Science and Art Come Together

This morning I read a piece in the New York Times about therapy—“Looking for Evidence That Therapy Works.” The article expresses concern about how few mental health workers are using evidence-based therapies, especially CBT, but instead “see their work as an art” and “believe that they have skills that allow them to tailor a treatment to a client that’s better than any scientist can come up with with all their data.”

I unapologetically skew toward the “artistic” side. Just this morning, in fact, the session was tailored, rather artistically I admit, to my client Jan. She was in the grip of a part who believed she was worthless, alone, and unloved. She wasn’t able to separate from the part, let alone begin to change the part’s belief. She described a charge in and around her upper body that couldn’t let go and instead kept her ready to defend against an attack.

Jan’s nervous system was stuck in the sympathetic (fight and flight) mode. Self energy is eclipsed in this state. This happens to so many of us. Our bodies’ nervous systems have evolved over eons to defend against attacks by wild animals and respond similarly with today’s elusive and ambiguous threats. I offered the somatic exercise I describe in my 12/20/12 blog entry, and Jan was open to it.

As Jan sat in the chair with her feet on the floor, I asked her to connect with her breath. On the inhale, I directed her to extend the front of her body, and to contract the front of her body on the exhale. I continued to guide her for several minutes as we breathed together—opening up on the inhale and closing in on the exhale. We arched our backs and breathed in as we expanded our ribs and opened our throats, and then sucked our ribs and lower belly toward our spine as we let it all go, pausing at the end of the exhale to rest even more deeply. I suggested she focus particularly on the movement of her tailbone and the base of her cranium since this is where most of the nerves originate that are connected with the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. We added the arm movement of opening out on the inhale and closing in on the exhale as she cradled the young part that felt unloved. Together we enjoyed the rhythm of in and out, opening and closing, taking in and letting go, fullness and emptiness, light and darkness.

Jan began to feel calmer, and the charge from the nervous system was gone. She was noticing that her body had a preference for the darkness, for the closing-in phase of the breathing. Western culture’s preference for being available to opening and responding to the world has been overwhelming for her sensitive system. So rather than a 50-50 division of opening and closing, I suggested she consider 80-20 in order to begin to right the imbalance in her life. We considered specific life changes to support that need.

To honor the darkness, I read to her David Whyte’s poem “Sweet Darkness.” This poem tells us that the dark is our womb, giving us the vision to know we are not beyond love, and that the world is made to be free in. The poem ends with “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Jan’s system was caught in a loop familiar to many of us. Her protectors were keeping her system open to the world in an effort to bring love to her young part. All that opening to the world without respite overwhelmed her sensitive young part, who felt more unloved and alone, and who interpreted life events to reinforce those beliefs. Her protectors kept the sympathetic nervous system firing in the “on” position to defend against those threats.

In making the shift from allowing her environment to live her life to learning to live in her mind’s intimate darkness, Jan finds the parts longing for love and connection. As she rests in that womb, she knows she is not beyond love, that, in fact, she is love, and discovers how to let go of what does not bring her alive.

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