Perhaps not unlike you, I lived all the way through my twenties as if behind a thick clear glass wall separating me from life – my emotional life most of all. I did not even know what I felt, not to mention being able to express it. Sometimes when my roommate was away, I would sob for hours not knowing why and feeling vaguely ashamed after.
I floated in a strange, detached state that felt like playing a part in someone else’s movie. The world had an unreal, dream-like quality. I could see things and people around me but could not really touch them. I did not feel empty inside, I simply did not feel. Like James Joyce’s often quoted Mr. Duffy, I too lived a short distance from my body.
Then, following a series of miraculous coincidences I found myself in a movement program where, for the first time in my life, I consciously touched the core of a childhood terror that I did not even know was there.
It was the summer of 1995. I was living at Esalen then and participating in a long-term movement program called Waves and Whispers based on 5Rhythms, Continuum, and Authentic Movement. During a partner exercise I had an experience similar to what a Zen student might call satori, a moment of insight that occurs unexpectedly, a sudden awakening, also described in Gestalt as an Aha! experience.
The instruction was for one person to move, and the other to witness. The mover was invited to explore movement and breath patterns related to fear, that is to embody our experience of fear, but rather than freezing with it (which is often the response to this emotion), to move with it, or be moved by the fear. The role of the witness was to simply be present for the experience in an open, receptive, non-judgmental way.
When it was my turn to move, I started slowly, with fast shallow breath and small, darting movements close to the ground. Initially this expression was a purely physical exploration with no emotional or cognitive content. But suddenly I felt as if some greater process had taken over and now I was moved by the fear, the same fear I had experienced as a young child facing yet another eye surgery in a strange and terrifying hospital. The movement helped me access, for the first time ever, a full blown memory of that terror complete with a clammy cold sweat, a nauseating taste in my mouth, and the sense of panic a trapped animal may feel. My suffering was compounded by the feeling of the most terrible aloneness.
My body remembered the movements I must have attempted to make when I was lying there alone, strapped to a gurney, unable to evade the inevitable ether mask that would descend like death on my face and plunge me into an abyss of dreamless darkness from which I was never certain to return.
As the memory unfolded, I gasped, shook, and cried. I kicked with my legs and imagined using my arms to break the restraint straps and push away the ether mask. An energy release followed and I came back to the present feeling as if a miracle had just happened to me. I felt fully present, whole, and vibrantly, almost unbearably, alive.
Ever since, I have been a true believer in the power of embodied movement to unlock and transform somatic awareness, emotional expression, and relational wisdom. For years after that first taste of release, I would secretly have my own private therapy session every time I went to a dance class and I did not even have to open my mouth. Plus, it only cost 15 dollars a pop! A lot of personal and interpersonal healing was a magical side effect discovered in the process.
Join me as we continue to reclaim together our innate capacity to live like Zorba the Greek: full of feeling, connected to the soul, breathing deeply, feeling deeply, knowing we are not alone, not weird, not weak for being affected and changed by this insane, incomprehensible, intense and intensely beautiful world.
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