Excerpt from "Awakening Somatic Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Embodied Mindfulness"
by Risa Kaparo, PhD,
“My Healing Journey: From Crippling Pain to Ever-Greater Freedom and Aliveness”
Risa F. Kaparo, PhD
To introduce Somatic Learning and the power of Somatic Intelligence, I would like to share the story of my own journey—the healing that originally set me on this path.
Somatic Learning is not something I learned from a book or a teacher. I learned it from within my own body and consciousness, just as I will assist you in doing in this book. The willingness to pay deep attention to the inner wisdom and movement of your body is a fully sufficient teacher to move you into a state of utter wholeness and aliveness.
Like many things that eventually turn out to be wondrous discoveries, this journey was initially impelled by pain. My life changed radically when I “hit a wall” as a young woman. As an artist at the time, I had received a government commission to build a fiber-art playground on a Navajo reservation. We had to ground our structures in rock—shale, we’d been told, a fine-grained sedimentary rock, easy to drill. But as it turned out, it wasn’t shale at all, but solid rock. With my hundred pounds of weight, I felt like a flag flying off the jackhammers, and my IUD (internal uterine contraceptive device) cut into my uterine wall. As I didn’t want to disappoint the children with whom I lived on the reservation or my six apprentices, I worked throughout the ordeal until I finished the playground. But by that time, I could hardly move anymore, due to the intensity of the pain.
The injury led to an infection, and—with a pregnancy and loss of pregnancy—I developed pelvic adhesions (scar tissue in and between my organs) that would pull and tear with the slightest motion, leading to more internal bleeding and scar tissue. Walking was almost unbearable. I became bedridden and lived in constant pain.
The doctors insisted on a radical hysterectomy, since they were certain that the damage would make it impossible for me to ever have children. They warned me that because of the adhesions, they wouldn’t know the impact until they opened me up. I was told that even after surgery it was very probable that I would continue to bleed internally and remain in pain.
Between the pain and the pain medication—which was taking me out of myself, distancing me from my body—I could hardly think straight. I had to find a way back to myself through the “underwater” effect that the medication was producing. I knew that the choices I needed to make would have enormous personal consequences. I forestalled the surgery, hoping to find a way to get off the pain medication or at least lower it enough just to think straight. I didn’t know what to do. I was very young and desperate enough to try anything that might relieve my pain and avoid the radical surgery.
Led by the Blind
What I did to try to control the pain came from insights I had gained while teaching painting and sculpture to blind students a few years earlier. Most of my students had been blind from birth, and few had visual memories through which they could relate to the world—or to what I was attempting to teach them in class. After all, how does an individual who has never had sight experience his “arm”? I needed to find out how I could serve these students in my class.
I began by blindfolding myself to better understand their experience and discover ways to teach them. As I entered this world of not seeing, I started to understand that the search for how my blind students “saw” was not easy. It soon became apparent that I related to the world primarily through visual perception. At first, as I sat in the darkness, only memories and images projected themselves in my mind. I knew myself—my body—in memory, as if I were an image in the mirror. Finally, I had a breakthrough when I began to sense through my own actual bodily system (as opposed to my mental image of myself). As I began to experience myself outside the visual field of perception, I discovered that my whole being responded. For instance, if I sensed my arm, it was no longer the arm as “object”—what I knew from my memory and imagination. It was
a real-time sensing of movement within movements.
One day during that period, I woke with searing pain in my head. I was not sure where it came from. Despite the pain, however, I continued with my daily experiment of blindfolding myself. Soon I could sense movement—a throbbing. As I sensed into it, the throbbing began to change shape, elongate, become undulating pulsations. As these shapes changed, the intensity fluctuated and eventually diminished of its own, like a wave rippling outward. Gradually, the pain was no longer exploding through my head. Instead it became sharp, like a knife piercing through my left ear and eye. Eventually, as I opened to that sharpness, the sensation shape-shifted into pulses. Then, gradually, even those pulses dissipated. Only then could I locate the pain in the lower-left quadrant of my mouth and eventually trace it to one particular tooth. Each pulsation gave way into another field of movement as I responded to my sensing, opening and shifting … and eventually, even the pain inside the tooth gave way.
Until then, I had never thought of these blindfolded experiments as anything but experiments in perception. At that point, however, I suddenly recognized the influence it had on pain—and, potentially, healing. I still did not understand why it had that effect. Whenever I sensed myself from the inside out as movements within movements, I noticed that I felt tremendous aliveness and freedom.
I was stunned. What had seemed relatively fixed and solid—my very own body—turned out to be interpenetrating movement. The shape and intensity and rhythm of the pulse would change and even disappear at times. I could sense many movements. Sometimes the rhythms were unstable and chaotic. Other times they would act like an orchestra—coherent and coordinated. Soon I discovered that my sensing was becoming attuned to these different rhythms. The movement became more coherent. What had seemed like an orchestra tuning up before a show, simultaneously and discordantly, had turned into music in its own right.
A deeply perceptive man, Jacques Lusseyran, wrote of a similar discovery of somatic awareness in his book, And There Was Light. In a chapter called “The Experience of Touch in Blindness” he said:
When I had eyes, my fingers used to be stiff, half dead at the ends of my hands, good only for picking up things. But now each one of them started out on its own. They explored things separately, changed levels, and, independently of each other, made themselves heavy or light.
Movement of fingers was terribly important, and had to be uninterrupted because objects do not stand at a given point, fixed there, confined to one form. They are alive, even the stones. What is more they vibrate and tremble. My fingers felt the pulsation distinctly, and if they failed to answer with a pulsation of their own, the fingers immediately became helpless and lost their sense of touch. But when they went toward things, in sympathetic vibration with them, they recognized them right away.
Yet there was something still more important than movement, and that was pressure. If I put my hand on the table without pressing it, I knew the table was there, but knew nothing about it. To find out, my fingers had to bear down, and the amazing thing is that the pressure was answered by the table at once. Being blind I thought I should have to go out to meet things, but I found that they came to me instead. I have never had to go more than halfway, and the universe became the accomplice of all my wishes.
If my fingers pressed the roundness of an apple, each one with a different weight, very soon I could not tell whether it was the apple or my fingers which were heavy. I didn’t even know whether I was touching it or it was touching me. As I became part of the apple, the apple became part of me. And that was how I came to understand the existence of things.1
Now, bedridden and suffering from internal injuries, as I looked back on that experience of teaching the blind, it occurred to me that the lessons I had learned there might offer a pathway out of pain now. So rather than attempting to escape from the pain, I began to “sense” inside the sensation of pain. And in doing that, I realized that the pain was not fixed and immutable. Rather, I could feel waves moving through my organs and tissues.
As I sensed movement through my tissues, they responded to my sensing, the way a plant responds to sunlight: form and structure opening into the vast light of awareness. As space opened to me, I no longer felt pressure from pain, eventually diffusing entirely. I began to sense myself not as a solid body at all, but as movement within movements.
However, when I started to rise from bed in order to physically move around in space, the pain and bleeding often returned. This showed me that I needed to learn to rise up and move through the world with the same fluidity that I had discovered while resting.
As I began the practice of observing myself in order to understand and build on what worked, I learned how to use the pain and related sensations as feedback, helping me sense in real time how consciousness was organizing this community of cells. One thing I kept rediscovering was my habit of tensing up, and how this tension manifested in my daily-life activities in a myriad of ways. I realized that while this tensing or “contraction” might have begun as early attempts to help or protect me, in actuality it now had the opposite effect. As I opened to this realization, I began to see that my ability to get past the pain was not due to any “efforting” but rather to sensing my connection to something much larger. I came to realize that what truly helps is going beyond the limiting images, habits, and conditioning of the past. In the immediate experience of sensing, there was nothing above or below this vastness; there was nothing “other.” There were only interpenetrating movements through which this “wholeness” renewed itself. I later came to call this expression of gratefulness for receiving the infinite—this “kissing back”—presencing.
The Healing Power of Presencing
Learning a new way to sense myself involved just a small shift in awareness. But it was enough not only to change my state of consciousness but also to reverse the progression of my dis-ease. That is, it was not just my perception of my body that changed; it was also my actual physiology. My whole system began to function differently. Healing and regeneration occurred.
This way of functioning—rather than being merely a fleeting relief from pain gradually became a new way of living, a way that healed and renewed me. This mode of awareness—this ability to sense myself somatically, at a process level, in the bubbling, bursting, blooming of life—was the foundation of my complete recovery. Over time, I even started menstruating again. And years later I conceived naturally and enjoyed a wonderful pregnancy and ecstatic birth at home. Later, I came to teach what I had learned, as a self-sustaining process for transformative learning and change that anyone could adopt.
While I would never wish my traumatic experience on anyone else, at this point I am immensely grateful to have gone through it. Because what I learned from it was not just a matter of recovering from an illness. It was a turning point, an entry into a whole new way of being. I encourage you to reclaim your birthright: the gift of being embodied into the most finely tuned feedback system imaginable.
Just think, you were born into a body that—far from being a machine that wears down, assailed by the ravages of circumstance and time—is a supremely conducive environment for learning to live in the present moment, to sense and move with the flow of what is. This living, everchanging responsiveness of the body to awareness is the key to transformative learning and change. Embodying mindfulness takes us beyond the limited way in which we have known ourselves up to now—a way that we mistook for the ground of reality—then we get to discover and even create a whole new reality.
This new mode of functioning awakens us to the amazing self-sensing, self-organizing, and self-renewing system that we are. It promises us a revolution in self-discovery. The art and practice of Somatic Learning frees us to invent and discover a new realm of possibility, far beyond our wildest dreams.
While this experience of personal healing was profound, so too has been the process of sharing with students discoveries about the extraordinary capacities of somatic intelligence—in healing and awakening. What I had discovered was the fundamental role of awareness in shaping our experience, indeed our very aliveness. That “determining” role was not exclusive to one activity or another. Rather, I found that it underlies all activities—from the most common daily work, to the way we practice meditation or yoga, to how we converse with people. It is reflected in all our ways of evaluating meaning—electro-chemically, neuro-muscularly, sensing, feeling, thinking, anticipating, remembering, environing, etc.2 As a result, I brought these insights into my practice as:
• a somatic psychotherapist
• a practitioner of various methods of touchwork
• a practitioner and teacher of meditation and yoga, expressive movement and dance
• a facilitator of dialogue as a form of social meditation
• a poet, writer, and performer.
All these practices proved fruitful disciplines for awakening somatic intelligence. Each provided a unique portal for deepening the inquiry.
As I began to teach, I discovered that anyone can learn to participate in the present, in the process of their own becoming, in a way that heals and transforms them. Rather than attempting to avoid pain, compensating for our weaknesses, or trying to accommodate some limitation or trauma—thus making ourselves smaller—we can actually do the inverse. We can use our circumstances to open us to something larger than we ever imagined. I feel such gratefulness for the gifts of awakening that these challenges have brought to our lives—as so many of my students have come to express. You will find some of their inspirational stories, told in their own words, throughout this book, scattered like breadcrumbs along a pathless path.
As pain and more obvious limitations disappear, the question becomes: what can we do to enhance our enjoyment of life?
Is it possible that even the slightest shift in awareness can bring about such profound change that we no longer live in the same body or even the same universe?
What if the most important change we can make for our health and liberation is the same?
What if liberation required no effort or act of will?
Somatic Learning represents an intersection between the practical and profound. It is an invitation into a deeper alignment with our innate intelligence. This intelligence brings about a self-sustainable new order that functions from these three fundamental characteristics: It is self-sensing, self-organizing, and self-renewing.
1. Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light (Sandpoint, Idaho: Morning Light
Press, 1987), pp. 26–27.
2. Samuel Bois, The Art of Awareness, on the abstracting process (Dubuque,
Iowa: W.C. Brown Co., 1966).
A liscensed psychotherapist and award-winning poet and songwriter, Risa Kaparo, PhD, is the developer of Somatic Learning, a body-based approach that incorporates psychological, somatic, and meditative disciplines. She has developed training programs for health professionals and educators, and has taught Somatic Learning at MIT, John F. Kennedy University, the California Institute of Integral Studies, Dalian Medical University in China, and numerous other universities and professional institutions. The author of Embrace: Poems, Kaparo maintains a private practice in Richmond, California.
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From Awakening Somatic Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Embodied Mindfulness by Risa F. Kaparo, PhD, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2012 by Risa F. Kaparo. Reprinted by permission of publisher.