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blog - Andrea Jivan

Growing Embodied Awareness, Finding Imagination: A Conversation with Russell Delman - Part One

In preparation for Russell Delman’s May lecture and workshops, I was grateful for the opportunity to converse with this pioneer in Somatic Psychology, and founder of The Embodied Life. Read part one of our interview where we discuss spiritual bypass, finding present awareness, trauma, and more.

Andrea Jivan: You sent us some conversation topics that were fascinating. Because it provides so many access points, what initially grabbed me was this broad question: how do the physical, psychological and spiritual worlds intersect? Could we start there?

Russell Delman:  Yes, it’s a very open place to start. First, I feel I've been very blessed in this life from a young age to learn that all we’re really longing to experience in this world, whether it's a mental understanding, whether it's being alive in our bodies, congruent in our feeling, having deeper relationships; all the things that human beings long for from a very early age, share a common denominator. That is, unless one was present in this moment in their living experience, and I would even say integrated living experience, there was a sense of incompleteness, the sense of not quite being in harmony. Then, with this recognition I understood that being present in ourselves, we could experience four things: our thoughts, our feelings, our bodily sensations, and our relationships. These four elements are always present and to have all of them alive in the moment was key. That started this whole journey, a path that came out of a broken heart and came out of a recovery. Being exposed to Zen meditation when I was 18 years old. Being interested in psychology, it was congruent from the very beginning. Through luck and blessings, grace really, back in 1969 or 70, I got exposed to what we call Somatic Psychology, that one could recognize the connection of body, mind, and spirit as a unit. In a way it was kind of early for that integration. And then I went to the Esalen Institute in 1971 and that brought all this together. When I taught my first classes in 1971 until now, it’s been the same basic subject matter: how do we get present with ourselves, and the way to do that has been evolving.

Russell Delman's teaching is influenced by over 40 years of Zen meditation and a close relationship with Moshe Feldenkrais.

AJ: What a beautiful path. I'm lucky to get to talk to you right now. It sounds to me like you're a pioneer in the field of Somatic Psychology, though I don't think you spell it out that way in your promotional material. What grabbed me while I was listening is that you mentioned this process emerged out of a broken heart. I suddenly got this sense that when we're working with the body and when we're working with resistance points in life, then we're able to find a way into healing through what we are calling broken. Am I on the right track?

RD: Yes, yes. I recognize two, seemingly paradoxical on the surface, discrepancies of people’s bias. On one side there are people who are really committed to not feeling their suffering, not feeling their pain, not feeling their grief, not feeling the challenges and they get into avoidance behavior or what is beautifully called in newer spiritual communities, spiritual bypassing. In the Focusing world, which is one of the psychological orientations that I've been influenced by, they call it process skipping, you don't go through the whole process. That's on one side. The other side, we're living in what I call a therapeutic culture where people, especially those of us who have the privilege of this kind of inner looking—which is really a socioeconomic, sometimes racial, cultural etc. privilege. We can get trapped in our own culture of looking for problems and dwelling on problems while a very important element of anybody's life work is—how do we grow our capacity for joy, how do we grow our capacity for love? How do we grow our capacity out of being present to recognize how our thought patterns keep alive many of our old painful states in ways that aren't helpful? So, how do we live between both of these? I've got a lot of psychologists who study with me and part of their deep learning is “I'm always focusing on problems, how can I teach myself and my clients not to be seduced by problems?” There are always problems. Then, I'm working with a lot of meditators and spiritual folks who say, “Well, you know, if I just entered my bliss state everything will work," but their relationships are still in trouble. So I’m very observant of this dichotomy between spiritual bypassing and therapeutic culture.

Deepening our present-centered awareness can increase our capacity for joy and love.

AJ: One of the things that you talk about it in your literature is freedom, and I think this applies to both sides of that dichotomy. There is the concept of freedom, but when we're moving, we're talking about it on the tissue level. And so this question occurs to me, does this tissue memory inform our culture? When we're working with restrictions that go deep into where we find our history, if we're willing to do that work, are there cultural messages there for us in that process?

RD: This is very powerful direction.

AJ: What brought me to ask that is that we’re in a time, whether it's meditators and the mindfulness movement or whether it's the psychology movement, where we're very focused on trauma. So I’m wondering about your sense of the connection between the  experiential memory that we hold in our bodies and how it is connected to our cultural understanding of what health is and how we can get there.

RD: I've got a lot to say so I’m just kind of letting it slowly work through me. There are a few things that you brought up there that it would be important to comment on. One is not only is there a focus on trauma, but there is an almost exclusive focus on the individual and the individual in just primary relationships. So there is some emphasis on your loved one or your parenting, but most of the focus is individual trauma because our Western culture bias is very much individual. It’s one of the blind spots, and the lack of  emphasis is that we are to a great degree products of our culture and products of our genetics. It's not only the culture around us, it's what we're carrying from our parents and their parent and their parents and so whether we want to think of it as genetic memory or it's in our DNA, I'm too precise in my science speculate and to speak about that authoritatively. But there is, as I've experienced, I'm sure you have many times with clients, and there is a history that we’re carrying that's personal and one that’s more than personal. As we watch people going through the current political climate and observe what's happening individually and in their relationships, we see where one is on the political spectrum is really coming into people's bodies, into how they're digesting their food, into whether their feeling scared about the world or connected to the world, or are feeling a sense of impossibility or sudden possibility. It’s impacting a great deal of our experience. The inseparability of all this, in that we are part of a larger systems is a pretty important part of understanding what it is to be a human being, in my opinion.

So, the focus on trauma, I think, well first of all, I’ve got a bias that it's a very over used word. We'll use the word anytime somebody has a difficult experience—now it's called a trauma—so were conflating people with PTSD, with people who didn't get their parking spots at Whole Foods. So that I think we need to become precise in our language. There's really good research and really good interest in the neurology of trauma and understanding that it's not the same as having a difficult moment, that the treatments for trauma need some more work in the body. And you've talked about a kind of tissue memory, I think it's a great lens to look in. I want to also add, not in place of that, but inclusive of that, a more Feldenkrais idea of neurological memory. Our bodies, and I don't mean just memory as our thinking memory, but how our bodies are carrying patterns of movement, and behavioral patterns, and attitudinal patterns, patterns of thinking, and feeling patterns. So all of that is living in our tissues through the way our brains are organized. That's part of this connection of embodiment and psychology and society and the way we experience our embodiment. I'm again not thinking separately. It's great to go for a massage and get deep bodywork just by itself, but when there is an openness to experiencing how this impacts my feelings, and why, how this impacts my relationship to my friends. And you deepen how it influences my sense of connection or disconnection more cosmically, more related to life, whether you call it God or ancient archetypes, or life itself. That deep reflective presence in feeling our bodies, feelings, thoughts in connection to the world can bring us both to the highest and deepest and in my experience that is where we open to what is sometimes called the spiritual dimension, or transcendent dimension.

AJ:  Are there images that you might associate with that? For example, psychology uses the iceberg. You’ve got the visible superficial part, then there's the whole unseen, unconscious mass underneath.

RD: Big icebergs are great. I like this picture: we are in a river, we are a part of this river of our life and within the river there are frozen chunks of ice that impede the flow. Now, I like that image in that it's not rocks, it's not trees. It's ice—because ice is made of water stuff but the ice is different than your life. It's made of your life, but it's taken on a particular stuck form. Part of bodywork, part of psychology, part of deep meditation is warming, literally warming the ice so that it can come back into the flow of the river. That's an image from my experience that works, it describes that there are no enemies inside.

Bodywork, meditation, and psychology can increase our capacity to flow with life.

AJ: That's a great statement. I love it: there are no enemies inside.

RD: There are no parts of us that are irrelevant for our unfolding or for our totality. It’s just that they are not functioning in harmony with the rest of the river.

Stay alert for the second part of our conversation, next week!

Don't miss an enlightening evening with Russell Delman!

Date: Friday, May 11th
Time: 7:00-8:30pm (doors open at 6:15pm with mingling before and after)
Location: Library downtown 210 E 400 S, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
Cost: Free (please become a member)
Includes 1 free CE

Russell is also offering an Embodied Life Seminar on May 12 & 13th in Salt Lake City. For more information, including pricing, visit www.russelldelman.com and click on "Retreats & Seminars."


Andrea Jivan, L.M.T., M.A.
Depth Psychotherapist Intern
Blog Team Member
Jung Society of Utah

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