My healing journey: From crippling pain to ever-greater freedom and aliveness
To introduce Somatic Learning and the power of Somatic Intelligence, I would like to share the story of my own journey—the healing that originally set me on this path.
Somatic Learning is not something I learned from a book or a teacher. I learned it from within my own body and consciousness, just as I will assist you in doing in this book. The willingness to pay deep attention to the inner wisdom and movement of your body is a fully sufficient teacher to move you into a state of utter wholeness and aliveness.
Like many things that eventually turn out to be wondrous discoveries, this journey was initially impelled by pain. My life changed radically when I “hit a wall” as a young woman. As an artist at the time, I had received a government commission to build a fibre-art playground on a Navajo reservation. We had to ground our structures in rock—shale, we’d been told, a fine-grained sedimentary rock, easy to drill. But as it turned out, it wasn’t shale at all, but solid rock. With my hundred pounds of weight, I felt like a flag flying off the jackhammers, and my IUD (internal uterine contraceptive device) cut into my uterine wall. As I didn’t want to disappoint the children with whom I lived on the reservation or my six apprentices, I worked throughout the ordeal until I finished the playground. But by that time, I could hardly move anymore, due to the intensity of the pain.
The injury led to an infection, and—with a pregnancy and loss of pregnancy—I developed pelvic adhesions (scar tissue in and between my organs) that would pull and tear with the slightest motion, leading to more internal bleeding and scar tissue. Walking was almost unbearable. I became bedridden and lived in constant pain.
The doctors insisted on a radical hysterectomy, since they were certain that the damage would make it impossible for me to ever have children. They warned me that because of the adhesions, they wouldn’t know the impact until they opened me up. I was told that even after surgery it was very probable that I would continue to bleed internally and remain in pain.
Between the pain and the pain medication—which was taking me out of myself, distancing me from my body—I could hardly think straight. I had to find a way back to myself through the “underwater” effect that the medication was producing. I knew that the choices I needed to make would have enormous personal consequences. I forestalled the surgery, hoping to find a way to get off the pain medication or at least lower it enough just to think straight. I didn’t know what to do. I was very young and desperate enough to try anything that might relieve my pain and avoid the radical surgery.
Led by the blind
What I did to try to control the pain came from insights I had gained while teaching painting and sculpture to blind students a few years earlier. Most of my students had been blind from birth, and few had visual memories through which they could relate to the world—or to what I was attempting to teach them in class. After all, how does an individual who has never had sight experience his “arm?” I needed to find out how I could serve these students in my class.
I began by blindfolding myself to better understand their experience and discover ways to teach them. As I entered this world of not seeing, I started to understand that the search for how my blind students “saw” was not easy. It soon became apparent that I related to the world primarily through visual perception. At first, as I sat in the darkness, only memories and images projected themselves in my mind. I knew myself—my body—in memory, as if I were an image in the mirror. Finally, I had a breakthrough when I began to sense through my own actual bodily system (as opposed to my mental image of myself). As I began to experience myself outside the visual field of perception, I discovered that my whole being responded. For instance, if I sensed my arm, it was no longer the arm as “object”—what I knew from my memory and imagination. It was a real-time sensing of movement within movements.
One day during that period, I woke with searing pain in my head. I was not sure where it came from. Despite the pain, however, I continued with my daily experiment of blindfolding myself. Soon I could sense movement—a throbbing. As I sensed into it, the throbbing began to change shape, elongate, become undulating pulsations. As these shapes changed, the intensity fluctuated and eventually diminished of its own, like a wave rippling outward. Gradually, the pain was no longer exploding through my head. Instead it became sharp, like a knife piercing through my left ear and eye. Eventually, as I opened to that sharpness, the sensation shape-shifted into pulses. Then, gradually, even those pulses dissipated. Only then could I locate the pain in the lower-left quadrant of my mouth and eventually trace it to one particular tooth. Each pulsation gave way into another field of movement as I responded to my sensing, opening and shifting… and eventually, even the pain inside the tooth gave way.
Until then, I had never thought of these blindfolded experiments as anything but experiments in perception. At that point, however, I suddenly recognized the influence it had on pain—and, potentially, healing. I still did not understand why it had that effect. Whenever I sensed myself from the inside out as movements within movements, I noticed that I felt tremendous aliveness and freedom.
I was stunned. What had seemed relatively fixed and solid—my very own body—turned out to be interpenetrating movement. The shape and intensity and rhythm of the pulse would change and even disappear at times. I could sense many movements. Sometimes the rhythms were unstable and chaotic. Other times they would act like an orchestra—coherent and coordinated. Soon I discovered that my sensing was becoming attuned to these different rhythms. The movement became more coherent. What had seemed like an orchestra tuning up before a show, simultaneously and discordantly, had turned into music in its own right.
Now, bedridden and suffering from internal injuries, as I looked back on that experience of teaching the blind, it occurred to me that the lessons I had learned there might offer a pathway out of pain now. So rather than attempting to escape from the pain, I began to “sense” inside the sensation of pain. And in doing that, I realized that the pain was not fixed and immutable. Rather, I could feel waves moving through my organs and tissues.
As I sensed movement through my tissues, they responded to my sensing, the way a plant responds to sunlight: form and structure opening into the vast light of awareness. As space opened to me, I no longer felt pressure from pain, eventually diffusing entirely. I began to sense myself not as a solid body at all, but as movement within movements.
However, when I started to rise from bed in order to physically move around in space, the pain and bleeding often returned. This showed me that I needed to learn to rise up and move through the world with the same fluidity that I had discovered while resting.
As I began the practice of observing myself in order to understand and build on what worked, I learned how to use the pain and related sensations as feedback, helping me sense in real time how consciousness was organizing this community of cells. One thing I kept rediscovering was my habit of tensing up, and how this tension manifested in my daily-life activities in a myriad of ways. I realized that while this tensing or “contraction” might have begun as early attempts to help or protect me, in actuality it now had the opposite effect. As I opened to this realization, I began to see that my ability to get past the pain was not due to any “efforting” but rather to sensing my connection to something much larger. I came to realize that what truly helps is going beyond the limiting images, habits, and conditioning of the past. In the immediate experience of sensing, there was nothing above or below this vastness; there was nothing “other.” There were only interpenetrating movements through which this “wholeness” renewed itself. I later came to call this expression of gratefulness for receiving the infinite—this “kissing back”—presencing.
The healing power of presencing
Learning a new way to sense myself involved just a small shift in awareness. But it was enough not only to change my state of consciousness but also to reverse the progression of my dis-ease. That is, it was not just my perception of my body that changed; it was also my actual physiology. My whole system began to function differently. Healing and regeneration occurred.
This way of functioning—rather than being merely a fleeting relief from pain—gradually became a new way of living, a way that healed and renewed me. This mode of awareness—this ability to sense myself somatically, at a process level, in the bubbling, bursting, blooming of life—was the foundation of my complete recovery. Over time, I even started menstruating again. And years later I conceived naturally and enjoyed a wonderful pregnancy and ecstatic birth at home. Later, I came to teach what I had learned, as a self-sustaining process for transformative learning and change that anyone could adopt.
While I would never wish my traumatic experience on anyone else, at this point I’m immensely grateful to have gone through it. Because what I learned from it was not just a matter of recovering from an illness. It was a turning point, an entry into a whole new way of being. As you move through this book I encourage you to reclaim your birthright: the gift of being embodied into the most finely tuned feedback system imaginable.
Just think, you were born into a body that—far from being a machine that wears down, assailed by the ravages of circumstance and time—is a supremely conducive environment for learning to live in the present moment, to sense and move with the flow of what is. This living, ever-changing responsiveness of the body to awareness is the key to transformative learning and change. Embodying mindfulness takes us beyond the limited way in which we have known ourselves up to now—a way that we mistook for the ground of reality—then we get to discover and even create a whole new reality.
image: William K (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)