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Susannah Darling Khan

The Mothers and the Mystery – May 2015

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By Susannah


I received many responses to my ‘Super ego and the Soul’ article in the last newsletter (April edition) – thank you. All your responses were instructive and useful to me. Many of you loved it and said that you were finding it helpful in your journeys, which I’m very happy to hear. Some of you had questions about it that I’ve found productive in helping me to think and feel through more deeply what I currently understand about this theme.

These questions also illuminated for me the way in which in the article I was drawing on certain aspects of Movement Medicine that have become implicit to me. This article is a next step in this rich dialogue, and is my attempt to make more explicit (I hope) some of the foundational understandings embedded in our Movement Medicine practice.

First of all, it feels important to make explicit that the context and basis of Movement Medicine (as it says on the label) is the medicine of movement: the unfettered, exhilarating, deep, healing joy of dance. I do not know why, but dance and music is pretty well universal. As far as I know, every culture everywhere makes music and dances. As a DJ I once knew used to say: ‘In my opinion, dance is pretty high up on the list of basic human needs’. These are extraordinary times in which to be dancing, times in which we have access to an incredibly wide spectrum of music from all around the world. What I love about the dance as I experience it is that it generates and liberates a joy that can contain, hold and support so many other feelings and experiences within the ‘joy-stream’ of energy that is the dance itself.

I want to continue with a story about my mother, who, as you probably know, died last summer. To understand the import of the story, it may be helpful to know that she was a practising Christian. A few months before my mother died, I asked her whether there was anything she’d like to pass on from her years of life and reflection. After taking a few weeks to think about it, she told me (as I remember it now):

‘The first thing is that, as I have come to see it, our bodies, our hearts and our minds are not really separate. They are really different ways of naming, or different filters for perceiving aspects of the same thing: our beings. And the second thing, and it may surprise you to know this, is that I don’t believe in God. I believe in the mystery. When I die the molecules that have made up my body will continue as part of life, part of the soil and the micro-organisms and the plants and the air, and eventually they will be part of other animals and people. And I expect my spirit will dissolve back into the great spirit or mystery. And the third, related thing is that however much we know, or think we know, it’s tiny compared to the vast unknown mystery in which we actually live our lives. So, the thing I’d like to pass on is about the inner unified complexity of the human being, and the mystery of it all.’

My mother died with a deep sense of peace in her reunion with the all. Interestingly, the wonderful hospice nurses who took care of both her and us in her final days said that they thought that it was because of her emotional peace and lack of fear about dying that she was in such little physical pain to the extent that she barely needed any pain relief apart from a little two days before she died.

When my mother said all this to me, I was blown away by the resonance between what she had told me and the understandings that underpin our work. She could have been speaking about Movement Medicine. But perhaps it is more true to say that I am speaking as my mother’s daughter. Thank you dearest Mama.

Inspired by my mother, I’m going to pick up this thread, and explore further how, in Movement Medicine, we work with the body, heart and mind. I agree with my mother that these three are so inter-connected that really they form one thing – our being. At the same time, I find that it can be useful to talk about them as three experiential threads of our being that intertwine and interact, and ultimately can be regarded as being one system. So on this basis, I’m going to start with the premise that one can usefully speak about the body, heart and mind as distinct, as we commonly do in our language and, I think, in our experience – and then weave them back together again.

So if you were to ask me: ‘In Movement Medicine we work with a physical dance practice. Does that mean it’s a body-based practice?’ I’d say: ‘Yes! But not only that!’ If you were to ask me: ‘In Movement Medicine we work with the heart. Does that mean it’s a heart-based practice?’ I’d have to say: ‘Yes! But not only that!’ If you were to say: ‘In Movement Medicine we work with the mind. Does that mean it’s a mind-based practice?’ I’d say: ‘Yes! But not only that!’ What we are in fact working with in Movement Medicine is developing an integrated, embodied, felt consciousness through movement practice: body, heart, mind and soul together as one. We are practising being conscious of how connected we are internally and externally. When I imagine something, I feel how that affects my physical and emotional body. When I move in a certain way, I feel the textures of that physical sensation, and how that feels emotionally and the inner pictures and words that gives rise to. When you smile at me, I feel it in my body – how my whole being feels in response. This sense of internal and external inter-connectedness is, of course, backed up by recent neuroscience. Our thinking brings about cascades of internal biochemical and neurological effects. Our posture and ways of moving also affect our own and each other’s biochemical and neurological functioning, as does how we perceive others and their attitude towards us. And all of this occurs within complex and continual feedback loops of inter-connectedness – both on an intra-personal and inter-personal level. So I agree with my Mum: body, heart and mind are not separable.

We do work with the body in Movement Medicine, of course. It is, naturally, a key ingredient of any movement-based practice. As a young woman who grew up with a love of farming as well as science and abstract thought, I needed a way to bring together my conceptual intelligence with my vigorous physical engagement with life. 

In Movement Medicine, we work with our bodies to bring together two focuses in dialogue: one that we might call awareness; the other that we might call dynamic movement. In the first area of awareness, we practise listening and feeling into the inner landscapes of our bodies. This is called ‘interoception’ (perception of the interior) and is about developing this capacity of our mind (our consciousness) to accurately sense our physical interiority. Most often we do this in motion because, for most people, this supports us to actually feel the sensory, kinaesthetic textures and energies of our bodies. For those of us who have not paid attention to this aspect of life, this can be difficult at first. If we persist, and give it sustained importance and focus over time, this capacity can grow. I imagine that if a neuroscientist was able to watch our brains during this process, he/she would see our brains changing. As we now know, our brains are ‘plastic’ which means they are not fixed and go on changing with the addition of new neurons laid down according, in part, to what we are focusing on and repeating, throughout our life-times.

When we practise this ‘going within’ to feel our own physical interiors, the emotional inner landscape is right there too. It doesn’t seem to be possible to have full sensory physical interoception without simultaneously feeling the emotional inner landscape. This is why interoception increases our emotional intelligence about ourselves as well as our empathy. When we allow ourselves to feel the textures of our interior, we gain a much better handle on what we are feeling emotionally as well. I’ve come to think that this inextricable relationship between our internal physical sensations and our emotions is one of the reasons why many people find it difficult to ‘feel from the inside’: there can be such a lot of energy, feeling and information inside us that, if we don’t know how to befriend it and move with it in small enough doses, it can feel overwhelming. So we avoid it, and this can put us into a state of feeling almost permanently ‘outside’ ourselves. This is why it seems that you can’t free the body into felt, fluid and free movement without also embracing the emotional aspect of yourself.

In the second area of focus, dynamic movement, we allow what we find inside us – the physical sensations, textures, emotions – to move and be expressed as energy in motion. This movement (which may or may not be fast) involves letting go, giving ourselves permission, saying ‘Yes!’ to the instinct of our beings to digest, metabolise and transform energy and feelings through movement and physical, artistic and creative expression and communication.

These twin focuses of awareness and dynamic movement can be seen as partners in liberation. In my experience, movement that arises out of, and returns to, a breathing embodied presence that permeates our whole being provides a landing place for spirit.

A key point here is that this dialogue between awareness and dynamic movement is about the body, but not only the body. What we are practising in Movement Medicine is bringing the body, the heart, the mind and the breath together in connected movement. This we call the vertical axis or ‘journey of empowerment’. When we talk about the mind, we mean our consciousness. Where is your consciousness as you are moving? Is it present in and through your movement, in and through your physicality? Can you allow yourself to feel your dance and to dance your feeling? This is about coming together into an inner unity of being. It is the ‘yoga’ of Movement Medicine. (The word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘to yoke, to join’). Movement Medicine is about bringing ourselves together into a congruency of body, heart and mind, a congruency of awareness and action. And that is why we sometimes call this work ‘embodied consciousness’ or ‘mindfulness in motion’. It is why what we learn on the dance floor transports itself into other areas of our lives because what we are learning is about feeling ourselves as a unity, and growing our consciousness connected with our physical and emotional being.

This process of connecting body, heart and mind and the simple practice of interoception are cornerstones of Movement Medicine and have led to stunning changes in our Apprentice community. In the words of Gabrielle Roth, people have become more ‘present in the authority of their own experience’ and have developed so much more presence as a result. This is what we mean when we talk about strengthening the vertical axis of body, heart and mind as a key to the journey of empowerment.

We can trace our emphasis on integrating body, heart and mind right back to the roots of our work in 5 Rhythms, which first developed in the 60s and 70s. During this era, one of Gabrielle Roth’s many radical gifts was to re-honour the body by placing it back at the centre of spiritual practice. This was an enormously important act of remembering the body as sacred after centuries in which it was cast, along with woman, the feminine and sexuality, as the profane, dark and dangerous side of the body–spirit, earth–heaven, male–female binary split. In this movement to re-honour the body, it was inevitable that the mind would receive bad press for a while. I remember going to a festival (nothing to do with 5 Rhythms) that was organised by some very bright minds and was called the ‘no-mind’ festival, and thinking what a funny example of that swing of the pendulum their name for the festival was. Certainly Gabrielle, though she was devastatingly perceptive about the repetitive monologues of our egos (which she sometimes called the ‘pea brain’), was not afraid of the mind. Her philosophical, mystical and conceptual depth was one of the things I most loved about her and missed when we left the 5 Rhythms community.

This brings me to another aspect of the mind: our thinking. We all think. I do, anyway. And I challenge any one of you not to think for very long. In Movement Medicine we’ve decided to accept that we are going to be thinking more than just now and again and, as that’s the way it is, we feel it’s helpful to choose to think about something useful. In a sense, much of our thinking involves us in making up stories, making meaning. That’s who we are as human beings: meaning-makers. We can’t help it. We do it consciously; we do it semi-consciously; and we do it unconsciously and pre-consciously. It is as difficult to stop making meaning as it is to stop breathing. The stories that we tell ourselves – especially the unconscious, unexamined ones – provide the lens through which we make sense of our world. Some studies refer to this effect as our ‘sub-conscious cognitive bias’. And these stories are not incidental to our lives. They have a profound effect on the experience and possibilities of our lives.

Sometimes we catch our stories in action, and thus can do a ‘reality check’. Many years ago I was struggling with a perception that Ya’Acov was the ‘magical one’, seeing myself as a bit dull, boring and staid. This was happening in the days of CDs, when we lumbered round hundreds of CDs in heavy black plastic folders. One day Ya’Acov’s CD case caught my eye, and I noticed that it was seemingly glowing, as if there was an energy streaming out of his CD case that was at once beautiful, magical and luminous. Seeing this I was simultaneously impressed, awed and jealous. My inner voice said: “See, even his CD case is shining!” But then I noticed something strange about his CD case and turned over the front cover. To this day, I still remember that moment of profound confusion and dis-orientation when I suddenly realized that it was in fact my CD case. Of course I immediately stopped seeing, or being able to see, or projecting, or whatever mixture it was, the magic emanating from the CD case, but this seemingly small event triggered a deep questioning about what I was doing with my own magic and how I was projecting it outside of myself. (Which, of course, is not to say that Ya’Acov is not a magical being!)

Something we have learnt from our 25 years on the dance floor, and from sustained work with ourselves and other people, is that all the physical and emotional ecstatic and cathartic experience in the world does not change things if we do not also get a handle on our habitual stories, on our meaning-making. To really change things we need to witness how powerful this aspect of ourselves is, and to recognise that our habitual stories, our habitual meaning-makings, are not necessarily the best guide to what is true. This means becoming a witness of our own consciousness, sometimes called developing ‘self-reflexive consciousness’. Our evolving work with the super-ego, the under-studies and incantations is our way of working with this aspect of the psyche. In our ongoing work with our Apprentices, we have realised how unavoidably important this is. Dancing, dancing, dancing is great, but it’s not quite enough. This is why Gabrielle Roth created her ‘Mirrors’ workshop, and why we created the Phoenix Retreat; both work with the material of the dialogue between personality and soul, but in very different ways.

So if our stories are not necessarily the best guide to what is true, how then do we discover what is true? For me the most compelling response that I have heard to this question comes from a man called Albrecht Mahr. For the last 20 years or so, Albrecht Mahr has been a practitioner of Family Constellations. Before that, he worked first as a medical doctor, then as a Jungian Analyst and then as a Gestalt Psychotherapist. I was blessed to work with him during my Family Constellations training. On this question of finding the truth, he says that of course it’s good to reality-check our stories if we can, to objectively check out if they are true and relevant today and to update them if necessary. However, he also says that often we simply cannot know whether something is absolutely true. When this is the case, he suggests a potent way to discern whether a story is still worth entertaining. He proposes that we ask ourselves the following questions: ‘Does this story dignify life? Does this story dignify my life, the lives of others, and life itself?’ If the answer to these questions is ‘Yes’, then maybe it’s a story worth keeping.

As we often say in workshops, the maps of Movement Medicine are simply maps. They are not to be confused with the landscape itself. If they help you to dignify life, then they may be useful to work and play with. But, to echo my Mum, all the maps in the world have, in the end, to bow before the mystery that is so much bigger than all of us and all of our understandings.

My mother and Gabrielle Roth both had deep and holistic vision, both worked in very different ways in the world, and, of course, both have been huge influences in my life. They were born a day apart in 1941, and died within a couple of years of each other. I often wonder about the synchronicities and differences between my two Aquarian ‘mothers’. Although they never met, they both upheld the preciousness of each unique human being, and a holistic vision that incorporates the body and the heart and the mind – a vision that remembers and acknowledges the spirit at the heart of life. I thank them both.

Susannah Darling Khan

May 4, 2015