There’s a funny dilemma I face when asked, “What’s your book about?” or “What do you teach?” My work has grown out of a lifelong passion for identifying the patterns and assumptions that have seeped from my culture into my body. As with everyone, most of those patterns were already seeded in my cells in childhood, before I was capable of noticing and questioning them – and all of them serve to contain and direct my experience of what it means to be human. As such, they bias me toward a certain way of being that vaguely feels right merely by virtue of its familiarity.
As a teenager, though, I could feel the corrosive effect of those patterns on my freedom – I could feel my thinking being subtly, relentlessly directed into well-worn grooves. I felt I was fighting an oceanic undertow that would defeat my efforts to resist it, and I instinctively knew that I would eventually be taken down. So when I was eighteen I did something radical: I stepped out of the sea. That is, I left my home in Toronto, went to England, bought a bike, and took off on it, headed for Japan. A part of me didn’t expect to come back alive – but in the end it was a risk that enabled me to return to ‘the sea’ two years later with the ability to question its soup of assumptions. I had passed through so many cultures – so many different ways of understanding what it means to be human – that I had come back with the clarity I needed to strive against the undertow.
Self-confessed workshop junkies have told me that my workshop is unlike anything they’ve experienced before. The more I’ve traveled with it and taught it, the more I’ve come to understand what makes it distinct. One of the primary patterns or assumptions I questioned and extricated myself from is the notion that to be human is to live in your head. After all, the reasoning goes, the head houses the brain, so it’s where you would naturally experience the center of your thinking, and similarly the center of your self. That single assumption about ourselves shapes our entire culture: our relationship to our bodies and the natural world, our hierarchies, our value systems, our experience of the self, our interactions with others, the design of our buildings, our politics, and our economic system. Tellingly, our economic system is called ‘capitalism’, a word that comes from the Latin word capitalis, or ‘head’; so capitalism literally means ‘headism’.
We tend not to see how living in the head influences everything we do, because it’s the medium in which we live, as a fish lives in water. Even our efforts to remedy living in the head tend to be directed by the head, and so inadvertently reinforce its rule. We see that tendency at work in such well-meaning exhortations as ‘listen to your body’. Metaphorically the phrase suggests that a wall separates you from your neighboring body, and that prudence asks that you apply your ear to that wall once in a while to notice what’s happening on the other side of it. Being centered in the head, we are thereby assured, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t notice the body. But being centered in the head is the primary wound we all live with. Advising someone to ‘listen to the body’ reinforces that wound. What we need is something altogether different: to learn how to listen to the world through the body.
There are also many very fine modalities that help us enter the sensational universe of the body, but then do nothing to integrate the body’s intelligence with the abstract reasoning of the head. This reinforces the illusion that we face an either/or choice: either be at peace with the thrumming, wordless sensations of the body, or move into the head and acquire the ability to reason. My work takes a different approach: it focuses on the integration of our thinking with our being. The practices I teach soften the divisions that live within the self, and so also soften the boundary between self and world. They open a portal to the limitless sensitivity of the body’s capacity for coming into felt relationship; they show how the whole of your being can be present to the world as a whole. When you surrender to the intelligence of the body, you allow every current of thought to resonate through it – and through that resonance, your thinking acquires a patient clarity. When your thinking and your being unite like that, thinking becomes sensational: you don’t merely think with your head, you feel your thoughts with your entire being; you don’t merely see with your eyes, you feel the sights of the world in your body; you don’t merely hear with your ears, you feel the sounds of the world touch your core and deeply inform it. When being and thinking are united, the experience of the world is ravishingly intimate.
When asked for the ‘elevator speech’ that describes my work, then, I face a dilemma. The language available to me belongs to the sea I stepped out of – it swims in a headist culture, and soaks everything in the assumptions of that culture. A new, purpose-built phraseology would do nothing to help the uninitiated understand my work. I do my best, of course, but this dilemma shows no sign of resolving. What has happened, though, is that I’ve had the good fortune of being assisted in explaining the work by others who are familiar with it, and who can sidestep the burden of needing the elevator pitch. That’s how people generally find out about my workshop – someone recommends it, or someone organizes one and invites their circle of acquaintances to come experience it for themselves. Thanks to all of these collaborators, the work has been finding its way into the world bit by bit.
And that matters deeply to me, because the story we are living by systematically disconnects us from our bodies, our communities, and from the life of the planet on which our wellbeing depends. As long as we neither see the wound we carry within us, nor have the chance to experience any other way of being, or any other story by which to frame our humanity, we will continue trying to solve our challenges with head-directed solutions, which inevitably legitimize the very way of being that is causing us such distress.