Every time I sit with a client , supervisee or student, for therapy or mentoring, individual or group, in person or via Skype, I am touched by the power of simple presence. I do have years of training in various areas, but the most important tool I use in my work is being present.
The relationship between therapist and client has been shown years ago to be the most essential element in determining therapeutic effectiveness. As the practice of mindfulness has spread, I see the potential of our presence enhanced.
For me, the there have been several essential portals into presence emerging from my training and personal therapy over the years. Talk therapy enabled me to begin developing insight into my own reactions to what I encountered in my relationships. With insight, I began to be able to step back and make new choices, or at least be more aware of what I was doing.
Studying Somatic Psychology and Dance/Movement Psychotherapy enabled me to start living in a more embodied way. Along the way, through my own somatic therapy experiences, I encountered limiting, traumatic aspects of my personal history that had been held in my tissues to protect me. Working through these wasn’t necessarily easy or pleasant, but I began to find myself emerging from a life-long state of dissociative mentality. This process had started, interestingly enough, through having suffered a brain injury while engaged in my then favorite hobby of folk dancing. One would think this to be a safe activity, but when my partner and I were tripped by a stray foot and my head bounced on the concrete floor, my life changed.
I had always been highly intellectually and verbally accomplished. I used to love word games like Scrabble and Boggle. After the concussion, the words simply didn’t flow as they used to. Sometimes, they seemed to be hiding behind a foggy screen, inaccessible and useless to me. What’s more, my memory for details seemed to have smashed on its collision with the floor that day. I could no longer buffer my ego with my intellectual prowess. From my writing you might conclude that these skills have returned to me, which fortunately is mostly accurate. My way of being in the world, however, permanently shifted when I could not function as I was accustomed to.
During my time in graduate school for Somatic Psychology, I attended a class with a remarkable woman called Dee Coulter. I remember gratefully hearing her explain that most of us at Naropa University, the Buddhist inspired school I was attending, were trying to achieve a way of being which is natural to people with brain injuries. She spoke of our gut sense and how, without being able to depend on our brains for information, people with brain injuries follow their guts.
Indeed, I found my intuition developing dramatically after the brain injury. I also began to return to the creative, artistic talents I had largely ignored since starting university at eighteen. Finding my work as an Occupational Therapist taxing for my newly struggling brain, I took two years off to take a Commercial Ceramics course, eventually becoming a studio potter.
How does all this relate to presence? Well, have you noticed that intellectually analyzing others often doesn’t do much to enhance your relationship? Mentally figuring things out can make us less present, and this is felt by whomever we are with. Our relational connections depend more upon our heart and senses than our intellectual brain.
As Stephen Porges, originator of the polyvagal nerve theory, elucidates, we sense each other through what he calls the social engagement nervous system. Things like eye contact, the tone of a person’s voice, and facial expression communicate directly to important brain centers to inform us about the people with meet. Are they safe to be with? Is there a sense of resonance between us, or dissonance? Through mirror neurons, we can have a felt sense in our own bodies of the other person’s emotional or behavioral experience. Thinking about what is happening may be less helpful than sensing it. This is non-mental form of receiving the other, and is considered a likely basis for empathy.
My brain injury seemed to support me in letting go of my intellectual mind enough that I could start to listen and respond on other levels. I don’t recommend this particular method of letting go, but for me the results have been highly supportive of being present. Fortunately, there are gentler ways of liberating ourselves from oppressive thought patterns. Mindfulness practices are particularly helpful in this journey.
For me, I embarked on an intensive practice of Vipassana along with somatic therapy, which helpedme to come into body-centered awareness. Vipassana is a meditation involving attending to breath and body sensations with an intention to develop awareness and equanimity. I didn’t know the word equanimity when I started Vipassana, but I have since come to revere this quality of being with whatever arises. I see equanimity as a way of considering everything as equal, rather than judging one experience as better or more desirable that another.
While we do need to live with preferences, it can be helpful to be aware of where these come from and make choices based on that awareness. Without awareness, we tend to act unconsciously and habitually, often re-enacting our trauma history or acting in ways to avoid it. You may say, of course I don’t want to re-enact my trauma! Why shouldn’t I avoid it? I agree that re-enacting trauma isn’t useful, but avoidance often means we shut down the flow of life energy. In terms of presence with another, it translates as withdrawing or reacting if the other person expresses something that reminds us, even if not consciously, of the trauma. We are then that much less present, as well as often feeling miserable within ourselves.
Practicing awareness and equanimity enables us to be more aware of what is arising for us and to not have to react in our habitual ways. Recent research suggests that we are actually rewiring our brains through this kind of mindfulness activity. We stop reinforcing old, destructive pathways and establish new, supportive ones. Being less reactive, we can be more present with whatever comes our way.
Coming Into Being
The final, essential aspect of this journey for me has been Prenatal and Birth Therapy. I was introduced to Pre- and Perinatal Psychology through my studies in Somatic Psychology. I learned that we are unlikely to come into body awareness without encountering our earliest experiences recorded within the body. For many of us, these primal, pre-verbal events were overwhelming and traumatic, at least in part because of modern, western birthing practices.
Little ones in the womb and later are astutely sentient beings. They sense and marinate in their parents’ emotional lives during these highly formative early years. Historically, babies have been considered as cute objects (e.g., medical jargon refers to “the product of birth”), to be kept clean and fed. In the process of taking care of physical needs, however, the emotional, psychological needs of the pre-born and newborn infant have been largely overlooked.
That little ones have an immature nervous system doesn’t mean they are unaware or not learning. It indicates a need for slow pacing allowing them to process and integrate their experience. Although they do not speak, babies clearly understand tone of voice and often the content of what is being spoken. Addressing them with gentle sensitivity helps them feel safe so they can settle and arrive more fully.
For those of us who were not welcomed with that kind of sensitivity, new learning can happen through prenatal and birth therapy, emphasizing presence, recognition (vs. denial) of what happened, reassurance, and unconditional acceptance. Within a safe, reflective relational field, such as was needed back then, we can learn about being received in the way we physiologically expected as little ones.
Our neurobiology shifts with this therapeutic experience, helping us emerge from a defensive mode of being, feeling like running away or finding ourselves dissociating before we know what has happened. Personally, I had learned to live in my head. My intellectual prowess had protected me from feeling the painful feelings from my early years. As I descended into my body, the feelings arose.
Fortunately, trauma therapy has evolved in recent years, in large part thanks to Peter Levine’s work with Somatic Experiencing. We now understand the importance of slowing down our pace in being with trauma, touching in with it from a resourced state of presence, rather than diving in a getting lost. Again, this slower, gentler approach changes our neurobiology, so that we don’t have to cycle through our trauma patterns again and again.
This is the basis of my passion for all the forms of work I engage in, including Continuum Movement. This mindful movement practice is characterized by slowness, designed to interrupt old patterns and enable new, creative responsiveness. Similarly, Craniosacral Biodynamics involves slowing down, settling deeper than our everyday activity, resting into the support of universal forces supporting us within a ground of dynamic and alive stillness. These practices inform all the work I do, where I settle myself and support my clients or students in resting into the present moment.
Slowing down is an important key to presence. When I move or act with speed, I am more likely to act by habit, unconsciously. Slowing down brings choice, generated by awareness. This is the essence of therapeutic presence and its healing potential.