towards the totality of her experience, personal and transpersonal, ordinary and non-ordinary, so that as a reader I was brought over and over again to touch a clear and spacious presence surrounding all events. Reading her words, I remember numerous moments in which the events and content she shared, (always closely woven into her bodily experience, and some of it terrifying and intense), were presented with such acceptance and spaciousness, with equal value given to different order of experience, and with a careful attention to detail, so that I would begin to be bathed in a peaceful tranquility and a deep silence akin to what I had felt entering sacred shrines in India or sitting in the presence of wisdom.
Reading your words, I feel gratitude. Your energy pointing to stillness, your words pointing to silence, Silence and Stillness un-mistakenly here now.
Janet Adler’s (1995) sustained attention to the physical and embodied aspects of her direct experience even when the transpersonal energy was overwhelming was also an important teaching which I have followed since: I have learnt the importance of grounding direct numinous experience in the actuality of physical phenomena and in the specific description of what is happening on the physical plane at the level of the body and sense perceptions: Over and over again in her writing, Janet tells how she learnt through her movement and witnessing practice to strengthened her inner witness and to very gradually develop a deep understanding of how to relate to this energetic phenomenon and allow integration of its transformative fire: “As an initiate, I had learned through trial and error never to interfere with the energy on its path, only to develop a respectful relationship to it…I knew I must not try to integrate such a force, knowing in my bones that it would integrate itself. My commitments continued to be…strengthening my body by constant attention to diet and rest, and clarifying the relationship between surrender and will regarding my experience with the energy” (p.239).
I read Janet’s words. I see a woman surrendering more and more consciously. I cannot know the magnitude of this experience. Yet there is recognition deep inside my being. In the presence of this mystery, I feel grateful.
The resonance with this material was such that a few years later, I had made my way from a busy life in NYC, to the quiet setting of Sebastopol, CA, where synchronicity was to allow me some deep exploration of the practice of witnessing under Janet Adler’s guidance.
Working with Janet, I learnt that surrender to the mystery and the unknown are the only guiding principles within the form of Authentic Movement. In welcoming personal and trans-personal material as witness, there always comes the moment within the practice where I am required to open even more and to welcome a difficult and even unbearable manifestation whether a movement, an expression, a cry or an energetic experience. I learnt to accept the unknowing state in which chaos may unfurl, density may take its grip, discomfort arise, thoughts multiply…and also the state in which peace may descend, silence may surround, clarity may pervade… In those moments, I know nothing but that which arises in my awareness moment after moment, spontaneously.
· PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AS A DANCE THERAPIST.
Earlier in my experience as a dance therapist working with autistic children, I had been called over and over again to offer clear open witnessing in the presence of “non-egoic” phenomena. In a session, a child would move in a seemingly random and disorganized way eliciting in my own experience a sense of fragmentation and a quality of absence. I remember following the invitation to surrender and enter this unfamiliar movement and energetic field, joining the child’s manifested physicality and movement in any way that intuition suggested. As I would surrender to the unknown, there would sometimes come a moment, in which suddenly and mysteriously, out of nowhere, out of absence, came unmistakable presence: for a short timeless moment the little body-soul would became whole, and organized, a gesture would be made which was infused with meaning: a hand reaching, a clear sound uttered, a movement towards relationship and contact as the body became inhabited by presence. Always these moments struck me as special, non-ordinary. Many years later reading Janet Adler’s (1995) own experience with autistic children her words would perfectly mirror my experience. She writes: “The autistic child, my first teachers about the numinous, allowed me to participate in the arrival of spirit into the body as they journeyed into conscious time and space from another, pre-egoic, time and space” (p.117).
These moments, often very short lived stand out vividly in my memory, as do images of clients and peers that I have witnessed in specific moments, through the form of Authentic Movement: moments in which something is happening of another order, when spirit seems to be infusing and re-organizing reality through the body, when consciousness seems to recognize itself directly in a timeless moment, and when gestures as well as whole body movements take on an utterly spontaneous and sacred quality. These moments bring an intangible yet unmistakable quality of that which the mind most likely can never know. Along with the movement expression perceived, the specificity of gestures or position in space and the sense that the mover is being moved and that witnessing is also happening spontaneously, such moments invariably also bring a sense of impersonal presence which may be experienced as an open, even and effortless attention. It is frequent that mover and witness are awed by a shared feeling of non-personal unfolding, where attributes such as timelessness, spaciousness, clarity, intelligence, beauty, order, silence, stillness are offered as words pointing to a direct experience of which nothing can really be known.
As my witnessing practice teaches me, I can never understand with my mind what constitutes these phenomena, nor can I objectify them in any way. But I may recognize them as sacred offerings from life and a clear invitation to come closer and inquire deeply into Truth itself.
2: PERSONAL AND TRANSPERSONAL EXPERIENCE IN THE BODY.
DEFINITION AND REFLECTIONS ON THE MEANING OF TRANSPERSONAL IN PARTICULAR APPLIED TO BODY, IN THE CONTEXT OF TRANSPERSONAL PSYCHOLOGY.
The meaning of the word transpersonal is explored by Cortright (1997) as he investigates the prefix trans. When meaning “above or beyond”, trans attached to “personal”, means a reaching beyond the individual story into other realms (spiritual, energetic, mystical…). With the meaning “across” the word also includes the personal and individual dimensions and story which one traverses, but suggests a larger framework or context within which it is all held. In an inquiry into witnessing transpersonal embodied phenomena the question is: what is this larger framework or context and how is it experienced, perceived, felt as an embodied experience? What other tradition and belief systems have known it and celebrated it? And, how can it inform the healing work of attending to clients?
The writer and philosopher, Dane Rudhyar (1983), exploring the origins and meaning of the word psychology with the prefix trans(personal), mentions a possible connection with Carl G. Jung: “I have used the term since 1930 to represent action which takes place through a person, but which originates in a center of activity existing beyond the level of personhood…To my knowledge I was the first to use the term, though C.G. Jung may already have used it in German…” (p.86). The author is referring here to what Jung named the super-personal unconscious and which he also briefly referred to as the transpersonal unconscious now known as the collective unconscious. As a pioneer of this field, Carl G. Jung believed that the individual psyche exists within a numinous and intelligent all encompassing realm, revealing patterns, and intricate universal meanings (Wittin, 1987). Archetypes and embodied archetypal energies constitute a kind of interface within the conscious and unconscious realms, and between the ego and the Self (understood as the essential core archetype of individual existence). Jung wrote: “The ego receives the light from the Self. Though we know of this Self, yet it is not known…In reality its experience is unlimited and endless…If I were one with the Self, I would have knowledge of everything.” (as cited in Frager,1989 p. 48). His words here point to how thoughts may never grasp the Self since they themselves appear within the Self. This understanding supports Jung life-long engagement with imaginal processes including dreams and active imagination, in which intuition, images and understandings are welcomed from that larger framework. Jung undoubtedly was a formative influence in the field of transpersonal psychology. Mary Whitehouse, the founder of Authentic Movement as a discipline had a strong Jungian orientation. In the therapy modalities inspired from Jung’s work, wholeness is sought through a search for the Self. This search (to simplify greatly), unfolds through the activation of the relationship between the waking ego and the realms of dreams, unconscious, symbols and all numinous material. Moreover the process of self-actualizing is often presented as sacred and/or mystical, akin to ancient esoteric traditions and evocative of the mysteries from which Jung drew his wisdom. “Its subjective experience (the individuation process), conveys the feeling that some supra-personal force is actively intervening in a creative way” (Von Franz as cited in Bogart, 2003 p. 25).
Jung’s model of the psyche and his understanding of a collective unconscious have often deeply resonated with my experience of witnessing in the modality of Authentic Movement. Here, through a stepping into the unknown both as mover and as witness, one invites and activates the numinous realms of the unconscious as if entering a dream. Sometimes, there is a tangible experience of the collective unconscious, unfolding through specific archetypal movement, themes from ancient myths, dance gesture, synchronistic patterns of movement, through which is expressed the individual and collective longing to meet the Self. As witness, one may be honored to see and participate in a re-enactment of a universal and collective archetypal journey or recognize themes found in specific myths…
In a session working with a young woman, R., I was recently invited to witness a beautiful example of an archetypal narrative. This young woman, a wife and a new mother, had been struggling with her longing to remain the innocent, idealized, pure beauty and free spirit which she had so identified with as a child and young adult. I witness her movement:
I see you move through the space. You are walking and now almost skipping, your hands and arms moving lightly through the air, caressing the space around you. A light smile is on your face, as it turns upward as if to feel the warm caress of the sun. Witnessing you I feel free and care-free, my body light and ethereal, my world safe. And now I feel the delight of a mother as she beholds her virginal daughter. All around the air is clean, a gentle breeze, grass swaying here a butterfly and there a pretty flower…
And now I see your movement changing. In a slow transition I see your heels are digging into the ground, and rhythm appears to punctuate your movement. I see you stop and listen, your face serious. Your pelvis moves up and down, and I hear a deep guttural sound coming out of your body. Down you come on all fours, pounding the earth, rooting your pelvis. You are crying. I see you rolling onto your back, legs bent, slightly apart, open. You are crying as your pelvis moves up at times. Witnessing you here, I feel a descent into a deeper darker place within my body. As I see you descend, I feel my own descent and with it the pain and grief of surrender in my flesh. Witnessing you here I feel a surge of sexual and instinctual energy at the very root of my body. Witnessing you here I feel the sadness of a mother loosing her daughter…
Beholding my client, it became suddenly very apparent that I was witnessing a re-enactment of the myth of Persephone. I felt the delight and innocence of Kore as she indulged in her young carefree sauntering. And I clearly saw and felt the transition towards the underworld. Witnessing her descent I could sense the forces of the darker instincts ravishing this young virginal energy. The experience was powerful in my body. And as I contemplated my client lying on the floor struggling and crying, I felt the despair of Demeter losing her own daughter….
Since this movement session, my client has continued to explore her internalized split and has taken beautiful steps towards integrating a more grounded and mature experience of her feminine nature.
Psychoanalytical work inspired by Freudian thought opened the door to the idea of an unconscious realm, a place where things happen beyond ego control. Maslow and the field of humanistic psychology introduced new ideas to the realm of human experience which included notions of transcendence and peak experience. Maslow believed in a fourth Force Psychology: “transpersonal, transhuman, centered in the cosmos…going beyond humanness, identity self-actualization and the like…” (Maslow as cited by Frager, 1989, p.128)
Many other leading names include somatic and body approaches as important contributions to the field of trans-personal psychology. It has become obvious in my experience, that consciously re-inhabiting my body constitutes a true portal into the mystery of spirit as it incarnates. Because I as most Westerners am/was mostly imprisoned in thought and mind, working towards conscious embodiment can constitute an enormous realm of experience in which the senses and the soul meet. To step back into the body is to step back into wholeness or in the words of Jungian Analyst Robin Van Loben Sels (2005), “The threshold of consciousness is a bodily threshold even for dreams. Without body we cannot bring our psycho-physiological experience to a felt experience. The body is a part of soul. That called body is a portion of the soul discerned by the five senses” (p.220).
Modalities focused on conscious embodiment such as Feldenkrais or Alexander, systems of energy work focusing on defense mechanisms as they are held in the body such as Reichian, bio-energetic or Lowen approaches, Systems of Eastern exercises such as Tai Chi Chuan or Yoga, all focus on the whole person and facilitate a broader awareness of experience. Authentic Movement offers its own unique way to re-discover our essential relationship to the body experience in that it allows a simultaneous experience of the manifest (whether personal, collective or transpersonal embodied phenomena) and the invisible so that in a journey through sound we are brought to silence, in our journey through movement we are brought to stillness, in our journey through confusion and chaos we are brought to order and clarity.
· A BRIEF EXPLORATION OF PERSONAL EXPRESSIONS OF THE BODY IN MOVEMENT.
It is arbitrary and risky to distinguish between personal and transpersonal experience and embodied phenomena. For although it is apparent that experience unfolds along a continuum which comprises different qualities of experience: some ego-based and some seemingly trans-egoic, it seems that the only perfect experience is the one which unfolds right here and right this moment, be it of an emotional nature, a reflexive nature, a mystical nature etc…The danger of labeling this one personal and that one trans-personal lies in the not so subtle implications of language: trans-personal experience is of a higher order of experience and is idealized while ego-based experience becomes shameful, distasteful, ignored. And thus the spiritual by-pass develops as a norm. In my personal work in an on-going group of Authentic Movement, our inquiry has focused on energetic phenomena of an impersonal nature. Although there was never an explicit hierarchical discrimination between personal and transpersonal material, this split occurred quietly, as an unconscious bias. Eventually, I had to examine my underlying preferences concerning the nature of experience and how I organized phenomenal events according to their “rank” as transpersonal or personal: witnessing myself in this process of unmasking, I saw once again the infinite ways that the ego creates to feed the illusion of control. Seeing this, I could once again be open without intention.
Clearly in the journey towards consciousness, we must enter the density of our deepest darkest experiences as they are ready to be brought into the light of consciousness. As we travel in and through the dark unknown we may emerge back into the light of wholeness. This can only happen through our bodies. As Rumi says “The physical form is of great importance: nothing can be done without the association of the form and the essence…the body is fundamental and necessary for the realization of the divine intention.”
Movement that finds its source in personal experience presents certain specific qualities which a witness will perceive recognize and respond to. As Mary Whitehouse (1965) writes: “The body is the physical aspect of the personality and movement is the personality made visible. The distortions, tensions and restrictions are the distortions, tensions and restrictions within the personality. They are at any given moment, the conditions of the psyche” ( p.17).
Gestures and movement of a personal nature which arise in Authentic Movement present with a defined sense of agency, the presence of an “I”. The impulse behind such movements and gestures is often emotional, connected to the mover’s individual history, trauma, struggle…Movement sequences unfold along a linear timeline with a clear beginning middle and end. There is often a narrative with a clear sense of a subject relating to itself or the environment. Emotions which live beneath the surface of our daily life, find a channel of expression through the body.
There is the individual movement of sadness and grief: I see you lying still waiting. You lay waiting. I see your fists close as you roll to your side, bending your knees towards your forehead. I hear crying.
There is the individual dance of anger: I see you standing over there in the space. Now you are walking slowly and now faster. Your lips are tightly shut and I see you stop now as you stamp your feet, pounding the ground. Your pelvis moves, your knees bend as you stamp rhythmically. I hear a loud deep cry resonating in the space. I am clearly aware of the contour of your body.
Defense mechanisms will be revealed for what they are at the somatic level and often be dismantled in the course of practicing Authentic Movement. Repression for example may be embodied as a contraction held in the upper torso and neck area which inhibits the movement. This inhibition if explored may become a dark character with a full range of expression and negative emotions: anger, control, hate…If expressed and moved to its completion, there may be a transformation of the energy and its expression into a fuller, livelier and ultimately healthier manifestation of vitality.
Often when there is a group of movers, contact is made between individuals:
I see you lying on the floor, you are crying. Now I see a second mover crawl up to you and stop, her hand outreached. Now she is touching your back, exploring this body part. I see you roll away…
Here one’s habitual patterns of relationship are elicited as well as the deeper, older emotions held in our bodies and in the gestures of reaching, opening, turning away, coming towards, caressing, touching etc… In moving patterns of relationship there is tremendous potential to witness vulnerable personal material as it seeks a new resolution or simply a fuller expression.
Unresolved stages of a person’s developmental experience commonly surface here as the energy that is stuck in the cellular and muscle memory is allowed release and manifestation. As historical unconscious material is welcomed into embodied consciousness, a mover may re-visit infantile states, re-live a particular trauma, and experience the emotions which rule a specific stage of development. Perhaps a developmental block will be re-experienced with less fear and a new element of growth discovered…
A BRIEF EXPLORATION OF THE PROCESS OF WITNESSING THE PERSONAL BODY.
Witnessing a mover as she embodies phenomena of a personal nature offers an opportunity to experience kinesthetic and somatic empathy and counter-transference. There are many ways in which this may unfold in the body of a witness and only a few will be mentioned here. For example, a specific emotion embodied by a mover in the space may elicit a corresponding feeling inside one’s own body. Or an absence of emotional expression as the mover embodies a struggle or difficult experience may awaken the “missing” affect in the witness. Sometimes, sitting at the edge of the circle, the witness may become very aware of a specific body part, feeling a constriction, a density, a quality of energy, or an awakening…this is invariably a kinesthetic and somatic response to a physical and energetic state experienced or about to be experienced by the mover. A dance-movement therapist I. Fiedler writes: “Kinesthetic empathy is, more particularly the bodily process of taking in or tuning into a client’s movement and bodily responses. This mutual bodily experience leads to a simultaneous reverberation of related feelings, to synchronicity as a state of kinesthetic empathy… The dance –movement therapist uses her body to receive, contain and interpret the patient’s felt experience; Thus the therapist’s body becomes a resonating chamber” (p.41).
In my own experience as a witness, there are discerning characteristic of being in the presence of personal experience. I am always aware of being located inside my own skin, in a specific area of the space, and often very aware of my boundaries. I may for example feel the temperature on my skin or sense the edge of the wall where my back meets it. I always have an overall proprioceptive sensation of my whole body posture oriented in space, aware of the anatomy of my person-hood with a head sitting on a vertical spine, with “my” thinking center located in the forehead, and “my” feeling center located in the heart. The general experience thus is of “you” moving over there, and “I” sitting over here. The localization of the “me-ness” and the “you-ness” is marked in space through all these perceived experiences and by the experience of the empty space which seemingly separates us. As you the mover are identified with an emotion or a piece of your story, I the witness may very well feel a corresponding density of identity, felt in my soma and also through the thoughts feelings and personal memories which may appear during the experience.
In most of the literature concerning transpersonal psychology and spiritual emergency the importance of ego strength and the capacity to contain transpersonal phenomena is frequently stressed. It has been my experience that I began to be interested and to actively challenge the frontier of my conscious identity and self-identification at a time when I was stronger from an ego point of view. It was the work I had done in my earlier verbal therapy as well as maturing through life experience which seemed to have strengthened my ability to contain new and more numinous and intense experiences. Yet paradoxically the welcoming of numinous or transpersonal experience always coincided with a certain psychological terrain. It was through the embodied experiences of very core wounds that I was invited to enter into a vaster and more expanded state. It was often in times of extreme vulnerability, when my sense of self felt disorganized and chaotic, when I surrendered to an almost overwhelming experience of grief or rage that an opening took place, infusing my body and my movement with new energies and new experiences. Cortright (1997), tells us that trauma and personal wounding, “create more tenuous intrapsychic structure so that the individual’s boundaries are more porous and open to unconscious forces…” (p.168). Janet Adler (2002), notes the relationship between traces of trauma in the body and transpersonal manifestation in Authentic Movement. She writes: “It is not uncommon for a gesture that forms within a body memory of a trauma to become the gesture which marks a gateway into transpersonal experiences” (p.232).
TRANSPERSONAL ENERGY EMBODIED.
“In the beginning, there was not the word, but rather there was the symbolic action, a union of body and psyche. In the beginning, dance was the sacred language through which we communicated with the vast unknown. In these earlier times, the dancer was at the same time healer and priest. Then through the centuries, in the name of progress and civilization, mind and body were split apart” (Chodorow 1984, p.39).
Through my interest in Indian Vedanta and mystical experience in general, I have read or heard of the lives of many saints and/or mystics in India and other places. It is my understanding that “non-ordinary experiences in the body” have been a part of human existence for thousands of years. States of Samadhi, spontaneous movement or mudras, ecstatic chanting or dancing, speaking in tongues, visions, non-ordinary energetic states…are considered the hallmark of awakening to spirit in many cultures and mystical traditions.
As movers in the practice of Authentic Movement, we step into an empty space, closing our eyes and opening ourselves to the emptiness. Often we have lit a candle; maybe we are wearing a special shawl or holding a stone. Perhaps we have contemplated the emptiness in the quiet presence of others before entering the circle. Perhaps we have made eye contact with our witness as a ritual way to acknowledge the sacredness of the form and to mark the threshold which is about to be crossed. What has guided us to this moment of surrender and to this movement practice is unquestionably a mysterious and powerful longing to surrender.
In this longing:
“I see you walk three times around the stone bowl. Now you lie on your back, slowly and carefully stretching your limbs, opening your arms, offering your palms up, breathing. You are open, you are waiting. ”
In this opening:
“I see you kneeling down towards the ground. Your cupped hands are making repetitive parting gestures. You are opening the earth, opening the earth. I hear you cry into the ground, calling, calling…”
In this waiting:
“I see you kneeling facing this specific way. Your hands are folded on your lap, you are still, you are waiting in perfect stillness…”
Longing, opening and waiting…
Ramakrishna (1836-1886), a great Saint of India reportedly experienced intense states of trance in which he merged with the Goddess Kali, often dressing himself as a woman and spontaneously exploring the edges of transpersonal identity (Isherwood, 1965). He wrote “the energy by which the body is pervaded is the same as that which illuminates the world and maintains alive all beings” (Ramakrishna as cited by Sannella, 1981, p.20), and reportedly described kundalini energy as”five kinds, in which one feels the sensation of the Spiritual Current like the movement of an ant, a fish, a monkey, a bird or a serpent…” (Ramakrishna as cited in Irving, 1995 p.76).
Sainte Therese de Lisieux (1873-1897) a French Carmelite nun, experienced states described in writing as “convulsions occasionally so violent that she would be thrown out of her bed”(Sannella, 1981, p.16). Swami Muktananda writes in his biography of his experience of kundalini energy: “My body was heated up and my head became heavy…the spinal base was rent with pain…” (Muktananda as cited in Sannella, 1981, p.21).
As the energy begins to move, certain qualities of transpersonal phenomena may be known and described. It seems important to remember that the purpose of a description is neither to generalize not to objectify, but to attempt to evoke qualities of energetic phenomena which seem to recur in movers experiences.
As a mover opens herself over and over again to layers of energy and movement which may feel deeply unfamiliar, irrational and even crazy, a lot may happen at the manifest level. In the process of letting go of ego structures, and the will to control experience, there is often a descent into chaos, as thoughts feelings and habitual patterns are expressed randomly, as they come up, seemingly out of logical sequence. At the same time, there may well be a struggle to remain in control by the forces of the ego as well as the unleashing of strong inner critic material attempting to prevent the breakdown of what holds the ego in apparent safety. One may become overwhelmed with grief, shame, and despair as old constrictions are felt, as new energy is unleashed, as one’s identity is shattered. At such times it may be useful for a facilitator, a therapist and even a person opening to such intense material to be provided with some theoretical framework grounded in the Western thought system. This can provide additional support, in addition to the descriptions of mystical experiences within the Eastern traditions.
Michael Washburn (1995) in his book The Ego and the Dynamic Ground offers a developmental view of a human life, drawing from ego psychology, Freudian thought, Jungian and existential psychology ideas as well as trans-personal psychology. His model seems to provide an interesting frame of reference for the experience of transpersonal energy moving through the body. In his comprehensive understanding of human development there are potentially three main stages, pre-egoic, egoic and trans-egoic. If and when the latter stage (trans-egoic) unfolds, an individual experiences a “regression in service of transcendence”(Wasburn, p.7), by which the ego returns to its place of origin: the Dynamic Ground. Here a mover may be experiencing chaos, broken sequences of movement, unfamiliar sensations…
Through a renewed dialectic relationship to this original matrix from which all emerges, there unfolds a transformative process of regeneration by which the spiritual dimension of human experience is more fully lived (Washburn, 1995). This process in Washburn’s view is not a linear unfolding but rather a spiraling and changing dialectical relationship between the ego-identity and the original matrix named the Dynamic Ground. In his writing, Washburn is able to evoke and describe an organic experience while including concepts drawn from ego psychology and psycho-analytic thinking. A closer look at Washburn’s theory resonates with my own embodied understanding of energetic phenomena and spiritual emergency. His idea of the Dynamic Ground is inclusive of Freud’s concept of libidinal realm and id and of Jung’s idea of psychic energy, the deep unconscious and collective unconscious. However, the Dynamic Ground is vaster then these ideas and inclusive of all energy, power, spirit, and life force. The language this author chooses to describe Dynamic Ground evokes a quality of aliveness and potentiality found in descriptions of Kundalini energy. In Wasburn’s lexicon, it is the “source and the flowing power”, “the energizer of all psychic processes”, it is “gravitationally or magnetically attractive”, and can also “seize” the ego sometimes “absorbing and dissolving” the ego. For most people, the Dynamic Ground is “reduced to a dormant state” until it does break through and “awakens”. The experience is both an “upheaval and fall” for the ego, i.e. a return of the repressed: upheaval, and a regression of the repressor: fall. Later the Dynamic Ground reveals itself in its “pure or pristine” form, “luminous consciousness, freed spirit” (Washburn, 1995, pp.121-130).
As described by individuals who have experienced transpersonal states, Washburn describes a process whereby, repression is lifted and the force of the Dynamic Ground emerges sometimes with violence and/or bizarre symptoms. He writes that in pushing against tensions, “the power of the ground may at times feel like a heavy energy current or searing molten liquid”, and “the body becomes polymorphously sensual” (Washburn, 1995, p.197). Particularly evocative and resonant with my own understanding of the direct experience of transpersonal phenomena is this author’s vivid description of what he names “the purging of mental-egoic resistance” (Washburn, 1995, p.207). Here the process is compared to the labor of giving birth and the language used to describe the experience is embodied in such a way to echo direct experience rather then objectify it. The difference writes Washburn, between physical labor and spiritual labor, is that physical labor is “expulsive”, while spiritual labor is “infusive”(Washburn, 1995, p.211).
The depth and breath of this author’s investigation and description is a gift to the individual who is traversing a seemingly desperate and solitary situation at times. For a kinesthetic person in particular, Washburn’s vocabulary and concepts evoke a strong connection between the body and the energy of the earth, which in Authentic Movement, constitutes the principal phenomena.
Over time, as a mover returns again and again to the practice of Authentic Movement, as she opens and surrenders, allowing all this material to move through, she will begin to trust the impulse of a new quality of energy. Janet Adler(1992) writes: “I re-awakened to the sacred, directly experiencing the numinous as physical sensation in my body rather than channeled through my mind or emotions” (p.118). And she describes a new way of knowing “as though one is being moved, taken, penetrated, rearranged, infused…without the density of emotion or thought (Adler, 1987, p.209).
Gradually a mover may be moved by an impersonal energy, inviting new qualities, new movements and gestures, new relationships to time and space.
Now I see you moving in a new way. You advance through the space slowly, evenly. You seem to float. Now you stop and your head tilts up. I see your mouth open ever so slowly as your hands reach up towards your face.
There is often a weightless quality which permeates transpersonal movement, accompanied by a sense of seamless flow. The movement can unfold very slowly, sometimes in slow motion as if every micro-movement was being opened, permeated and perceived by a new and mysterious force. Janet Adler (1999) remarks: “In mystical experience, sensation is perception through any or all of the five senses plus another sense which is nameless” (p.166).
Other times the body may be moved by quick jolts which seem to penetrate areas of the body with suddenness, as if the energy were forcing its way through density:
I see your shoulders moving quickly and suddenly towards and away from each other. The movement happens so fast, traversing your upper body like a flash of lightning.
New movements and gesture may appear over and over again in a mover’s repertoire, signaling the presence of the numinous and over time becoming part of a sacred repertoire:
Now I see one hand and now the other coming together. Your fingers are parted, each finger making contact with its mirror finger, your hand forming an open triangle. I know this gesture and have seen you make it over and over again. I see you move this triangle slowly towards your third eye as your entire fingers move towards each other. You touch your third eye with all your fingers.
Hands may form mudras (sacred shapes made with hands and fingers), gestures may become highly ritualized, arms may gesticulate in specific and rhythmic ways, familiar and universal motions and postures of prayer may manifest.
I see you kneeling, your hands joined in prayer, your face bowing down...
I see you prostrating, your torso coming down, your forehead to the ground, your torso coming up as you turn your face to the sky, and now down again.
I see your hands offering out in front of you as you kneel. Your face is looking slightly up.
I see your right hand coming to your heart and your left resting on your belly as you stand here now, perfectly still.
There are often gestures directed to the body orifices, eyes, ears, mouth belly button, and yoni. In my own movement practice a ritual gesture comes back over and over: my fingers coming close to the side of my temples and pulling invisible strands of light out and away from me very slowly. I have seen other mover’s patterns repeated time and time again like a moving mantra. Sometimes there are not only gestures but full movement sequences arising from the stillness.
Breathing patterns take on specific qualities, sometimes fast and rhythmic sometimes very slow and quiet, sometimes stopping for short moments. Sometimes the inhale comes into the foreground as a gesture or movement manifests. On the exhale there is a return to the stillness and neutral position of waiting. It is a dance of manifestation and dissolution through the breath.
Often, alignment and direction in space can become impeccably specific and ritualized.
I see you circling around three times, counter-clockwise. You stop. You are facing the stone bowl. Now, you have shifted slightly, just so, and again. And now you seem to find the right alignment as you stand perfectly still.
Movement of a transpersonal nature can be accompanied by affect.
I see you walk out into the space. At the center you stop and lay your small carpet down. Slowly you place your body on your back, knees bent arms extended, palms open. You breathe gently. Now your face contracts, your torso heaves, you are sobbing. You breathe. Around you there is silence and stillness. Now the crying is stopping slowly, on its own.
Expressions of emotion appear yet they seem to travel through and out of the body easily and clearly, like a cloud through a clear sky, free of any attachment or “personal stickiness”. Sometimes the expression on the face presents an image of great peace, quiet joy, or lasting bliss. At other times an expression of joy and expansion may co-exist with racking sobs and sounds of grief.
Movements of a transpersonal nature can also be accompanied by sound. These may be perceived as vibrations with the body becoming an instrument for resonance. Often what is heard sounds full and resonant, crystal clear as it emerges from a palpable silence. The mouth opens to a determined shape and it is the whole body which sounds whether letting out a deep guttural sound or a high pitched cry. Vocalizations appear as utterly spontaneous and unpredictable. As with the specificity of gestures and movement, the spontaneous and impeccable chanting, humming, or sounding which emerges feels guided by intelligence beyond the mind.
WITNESSING THE TRANSPERSONAL BODY.
It is being found that there is a recrudescence of people experiencing “para-normal” states which go beyond ordinary levels of consciousness and while these phenomena may be pointing to a positive development of inter-dimensional consciousness, very few people have a contextual framework to help contain and support such an experience.
The cultural context seems in many ways, to determine how the phenomena is welcomed, understood and integrated. In India as in many other cultures, the spiritual dimension has not been split off from human experience as in the Western world. Thus a container is readily in place for spontaneous spiritual awakening, and the notion of spiritual emergency, used to describe equivalent experience in our culture, is un-necessary.
In contrast post-modern western civilization has turned towards materialism and away from spirit, has celebrated the individual over the community, and has empowered reason over intuition and wisdom. This explains the intensity of experience which individuals in the West describe as they open to “spiritual states.”
My first gleanings into the topic of transpersonal phenomena have been a welcomed surprise, as I find that this area is in fact being investigated with serious consideration by clinicians, psychologists and academics who are interested in questions of consciousness and its evolution. As investigations have been made into altered states of consciousness, Eastern practices and psychedelic experience, the forbearers of transpersonal psychology, Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli, Abraham Maslow for example, have recognized and delineated new frontiers for human consciousness. Broader models and maps of the human psyche and of individual development have been offered. The concept of transcendence, of going beyond the ego, of connecting with the numinous and/or spiritual object has been investigated extensively. Some of the assumptions implicit and/or held as facts in the models proposed by “Orthodox” Western psychology are being seriously challenged. For example the idea that knowledge is a concept of the mind, a hypothesis supported by sensorial evidence and that there is no certain or direct knowledge of anything is challenged by transpersonal psychology which argues that in fact there are modes of direct experience and knowing in which certainty and truth is revealed absolutely. Transpersonal theory poses new questions concerning for example where non-ordinary experiences take place within the field of consciousness, (is it a local or non-local experience), how these experiences can be built into a multidimensional developmental model, how a clinician may work with a client having such an experience, and how to diagnose a transpersonal experience integrating traditional psychological assessment tools as well as more esoteric and intuition based approaches.
In Authentic Movement, the first experiences of witnessing impersonal or transpersonal energy are often described as difficult, confusing sometimes excruciating and hardly bearable. At first, and because of our strong conditionings in favor of ego-control and rational forms of knowing, it is very difficult to surrender ones witnessing body to a completely unknown reality while still experiencing one’s own presence. It takes practice and discipline to become intimate and comfortable with certain physiological and somatic experiences when attending to transpersonal phenomena, and it takes time to wholly re-member an embodied dimension of the human experience which in the West has been buried deeply into the recesses of our being.
In the presence of energetic phenomena sourced in impersonal presence, the witness’ direct experience is manifold. Echoed at the surface of my memory I hear the words of witnessing like a chant offered to movers by my peers and by me over the years of sharing this practice.
I see you…I feel present…I see you… I am presence.
I see you…I sense my boundaries becoming more porous; my body no longer feels dense. I am expanding out into the space.
I see you…I feel awake and alert. I know that I must witness you here.
I see you here; I feel my body shifting in an indescribable way. Will I be able to remain present?
I see you move and I touch the stillness around each movement. I hear you and I touch the silence around each sound...
I see you…My body is a stone bowl being chiseled piece by piece into a larger vessel. Carved away am I. It hurts. It must be….
I see you…I know myself. I feel gratitude.
In welcoming transpersonal phenomena in a mover, there is often a corresponding shift of experience inside the witness. In the beginning there may be fear and cognitive attempts at making sense of what is being perceived, yet it seems that over time the capacity to endure and open to these experiences grows. The familiarity with specific energetic and somatic experiences gradually develops so that the welcoming presence continues to expand and clarify. Janet Adler (1989) writes: “we have made the assumption that the mover can only go as far as her witness has gone. Consciousness of transpersonal energy in the experience of the witness automatically expands the potential experience of the mover” (p.147).
Verbalizing direct experience of a transpersonal nature in a didactic manner presents a serious challenge. For such experiences eludes conceptualization and seems to reside beyond the mind. Here, a few experiences which seem to recur within the embodied experience of witnesses will be mentioned. However, this description is intended more as an evocation of experience rather then an objective description of phenomena.
Witnesses mention a shift in their experience of boundaries. Sometimes this is known through a sense of the skin becoming more porous, or through the mass of the body loosing its felt sense of density. Sometimes the somatic perception of different sensations in the body becomes more unified. And there is a felt recognition that sensations are free floating in an unlimited space, like fish in an aquarium without walls.
Witnesses mention a shift in their experience of seeing. Some describe how their gaze expands, or softens, or becomes effortless. They describe seeing in a unified way, becoming less aware of edges and boundaries, equally perceiving matter and emptiness. This resonates with descriptions of mystical seeing: “The medieval theologians taught that we have a- the eye of the flesh, which sees worldly things, b-the eye of reason, by which we know mind and concepts and c- the eye of contemplation, by which we know transcendent, spiritual realities” (Metzner, 1986, p.36).
Witnesses mention a shift in their experience of being located in space. They describe an experience of inhabiting the transpersonal energy field created between witness and mover. Sometimes they are able to witness and verbalize an experience of dissolution of separation. As they describe a direct experience of beholding, they speak of entering into the moment rather then surveying it and meeting with it such as it is. At such times, the distinction between the seer and the seeing disappears in presence. In such moments the experience of knowing seems to coincide with the disappearance of a felt separation between subject and object: it is a direct knowing or understanding. “All knowledge that is constituted by an immediate encounter with the known object, rather than with a representation corresponding with it, falls under the rubric of knowledge by presence” (Khan, 2000, p.152).
Witnesses mention an experience of inner stillness.
Witnesses mention an experience of inner silence.
Witnesses mention an experience of emptiness.
Witnesses mention an experience of timelessness.
Witnesses mention an experience of spaciousness…
Janet Adler writes: “the witness can become empty in moments of direct experience. There are times when the mover knows when moving and the witness knows in witnessing that they are in a unitive state. Here the quality of experience for each is specific, imbued with timeless and infinite space” (Adler, p.209).
Within the form of Authentic Movement there are elements of the practice which facilitate and support the development of the witnessing consciousness. As the session begins, clear and ritual boundaries are acknowledged. Witnesses take their place, often the same one each time, sitting comfortably or standing when the energy so requires. The length of time assigned to the moving period is determined, and a chime or gentle call is used to mark the beginning and end of the experience. When the form is practiced as a group, witnesses form a circle around the empty space using the archetypal structure in space to hold whatever will unfold. If strong energetic phenomena emerge from the mover(s), a witness may call upon the support of her fellow witnesses by simply opening her arms out. The other witnesses will then follow suit to reinforce the embodied sense of a container. In learning how to witness, one develops a capacity to track the specific physical event which unfolds in space. In the beginning a witness is encouraged to remember the specific details of movements and gestures as they unfold in the space. This exercise helps to ground the energy and over time becomes internalized and spontaneous. In addition in speaking with the mover, the witness is able to provide physical landmarks to help ground an experience which may be confusing and overwhelming.
Other helpful elements include ritual gestures such as cleaning the space before a session, lighting a candle, marking the end of a witnessing period with a specific gesture etc…
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE WITNESSING PRESENCE. IMPLICATIONS FOR TRANSPERSONAL PSYCHOTHERAPY.
To the question how may a transpersonal psychotherapist’ presence be sensitive to transpersonal states, the answer of course is of wide range and highly subjective to the presenting case and who the therapist is. According to the research and following my own understanding and direct experience of numinous phenomena, it seems of primary importance to see and make space for the client’s experience. Here as in the witnessing practice of Authentic Movement, a therapist may cultivate non-dual presence, welcoming silence, stillness, the clear empty space and the experience of dissolution of personal boundary while knowing awareness. A transpersonal psychologist, K.R. Speeth (1982) describes this all-encompassing presence. He writes: “there is a feeling of impartiality, of spaciousness, of breadth of vision. One is mindful of whatever is the case, moment by moment. The idea is not to be fascinated or fixed upon any one thing, but to allow the attention to be flexible and to stay with whatever is in the field of perception. There is no possibility of disturbance or distraction in this form of meditation because there is no attempt made to keep any object in the foreground, neither is there anything to oppose” (p.151). With such a quality of attunement and enhanced presence comes the possibility for thoughts feelings and interventions to emerge spontaneously out of this open awareness. Such a presence is devoid of an agenda other then things being exactly as they are. It offers a client a non-judging and benevolent welcoming which ultimately may mirror the client’s own deeper capacity to be with life as it is.
Validation and reassurance that a client is having a certain experience and is entitled to this, that this is truly happening and is very important, seems crucial to lift the mantle of shame and confusion which surrounds experiences of awakening to transpersonal material. Educating the client and providing a context for the phenomena may be extremely useful. Another crucial ingredient for supporting such a client is working with the body. As spirit attempts to break through matter, the body may be challenged intensely. As described throughout this paper, the body becomes in many ways the vehicle for experiencing the energy, for coming into relationship with it and learning to surrender to it safely, as well as to reclaim boundaries when it is time. Often, the physical sensations may include pain, digestive disturbances, temperature fluctuations… Breath work, bodywork, movement practices such as Authentic Movement, and an understanding of the energy centers in the body, may be important tools to help move and ground the energy. Also important may be helping the client follow her own intuitive ways to contain her experience, in the therapy sessions and also when alone. A person may need to make sacred space, have specific rituals, or spend time in nature. This and the therapist’s presence may be important elements to ensure a sense of protection and safe space.
In all my readings of current transpersonal psychology theory, it is encouraging to note that energetic phenomena and spiritual emergency is now legitimate and recognized to the point of having a place in the conventional diagnosis reference. Many helpful systems and theoretical models frame experiences of unitive states and kundalini awakening. Some provide evocative language to render these experiences. Like maps, they provide an idea of the journey’s distance and terrain, direction and hypothetical conditions based on specific variables. However like maps, they are by no means the landscape itself. Theory by its very nature conceptualizes and generalizes. While phenomena moves us towards wholeness, the paradox of theory is that it ultimately separates us from direct experience. At its most integrative, it remains a system of ideas elaborated and apprehended using the mental plane as center of gravity. While a very helpful tool, no theory should ever replace that which eludes theory i.e. its core subject: the direct experience of a person. As a clinician I believe our first obligation resides in the fresh witnessing of our client’s sacred and unique experience.
At a recent retreat with an Advaita (non-duality) teacher named Francis Lucille (2003), a question was asked on psychotherapy. The teacher answered lengthily and eloquently. What landed in my memory follows in my own words: The purpose of psychology, he said, has never been happiness. At the most, the purpose of psychology is a rearranging of the patterns, replacing certain patterns with new and more acceptable ones. Happiness is elusive to psychology since it is elusive to the mind. Within the mind, happiness is not found. If one seeks happiness, one is more likely to find it by reading the Gospel, then by going to see a therapist, unless this therapist reads the Gospel. I thought of my commitment to Authentic Movement.
The teacher added teasingly that the first question a person should ask as they seek happiness and a new therapist is: Is this therapist happy? Describing the nature of the therapist’ listening presence, he used words such as global, welcoming, impersonal and loving and explained simply and beautifully how within this “global and welcoming listening”, everything one needed to say and do would be given, to help heal at personal levels and often at levels beyond the personal story. (Lucille,Advaita Retreat, April 2003)
Slowly as I listened, I felt excitement rise within me. Finally the interface I had been reaching for inside myself between the realm of psychology and the experience and understanding of Truth, were being mirrored in a simple and beautiful statement. As a budding transpersonal therapist, I was being reminded that duty lies not with the problem presented by the client, but with the Self of the client, the deeper and more essential ground of his/her being. My main tool, beyond any technique was my own connection to Presence and the quality of effortless listening which could flow from it.
Ram Dass (1975), in an article of the Journal for Transpersonal Psychology also confirms the clear and inspiring meaning of transpersonal psychology as I come to hold it in my own understanding. He too reminds us that behind any client’s “melodrama”, there is a being. He writes: “You can only see a being who is being a child if, when you look at yourself, you see, not a psychiatrist but a being who’s being a psychiatrist” (p.32). Both Ram Dass and Francis Lucille along with many others point towards the same direction: a quality of presence in the therapist, an acknowledgment and deep understanding of what a person is and is not, the idea and experience of our true nature and the understanding that we are all held within that which has been named Consciousness, God, Truth, Presence… Such ideas are inspiring and promising as a prelude for inquiring into transpersonal psychology.
“I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
And I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still don’t know if I’m a falcon,
Or a storm, or a great song.”
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