The is How It Begins
Matthew van der Giessen
When I was a child, I would go into the woods, find a quiet spot to sit, and listen. Slowly, nature would emerge – a bird on the path, a squirrel carefully working its way down a tree trunk, or the sounds of rustling in the brush. My life was a mess and nature, as it gradually revealed its hidden life, helped me reconnect and experience the reassembling of the parts of my own life that had been hidden within me.
From those early explorations of the hidden voice of nature, I learned I had to start with listening. In quiet a space is created. Life that has pulled back from the incursions and noisy trampling along its rutted pathways through the woods begins to re-emerge, weaving the patterns of communication and interaction that form the life and the body of nature.
I count myself lucky. Despite a few detours, I have been able to find a vocation that has enabled me to continue the practices I began at the beginnings of my life journey. By the time I was thirty, I had developed a massage practice that gave me the opportunity to meet with my clients around the ways in which nature had pulled back from the habituated pathways that had been forged through their body. Through touch, I learned to apply those early lessons in listening to the ways the weave of communication through the body has been disrupted by constant travelling on only those pathways, that showed as tensions, discomfort and disconnection of body and being.
Another early lesson in listening was around my own body that started on a hot summer afternoon when I was thirteen. Spending the long weeks of summer at our cottage, I was out exploring the fields of a nearby farm when I realized that suddenly in the last few days it had been deserted. Chickens were loose, scratching in the driveway, the doors to the ramshackle farm house hung open. As I poked my head in the doorway, I realized that the darkness within did little to provide shelter from the oppressive heat of the day. There were cracks in the wooden walls, newspaper had been tacked between the uprights. I was facing a graphic image of the poverty that had forced the family to cut its losses and leave. As I turned to withdraw from this world of painful whose stories I could faintly feel in the deadened air, I noticed a dog, in the field behind the farm yard, his back periodically appearing above the ripening hay field. As I turned to watch it gradually dawned on me; he was hunting mice.
As I came closer to talk to the dog, he started to bark at me, making it very clear that I was an intruder that had no right on the territory he had been left to protect. After several fruitless attempts at friendship, I gave in and went home. But the next day I was back…with food.
Thus began a new chapter in my education in the language of nature. Even with food in my hand, the dog made it very clear I was not welcome. I discovered that I had to leave my offering by the house and make my way back down the drive. The next day, the food was gone, but the dog quickly returned from the field and let me know in clear terms I was not welcome. Once again, I left my offering of food and made my way down the drive.
But this time the dog didn’t wait for me to leave his sight before beginning to eat the food before I was halfway down the drive. And so I stopped and watched. Clearly keeping one eye on me, the dog continued to eat the food.. but if I started to inch closer, he would begin barking at me once again. And so we continued through the week. Each day I was allowed a little closer but with a clear edge. If I moved over it, I was told of my transgression in no uncertain terms. By the end of the week, he finally took food from my hand.
It was crystal clear to me that our relationship changed only because I had learned to feel out the edge that defined his safe space. If I honoured that edge, there was a shift in the relationship: the prickliness of the boundary began to soften. I also realized that I could feel the tension of that edge within me too. I learned to recognize the ‘comfort’ feeling that came from finding the place, just at the edge, where the optimum conditions for the change in our relationship could happen. Because I didn’t just leave the food and go home every day, or try to capture the dog in a cage, but instead sat at that living, moving edge, something different happened – at end of the week, the dog came home with me.
In my clinical practice, for all the hours that I have spent in contact with the body of another, I continually draw upon that lesson, listening to the ‘edge’ as it is played out in my own body. When I engage with the tension in another’s body, I have come to understand that I sensing for how I feel the tension related to that engagement in my own body. When the tension I am aware of in my own body shifts – a breath comes, my hands shift – it is accompanied by a shift in the other person’s body. I listen for the space that wants to happen and into that space the weave of connectivity begins to emerge.
Throughout this podcast series you will hear the story of that emerging web of connection. Some segments will be like this one: a telling of a story that helps shape the landscape we will be exploring. These are the stories in broad strokes that reach across years to find themes and make their connections. Other segments will be more introspective, leading us deep into the woods and down the rabbit hole. On segments like these, you might find you want to put on your earbuds and drop into the feel of the practice to get its full effect.
You might be starting to see a picture emerge here. When I’m talking about my massage practice it’s one that doesn’t have a primary focus on fixing the injuries, chronic disabilities, and stress related aches and pains that are the bread and butter of classical massage therapy. Aren’t these important?
Yes, but…What you’re going to hear is an alternative view, moving ideas that have claimed the foreground of our attention just a little bit back so that we can invite insights that have spent time more of their time out of our view these days. Ways of seeing the relationship between healing, the body and consciousness that have their roots in some of the earliest healing practices we are still in contact with, sharing perspectives that have more in common with shamanism than physiotherapy. This includes a world view that puts greater value on the sensory experience of functional and dysfunctional states, that looks for the unheard voices in body experience, and gives relative importance to the shifts in awareness that accompany changes in physical functioning.
As you’ll hear from other segments in this podcast series, the re-emergence of these ideas from ancient shamanistic practice into their revaluation in modern day life has been the province of an unlikely, loose knit community that have named their area of discussion, somatics, composed of academics with a leaning towards fields like existential phenomenology, and pioneers in body centred practices whose focus on movement, breath, touch or psychology has an underlying interest in how these practices help us function more full as participants in everyday life.
And that brings us back to the theme of our podcast series, Somatic Practice. With the egalitarian dialogue between these practices, old and new, it is becoming clear that every practice that seeks to engage more fully with the world as an ‘organism with Presence’ is, in the end speaking a version of the same language. The dialects and practice applications may look a little different but each of the practices we will meet with will add a piece of knowledge to deepening that essential skill Somatic Practice, being more present in this moment as an embodied being.