Photo Credit: Ellen Korman Mains – Broken Heart Monument at the site of a former children’s camp in Lodz, Poland
Addie van der Kooy’s Wholebody Focusing concept of “holding both with equal regard” can help us open our hearts and sense our personal role in promoting social justice and perceiving bias. It can also be a guiding principle in developing ways to support social justice in the broader society. As white supremacy roils the U.S. and I prepare to attend an important Holocaust commemoration in Poland, while Diana tends to her own ancestral legacy in Italy, here is another segment from our conversation that touches these issues. It also touches on the inherent vulnerability and truth of the human heart that flies beyond bias and sees basic goodness and equal regard as fundamental to reality, not just a technique we do.
I am in a steady relationship lately with my heart’s desire. A body sense of how speaking Italian was a heart’s desire came to me in a Wholebody focusing session with my partner. It let me know that learning Italian would be something that would change my life for the better. This awareness happened soon after I filmed Bruna Blandino and Rosa Catoio, two Italian Wholebody Focusers, (Being Ourselves) for the blog.
Living a Heart’s Desire
What I also began to understand that day was that learning Italian was not something that I had to “do.” It was something that lives in me. This experience started me on a journey to give this body sense all the time and space it needed. (My Heart’s Desire).
I began attending focusing workshops for Italian focusers through The International Focusing Institute and partnering with some of the participants. These experiences led me to decide to go to Italy to study in a language immersion program and attend a focusing conference there.
I am experiencing what it is like to come in contact more deeply with my maternal language. A few days ago, as I was reading some straightforward, known Italian phrases, I found my mouth would not cooperate. I had an excessive amount of trouble pronouncing the words. I paused and asked my body to show me what was needed. My hands went to either side of my face and held those muscles gently. Then I began to reread the phrases slowly. There was still difficulty pronouncing the words but less so this time. What was showing up was the flip side of a heart’s desire.
What Happens When a Language is Lost?
For 26 years, I taught or administered language programs to train Spanish-speaking students in NYC to fully develop their relationship with their mother tongue. NYC schools had a policy of supporting the home languages only until the student became fluent enough in English. The lack of continued instruction in the mother language left many students with interrupted literacy in both English and Spanish and low confidence in their Spanish-speaking ability. In high school, students were mandated to learn another language. I was part of a team of teachers and administrators who designed and piloted high school programs to bring these students to full academic literacy in their home language.
In this process, I learned how much trauma having one’s maternal language suppressed caused and how it often relegated these students to the category of “at-risk student.” When students studied their home language for at least three years at the high school level, however, they often became the top students in their schools.
Holding Both with Equal Regard
The felt sense in the muscles of my mouth reminded me of the trauma my students experienced. I embodied the experience of the loss of my mother tongue by becoming a language educator and advocating for immigrant students’ linguistic rights. For me, Italian was spoken in my home as a child by the adults around me. My parents, however, feared that if I learned Italian, I would suffer the same prejudice and academic challenges that they had faced in school as children. Because of my family’s experience, I worked at my profession with great passion. I became a national leader of this movement to support language rights for immigrants in schools. (You can view some of my work at Scalera on Vimeo.)
Now that I am retired, my body is telling me it is time to do this for me. I already speak Spanish. Italian seeps out of my mouth when I am in an Italian speaking atmosphere—like the filming session with Bruna and Rosa or on the streets of Rome. It has not been a conscious experience. I did not have a measurable fluency in Italian, just a few magical moments when I found myself speaking Italian. It was not something I could consciously conjure up at will.
When I experienced difficulty pronouncing simple Italian words, I realized it was a felt sense. I also became aware that following a heart’s desire is not just a joyous forward movement. It may include holding space for what prevented me from naturally speaking my family’s language. Something might show up as a heart’s desire because it has not fully manifested in one’s life.
There is a lot of not knowing around how speaking Italian will benefit me, however, in subsequent focusing sessions, some valuable bodily experiences emerged. A burning sensation in my left hand helped me feel how the loneliness of exclusion from family discussions affected me. The adults around me had a secret language which they prohibited me from learning. It enhanced the feeling that I was not entirely a member of my family. As I wrote this sentence, a full-body sense came over me—a combination of nausea, fear, and breathlessness. I stood and allowed these sensations time to process. They eventually diminished. I expect more felt senses will emerge as I continue to hold space for learning more Italian and now, for not learning Italian.
When I embarked on this journey of my heart’s desire, I didn’t expect to meet its doppelgänger. It is, however, not surprising that both are there—the heart’s desire to speak Italian and the prohibition to speak it. My body has been screaming with all sorts of symptoms lately—nausea, breathlessness, aching joints, burning hands, and the inability to control the actions of my mouth.
How to Move Forward
The more time I give my body to experience itself in grounded presence, the more this bodily sense will emerge. I stand and let my body move in its own way. I call in spiritual help from my ancestors. I ask this part that is suffering from speaking Italian to become aware of itself. My hands respond to my request for my body to comfort the suffering part. My right hand gently holds my left hand while I lie down. It is very soothing for my whole body. This position softens the bodily discord I experience.
I have become aware of this background “felt sense.” My ability to learn a language by listening to my caretakers, a natural part of one’s earliest human experience, was stopped cold. Both parts of me, to speak or not to speak Italian need my attention, compassion, and regard.
In two weeks, I will be in Italy for 18 days in a situation that will require me to speak Italian most of the time. I am and will be holding space with equal regard for both my suffering self and my heart’s desire. This is what I was promised—that my life would change for the better as I live this experience.
N.B. The phrases mother language, mother tongue, and home language are used interchangeably. They refer to the language spoken by the parents or guardians of a young child.
How do we live day to day with so much evidence that our society does not support basic human needs? It is like being children and having families that do not meet our needs. I propose that our readers practice “holding both with equal regard” when we are encouraged or disturbed by what is happening politically. Take time to be with the body sense of your experience and share the results in the comments section of this blog.
Election night 2016, my friends and I went to a performance of Coriolanus, a Shakespeare play about governmental corruption and abuse of power. At the end of the play, everyone in the audience turned on their cell phones at the same time and collectively groaned. The news said, much to everyone’s surprise in NYC, that Donald Trump had won the election for president.
From that night on, most Americans have had their concept of being an American undercut in some way. We all do not share the same ideas. For examples, some of us have been horrified by the growth of white nationalism, while others are firmly against the radical changes that some groups propose.
One thing that has happened, as a result, is that more people are taking an interest in politics and discussing it, arguing it, and feeling it in our bodies.
How Can Wholebody Focusing Help?
I propose we do a mini-research on how “holding both with equal regard” can help us to move forward in this challenging environment. This activity is not limited to people who live in the USA. There are many reasons people in other countries are experiencing the same instability. I recommend the following:
Notice when you see, read, or hear something that is accompanied by a body reaction.
Connect to your grounded presence.
Pause to be with that reaction by holding both with equal regard. If it is something we like, give your body time to process it. If it is disturbing, also welcome it and allow your body to process this new information.
Let your body show you when it is complete. You might notice that the strength of the reaction has lessened or you have moved on to another idea.
Over time, notice if there is anything different in how you are experiencing the ups and downs of the current political situation.
Send comments to the blog about what you are noticing.
Illustration of a Neanderthal Woman: John Sibbick (with permission from the artist)
Ellen Korman Mains came up with this title as she reflected on her week and how she’d been relating with a disturbing part of herself. Diana Scalera and Ellen engaged in a conversation about being with difficult experiences of ourselves with the help of our spiritual and focusing practices.
Diana Scalera went to Catholic school until the 8th grade when she gave up on Catholicism and organized religion in general as a spiritual practice because most of what she experienced from her Catholic education was demeaning treatment, punishment, and fear. It was not until she began focusing that her connection to spirit emerged. In one of her first sessions with Kevin McEvenue, a Neanderthal woman became present in her body to support her in a situation in which she felt weak and powerless. Diana was able to sense into how strong these bones were and how they were being offered as a gift to guide her. From that point on, Diana let go of a traditional idea of spirituality and became open to her own innate connection to spirit.
Ellen Korman Mains grew up in a Jewish home of Holocaust survivors where ties to previous generations seemed completely cut. At the age of 19, she met a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who emphasized trusting direct experience over dogma or wishful thinking, and this began her spiritual journey. Twenty years later, illness and energy work broadened her sense of connection to the invisible world and to the “larger system” that Gene Gendlin referred to. Later still, traveling to Poland to embrace her family’s past led to extraordinary openings described in her book, Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust, as ancestors began showing up to support her. Since 2011, both Focusing and meditation have been important venues for trusting her direction and spiritual connection, and helping others to trust theirs.
In the video below, Diana and Ellen discuss how both spirituality and focusing live in their bodies and how they support their struggles with the “Little Monsters” with a sense of befriending what’s there by holding both with equal regard.
Thank you to John Sibbick for allowing us to use his wonderful drawing of a Neanderthal woman.
We hope you enjoy this conversation about how two individuals find their way.
Many of us value our Focusing partnerships as a place where we can be in Grounded Presence with ourselves and another human being from a very deep inner place. A Focusing partnership is a beautiful path of committed practice of witnessing and being witnessed, and over time can permeate even the most challenging aspects of life with a sense of openness to new possibilities.
A long-term Focusing partnership or a solo Focusing practice imply their own next step – a carrying forward into Felt Community. In this spirit we are inviting you to consider joining us next summer for a Wholebody Focusing Retreat where we will co-create activities that support the forward movement of life in each of us.
A free, undammed river flowing down a mountainside and into a floodplain will naturally spread out in many streams and rivulets that join and separate in an ever-shifting pattern. Hydrologists call this natural way of being a river a “braided river”. A Focusing Retreat is just like a braided river: many streams of felt sensing flowing together, flowing apart, whirling around deep pools, moving alluvial soils to a new place to create fertile ground for new growth.
“Co-created” is the operative word: unlike a Focusing workshop or week-long with a set program, the retreat is what we -you and I and he and she and they – make together. What does that look like? There will be learning activities facilitated by participants who wish to do so; time for partnerships and time alone; opportunity for vigorous movement assisted by canoes and bicycles; and many, many Heartfelt Conversations. ‘Smores and campfires are a definite possibility!
For more information and to reserve your spot please click here.
The retreat will take place on the shore of a lake on beautiful Vancouver Island in British Columbia, nestled within extensive gardens and a second-growth fir forest. We will invite our bodies to sense into the presence of nature and how it may support our Grounded Presence and well-being.
In a time of climate upheaval and warlike posturing that threaten human extinction, we believe that intentionally being with each other in a Focusing way is a gift to ourselves, and to present and future generations.
Ana Simeon, with Barb Fotta, Joya D’Cruz and Melinda Darer, the 2020 Retreat Planning Committee. Please contact Melinda@focusinginternational.org if you would like more information.
Many of us who practice Wholebody Focusing have other practices that help us sustain ourselves, body and soul. Ellen Korman Mains, the author of Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust, shares her 45+ year experience of practicing meditation, along with other modalities, and how she eventually recognized a need to become more present in her body in meditation practice. The video below is the first in a series of conversations between Diana Scalera and Ellen in which she explains how she first came to embrace body awareness. Future videos will include the role that body awareness plays in her continuing work to recognize and help heal the legacy of the Holocaust.
Please take you time to watch the video below which is the first installment of this series about meditation, grounded presence, and spirituality.
Photo Credit: Marty Correia Kate Sitting with Rothko
In the study of physics, the Observer Effect is the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.
I am not a scientist and I will take the words above for face value while letting you know that scientists and mathematicians have observed, documented, and proven this concept to be true. The Observer Effect and a belief that our bodies know what they need in order to heal without input from our egos, ids, and superegos can help us find our way to our authentic selves over and over again.
The stories below are connected to the Observer Effect in some way. They are also connected to being able to trust that there is some knowledge beyond our thoughts that can guide us if we let it.
Searching for Peace Amidst the Tragedy of the Holocaust
I recently read a book by Ellen Korman Mains, Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust. It is an excellent book in which Ellen recounts her journeys to Europe to connect with the residue of energies left over from the Holocaust, which she sensed while traveling on a train in Germany. She felt these as a combination of grief, revulsion, and much more. Ellen eventually made finding a way of relating to these energies her life’s work and has written this book to describe her journey.
What Ellen found when she came in contact with these unresolved energies or spirits, was that she eventually was able to hold space for them by dropping the habitual tendencies to judge them (thereby fearing or rejecting them) or to identify with them (thus feeling shame). As she learned to hold space for them in this neutral way, a natural state of compassion emerged.
As Ellen held space for them, they also held space for her own healing. The process that both she and the suffering spirits shared provided mutual benefit. Because of her capacity to observe and sense into energies that others might not be able to recognize, she was able to hold a space of compassionate presence for them. With her support, these spirits were able to experience their own capacity to heal. At the same time, her connection to the Holocaust, as the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, also improved.
In doing this work, Ellen was supported in her lifelong quest to live deeply in the present. Her Buddhist practice and Focusing practice helped her find basic goodness even in the aftermath of the Holocaust by accepting exactly what was already there, and bringing to it an attitude of steady, quiet attention and open curiosity. In the end, she found she could heal herself while helping others through the practice of holding space for what was there, allowing the energies she encountered to be witnessed, and giving them the time and space they needed to heal.
Ellen continues this work by sharing her book with audiences around the world.
Kate and Mark Rothko Observing His Space Together
A friend, Kate, told me about an experience at the Whitney Museum in New York City. She was interested in having a more meditative experience in the museum rather than walking by one painting after another. She asked the staff to provide her with a small stool that some museums offer patrons so that one can take time to sit and be with a painting or art object.
As Kate walked around the museum, she found a painting that called to her. It was Mark Rothko’s Four Darks in Red. (https://whitney.org/collection/works/897 ) Kate put her stool down and sat in front of the painting. As she observed the painting, something occurred to her. The space between her and the painting was Rothko’s space—the area he used to produce this work of art. This is how she describes her experience.
Proximity. The space between me and the painting was his. As I sit, six or so feet from the fields of red, saturated reds to browns, I feel as if I share his gaze over time and distance. I feel his presence and wonder to him:
Is any of this paint your blood? You knew how to open a vein, it would take you, eventually. Did you do that for us? Is your blood crossing time to draw me to you today?
The painting’s fleshy pink and beige undertones are framed in red and layered over with fields of darker tones. From bottom to top the paint layers increase in saturation and deepen into hue. A cramped muddy band caps the composition; under it, the darkest and largest field rests heavily. This field seems emotionally deep, spiritually intense, and physically weighty to me; if it were a three-dimensional object, it would be as dense as lead or as deep as six feet under.
Is this an exploration of life to death? Your mother, Kate, had died ten years before this painting. Your daughter Kate is eight years old. Are you tracking stages of birth to burial? Could it be that the under painting tones are depicting the tenderness of a new born pink baby with layering into the dark tones of damp soil and decomposition? You are twelve years away from taking your life. Are the layers of paint rendering the depth and weight of your angst?
In this dis-temporal experience, did I catch a glimpse of you? Am I close enough to ask what were your joys? What felt like toil? Can I know you?
Was it exhilarating to release a finished work, or was it depleting, or something else? Did you know who you were going to be to us? Did you know you’d reach me today, 60-some years later? Do you see me here? My heart is full of love–of and for you—your work, they are one. I want to travel to your time and remove your pain and suffering. But, would that have killed your compulsion, calling, drive to create? Was painting your exercise or exorcism? As I sit at the foot of your offering I ask—are you free now? Or do you still suffer?
On the way back,in the school bus hired for the ride with the group of seniors I accompanied, I noticed something:
Photo Credit: Kate Conroy
A brown vinyl cushion installed over the bus door frame is patched with a strip of brown tape; its corners are lifted and the band has slipped, partially framing itself in a gummy adhesive. Striking me as visually connected, this image brought me back to the thin brown band at the top of the frame of Four Darks in Red.
Bouncing along in a humid, janky school bus, I feel your presence and wonder, could I find you anywhere, if I simply notice?
A Childhood Moment Observed is a Trauma Changed
I’ve written before about my childhood trauma that is mostly from an early part of my life and difficult to reach because of the non-verbal nature of the trauma—much of it happened before I could speak. I work mostly with movement without talking, asking questions, or creating labels for what I find. In a session with one of my Italian-speaking focusing partners, I sensed into my body and allowed whatever movement my body needed to come for me.
I found my hands moving around the edge of a large block in front of me. As my arms kept on finding, extending, defining the boundaries of this energy field and I waited for more to come. At some point, I found my arms moving in a circular motion at my sides. I noticed that, while moving in a circle, my left arm felt impeded at a certain point in its path.
My arms then stayed in the general area of the impediment as if it were finding a way to move through it. What came to me was an image of being a young child who wanted comfort from my mother. This younger self reached her arms up to my mother, and my mother shamed her for wanting to be held—a combination of not deserving that comfort and annoyance that this younger self thought she did deserve it. I connected to that feeling of wanting comfort, of hoping support would come from my mother and sensing shame that it did not. I wasn’t experiencing it in this moment; however, I was observing the felt sense of my younger self.
I continued moving in the same manner for a while, and something jolted my body—a fear that my mother would hit me if I didn’t leave her space. Now there was also fear of violence and the sadness that knew the needed comfort would surely never happen. This time it was a combination of the felt sense of my younger self and the felt sense of “Me Here Now” who knew how this all turned out. It was essential for me to observe all the aspects of the experience fully. (I like to think of my younger self in a different dimension rather than a part of me or something in me.)
My grounded self held space for my younger self and let it know that it was safe from harm. I observed its wanting, the shame, fear, and sadness and held these felt senses with compassion and love. I asked that universal love and energy be available to us now.
I always had a body sense of the rejection of my mother. This small gesture could have created a lifelong sense of confidence in my body. Instead, however, it created just the opposite. It may have been the moment this pattern originated. Its memory is also the moment that helped me connect to this lifelong experience of a lack of support/not deserving support and allowed me to be able to observe it and give it space and time to become aware of itself. This part showed up through movement and only required my observation of it to find its forward motion. I now spend time with this younger self, and it is pleasurable. It feels like I am making up for the lost time with someone I love but didn’t know was there.
The Observer Effect on our Well-being
What happened for all three of us was that we connected to our bodies’ sense of something we were experiencing. We observed what emerged and accepted it as it was, and we waited for more to come. We also allowed our bodies to guide us to the next moment rather than become entangled in the drama of the energies that we encountered.
When you read more about the Observer Effect, there are discussions, research, and mathematical equations that explain how much observation is needed to create a certain amount of change. Not surprisingly, the more observation there is, the more change occurs.
I strongly urge everyone to visit Addie van der Kooy’s work on this blog and to listen to Kevin McEvenue’s Intunements to learn more about how a daily Wholebody Focusing practice may help one increase one’s observational time of self, which may result in a higher capacity to heal. When we find and observe the doppelgänger of our trauma, we may find our healing.
For Ellen, the Observer Effect shifted her experience of the Holocaust when the spirits she encountered on her journeys to Poland and Germany met her energetic self’s holding of her family’s Holocaust tragedy. For Kate, her observation of the space in which Rothko worked led to an amazing connection to Mark Rothko that gave her an opportunity to deeply sense what his art means to her. For me, observing my younger self and experiencing the birth of my trauma allowed me to hold my younger self in the way it always wanted to be held.
Photo Credit: Dakar, Senegal bus station Michael Lux
I am supporting Pat Omidian as we work with refugee workers and administrators in Uganda to use focusing methods in a psychosocial support (PSS) course to improve community wellness with the groups with whom they work. We are teaching this course online.
Reflecting your Partner’s Felt Sense
One session was about reflecting on what we are experiencing in a particular moment in a focusing way. It was also about learning to be a good listener and how to reflect what your partner is saying in a focusing manner.
Denis Lyagoba, one of the participants, and I were in a breakout room together to practice reflecting on each other’s experiences.
Denis started by choosing a recent experience of being on a bus with colleagues to get to a location together. At some point, a problem occurred that prevented the bus from going forward. Denis reported that he felt frustrated that the group might not be able to get to the place they needed to go. I reflected what he said, “A part of you was frustrated that you might not get to where you needed to go.”
Denis repeated this and let it sink into his body. More came. He told me that he was frustrated with the others on the bus who were yelling instructions at the driver. I repeated back to Denis, “A part of you was frustrated that the others were yelling instructions at the driver. He reported how he decided to be quiet, go inside and let the scenario play out without his participation. Then more came. He knew that the driver was very competent. He was frequently the driver for the group and had shown great steadiness in his work. Denis held onto his belief that the driver alone had the greatest possibility of solving the problem. I repeated back to Denis, “A part of you knew that the driver would be able to solve the problem using his knowledge and skills.” Denis reported that they were able to get to their specified location. He talked about how his way of coping with the stress of the stoppage of the bus and the chaos of his collegues was to go inside and hold space for his knowledge that the driver was skillful.
How What Comes for One Partner May Impact the Other
I asked Denis if I could share my own stressful bus experience. He agreed. I live in New York City, and occasionally, we get monster snow storms. I was an NYC school administrator and, one day during a major blizzard, the City administration decided that all staff and students should make their way to school even though the blizzard was already in full force.
I let Denis know that I was angry that the City made this decision. It was dangerous for children and adults to try to get to their schools in these conditions. When I first started to teach many years ago, one of my students was killed by a truck during another blizzard in which the schools were left open. This memory was the basis of the anger that lived in my body. Denis reflected that a part of me was angry that the schools were left open during a storm.
Then I explained to Denis that I was scared for my well-being and the well-being of the children and staff members who were impacted by this decision. I needed to take a very long bus ride and was scared to get on the bus. Denis reflected that “part of me was scared to get on the bus.”
I explained that because of my fear, I sat as close to the driver as I could to watch his every move. The driver’s body language informed me that he took his responsibility for the safety of the passengers very seriously, and he was doing everything he could to keep us safe. That knowledge opened up my heart, and what came for me was a sense of admiration for his dedication to his job. That helped me relax and let go of my fear. Denis reflected that my trust in the driver helped the parts that were angry and afraid, just as it did in his experience.
How Does Focusing Help Us Everyday
Focusing is mysterious like this. Denis and I got placed into the same breakout room randomly. We had a parallel experience that reinforced our ability to sense into each other’s dilemma and also connected us to how focusing supports us in everyday life. As we listened to each other’s experience and reflected what we heard, we were able to stay aware of each other and to support ourselves by holding space for all the different emotions we had in response to our situation.