This past weekend, I attended an inspiring conference in London on “The Contribution of Meditation to the Practice of Psychotherapy.” I was inspired by the number of therapists enthusiastically participating in this conference, as well as by the news that the National Health Service has recognized mindfulness practice as a useful therapeutic modality.
As a somatic/movement therapist and teacher, I experienced a deepening of my own thinking about the therapeutic benefits of somatic presence with ourselves and others. What does it mean somatically to settle our minds and drop into stillness? This question brings me back to the understanding of our essential fluid nature.
We begin our lives as fluid. A fertilized egg is almost entirely fluid. During our first week after conception, our tiny fluid bodies undergo a series of cell divisions. As we develop, our bodies become more differentiated and solid. We coalesce into form. Our fluid takes shape as the little embryo develops a mid-line, heart, spine, and brain. Little arms and legs begin as buds pushing out from the fluid core. We fold or bow into our center, then stretch out, uncurling into human uprightness.
Throughout our lives, we continue to curl and uncurl with subtle fluid rhythms. These subtle motions are the essence of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. In this gentle bodywork, we sense the brain and spinal cord, along with the rest of the body, following their embryological folding patterns with each breath of what the founder of cranial osteopathy, William G. Sutherland, termed primary respiration. This is a subtle respiratory motion that begins long before we start breathing through our lungs- the breath of air.
Primary respiration begins at conception and relates to what Sutherland called the Breath of Life. This mysterious force expresses itself through us as we form in the womb and as we continue to form and re-form ourselves throughout life.
As our bodies coalesce into form, our relationship to the Breath of Life tends to become occluded as we orient to the somatic patterns established in life. Some of these patterns are expressions of what we may consider our original design or blueprint. We are designed as humans to have two legs and arms and a head, for example. This is a useful pattern to remember and embody.
Many of our bodily patterns, however, are expressions of compensatory reactions to the conditions of life. When a little one forms in an environment of prolonged, extreme stress, for example, the nervous system forms with exaggerated readiness for stress. The individual may be particularly sensitive to stress, becoming easily overwhelmed or activated by relatively non-threatening situation. How can we free ourselves of such patterns? Or can we?
Suffering, Life and Fluid
In the conference, presenters reminded us of Buddha’s teaching that there is suffering in life. He also taught that we can liberate ourselves from the experience of suffering through learning to be mindful or present in each moment. In mindfulness meditation, we practice this skill, enabling us to be more present in our lives, including in challenging situations. We then perceive options beyond our patterns, and are more able to appropriately meet whatever we encounter.
How does this relate to fluidity? Take a moment, if you will, to think about what happens when are stuck in a pattern. Whatever the pattern is, whether useful or outdated, it involves meeting similar situations in ways we have met them before. Patterns are, by definition, somewhat solid. The more entrenched we are in our patterns, the more rigidly we meet what arises. How fluid can we be when we are identified with our patterns?
On the other hand, the more we learn to step back from our patterns and habits, and observe them as a neutral witness, the more fluid we become. We can see this in our behavior, where we become more flexible and responsive to situations we encounter. Underlying our enhanced flexibility are shifts in our consciousness and somatic experience. Our minds and bodies actually become more fluid.
Return to Fluid, Return to Health
Emilie Conrad, founder of Continuum Movement, points out in her book, Life on Land, that our tissues are altered by context. In the context of our accelerated life in the 21st century, our tissues coalesce, becoming more dense and rigid. Our perception narrows along with our tissues. We become increasingly locked into our patterns. With speed, we depend more on these automatic behaviors.
Try walking quickly across a room, with the idea that you must reach a particular object across the room as quickly as possible. Chances are, you do not stop to think about how you will place each foot on the floor. If you did, you might not reach the object you are after. As you walk quickly with this goal in mind, you probably are also not very aware of other objects around the room, unless they happen to be in your way. Your perception narrows to the task at hand. Sound familiar? How much of your life do you spend in this mode?
Now, take a moment to consider your body. What are you aware of in your body as you rush across the room? Our ability to be aware of sensations tends to be restricted by speed and goal-oriented behavior. When you pause to consider your body, you may be aware of increased tension and holding, as well as more rapid heart beat and shallower breathing associated with the sympathetic (fight-flight) nervous system. In our accelerated lives, we tend to spend most of our time in a sympathetic mode, although we are designed to be in that state for short spurts as needed in emergency situations. We rarely have opportunities in our modern western culture to truly relax and rejuvenate, which is essential to health and well-being.
Fortunately, Conrad has discovered that we can decompress our tissues. In Continuum, use breath, sound, movement, and awareness to slow ourselves down, and deepen into fundamental states of being underlying our superficial habits and patterns. As we deepen, our tissues melt, and our perception widens. We experience more fluidity and spaciousness, allowing us to be more responsive and creative in meeting our life situations. Other practices that help us to slow down and be mindful in the moment can also support us in melting, but it is important to be aware of how easily we establish new patterns. Even habits of meditation, like always observing our breath in a particular way, can become limiting.
Melting into Source
As our tissues melt, we become more like the little embryo forming in its inner ocean. We become less locked into form. We begin to remember who we are, prior to the patterns we have lived by. Returning to a more fluid, less habituated state, we can access again our embryological potential. As we let go of our identification with pattern, we remember our source. In Biodynamic terms, we re-orient to the Breath of Life. Our solid sense of self dissolves, as we experience our interconnectedness with all beings. If suffering exists in this state, its force and relevance certainly diminish, melting into the wholeness of our deeper being.