There’s a woman on my table heaving. Breath swelling and falling. Eyes fixed on an invisible terror, tears pouring out of her eyes. I am encouraging her to breathe, to make a sound, and share what she sees. And it seems that it’s not the words, but the permission that has her collapse into herself, to howl that she’s afraid as she folds in. Thirty minutes earlier we were talking, she was telling me why she called me, how long it’s been since she stopped being intimate with her partner, when she started to feel suffocated. I notice that her smiles often serve as cover, a pleading to me to ignore what lies beneath. I ask her what she wants most and she says to be present for her wife, to show up in her work, to feel like herself again. She doesn’t mention wanting to feel pain, or to surface stored fear. She doesn’t mention wanting to come apart, but here we are together. The place underneath.
I’ve heard people call healing art, but not being an artist, it’s hard to know. I do know, from my experience on either side of the equation, it requires more than anything two things to be true about the practitioner or a healer. It requires the capacity to deeply listen and a commitment to self-knowing.
Listening is, in and of itself a lost art. We’re living in a moment that requires and cultivates our hypervigilance. Thoughts constantly racing, calculating future danger and the risk of real relationship. It does not always feel safe to listen when we are being criminalized, and where we are swarmed with messaging that dehumanizes us, and where our trauma causes us to interact with each through the ghosts of our pain.
Yet, we have more and more platforms through which to speak and a scrolling, constant consumption of the personal and political. The world is noisy, perhaps increasingly so, and our ability to listen to each other deeply, to take each other in, is shifting with it. Listening, though is still a skill to be honed and perhaps a way to resist the manipulation and seduction of the public missive, the competition to say the rightest, wittiest thing that too often stands in for communication and real connection.
My right leg contracts as the woman on the table shakes herself loose. My leg always tightens when someone I’m working with finds release, when their fear of expression gives way and their body takes over. I take the pain in my leg as an indicator of my own release, my own opening. It’s the place where when I’m lying on another’s table turns to lead. My right leg holds my story. In this place with her I have no thoughts. Her breathing compels me to move, to put pressure on her arms, a sense of containment before she escapes her body. This move brings her into shaking, trembling and involuntary release.
We learn in Somatics that practice bring things embodied. Practice takes competencies and abilities outside the realm of good ideas into something you do automatically. And practice as far as I can tell is a way of getting to know yourself most of all. Perhaps self-knowing is just another way of listening. Where we ask ourselves questions and allow ourselves to wait for the answers. Where we allow the answers to be honest, even when they’re disturbing or contradict the story we try to tell of who we are. For me as a healer my greatest gift has been my internal journey, knowing my rawness, my fragile places, and my own brutality. From our own self-knowing, the love we cultivate in our lives and in our practice then is grounded choice. We know the soul can go many ways. It helps us escape the traps of trying to make everyone feel good that comes to us and of trying to prove ourselves competent when we’re out of our depth. Self-knowing is also how we build compassion for people we work with and help to lead people to a place beyond shame, where transformation is possible.
A friend and colleague of mine recently shared a quote that, in summation, said that we actually only ever heal ourselves. It struck something in me to hear this that I’ve been turning over and over again now for weeks. I agree only we can initiate and allow our own healing. Our own bodies are the site and the source. But a healer, too is an important role. It’s important to acknowledge both the work that people put in to become healers – the skill or even the artistry. Naming the work of healers also calls those working under that title into deeper accountability to their own development. I’d argue that some people may be given inherent gifts to help heal, but all who heal have to develop their skills through study, mentorship, and relationships with other healers. To me, a healer is someone who has done deep self-work that allows them to become a vessel, allows them to become a place for another. They are a person who is committed to this vessel building, this clearing of themselves, this, sometimes painful, excavation. They are a person who in this commitment asks questions of the people they work with, of themselves, and of people further along their path. They are a rigorous listener and a practiced gardener, a lover, and a student.
Healing is both the magic of the unknown and a skill that must be developed and honed over time. Healing, ritual, culture are all ways that we as a species have transformed trauma that persisted in our individual and collective bodies. Healing is as old as our first pain. Those who are identified as healers are responding to the dysfunction of our mental health and institutionalized medical systems that are often themselves sites that re-traumatize through objectification and the pathologizing of our pain and in the ways oppression persists and is reinforced by the histories, norms and practices of these institutions. Community based healers are rightfully so, reclaiming and re-centering the intention and integrity of healing by developing outside of Western medicine and psychological theories. We are in a question together of how we create our own standards, how we commit to our development as healers that is critical for us to answer. Whether it happens within a school or in the living room of a trusted elder, we have to be committed to accountability within our craft and offering.
At the end of the session the woman sits next to me and I can see her eyes have changed. Her pupils are smaller than they were when she came in, she’s breathing as though she’s discovering her chest for the first time. Her hands are pressing down her thighs and over her knees in rhythm. She is smiling, less for me and more in curiosity and wonder, surprised to meet herself for the first time in a long while. There aren’t clear answers here, but there’s now more feeling, more information she’s letting in. When she’s left I shake my leg out, I let my own tears fall, the loving and releasing. I say thank you to god for my gifts, for teachers and for a belief in the unknown.
When I open the door for another client to come in, they pass through and I have the thought that this gesture is the symbol of what our time will be together. They are not coming to see me. They are coming so that the door to their feeling can open. My job is to stand as evidence of life on the other side.