Therapist, trainer, writer









Embodiment of Spirit: From embryology to Authentic Movement as embodied relational spiritual practice

This article was first published as Chapter 1: Dance, Somatics and Spiritualities: Contemporary Sacred Narratives, edited by Amanda Williamson, Glenna Batson, Sarah Whatley and Rebecca Weber. Published by Intellect, Bristol/Chicago. 2014

by Linda Hartley

Throughout four decades of study and professional practice as educator and therapist, my two primary interests - somatic movement exploration and embodied spiritual practice - have woven together in both implicit and explicit ways. A foundation of my somatic work has been the study of infant movement development, as taught by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in the somatic movement practice of Body-Mind Centering® (Cohen 1993; Hartley 1995). I continue to be fascinated by the way that re-embodying early movement patterns can give support and clarity to posture, movement expression, emotional life and the psychological development of a sense of self, as well as essential grounding and inspiration for spiritual opening and creative work.

My interest has led me to explore more deeply into our earliest origins in embryological development, and it is here that I sense most directly the interface of the somatic and the spiritual. Ken Wilber (1980: 49-57) has written about the pre-trans axis, showing how experience in the pre-personal, pre-egoic realms of early life and the trans-personal, trans-egoic realms of mature spiritual experience interface, and can lead, one into the other. I see this connection most clearly in the unfolding development of the embryo, from conception into human form – I have come to understand this embryological process as the embodiment of spirit.

Another foundation of my practice is the discipline of Authentic Movement, as developed by Janet Adler (Pallaro 1999, 2007; Adler 2002). In this discipline, material emerging from the unconscious – pre-personal, personal, trans-personal and collective – is embodied in movement, gesture, stillness and sound in the presence of a witness who attends to her own experience in the presence of the one moving. Both engage in a direct experience of the moment that is both individual and shared. Sometimes moments of clarity and resonance, a unitive state (Adler 2002: 209), enable a shared experience of the sacred, the divine, of the spiritual or transpersonal.

In this chapter I would like to weave a path between these two areas of study and practice – the experiential study of embryology as embodiment of spirit and Authentic Movement as embodied relational spiritual practice. I will refer to a map, informed by Buddhist principles, of Source, Being and Self, developed by Maura and Franklin Sills (Sills 2009) to give context. In my paraphrasing of their map, Source is the pure and universal consciousness out of which we differentiate into individual Being. Being is pure presence and awareness, which becomes inevitably obscured as we meet the environment that we are conceived in, born into and nurtured by. Self develops as patterns of need, feeling, behaviour, perception, attitude and thought form our individual character, our unique way of meeting and responding to relational others and the world as we grow. Self represents the functional unity (Reich 1970: 241-2) of psyche and soma.

In this model there is always health and wellness at the level of Being; though it may often be obscured, it is always present and available to us. In this state of pure awareness and presence we are no longer fragmented and disconnected. Self manifests our woundings, the ways we lose touch with Being, but Being is always present, a profound resource we can return to and through which we can connect to Source. Sometimes embodying early movement processes – perhaps present before later disruptions and trauma severed our innate wholeness - offers direct access to feelings of integration and well-being, and to our core sense of Being and Source.

Embodiment practice

Describing the embodiment practice of Body-Mind Centering, which she has been evolving since the 1970s, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen writes:

The process of embodiment is a being process, not a doing process, not a thinking process. It is an awareness process in which the guide and the witness dissolve into cellular consciousness. Visualization and somatization provide steps to full embodiment, helping us return to preconsciousness with a conscious mind.
Embodiment is automatic presence, clarity, and knowing […], the cells’ awareness of themselves […]. It is a direct experience; there are no intermediary steps or translations. (Cohen 2008: 157)

This work needs to be experienced; it cannot be understood through a solely cognitive approach, as embodiment is about states of awareness and presence that are experienced beneath and beyond the cognitive processing of higher brain centres. Just as in the practice of meditation, if we settle for a moment into spaciousness of mind, a place of pure awareness and presence - of Being – beyond the chattering mind, and if we have also anchored ourselves in our physical being through mindfulness of body sensation, then we become in that moment fully aware, present and embodied. Immanent spirituality, as distinct from transcendence, can be touched into.

Embodiment practice enables intimate explorations into the extraordinary processes of human anatomy, physiology and development; we learn to perceive from the cells of our body – not the mind looking at the cells, but mind being fully centred in the body, in the cells themselves, and perceiving from there, the cells knowing themselves. We can learn to perceive from the cells of different tissues in the body and to experience the different qualities of awareness, perception, touch, feeling and movement that each tissue evokes.

In exploring, as adults, the process of infant movement development, we embody movement patterns and principles of sensory-motor integration that underlie our phylogenetic (species) and ontogenetic (individual) evolution. (Cohen 1993; Hartley 1995; Aposhyan 1999; Brooks 2001; Stokes 2002). By embodying these movements fully, from initiation, through the sequencing of an action, to its completion, we re-establish core support, strength and ease of movement. Our nervous system recognises the basic neurological patterns, which are the foundations of all adult movement potentials, and will choose the pathways that offer the greatest ease of organisation, connectivity and flow once they have been embodied; our inner self will choose health when supported to do so. Through this practice, movement is re-patterned for greatest efficiency and grace. We may also gain insight, through embodying early movement processes, about the psycho-emotional dimension of those experiences. A direct knowing of embryological, fetal, peri-natal and infant states of being and feeling can be accessed.

It is important that we bring conscious awareness to these explorations, or we may regress to a pre-conscious, pre-egoic state that cannot be integrated into consciousness. With conscious awareness, we open the pre-trans axis, a potential flow of experiencing which links spiritual qualities such as joy, wonder, wisdom, love and deep connectedness, with insight about our early pre-egoic development. As in the discipline of Authentic Movement, we seek to maintain the presence of an internal witness as we enter the realms of the pre-personal or trans-personal, in order that these altered states of consciousness can be encountered safely and integrated into consciousness.

The ‘gestures’ of the embryo

In the experiential study of embryology, Cohen describes how it is ‘the place of space’ (Cohen 2008: 166) which we embody. For example, the notochord, precursor to the spine, disperses as the vertebral spine develops, but we can connect to the sense of space between spine and digestive tract to contact the location of the embryonic notochord. Moving from this space has a distinctly different quality from movement initiated with awareness centred in the spine or digestive tract.

The embryonic structures no longer exist in physical form; yet the relative place and shape in the body that they once occupied can be contacted. As we move from this place and sense of spatial structure, we may come to ‘know’ something of the experience of the embryo at that stage of development through our embodied cellular consciousness. Moving through the changing forms of the growing embryo, we may discover something about the meaning of becoming a human being.

Embryologist Jaap van der Wal talks of the speech of the embryo as being a sequence of gestures which the embryo makes as it grows (van der Wal 2005). Development involves the expression of polarities which emerge in sequence and whose integration leads to a new level of form and function; integration of all polarities gives the human embryo its uniqueness. He describes how development is movement, an extraordinary dance that invites spirit to enter into matter. By entering into the forms and movement gestures of the embryo, embodying them, we can discover what the gesture is communicating. He writes:

If you open your heart and try to put yourself into the position of the embryo and join in experiencing the gestures of growing that are taking place there, all at once the embryo will tell you a very profound story. It will tell you the story of becoming a HUMAN BEING, of the struggle of the person and his spirit to come to light through the tough resistance of cells, genes, tissue. A human being performs so much work and lives so intensely while being an embryo! (Original emphasis) (van der Wal 2011)

He encourages us to look at the gestures of the embryo from a phenomenological viewpoint, rather than observing and analyzing behaviour as science generally does. The latter gives explanations, but the former invites a journey deep into ourselves to address questions as to ‘why’. It invites discovery of sense and meaning.

If you don’t enter the marvelous world of the embryo with the detached and cold contemplation of the onlooker, but you open your heart and your soul and join in to EXPERIENCE what’s happening there, you will be able to discover behind the facts nothing less than the activity of SPIRIT. (Original emphasis) (van der Wal 2011)

With this invitation, I would like to offer a description of some of the gestures the embryo makes as it comes into form, and a glimpse into the meanings they may suggest. I also propose that the embodiment practices of Body-Mind Centering and Authentic Movement are ideal vehicles through which to explore the embryological journey.

An embryological journey

The dance of conception – masculine and feminine polarities

The two that are polar opposites belong together. The egg (ovum) and sperm cell are both extreme in their form and function, and will move towards death if they do not come together in conception. With conception the opposite occurs – a new life begins (van der Wal 2005: 3). The ovum has been present in a woman’s body since she was a fetus in her own mother’s body - we each began life in the womb of our grandmother. The ovum carries our ancient history and connection to our maternal lineage. It is the largest cell in the body, with a large cytoplasmic body, spherical, not very mobile, but stable; it’s movement tends to be rotational. In contrast, sperm cells are short-lived, active, mobile, small and lean; they have virtually no cytoplasmic body, just a nucleus and tail, and their movement is quick and linear. By imagining ourselves into these forms and movement qualities, we may experience the very different energies which these two original cells contribute to our fundamental sense of being; the archetypes of masculine and feminine are at the root of all that we will become.

The dance of conception takes about twenty-four hours. The hundreds of sperm cells that have reached the ovum, against all odds and through great adversity – the original heroic journey – swim around the large egg cell and set her in motion, spinning slowly on her axis. However, only one sperm will penetrate the zona pellucida, a membrane that surrounds the ovum. Only one sperm will be ‘invited’ through the ovum’s membrane; the membranes then fuse and the sperm’s body is incorporated into the cytoplasm of the egg, all of this initiated through mutual chemical processes (Grossinger 2000: 103). The first experience of relationship, of opening to ‘other’, has taken place. The next will occur about a week later with implantation into the uterine wall.

The process of conception, and the actual fusion of the two cells’ nuclei, strikingly resembles a sensual courtship dance, culminating in the act of love-making itself. Barry Werth writes, “[T]he egg’s protoplasm starts to shimmy, violently. The nuclei of sperm and egg sidle towards each other, enlarge, and shed their protective membranes’ (Tsiaras and Werth 2002: 50). Within twelve hours the nuclei merge and the maternal and paternal chromosomes attach to form a full set of forty-six; they will soon begin the process of differentiation into the trillions of cells which make up the unique individual being that the zygote will become.

Cleavage – many differentiating out of one

A single-celled being has been born. It has an inside that is separated from the outside by a double-layered membrane. Communication happens between the inside and the outside through the process of cellular breathing or internal respiration. The polarities of inside and outside are integrated through fluids passing through this defining membrane, enabling nourishment and energy to be absorbed, and supporting a new level of existence to emerge – a new life. The subtle pulsation of expansion and contraction of the cell is the first movement the new being makes, and it continues to be the fundamental motion of life throughout the whole life cycle. Our health depends on the integrity of our cell membranes and their ability to mediate between the internal cellular environment and the external fluid environment in which they live.

The first cell division, or cleavage, takes place about thirty hours after fertilisation, forming a pre-embryo consisting of two (more or less) identical cells. What is happening during this long time of apparent inactivity? A pause whilst the decision to incarnate is made? A time for soul or spirit to enter matter, to inspire it into growth? We can but speculate, but when we embody the dance of conception, then take time to feel this spacious moment, a little of the mystery of the process of new life beginning may be glimpsed.

Two days after conception, cell division occurs again, and then regularly every ten to twelve hours, until the one cell has become a sphere of individual cells, all similar but beginning to differentiate. Then something remarkable occurs: some of the cells migrate around the inner surface of the zona pellucida, to form a softer protective membrane (trophoblast) made up of cells which are part of the self-structure of the pre-embryo. The remaining cells form an inner cell mass that will become the embryo itself (Grossinger 2000: 149; Martini 2001: 1069); we are both body and containing membrane, the one held and the one who is holding. I feel this has profound implications, offering a template for wholeness and self-integrity.

From now on these two structures will follow entirely different lines of development. The outer membrane will interface with the mother’s body, the womb-home, thus embodying relationship: the securing of nourishment through the placenta, and of protection through further development of the membrane, will both be served by this outer layer. The inner cell mass, called the embryonic disc, will grow into a human embryo.

Implantation – Self and Other: coming into relationship

After several days floating in the womb, as if in space (Nilsson 1990: 62), the blastocyst must implant, come into relationship with the maternal environment, to survive. Implantation is the process of embedding into the uterine wall, finding a home within which to develop. At this point another extraordinary event occurs: ‘[T]he blastocyst hatches from the zona pellucida, which allows it to expand and release the cells on its surface to interact with the outside’ (Tsiaras and Werth 2002: 57).

You can feel this moment by imagining you are wearing a tight body-suit to create a feeling of constriction in your whole body; then imagine you take off the suit and feel the expansion and release that this enables. You may be able to feel the sense of expansion in the cells themselves as they are released. Feel how different it is to relate to someone with this sense of constriction and then with the feeling of release. Sometimes we retreat back into our protective membrane and inhibit the flow of connection with the world; at other times we bravely, fearfully, lovingly or joyfully open and expand to meet it.

After hatching, the blastocyst backs into the endometrium wall, burrowing deep within the maternal tissue until completely embedded. It will continue its journey hidden and protected within the wall of the uterus.

During hatching and implantation, the embryonic roots of our experience of attachment to another are imprinted; the first expression of the relational style we will develop might be intimated at this stage, as the first and most intimate connection with mother’s body is forged. The source of attitudes, feelings and beliefs, which will later be gathered into this relational pattern, may be discerned in the way that hatching and implantation are experienced.

Placentation - bonding and defence

Once embedded within the womb, the placenta begins to form. Cells on the outer membrane of the blastocyst interact with the uterine wall to form an organ of shared cells and vessels. The blastocyst’s cells also form a tough membrane called the chorion which will surround and protect the embryo and fetus throughout gestation, and separate the embryo’s cells from those of the mother within the placenta (Martini 2001: 1072-5). Again we see how the pre-embryo secures it’s own self-integrity in the process of coming into relationship. The placenta embodies the two primary functions of bonding and defence; the embryo secures its nourishment through both reaching out to connect, and establishing a membranous boundary to protect itself.

The umbilical cord forms, and through the movement of blood through umbilical arteries and veins, the embryo and fetus experiences the movement towards self and the movement away from self, claims Frances Mott. He describes this as a potential experience of self and loss of self, of life and death: of aggression and invasiveness as it senses itself moving towards the placenta or vulnerability and emptiness as blood flows away from self; or power and fullness as the inflow nourishes (Mott 1959: 37-40). We each experience our first embryonic relationship in unique ways.

As the umbilical cord lengthens, the embryo will make another significant gesture: it will spiral around to face the placenta-mother, and spend the rest of the gestation facing her. If we embody this gesture in relation to another we may experience the profound moment of turning to face the other for the first time. We might also discover the twirling motions of many a dance form, from rock-and-roll to ballroom to country-dance.

The folding and unfolding of form

Meanwhile, safe within its protective membranes, the embryonic disc is emerging into form through a process of folding and unfolding, a kind of origami of cells, fluids and tissues that will culminate, at eight weeks, in a perfectly formed human fetus. Forms emerge and dissolve, shape-shifting, transforming, opening out and folding in.

Two layers of cells form, to give a front and a back; the nutritional yolk sac grows out of the front layer, and the protective amniotic sac out of the back layer (Martini 2001: 1073). Now we have a front and a back, supported by two large fluid-filled cushions, and integrated by a subtle flow of fluids between them that causes a rhythmic movement of opening and closing, extension and flexion. This supports the fundamental life rhythm of opening out towards the world, and returning into oneself. The two sacs are like the pre-cursors, or the archetypes, of the nurturing Mother and protective Father. They are formed from and are part of the embryo, not external to it; the archetypal Mother and Father are part of us from the very beginning.

The development of the primitive streak along the length of the disc now gives a central axis with a top and a bottom; the embryo begins to organise around a vertical axis. Already, at just twelve days old, we have emerged out of an undifferentiated cell mass, into a verticality that intimates our orientation throughout life to the above and below, to heaven and earth. The primitive streak orients the development of the notochord (pre-spine) and later the spine itself.

A third layer of cells begins to form, and cells from all three layers engage in a stunningly complex dance as they endlessly differentiate, flow and stream into their own specific locations to form the different tissues of the body. This miracle of shape-shifting organization continues until all of the organs and tissues of the embryo have formed. If we could see the stunning flows and streamings, the turns and spirals, involutions and evolutions of the cells and fluids as they organise into form and function, we might glimpse patterns that are familiar to us; we might recognise the elegant spatial tapestries that are the dances that tribes and cultures have created since the beginnings of human society, rituals which bonded communities in a shared experience of life, growth, love, war, and sometimes death. The forms of tribal, sacred, folk and social dances echo the emerging into form of the embryo (Menzam 2002: 177).

As mentioned in the introduction, we can ‘embody the place of space’ (Cohen) – the place in the body where embryological structures once were; they no longer exist in material form, but an energetic trace of their former presence can still be felt and continue to inform us. As our dance progresses - from that of the containment, fullness, and spherical organisation of the original one-cell, where all dimensions are equal and only inside and outside are differentiated – to the dance of verticality, where we integrate heaven and earth along with all the dimensions of the body in space and in relationship – we are in the process of becoming a human being. I would like to mark a few significant landmarks on this continuing journey.

Embodying ground and spirit

As we observe the folding and unfolding of the embryo’s development we see a bringing in of what was outside, an internalising and personalising of what was external and in touch with the universal. I imagine this as the drawing in, the embodying of spirit.

The very first form the embryonic heart takes is a simple tubular structure, and it is located at the very top of the embryo, sitting as if on the forehead. Only a membrane separates it from the embryonic brain. During the second week the heart folds into the centre of the body; from its outward and upward facing position it now becomes deeply embedded within the body. The embryo folds around it into a deep C-curve. Later, the arm buds will rest softly over it, as if in prayer or contemplation.

Next it is the brain and spinal cord that will involute. The skin and nervous system share a common origin in the layer of germinal cells that form the back of the embryo. Some of these cells fold in, along the length of the back surface, then break away from the skin layer to form an internal tube along the length of the embryo, which will become brain and spinal cord. As Deane Juhan says: ‘Depending upon how you look at it, the skin is the outer surface of the brain, or the brain is the deepest layer of the skin. Skin and innermost core spring from the same mother tissue’ (Juhan 1987: 35).

And finally the intestines, which up till about nine weeks of gestation have lived partly outside of the body within the umbilical cord, spiral in to become fully enclosed within. The rib-cage and eyes, which have both been open until this time, also close. It is as if the embryo now turns inward to focus on the task of growth and preparation for life; it has become a perfectly formed and self-contained fetus, buried deep within the uterine wall for the remainder of the gestation.

It is curious that these three major organs – crucial organs of the head, heart and belly centres, embodying our mental, emotional and physical life – begin life interfacing with what is outside, other, and ultimately universal; then each turns inwards, as if gathering within something of that which is outside. I imagine a quiet turning inwards to embrace, reflect and integrate – a time to hold, nurture and incarnate the essence of what was glimpsed in that first outward facing moment. First we open out into the universe; then we look in and draw within us something of Spirit.

The fetus now elongates out of its tightly folded C-shape and takes on a gesture of verticality, sitting with softly crossed legs, arms folded loosely over its heart, attached to and facing mother via its umbilical cord. The human fetus is thought to be the only mammalian fetus that returns to this gesture of verticality and maintains it throughout most of the gestation time – does this uniquely human gesture signify an orientation towards spirit, an emphasis on the heaven-to-earth axis of verticality? van der Wal claims:

[T]he morphogenesis of the human being is typified by stretching and becoming upright, accompanied by the unfolding and polarizing of arms and legs, head and pelvis; all of this is necessary in order to stand straight and maintain that upright position into adulthood. Standing upright is more than just an anatomical gesture, it is also a spiritual gesture. (Original emphasis) (van der Wal 2005: 41)

Frank Lake, one of the pioneers into pre- and peri-natal development, has named the archetypal experience of the womb as the womb of spirit, the place where spirit incarnate is held and nurtured (Lake 1979; Sills 2009: 119). The following story (author unknown), which I first heard from Jaap van der Wal, speaks delicately and imaginatively to this idea.

AN UNIMAGINABLE EXISTENCE: IS THERE LIFE AFTER BIRTH? (A conversation between twins in the womb)

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived in the womb. Seconds, minutes, hours passed as the two dormant lives developed. The spark of life flowed until it fanned the fire with the formation of their embryonic brains. With their simple brains came feeling, and with feeling came perception – a perception of surroundings, of each other, of self.

Weeks passed into months, and with the advent of each new month, they noticed a change in each other and each began to see changes in themselves. “We are changing,” said the one, “What can it mean?”

“It means,” replied the other, “that we are drawing near to birth.”

An unsettling chill crept over the two, and they both feared for they knew that birth meant leaving all their world behind.

“What do you think? Mightn’t there be a life after birth?” asked the one.

“Yes, I think so. Our existence here is just meant to grow and develop in order to prepare ourselves for the life after birth so that we will be strong enough for what we will meet.

“How can there be life after birth?” cried the one, “How would it look?

“Well, I do not know that exactly. But at least it will surely be much brighter than it is here. And maybe we will walk around and feed ourselves with our mouth.”

What nonsense! How can that be, walking around? That is impossible. And eating with your mouth, what an extraordinary idea! We have the umbilical cord that nourishes us, don’t we? And walking around will also be impaired by that cord; even now it is much too short”.

“Yet, I think it exists. Everything will just be a little bit different from the circumstances here”.

“Have you ever talked to one who has been born? Has anyone ever re-entered the womb after birth? NO! With birth our lives will end. And life in here is just dark and tormenting. That is all.” He fell into despair, and in his despair he moaned, “If the purpose of conception and all our growth is that it ends in birth, then truly our life is absurd.”

“Though I do not exactly know how life after birth will look, surely we will meet our mother then and she will take care of us”, said the one.

“Mother? You believe in the existence of a mother?”

“But there is a mother.” Protested the other. “Who else gave us nourishment and our world?”

“We get our own nourishment, and our world has always been here. And if there is a mother, where is she? Have you ever seen her? Does she ever talk to you? NO! We invented the mother because it satisfied a need in us. It made us feel secure and happy.”

“No, she is here, all around us. We live by her and in her. Without her we could not even exist!”

“Nonsense. I never have noticed anything of ‘a mother’. So she does not exist at all”.

“Yet, sometimes, when we are quiet, you may hear her sing for us. Or feel how she caresses our world”.

(van der Wal 2011)

Relationship as crucible for the development of consciousness

For the embryo, fetus and infant there can be no life and growth without relationship, connection to the Other who holds and nurtures through the raw vulnerability of coming into existence. We are first held within the crucible of the womb of spirit: our first home offers a container for our growing psyche-soma, and a facilitating environment for the embodiment of spirit when mother can perceive, witness and welcome the unique being and spirit that is her child.

The experience of being held within another’s awareness enables the sense of an authentic, embodied self to grow. Being witnessed and attended to by another enables the infant and child, and also the embryo and fetus, to feel its own existence, and even more than this, to discover meaning in that existence. William Segal writes:

Attention is the quintessential medium to reveal man’s dormant energies to himself. Whenever one witnesses the state of the body, the interplay of thought and feeling, there is an intimation, however slight, of another current of energy. Through the simple act of attending, one initiates a new alignment of forces […]. Opening to the force of attention evokes a sense of wholeness and equilibrium. (Segal 1987)

Lynne McTaggart brings together various sources of scientific research to describe what she calls the Zero Point Field - the ‘space’ of the universe, an infinite, chaotic, unformed energy. She describes how our perception, attention and intention create a wave-like potential that stabilises this random energy into form. Hence, our presence and attention bring form, order and meaning to the random, chaotic, potential source of energy that is the Zero Point Field. She writes:

By the act of observation and intention […], a living system of greater coherence could exchange information and create or restore coherence in a disordered, random or chaotic system. (McTaggart 2001: 138-9)

Developmental psychologists also understand how ‘good enough’ attending by primary carers enables the infant to thrive and develop a healthy sense of self; the quality of relationship enables healthy growth. Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’ is one who sees her child for who he or she is - not as an extension of herself or a container for her own projections, needs and aspirations, but as a unique Being with his or her own connection to life and Source. She responds empathically, in an accepting, caring and compassionate way, not reacting out of her own sense of chaos, disorder or futility. In this way, her attention can help her child to develop a sense of self with integrity, coherence and meaning. The mother who has, herself, been witnessed with enough clarity and compassionate attention will be able to offer this to her child.

Inadequate attention and unclear witnessing of the infant hinder healthy development; wholeness, coherence, psychological integrity and meaning remain beyond its reach unless it has been held well enough within a ‘facilitating environment’, one which witnesses, mirrors and responds empathically to the infant’s feelings, needs and very being (Winnicott 1965; Stern 1985). This is the relational crucible so essential to healthy psychological and somatic growth. There are now many wonderful studies within the fields of developmental psychology, neuroscience and attachment theory that bear out this truth (Gerhardt 2004; Cozolino 2006). And of course it is the lack of clear and compassionate holding in early life that brings us, as adults, to seek for greater coherence and meaning in our lives through various psychological, spiritual and embodiment practices.

Authentic Movement as embodied relational spiritual practice

The discipline of Authentic Movement is one such practice; it offers a creative and sacred space within which to explore the crucible of relationship through embodied practice. The practice of Authentic Movement was originated by Mary Starks Whitehouse (Pallaro 1999); dance movement therapy, Jungian depth psychology and spirituality all influenced Mary’s work. Janet Adler, formerly a student of Mary’s, has been developing and deepening Authentic Movement as a mystical discipline for several decades. Her orientation away from its therapeutic roots, towards the spiritual, was triggered by her own initiation into the mysteries (Adler 1995). Her evolution of Authentic Movement offers forms and rituals to contain a process that embraces personal, transpersonal and creative dimensions. She has also deepened an understanding of the relationship between mover and witness (Adler 2002).

The dyadic structure of one mover and one witness is the ground form of the practice; it reflects both the mother-child dyad, and that of the therapist and client. In long-term work, psychological issues can be addressed through the encounter, in movement, with material arising from the unconscious; the containment offered by the witness enables this material to be processed and integrated within the crucible of the relationship (Chodorow 1991; Adler in Pallaro 1999: 121-131).

Through her attentive and embodied presence, the witness holds a safe space, a sacred circle, within which the mover can enter deeply into her inner world. This space reflects the ‘womb of spirit’, the first embrace within which we were held and witnessed. Now it is the attention of the external witness and the mover’s own internal witness that form the containing membranes within which the mover embodies gesture and form, seeking growth and meaning within her experiences.

Held by the witness’s compassionate presence, the mover turns her attention inward to focus on internal and self-generated impulses. They may come as subtle internal shiftings or impulses to move, bodily sensations or external sense impressions, powerful emotions or just the fleeting trace of a feeling, and images or stories. She attends to, and allows herself to be moved by, these impulses. Whitehouse describes:

[T]he open waiting, which is also a kind of listening to the body, an emptiness in which something can happen. You wait until you feel a change – the body sinks or begins to tip, the head slowly lowers or rolls to one side. As you feel it begin, you follow where it leads, like following a pathway that opens up before you as you step. (Whitehouse in Pallaro 1999: 53)

By keeping attention focussed on the impulses that arise, moment by moment, the mover stays present to her direct experience, keeping it grounded in her physicality as she tracks movement and sensation. When we are present to bodily sensation we can be nowhere but in the present moment, here and now. Like many forms of meditation practice, Authentic Movement offers a discipline for cultivating mindful presence, a necessary foundation for immanent, or embodied, spirituality.

The tracking of movement, sensation, feeling and image, which both mover and witness practise, also reflects the Buddhist understanding of the creation of self out of pristine awareness through the unfolding of the five skandhas. This ancient psychology describes how we are drawn away from direct experience and pure mind through a cascade of emotional and mental reactions to the experience of pure awareness and presence (Hartley 2011). As we separate our awareness from direct experience, we become entangled in a web of longing, fear and hatred, and live through our projections, judgements and interpretations, rather than the felt sense of life and spirit flowing through us. Authentic Movement offers a path, a bridge back into the present moment and authentic embodied experiencing. I suggest that this discipline also enables us to approximate the immediacy of embodied experience of the embryo and fetus, before the entanglements of emotion, thought and judgement developed.

Just as the mover attends to her direct experience, so too does the witness as she sits at the edge of the space, noticing what is evoked in her in the presence of the one moving. She does not seek to analyse or interpret the movement, but learns to take ownership of her own experience. In this way, she begins to clear a space within herself to see the mover clearly, not through the haze of her own projections, interpretations and judgements. She allows the mover to be ‘the expert of her own experience’ (Adler (a)), as she takes ownership of her own.

At the end of the movement time they each share their experiences, describing movements, sensations, feelings and images that arose. Seeking to be true to themselves, they come into a relationship that holds compassion, acceptance, authenticity and clarity at its heart. Sometimes difference is clarified, and the mover can experience her own sense of self more clearly as mover and witness’s experiences differ. At other times their experiences converge and a moment of attunement, of shared understanding and connection can be felt. Both can be healing for the mover, and revealing for the witness.

Most importantly, the mover can feel that the detailed and heartful attention that the witness pays to her is a gift. Being witnessed in this way gives significance and meaning to each experience, brings order to chaos and fragmentation, and coherence to random or dissociated states, as McTaggart suggests. The mover may not have received the gift of clear and compassionate witnessing in early life, so her inner world may be distorted by self-criticism, false perceptions and harsh judgements; relating to herself, to other people, and indeed to her spiritual Source will be compromised, limited, misguided or even impossible with any degree of authenticity and safety. “Presence is a loving act”, states Adler (Adler a)); a loving, witnessing presence is the gift which can help a consciousness which is disordered, chaotic, out of balance, or lacking a sense of meaning, return to balance, integrity, coherence and fulfilment. Like the twin in our story, the mover may sense the attentive embrace of the witness as an invitation for Spirit to awaken and meaning to be restored.

Levels of consciousness

In Authentic Movement practice, movement can originate from any level of consciousness; we enter the movement in a state of open receptivity, like the embryo surrendering to the forces of life operating from deep within and around it. At the most conscious level, I feel that I am the originator of my movement: ‘I move’. Movement from deeper levels of unconsciousness evokes the feeling of ‘being moved’. Whitehouse describes how we seek a place where both feelings integrate, so that we can surrender to and be moved by deeper impulses from the unconscious, and also stay in conscious relationship to them. She describes how ‘[A] balance between action and non-action allows individuals to live from a different awareness […]. Then something new is created’ (Whitehouse in Pallaro 1999: 83). This third position enables us to transcend polarities and integrate a higher level of functioning (Chodorow in Pallaro 1999: 236). We see this transcendent function (Jung) at work throughout the embryological journey, where at each stage the integration of polarities enables a new form of life to emerge.

An impulse to move may originate in the personal unconscious, carrying material from our personal history that is unique to us. Such movements are often highly idiosyncratic, and the witness must attend carefully to her somatic and felt responses in order to stay close to the mover’s experience. Sometimes we see movements that remind us of the gestures of the embryo or fetus, or early infant movement patterns, and we know the mover is accessing early preconscious material (Menzam 2002).

At times a movement emerges which has its source in the transpersonal, archetypal or collective levels of the unconscious. Gestures, postures and movement patterns that are recognisable because they are expressions of a shared history, culture and mythology may arise. We may see movements reminiscent of ancient yoga postures, traditional dance sequences, archetypal and mythical figures such as the old hag, the warrior, the wind-goddess, the grieving woman or the shaman.

Trauma and the transpersonal

Just as transpersonal material can be recognised as originating from a source beyond ordinary consciousness, so can material with traumatic associations. Adler writes that: ‘Sometimes, a specific gateway into the numinous is experienced within the exact same movement pattern that held the most significant childhood trauma.’ (Adler in Pallaro 1999: 185)

Over a period of time, a mover may explore a series of movements with a common theme. A development can be felt as material is explored from many perspectives. Piece by piece the charge of the trauma can be integrated within the compassionate holding of the witness’s attention. Then, at some point, when the trauma has been integrated well enough, the same movement or gesture opens into an experience of the numinous, or transpersonal. Such shifts may bring a sense of resolution, a release of energy or a new perspective. A moment such as this may be experienced as a unitive state, as the witness resonates with and shares in the mover’s experience of the numinous.

I have also witnessed the reverse process in movers who have needed to connect to the transpersonal first, in order to approach traumatic material gradually. Here the gesture that carries the numinous content also contains the trauma until the mover’s ego and internal witness are strong enough for her to begin to approach the difficult material. She must be able to stay present to, and track, her embodied experience, in order to do this safely.

In both cases, we see the activation of Wilber’s pre-trans axis. We often see such linkings in relation to very early pre- and peri-natal processes, where the openness and vulnerability of the embryo, fetus and infant leave them particularly permeable to the unformed realms, in both their chaotic and divine aspects.

The collective body – embodiment of a shared process

Practise within the collective body is another aspect of Authentic Movement that Adler has researched. As the internal witness of individual movers develops, they each become readied to take on the role of witness for others; the longing to be seen clearly evolves into the longing to see another clearly. In seeing another clearly, we also come to see ourselves with more clarity. Adler writes:

[N]o matter how well and objectively one can witness oneself, that self-witnessing is transformed only after truly seeing another as she is. It is as though there is now a reversal. In the same way that being seen by another originally enabled me to see myself as I am, in a further sweep of the spiral, seeing another as she is – loving her – enables me to see myself as I am. (Adler in Pallaro 1999: 154)

Now there is a collective of movers and witnesses, and a form called the long circle developed to hold a fluid exchange of roles as movers become witnesses, and witnesses take their experience back into the circle to become movers. As well as each one expressing her own personal story, we begin to witness the evolution of collective stories, each individual mover and witness taking her place in the larger story even as she expresses her personal truth. The collective body practice allows us to explore our sense of belonging, and to understand the place we hold as individuals within the wider collective of community, and also humanity as a whole (Adler 2005: 91; Hartley 2004: 67).

We can imagine the embryo in the womb feeling itself to be one with, an integral part of the womb-universe. In the collective body we may again experience this sense of mystical participation, but now with a depth of conscious awareness of self and other as being both separate and profoundly inter-connected.

Development of witness consciousness

Through being witnessed over a period of time, in a way that is accepting and compassionate enough, the mover ‘internalises’ the witness: her own internal witness, a centre of clear, non-judgmental awareness, develops, which enables her to hold herself and the material that arises. Moving within the compassionate gaze of the external witness, whilst her own internal witness is also active, a new kind of conscious relating can develop. It develops in the interface between the internal witness and the external witness. I liken it to a psychological and energetic reflection of the membranes which formed in the first days of embryonic life: an inner protective, containing membrane, formed out of the embryo’s self-structure (the internal witness), interfacing with an outer protective membrane formed from the maternal tissue (external witness). The two touch, but are also distinct. In Authentic Movement this meeting occurs again between the internal witnesses of both mover and witness; now, the membraneous boundaries are made up of the stuff of energetic presence and conscious awareness. The boundaries that were once made of highly perceptive cells have been internalised as the witness consciousness.

Three realms of relating

Adler has identified three types of relationship between mover and witness (Adler a)). This is not a hierarchy; within a single movement session there can be a fluid shifting between all three. The first she calls empathic relating or witnessing; here the witness feels with the mover. She has internalised the mover to some extent and resonates with her experience at an emotional and somatic level; she may also intuit or ‘know’ the mover’s images, associations or meaning when she is keenly empathic. The witness feels the sadness the mover feels; she resonates with the sensation of weight settling through the bones that the mover is experiencing. The witness must stay alert if she is not to become merged with the mover and lose track of her own embodied presence.

In the second realm, compassionate witnessing, the mover feels something in relation to the mover. If the mover is experiencing fear, the witness may sense a surge of protective feelings rise within her. She may notice her body wishing to move towards the mover and touch her gently, even as the mover is withdrawing into herself. In this realm, the witness is clearly aware of her separateness, but also her deeply human connection to the mover.

In the third realm, unitive presence, or clear seeing, the witness has ‘cleared the density of her personal history’ (Adler a)) to the extent that, in this moment, she sees the mover clearly. Such moments come ‘by grace’; they cannot be created, just as a moment of connection to Source in meditation practice cannot be contrived. But we slowly and painstakingly prepare the ground through long years of practice into the ownership of projections, judgements and interpretations, so that we can open to such moments – to a shared experience of something beyond the ordinary.

In these moments movers and witnesses both report an altered sense of space, time, body boundaries or other elements of ordinary reality. This often comes as a sense of expansion, dissolution or timelessness; it can be differentiated from a dissociated state by the ability to stay present to movement, sensation and spatial awareness. The discipline of tracking movement and sensation, being able to witness them even whilst surrendering to an uncensored flow of movement, is essential to encountering such altered states safely. Without the ability to stay present to and grounded in somatic experience, altered states of consciousness can indeed become dissociative, or at best remain unintegrated.

However, when a unitive state occurs between mover and witness, or between two movers, the experience can be grounded in the body and in relationship, and both can be inspired, deepened, renewed and changed. Both are transported beyond the bounds of normal perception, opened to an awareness of the transpersonal, of that which is greater than the limited sense we have of ourselves. To experience the opening to Source, Spirit, in a fully embodied way and within the crucible of relationship is indeed a precious gift.

Perhaps this is a coming full circle, another turn of the spiral where, now in full consciousness, we re-member the first dance of relationship of egg and sperm – the shared experience which invited Spirit to embody and initiate new life and consciousness.

I would like to end by describing a personal experience that occurred in an Authentic Movement retreat led by Janet Adler. It took place in her studio in the hills of California, and is an account of a subjectively experienced and embodied, shared movement process:

The Angel and the Stone Bowl

First encounter

I am standing with my back to the long wall, touching, leaning slightly where the back of my head, shoulders and pelvis meet its wood and glass surfaces. I feel the presence of an Angel behind me, a little to my right. I am taken aback at how tall and how extraordinarily powerful I feel his presence to be. I am also surprised because, as a Buddhist, I’m not sure if Angels really exist for me! Yet this feels real, his presence bringing my whole being to attention. I cannot turn to look.

The Stone Bowl

The noise and activity in the room has disturbed me and I seek refuge in the small space of the corner of the room, squeezed in behind the carved stone bowl. I feel calm here, and profoundly present. I am sitting cross-legged, my eyes cracked open because I want to experience the practice of Zazen within the moving-witnessing circle. In this way I occupy a liminal space between moving and witnessing, and feel safe here.

My hands touch the cool surface of the bowl, tracing the tiny indentations of the artist’s chisel. I enjoy the surprise of its rough-hewn quality, its quiet presence, the ancient stillness of stone beneath the detailed marks of the human hand at work. My hands slip over into the empty space contained within the bowl. They sink deeper and deeper into the emptiness, my fingertips diving in slowly, fearlessly. Now there is nothing but emptiness. I feel the forms of my body begin to dissolve. The stone bowl deepens and widens, becomes translucent; there is nothing but emptiness and my fingers slowly diving deeper and deeper. The space feels infinite and the journey endless.

My eyes, still cracked slightly open, allow in the dissolving forms of the bowl, and of my own hands. Then another mover, dressed in white, appears. She faces me, tall, bowing towards me over of the bowl; she reaches her hands towards mine, reaching into the depths of the bowl. We share the emptiness for a moment; we share eternity for a moment. Our fingers barely touch but we know the other is there. Then she leaves, as quietly as she came. I know her as an Angel.

Third encounter

I have been moving on the floor. I feel like a very young child as I reach my right hand slowly upwards above my head. My forefinger is pointing, stretched upwards as my other fingers tuck softy around my thumb. At this exact moment another forefinger enters exactly the same place in the space, pointing downwards. It touches the tip of my finger. I feel a current of energy run through us. The image of Blake’s painting of God reaching down to touch Adam springs into my imagination. I let it go in order to stay present to the exquisiteness of this moment. I am kneeling, and I lean gently into the side of her upright body, feeling grateful for such a miraculous and delicate moment of connection.

Later, as we share our experiences, I recognise my ‘white angel’ from the bowl as the one whose fingertip met mine in the very centre of the circle. I feel blessed and in the presence of the sacred.

Concluding words

In this chapter I have outlined some key elements of embryological development as a dance of movement, gesture, changing form and integration of polarities. Following the invitation of embryologist Jaap van der Wal to re-embody the gestures of the embryo, our experience may inform us of the process by which Spirit incarnates during this earliest phase of life.

We saw how, at the end of the first week after conception, the pre-embryo divides into an inner cell mass and an outer membrane, which form a container within which the embryo will grow. I have suggested that the embodiment practice of Body-Mind Centering is an excellent vehicle through which to enquire into the experience of the embryo itself, and the meaning of the gestures it makes. We can also explore the early imprinting of attachment styles through an embodied study of the development of the membranes, placenta and umbilical cord, which form the interface between embryo and mother.

I also suggest that Authentic Movement offers a form within which we can embody early development, and deepen awareness to the experience of Self, Being and Source through surrendering to the open and receptive state of the embryo. I have likened the interface of the embryo’s containing membranes with the maternal tissue to an interface of consciousness that develops in Authentic Movement practice between the awareness of the external witness and the internal witness of the mover.

In moments of clear seeing and unitive presence, mover and witness may share an experience of a transpersonal or spiritual nature. I have likened this to an embodied relational spiritual practice. Such moments are reminiscent of the embryological dance of matter-with-spirit, which brought new consciousness to life within the embrace of clear and compassionate relationship.

©  Copyright: Linda Hartley, 2011


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