For this opening scene, I invite you to step briefly into someone's shoes. Imagine that you are hit one morning by a wave of depression. You wake up and you feel it’s heaviness descend with the low pressure of a damp and dreary Winter’s day. Weariness seeps into the very bones of you. A cocoon of numb wraps around you like a freezing fog. Movement becomes hard as your body became leaden. You make it from your bedroom only to mould yourself into the sofa. Deep down some sadness is buried at the bottom of your chest. You sink deeper, separated from the rest of life that’s happening at a distance, above the surface, as you watch quietly from these cold, frozen and lonely depths.
Pause. Stop the film.
Now, imagine that two different doors are opening in front of this person. Through the first door, we see her continuing like this for several days. She can’t shake this awful feeling, she feels helpless. Eventually, she goes to see his GP, who tells her that she has a mood disorder, caused by changes in his brain chemistry and hormones. It was probably inherited from her father who also has depression, so not much can be done. The doctor recommends that she takes anti-depressant drugs to change the chemistry in her brain back to a normal level. Just to get her over this bad patch. There are side effects, yes, but nothing serious. She takes the tablets, for a few months to start with. But over time, she finds that he can’t manage life without them. Over time, her liver becomes affected, and she has to take more drugs to deal with the effects of the first ones. Over time, life becomes bearable, but monotone, cast in grey tones, never in full colour.
Let’s close the door gently on this scene, and turn towards door two.
As she lies on the sofa, feeling frozen, she tunes in to herself, and acknowledges how she is feeling. She says to herself, "numb, heavy, sad, this is how I am feeling right now". She tries to embrace it, and even though it's hard, she doesn’t push it away. Her housemate comes out of his bedroom, he walks about the kitchen talking, but she can’t fully listen or respond. She tells him. “ I feel low, and really sad”. He responds kindly, joins her on the sofa, wraps his arms around her, and asks her gentle questions about how she is feeling. She tells him the back story to these feelings, the loneliness, the grief, which has built up over the past weeks. She cries then, and he just holds her. A wave passes through her, and she feels relief. Her heart opens to him now, and she asks him, how are you? He speaks of his own loneliness, of how he also has struggled, and together they hold one another in their loneliness, tenderly and sweetly. Soon they begin to squeeze some humour into the conversation, and laughter follows tears.
Then, as she listens within, an inner voice tells her that she needs to move, to get outside into wild nature, to see beauty. She drives to Knockma, a hill connected with Queen Maeve of Irish legend, not too far away. Rich in myth and legend, it also gives a vista for miles around, to Connemara and the 12 Bens, over to Lough Corrib, and as far as Galway. It is thought to be the burial place of Queen Maeve, who according to legend, drank deeply from the sensual world, who was enchanted and intoxicated by life.
She walks, and even though the dragging feeling is still there, she feels enlivened and awakened through her senses. The air caresses the skin on her face, the rhythm of her feet on ground reassures her, and her eyes take in the beauty of natural forms around her. Soft moss, curved hill, tall trees, sunlight piercing through the clouded day. All infuse her senses and begin to weave a spell around her. She keeps walking, feeling some heat arrive through her muscles to melt the frozen places.
As she walks, she remembers a story she read recently, the story of Prometheus, the archetypal Greek figure who sacrifices something in his life for a greater cause. She contemplates this as she walks, and realises that she resonates with this figure, that somehow it might explain this phase of her life. By connecting to an archetype, her sadness can now be housed in the great mythical stories that speak of the perennial struggles and triumphs of humanity. Another part of her eases.
She then plays with the sight of fairy doors that have been placed for children throughout the forest. As she walks, and as nature weaves its spell from within and around her, she thinks how we too can travel through portals of our consciousness to access different, more enchanted states. She reaches the top of the hill now, and sees the vista all around her, the light that beams through the clouds to create a glistening across the land that stands in contrast to the dull and the grey hues. She turns now and makes her way homeward. She finishes the day by bathing in warm salt water to soothe any last stresses in her body, and meets her friends later that night; they talk, and dance. Her senses have been filled, her heart opened, and her mind enlarged; her mood is now transformed. The heavy clouds have shifted into a skyscape that is an interplay of both light and shadow. This is not an escape to bliss, nor a drowning in sorrow, but a place where all can co-exist, entering into a transformative communing together.
A true story
These two scenes draw on two very real life situations that I have experienced over the years. The first doorway, the medical response, is the doorway that I took many years ago when struggling as a student in Belfast. It is the doorway that my father, who was also diagnosed over 40 years ago as having depression, still lives through.
The second doorway is the one which has opened through many years of healing and deep diving into the soul. Through this doorway, depression is not seen as a disorder, caused by an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain, but a call of the soul to care take a grief, a loss, an emptiness. The cure here is not medical, through pharmaceutical drugs, but soulful; connecting with oneself on the deepest of levels, human kindness and compassion, finding a re-enchantment with life by connecting with the beyond human worlds of nature, myth and mystery, all weave a cloak that wraps around you.
Through taking this doorway, all parts of the self are re-membered and restored. The body is soothed, the heart opened, the soul re-enchanted. It allows a re-connection back into the world that is filled with richness and possibility. The medical model is what most of us are literally sold as the way through ( and helps many, and that I would not take away from any one who has no other choice). However, it is only in very recent times that humanity has stripped away the soul and reduced life down to its biomedical parts. Throughout human history, from the Ancient Greeks to the Celts, the Native Americans to the Aborigines, the healing and re-enchanting of the soul has cured the ailing ones. In this wisdom, you might be asked, when did someone last hold you, and speak to you kindly? What loss have you endured, and what emotion needs to flow through you? When were you last enchanted by nature? What wisdom have the great myths and legends to teach you, to help to guide you through?
With figures revealing that Ireland has the highest rate of depression of any European country, the medical model clearly cannot speak to the sickness of the soul. Perhaps it calls for attention, for love, for holding, for communing, in ways that can re-enchant our souls once again, as a part of the greater Anima Mundi, or soul of the world.
A conversation with my beloved friend Johanne Webb, and my uni work, inspired these thoughts today....
Why do soul work?
Why do therapy?
Why put yourself through all the pain, where you will meet what you have done your best to avoid- your worst fears, and darkest demons?
When every part of you might scream, go back!
Go back to what's safe, and known, even though time and again, in NOT facing them, you meet the same heartache, the same loss, the same feeling of being half alive, only a shadow of who know know you could be?
Then, maybe, after too much hurt, too much destruction, the commitment comes to find a new and wiser way.
Because you have to. Because its unbearable to stay the same. Because you know that this is what causes wars.
You take the steps. You brave the unknown. You begin to open, to slowly trust.
First you meet the wounded self, the part that feels a deep hurt that shakes you to the core. You meet this part of you, you learn to befriend it, and a deep compassion grows, for this wounded, vulnerable, and very young you.
Next, the defences- blame or shame," they did this to me", you say, and in comes rage, or fear, or the need to run away.
But in witnessing and welcoming these places, the old way is gradually seen to block the love and intimacy that deep down you crave. In meeting the wound, in honouring the defences, deep healing and self-love begin to emerge. And, a wonder at the workings of the psych, and a sense of your amazing soul.
Beneath the layers of hurt history, shines a pure pearl, and through its shining light, your relationship with yourself, with others, and with life, begins to transform. You move from reaction, to creation- towards deep, authentic, lasting, loving relationship. Conflict is no longer to be feared or avoided, but held in sacred, trusting curiosity, as it becomes an opportunity to reveal and heal the wounds.
The wheel of evolution takes a turn, and you play your part in furthering humanity's consciousness.
You make the journey from painful reaction ( grain of sand), to shielding ( layers of hardness surrounding the pearl) to becoming the pearl ( wisdom, radical intimacy, deep love and soul growth).
And as you feel that you have mastered it all, life will humble you, as another grain of sand enters, and the growth process, from sand to pearl, begins all over again.
But now, you know its growth cycles, and why you dive
Grounding: growing roots to relieve stress and pain
Being "grounded" ( or ungrounded!): what does it mean?
Physically: It means being connected with our body, with gravity and with the earth beneath us.
Psycholigically: it means being present, feeling balanced and at ease.
As you embody ( or ground yourself) , you have a clearer sense of what's going on within and around you- it's your connection to reality.
At its core, it's about your proprioceptive experience - your connection to your body and the ground beneath you.
(Proprioceptive means how you experience yourself from the inside- your body, your movement, your sensations, and how these all relate to where you are in space.)
As stress levels have increased in modern society, along with a faster pace of life, it has become the norm to be " ungrounded". On a neuromuscular level, this means that our stress response gets activated, causing tightness in our muscles which over time leads to pain. Think of the fight/ flight response in animals, which exists in us too, except that we don't use the same organic intelligence as our animal counterparts to release the stresses through running/ shaking/ other movement.
So chronic stress gets locked into our systems, and our body-mind forgets what it feels like to relax and let go. As we ground, however, our body-mind recieves messages of support, of relaxation, of safety, and so the stress responses gradually can begin to unwind. Gravity also acts as a force through our whole system, as we explored in class, when noticing turning our heads to one side and feeling how the muslces in our faces responded/ relaxed.
As we release into the embrace of the earth, we can slowly unwind into its supports.
So, how can we become more grounded? Here are 4 steps:
- Explore self-care, by finding ways for your body to be as supported and at ease as possible- when lying, sitting, etc..
- Do a body scan to sensitise to where you carry tensions, and invite a release
- Explore " yielding"- a somatic practice and principle- releasing your weight to recieve the support of the earth and the unwinding effects of gravity on your muscles
- Move: explore gentle, slow, movements and try to stay as present in your soma ( body-mind) as possible
- Click here for link on resourcing to help you find balance in times of overwhelm
( https://www.aislingrichmond.com/blog/resourcing-an-anchor-in-the-storms ).
Here is also a link to a beautiful grounding practice:
Book: Awakening Somatic Intelligence: Risa F Kaparo.
More on grounding , from gravitywerks.
In a state of relaxed skeletal balance, the forces generated by the weight of your body pass cleanly through your skeleton into the ground, and the supporting force from the ground is transmitted back up through your skeleton. Every part of you has a clear line of skeletal support, so you experience a unified and effortless connection with the ground. This is what it means to be grounded.
If you’re not well-balanced on your skeleton, on the other hand, muscles will tense to support the off-balance weight. If you’re feeling anxious or unsafe, you may protectively stiffen, producing additional tension. This tension disrupts the clear skeletal path of weight down, support up. Rather than feeling supported by the ground, parts of you may feel supported by the tension, or feel no support at all. The effort required to maintain the tension will feel necessary for support, which is no longer experienced as easy and safe. You feel less stable, and less grounded.
Balance and relaxation are the physiological keys to being grounded, but it involves more than that. There’s also a perceptual dimension. Feeling grounded is an experience, and as such, it requires awareness. Not only must your body weight be supported by your skeleton, but you must sense that support, You must feel the ground under you, feel your body weight dropping through your skeleton into the ground and the ground returning a supportive force. To do this, you must maintain enough awareness, i.e., a broad enough perceptual field to include your body and your connection to the ground within your experience. If you’re very narrowly focused on some other activity — like typing on your computer or hurrying from one place to another — in a way that blocks awareness of your larger self, you can’t feel grounded.
The physiological (relaxed skeletal balance) and perceptual (broad perceptual field) dimensions of feeling grounded are intimately interrelated.
This mornings news revealed new details about the " The Belfast Rape Trial", now that the offical court case is over. In one line of questioning, the defendant's barrister asked of the woman involved, "why didn't she scream the house down?" This implied that she couldn't have been raped because she didn't cry out for help. I'd like to speak to this, both from my life experience, as a woman and therapist, and how it relates to women in general, especially on the theme of dissociation and disempowerment..
Dissociation is a term used within psychology, to describe how our nervous systems respond to threat and danger. It emerged from the research of Dr Peter Levine, who for decades studied the way that animals in the wild respond to threat- the so called " fight/ flight/ freeze" response. These ancient evolutionary responses in animals are similar to how we humans respond to threat and stress- we are the human animal. Travel far enough back in time, and once we too were the living in the wild, chased by predators, with the same protective and rapid responses hard wired into our nervous system to help us to escape danger or death.
These ancient responses underly our behaviours today as much as in our past. Think of moments of stress, where you are late perhaps for a meeting; how your heart races, you may sweat, your pace picks up, and your senses become more acute- this is the " flight" mode of the nervous system. Or, how within seconds, road rage can erupt between two previously calm, civilised drivers in London city centre- this is " fight" mode.
Freeze, or dissociation, is another such response. In the animal kingdom if a creature can neither fight or run away, it will immobilise and " play dead", in order to both convince its attacker that its already dead therefore less likely to be mauled in a chase. The animal " dissociates" or its consciousness leaves its body to some extent so that it will not feel pain. In humans, it's a state of feeling spacey, outside of oneself and outside of an experience; it often leaves one voiceless and powerless, as the nervous system shuts us down from sensing and feeling. If we can't physically go, we find a way to "leave" inside ourselves. " I was frozen stiff with fear" is a common saying that reflects this state. We detach from reality, lose our sense of self and what's good for us, suffer from memory loss, fragment and disengage from both ourselves and what's happening around us.
Fight and flight are two responses which are available to us when we feel empowered and able to take action. Freeze, or dissociation, is the last choice available. It is the oldest of the nervous system responses, traceable to the ancient reptilian brain, which comes online when the animal/ person is left with no other choice. It is the remaining hope of survival of the terrified and the disempowered. None of these responses are within our conscious control, especially when in threatening situations.
In my own life, through years of therapy and self-discovery, I've come to learn that I lived most of my adult life in a state of dissociation. This ranged from either mild to overwhelming, and was something that I was totally unconscious of. I just knew that I could tense up, feel voiceless, numb, frozen, "scared stiff" for no apparent reason . It deeply affected my ability to be myself fully. Attached to this were feelings of shame, a lack of self worth, and low respect for myself.
This response may be traceable to many things; being brought up in the North of Ireland, in a society terrorized by civil war; being born a woman in a culture which was dominated by men, who were sometimes caring and loving, but sometimes mysognistic and abusive towards women, as so disturbingly seen in the comments of the 4 men on trial. Developmental and birth trauma, being brought up around alcoholism and depression. So many unseen ways can create a traumatised person, who yet may be walking around seemingly functioning in society. I was that woman for many years, until I began a process of healing.
Within our culture, layer upon layer of unspoken, unacknowledged cultural conditioning impacts on each person's sense of self, and this also happens on a nervous system level. Men, as much as women, are prisoners of cultural programming, which send messages of how to believe and behave. Men under patriarchy are told that they have to be strong, and that to express feelings is a sign of weakness, something that tragically can contribute to to a huge rate of suicide and mental health problems.
The particular messages given to women are that men hold the power, that we must adjust how we look and behave in order to please them. Only recently have women literally come out of the home, one that was owned entirely by a man. Economic, political, and even spiritual power, lay in the hands of men. We were considered the property of our husbands as much as the house, without the means to earn for ourselves. It's clear to see that for generations, our physical and even spiritual survival depended on men. Again and again as women we have been told that we are not equal to, are dependant upon, and must be subservient to, men. It has deeply undermined our ability to be fully empowered. For many women, our "go to" response is dissociation. It is not just a once off state, but for me was my day to day experience; an on-going state of being distant from myself, from my truths, from my self worth as a woman. To have been disempowered for so many centuries means that there has been a loss and degradation of sense of self. To stand in our power in genuinely dangerous situations, can be as hard for some women as a deer taking down a lion
Transport now to a bedroom where a young women is alone with 3 physically powerful males, in a home that belonged to one of these wealthy men. Given the knowledge of how our nervous systems respond in situations of percieved threat,it does not follow that the young woman involved would be able to " shout the house down". To suggest that she was culpable and complicit because she did not cry out, misses the biological realities of how we seek to protect ourselves in times of threat- through the fight, flight, freeze response.
The dissociative state also means that someone's memory of events will also be hazy, disjointed, or even their behaviour and words seem strange or have an unusual tone, as they actually are not and have not been "present" enough either in the situation or within themselves. The way that our court systems are set up, absolutely do not take account of this. The women involved in this case was repeatedly accused of not being consistent in her information, or or having a joking tone in her text messages, which was all used as a way to undermine her position- either she's making it up, or not actually been seriously affected. I am not saying that I know the truths of this horrific situation. But I do say, that the very legal system by which we are governed, and which ultimately creates outcomes for those who come forward in rape cases, promotes a notion that unless you are rational and logical in your case, you will lose. Unless you call out for help, you must be lying.
Our legal system tends to judge and make absolute rights and wrong, with no shades in between, an all or nothing outcome. It also operates along aggressive lines, where someone who believes that they have been raped is subjected to the most appalling questions. It's not my wish to judge what was true and not true; only to question the norms under which our society operates.
My call from the heart, is that we go beyond judging, to educating.
Given the cultural history of patriarchy that makes up the lived reality of every man and woman in this country, where women have been stripped of power and taught to be pleasers and subservient to men, where men are taught to suppress their feelings, sensitivities and vulnerabilities- how hard can it be sometimes, to find our true voice? This is the patriarchal system under which we have lived, that I deeply believe wounds men as much as women, as it denies us both the possibilities of true equality, and therefore true respect and true connection.
In Ireland, can we begin to look at the conditions that surround a tragedy, and ask, where has this come from, and how can we learn from it? How are men and women alike imprisoned by misogyny and patriarchy, and how can we create a more enlightened, conscious, and compassionate society? Where does education need to happen in our schools, that goes beyond the academic, to teach mutual respect and understanding, especially in the areas of sex, intimacy and relationships?
My prayer is that, we may bring light to the dark places, and find ways to heal, and grow..
" The answer to the problem of suffering is not away from the problem but in it. The inevitability of pain will not be met by deadening sensitivity but by increasing it, by exploring and feeling out the manner in which the natural organism itself wants to react and which its innate wisdom has provided". Alan Watts.
What follows is some guidance on "Somatic Resourcing": finding resilience in the face of stress and overwhelm.
In my own life, Somatic Resourcing is a constant companion that comes to my aid in times of need. It's a rescue remedy within my own soma (body-mind) that has often meant the difference between suffering and wellbeing.
I am hugely grateful to one of my teachers, Joan Davis, in having taught me this life skill.
So in sharing this with you, I truly hope that you'll also find something to support you in times of need.
This blog is divided into two parts. The first is if you're short on time, and gives a brief introduction to Somatic Resourcing and a practice meditation. The second part gives more detail in case you'd like to know more.
Please feel welcome to comment or share.
Somatic Resourcing: A Brief Intro
Somatics is the art and practice of wholeness. We learn to embrace our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations- the whole person- so that we can develop self-care as well as discover more about who we are in this world. Within life's journeys, we may be faced with challenges- in our work, our relationships, our physical or psychological health- that may cause us distress. Unattended to, this can wreck havoc with our health and our relationships as we become locked in responses that perhaps don't serve us.
Somatic Resourcing teaches us that there is a different way. It is a first step in caring for ourselves in these moments. It gives us the tools to be able to "Self- sense, self-soothe, and self- regulate" ( Dr Risa Kaparo) so that instead of being tossed around in life's storms, we can find our inner navigation system to help re-direct us to calmer seas. Somatic Resourcing is that inner guidance.
Somatic Resourcing: A 5 step guided practice.
- Start by closing your eyes, and take a few breaths to help you to settle.
- Ask yourself, how am I now? Invite a compassionate curiosity, as if you are asking a really good friend.
- See if you can find one thing in your body that feels good to you (the breath can be a good place to start, or hands making contact on your body)
- Let yourself deepen into that for a few moment- become curious ( noticing volume, texture, temperature, quality of touch).
- Then, ask yourself, how do you feel now? Has anything changed?
( Note- if you find it hard to connect with something within your body, you could imagine a person, place or thing that usually helps to soothe you)
Somatic Resourcing can transform your state from distress to ease, even within seconds. This can protect your health from the effects of stress, help your relationships in that it enables you to calm down before speaking, and allows you to be in a creative rather than in a reactive mode. Somatic Resourcing teaches us how to skill fully navigate ourselves in the world. I fully believe that we do not have to suffer the effects of stress; there is a different way, that can be caring, compassionate, and deeply empowering.
In more detail
"Resourcing" is a foundational practice in Somatic therapy. It is something that helps you to feel calmed and supported in times of need- an anchor in the storms. It teaches us how to become empowered in these moments, so that instead of feeling tossed about in stormy seas, at risk of capsizing, we can find an inner guidance to see us through.
As an embodied mindfulness practice, Somatic Resourcing helps us to connect to our present moment experience, and the supports that are available to us.By paying close attention to where you are in the moment, and how you are responding, you can more clearly chart what waters you are in ( what's the situation), sense the "weather" ( your feelings), and learn how to navigate safely and skilfully to calmer seas ( from stress and reactivity, to calm and empowered).
There have been many times in my life where Somatic Resourcing has come to my rescue. Even recently, life brought me the perfect opportunity to remember. Whilst writing this blog, I accidentally deleted 6 hours of work in a second. Yes, I definitely felt frustrated! But I also practiced my Somatic Resourcing- how am I now, what's my reaction? Bringing in the resource of my breath, and gradually finding calm and letting go of frustration. I went from frustration to self-soothing, to a relaxed state once again. Somatic Resourcing transformed my state within a few short seconds.
There was also a time when I did not know this was possible. I did not always have this skill and instead I felt raw, vulnerable and totally powerless in the face of strong experiences. It felt like something that just happened, and I had no control over it. Having practiced this art for many years now, it's become second nature, like riding a bike. I truly believe now that we do not need to be a victim to stress and distress, that we can consciously work with ourselves to transform.
You may already have an experience of resourcing in your life; a person, place or things that helps you to feel well, and calm. It can be the company of a loved one, or a walk by the beach that soothes your senses and reconnects you to the beauty of the natural world. It could be a piece of music that speaks to your soul, or a treasured pet that you can be playful with. There are many examples of resourcing that we naturally have in our lives; the friends and allies along life's highways and byways.
What is different about Somatic Resourcing is that it is body-based- it draws on what you can feel, touch, and sense in the present moment. The reason why this is important is that stress activates the primal, lower centres of our brain ( especially the amygdala and hippocampus). Stress induces ancient survival responses of fight/ flight/ freeze, and the way to work with these responses are on the same primal level- through movement, touch and our sensory selves. It's as if the animal part of ourselves gets woken up and disturbed, and so we must work to calm ourselves just as you would a distressed animal.
A Somatic Resource is something of this visceral, sensual, embodied world. It could be the rhythm of your breath, or the contact of your bones on the surface beneath you. It could be the touch of your hands on your heart, or a movement that feels good and soothing to you. Basically it is something in your body and of your senses, that you develop a trusting relationship with by practicing, so that it eventually it becomes like a reflex, an automatic rescue response in times of need. We learn how to presence- deepen into present moment awareness, pause- creating a gap between the outer situation and our response ( stress etc...), pacify- calm and soothe ourselves, and propell ourselves along a different trajectory- away from stress, and towards well-being.
In Somatics, we learn how our body can be our best ally. It holds the keys to both awareness of how you are in the moment, and how to re-direct away from stressful states to your chosen feeling destination. Life can then become an act of creation rather than reaction. It was life changing for me to learn that I could transform my state, I did not need to sink and suffer. I truly wish, that if you also have struggled with distress and overwhelm, you can also discover that you have these allies to support you in times of need
Some writings here on those tiny little worlds within worlds- our cells.
It's a vast area for something so small, but I'd love to explore a little with
you, as I believe that it relates to our physical, psychological and spiritual wellness.
Some questions to begin with:
- what's the connection between our cells and health?
- is it possible to connnect directly with our cells to enhance our health?
- what might our inner nature, our cells, have to teach us?
So with these questions in mind to to start us off, let's dive in.
The life of the cells
We began this life as a tiny little cell in our mothers womb; created from our mother and father's cells but now our own unique being, supported by the environment around us. Just as you do now, this cell breathes. It also takes in nutrients and expels toxins, rests, digests, has a brain (the nucleus), and creates energy.
As it breathes in and out, the cell embodies our very first movement pattern- the life flow of expansion and condensing. Its whole body participates in this tiny little pulse, allowing the flow of life to pass through the cell uninhibited. This single cell then divides and multiplies into billions of cells to eventually become the fully grown human that is you.
As Donna Farhi says in her book, "Yoga Body Mind and Spirit":
" From the moment of conception, our bodies begin to breathe. Each cell in the body expands, condenses, and rests in an internal rhythmic pattern, a pattern that will become amplified into full-body breathing at the moment of birth. This first movement is the basic template for our existence. Whether we are sitting still, or running up a hill, or sound asleep, the breath acts as a continuous resonant presence, infusing and influencing all other processes, from the chemical reactions of our cells to our moment to moment psychological and emotional state".
Cells and Health
"Any disturbance in cellular functioning is at the root of disorder and sickness in the body...the psychophysical health of each cell is essential to the health and well-being of the whole ( person)".
Linda Hartley, Wisdom of the Body Moving,
Ideally, the full flow of breath continues both on a cellular and a full body level, enabling the optimum functioning of our body-minds, bringing health and vitality, both physical and psycholigcal.
Yet often this cellular level of health can be overlooked when treating common conditions such as fatigue, stress, and muscular tension. Western science still tends to look at a human being mechanically- as seperate parts that together make up a whole- but some doctors are opening up to a more holistic, organic view of life.
I love Dr Donald B.Levy's question to a medical conference in the States:
“Would you like your doctor to be a mechanic or a gardener?”
He goes on to say-
“A mechanic fixes broken parts, but a gardener is interested in the whole plant. You have to till the soil, strengthen the plant, add in nutrients and care for it at each stage of growth.”
After a 25-year career in primary care, Dr. Levy switched gears and “became more interested in strengthening the patient beyond pills and procedures.” “There’s an innate healing force in the human body,” he said. “We’re beyond machines. I’m interested in the whole person and teaching people how to take care of themselves.”
Dr Levy here speaks to a holisitc view of health- the interconnection between all systems within our bodies. If we consider our breath for example, this is now known to reflect both our physical and psycholigcal state. When our whole body breath is constricted, it can reflect areas of tension and holding that if unattended to, will manifest as physical disease and psycholigcal suffering.
. We can see this full body participation with breath both in our cells and in the movement of small babies, where its peripheral limbs are integrated with the core movement of breath. As adults, our breath can shorten with stress and held tensions in our bodies, but the good news is that we can re-pattern and return to our full body breathing through somatic practice. I believe that it is possible as adults to reclaim this natural birthright, as we explore this optimal template as taught by our tiny little teachers of full body breathing, the cells.
Somatic philosophy teaches us that we can directly access and influence the state of whole body breath, as well as the health of our individual cells. We do this through our conscious awareness, through movement, and through touch. .
As we imagine or feel the flow of energy in our bodies, we can directly enhance this state of flow, encouraging energising and detoxification on both cellular and whole body levels. When we look to this early template of life as breath flowing unconstricted in the cells, we can draw on this as a reminder of what life fully breathed, and lived, can mean. We can consider how is the breathing of our cells, and our full body breath, now, as a fully grown adult.
What we focus on amplifies is a well-known saying within meditation circles, and to bring awareness to our cells allows them to enliven. Cells are the building blocks of our bodies, and as we tend to them, we can support their health- supporting their processes of respiration, digestion, the uptake and release of impulses and nutrients. In this way, we can maintain a flow between individual cells and the whole body cellular community, and we positively influence the physical and psychological processes of our whole being.
Cells and spirit.
In many holistic health and spiritual traditions, this state of flow is thought to equate not only with full health but also as the flow of universal energy within our bodies.Whether called prana within the Yogic tradition, chi within Chinese traditions, Orenda within the Native American, all speak to a life force that permeates within and around us.
So when we slow down, we can tune in to this ground of being, this state of flow, that permeates our cells and our whole bodies. It can bring healing and wellness of the deepest kind, as we drink deeply from source energy. In our movement and meditation practice, we can enter this state of cellular awareness, beyond ego, into fluid resonance and into the slipstream of being.
The gifts of cellular awareness include health but also extends into the realms of our awareness- our sense of self in this world, and how we may be considered to be both individuals but also part of a greater, inter-connected fabric of life. Again, cells can become our teacher, as we consider how each cell is an individual little being, self-contained within its membrane, but in constant resonance and connection with its environment and the greater body that is you.
Toward an Ecology of Being.
Just as our cells as individuals that are part of a greater whole, we can use this as a template for the interconnection of all life. As each cell breaths from its environment, so you breath from the environment around you. Just as a cell is an individual within the greater body community, so we too are individuals but also part of the global community of humans and nature.
We can understand and learn from this not just conceptually but experientially. As quieten our minds and attune to deeper states, it can allow us to directly experience this state of resonance, to feel ourselves part of the greater matrix of life .
To attune to our cells, therefore, holds many possibilities, for health, for healing, for full aliveness, and for growth of awareness. I feel great love when I think of these little worlds in miniature, dancing in their pulse of life.
In this moment, in contemplation of the cells within my being, I feel a resonance with Marion Woodman, when she writes that,
" Genuine love permeates every cell of the body."
I have written this article for anyone who is interested to know more about a Somatic approach to healing and well-being.
Especially, it is written for anyone who may be dealing with psychological distress or trauma.
I'd love to share what has been transformational in my own life, and how Somatic Therapy continues to help countless others through body-mind wisdom.
Somatics has taught me that we do not need to be at the mercy of stress, trauma and overwhelm, which can wreck havoc with our health, work and relationships. Instead, I fully believe that through embodied wisdom, we can be anchored, supported, and even empowered, in the face of life's challenges. That we can live lives that are authentic, creative, and inspired.
The writings to follow are in 3 sections:
1: My personal experience: overcoming stress and trauma through somatics
2: Neurobiology: current research into stress and the nervous system
3: Somatics: a Body-mind approach to healing and life transformation.
Please feel welcome to read all sections, or to dip into the section that appeals to you most.
May all beings be well, may all beings be at peace.
A personal story
Throughout my life, I often felt in the grip of strong stress and distress responses.
Much of the time I was functioning well enough in life; working and engaging socially. But certain situations would bring up very uncomfortable feelings, both physical and psychological. My heart would race, and I'd feel "on edge" as my nervous system went into high alert. I experienced what I now know to be called"dissociation"- disconnecting from my body as it felt too overwhelming to stay there.
Mr.Duffy lived a short distance from his body"
James Joyce, Dubliners.
My body was where I felt all the discomfort. So I'd distract myself from feeling my body, by numbing out, which only compounded the mind-body schism.
I felt that I had no control over these responses. Perhaps I wasn't even fully aware of them, let alone imagining that there could be a different way of life.
But in my later 20s I began to explore healing and spiritual modalities, including meditation, breathwork, Jungian psychotherapy, Yoga, and dance therapy. Though I gained valuable insights into my background growing up in the North of Ireland, the distress just kept re-cycling.
All this time, I had intuitively been drawn to body based approaches. When I began to explore Somatics in my 30's, I began to understand why. During a 4 year Somatics training, called "Origins", with Joan Davis, I began to contact not only my mental and emotional but also my body responses too- the physiological underpinnings of my distress.
Gradually, I developed an ability to stay in my body rather than want to escape it. Not only that, but I began to discover that my body could be my best ally in the face of distress; an anchor in the storms. I learned that movement and touch could transform my experience in ways that talking could not.
. I also learned hugely valuable teachings on "containment", the physical sense of holding, and the psychological skill of dealing with distress in bite size, digestible pieces. So that rather than risking overwhelm, I could access these stored feelings in a safe, measured way.
As I cultivated these skills within the therapy context, I could then take this in my life, allowing me to stay present and empowered in the face of life events, rather than feel at the mercy of them.
Neuroscience: stress and the nervous system.
The pioneering work of people such as Peter Levine Phd and Dr.Bessel Van der Kolk has transformed our understanding of stress and the nervous system. Peter Levine showed how we are human mammals with the same evolutionary responses as our fellow animals. With stress or perceived danger, our nervous systems respond with " fight/flight/freeze". Nature has intelligent ways of discharging the accompanying hormonal, neuromuscular, and emotional responses- the animal runs, or fights, or plays dead. If it survives, it then moves and shakes off the excess energy and goes about its way.
As humans, we also experience the very same responses but often without these natural modes of release. Stress and trauma therefore, gets stored in our systems and recycles in our nervous systems, which then get primed and patterned into responding to danger, even though it may not actually exist! This is a process called neuroception, whereby the nervous system and limbic brain registers and responds to our environment in a lighting quick way, much faster than the forebrain or thinking self.
Because these responses are stored in the more primal, pre-verbal centres of our brains and throughout the rest of our bodies, we must work with releasing it on those primal levels also- through movement, body sensations, and touch. Talking alone cannot reach or release these deeply embodied memories.
"Trauma ( and stress) is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system." Peter Levine.
Healing Stress, Trauma, and Overwhelm: A Somatic Approach.
Within Somatics, it starts and ends with " resourcing"- orienting to anything that provides a sense of calm, support, strength, and capability. This can be both inner and outer resources, for example, a place in nature that you love, a family member, the breath, or an object that you hold dear. As we connect with this resource, it provides a safe harbour for us to return to as we begin to explore the undercurrents of our lives, and can help bring balance to the nervous system, regulating any activation and avoiding overwhelm.
Grounding is a way to strengthen your sense of foundation on the earth, in the world, and in your body. In a culture that tends to be head centred, grounding practices can reconnect us to our body wisdom in safe and enjoyable ways. As we drop don through our feet and into the connection with the earth below, we can begin to open up to literally a whole world of physcial, psycholigcal and energetic support.
Grounding is also an embodied mindfulness practice, helping us to notice in clear and embodied ways, when we are present and when we are drifting away into past and future.
Grounding helps put you in the "here and now", which is where your strength is and how growth occurs.
Our bodies can be thought of as containers, for all of our organs, our bones, our fluids and muscles. It can also be thought of in psychological terms, as a container for all our experiences, thoughts feelings and senses. As we connect to our feeling of having a container, it can bring a sense of structure, holding, and control as to what enters our container. It can be hugely soothing to contact our container in times of overwhelm, to anchor into something solid and supportive. This can counter-act the nervous system responses of fight/ flight/freeze. The skeletal system is especially wonderful to explore our felt sense of container, as our bones are the most dense form in our bodies, with structures that are stronger than steel. Biofeedback can strengthen our connection to our container, through touch- squeezing, pressing, compressing our arms, legs, torso, skull, and through movement explorations to connect through motor-sensory feedback.
Very related to this sense of containment is the concept of boundaries. It can be very useful to develop our sense of boundaries through embodied explorations- skin as a boundary, inner contents of our bodies and external environment and how we manage this relationship between world and self. Our muscular system another strong ally in the cultivation of boundaries, helping us to develop the inner strength to discern what we allow in to our lives, and what we need to say "no" to and enact choice over.
Titration: a measured approach to resolving issues.
Titration is a term used in chemistry to describe adding an ingredient often one drop at a time. In therapy, this means that we slowly and mindfully experience a small piece of our stress or trauma, so that it"dissolves" and is integrated into the system. One of the strengths of Somatics in comparison to many therapies is that time and care is taken to anchor clients into their resources and their "felt sense" or body sensations, before this process begins. That way, there is enough stable ground for you to return to and re-traumatising does not happen.
Re-patterning Through Embodied Mindfulness
The body may store our traumas, but the senses are also the gateway to our pleasure and our presence. As we gently let go of old responses that may no longer serve us, there is more space to experience the wonder and awe of this life. There is more capacity to discover the intelligence of our own organism, and the healing capacity that is held within. We can drop overly mental ways of experiencing life, and literally come to our senses. This can bring feelings of well-being, peace, delight, and awe. The illusion of separation is replaced by a sense of the inter-connectedness of all life. In this sense, Somatics holds the potential to connect us to our essential nature; of love, deep peace, oneness and well-being.
"My belief is in the blood and flesh as being wiser than the intellect. The body-unconscious is where life bubbles up in us. It is how we know that we are alive, alive to the depths of our souls and in touch somewhere with the vivid reaches of the cosmos."
D. H. Lawrence