For look, how
oft I iterate the work,
Ben Jonson, The
Alchemist, II.iii. 106-107
This is from Rachel
Remen's My Grandfather's Blessings (Riverhead Books 2000):
"We heard something steadfast in the midst of our lives that had been there
always, even before we were fully human. Our lives and all our lives depended on
it. It was a profound and ineffable
encounter with the mysterious."
The author is
describing a group of physicians listening to their own hearts.
There are several things about this brief description that I find
compelling and directly connected to therapy, and this essay addresses all of
I have been
thinking a lot lately about a chapter in Thomas Moore's book Original Self
(HarperCollins 2000). At one point he says, " Humans often have a
preference for straight lines. We
think of evolution and human development as following a concrete path toward
perfection. We expect our neighbors to walk the straight and narrow." The
author goes on to quote the German poet Rilke; "I live in my life in
widening rings." And goes on
to say, "Maybe we should expect always to get into familiar trouble and to
repeat both the glorious and defeating themes that are embedded in our
Think of an ancient
alchemist with a mortar and pestle. The
slow, steady repetitive movement in circles was typical of the alchemistís
art. He would repeatedly perform
the same action upon some element in an effort to alter it.
Waiting patiently for subtle changes, he was convinced that it was the
steadfast and unchanging nature of his action that would lead to success. These
days, repetitive care of the same sort might be seen similarly. After all, can
twenty consecutive visits to the therapist for the same modalities be explained
in any other way?
Of course, when the
same treatment done over and over doesnít truly alter the problem in a
therapeutic way, I have a problem with that kind of practice. Still, many
perfectly reasonable therapists fall into this sort of pattern. They come to my
classes worn out, somber and uneasy. They have no faith in the care they are
providing their patients and admit that they wouldnít trust it to help with
their own chronically painful problems. Compelled to continue with the protocols
that protect them financially, they are constantly in conflict with their
original notion about what therapy was to be.
There is something
to be said about the therapeutic aspects of repetition, though, and I think
Remenís description of the heartbeat alludes to this. If we find a way of
being whose origins are instinctive and unconsciously driven, we will often find
comfort in its familiar presence. Our heartbeat is an example of excitomotor
activity, and it forms one of the three categories of nonconscious movement.
Another of these, ideomotor, reflects our thoughts and/or our movement
toward comfort. In my experience, when we become aware of it, it has a similar
effect of calming combined with a sense of mystery.
between repetitive care that gets us nowhere and repetitive activity that proves
helpful is in its origin. Doing something to another over and over will help if
thatís what they need, but movement toward correction, in my experience, must
emerge unconsciously from the individual who is in pain. Therefore, we would be
better off looking at the patientís repetitive activity and considering how it
might help if only it were allowed free reign. When someoneís isometric
contraction of the muscleís that drive speech becomes isotonic, they often say
wonderfully therapeutic things. Why not the same for the isometric activity
elsewhere in the muscles?
In their heyday,
alchemists were often forced to work in secret. Their culture did not trust any
mystery that didnít have a religious origin, and the proper religion at that. Iím of the opinion that a
remnant of this mistrust remains, and that the full expression of the
unconscious is strictly prohibited, especially when bodily movement is
Imagine that each
of us contains an internal alchemist. He (or she) expresses themselves through
movement that originates in the unconscious They do so repetitively, and with a
constancy that is inherent to life. When we listen to them, our behavior
doesnít display the straight evolutionary growth toward perfection that our
culture seems to prefer, but, rather, a unique and idiosyncratic way of being in
which we find comfort and stability. Perhaps these ways of being, gesturing and
speaking get us into the ďfamiliar troubleĒ Moore speaks of, but they define
us, and, ultimately, lead us back toward the mystery within our own lives.
treating painful problems should consider this, and look for answers in the patientís
repetitive acts, and not their own.