The remarkably brave Charlotte Francis learns to get out of her mind space and tap into her body's wisdom.
While anything but smug, I thought I had progressed quite far down the path of spiritual evolution. Having read widely over the years and dabbled in all sorts of different spiritual practices and forms of enquiry, from Gods and Goddesses to Gaia and green-tinged mysticism, I felt I had a reasonably good set of tools to equip me for life on planet Earth.
It turns out I've hardly dipped a toe in the water.
Well, that may be a bit harsh. I have come quite a long way since I first visited a Tarot reader in 1987 when working as a secretary at Penguin Books in London, but much of my enquiry has been of an intellectual nature.
To some extent, I have been playing with concepts and ideas, cherry picking the bits that appeal to me, allowing in chinks of light and awareness only when the needs of my ego have been placated. It's all very well reading the books, attending the workshops and chewing on ideas, but unless you embody the experiences and allow yourself to feel them, the busybody mind continues to call the shots.
The irony is that the more I have sought answers and solutions through rigorously applying my mind, the more I have resisted the call of my body, and, by extension, my soul. There have even been times when I have pursued lofty ideals - think white light, meditation and mountains of freeing myself from the mundane needs of the body as if being human were a burden to overcome.
When I was 10, the doctors briefly suspected I had meningitis. It turned out be neckache from sitting at the wrong angle and tackling the first set of exams with uncompromising determination. All very useful in getting good marks, but I've passed the exams now (and I could say, so what?), and the stiffness in my body remains. This is because I've tended to treat the symptoms, once everything else has been ticked off the list, and resisted changing the underlying thought patterns and conditioning.
This is not to conjure up a tale of a sorry and sad life or to say I've been in permanent pain. It's just that the persistent nagging has clamoured more loudly for attention recently. I appreciate every second of the life I have so far lived. Blessed with all the benefits of living in the democratic first world education, freedom, good health, material comfort, choice and opportunity I've marvelled at many sunsets and sunrises, lived, loved, laughed a good deal and had the courage to try new things.
But it's the less sunny times, the dark nights of the soul that have invited change and a deepening of awareness. If there were no pain and struggle, what would prompt us to change the status quo? As Eckhart Tolle says in The Power of Now, "Pain becomes fuel for the flame of your consciousness, which then burns more brightly as a result."
We are living in turbulent and changing times and, with all the planetary and cosmic shifts playing out in the lead up to 2012, I feel ready to embark on part two of an exploratory journey that began with my move to Australia from the UK five years ago. I've changed my geographic location, but some of the old energetic ties and residual parental and social conditioning are still thriving across the 19,000 kilometre distance. It's now time for me to change my inner landscape.
Instead of adopting a fix-it approach, I've asked for guidance on how to transform any stuckness into flow. And I've communicated my willingness (and this is key) and intention to engage with life on a deeper level. In a clear manifestation of the Buddhist maxim, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear", the Universe has responded by sending all sorts of healing opportunities my way.
Cut to a month ago when I spent much of the day standing in a bikini while students drew the shape of my body against a template in their exercise books. No, I wasn't supplementing my income by posing as an artist's model, but volunteering as a study body for a group of students at the Australian Institute of Body-Mind Analysis and Psychosomatic Therapy.
Created by Queensland-based Hermann MŸller, the basic level course runs for six days. The students, who range from plumbers to therapists and practitioners, learn to read faces, bodies and hands with one day devoted to examining their own emotional anatomy through deep tissue work. This way they gain firsthand insight into how the body works.
While not an esoteric course - it is very practical in its application - the work is designed to illustrate the interconnectedness of all things and to bring the mind and body back into alignment, so re-establishing a connection with the soul self. Everything we experience from conception onwards is reflected in the shape and stance of our body, its bone structure, density of flesh, muscle tone and balance - or lack of it!
I try to stay still while two students examine me from the front, back and sideways as they map out a comprehensive mind-body analysis. Standing in itself is a challenge as my deeply engrained postural habits set in with my (braced) knees making my calves and lower back ache. I long to flop forward and collapse.
"Hmm," says a rather good looking male student in a hunt for my non-existent biceps. Then a hand squeezes my thigh and I'm relieved there's a bit more substance in this area, but it's sore and indicates lack of lymphatic drainage.
There are six of us study bodies, three men and three women. Between us we manifest some of the classic postures: rounded shoulders (protecting the heart space), protruding breastbones (pushing yourself forward in life), tense jaws, braced knees and weak lower backs indicating a lack of self nurturing and self support. Social and parental influences show up in control issues and the many ways in which we seek to get recognition, love and acceptance. We may put our hearts out for others, stick our necks out to get what we want, or dig in our heels in and refuse to compromise.
Hermann spends time with each of us and sheds light on some of our patterns.
To some extent, we have all been bent out of shape by our thoughts - the body never lies - and as we come face to face with ourselves, the truth is somewhat confronting. Standing against the plumbline, I am an impressive 80 per cent out of my body and, we are not talking the bliss of a light filled trance. I am, however, in good company; this is very much the headfirst, mind-first shape so prevalent across both the developed and, increasingly, the developing world. No wonder it hurts!
At this point, Hermann tells us the amazing story of Canadian John Morgan. Born with McCune-Albright Syndrome, a bone disease that deforms the body, John's bone structure in his skull and upper chest grew to such an extent that by the age of eight it had destroyed his optic nerves and damaged the muscles around his eyeballs, rendering him blind.
Interestingly, John did not inherit his disease genetically, but as Hermann explains it, John's soul journey and past life experiences are manifested in physical form by his top heavy shape: he has an enlarged brain, small pelvis, narrow legs and twisted feet. John, now 28, grew up with such strong determination to overcome his disability that the focus of mental effort enhanced the distortion in his body.
Working with Hermann and his students as a study body two years ago, John experienced an extraordinary transformation. At the start of the day, he was slumped in his wheelchair, his eyes dull and his breathing shallow. By the end of the day, breathing deeply into his chest area and, for the first time, through his nose, he came to understand and acknowledge his special purpose in life and to communicate his experience to others.
"We are blessed and honoured to have worked with John," says Hermann with great gratitude and respect. "He is a master teacher and a living example to all of us how an inflexible mind can damage the flexibility of the body."
Rather than fighting a perceived imperfection, John has learnt to use his hands to connect with his heart centre and feel and sense his body, softening the mental dominance to reintroduce softness and create more flesh on his bones.
In psychosomatic therapy, the bones represent our formation and the flesh on our bodies how we perform in life. By extension, the mind and the bones stand for the male aspect and the flesh, the creative, life giving feminine aspect. We need a balance between the two to nurture not only our own bodies, but also humanity as a whole. Hermann draws a parallel with top heavy business models where those in power neglect the needs of those in supporting roles underneath.
So how does all this relate to a room full of locked knees, set jaws, chins and necks jutting forward? As co-creators of our body shape and life experiences, we can start to shift our thinking and release mental and emotional blockages to bring our body back into alignment and harmony. Using our awareness, we can soften the excess of mental energy, learn to support our bodies and nurture the life within.
The first simple step is to learn deep, three stage diaphragmatic breathing, one of the pillars of psychosomatic work. Breathing into my stomach and ribs as if inflating a pair of bellows, I find myself standing taller while softening and expanding into spaciousness at the same time. What a good feeling! Another wonderfully practical and simple tool is stepping and pumping the legs to build strength and support in the lower half of the body. Who needs the gym when you can lift your own body weight while waiting for the kettle to boil?
A few weeks later listening to a talk entitled, "Loving yourself more fully", given by New Zealand healer Keith Mason, I am captivated by the concept of surrendering your head to your heart. Keith encourages us to get out of our thinking minds and into the feeling place of the body. "It's about re- membering", he says, tapping down his arms to emphasise how we need to reconnect with our limbs and all the different parts of us.
A strong and active mind can be a great asset, but not if it is constantly thinking habitual thoughts and dashing between past and future. Keith reminds us that we don't have to do - anything, but rather just stop stopping the flow. Effort becomes effortless when we stop the doing, thinking and the striving.
In a meditation the other day I asked for guidance, and the message came back to drop into light and love. I am learning to give my body a break from my mind. My grey matter is still busy creating and conjecturing, but I simply acknowledge it, bring myself back into the now, breathe deeply and let my heart soften. It's so simple and so transformative.