The art of somatic education.
AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
Joe Lee Griffin, Ph.D.
Is bodywork a spiritual practice?
Though it seemed that way to me, for some time I thought of this belief
as more personal than universal. Then, a few years ago, my friend Mary
Kent Norton talked about rebirthing and opening the breath at a Potomac
Massage Friday Night Lecture. During the discussion, I was moved to reframe
one of her comments into frankly spiritual terms. The response convinced
me that many bodyworkers see their practice as spiritual. Since then,
listening and noticing has convinced me that nearly all bodywork comes
from a spiritual place, whether this is clearly expressed or just underlying.
This article is an attempt to clarify, organize, and present these beliefs.
The word touch and the process of touching contain deep spiritual meanings,
often clearly expressed. From the popular TV show, Touched by an Angel,
to the powerful Sistine Chapel painting of Michelangelo, where God reaches
out to touch and bring life to human clay, the image of touching, reaching
out and connecting, is used to express the spiritual connection between
souls and the deep urge toward union with God.
Body, mind, and spirit.
We hear this phrase often, perhaps so often that we don't always think
about its deeper meaning. In recent Pathways articles, I focused on body-mind
relationships, particularly on how the nonconscious functional mind operates
the body, and how bodywork, somatic education, and aware movement speak
to the tissues to reach the operating mind. This article is directed toward
adding the third leg, spirit, to the stool. Does not a stool with two
legs need a third to become stable and easy to use?
Milton Trager, possibly the last of the early generation of somatic educators
that followed F. Matthais Alexander, died January 20, 1997 at nearly 88.
Jack Thomas, who knew Milton, included this statement in an obituary in
Touch Therapy Times, Feb, '97, "He regarded the exploration of motion
in his own body as a spiritual pursuit."
Judy Rose Seibert was moved to travel to southern California for Milton's
funeral and gave me an audio tape of the service. The participants, including
a rabbi-physiotherapist who had worked on bodies with Milton, made clear
their belief that Milton practiced spiritual bodywork.
An antidote to separation and duality
Much of our life on this plane seems dualistic. Even athletics, so beneficial
to body and mind, often focuses only on who won and who lost. Similar
win/lose assumptions appear in political contests and legal matters. Poverty
distortions often contain a dualistic assumption that the only way to
have something is to take it from someone else.
Bodywork requires connection to be useful. We need to give in order to
have room to receive, we need to receive in order to have something to
The bodyworker needs to be clear on boundaries and individual responsibility,
partly because we do work on this plane of duality. Many painful signals
come from inadequate boundaries, much spiritual and therapeutic work is
about establishing clear boundaries. One of my tasks before starting a
session is to establish that there is only one expert on how the client
feels, that it is not me, and that I need feedback to be sure of staying
within the window of comfort.
I've heard Dr. Trager refer to, "This nothing I do." As a physiologist,
I might refer to avoiding reflex resistance rather than saying, "Let
go, let God."
Physical - Spiritual
Matter is this plane of existence. Signals come to the surface because
we are in bodies, limited in movement, compared to spiritual planes described
as having free, unlimited movement. Signals in bodies are strong and get
stronger when not listened to. There are opportunities to learn our way
back to God and give up the illusion of separateness.
Some spiritual practices or practitioners focus on higher centers, on
being above or ignoring body signals. Historically, even leaving out those
who abused the body with hair shirts and flagellation, one can often find
the view that the body is only a servant of the spirit.
I prefer the view of Teilhard de Chardin (Hymn to Matter) who believed
that physical matter (not just bodies) was God made solid. Bodies, whatever
the disadvantages of solidity, feeling, and material incarnation, are
wonderful tools with which to listen to life signals and wonderful evokers
of opportunities to learn.
Note: This paragraph is for bodyworkers, rather than being about bodywork.
In a recent Trager Institute newsletter, Megan Eoyang, from Berkeley,
CA, described how she creates a personally satisfying client base. In
addition to the usual channels of outreach, like loving what you do, carrying
cards, telling people about your work, mailing, or talking to groups,
she specifically suggested bringing the clients you want into meditation
or prayer. I like that she did not just suggest asking for people to come
pay me to do my work. Instead, she recommends specifically asking for
and visualizing clients who are ready, who will accept and enjoy what
I do and be a pleasure and satisfaction to work with. That is, not just
paying clients, but clients who want to be touched, both physically and
in the deeper spiritual sense.
Spiritual bodywork principles
We are all connected.
The best thing I can do for myself is what improves another.
A good bodywork session leaves the practitioner feeling rested and energized,
as well as taking the client to the next thing they are ready for.
Trust in the inner good
One view of the self is that our core is divine clarity, surrounded by
lower self distortions (mistaken beliefs about being separate), mostly
hidden by a layer of pretense (mask). Spiritually based bodywork assumes
the core is there and that a hand deserves to be touched with respect,
because it is an extension from a soul.
The universe will support
you if you let it.
I like to remind clients and myself that the table is an agent of the
universe. Neither of us needs to work hard, because the table provides
secure support. The client does not need tension in anti-gravity muscles
because of this support.
Movement is life. In spirit,
movement is instantaneous.
Easy, simple, gentle movement creates a deeply soothing inner awareness.
I am fond of the Patricia Neal story. Instead of accepting medical advice
to find caretaking for her after her massive stroke, long before she could
move herself, her family had someone come regularly to touch and move
her. She remained connected and relearned self movement, finally returned
to daily life and to acting.
Reaching out. Is is.
Bodyworkers walk a line between respecting boundaries and reaching out
to listen to reality. A bodyworker listens to what is, which may include
pain and tension, while accepting a spiritual truth: You can only go on
from where you are. Once one accepts what is, it can change.
There is more love in the
universe than I can ever give away.
Bodywork is usefully done from a place that assumes abundance to share.
Poverty assumptions cause bodyworkers to feel depleted and block the flow
rather than improving movement.
Joe Lee Griffin is a retired Trager®
Practitioner, Tutor, and workshop leader. He is a Princeton Ph.D., who
taught physiology at Brown, was NIH Special Fellow in Anatomy at Harvard
Medical School, and worked at Walter Reed as a research biologist and
in the Wellness Center.
This article was published in the Spring , 1997, issue of Pathways magazine.
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