Monday, 27 September 2010

Face to Face with the Force

What started as a coffee morning - the usual gaggle of moms catching up over hot drinks and chit chat - turned into a surprise encounter with something I thought I knew quite a bit about -  "The Force."

One mom had brought along an exotic stranger - a MAN, from California no less, who was a Transformational Breath practitioner.  After not much pleading, he agreed to give us an impromptu class.  "Excellent," I thought, "A new weird experience to add to my collection."

The basic instruction was to breathe in from the lower belly for three counts and then let it out fast in one count - no pausing in between breaths. After about 15 minutes of breathing this way, he explained, the conscious mind would essentially shut off, leaving the door open for the powerful unconscious to come in and take over, allowing the body to release whatever old traumas or dramas it had been holding onto for safe keeping. If we were really lucky we might even slip into the flow of the source-of-all itself and experience the type of bliss that yogis sit on mountaintops for years trying to attain.  So far, so simple.  Ready, steady, go.

Cushions, blankets and pillow were gathered, and within minutes we were warming up to the beat of some energetic quasi-eastern trance/dance music, bouncing up and down and punching the air to "grab" handfuls of breath.  (I love these women - not afraid to dance like wild banshees first thing in the morning.)  As soon as the song ended we dove for our cushions to get into the breathing technique as quickly as possible.

My hands, arms and legs went numb and tingly within the first 10 minutes, and the breathing felt forced and unnatural. (He did say we might experience all of this, along with a few other common side effects such as muscle cramping, chills, etc.)  But, sure enough, after about 15 minutes things got interesting. I was breathing almost automatically now, and was noticing with detachment as first my right hand, then my left, began to curl into what I can only describe as a claw wrapped around a steel ball.  (I'm not making this up!) Next my calves seized up, followed by my lips.  At about this time we were encouraged to release sound on the out breath - any kind of vocal release that felt appropriate - a tone, a note, a sigh, a cry.  This felt great, and the music was loud enough to mask my tendency towards self-consciousness.

But soon my detachment turned toward distress as I realized I was completely frozen solid and it was getting painful.  Thankfully the teacher arrived when the student was ready, and he very gently helped to open my fingers and assured me it was safe to release whatever it was I was holding onto so fiercely, both literally and figuratively.  With that a most unexpected wail welled up from deep in my belly and came out of my being as an uncontrollable howl.  I sobbed loudly and wholeheartedly.

As the pain and the sobs began to wane, my body deeply relaxed. My awareness, however, was alert and observing.  I felt a wave-like sensation as my breathing took on a much slower, gentler rhythm, and it seemed as if I was lying in the bottom of a warm river, the water flowing over me in undulating ribbons of gentle energy.  I noticed that I was hardly breathing now, and I had a strong desire to stay in the pause between breaths forever.  It was pure peace, pure calm, pure love.  I imagine this is what the poet Rabindranath Tagore was describing when he wrote, The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day, runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

As the session came to an end I reluctantly began to wiggle my fingers and toes and bring myself back to the room.  Everyone had had a profound experience in varying degrees, and all looked radiant. 

Later that night I went to the theater and felt oddly removed yet alert.  At one point I noticed that I was completely still - no fidgeting, which is my usual modus operandi.  Three days on and I still feel slightly dazed and strangely calm, the chronic tension in my jaw and shoulders more or less gone.

The yogis have known of the transformational power of breath for thousands of years, and in my experience this particular breathing technique is aptly named. "The Stream of Life," "The Force," "God" - call it what you will.  Once you have experienced it so viscerally you truly will be transformed., and "the Force will be with you, always."

Friday, 3 September 2010

It's not Helpful to be Helpful

One day I'm going to do it.  I'm going to make a t-shirt that says, "I'm not here to help" and I'm going to wear it when I see counselling clients on their first appointment.  Why would I do that?  Because it's true.  Being a therapist may include many things, but being helpful isn't one of them.  In fact, I've come to learn that being helpful is actually unhelpful.

I recently read a story about a Russian billionaire who spent millions helping impoverished local in his native Georgia.  He discovered that paying their electricity bills merely led to them leaving the lights on all the time!  

What's going on here? 

Being helpful, particularly where money is concerned, is disempowering.  It tends to foster dependence rather than raise people up in the world.  As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." 

The same might be said of the listening arts of counselling and psychotherapy.  While I aim to empathize, encourage, challenge, reflect and notice my clients, the minute I try to be helpful I have an agenda - that something is wrong with them the way they are, or that I don't believe that they can help themselves.  Further, it sends a subtle message that, "I know what's best for you," and can insidiously undermine their belief that they can learn to be effective in their own lives. 

Being helpful can also prolong people's suffering by preventing them from facing the consequences of their own actions or inaction.  The desire to protect people from their problems is an easy trap to fall into, particularly where children and vulnerable people are concerned.  But I can clearly see in my own life that I gained far more when I learned to do things for myself, even when it meant, "learning the hard way."  After all, it is the struggle to emerge from the chrysalis that forces fluid into a butterfly's wings and enables it to fly.  "Help" it by assisting it out of its cocoon and it dies. 

Does this mean we abandon all charity and humanitarian causes?  Of course not.  Compassionate action will always have a place in the world. But the manner in which assistance is administered makes all the difference.  A hand up and a hand out are two entirely different things. 

Today, with perfect timing, I received the following inspirational e-mail from Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations with God books:

On this day of your life, dear friend, I believe God wants you to know...
...that nobody needs your help.

I know, I know...this is a difficult one. But it is true.
Yet this does not mean no one wants your help, or that no one
could use your help. It simply means the thought that another
Aspect of Divinity [person] is powerless without you is inaccurate.

I love it when the universe drops such neat little crumbs to show me that I'm on the right path.  Neale and me, we're singing from the same hymnal.  Can you spot us in the choir?  He's the one with the beard, and I'm the one in the t-shirt that reads, "I'm not here to help."  (And a green light sabre, of course.)