I was born with severe clubfeet and had two surgeries by the age of 2. Throughout my childhood, I was placed in various forms of casts, splints and braces. My legs and feet were rigidly confined to unnatural positions. I now have significant chronic lower body pain. Also, the ability to move, which most children take for granted, was for me imbued with the threat of pain and failure.
The physical realm was the original template for this threat, but it has since generalized to include the risks involved in pursuing personal and professional aspirations. The notion that a rigid stasis is the only way to survive, that if I do not hold still, something might break, has itself formed a rigid, immobilizing crust around my self-image. The paralyzing pain of never trusting that I will get to where I want to go has kept me confined to a psychic cast even when my legs and feet were no longer in plaster.
“How can I break out of my psychic cast?” became an urgent personal question. Perhaps Embodied Imagination (EI) work held an answer.
I recently worked with Jill Fischer to address the current painful consequences of my medical history using Robert Bosnak’s method of Embodied Imagination. Drawing from disparate influences that include ancient incubation practices, analytical psychology, neuroscience, method acting and complexity theory, this approach stresses the value of embodying multiple subjective states in creating an unfamiliar, more dynamic sense of self.
In this technique, the dreamer reenters the dream space and, with careful guidance, experiences its many perspectives simultaneously – that of the dream ego along with the perspectives of any number of “others” that are a part of the dream. Bodily responses to dream images, viewed as a form of intelligent communication, are an integral part of the technique. While new insights do emerge, the process initially bypasses the intellect; instead, expanded body awareness is the catalyst for change.
Within the tight time frame of eight sessions, I was astonished to have undergone profound shifts in my experience of body. A fossilized mind-body connection, born of early pain and trauma, was broken and my body began to feel stronger and more stable, able to move in a more fluid, controlled way that was less overwhelmed by the inevitable pain of my arthritic condition. I have also felt a more general feeling of growing competence in other areas of my life, accompanied by a willingness to take greater risks.
Session 1: The Mermaid Appears
Jill asks me to come up with a specific instance when I felt the familiar immobility of being held back in my “psychic cast.” She helps me flashback into the room our training group recently met in after we had worked another trainee’s dream. I describe the scene with as much sensory detail as possible. I watch as the trainee – I’ll call her Gretchen – gestures gracefully with her arm, explaining the ease with which she can embody her fabulous dream images with the declaration: “I am a dancer.”
Old feelings of shame, exposure and inferiority bubble up as I reflexively judge myself to be clumsy and unaccomplished. I locate these feelings in my lower body. From the pelvis down, I sense a body without skin and rigid legs in the form of thin, mangled bones. Then Jill has me focus on Gretchen. I focus on the way she lifts her chest and says: “I am a dancer.”
At some point, I feel the confidence of this statement from within Gretchen’s body, most prominently in the fluidity of her rotating waist and lower spine. Two extremely different anchor points have emerged, creating a strange dream body: in the waist and spine of the upper body, I sense Gretchen’s fluid confidence, and in the mangled bones of my lower body, I feel exposed and defective. When I hold the composite of these two points together, I feel hot. Suddenly, an image of a mermaid appears to me.
Jill instructs me to practice this composite several times a day and for 20 seconds before going to sleep. She tells me to note the images, memories and dreams that emerge.
Session 3: Dream of the Neck Bones
I am in a slaughterhouse. Chickens squawk inside wire cages and the air is thick and fetid. Feathers fly as a young man nonchalantly kills chicken after chicken with a sharp knife.
“You got the apprenticeship,” he tells me, as if it is some great honor, and I understand that, although I can’t imagine doing it, I will soon need to kill these chickens, too. He thrusts a bird at me – a bird which, I note, is really a white swan. Without thinking, I wring the swan’s neck.
Jill has me sense back into the foul-smelling atmosphere of this disturbing dream, to the moment when I am handed the swan. I am struck by its heaviness and the elegance of its sloping neck. It becomes apparent that the swan and I must collaborate in this most distasteful act; it is a kind of ritual sacrifice. I anchor the responsibility and courage it takes to break its bones as an infusion of strength in my right shoulder.
When I hold this point together with four others, I begin to feel an acute sadness that builds until it unlocks a logjam of energy and then recedes.
Practicing this composite the following week brings an exciting cascade of confluent insights from the work we had done so far. The sound of crunching bones makes me wince and becomes a sensory bridge back to the somatic memory of the deliberate, surgical breaking of both tibia when I was 2 years old.
This time, though, I have become the surgeon. As the neck connects the brain to the body, the image points to the original need to break the connection between soma and psyche – to dissociate in order to protect myself from the experience of unbearable physical and psychic pain of my young body, epitomized by this surgery. From another angle, embodying this bone-breaking energy suggests the need to break the calcified type of mind-body connection that has held me back for so long.
As I continue practicing this composite, a strong early sense memory of my casted lower body as dead weight breaks through. I can’t get to where I want to go no matter how hard my upper body strains. Even lifting my heavy, encased legs requires the overuse of low back and hips, the sites of my most severe chronic pain as an adult.
It strikes me that this body memory is the prototype for my mistrust of the instinctual power of forward movement. As a toddler, the difficulty I had in using my legs to respond to the innate drive to explore and master my physical environment resonates with a disrupted connection to the lower regions, ruled by primal instinct rather than by conscious, ego-driven thought. Just as I now remember my upper body straining to force the forward motion of my lower body, so have I learned to over-rely on my intellect over unconscious instinct.
As I try on this strange dream body, I hear and feel the tiny bones break. I know that now I am propelled by instinct. I would never be able to perform this ritual sacrifice if I thought about it.
The aggressive energy I use to decapitate the swan is unfamiliar. In order to move forward, to fully pursue creative aims, I need to embody this ruthless determination. It will involve a sacrifice of the illusion that forward movement can be instantaneously achieved through the willful leap of the ego or the head – without the instinctual energy of the body.
I now flash on the image of the mermaid that came to me after the first brief depth session – an image I didn’t make much of at the time. I have a significant realization: neither my 2-year-old body nor the mermaid makes use of legs; but the 2-year-old tries to use the upper body to move forward, while the mermaid uses the primitive energy of her fish tail, submerged in unseen waters, to propel herself. The lower body changes from a pain-inducing impediment to a powerful and graceful vehicle for propulsion.
This insight puts me in mind of part of the first dream I had after this last session.
The material to work in the next session has hatched.
Session 4: I Begin to Move
I am at a wild animal park. I’m in a channel of water – home to some large underwater animals. I move through the water, cloudy with animal life. There is a weak current, and it is unclear whether I’m moving myself or being moved by the current. I pass over two black bears, hunkered under the water. The second is an imposing mass of dark, wet fur. I don’t know if it’s sleeping or if it poses a danger, but I pass over it uneventfully, feeling its fur with my feet.
As in other methods, the dreamer is asked for associations to her images. In this dream, my strongest association is of the man-made, white plaster channel to the childhood casts. With this in mind, Jill helps me create a composite in which I feel a renewal in my fatigued shoulders; a slow undulation extending up my spine from the underwater movement of my splayed feet and legs; the life-giving purpose in the breath of the water; and a shivery jolt as my left toe makes contact with the bear’s fur.
The movement through the water provides an outlet for the newly released energy I feel. My dream body feels lighter and more buoyant. The anchor points feel rhythmically synchronized, aiding the current in nudging me forward. I bring fleeting moments of this new body feeling into waking life even when I am not practicing the composite – for example, when I carry groceries in from my car. I seem to be in less pain, and the pain that I do feel is not the usual indomitable foe that threatens to take me down.
Sessions 5-8: The Greening of My Body
The water navigation imagery seeps into a subsequent dream, in which I swim through a long canal to my friends’ house to celebrate the green renovations they have made. Working this dream with Embodied Imagination undermines cerebral assumptions that might not have been challenged with another, more directly interpretive approach.
For example, as I re-enter the dream and stand in their home, I feel tired and proud after completing the arduous journey. To my surprise, it becomes clear that the green house I am meant to visit is not this flimsily redecorated home, but rather my own greening body. I anchor this greening in the flickering sensations of roots growing from the soles of my feet, tentatively connecting me to the earth below. At the end of session five, I am disoriented at finding myself in a body in which my feet feel more secure than my head. I report feeling “completely turned around.”
The original image of flickering tendrils contains within it a kind of fragility; the glimmer of hope mingled with fear that I first report are quickly lost. Mistrust dominates. But with time – and more practice – I begin to feel anew the expanded contours of my body and the tender itchiness of new growth in my feet. A new image appears: my body becomes a sturdy sapling, infused with chlorophyll, my arms branches sprouting flower buds.
Transformation is never linear or complete. I don’t know where this work will take me from this point on, but I am beginning to trust its lead – to trust that the slowly developing embodiment of early memory and more recent dream images will continue to generate a new consciousness, one in which the pain of my clubfeet is transformed from a burdensome brake on growth to a powerful mermaid’s tail, a propulsive instrument of the force of forward movement.
The psychic cast has loosened.