by Barbara Collins
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
(Rumi, The Field, 1995: 36)
In this article, I outline how autobiographical and environmental movement, woven together with loving kindness, compassion and forgiveness meditations, transformed deeply-held attitudes I had towards the Catholic Church.
I describe my experience and reflections on an Autobiographical Move into Life workshop and how a deeper self-compassion and forgiveness emerged. I have a deep connection with nature and have been involved in Move into Life movement practice for fourteen years. “Move into Life teaches the art of being in movement” (Move into Life, n.d.). There are five workshops in the annual Move into Life cycle. Strata: Autobiographical Movement is the fourth one (the others are Body in Movement; Cross Currents: Movement and Communication; Journey: Environmental Movement; and The Ecological Body). This five-day workshop offers opportunities to work creatively with personal themes and transformation through movement. It shows that the way we move is how we are. By changing the way we move we can change our habits.
I am a certified Sensorimotor psychotherapist. “Sensorimotor psychotherapy, founded by Dr Pat Ogden, is a body-oriented talking therapy that integrates verbal techniques with body-centred interventions in the treatment of trauma, attachment and developmental issues” (Ashe House, n.d.). Having meditated regularly for many years, I was drawn recently to the loving kindness and compassion meditations of Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg and Kristin Neff.
Three of my life resources, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Move into Life and meditation practice, are woven together in this article.
In June 2014, while attending the Sacred Art of Living and Dying course (this is a two-year programme offered by Professor Richard Groves and organised by Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin), I realised that I needed to work on forgiveness and compassion so as to face my own death with equanimity and freedom. I was shocked at the phrase ‘spiritual terrorism’ – when I heard it for the first time on this course, I realised I had experienced this as a member of the Church.
The patriarchal hierarchy, and the exclusion of women, drove me from the Church when I was eighteen. Over the years, I realised that there were huge losses in opting out. I felt that I did not belong. The sense of community, and of ritual within that community, was gone. What is more, I was living a hidden, secret, and divided life.
In August 2014 I attended a week-long autobiographical movement workshop on the Burren in Co. Clare. We had an eight-week lead-in process to explore emerging themes before the workshop began. The themes of forgiveness and compassion emerged strongly for me in my meditations and movement practice. Self-forgiveness, compassion and forgiveness of others and of the institutional Church were the next steps on my spiritual journey.
Preparation for the workshop through meditation and movement
My intention, during the preparatory weeks for the workshop and since, was to explore and deepen my embodiment, understanding and expression of compassion and forgiveness. I needed to slow down to make significant changes in my life. Pausing is a recommended practice in Move into Life. It is, however, more difficult to introduce it in daily life. I was trying to change the habits of a lifetime and yet this is a crucial part of the process.
My preparation for the workshop involved daily meditation and movement sessions two or three times a week. I needed to begin by gently opening my well-defended heart. Could I do this in my first preparatory environmental movement session in beautiful Deerpark in Howth? I moved in a place I call ‘the cave of the elders’.
I feel my feet on the ground. I connect with the bird song, touching, with my hands, face and body, the mosses and bark of the trees. Leaning into the grooves of the rocks and trees, I explore the front, back and sides of Grandmother Rock. Reminding myself to breathe, I feel the movement in my sides and back. Then I have a three-dimensional sense of myself in the environment. Aware of my position in the space and pausing to slow down into presence, I notice the dappled sunlight on the rock. I find my place among the trees and rocks. I move with them. I belong here. I am safe and part of the environment.
When I first started doing forgiveness meditations I came across the phrase ‘it is not my fault’. My harsh inner critic could not accept this. Then I remembered the image, used by Tara Brach, of a dog caught in a trap (Brach, 2012), and all of me could accept that. After a while, I noticed a softening of the armour around my heart. My intention was becoming clearer. My theme for the workshop became more focused on self-compassion and forgiveness.
A week later I move in the cave of the elders again. The path is bordered by pink blackberry flowers and the hum of the bees, feeding on the nectar, is delightful.
These sights and sounds allow me to pause, relax and breathe. I ground myself and begin to move very slowly. I notice an animal coming towards me; a fox is trotting down the path. I can’t believe my eyes. Almost beside me, she pauses. Alarmed, she moves away. I remain standing perfectly still, hardly breathing. As I watch the fox, a raven flies over calling raucously and a robin gives his alarm call.
This was an extraordinary experience. I had been feeling alone. Surrounded by Nature’s abundance and richness, I had a felt sense of ‘belonging’ with animals, birds and flowers. I was so happy in my being.
My experience of the autobiographical workshop
The workshop took place in the Boghill Centre, Co. Clare. “Autobiographical movement is an opportunity, through the art and practice of movement, to explore and get a new perspective about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” (Move into Life, n.d.). We moved in three Burren environments that week. Starting at a deserted cottage on an ancient green road, we moved from rock to sea, down through the limestone pavements to the beach at An Clochán. We moved in the hall each morning. Sandra Reeve, our facilitator, introduced Move into Life dynamics and exercises, preparing us to move in the environment.
Move into Life practice starts with movement, bringing ‘attention to ourselves in our bodies’. Then we focus on the ‘space’ and finally on ‘others’ in the space. In our first session, Sandra introduced ‘being and doing’, ‘stretching and yawning’, lying, crawling, sitting and standing.
When I stop I realise how tired I am and welcome the opportunity to pause. After resting and yawning, lying and yielding my weight to the floor, I move slowly, rolling, pulling and pushing, relishing the horizontal position.
Sandra introduces chairs and a scarlet foot stool. I am attracted to the footstool, to its colour, soft velvet texture and pill-box shape. I put it on my head, balancing it. My posture adjusts to it, walking like an African woman with a burden on her head, or a rotund cardinal.
I recognise the footstool as a symbol of the Church. I hold it on my head, feeling the weight of the burden. Then I stand on it, not triumphantly, feeling in my power on the symbol. I have a sense that forgiving the Church is emerging as my theme. Throughout the workshop I returned to the footstool, sitting on it during discussions and meditations. It seemed to give an embodied sense of my inner authority.
Our first environmental movement session took place at a deserted cottage on the green road.
I move in the garden of the cottage and lie in a colourful bed of wild flowers and grasses. I offer loving kindness to myself, to the others in the group and to all those who lived in the cottage, before, during and after the Great Famine. I have a deep sense of inner peace. Slowing down expands my sense of space and time.
Next day we begin with the dynamic of ‘proportion’, getting a ‘body sense’ of our ‘volume’ in the environment.
On our fourth day we moved at An Clochán (The Beehive), our last site, bringing our awareness to the environment as ‘stage’ and as ‘witness’. This extraordinary stony beach has huge coffin-like slabs scattered on it. There are two large caves. The water is crystal clear with magnificent multi-coloured seaweeds scattered on the rocks.
I play with different seaweeds, costuming myself in glorious orange/brown, green and pink ones. Then I visit the caves where rocks have magnificent imprints of weeds. The roof is clothed in white, green and reddish hues.
We prepared our crystallisations on the following day:
This process gives us an opportunity to create and share a movement piece to help crystallise our experience and be witnessed by the group. It can be an effective way of healing past wounds, restating new intentions or affirming change.
(Move into Life, n.d.)
Moving and becoming embodied, I needed to listen and allow body and heart to create the process. I move in the large labyrinth at Boghill, with a loose score, allowing my process to ‘emerge and unfold’.
During the afternoon I found myself singing. The song emerged from within. I didn’t realise what the song was until a friend identified it as a hymn. I had left the church almost 50 years previously and was ashamed at singing a hymn. I had tried, throughout my adult life, to detach from the Church but clearly Catholicism is part of who I am. It is deeply embedded in me. I felt a softening within and compassion towards myself. I needed to be more discerning and less black-and-white in my responses. I had thrown out the baby with the bath water!
I called my crystallisation the Field of Compassion, echoing Rumi’s poem, The Field, quoted at the beginning of this article. Removing my boots, I crawl through the labyrinth, pausing, lying down, falling, kneeling and singing the plain chant Kyrie Eleison of my school days. I salute the flowers and grasses along the way, supported by the gentle sound of a bell calling me to be present. At the centre of the labyrinth, I sing Chloe Goodchild’s Singing Field. “Then the soul lies down in that grass” (Rumi, 1995: 36). I feel embodied, deeply reverential and compassionate to the earth and its grasses, to Sandra and the group who accompany and support me on my pilgrimage through the labyrinth of life. I feel a softening, a growing sense of forgiveness and compassion towards myself and the institutional Church. Then “Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense” (Rumi, 1995: 36). I am grateful for the ritual and joy in the exquisite prayerful music of my childhood.
On our final day, we moved indoors with the themes of ‘digestion and integration’. Sandra offered us a ‘movement suggestion’.
I am aware of being emotional, as I experiment with the movement suggestion. The movement led to a physical opening, a stretching upward of my chest and heart; an unfamiliar movement.
It allows me to connect with feelings at a deeper level. A powerful sound builds inside me. I release it with several full breaths. The pace of my walking slows, allowing me to stop. I sense the warrior woman within, releasing personal and ancestral anger. It is also anger as a woman in the Church. I am expressing the anger of centuries, felt by women rendered powerless by a patriarchal Church.
After the workshop
Following the workshop, a host of demons, inner critical voices, tried to undermine the work I had done. They became stronger as I wrote this account. It took a week of grounding movement and meditations to settle it.
On a beautiful morning during this week I need to embody the felt sense of the dog with his paw caught in a trap (Brach, 2012). This image allows me to forgive myself and experience self-compassion.
The stool on the floor beside me becomes a trap. I lie down, yielding to the earth and the trap. I struggle under its weight. Frustrated, angry and helpless, I remain in this position yielding to the embodiment of being trapped, and reflecting on the spiritual terrorism of priests, nuns, and teachers during my childhood. Many of them were trapped too. This is a pivotal experience in the growth of forgiveness and compassion.
Reflecting on the eight-week preparation for the workshop and the event itself, I realise that it has been a powerful, transformative process. My attitude to the Church has been transformed.
‘Sincerity of intent’ and ongoing attention to that intent is crucial to transformation.
I allowed the process to evolve and ‘emerge’, trusting ‘organicity’ and my inherent wisdom. I had sought to develop compassion for myself and others, a broad endeavour. Then the theme of self-compassion emerged. During the first movement session of the workshop, the theme narrowed again, forgiveness of the Church emerging organically.
‘Pausing, letting go and letting be’, allowed my movement to ‘slow down’ and become relaxed. It created a restful spacious stillness, fertile ground for feelings of forgiveness to ‘emerge’.
Movement in the environment was crucially important in the transformation. The ‘holding and affordances’ which the environment offered were especially important. I remember particularly meeting the fox and finding the two stools. When I am fully present in nature, I can connect, embody and move with painful memories and feelings, holding them physically in my breath and body. I can be compassionate, releasing the feelings, no longer overwhelmed by them. Crucially, I am ‘held, witnessed and contained’ in the compassionate presence of nature. ‘Part of’ the environment; I ‘belong’ in it. The spaciousness and holding of the environment, particularly during the Tonglen practices, deepened my feelings, allowing me to be present (Tonglen is a powerful Buddhist meditation practice which is done to help us develop our compassion for our own suffering and the suffering of others).
For the first time during an environmental movement session, I offered loving kindness meditations. They ‘emerged’ from within, at the deserted cottage, ‘softening the armour’ surrounding my heart. I experienced compassion and forgiveness.
My attitude to the Church changed dramatically during this workshop. I had been angry, harsh and judgmental. Now I was softer, with a gentler understanding. This open-hearted compassion and forgiveness could not have emerged had I not moved in the environment in an ongoing intentional way, using embodiment, mindfulness and meditation.
Barbara Collins B.Soc.Sc. is a certified Sensorimotor psychotherapist who works with trauma and developmental issues, using embodiment, movement and mindfulness in an ecological context.
Ashe House website. Accessed 1 December 2014 from http://ashehouse.ie/.
Brach, T. (2012). True refuge. New York: Bantam Books.
Move into Life website. Accessed 1 December 2014 from http://www.moveintolife.com/. Rumi, J. (1995). The field. In The essential Rumi. C. Barks & J. Moyne (Trans.). New York: Harper Collins.