I have met myself in many of my strengths and my weaknesses, in my uglies and my beauties and in my ‘cans’ and ‘can’ts’ when rising to the various challenges I have chosen, and that life has given me. And, found wonderful things: songs, people, awakenings, humility and much more. But, finding myself on a 10k hike around three peaks at an altitude of 7700 ft, with a variance of 300 meters that took 3 ½ hrs, in 7C temperature with a wind, was definitely a challenge.
I had prepared as much as I could given I was recovering from an odd hip problem connected with chronically straining to hear in noisy circumstances. Due to my long experience with facial paralysis (FP) and hearing disabilities I had learned the importance of preparing but I had never been on a long hike with elevations.
I have a fear of heights. I get vertigo in a cold wind. I did not have hiking sticks or enough head covering or sunglasses (thank god there was minimal sun but it was a bright and barren landscape). The starting path was not too difficult and I held my flimsy hood tight around my head as I followed my husband’s footsteps, not able to look at the panoramic views. I felt scared but practised deep steady breathing and talking to myself.
Halfway along the path there was a scramble up to the highest point of the hike. I grunted and grabbed for handholds and eventually made it to what is called a ‘hut’ but is actually a large solid building with a restaurant. I was sitting outside the main restaurant eating an apple and a hard Italian cracker, spacing out and hoping my hip would continue pain free for the remainder of the hike. I glanced at the table next to me. There was a group of several men and one woman. The woman was talking about the value of learning stuff from the internet and I noticed that she had facial paralysis. I thought, “How odd to see someone here with a facial disability”. In my entire life I had only met one other person with FP. (recently though, more online). I thought, “I should say hi”. But then I felt shy and somehow unworthy as I had been feeling the whole hike. I sat there frozen. But then when they got up to leave I felt so sad and thought, “I can climb up a mountain but I don’t have the courage to introduce myself to someone like me?” Suddenly I was on my feet following after them and hoping I would not lose them in the crush of people (yes there were a ton of people on this very popular hike) I saw them lingering on a lower level and quickly before the “stop” voice entered my head I introduced myself. Her name was Daphne and we exchanged relevant information—have you had it from birth, what is your diagnosis, have you had any procedures, what is your career etc. It turned out she was a musician too on a break from a cruise ship.
It is so rare to meet someone with facial paralysis it is like meeting oneself (though of course there are always differences.) This meeting was especially meaningful because I had been encountering my disability through the challenge of the hike and sinking into what I call disability shame. After I met Daphne that shame evaporated and I felt proud of myself and even though the rest of the hike was hard, I knew I would make it. I had a strong feeling that I had met a new friend and that I was friends with my body again. Accepting my differences and giving myself the right amount of social and physical challenge made me feel worthy to be alive. What is your ‘mountain’? Do you have a way of discerning the right amount of challenge for you?
Over the years I have been involved in a number of different styles of resolving relational problems. When I was involved in peer counseling I learned the technique of Non-violent Communication which was a technique that helped me to clean up the attitudes I held and the words I used in order to be less hurtful to other people.
In psychodrama the techniques I learned were more complex and thorough. I learned how to identify my ghosts (people from my past that I had projected on the other person) my triggers (events from the past that were unresolved and projected onto the present) I also learned to ‘role reverse’ and take the other persons role (this is very similar to the technique of paraphrasing). I often did a piece of work on the ancestors that turned up before going back to resolving the conflict in the present.
More recently, I found a nice technique in a school text book called “Looking In, Looking Out” that I edited and tailored with my knowledge of Sociometry (the study of group dynamics). I have used this frequently in the last ten years and find it effective. (see link below)
Of course, if there is not willingness on both people’s part, the effort of resolution or compromise cannot go very far. Human relations are messy. Sometimes it takes years for someone to let go of their grudges and projections. However, I have felt more at peace if I understand and forgive. One path to doing this is a one sided investigation of my own projections and triggers etc.
The most difficult ‘forgive’ for me is of people who have not forgiven me. But I have felt the freedom and peace that comes with letting go and understanding so I choose to do the internal work necessary to forgive even this. My world becomes bigger and calmer when I forgive.
Holding a grudge (as an unresolved conflict is often called) makes for obsessive thought patterns and is hard on our nervous system—the old memories can generate fight or flight responses and accompanying inflammation.
Uncertainty in relationships often triggers attachment issues (does she accept me?) and guilt (I should I should or I shouldn’t). As humans we innately know we need each other---we want to mend our relationships but don’t know how to get beyond our past and our projections to see the ‘other’ as just another human being.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t argue. We need to discuss our way into a compromise. We must not shut other people down without truly listening. We listen and resolve more often with our intimates—partners, family, friends—but not so much with people outside our tribe. It is possible to disagree without violence (verbal or physical) but if we live in a ‘fight or flight’ state this becomes more difficult because everything feels like survival.
The art work above that I commissioned from a teenage artist expresses well the possibility of a Mend. The hands are supportive of each other’s effort. The colors meet each other but stay themselves. The threads connect and the flowers grow beautiful in the peace of cooperation.
When we are babies we have a gripping reflex that is there for a purpose---to help us eat, discover and grow. This grip is designed to become less prominent as we develop into older children and adults. We learn how to do different things with our hands. However, this grip can emerge unbidden when we are stressed or frightened—in a ‘fight or flight’ state. Also, this ‘gripping state’ can spread to other muscle systems in the body. It’s interesting that when we see someone losing control emotionally we say, “Get a grip” also when we feel frightened of not having control and falling into the chaos of life we say, “I’m losing my grip”.
What happens in our body when we are in a gripping state? Flexor muscles over work. These muscles are those that curl our body into a fetal position that pull our hands into a gripping position. When the flexor muscles are overworking they argue with our extensor muscles—those that allow expansive movement and balance the flexion of the ‘survival’ position. When we are over flexed the world becomes a dangerous place simply because we are in a posture that signals danger. The muscle imbalance that follows creates tipping: A posture that tilts left or right, front or back. Pain follows then muscle weakness and collapse.
Of course if there is real danger we need to respond to it but many of our body’s ills are from ‘stuck in place’ gripping habits from earlier traumas. For example, dystonia is a muscle disorder rooted in imbalance between extensors and flexors that occurs over time, fueled by the ‘gas pedal’ of the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system. The inhibition system in our brains (the brake) grows weak from lack of use. I learned this valuable information from Dr Farias who created the Dystonia recovery program.
His teaching confirmed what I was learning from my own body: muscular balancing was of utmost importance in maintaining pain free, smooth movement and a feeling of safety connected to a balanced posture and calm nervous system. But how do we achieve this balance? I believe it starts with learning how to calm our brains enough to observe where our bodies are out of balance— gripping, tipping and collapsing. Often it is useful, and sometimes essential, to have an outside eye to discern where the tight and weak muscles are and where the compensations are (see blog on Compensations or awareness).
Changing internal attitudes of self-criticism and self-doubt calms our nervous system. Balance is nourished with physical practices like breathing and exercising. Pausing encourages recovery from energy output and excitement. How can we achieve both effort and effortlessness? What if it could be easy?
Words are important to me (always have been) so I want to break down the above concept: How I created it, how I used it and what it means on a deeper level.
The history: Isn’t it curious how words and phrases can lead us through life? How has that worked for you? I coined the phrase ‘Keeping the Body in Mind’ in the early 2000’s before I had recorded my album and written my book. At that time I liked the rhythm of the words and the fact that it addressed body and mind which is what my work has been about for many years. I was a pioneer in bodymind work and having a defining phrase really helped me move forward on an educational front. It sustained me when I was writing the songs for my cd. It became the inspiration and domain name for my first website and workshops I gave. It lead to the phrase in one of my song lyrics on that cd, “Note by Note” that quite a few years later became the title I gave my book. Talk about one thing leading to another! Those two phrases have been behind all my personal healing that has kept my music and writing flowing.
The deeper meaning: I use the words, “the body” intentionally because I want to imply something bigger than my body or your body. I want to imply everyone’s body including the earth’s body that we walk on.
Using the verb ‘Keeping’ at the beginning of the phrase recognizes that the effort of bringing together body and mind is an ongoing effort. It also means not allowing energy from your bodymind to just disperse or be wasted. As my acupuncturist used to say, “To stay healthy you must ‘keep’ your energy”. What she meant was to think about where my energy was going and make conscious choices, implying that my energy was precious---so many of us need to hear this cue to caring for all parts of ourselves.
The phrase “in mind” is tricky because which ‘mind’ am I referring to? Seeing as I have a bit of an obsessive mind I definitely do not want it to be in the part of my mind that says, “You have to be perfect or, Be careful you might make a mistake”. We cannot separate the mind from the body or the brain so I use the words ‘in mind’ in the following way: The medial pre-frontal cortex is the noticing part of the brain and also helps to guide the rest of our brain much like a conductor directs an orchestra. It is the part of the brain that influences the ‘mind’ (all parts of the brain) to have perspective, especially over fear and self-criticalness. I choose this for a definition of ‘in mind’.
The graphic above expresses well the feeling of holding and being held. We need this approach to grow a healthy bodymind connection and to do it in a self and ‘other’ loving way that moves us forward.
Link to my song ‘Everybody Has the Gift to Heal Themselves’ that conveys the feeling of “Keeping the body in Mind” This was co-written by Debra Alexander and sung by Suzie Vinnick. You can also buy it on itunes
Remember when you are reading this list to put your internal critic outside of you--- maybe far away in an oasis in a desert. And remember not to criticize yourself for being self-critical---just say ooops! And recalibrate towards an atmosphere of self-acceptance.
Having the leftovers of painful events is not your fault (PTSD-- post traumatic stress syndrome). You were doing the best you could to survive/connect at the time. The more standard leftovers are: flashbacks, nightmares, few or no memories and self destructive behaviors such as substance abuse. Those are the ones you see in movies. Some less recognized ones are: numbness, insomnia, loss of a sense of future, loss of interest, loss of sense of “who I am”, chronic pain and feeling ‘out of body’. Some painful feeling states are; hyper vigilance, anxiety and mistrust, shame and worthlessness, irritability and depression and general emotional overwhelm commonly called flooding.
There you have it—human beings have been resourceful in finding ways to stay alive even if that life has scars. I have found that the dissociative aspects of PTSD have been the hardest for me to deal with: a de-coloring and narrowing of my life in order to avoid the “no go” zones of activities that might trigger me. Everyone is unique in their patterns but we all have a lot in common too.
Learning about my nervous system and its extremes (fight or flight and submit/ freeze) and how it feels to be in the functional zone; what I call the ‘window of possibilities’ (what is often called the window of tolerance) was super important to my growth and healing. There is a lot written about this and I will reference a few resources below.
In order to get a solid understanding of what PTSD recovery looks like, it is also important to hear other peoples’ stories that have had similar problems/ptsd as you do. This decreases the isolation feeling (common in ptsd) and often gives us new ideas on how to “get out” of the trap and re-learn how to be fully alive in our bodies and minds in full color!
Books worth checking out:
My book “Note by Note” is a good reference for medical trauma, musical trauma, and the perspective of a survivor and a therapist as well as bodymind techniques for recovery.
Stephanie Foo’s book “What My Bones Know” is a good resource for understanding the difference between PTSD connected to one incident and complex PTSD which is connected to repeated traumas. Also good for survivors of physical abuse
Janina Fisher’s book, “Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma” Which is a practical workbook for deconstructing trauma and is a good resource for both therapists and clients.
Often when an injury happens, muscles weaken before they recover. During this recovery period it is easy to fall prey to compensations: Muscles around the recovering muscles take over the job of the injured /weakened one. This causes mal-adjustments in my joints which then causes my posture to tip or contract in uncomfortable ways. This leads to pain!!!! And more compensations to avoid pain. In my case it devolved into dystonia which is a condition of chronic hypo-tonic (under functioning) muscles which causes tremors and other movement anomalies. Yikes! How did I turn this around?
In my dystonia recovery process guided by Dr. Farias’ online program, I learned about effective effort. In order to not just fall into the same compensatory trap (and believe me it’s a trap), I needed to be content with small amounts of exercise and titrated effort. Because I had an emotional defense system of proving myself (compensating for my long standing facial disability), it was difficult to become aware of the ‘threshold’ point---where hypo/weak muscles can begin to strengthen.
I had to pay attention to posture and smoothness of movement—just going to the point where muscles began to shake and then stopping. I had to analyze what muscles tended to compensate with over work/effort and then inhibit them. The act of inhibiting/regulating/balancing muscle movement requires a well functioning frontal lobe--- the part of our brain that is connected with paying attention-- so I had to breathe deeply and evenly to stay in the zone of awareness. I had to exercise moderately instead of obsessively. Spacing out was my obstacle; competition my downfall. I needed to be Zen. I chose the humbleness of awareness and let go the false promise of compensation. I began to heal.
I think the experience I relate above can be applied to behavior and emotion. I could ask myself, “Which emotions tend to compensate for others? Which are overdeveloped or underdeveloped? How could I reach a balance?”
Or, “What behaviors do I default to? What gets in the way of developing new and better behaviors?” What could my body teach me about my mental/emotional behaviors?
I also saw how it could be applied to the experience of aging where muscles are going to get weaker. I could ask myself, “How do I gracefully adjust to the new muscular landscape relatively pain free?” “How do I find the ‘right amount’ of movement for my body?”
The idea and practice of an active dialogue between mind and body changed my life. You can read more about it in my book “Note by Note”.
“Dreams have always been important to me, both those that arrive in the night and those that lead my days” Quote from My book “Note by Note”
My husband and I are in Mexico—La Paz to be precise. It is hot, dry and noisy. We have an uncomfortable Airbnb and I am worried about insomnia. I am worried about all the things to trip over getting to the bathroom at night and there is no dining table-- just a low coffee table covered with artsy things: a platter of fake pears and two large elephants, carved out of grey soapstone. In the spirit of making the best of things, we clear the table and carefully lay the elephants on their sides so they won’t fall and break.
That night (surprisingly) I sleep well and have dreams with messages. My husband’s dreams are equally vivid and one night we have similar themes in our dreams.
I wake up from a dream of feeling trapped in the Airbnb into a second dream of a servant transforming into a dancer and director. Then in a double lucid dream event, I wake up into a third dream, realizing that I had dreamed both dreams. In the morning I think, ‘What has my wise self cooked up for me to learn from?’ ‘Which dream do I choose to live from—the trapped or fulfilled?’ The messages continue with dreams of me speaking up on my own behalf. My dreams of the day which are about telling my story through creativity, and my dreams of the night seem to be meeting.
Sometimes the wise self (the elephant) has other plans than what we consciously expect. Can I let go and leave enough space and curiosity to allow these surprises?
When I return to Toronto I feel stronger and not worn out though it has been a strenuous trip. I thank the dreaming elephants for helping me to push into my fears ( as Michelle Obama describes in her book “The Light We Carry”) in a healthy way.
Tango: the social or Argentine form of tango is a dance where you embrace the ‘other’ (your partner) and then lead or follow improvised steps.
Shadow: a Jungian term with many interpretations. Mine is: the character qualities, emotions or versions of ourselves that we put away in our unconscious and label the ‘not me’ because it does not align with our idea of ourselves.
Shadows can be positive or negative and often are projected on others. The positive projection can lead to putting the object/person of our projection on a pedestal, the negative to labeling the object/person as bad or evil. Either way it is a waste of energy and good connection---with ourselves and with others. If we admit and see our shadow there is less inner and outer conflict.
What do I mean by ‘tango with your shadow’? First is the invitation: I want to know more about this hidden part of myself. I am willing to not like myself. I am willing to consider that I could do things as wonderful as my most admired people.
Next is the observation phase: Who do I label with generalized criticism or praise? (He is always so stupid! She is the most wonderful woman in the world!) Deconstructing these statements can lead to insights and new directions such as, ‘What does this tell me about myself? Is there a part of me that has these qualities?”
Thirdly, I firmly take the leader position and embrace my shadow while gently leading it step by improvised step into new patterns and possibilities, all the time listening to the music and to the shape of who I am leading. The music provides a flow that makes change easier. The music can be kind words of acceptance or just being understanding of what has created the shadow.
Energy is released and relaxation occurs. It is a good dance.
Our whole lives we are becoming ourselves. Whose shoes will we walk in? Will they be ours? Or society’s? Or our family expectations? Or survival shoes? We go through through the fiery crucibles and storms of experience: edited and carved into new shapes. Hopefully, we still have a feeling of being ‘our self’.
I am an artist according to this definition: An artist expresses from a dimension just beyond the senses and inspires others to see life symbolically. However, most of my life I feel I have spent chasing after, trying to own, the identities of singer, guitar player, songwriter, writer, musician while actually believing that I was only a “helper, listener, worker”. Those latter identities were and are important (and creative in their own way) but there was a problem: the artist in me always seemed to get a back seat and certainly not a seat at the table. She did not get the effort and attention she deserved. This was connected to the implicit beliefs of society and myself that someone who did not look ‘normal’ (eg facial disability) could not own the identity of performing artist that for many years I wanted more than anything. I did achieve this dream for a brief period but could not rest in it and vaguely felt I was on borrowed time. This was true in part because I had an undiagnosed condition of spasmodic vocal dystonia making my singing voice randomly disappear.
I did keep pivoting to guitar playing but was stopped by the fear of failure generated by the leftover heartbreak of failing at singing my own songs. I did believe in my songs but I abandoned many of them. I often would hire other people to record them and then for sure I would leave them in the dust. Eventually the songs stopped coming even after I developed a way of writing them in my head (not being able to sing them).
The pandemic seemed to stir up my ability to create again. Because I couldn’t default to my favored defense system of overwork, I had time to write. I wrote two songs and resuscitated two old ones. I wrote and collaborated on some tango instrumentals. I began to develop a way of speak-singing. (my speaking voice was less affected by the dystonia). Still I had lingering complex ptsd feelings of giving up.
Then I had the following dream. “I am running barefoot through an airport to catch a plane. I am carrying a large disintegrating box with my mother’s ashes. I trip and fall spilling the ashes. I lay there collapsed in a sense of failure until I hear voices around me saying, “What is the matter here?” And a man with kindly eyes says “Don’t give up---ever” I listen to him and receive the help they give me—new ticket, shoes, a small secure box of the ashes.”
This dream and watching ‘Colin in Black and White’ the inspiring story of Colin Kaepernick’s struggle to become what he wanted to be (a quarterback) against all odds, pulled me out of my creative slump. I try to remember everyday what he said in the last episode, “To all the overlooked…..trust in your power”
Kristi Magraw is known for having developed a unique synthesis of Eastern healing (Five Element theory) and Western ways of working with the mind, called the Magraw Method, which she established in 1979. This method uses metaphoric language and release techniques to help people heal physical and emotional pain.