The following is a first draft and introduction to Learning To Love More
To be in relationship is to be. As John Muir says, "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe." This binding is the way our bodies respond to our thoughts; how our thoughts are shaped by culture; how cultures are built upon beliefs; and how beliefs are founded upon emotional resonance and reaction. There is no untying or unraveling that will make way for a singular identity to exist autonomously. So what does it mean to choose to relate if we are always in relationship? How do our individual identities form, impact and create our collective identities?
I remember being 16 years old and participating in a group where the facilitator had us divide into pairs. I stood with my back against a wall at one end of the room while my partner stood with her back against the opposite wall. We were instructed to maintain eye contact as she began to advance towards me. I was allowed to say, “stop”, “come closer”, “go further away”, and she would obey. This simple exercise began a lifelong curiosity and path of study for me. My 16 year old brain wasn’t ready at that point to articulate the power of the exercise, but my body responded immediately. Something changed inside of me that day. An emotional barrier was broken as I realized that it was possible to ask for both closeness and distance, and to be respected in my request.
This shift in understanding that I experienced from a simple invitation to feel boundary and desire in relationship was not only a shift for me personally, it was a shift for my family. Looking back now I can see the ways I learned to internalize shame, fear and dislocation from both my parents, and their parents before them. None of us knew how to say “no” and trust that it would be heard, so instead we learned to fight, coerce and manipulate. None of us knew how to listen when our bodies said “yes.” We understood, as so many do, that desire equals pain.
Many of us have histories of abuse. Individuals, groups and governments have disregarded our requests for proximity or distance, they have trespassed through the landscapes of our bodies and homes. Aside from our personal biographies, most of us carry the legacy of abuse in our flesh. Current studies are proving that trauma is inherited, and that ancestral emotional memory lives in our genes just as biological imperatives do. In considering relationship and connectivity, and what is implied by those words, we must start with what’s most immediate and close. We must start by relating to ourselves.
“There is something in nature that forms patterns. We, as part of nature, also form patterns. The mind is like the wind and the body is like the sand; if you want to know how the wind is blowing, you can look at the sand.” - Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen
When dealing with trauma and the resolution of destructive habits in relationship, our minds can be literally impenetrable in their ability to forget and distort information. I am not saying that we shouldn’t work with our minds and thoughts, I absolutely think it’s necessary to do so. However, through the last two decades of studying somatics and body-centered healing I have had the profound opportunity to witness the capacity for generational healing in myself and others play out simply and effectively through body-based practice. Through these experiences I have come to believe that our bodies offer the most immediate path to resolving distress in our minds. Additionally, bodies are fairly easy places to start. Regardless of ability, if you are here, you have a body. There is no language or technique that is needed to begin other than simple attention.
“Our body moves as our mind moves. The qualities of any movement are a manifestation of how mind is expressing through the body at that moment. Changes in movement qualities indicate that the mind has shifted focus in the body. So we find that movement can be a way to observe the expressions of the mind through the body, and it can also be a way to affect changes in the body-mind relationship.” Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen
These principles so beautifully articulated in the words of Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen have been what I keep coming back to in the past few months as I’ve contemplated the premise of our study together. In working with the question posed by our group’s title, I have had to look at the ways I instinctively shut myself down to others and find reasons to resist love. I notice that even with those who I am close to, who I “trust,” that I often meet them a closed heart and subconscious expectation of disappointment. I can feel it in my body: the way I tense after a personal request, the way my breathing becomes shallow when I look for a response, the clenching in my jaw and belly when I expect conflict, the hardness in my chest that exudes indifference and avoids vulnerability… After working with students and clients for years, I know that this is normal. I have observed countless bodies that don’t remember how to relax, even in safe spaces. I have worked with so many people who have forgotten how to breathe. How can we expect ourselves to relate, let alone to love, when we are so guarded and defensive in our own flesh? In learning to love more we must first directly face the ways in which we are invested in protecting ourselves by loving less.
In addressing our personal pain, acknowledgment and witness are absolutely necessary. We need to be able to confront others who have hurt us, and we often need affirmation from others that our hurt is indeed warranted. Both of these things are crucial for healing. That said, it’s also important to be mindful of the ways that focusing on individual stories can isolate us further. A teacher of mine once said, “consciousness gathers around distress.” I have seen this to be true in people’s bodies. When there is an injury, all attention goes to it – we fuss and fidget around our discomfort, trying to accommodate it, fix it, stop it. This behavior rarely pacifies. Most often it results in prolonging the injury and creating new discomfort as the body organism braces and compensates. This is true also in our minds, and in our psychological and emotional injuries. Who among us doesn’t know the experience of nursing a grudge and experiencing a relational dynamic turn from bad to worse because we can’t put the pain to rest?
When consciousness gathers around distress, distress becomes normal and expected. On a large scale we see this play out in our communities and national identities. When we expect the worst from one another we treat each other as if the worst has already happened. Our expectations of pain can create the very circumstances for pain to occur and accumulate. Additionally, when we base large parts of our identity upon conflict then we become dependent upon the conflict to continue in order to justify the constructs of our identity. If we have claimed our pain as a point from which to view others and the world, then relationships based upon equity and mutual support become impossible. An internalized identity and expectation of pain can never be satisfied, it depends upon prolongation of trauma to exist.
We live in a world where there has been so much violence and oppression between peoples, where sustained systemic prejudice has been the norm for millennia. In this world and in our current social and political landscapes, how do we even consider relaxing our defensiveness, let alone changing our expectations? We see time and again that extending trust and goodwill towards those who have the upper hand results in continued transgression and violation of agreements. If trust continue to be betrayed then what good does it do challenge our own perspective or try to shift our expectations? When and where is it appropriate to fight back with force? Finally, how do we sustain our decisions to heal when and if others do not?
It is my belief that successful negotiations of relationship and difference will occur when all parties are willing to be responsible for attending to and soothing, their own reactivity and pain. I don’t think it’s possible to trust or love anyone else if internally we are constantly preparing to fight. This internal tension is a barrier to any creativity – if we can’t relax enough to consider an alternative to defense then our habits will remain invisible and instinctive. How we relax our instincts to fight, especially if we have experienced repeated trauma, is where (for me) the question of learning to love more begins. I know that any sustained effort for activism in our immediate and larger communities must be supported by consistent and thorough self-care. If we do not attend responsibly to our own suffering and seek holistic and integrated resolution, then we will continue to find external reinforcement for our internalized oppression and violence.
Beyond my immediate, personal/professional experiences with somatic practices I have no answers as to how to go about working with the questions I have posed. I do have an idea though, that a multifaceted approach which includes creativity, dialogue and mindfulness as well direct action will be more successful that any singular technique. I also believe that working with the support of others is necessary. In the suggestions and prompts for this month my intent is to put forward ideas and content that have been both challenging and motivating for me. I would like to welcome and encourage all of us to ask questions, to not have answers, and to allow for awkwardness in addressing these ideas. As we begin our group conversations I am curious about the possibility for vulnerability and openness. I wonder if this is a space where we each can decide to trust each other and to reach out with the expectation of trust in turn?
- John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), Sierra Club Books 1988 edition.
- Helen Thomson, Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children's genes, (The Guardian 2015)
- Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen, “An Intro to Body-Mind Centering” Sensing, Feeling and Action (Contact Editions, 3rd edition 2012) the chapter I’ve referenced is available as a free PDF here
- "People who are exposed early to violence or neglect come to expect it as a way of life. They see the chronic helplessness of their mothers and fathers' alternating outbursts of affection and violence; they learn that they themselves have no control. As adults they hope to undo the past by love, competency, and exemplary behavior. When they fail they are likely to make sense out of this situation by blaming themselves. When they have little experience with nonviolent resolution of differences, partners in relationships alternate between an expectation of perfect behavior leading to perfect harmony and a state of helplessness, in which all verbal communication seems futile. A return to earlier coping mechanisms, such as self-blame, numbing (by means of emotional withdrawal or drugs or alcohol), and physical violence sets the stage for a repetition of the childhood trauma and "return of the repressed." - Bessel A. van der Kolk, “The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma: Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism” Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411, June 1989.