Sitting Down on a Chair and Getting Out of Your Own Way

Where to Begin

It's the end of a year and the beginning of another. For many of us, I imagine, this year was full of beginnings, middles, and ends more significant than some markings on the Gregorian calendar.

Stories, too, contain multiplicities of beginnings, middles, and ends, and because of this, when we sit down and write, we can often feel overwhelmed. Where do we even begin? So we jot down some words, skip and jump around on bouncy rhythms of phrases until we don't really know where we are, or where we began.

What if instead of trying to chase the magic, you could learn ways of conjuring it, letting it gather and come to you?

What if you were able to create a specific kind of awareness that accessed your deepest voice as a writer, where you could start to feel that place just beyond skin, where the separation between you and the world begins to dissolve, and flow begins? What if you could use this specific kind of awareness to not just know and sense where you are now, but know and sense and feel where you are in any landscape-- real or imagined. And express this in words.

How do you even start to do this?

I created Sense Writing for just this purpose.

Between Art and Science

The approach exists in the netherworld between art and science. Because the in-between places are where the real magic happens, and where I most love to dwell.

Sense Writing allows you to uncover the many similarities between the way the nervous system works and the creative process. What is a healthy nervous system? What does it mean to "optimize" the way the nervous system functions? How does this relate to accessing a state of flow that is sustainable and full of rich artistic discovery? How do you access the deeper parts of yourself to dissolve stubborn blocks and avoid extreme creative highs and lows? 

The approach's unique combination of movement and writing sequences (parts of which I've been developing for over fifteen years) allow you to experience how the nervous system and creative process can actually support each other, and with this understanding, you can start to refine and optimize both.

Since there are three levels of Sense Writing-- and some writers have been taking Sense Writing III for almost four years-- I have been consistently developing new combinations and today there are over one hundred unique movement and writing sequences.

About a year ago, I started to record these sequences, making them available through Sense Writing One-on-One Trainings. Since it's the end of the year, I wanted to share a recorded exercise, a little taste of how you can start to get out of your own way. Though this is not an "official" Sense Writing sequence (no writing involved, but of course you're welcome to try some after), it is a step into bringing the practice home and into your bones.
 

So, sit on a comfortable chair, press play, close your eyes... and get out of your own way.

  • To read more about the effects of body mapping, see the article "The Floor is a Mirror" below (July 2, 2016).

  • Sense Writing's One-on-One Trainings is a ground-breaking approach to the process of writing that teaches you to how to bypass stubborn blocks and uncover richer processes of artistic discovery. Find out more here.

The Ocean and the Floor Below

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“Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement.” -Oliver Sacks

Diving Below the Surface

Earlier today I was in a cafe with a founding member of a bi-national Palestinian/Israeli organization that I’ve admired for a long time. I remember attending one of their presentations years ago in some wall-less castle in the West Bank. The men sat and spoke to us about the formation of the group and what had brought each to join. I was struck as much by the specificity of each of their stories as by the intimacy between them— muscular, almost cellular. These were both Palestinian and Israeli men once engaged in violence towards the other.

In the last ten years, women and men have been meeting several times a year, mostly in small, regional groups. Working closely on specific projects together, collaborating with communities to rebuild homes demolished by the army, making action-based theater, engaging in non-violent communication (NVC), these local groups seemed to have evolved a single and elegant motivation that defines the whole: refining the interplay between raising awareness of the effects of the occupation and bringing transformation to individual members.

“Personal trauma,” he said, “is always political. So before the political, we always deal with the personal. Always.”

In the United States, there has been so much discussion about transformation. In addition to the proliferation of personal transformation movements seen in the last several decades, an urge has surfaced recently for large-scale structural change. It seems that, after the election and within the extreme ideological lurching of America, more and more people are finally drawing connections between personal and political trauma. People are sharing their stories on social media more and more, and with this, a resonance is growing between a kind of internal repair that comes through the act of forming and expressing one’s story and an external repair with the world as these stories are being received by communities of people.

The Substrate Below

As more Americans are clarifying the direct relationship between personal and political trauma, however, the means to connect the two in action remain dissatisfying, often elusive. On the bus ride home from the meeting, I started to make connections between our conversation and what I have been asking myself lately: What are the means of reflection that we engage in? How do these means of reflection determine action? And, if we are stuck in habitual grooves of reflection, then are we also stuck in habitual action, repeating the same power dynamics we’re wishing to subvert and dissolve?

In both my life and work, I have experienced how culture can seize the physiological underpinnings of those in trauma and stress, repackaging fear into adhesive narratives of meaning. For the last several years, I have been teaching writing in cities throughout the world, many of which have been deeply impacted by war and violence. In these cities, the anxiety that may keep someone unable to settle down into herself and the intimacy of her own writing is not dissimilar to the chronic states of stress with which many us live, even in places of relative physical safety. Though the causes are many, the result is that people are living in internally dys-regulated states, the expressions of which we’ve come to categorize as symptoms of syndromes such as anxiety, burn-out, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

For over a decade, I have been integrating Somatics (the study of movement and the body) and research into trauma’s effect on the nervous system into my own creative process as a theater artist, as well as a teacher. A decade ago, I quit my job teaching playwriting and screenwriting at New York University and left the city to study in a training program in Feldenkrais, eventually developing new inquiries into the body, creativity, and the process of writing. I now teach an approach to creative writing where participants learn how to work directly with their own nervous systems to support its ability to regulate itself to access creative flow and deeper processes of artistic discovery.

As the result of the work that I do, I sometimes look at people (quite romantically) as nervous systems sheathed in skin, and have come to view the body and the nervous system as one and the same. This “nervous system/body” is where we can settle down into a substrate below the grooves of habitual action and language, where we can learn to quiet cognitive noise, and let new patterns of sensation and thought emerge. This body is where we are able to engage in a relationship with our nervous system, feel and understand stress physiology on a subterranean level. Regulation and, in fact, choice comes from an intimate engagement with our agile, and thankfully, changeable nervous system. A dance that is an exquisitely sensitive interplay of precision and mystery.

Perhaps paradoxically as a writer and writing teacher, I have also come to think of this nervous system/body as the repository of any act that is free.

How Constraints Lead to Freedom

In all forms of art, constraints can open up new possibilities.

This is the beauty of constraints (and another paradox of creative flow).

Instead of chasing some notion or inkling down, constraints allow you to be still and inhabit wherever you may be. Once settled, the particular life of that world-- whether in form, color, sound, movement, or words-- starts to emerge. 

In a Sense Writing constraint, for example, you might write a scene starting every sentence with “I remember” (this could be from your point of view or a fictional character’s perspective). The constraint of the sentence starter “I remember” allows you to “aim low” and not worry about syntactically positioning yourself for each new sentence. Other parts of the self can be brought to the surface. Then when you switch into free write, each moment will be more textured, as you re-orient yourself, word by word, in the story. Similarly, a Feldenkrais ATM might constrain the use of the neck to turn the head. Inhibiting the use of the neck, parts of the spine, ribcage, pelvis or feet come out of the woodwork to support the movement. This quiet dialogue among the lesser-used parts expands our internal kinesthetic space as a whole, and after, when walking, new sensation and possibility can often be felt, astonishingly, in places that were not specifically moved in the sequence.

As one participant describes the use of constraints in her writing: 

If I am writing about being at a baseball game in a free write, I might start off with walking into the stadium and finding my seat and feeling excited. Broad strokes, not a lot of sensory detail. But if I start by using the “I see, I hear, I smell…” constraint, it might open up my imagination to all the small details I didn’t bother to notice when starting globally, in the big picture. Using constraints, I might start off with the smell of hot dogs and the taste of that, the feel of the bread sticking to the roof of my mouth, and how that is one of the strongest memories I have of going to baseball games when I was a kid. When I then switch to the free write, the scene starts to fill our like a painting and I access emotions, senses, and details that I didn’t think were important or valuable, or that I didn’t even know were there.

Sessions involving “writing constraints” are always followed by a period of free writing, where participants are asked to write into that same scene without the constraints. Afterwards, they are invited to reflect on the difference between how it felt to write with the constraint and during the free write. Which flowed more? Was one was more awkward? For some people, writing with the constraint will be easier, for others the free write will feel better, but for each person these differences will change throughout the process.  

Reflections allow for an engaged writing practice

These reflections are key. Like Feldenkrais lessons, these sequences make up a kind of empirical tracking system and these reflections keep us engaged in the dynamics of a process that is always changing and often full of surprising connections. In neuroplasticity, this self-empiricism actually becomes a tool in the repair of function. Reading Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing, I was struck by one crucial aspect in his case studies: recovery seemed to be connected with the patient’s increasing ability to self-report accurately, to become more aware of what is going on as it is going on and to be able to express this understanding afterwards. This ability to pay attention to finer and finer details, allows the patient to recognize small improvements and re-build trust in her own nervous system. The reflective aspects of Sense Writing, as Feldenkrais, keeps the writer engaged in her own work and increases flow and buoyancy in the writing practice.

 

 

The Paradox of Not Writing into Blocks

Paradoxes are useful to us as artists. They have the ability to keep us engaged without strain, providing processes for us to explore that are vast, yet contained. There are many paradoxes that keep us immersed, in pre-conscious and conscious ways, in the flow of creativity.

One of the paradoxes of Sense Writing is not to write into blocks. Many people who come to a Sense Writing workshop are new writers never having written before, hesitant to even begin. But many are experienced writers who feel stuck in a particular project and want to somehow crack that part open; like a localized therapy to massage and soften a tight shoulder.

Working With Your Nervous System and Not Against It

Sense Writing explores the connections between movement, thought, emotion, and the senses, allowing people to work with their nervous systems to find places of ease and flow. So instead of taking a hand or finger to that contracted area of a story and trying to get it to release, forcing it to yield somehow (and often finding resistance), we look elsewhere. If someone is stuck in a story, we play with time and work on a section which surrounds this hardened terrain — we find other places of ease and direction. Going into one part of our writing landscape, whether real or imagined, and refining the connections between movement, thought, emotion, and the senses, supports and softens the entire landscape.

Similarly, in the Feldenkrais Method, there are also many strategies that allow you to work around difficult areas.  Because Feldenkrais works directly with the nervous system and brain as a whole, for a person with an immobilized shoulder for example, there would be no prescribed sequence. Instead, the practitioner would go slowly, seeing where ease and access in movement already exist and using this ease to eventually suggests new options to the person's nervous system.

Learning (and creating) happen best in a parasympathetic state. Because the brain has contracted the muscle for a reason, it needs to be tricked out of its resistances-- with respect and tenderness. Otherwise, the softening will be shallow and temporary.  As one of Feldenkrais' original students Ruthy Alon writes in “Mindful Spontaneity,” “When movement is difficult, you are entitled to the assistance of various compromises, such as partial movement, all kinds of supporting pads, rhythm change, activation from another direction, assistance from another part of your body.” (p.60) All of these have their corollaries in numerous Sense Writing sequences— and in all creative processes.

No Pickax Needed

Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, in his first book on brain plasticity, “The Brain that Changes Itself,” showed us how the brain is much more homogeneous than once thought.  When one part is optimized, other parts benefit. Similarly, in our writing landscape, till one section— and soil loosens in the others.  I have found this especially beneficial in the case of people who have experienced trauma. Some come to my workshops eager to write into that part of their lives they never could before. As writers and artists, we are often encouraged to go inside of places that are difficult— and dig— and often we get stuck there. Either it stops yielding or it yields too much and becomes our one voice.

In Sense Writing, participants are encouraged to take their time (hardened terrain is hard for a reason). By going into other stories, other times, other landscapes, they end up discovering how movement, thought, emotion, and the senses connect in any story. When it's time to circle back into what was “blocked,” the connection between viscera and narrative has strengthened, and that original block not only yields more easily, but has shifted and changed.

The Floor is a Mirror

"The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it in not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine."
-Henri Poincaré, Mathematician/Founder of Process Philosophy

To me, bipedalism is a kind of take-no-prisoners adaptive advantage. Whatever the reasons for its evolution, the structural results of a large, upright body perched on two narrow feet has made quick demands on our bodies that we are still paying the price for.

Perhaps that’s why most of us love to lie down (and why I am writing this in bed.)

When we lie down, anti-gravity muscles (like the large extensor in the back) can finally relax, and all the habits triggered standing and walking and sitting, by “fighting gravity” and coping in the world, can recede.

Often, though, this “receding” doesn’t quite happen as we might expect it to.  

Body Mapping

If you were to close your eyes and feel how your sitting bones were making contact with whatever surface you are on, you would most likely feel that one is heavier than the other, that one sitting bone feels flatter and is making more contact than the other. In fact, one entire leg might feel heavier against the chair. You might start to wonder how you could have overlooked such a thing before and may feel the urge to quickly open your eyes to check out this gigantic discrepancy. When you do, you will be relieved to see that your legs still look very much the same size.

If you were to lie down on a neutral, flat surface, on your back, the differences between the right and left sides of your body might feel more pronounced. The whole right side of your back, for example, might at first feel much flatter than the left, like it’s making more contact with the floor. And if you move down to your legs, and sensed the length of each, from buttock to heel, your left leg could feel much longer than the right. This doesn’t mean that your left leg is structurally longer (though mine is by a centimeter or two).  What we do to cope with gravity, and with life, in the day to day, accumulates into patterns of holding and resistance that actually affect the picture— the internal map— we have of ourselves.

Why don’t these habits and resistances simply “melt away” immediately when we are lying down and we don’t need them anymore? Some of them do, but many of these patterns developed for reasons, through past experiences associated with survival and hyper-vigilance, and have become tenaciously “second-nature” to us. How second-nature grows clear only when we take the time to notice.

The experience of hemispheric differences can feel strange at first— but all of us have differences between our right and left sides, and these shift and change through a day or week or lifetime. And it doesn't really matter— these differences aren’t there for us to “fix” and adjust and try to even out. These differences are opportunities for us to step out of our own way, and let "the smarter part of ourselves" step in and take over.

How? By lying down and doing (almost) nothing.

Sharing Our Most Intimate Subjectivities with Our Own Nervous Systems

Body mapping is forming an internal picture of your body, as a whole, and in parts, and as a whole again. When you lie on the floor, and close your eyes, the floor becomes a mirror and shows you what parts of your body are making contact with the floor and what parts aren’t, what parts feel heavier and what parts feel lighter. Your brain loves to look for differences, to differentiate, in the external world and in the internal, and to use this information for a supple and spontaneous relationship with your surroundings— to have choices and to optimize. And luckily, the two hemispheres of our bodies make for a great template for this unending process. Hemispheric difference in our bodies is then an opportunity for the nervous system to sharpen and refine what it already loves to do. By just noticing, in precise detail, a kind of secret dialogue can start between you and your nervous system:

How many edges of the right shoulder blade’s triangle can you detect on the floor? Ahhh… all three, yes. In fact, my right shoulder blade feels like a thick ink blot on the floor. And what about the left shoulder blade? Just one edge. The inside edge close to my spine, like a pencil line, but there. Oh, maybe there’s a second edge on the outside…

Often this is enough. By the end of this process, which asks for awareness and accuracy but never interference, the internal landscape of our bodies become much more visible to us. We have a clearer sense of ourselves.

Though the skills that we’re building are never about using our will, in thought or movement, to release or “let go,” something a little weird does start to happen. At the end of the body mapping, when we return to places we scanned before, we might notice that differences have actually decreased: the right and left sides of the back, for example, are now making a more even contact with the floor. I find that body mapping is different than yoga’s Sivasana (my favorite pose when I did yoga.) Rather than resting at the end of a lesson and giving ourselves time to integrate all the work we did in some general experience of relaxation or “letting go,” body mapping is about engaging deeply, curiously, effortlessly with what is, our subjective selves, our deeper intricacies, and letting that be enough. Refined, differentiated awareness combined with not trying to do anything gives the nervous system a chance to step in and do its thing, and that thing will always be a little mysterious.

The Smarter Part of Ourselves

And this is where almost every Sense Writing sequence starts, whether in class or one-on-one. On the floor. It’s a way of experiencing a part of ourselves that is, in ways, “smarter than ourselves.”  Williams James called this smarter part of ourselves "fringe consciousness" and the mathematician Henri Poincare referred to it as "the subliminal self." The Sense Writing sequences-- in thought, sensation, emotion and movement— are rigorous yet tender duets with this part of ourselves. And like all good dance partners, we learn that, indeed, it has tact, delicacy, and knows how to choose.