My friend died last week….

by Cathy Rowan

Jose died last week. He died due to the Coronavirus. He lived over 4,500miles away from me and yet he was one of my very closest friends.

Inside me is a great big hole of missing him. A sense of both my personal and the world in general being a poorer place with his departing. I know he will have died in peace and his health had become increasingly poor over the last couple of years.

My body now feels him in the wind, sees him in the clouds scudding by, and dancing amongst the stars – probably swinging on the moon because he is now free. He is no longer locked in a prison: he spent in total just 6 months short of 30 years in prison in Texas. And for this I feel a visceral joy for him that he is no longer suffering.

But my heart is so angry with the prison system that did not even give the inmates bars of soap to wash their hands. Alongside this is this huge sadness: what is within me and most striking is just plain old “missing him” being here on the planet with me albeit thousands of miles away.

Yesterday I just sat with myself, just being with all of this and there was also a sense of more wanting to come. Suddenly an unexpectedly profound awareness came: that Donald Trump, for all his wealth, power and “freedom”, was so impoverished compared to Jose. Jose had an inner peace and freedom despite him being locked in a prison for life without parole.

Contact with Jose had a richness, an extraordinary arms-flinging-wide open in joy  feel: he had a deep abiding faith in Love that he called God. He had embodied and lived his life whilst I knew him from this deep faith that flowed through him. He had what I believe all our hearts long for – including President Trump. What came Jose was the one who was and is free, Trump is locked into a unseen cage of his past pain.

Jose wrote to many people over the 30 years including me for 15 of them. I started writing in 2005 – my life then being subsumed in micromanaging my severe chronic pain and vertigo that came from a car accident in 1999. I knew I was writing to a man on Death Row in Texas who was nearing the end of his appeal process and that the expectation by all there was he would be executed.

I wrote because I was lonely and because I missed from my work not getting to know people from very different backgrounds to my own. I even in my arrogance wrote because maybe I saw him as the one needing help. I was all wrong: it was Jose who helped me. Jose who had already in 2002 been just a few hours short of being executed was at peace with death. \jose who recognised what love truly is through his many pen friends and his amazing attorneys Dick and Mandy. And through this he found an acceptance of death and in so doing he embraced life and living.

And so it was Jose who taught me how one might actually more fully live with what cannot be changed. He taught me how one might accept with a glad heart whatever comes as, whatever this is, it is meant to be for now. Our choice is to see the gift within what comes and open to it.

He taught me that prison (and chronic pain) is a mind-set and that within us we can be free whatever our external life situations. He believed if we open our heart to the life-process we are in God will be with us and show us the way. He was a natural Focuser without ever knowing anything at all about Focusing. He knew about Presence, he radiated Presence. I found that in every letter I received from him it was just written from his felt sense supported by a place of Presence. He was so fully human, so alive, and at times got into such messes – death row definitely being the pinnacle of his “messes” list!

Jose gave me the unconditional love my parents could never give. And in July 2008 I realised I had to meet him to thank him, for what he had given me in terms of teaching me how to live positively with my pain, before he was executed. So I carefully booked my flights around treatment I was then having and in accordance with Texan prison visit requirements. And it was all set for me to go in late January 2009: then in October Jose got an execution date of mid-January.

What unfolded next is a long story, too long for a blog post: but suffice to say I so needed to meet this man I lobbied the “great and the powerful” with letters asking for his execution date to be deferred until after my visit.  Then by what Jose termed one of God’s miracles, just a couple of days before his execution date my request was granted. His date was deferred for 90 days in order that I could make my visit. My husband and I went and met him. Afterwards we also met his attorneys, Dick and Mandy, people of immense compassion and dedication.

Out of this meeting, a change in the Federal law and a huge online lobby, of which I was a part, Jose’s sentence, again just days before the execution date in April, was finally quashed. A sentencing retrial was ordered. This was almost unheard of in Texas. I had not realised in my lobbying that no-one else had thought I stood a snowball in hell chance of success. A friend said to me the other day about this – sometimes naivety is an asset!

Finally in 2013 he got a sentence of life without parole. I  had visited him twice prior to the final re-sentencing decision and then was able to visit Jose in 2014 in his new prison. At this meeting there were no bars between us and we actually got to have a hug.

And today my heart needs me, the whole of my body needs me to share with you about this extraordinary human being who has so profoundly changed my life, just as inadvertently I changed and “saved” his. Jose, following his sentencing commutation, spent his life sharing this experience of his life having been saved through love.

My heart feels I owe it to him to do the same now he is no longer here to share his story.

When his letters came I never used to open them immediately: the love emanating out of the writing on the paper was sometimes too intense for me. Often when I read them I skim-read – again too much love for my defended broken heart. And now he is gone: no more letters. Just tears, so many tears, and so much love. I have kept all his letters and when I am ready I will read them again and let them soak in even deeper. Right now my heart is not ready yet for their intensity.

Last Sunday I attended a Zoom meeting in memory of Jose with a whole group of people who also corresponded with him. People were there from around the world: eastern Australia to the Pacific Coast of the USA, from Europe. Not all his friends could make it but what was clear in this wonderful, but so painful-for-me, meeting was how Jose, transformed by love. How through letter-writing and letter receiving in a solitary confinement cage on Death Row, this love was literally spread around the globe.

Jose was not an intellectual, his IQ was 70:  yet he lived what Gene Gendlin taught and wrote about, what the mystics including Rumi writes about. I know he had a dreadful childhood and so I suspect did Donald Trump. However Trump’s was one of white privilege and money whereas Jose’s was from a poverty-stricken Hispanic family. Neither man got the love they needed: and yet somehow Jose found a way to an all-encompassing sense of love within and the richness and peace that comes with it.

Maybe Jose found Love despite his circumstances or perhaps it was because of them? I feel Jose has much to teach us all about how our chase after money and power can so damage us  and get in the way of what is truly important, what life is really all about.

I am finishing this post with a slightly paraphrased form of how Jose started all his letters to me and to all the people he wrote to:

Dear Reader, hello my precious friend, how are you and your loved ones doing? May this post find you all only in GODS hands as it leaves me. Thanks to our LORD  and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST!

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Finding my Unique Shape of Being

This Whole-body Focusing training session began with discovering a new embodying experience within me as I slowed down and connected to my body and presence. I found a deepening body-trusting that the environment will support and hold me, a sense of letting go into gravity and being able to be. 

I sat with my breath just “doing its thing” when I was suddenly struck by how the breath in me awakens my unique conscious aliveness. My breath was “switching on” my Cathy aliveness–a shaping movement in my hand came under my diaphragm. With it came a sense of trying to find the shape of my aliveness. It was similar to the sense of awe and wonder I had felt at the birth of my daughters and on first meeting my new-born grandchildren. It was beyond words, a heart-felt “wow” at the creation of this particular utterly new unique and individual life energy, this new little human being and the excitement of who are they? Who will they become?  

My body remembered how with my daughters this felt sense of their own energy was there even in the womb. Connecting with these body memories, I felt the unique patterns of their energy shapes, their particular form of aliveness. I suddenly recognised that I know the contours of their life energy far better than I knew my own. A familiar pattern for me – being more aware of the felt sense of the other person than of my own aliveness and sense of self. This pattern was a well-established survival pattern. 

My hand continued the arced shaping movement, feeling for the shape of my aliveness: searching for the feeling of me-ness. The felt senses of my two grandchildren came: Meg all pink and sparkly, darting all over the place, an exploding dazzling firework of creative energy. Ethan very different – softer and flowing, leaning into, cuddling up, deep focused concentration and sensitivity, a broad connecting smile. 

Addie invited me to sense into myself to find my shape, my energetic movement pattern: this was far more elusive, the old familiar survival pattern at work. Addie encouraged me: a reminding me that I was here with my breath awakening my aliveness.

My Trauma is Not my Shape

Suddenly a light bulb moment happened: a new awareness that for decades I had been “working on” the shape of how multiple traumas had impacted on me and in many senses “shaped” me. But this was not the same thing as the unique “within-me-from-creation” sense of my essence – this was my true shape. 

Addie mirrored back to me, both in copying the shaping gesture of my hands and with these words, “This is the shape of your unique aliveness which is the essence of you that is untouched no matter what happens in life in terms of trauma”. 

The words and the movement together sank into me. My body was absorbing this new discovery in a way that felt akin to the action of the yeast fermentation process in the bread-dough. “To begin to know the essence of you,” Addie reflected back to me. 

 A sense of expansion gently occurred within my whole body with this new awareness. And then a mental recognition that this is what I needed to discover and take into myself to be able to differentiate myself from others.  

Then I noticed, as I sat with all of this, was how patterns of tightening in my body came, as they so often did. They were old trauma-shape models and I could now “mark and park” them with ease, to use Addie’s phrase. I was able to let them go rather than pursuing them and their paths. I now felt in my body that what would help me more would be if I could connect with the essence of myself untouched by my traumatic past. 

Suddenly I realised that I had a sense that my essence was around in me but was hiding! Like a baby deer hiding in the trees and it was watching me. I could feel that this little fawn needed me to be very still and not to startle it, that the fawn was shy and not used to the attention. My hand started moving up and down – a gesture showing me that this place was needing stillness and silence.

In the quiet, I began to feel more of a sense of my shape: not as energetic as star-burst Meg and yet I had her colourfulness and independence. I also had the more muted nature colours of Ethan and his sense of flow and sensitivity – this was the shyness of the fawn. 

What is My Shape?

My hands started doing a grasping movement as if trying to capture something that was ephemeral: a curiosity came to do with this fleeting feeling. Was it that this was something more trying to come? Or was it that by my very nature, in my essence I have a sense of the ephemeral? Then the energy of my younger daughter comes: she is an engineer, always has a clear understanding of direction and purpose, and there is nothing ephemeral about her! And in connecting with this, my whole body shifted as it owned that ephemeral-ness was and is part of my intrinsic shape. 

A tightness came around my head and the image of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole: my bodily experience of how this being ephemeral can mean I often feel somewhat out of kilter with our external world of left-brain planning and organising. Suddenly something came – this ephemerality of mine it is Gene Gendlin’s “fuzzy edge”. A sense of something not yet entirely known and again on the verge of conscious becoming. Addie invited me to allow all that had come to be here. “The all that had come” sank into my body with each breath. 

Suddenly my breath shifted gear, and more came: I had been in a fuzzy edge about my intrinsic fuzzy-edged-ness! My intrinsic ephemerality is the language of my body, and when I sense into and listen to it, then I am in step with myself. That being a fuzzy-edged person is not a “psychological issue” as I had always previously thought, it is not some trauma-derived problem, but it is part of the intrinsic nature of who I am. 

For me then, to be in step with myself, I need to invite and be with my fuzzy-edged-ness that this is the healthy way forward for my aliveness and also for healing the residual trauma still within me. 

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Dancing with Delphiniums

Photo Credit: Jack Arts campaign for the V&A, Tim Walker: Wonderful Things

“How does your body want to be supported?” Addie asked me at the start of this training session. As I felt into my body what came was “the space around me: my space”. I looked around the room. I became aware that my space, as in the room in which I was sitting, activated two very different feelings in me.

The first one was of a snuggly-cashmere comfort. A settling into the safe ground of being in my room, like being wrapped in a soft blanket. My breath just flowing gently. A deep sense of spaciousness filled my body and an invitational quality of “just allowing” came.
Then a jangled jarring feeling took hold. Another part of me butted in – it just saw a room full of heaps. A room needing tidying NOW. Seeing the heaps brought a twisting in my gut that was stopping my breath. With this came highly judgemental thoughts: “it should be xxx”, “What will people think?” Queasy seasickness of unease colonized my gut.

Holding Both Brings an Unexpected Body Memory

Holding both experiences was only possible through a yo-yoing between the two parts. A new awareness came: the heaps reminded me of my mother. Her house was full of heaps.

I was with a place of historic and “as-yet unresolved/unhealed” pain to do with my relationship with my (now dead) mother. Tightening came in my body as if it was trying to “hold me together”. This was accompanied by the queasy ungroundedness as my body was hijacked by these old experiences; being on the receiving end of my mother’s toxic contempt.

My breathing stopped; the impact of contempt was as a body blow. A being doubled-over by a thump in the solar plexus coming out of the blue. The air literally being knocked out of me. The life source in me being stopped. “I am stopped” was the core experience here. My left hand moved spontaneously to the solar plexus area and just tenderly held it. A tactile “I am here with you”.

The sense of nausea intensified and with it a memory of something I had read by Sarah Peyton*. She invites those of us who struggle with nausea to celebrate it. To recognise it as a return of my body’s ability to feel safe enough to acknowledge a sense of violation! Nausea is a signature aspect of the body feeling of disgust. (Along with a wanting to pull away from and escape what is toxic to us.)

Can I Really “Celebrate” Disgust?

Naming the nausea as disgust brought an awareness of a tightness. A pulling back within all of me, a contraction against the environment. Then came a restlessness that had become increasingly familiar to me over recent months. A sense of urgency in my body that something needs “doing”.

I allowed myself to open to the “something needs doing” energy; and my arm spontaneously moved forward in a deliberate sweep down. A demarcation of space in front of me. With it came words: “a boundary needs to be set”.

An “aha” came. Of course, my body felt this way: this is a historic felt memory from my past. I now have the safety and resources to feel this memory. The function of healthy disgust is to offer us protection from what is toxic to us. Poisonous not only in a food-gustatory sense but also in a relational ingesting way. Implicit in the experiencing of disgust is the needing to do something – to withdraw and to remove oneself from the toxicity!

I continued to sit with the nausea, the tightness, and the restlessness, supported by Addie. I noticed, at an emotional level, there is a seemingly never-ending internal negative judging commentary going on. An awareness arises that “I breed within me a vicious perfectionism”. I then recognised that, at a body level, I experienced this experience as one of feeling very physically unwell.

As I described this to Addie my right hand moved in a sort of horizontal circling motion. He invited me to connect to my hand and it’s moving. Addie reflected my body experience, reminding me of my other hand that was still holding the solar plexus. He then asked whether there is a part of my body not caught up in all of this. And maybe it might be able to offer support to me here in holding all this?

Transformation through Wholebody Connection

This changed me: like sudden seeing a light ahead, having been lost in a dark cave, I became aware of the possibility of support around me and in me. I saw again the heaps in my room. But they looked completely different. They were my heaps. The separate heap items reminded me of the love, kindness, and fun I now have in my life.

Something in me opened my arms to “embrace” all of my room. Addie summarised: “This all gives you a sense of you, and space that is larger than disgust and contempt” Embodying this larger spaciousness, I discovered, dilutes the disgust body experience. A “morphing” came – an expanding into a much larger holding space within me. This was warm, relaxed, it’s had a wide-angle lens quality to it. I felt at ease and joyous even. A sense of allowing came, an opening to new possibilities.

Delphiniums shutterstock_223340857
Delphiniums

Addie invited me to sense into this newly discovered body experiencing of allowing, of open spaciousness. What came was the opposite of vicious perfectionism. Looking around my room again my eyes alighted on a postcard. I had it bought at the V&A museum’s “Wonderful Things exhibition. It was a photographic display by Tim Walker.

The postcard is of young men in amazing dresses dancing in a field of delphiniums. It is whacky, vibrant, and full of fun aliveness. My whole body filled with lightness. A sensation of the little bubbles in a glass of prosecco went sparkling through me.

Joy permeated all of me bringing a sense of infinite spaciousness within and without. My face could not stop smiling as I opened to all this. A word came: “delight”! Delight – the opposite of disgust I realised. I just revelled in being infused with delight, joy, and love.

Addie asked how the disgust was sitting in me now. Has it shrunk? Immediately I knew from my embodied feeling that the disgust-feeling had not shrunk per se. Rather it was I that had grown. There was more of me to hold the disgust. To dilute it.

I had expanded, become larger. Then I noticed that the restlessness had gone. It had found what it needed for me: love, joy, and delight. Vibrant dancing with delphiniums aliveness!

*Sarah Peyton is an author, neuroscience educator and certified trainer of Nonviolent Communication

Credit for image: Radhika Nair, Chawntell Kulkarni and Kiran Kandola. Fashion: Richard Quinn. Pershore, Worcestershire, 2018. © Tim Walker Studio 

Jack Arts campaign for the V&A, Tim Walker: Wonderful Things

Radhika Nair, Chawntell Kulkarni and Kiran Kandola. Fashion: Richard Quinn. Pershore, Worcestershire, 2018. © Tim Walker Studio

The Felt Sense of Being Held

I had not imagined that it would be so long before I wrote a post again on my Whole Body Focusing training with Addie van der Kooy, but as John Lennon’s lyrics say, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Whatever I had imagined 2020 would look like for me, it was not how it has turned out: right at the start of my new year severe dental problems dominated my life and then came Corona Virus life with lock-down.

Finally, the nausea, pain, and the dental infection that dominated my experience of self for a couple of months, had abated enough for me to return to training with Addie.

In my first session of the year, as I was grounding and connecting into my whole body, I was made very aware of two features dominating my inner experience. The first, quite strident in its tone, was the still-there-but-lessened nausea-pain/poisoned feeling and swelling in my right lower jaw due to residual infection/post-extraction problems. The second was a global gut-originating sense of self-doubt, and a deep sense of something vital being missing.

When Body Movements Support My Presence

My right hand spontaneously went to my infected right lower jaw and just gently held this place that had been and still was the epicenter of my lack of wellness. And as I just sat with my hand nursing my jaw, I noticed a “new dimension” was manifesting in me that was part of my embodied grounding experience.

This new dimension was an energy, a sort of subtle buzz or hum that was almost electrical in quality: Jane Seymour’s quote, “the hum of the Universe,” felt spot on. And the hum brought with it great warmth, and as I continued to hold my jaw, I realised that this hum was spiritual and that this was the most alive place in my body.

Then, as my hand continued to cradle my jaw, agonisingly sharp pains came into my fingers as if being drawn out of the infected jaw, into my hand. It was such huge pain, and so much distress came too. A connection came. This pain had to do with my relationship with my mother that always required me to absorb her pain. It usually felt like being poisoned. And here it was this poison from so many years was now here, manifesting in my jaw, ready to start being felt, held, and related to by me.

Suddenly my hand pulled away from my jaw. It could not bear the pain any longer. The pain was so toxic that my breath had almost stopped as a way not to feel it. An image I had had, many years ago in therapy, of my mother through her spoken words subtly imbuing them with poison. And as her words “hit” me, it was as if she was firing poisoned ice bullets into my body and my heart. As I connected with this therapy memory, a considerable shudder and jerk took over my body—trauma memories.

When We Connect to Something New

Addie asked me: how is your relationship with all this? How is it in your body? I felt very torn – there was a part that wanted absolutely nothing to do with any of this, just to run away and escape. A photo on the wall above my desktop computer drew my heart. It was of my two daughters hugging each other both with huge loving smiles on their faces. Looking at this photo, I could feel my heart open and able to take in their love. And I recognised that it is love that my still infected/”poisoned” jaw needs to heal – antibiotics alone will not treat this within me.

Again Addie invited me to check in with my body: and my body spontaneously knew what to do. My right hand returned to cradling my jaw, my left hand resting on my heart, and my eyes looked at the photo of my daughters. And as I sat like this, I could feel the hum, the affirming of loving.

Once again, the pain got too much, and my right hand pulled away from my jaw. So I took my hand and shook it to let go of, to release the pain, to be rid of the poison.

Addie continued to encourage me to move backward and forward in this cradling and then releasing process: to stay with the process and just let it move through in its own way and timing. He encouraged me, saying, “You can do this, you have the resources,” and I realised, as he said this, that it was the poison that caused me to feel self-doubt.

And so we both sat with this process: gradually, there was more space for the breath, and my right hand found it easier to sit cradling my jaw. Memories of my past experiences Shinzen Young’s meditation practices of just being forensically fascinated by pain came: yes, I do have the resources I realised.

Then Addie asked: what does this place need? What does it need? And immediately, both my arms went into a big self-hug. “The hug of love?” Addie suggested. I just sat with this, knowing that this was what my body was so missing. My mother never held me. She could not bear touch. Neither of my parents had any loving physical contact with me or my sister.

As I continued to hug myself, Addie shared how, as a boy, when his father put his arm around him (which wasn’t often), Addie felt real physical confidence within himself. This information created a significant “aha!” moment for me: I repeated back what Addie had just said. “When your father held you, you felt confident in just being you.”

I finally understood what the feeling of something vital in me was missing. I never had this experience of just being ok to be me through being held as a child from my parents. No wonder I had always struggled with self-doubt and self-disbelief. I had never known how just being physically held might have made all the difference to me and my self-belief/trust.

Then an adult memory came: it was of my daughter Sarah, a few years ago at the funeral of one of my parents, just suddenly taking my hand and the power of the moment. At the time, I had felt it. I knew she loved me just as I was, that she loved all of me at that moment. She did not need to say anything at all. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life: in it, she accepted me and my grief. No-one had ever done that for me before. That was all I had needed.

How My Healing Impacts My Understanding of the Global Crisis

As I write this now, a few weeks on, tears come as I reconnect with Sarah holding my hand. The realisation of just why I have found it so hard to be with people dying without their loved ones beside them.

The pain in me of not being held and touched as a child is still deep within me: I would not wish it on anyone. So my heart grieves that these people dying now cannot have that final physical contact with those they love – hard for the person dying and for those they leave behind. I hope they, like me, have memories of being held and touched that can be of comfort to them in their loss.

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The Dance of Life: Finding My Own Space in the World

Each training session with Addie builds upon previous learning. This time having connected with my surroundings, what supports me, the silence, my breath, Addie invited me to notice how the chair is holding the weight of my body.

Then Addie invited a further investigation. He said, “there is an invitation to be held by Mother Earth here in a very simple way… just welcome this and the sense of letting go.”

This changed everything for me. My body started pulling back – it reacted to the concept of “Mother Earth” to the word “mother,” especially. To view my mother as if she were like mother earth or mother rock felt like an oxymoron – solid and dependable was not my experience of her.

What then started to emerge is a newly discovered mode of body-based surviving in me. Then more emerged, sparked by an event that happened to me a couple of days before my session with Addie. I witnessed a very overt poisonous attack of one person on another on social media. This attack activated in my body a memory of being on the receiving end of many similar experiences, fuelled by my mother’s rage and hatred. Then out of this, a whole new level of discovery and connection with my start of life experiencing started to emerge.

Addie encouraged me to stay with this womb experience and invited me to see if I can find a place in my body where I felt this “not believing” feeling.

I took Addie’s invitation and stayed with my body and the felt sense, and then spontaneously, words did come: I have finally found my own space in the world. This felt sense, at the time, felt odd yet exciting. It was so new and so unfamiliar. I was delighted and amazed at what came for me. This experience has created in me a spaciousness and a sense of possibility that was not there before. Yes, I have found my own space in the world.

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The Dance of Life Expands (3)

….. I return to my body and my breath moving in and out, expanding and receding like the waves on the shore of the ocean.

Addie offers me a new invitation: “Be open to the possibility that the breath is breathed in through the skin wherever you can feel that…”

And I discover that wherever I go to in my body as the air meets my skin, there is the breath, there is life. I notice it particularly in my arms and legs, and I feel that I am breathing in the environment around me, taking in everything, including space and the silence.

And as I do this, a new awareness comes for me. How have I always done this–this breathing in the environment around me? Memories come of both my breathing in of places, like concrete shopping arcades, which feel so much lacking in aliveness, whereas in my garden, aliveness is all around me, and I soak it up.

I sit with all of this breathing in through my skin, and I notice a “blocked place” in me that had been with me earlier, and I realise that this is something that I took in from the environment through my embodied breathing. It has to do with my contact with a particular person.

As I sit with all of this, sensing into it, a previously felt sense comes which I dubbed “icy wellies” as it feels like my lower legs and feet are literally clad in “wellington boots made of ice” comes…but this time it feels subtly but importantly different.

And then came an extraordinary discovery for me.

As I revisit all this now and watch the video that I am sharing with you, a fresh awareness comes that this dance of breath, felt within me and without, sandwiching this felt sense of surviving in me that is akin to a tango.

I am a great fan of what we in the UK call “Strictly come dancing,” in the USA it is “Dancing with the Stars,” and the tango has variants and is very much about a relating and responding between the two dancers. This relational experience is just what I discovered in me: I may not be a great physical dancer, but I have found that I can dance the Surviving Tango!

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The Dance of Life (2)

By Cathy Rowan

We start with Addie guiding me into that low-gear mode of being with my body within the environment. I open to the weather outdoors, the room I am in, the quietness of it, and Addie with me on the screen.

I open to this and then also to the contact of all this with my physical body. I am sitting on the chair, the warm air on my hands and face. Once again, I am turning my attention to the air as it enters my nostrils. Once again, I am opening to the dance of life that is me living now.

The Breath, Expansion and Recession

I welcome this expansive experience. The air is flowing through my nostrils, down my throat, and into my chest. It is spreading outwards through the whole of my body. Just being with all of this and noticing too now the feel of the breath as I exhale. The in-breath is one that grows and expands my body, I get subtly and yet perceptibly physically bigger….and then the moment comes when the breath starts to pull back. Not to retract…that does not fit. Retract implies a pulling back and stopping–an ending.

The experience is a receding, it has the quality of the wave as it pulls back on the beach, and yet already it has within its movement a getting ready to come forward again as the next wave. This is just how the exhaled breath is in me. Each receding, pulling back of the breath, has within it the kernels of the new breath that is to become the next wave of air to be drawn into me.

This whole breathing pattern within me is a circular cycle. It is three dimensional — a 3D circular cycle that makes a spiraling. The spiraling is variable – some spirals are more significant, some smaller, they are not copies of each other, they are all different. They are not uniform; some are jerky, uneven even, they are not manufactured “tins of baked beans” breaths that are predictable and repetitive. No – they are all unique and different. Each a different flow, a diverse and individual dance. Each just what I need right now, for this moment, in this place, at this time.

I am with the out-breath withdrawing, with its sense of receding and yet here too are its kernels of expansion so it can go forward again…. I notice how my fingers are slightly apart as I breathe in and then come together as I breathe out. Then the next breath in the fingers opens again – only to once again enter into a withdrawing. It is coming together to make more room for expansion. And so the spiraling dance of the breath unfolds its unique flow of “aliving.”
Aliving: this is this dance of expansion and withdrawal to take in and then release the breath. And as I sit with this, a spontaneous full-formed sentence comes “until we die we are always dancing, our breath is always dancing the breath of life…until we die.”

Breath, Life and Death

A body memory comes of me sitting with my father dying – his breathing becoming increasingly difficult. How the spiraling got more and more drawn out, each out-breath having a little less energy to give to the potential for a new in-breath. Finally, there was no more receding energy in his out-breath- it was the only retraction. I can recall now how this felt tangibly different. He had finished his dance of the breath of life. The life-energy could no longer keep going, and I saw it stop. In his final out-breath, there were no kernels of the forward movement that would create the next inhale. The out-breath was his last step in his dance of life.

This experience of how the breath faded away and then stopped had a profound impact on me then, particularly concerning “following the breath” practices. Almost a decade later, it continues to fascinate me now. I felt then I had witnessed the core of what gives life and what takes away life. And as I sit here and am with my breath now, I realize each breath is a gift of life. And that this dance is not just about life, but it will be one day be about death for me too. Life and death: this is what the breath is all about.

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The Dance of Life

By Cathy Rowan

I grew up in a family full of unacknowledged trauma and grief, where the only way to “be” was to “not be” and to not feel.  As a family, our expertise lay in dissociation and disconnection: even as a small child, something in me felt this was all wrong for me. From my early childhood, my life has been about finding a very different way. This way needed to be unlike that of my parents. I wanted to live in this new way these allotted years of my time here on earth. 

Enter Focusing

This need brought me to Focusing a decade ago, and it has proved to be my salvation, my learning to feel and to start to connect with my bodily experience and feel safe in so doing.

To go deeper into connecting to and being in my body, I started my Wholebody Focusing training more than over five years ago. However, very quickly, what I connected to, in my body, as I went deeper, were layers and layers of frozen tears and pain. I had disowned and buried the grief of the many losses in my past. Some of that grief and loss were mine, and some were those of my parents and grandparents. My Focusing journey then took the path of showing me how to grieve and mourn, how to start to hold, and befriend heartbreak and loss. This journey surprised me by also taking me into a much deeper and more spiritual lifestyle.

Then late this summer, something in me knew it was time for me to return to my Wholebody Focusing training. And so a couple of weeks ago Addie van der Kooy and Diana Scalera suggested to me I might like to contribute to the blog about this experience, so here I go.

A Very Different Way

As I turn to my body now, fingers on the keys, what comes immediately as I invite my body to write to this post, is a lightness, an expansiveness, a subtle bubbliness even. It is emanating from the solar plexus area and expanding out throughout my body and into the space around me. There is an uplifting quality and yet also a downward grounding-ness to it – a body sense of getting bigger, there is more of me here now than before the first session I had with Addie almost two weeks ago. 

And there is a sense of celebration and excitement in me: the day I started school just before I was five years old, I knew I had not had what I needed to cope with life beyond the home. Now my body is getting it – 59 years later!! 

Not only is my body getting the nourishment and loving connection it so needed, what is also different is my body now can take it in, absorb it, digest it, grow from it. In retrospect, five years ago, I realize I had only just stopped dissociating as my default mode of being. When I started Wholebody Focusing training back then, it was inevitable I was going to quickly connect to the buried body memories held inside of me. These feelings became my default mode, a Nobel-prize winning ability in dissociation when life was challenging. And there had been a lot of challenges! 

Now a significant amount of energy has surfaced. This energy helps me make space for me to enjoy the experience of embodiment and fascination with the incredible mystery that is our alive breathing bodying. 

Observing my Living Process

I feel like I have acquired Richard Attenborough’s fascination for the micro-moments of observing the living process unfolding in me as I sit with my breath. I start with being just open to the minute nuances of the travel of the cool inhale air past my nostrils, stroking down my throat, landing down in the lungs. Next, a diffuse spreading out of the breath comes, a movement that goes into every cell of my body, atoms of aliveness filling me. Then, the mysterious knowing comes of how and when to exhale, to release, to let go, to make space for more to come — finally pausing before the next drawing in of the breath. It is like the most beautiful dance. For me, it is the Dance of Life. 

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