There’s an advantage in not understanding a word people say. My students for the weekend, all Japanese psychologists, after a good amount of preparation the day before, were getting ready to show me what it’s like for them when they work with their patients. The therapists who would be in the role of the patients had learned a lot about who they were and how they were to behave. One of the therapists works in jails with prisoners. Another goes to homes where depressed teenagers will not come out of their rooms. Another assists in a community center for poor, mentally vulnerable people who can’t find a place in the world. Another for victims devastated by domestic violence and sexual abuse.
I’m not going to know a word you are saying, I tell them. I don’t want to know. I can be of more help to you if I don’t. My job is to track what’s going on somatically, in a silent realm between body and being.
And so it begins….
Yoshie is sitting across from a patient who’s angry, and taking it out on her. I’m standing far away, as I often do, off to the side, in my students blind spot. At some point Yoshie’s torso collapses on the right side, the bottom of her ribs dropping down closer to the top of her pelvis. Her head has shifted over to the right too. She looks concerned. After about thirty seconds, Yoshie shifts her ribs diagonally up and over to the left, this time lifting them up away from the pelvis. She’s over straightening and pulling her neck back, and lowering her chin, appearing wary, perhaps skeptical.
This dropping down to the right, then shifting and pulling up to the left repeats itself several times. Suddenly I see it, a boxer dodging punches, ducking down to the right, pulling back to the left. Yoshie’s doing her best to avoid being hit.
Still in Yoshie’s blind spot I silently walk over, quickly but gently placing one hand over her hands and the other on top of her head as I quietly tell Yoshie to stay there for a minute. (If I don’t place my hands there before I ask a person to stop, invariably they immediately try to correct themselves.) Yoshie’s now frozen, sculpture like, ducking down to the right. Yoshie, this is where you spend a couple hours every day. Now where do you go when your body gets tired of being here? Without any hesitation she pulls up and over to the left. And here is where you spend another couple hours a day. She slowly nods her head. She’s getting it. Yoshie, why do you think you do that? I’ve no idea she says, but I can feel that I do this a lot.
Would you like to know what it looks like to me? Hai, she says. It looks like you’re a boxer dodging punches. I show her her movements with my arms up like a boxer. Then I show her the same movements again with my arms down. Yoshie covers her mouth with her hand, as most Japanese women do, and lets out a big laugh of recognition. She looks, at once, ashamed, amused and relieved. Okay Yoshie-san, would you like to try something different? Hai, she says. Let’s sit smack in front of this patient. I get her hips back in the chair, get the chair to give her some back support, and bring her into her full stature. She looks about twice the size. Now, see what happens if you decide to look easily but squarely into your patients eyes, and no matter what your patient throws at you, you will remain in front of her, resting inside of this soft, powerful, fullness. Have you decided? Have you made a commitment to yourself? I wait until I can see she has. Looking at the patient I say, okay, let her have it. Everyone is waiting for the patient to explode. Nothing. We continue to wait. Nothing. What’s the matter I ask the patient? I can’t yell at her. She’s right in front of me and I can’t yell at her. She’s a person. I just can’t do it.
The Bead Maker
Kyoko’s working at a community center for poor, mentally troubled people. She walks over to a table where a couple patients are making necklaces. The patient on the right, frustrated, slightly hysterical, asks Kyoko to help her string a tiny bead. Keiko bends way over, rounding her back like a question mark, pulls the string and the bead very close to her eyes, looks over the tops of her glasses, her head just inches away from the patients head, and begins stringing the bead. Kyoko’s totally into what she’s doing, so she doesn’t notice me next to her. Softly, I place one had on the top of her head, the other on her upper back and quietly ask her to just be there for a moment. This is what you do, I say without judgment. Just sense it and take it in. How about we go about this another way? What do you think? I get a nod, Hai. Consent.
Pull up a chair. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. She rounds over in the chair much the same way as she does when she is standing up. At the same moment, both patients start asking her for help. I can see her panicking and feeling like she’s got to work quickly. Keiko, you’re doing well. Let’s take a little break. Follow my hands. I give a slight impulse around her neck and her spine uncurls. With my hands, I invite her shoulders to open apart, and I ask her just to look at her patients from where she is now. I’m so far away, she says. Well, yes and no, I say. You are sitting at the table with them. You’re on the same level with them. They’re right here. Let’s continue. They both start to talk. Keiko turns to the patient on her left and calmly listens, and looks at the problem. I’m not rushing, Keiko says. When there’s space, there’s time. It just works that way, I say. Let’s continue. The patient on the right is supposed to continually interrupt, but instead she’s just sitting there waiting. I know I am suppose to give her a hard time, but I can’t do it. I just don’t want to do it.
Ridiculing Makoto, making snide remarks, the prisoner sits there feeling superior. Makoto looks hurt, weak, helpless. It looks to me like they’re both behind bars, both imprisoned, both locked in their own worlds.
My eyes immediately go to Makoto’s legs, so lifeless. They look like the legs of someone who cannot walk, who hasn’t walked for years. Toes turned inward, knees fallen together, stomach compressed, chest hollowed out, shoulders curled and drooping forward. Her body almost looks like it’s sunken in a wheelchair, but there is no wheelchair. Above her caved in body is a beautiful face. Makoto’s mouth and full lips stand out, literally, pushed gently forward in space, while her eyes seem to recede back. There’s something almost overwhelmingly kind and tender about her. This large, beautiful, expressive face, and below a body deflated, without support, without structure.
It takes about fifteen minutes. Slowly, from the bottom up, I build her structure, as if I’m building a wall. Makoto, this is your left foot. We want it to live on the left side of your body, away from the midline. This is your right foot. It lives on the right side of your body, in another hemisphere. This is East pointing to the left, and this is West pointing to the right. And so it is with your ankles and your lower legs and your knees, living on different sides of the planet, with an immense ocean between them. (In reality her legs are now apart but not far apart, nothing that would draw attention. But for her it feels enormous.) My hands are touching each part of her body as I mention them, as if I am introducing her to her body for the first time. From under your feet up to your knees constitute 25% of your height. These are your knees. They’re the largest joints in your body. They’re huge. These are your thighs, from your knees to your hip joints. They’re big, made up of the most powerful muscles in the body, constituting another 25% of your height. They too live in separate hemispheres with the Pacific Ocean between them. This is your pelvis, sitting bones, hip joints, sacrum, iliac crests. This is your spine, lower back, middle back, upper back, neck, head, the remaining 50% of your height. This is your arm structure, clavicle, scapula, shoulder joints, humerus, ulna, radius, wrists, palms, fingers. Makoto, your outstretched arm structure, from finger tip to finger tip, your wing span, is as wide as you are tall. This is your body. This is the size of your body.
I touch her lips, ever so lightly, with the tip of my index finger. This is your mouth, your lips, and you have them protruding a little in front of your face. I place my other index finger on the corner of her eye. And here are your eyes. Can you feel how they are falling back in relation to your mouth that’s sliding forward? I can see her exact moment of recognition. Such a beautiful moment. The mind connecting to the body. Hai, I feel it. Great. Now this is likely to feel very strange but give it a go. Follow my hands. I guide Makoto’s head, as it seems to rotate around like a ferris wheel. Effortlessly, the mouth circles slightly down and under while the eyes rise up and over the top. I feel like a king on a throne, Makoto says. Not a bad thing, I say. You don’t look like that. You just look like a strong, kind person. Okay, Makoto, I want you to say something to this man, but I don’t want the words to come out of your mouth, I want them to come out of your eyes. Make a decision, and let that decision spread through your whole body, to leave your mouth, without effort, exactly where it is. As soon as Makoto even thinks about saying something I can see her mouth begin to protrude forward. It takes several tries, each time asking her to decide deeply. Let that decision spread through your body as if it were streaming through every vein in your body. I glance at the prisoner and notice that his body no longer looks rebellious. There’s no smirk on his face. Makoto is silent for a while. I can see it. She’s sticking with her decision against a fierce life habit. Then she says something. I don’t know what. But what I do know is that she spoke from a place of compassionate authority. And I do know that, at that moment, the bars were gone, both the therapist and the patients bodies were unlocked. They were free.
And so it went for the remainder of the workshop. After the workshop some of us go out for dinner. Masako, the organizer of the workshop, tells me that psychotherapy in Japan is primarily founded on the work of Carl Rodgers. Listening and empathy. I smile remembering when I was 25 years old reading, On Becoming A Person, and feeling like Carl Rodgers was my Dad. On every page I could hear his voice talking to me from some deep place of love and kindness. I remember wanting to be like him. And maybe, 40 years later, I have become a little like him, sitting there, seeing the beauty in both therapist and patient, helping them to listen and empathize with their whole bodies, watching them, together, becoming who they really are.