JOURNEYING WITH CANCER
For a while now people have been asking me to write about my experience of cancer. Laura Valenti (yourself a vibrant survivor you were the first -maybe we should do a dancing with cancer weekend?) and most recent inspiration has come from Grace Ekall who contacted me asking if she could interview me about the power of dance as a healing agent without knowing about my relationship with cancer. Maybe this can be posted on MastecMode Grace? Creative gestation seems always to have it’s own timing and so it’s taken a while. Here, now, is one version of the path I have walked for the last 23 years. Cancer is a word that tends to frighten people, as well as evoking all the grief they carry about those they have lost to the disease and I’ve needed to learn to discern who to tell what as I’ve travelled so that I could focus my attention of the essential, rather than being awash in other people’s emotional reactions. It seems to me that the important thing is a life so well lived that death can arrive not as a fearful demon but as the old friend you have lived with your whole life. The one who has always whispered in your ear, live wisely. Give love. All that said, are you sitting comfortably?
I was, or rather my cervix, was first diagnosed as pre-cancerous when I was age 30. I had just come out of the most emotionally abusive relationship I’d been in and in truth I do not think that these two things were disconnected. Although I wrote an undergraduate philosophy dissertation on the question of whether medicine is a useful pursuit, I’d also been raised (by a nurse) to believe that doctors know what they are doing, so it would be a while before I took my health entirely into my own hands. Asking the medics how having a third of the gateway to my womb removed was likely to affect childbearing, I was told that they didn’t know but advised to go ahead nonetheless. So I did.
A few days later whilst staying with friends (remember the drive to Tiverton hospital Fred Ehresmann?) I began to haemorrhage very badly. To say that I entered into an altered state of consciousness in the car on the way to hospital, as I alternately watched a bath towel becoming ever more blood soaked and the beautiful landscape outside the window is no exaggeration. Blood clot dislodging the doctors said and after a night in hospital home I went to carry on with my life. Thankful.
In the meantime I trained first as a social worker and then immediately afterwards as a family therapist, working in the mental health services with some of the worst distress on evidence in our society. It is probably worth saying that much of this was rooted in my ongoing attempts to process, heal and come to terms with my own trauma based in a childhood of being both witness and subject to emotional and physical family violence.
I also manifested my more personal dream of meeting and marrying my life partner, whom I had known for a long time I would travel to India with. When we came home we had a passenger on board and although I suffered from bleeding and a potential miscarriage, Faith Mandvi arrived two days after a solar eclipse on Friday the 13th, albeit six weeks early, in a very crowded delivery suite, amidst the kind of sociable energy that has followed her ever since. I was so relieved I didn’t really think too much about the role of an incomplete cervix in the proceedings and settled into life as a new and ecstatic mother.
A couple of years later I began developing a lump in the gland in my throat which for some months puzzled me, given its residence as a growing but completely pain free presence. What I didn’t know at that point is just how painless cancer is in its early growth stages. Fortunately for me a friend cut her foot at a festival and during her treatment by our GP friend, I asked if she had time for an extended surgery before the next gig we all wanted to go to. She advised me to see my doctor. A week later having been to my own GP I “knew” from both all that went unsaid in the room, alongside the very rapid appointment delivery to the local ear, nose and throat department that all was not at all well. The long process of emotional literacy education for the succession of doctor’s who were to become part of our lives, began with the New Zealander who seemed blissfully unaware that telling a breastfeeding mother that she most likely has lymphoma without any thought to cushioning the blow, began.
Breastfeeding, which I’d imagined would stop when Faith, my daughter, dictated, ended sooner than expected, replaced by chemotherapy. Not, however, accompanied by egg harvesting, as we decided that the Goddess was quite clearly taking a large hand in the unfolding proceedings and we decided, that under the circumstances, to give her the call on whether we would be adding a brother to the family at a later date. I say a brother simply because I had had a very clear communication from a soul who introduced me to Faith and her dad in a dream, some years earlier (at the end of the horrible relationship I mentioned at the beginning of this) and had always imagined he’d be joining us. Perhaps, I’d been wrong.
Chemotherapy, meant to take six months, took nine, continuing amidst regular debates with medics about the value of herbalism, homeopathy and diet, as I was regularly aghast at the serving of chemical laden meat to patients on cancer wards. Whilst arguments ensued over steroids and chemical treatments for “side-effects” when, as a conscious dancer, I would let my body shake with fear in ways that hospital staff struggled not to jump on with IV tubing. Gradually though, they began to enjoy the raucous laughter that came from my visitors on treatment days and they began to ask me about my (clearly non-mainstream) belief systems. I rather suspect it was an education for all concerned.
I decided meantime to relate to my illness as a prolonged Buddhist tonglen meditation, transforming all the emotional toxins I’d been absorbing at work, which seemed to me to be as useful a story as any and nine months of light breaths and rat poison later, I was fit to return to life as 'normal'.
In spite of my consultants huge disapproval, bless his cotton socks, our son arrived in 2004, some years after I watched the Twin Towers collapsing and wondered whether chemo would proceed apocalypse or not. He was not just six weeks early but a full two months and there is little doubt that either of us would have survived without antibiotics and the superb special care provided for him, with a little help from the water elementals. Life is really rather miraculous. If one thing is clear to me it is that it’s ‘rules’ are not defined by medical science and that despite many of our efforts to the contrary, both life and death still cling to some territory beyond the parameters of our many control mechanisms. Louey, who first introduced himself on the dream plane, is 13 in August.
A year after he was born however, after what I imagined would be a routine pap smear, one of the new GP’s in our surgery (whom I had never met before and who didn’t know me at all) called me in to tell me that ‘my disease’ was back again, in my womb this time and that given the fact that I had two children now and was ‘clearly’ suffering from a lot of anxiety (I don’t think he had heard of the concept of emotional projection at that point) that the best course of action was a rapid hysterectomy and HRT treatment.
Having been an active pagan for many years I view my womb as the seat of my power as a womban. Not really fancying being an “an”, I declined his offer and we set to digging a big hole in our back garden, which we wove a willow dome over and draped in the first power animals who ever spontaneously visited me in my 20’s, the dolphin pods. For the next 13 full moons I gathered (etherically) with a group of shamanic friends, one of whom was an airline steward and was sometimes in Mexico, sometimes in Japan and only occasionally up the road in Wiltshire. It was not uncommon for us to see the same visions on those nights.
18 months later I allowed the medical professional to do a biopsy. One of my recurring visions during the proceeding months had been of a set of concentric squares. I’d never seen them before and had no reference points for them. The morning of surgery I turned the page of a book and there they were…a legacy from Bon Po shamanism, the precursor to Buddhism, symbolizing the gateway to the other worlds. My biopsy returned clear, as I rather suspected it might.
It is currently illegal to say that we have cured ourselves of cancer and perhaps given the enormous vulnerability that accompanies the disease, this is, as it needs to be in order to protect the desperate from any who might seek to exploit them. I have known a couple of other women over the last few years, as well as the infamous Steve Jobs, who have travelled down alternative paths and been taken behind the veil rather than staying in this world. My own father on the other hand was diagnosed with terminal cancer at one stage when he was still this side of life and with the help of radiotherapy and sitting by his nearest stream (or burn as we call it in Scotland) told me that he had been slaying the demons that had haunted him since he had nursed his own mother through the disease. He had another ten years after that and continued to write several more books. Quite how these things work I do not claim to know. I do however know that they are not quite so straightforward as many mainstream medics like to think. Life and death yet remain a mystery. Perhaps the most interesting learning for me was during a time that I was having stem cell treatment and felt at my weakest, connected here by the thread that came from my small daughter’s heart. Friend’s would come and go, full of attachments to this and attachments to that. I could almost see them shimmering in the air around them. I saw that attachments, or what we might call desires or intentions, take energy. A system in transition between life and death doesn’t have that kind of energy at its disposal anymore. So that, ‘all we need to do’ when we reach that portal is let go. The really important thing is to make sure you have loved and dreamed and laughed and given as much as you possibly can during the brief flash of beauty we call life. And then, when the time comes, you can let go with grace, knowing you squeezed every ounce of juice from the fruit you were given when you arrived. Hopefully leaving sprinkles of fairy dust, kindness, gentleness, inspiration and joy in your wake.
P>S And as if to prove its point just as I finished the latest edits on this piece, the universe presenting as my oldest friend, phoned, on a break from the bedside of another old acquaintance who is dying of cancer, whilst his daughter has gone from that household to that of her grandmother’s bedside, holding yet another captive of the disease. We talked about this very particular landscape…he saying he doesn’t know much about it, me as someone who knows the map quite well…death is all around - a constant companion to life. Knowing this how does that change your day?
With Love and Blessings,
Within the Movement Medicine map or mandala, as we like to call it, the place of accepting what is, is the energy we describe as yin. Accepting and acknowledging what is, usually represents the healthiest place to move from - as feeling this, whether in body, mind and heart, in relationship or collective culture and honestly admitting to our condition takes us out of denial, avoidance and fantasy into the present moment. If have a sore leg, I may need to dance slowly. If my heart is heavy I may need to cry or express some anger, if my mind is yacking ten to the dozen I may need to carefully tune into to what it is so agitated about and begin to tend carefully to its messages. If a relationship no longer serves me I may need to communicate or end it. If we as a society are steeped in violence, consumerism and mental illness, we may need to look deeper into the shared dreams that are creating these realities. This is where the application of our yang energy can come in. Some conditions may need yet more receiving or yin, whilst others require our focused effort, intention and lots and lots of small steps in order for us to change them. This next piece of the Movement Medicine map, encapsulated by the title, Focus, Intend, Direct - Embodying Yang, will involve looking at one area of our lives and our current 'model of' relating to it, as it is, before looking at our ‘model for’ and what we would like to manifest, before committing to at least one small step that can begin to move us towards where we would like to be. I believe that it was Lao Zu who said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. Let’s put our best foot forward together. See you on the dance floor. Love, Ali.
I have a dear friend from America whose strap line is love more, fear less, float more, steer less. Given the education system that most of us in the West are encultured within, his sentiments are, to say the very least, pretty counter-culture. From the Enlightenment and industrialisation onwards we pretty much decided that control was to be our modus operandi...a big part of which was also encoded in the new idea that the earth was not full of spirits and local dieties but rather a resource to be used. Cyclical natural time was out, clock time was in.
Within such an environment we are often expected to know from our heads what to do next, often with very little reference to our bodies, as well as to press on, regardless. Allow, accept, embrace, will at least provide an afternoon to immerse your awareness in your body...to allow her or him to begin a dialogue with you that you may have been too busy for. This difficulty with listening and hearing that many of us experience at some stage of our lives, can then, often translate itself into various kinds illness, both emotional and physical.
The encouragement will then, be to accept what you find in there and invite it into movement and in doing so, embrace and welcome it, yourself, in all the various manifestations of your body, heart, mind. We will also give attention to the other aspect of yin that we tend to not only ignore, but abuse within current systems, that of the earth under us. Willingness to develop a relationship with the earth as a living, sentient system, can illuminate a world of support, holding and mutual tenderness, that we often have no idea is even there, listening to every word, deed and action. But she is.
Clearly at some stage the woman on the beach in this photograph will need to take action in order to avoid being drowned by the incoming tide. :-) And of course, too much acceptance has a shadow, of passivity and permissiveness. True fire, or what we call healthy yang, often needs a good solid base before it can be employed safely and we'll be looking at that in June, before dancing with the marriage between yin and yang in July. This May though we begin where we are, the only home we'll have...our bodies on the earth...embraced by the divine mother or great mama...If you need a little love, join me. <3 <3
"As many of us are acutely aware, we currently face enormous challenges both at home and abroad. For millennia the stories that we humans have told about our connection to the miracle and the mystery of our existence on planet earth have been part of what has helped us - both to transmute our suffering and connect with a source of wisdom bigger than ourselves. We humans can get very attached to our stories though and sadly one of the greatest human tragedies is the kind of separation and division that leads us to forget that underneath all religious and spiritual traditions is the same illumination. That there is one common unifying thread binding us all together – that of love. As well as telling stories, the other thing that humans have always done is danced. Movement Medicine is a contemporary expression of this ancient inheritance.
Growing up in a Christian culture I always thought that the ten commandments were pretty sound. The problem was how to actually embody them. Years ago as a child I did actually send this query out into the Universe only to have the angels send me dance. I have danced ever since I was a child, knowing, that doing so could quite literally, move me from one state to another. Much later, beginning as a very distressed and angry young woman, ‘conscious dance’ became the place where I was able to learn how to reach peace and stillness, through the gateway of movement. Dance is where I find the strength to carry on through life’s pains, disappointments and challenges; where I commune with others most deeply; where I can hear the voice of my soul and see most profoundly into the beauty within others. My engagement with dance as a practice over 25 years is how I have learned to open my heart and listen to the other. Dance is where, in touching the depth of my own humanity, I am able to feel, both my similarity and difference from others, my connection and my contribution.
I teach Movement Medicine quite simply because I see how much peace, love, strength to face an often tough world, listening and being willing to really see each other’s essential beauty are needed in the world. Over and over, I have seen and felt apparently irreconcilable conflicts drop away in the heart of the dance. Dance as practice brings profound healing. If we are to survive, we need all the help we can get – Movement Medicine is one of my offerings to this process of attempting to open to each other.
In light of the increasing division within the many and varied peoples of our British Isles and beyond, The Golden Egg Love Fest is taking action to embody the practice of love and unity within diversity, by gathering musicians, creatives, healers, celebrants and dancers from many traditions, who remember the golden thread.This will be the first inter-faith gathering of its kind to take place in a Mosque in Britain and perhaps anywhere in the world. I am privileged to have been asked to assist Keef in creating this platform of celebration for that which unites us. Having taught together for a while in Devon, we will be running a co-created session on Sunday evening before the closing circle and the arrival of the mystical dragon Lord...accompanied by live musicians. Can't wait to meet and greet all the therapists and stall holders I've been e-mailing with for weeks. So many gratitudes to all who are giving their time and energy for the good of the whole. See you soon beloveds!"
Find The Golden Love Fest on Facebook.
I grew up around a lot of anger. Dinner plates would be thrown, furniture upturned, my mother forcibly ejected from the house in the dead of night. I learned to duck, dive and run, as well as becoming very adept at cleaning mess up. This last was part of my attempt to appease the fire gods. I wasn’t always successful, if often at all really and at times I felt the need to place myself directly in the line of fire in order to protect my mother.
One of the many effects of all this was the development of what we refer to in psychological terms as hyper-vigilance, though I was later to reframe this as the kind of shamanic super sensitivity that can pick up the subtlest cues from the surrounding environment. Children growing up with violence, abuse and addictions of various kinds, often become adults who are highly attuned to what is going on around them in ways that others are completely unaware of. Being able to read the emotional weather is, literally, a survival skill that children living in such contexts, often have, of necessity, to develop. And indeed this can become so highly attuned it tips over into the realms of what we tend to call the psychic, or unseen realms. One of the other consequences of growing up in such an environs can also tend to be having a very extended personal energy field (what we call in Movement Medicine our circle) that can make it very tricky to distinguish which feelings belong to you and which to others. It’s an intense early training ground in interconnection in some ways, as you learn the hard way that what effects one effects all. Very useful skill set for reading energy fields, not so helpful for maintaining a personal boundary. Although my favourite ever quote on the subject comes from Medicine Woman Jamie Sams, who says that sometimes life blows a hole in some folks, so that spirit can blow through.
By my late teens I was afraid of other people to the point of crippling paranoia and by my early twenties, so depressed that most days I would need to retreat into the dream space for repair. Life has an uncanny knack of sending us just what we need though. I was gifted with meeting a remarkable group of theatre practitioners and began co-counselling, various kinds of body work therapies and the study of shamanism. In my late twenties my prayers also brought me to the dancing path, by which time my commitment to living a life based in joy was reasonably well rooted, even if still challenging. Sometime last year I decided to conduct a series of rituals, with the intention of strengthening my personal circle through the elements.
I began with Earth, making a beautiful circle from flint and heather and bracken, as my lovely husband gently drummed in the bright, late summer sun. To be honest it was the visual, artistic process around this that was most potent for me in this sphere. I later made images combining this ‘installation’ with previous images of journey’s I’ve done with tree spirits that delighted me, so it seemed that in the earth element I simply revelled in the sheer joy of creation.
Fire though, that would be a different matter. Remember my early relationship with anger? The very next day after the fire circle was cast, meditated and danced in, I had some visitors. The truth was that I was too tired for visitors that day but failing to say so I allowed them to arrive into a space where I had limited resources to offer. Reflecting back on this I have made a note to self but I’ve also found myself pondering on how such matters translate when we begin to look at it on a collective level, involving say refugees. I haven’t got an answer but I can’t help feeling like I’d love to explore some kind of public ‘metalogue’ around this subject. Personally I know that there are times when I need to say no and to express what we in personal growth work call a boundary. As someone whose conditioned state falls on the political left of the spectrum I tend towards the radical idea of dismantling all geographical boundaries on the collective level but when I recall my personal needs I realise that maybe that wouldn’t work out so well. I wonder if perhaps this is one the arena’s where the conventional distinctions between the traditional political left and right may begin to melt if we started taking a common sense approach to the questions of how we care for self and others simultaneously on the collective level,though I doubt it’s a problem that can truly be addressed without significant wealth re-distribution. I digress though.
So anyway, back to the day after my fire circle ritual. One of my visitors was someone for whom emotional resources and support given from within our household would appear to have made a significant difference to her household’s wellbeing in the last few years. That day however a process unfolded wherein rather than simply taking responsibility for a decision she needed to make she became entangled in a past story (this was clearly acknowledged at a later stage) in which I was cast as the villain of the piece. I became a dark and dangerous figure who she feared may ‘curse’ her. I had a whole number of responses, including feeling hurt, unseen and in need of protection. At the same time I became aware of what strange notions can develop when we are known to work shamanically. It also provoked a long reflective process about what it means to curse someone in contemporary Western culture. Basically, I concluded that I think it means to give voice to a story line in which we inaccurately attribute negative motives or personality traits to someone else. I also think that medical diagnosis in both the generic and mental health services can function as a kind of curse or long term narrative that can be difficult for people to get out from underneath.
Nonetheless, we’ve all assigned 'negative' motives and descriptions to others. Sometimes naming something accurately forms part of an important process of discernment, decision-making and important change, sometimes the threads of past and present become entangled, as we weave repetitive story lines in which we cast ourselves as victims and others as perpetrators! And sometimes our ongoing plot line is so pervasive that we become disconnected from the wider reality’ in front of us and treat others as projection screens for our movie.
For me the aforementioned scenario gave me an opportunity to communicate my personal boundaries and to make a stand on behalf of my ‘own’ story and reality, so although I found it an emotionally and spiritually unpleasant experience, I also saw it as a very immediate feedback loop from my fire circle ritual. I communicated in a way I felt to be clear and respectful, the projection was reeled back in very swiftly and gracefully and I considered this a good result. The Universe was far from finished with me however. Over the next few months I seemed to encounter a regular supply of situations that required saying no. I engaged with this with as much clarity and as little drama as I could muster and had a whole string of clear, respectful responses. So far, so good.
I’ve also had what I’m tempted to describe as failures. Times when my no has not been respected no matter how clearly or often expressed and I’ve exploded like a firework…adolescent daughters are wonderful teachers in this area. The upside is that in spite of the shame I feel when I fail to live up to my own values, I seem to be in a slow learning process around how to witness my own trauma triggers and communicate more clearly about my needs in highly charged exchanges. I’m also learning (as many of us in parenting roles do) about repair, forgiveness and compassion.
Meantime, there’s been an ongoing situation, unfolding over many years, where I’ve found it too challenging to what I perceive as the fragile balance of interconnected diversity in my wider family system to just say it how it is. One such scenario recently arrived at a point where enough was quite simply enough and boundaries around two apparently irreconcilable sets of values needed to be stated. What do we do with apparently totally oppositional values from our own when there seems no will to find resolution? How do we respond to racism, homophobia, pro-lifers, bring back hanging advocates, rigid fundamentalism or just the simple adoption of the I’m right/You’re wrong position, that seems to have lost all colour in the spectrum other than black and white - especially when it arrives in your front room? I guess that one of the amazing gifts of family is that we have to stick with conversations that we just might not even be prepared to entertain elsewhere. Though we have hot spots in my family system where communication has ground to a complete stand still and the best that we can do is offer each other the space to exist on our own terms. Again, on a collective level, it’s the places where we can’t manage this that we have war or violent eruptions over reality and value clashes.
Just so nobody gets the impression that I myself am immune to either black and white thinking, casting someone else as the villain in my drama or justifying my own need to discharge and direct my anger as someone, I’ve sat in that place in the circle too whilst I’ve been asking Grandfather Fire to come and instruct me. Retrospectively I can see that I was triggered in such a way that I began to impute negative motive where there was none. In a context in which I had already reached my frustration tolerance, I began to feel unheard, undervalued and excluded from a decision making process in which I had a ‘right’ to have my voice heard. Before you could say Jack Robinson (don’t ask me where that came from) I was furious, full of blame and that kind of righteous anger that ‘knows’. None of this is easy to own up to, especially in public. I don’t want to be pidgeon-holed or judged and yet somehow my urge towards transparency feels healthier than my desire to hide. I was expressing my shadow. It's human. At the time this happened, I had another high stress situation unfolding in my life. I can’t speak for the other person but over a period of many years I have gradually come to the conclusion that conflict often occurs at the meeting point of two wounds. Fortunately for me, I apologised and the other party graciously accepted this.
Interestingly, I too needed to make a ‘complaint’ about what I perceived as disrespectful treatment from someone I’d been working with, who took full responsibility and apologised very gracefully. But just as my elemental cycle morphed from fire to water I also experienced one another situation in which the do-er and the do-ee became very confused in the communication process, neither apology nor grace seemed to make the slightest difference and the only element which could sooth the scorched earth was flowing water.
In other words I felt very hurt and distressed in the communication process and having made an intention to make my water circle on the coming Sunday I found myself crying for two days over finding myself at the receiving end
of anger which seemed closed to all attempts to appease, apologise or make amends for behaviour on my part which had no malevolent intent within it but was at worse a product of a lack of clarity and exhaustion on my part.
Invoking fire as a teacher has been an intense process. Once I was able to step into a reflective space and contemplate all that had unfolded I could see that fire had indeed responded magnificently to place me in every
position around the wheel of conflict, enabling me to experience victim, perpetrator, and rescuer, as well as skilful diplomat and assertive but agreeable boundary setter. As someone interested in astrology I gather that there has been a lot of planetary activity involving Mars and others in
oppositions and retrograde activity during this time.
Whilst I wouldn’t be keen to repeat it again in a hurry, I’ve learned a lot from it. Anger, or fire, when it is functioning in a healthy way, arises in the present and quite simply functions as a way to maintain our personal integrity. That said, people encountering each other in such interactions
don’t always come into them as “equals”- there may be age, class, gender, race and contextual power differences, that make clean interactions very problematic. Most of us have experienced this on many occasions in our lives, from childhood onwards, where our shadow patterns are often wired in. When we don’t take time to become conscious of our backlog anger and/or our stories or habitual roles, then we have the world we live in on a daily basis, one in which we often dishonour each other through the inappropriate dumping of old toxins on sometimes unsuspecting passersby. I know that one of my own patterns is to repress the expression of my anger, store it up and then explode. I don’t want to upset the apple cart, suffer through disharmony or risk relationships and yet over many years I have also learned that holding back on my authentic feelings
oftentimes leads to eventual disruption in relationships anyway. I can’t help feeling that conflict resolution and non-
violent communication should be core elements of our school curriculum. Until such time as it is my own commitment is
to continuing the hard emotional labour of clearing up my own backyard, working on my capacity for personal responsibility and intending a general stance of forgiveness for the beautiful, crazy soup we call humanity…
Often when I dance I will have images come to me that demand manifestation, or birth, with me as a conduit for their arrival. One of the ultimate ironies of this was that at school I was branded F for Fail as an artist and in spite of the fact that I used to go into art shops just to gaze at the paints I didn't dare to use, the culture around me had decided that I was no artist, because I couldn't draw. I was also told that my ambitions to be a performer were unrealistic and that people like me don't go into work like that, that I couldn't sing, that dancing in front of others was showing off and that I was too much of a day dreamer. Somehow I kept hold of my inner flame and whenever anyone asked me what I was going to do when I grew up I always told them I was going to be an actress.
There was one particular theatre company I was taken to see often as a child and by some strange twist of fate (or perhaps law of attraction) I ended up meeting some of them in a completely different context in my early twenties just as I was finishing a degree in philosophy...I decided to take voice lessons with one of them and within six months she had cast me in a lead role in one of her productions. Within two years I had an equity card, was professional, touring abroad and in a bar in Canada with Kenneth Brannagh...the point being how important it is not to allow other people to define your dreams or your creativity for you. I also spent a lot of time being unemployed in a very up and down lifestyle which was in many ways pretty challenging but mirrored my own lack of inner stability at the time.
During this period my then boyfriends sister-in-law decided I needed a "job". Unusually for me as you may gather I obeyed and found myself employed as a drama worker with various groups of people...with social, emotional, mental and physical challenges...Another twist emerged, as I was told that half my work would be teaching art, to which I quickly replied, "Erm, I DON"T THINK SO!!!" To which I was told not to be silly. So, wanting to keep my newly acquired employment I took myself off to the library and the art shop and began teaching myself things I thought were accessible...like jewellry and mask making and when people told me they COULDN"T POSSIBLY, I just used to smile and say I couldn't until yesterday either, let's just give it a go...It's funny that writing this I realise that my own disempowerment by the culture around me, which included ancestral wounding of the other women artists in my mother's family...has enabled me to share the ground of empowerment with others...because I'm really not shitting you when I tell you I once believed I was no artist. Now I know that I'm no Picasso but I don't think that's really the point. My experience tells me, like the great Gabrielle Roth told us, that art is a portal to growth and that what might begin as a way just to survive our pain, as my acting certainly was in my 20's, can, if we dare to dream, become our bliss and our power. I am passionate in my belief that WE ARE ALL ARTISTS...dancers, poets, singers, musicians, crafts people, weavers and dreamers....the problem being that in making art into commodity our culture has robbed so many of us of our birthright - the sheer joy of creating...Creation for All Our Relations! ♥♥ Ali :-)
The Grim Reaper. Not true. The circumstances of his/her arrival often have many elements of humour attached to them that our melodramatic approach
occludes from view. Death’s head, nasty piece of work, to be avoided at all costs. Again, debatable. Could be viewed more accurately as a kind of Cosmic Gardener, burning rubbish, transforming waste into compost and encouraging next year’s growth via a bit of judicious pruning from time to time. Quite chatty really if you take the time required to make her acquaintance properly.
Death After Life. Sort of true, but not quite. The linear view has promoted considerable fear and paranoia. Popular speculation has it that you live and then you die. Most definitely not the case. Each life contains many lives and
many deaths, woven together, creating change. Some, the walking dead, do not notice that they are in fact living the very thing they fear. Death. A much maligned and misunderstood process in linear reality. Those who fear it most have a tendency to generate it most enthusiastically. Nuclear weapons Industrialists. Warmongers. Other flotsam and getsam dominated by the terrestrial brain.
Terrestrial brain: coined by Robert Anton Wilson. Limited Homo Sapiens conditioning, prevalent on Planet Earth in the 21st century. On it’s way out. Demonstrated by disputes over territory; who owns what and whose whatever is biggest, fastest and strongest; coercion, both physical and psychic; ongoing attempts to imprint one reality map onto the human psyche, currently proving to be quite a game.
Death. Does it mean explosion, implosion or expansion? Large numbers of the human species are beginning to tap into the possibility that we have not even begun to understand the capabilities of the human psyche. Experiences such as telepathy, synchronicity, astral travel, magic, UFO contact, as well as altered states, shamanism and tantric sexuality, etc, etc, are precursors of a shift in awareness from the terrestrial brain to the ‘extraterrestrial’, wherein humanity will make a huge accelerated shift in consciousness. Perhaps the death that is feared is the death of the limited, microscopic reality map that has dominated planet Earth for the last ten minutes.
Standing on the edge,
Over the abyss,
I throw my voice,
Like a rope,
As it snakes across,
Where falls my prayer?
Asking which bead turns,
On the eternal wheel.
Pausing with baited breath,
For the moment,
When the prayers answer,
Like a flock of geese,
Or wave after wave of echoing voices,
Returning from the other side,
Bouncing from rock to rock, and always,
Letting us all know we are never alone.
That we never go unheard,
When we cry out,
Or call for an answer,
Ask for help,
Or an end to the search.
Sometimes the moments stretch on forever,
Was ever asked in the first place,
The reply comes as a shock,
Or a surprise,
Cast upon awestruck eyes,
For the truth,
You see ,
Appears in many a guise.
For this I know,
A question never goes unheeded
And you are not alone!
It’s been an interesting week. As a Movement Medicine apprentice teacher I taught a class on Friday night in Exeter on Mind and then got up at the crack of dawn to go and assist Rosie Perks on Hearts and Bones in Bristol. Many moons ago I was most taken with Gabrielle Roth’s idea that life presents us with mirrors that we can look into for reflection of just where our life is at and what it is we need to be learning and taking action on – for years I had such a deep distrust of actual flesh and blood people that I preferred my mirroring to come from nature, which always felt pure, non-threatening, as well as both loving and affirming. I had the misfortune (from some angles) as a
child to live in a household in which the adults would regularly erupt into firey and violent conflict. I was terrified a lot of the time on a very primal level. I learned to be super alert, (what psychologists call hyper-vigilant and shamans and such would describe as reading the energy field) to duck, dive, become invisible and when required, run. I had the great good fortune however to live next to a woodland, so that whenever life was just too much off I’d go to the woods. Most of my best mothering came from a big beech tree – I’d climb into her arms and weep until I felt better and then I’d climb down and listen to the land, who would tell me things, sending me omens, instructions and sufficient words of love and comfort for me not to go irredeemably and permanently bat shit crazy.
One day, as a girl, I spotted these two enormous beasts in the distance. I thought that they were dogs to begin with, but as they came closer I realized that they were hares – boxing hares. Could they move – huge legs flailing, front legs, boxing. They came closer and closer, actually dancing around me in a circle, as I stood awestruck and breathless, before they disappeared up an embankment behind me. I only had the realization this week that they were both males – “competing” for a female – which was exactly what all the violence in our house was about at the time. Abuse, infidelity and no emotional resources. Years later I read that the Goddess sends the hare as messenger to her chosen priestesses –they are of course also associated with the lunacy of the moon – which included my mother’s psychosis in my early life. I’ve breathed that myth, of the luna(r)tic priestess, deep into my bones as a healing story. And as part of the journey, in spite of the fact that I don’t really believe in the whole mental health labeling thing, I spent over ten years working in the psychiatric service as a
family therapist. I was, as best as I could, involved in trying to recycle my own pain and suffering in ways that might benefit the greater good. The truth is that as someone who started down the “plant path” at 16 when my later to become deeply alcoholic cousin gave me my first joint, I was also throughout all this time still immersed in my own addictive patterns, from smoking marijuana, until I got cancer at 35 and codeine painkillers, which are a bit like a synthetic opiate. Oh and suffering and drama. Believe you me, there’s an endless stream of our suffering in the world, for us to look into. But none of you need me to tell you that.
So to return to the mirrors thing, this last week, I’ve had some really interesting ones around. The theme seems to be
honesty and transparency about addiction. I’ve always believed that the truth sets us free. And I guess that we function at different levels of ability to embody it at different times in our lives. Last year Rob Porteous and I ran some workshops in Bristol on the chambers of the heart. On Friday Rob sent me an article which had appeared in the newsletter written by Colin, who had had his first experience of Movement Medicine in Bristol with us. It is one of the most searingly honest pieces of writing I’ve read for quite some time. He is writing, partly about addiction. Derrick Jensen, “A Language Older than Words”, who writes about the connections between the abuse that happens in our families with the way we abuse our beautiful Mother Earth, through our addictive consumption patterns, has a similar kind of unrelentingly honest voice. This is what has happened and is happening in life, this is how I feel about it, there you go. No bollocks, as Colin said. I suggested
to Rob that maybe we could use that as a publicity strap line, “Rob and Ali - No Bollocks”. Except it wouldn’t be entirely true.
On Saturday in Bristol, at lunchtime, someone commented that they had been turned down for a psychotherapy training because they were considered to have had too much early trauma and I heard myself saying I wish someone had said that to me. Maybe not though, as somehow or other maybe my focus on service has helped to redeem me. I also talked with Raggi, a recently ‘retired’ human rights lawyer about madness and addiction. And then on the way back in the car, another friend was, in her one of a kind fashion, begging us to stop at the services so she could get some KFC, some booze and fags. It was a laugh but it was also so fucking refreshingly honest in what I can experience as the self-righteous purism of “personal growth circles” where sometimes I haven’t dared tell the truth about what I really think (that’s me being what my 15 year old calls being judgie). The other thing about Colin’s piece of writing, was that it talked about class a lot, whether you’re posh or not. My dad grew up in abject poverty and carried equality as one of his passions, one inheritance I’m proud to continue. He worked very, very hard though my dad and so by the time I had moved into awareness of the world and it’s
social structures, we were distinctly middle class. One of the big things about being middle class is in my experience, about how things look. It has to look good. You have to succeed at your exams. You have to do well so as not to let people down. You must look competent, clever and together, no mater what the mess of the internal reality. I was totally bonkers after 19 years of that I tell you. One face presented to the outside word and something else entirely going on behind closed doors. It made me pretty crazy. I was blessed though. The beech trees sent me good people. The river cared about my fate. The hares tutored me. The dance when I found it at 27, allowed me to begin the long journey of coming home. Part of my truth is also that with three generations of addiction in my ancestral lineage from people thrown from the lands of Ireland and the Highlands, (the process of land clearing associated with industrialization that continues all over the world to this day) I have struggled with the attempt to clear the way of that pain of dismemberment for those who come after me.
I’ve smoked too much weed, medicated my pain and got drunk at times when I lost clarity and felt overwhelmed by my own inadequacies. I am a deeply flawed human being. We are I believe, all deeply flawed, as part of the gig of being human. We are somehow, also, in spite of our flaws, so much more. I love being in the presence of honesty. It inspires me. It opens my heart. It reminds me above all else that we’re all doing our best. With my other hat as an academic researcher on, I was at a seminar at Exeter Business School on Tuesday on Spiritual Leadership – in the very heart of the industrialization machine. A man got up to talk. He told us about how his fundamentalist background as a child had damaged him, setting him on a course of insatiable hunger and self-destruction….drugs, drink, sex, power. And then three things happened simultaneously. He hit rock-bottom, he found transcendental meditation and he became the CEO of a company on the brink of financial liquidation. As he began to turn his life around, the company too returned to health, developing in the process, a new set of ethics. In a normally very heady, intellectually competent, environment you could have heard a proverbial pin drop. We were in the presence of heart and we all knew it. The heart is honest. It says I’m a bit fucked up but I’m trying and
the trying improves things. I reckon we’re all a bit fucked up and the older I’ve got the more I’ve come to understand that
we’re all trying – no matter how it might look. Anyone can have an epiphany at any time, CEO or potato peeler, and in the meantime there’s just so much raw material for practicing forgiveness. That and no bollocks.
Hearing about One Tribe Dance’s aspirations a few months ago, I felt inspired to contact Amara and tell her how happy I was to hear of the intention to create a platform where the conscious dance community could come together
regardless of the specifics of their particular modality. Hearing that I have spent the last five years writing a PhD on embodiment and the sacred, Amara asked me if I would write a blog on embodiment. Not long after I found the
photograph to the left here, hidden amongst some old papers. It was taken 23 years ago, on my first 5 Rhythms workshop, when I was 27. A few days later I came across the photograph underneath and was immediately struck, by both
the similarities and the differences, in evidence in the two photographs. In a way they remind me of those diet adverts I hate so much, that use before and after pictures. Except that for me, these two photographs illustrate something
about what the process of what “before and after” embodiment has involved in my life.
In the first photograph I am on my tiptoes, reaching, almost
desperately from the look on my face, for...something. To my mind, I look afraid and unconvinced that the world is a particularly safe place. Indeed, having come from a family background of domestic violence, I was holding, what I now understand to be at least several generations of unprocessed trauma within my body. I hurt – everywhere – in my body, my mind and my heart. I was also, as I believe many humans are, underneath our conditioned states, a creature of a deep sensitivity to the world (s) around me. Determined to find a way, some way, any way, to break
free of what I perceived as the strictures of mainstream culture, this was a sensitivity I sought to protect and foster, by immersing myself in the kinds of consciousness altering activities common to certain enclaves within the counter-culture. Which is another way of saying that I was “stoned” pretty much most days. While I learnt an enormous amount from what I would now refer to as teacher plants, it also seems quite clear to me that the decade I had spent consistently engaging in these sorts of activities wasn't particularly grounding for me - so much so,
that if I had to apply a one word description to the first photograph here, it would probably be escape. I look at it and I see my deep unhappiness, my desire to flee the world and my tortured relationship with my own body written all over it. The creation of the body painting hung behind me had at that point in time, tapped me into such a deep reservoir of pain that it catapulted me into an experience of rage and grief that I feared would never subside. I revisited those landscapes time and again over the coming years on the dance floors that I chose to be the ground for my transformation into what I hoped would be a happier form of embodiment. Eventually, as my body was given the opportunity to tell her stories of the suffering that had been experienced down her ancestral lines, they morphed into gifts that enabled me to begin to serve others engaged in the alchemists task of turning lead into gold.
I have no idea what you will see as you look at the two photographs shown here and of course I have no real desire to prescribe what you see, but just like those other before and after photo’s I have mentioned, I’m convinced that they
act as a good advert for what might be gained from following the conscious dancer’s take on embodiment. In the second photograph, my feet are firmly planted on the earth. I’m still reaching, so obviously there is something of a motif here and I’m aware that these days this reaching movement in my dance tends to connect me, very fast to an ecstatic relationship with what I like to refer to as Great Spirit. Gabrielle Roth is reported to have suggested that integration of our pain (or what we might otherwise call our shadow) means that what, at the beginning of our healing journey, is our neurosis, has
the potential to become our style, or some kind of recognisable signature of our unique expression. Relationship with that which lies beyond the known world
is still a very important facet of my life. These days though, it functions as a source of nurture and support for my deep engagement with the grounded reality of the here and now, everyday world, rather than as a means of escape. The piece of art depicted in the second photograph, rather than being
an expression of my pain (valid and necessary though that was at the time) was co-created with my life partner, as part of an environmental campaign to save our local estuary from the tragic fate of becoming a shopping centre.
Part of my journey with becoming embodied, here and now, in this world, has also involved really opening to all the pain
and destruction that is currently taking place in our increasingly environmentally challenged world - feeling and expressing it, in as many creative forms as I can find time for - dance, poetry, art, song and my academic work and engaging that creative process in service of all our relations. No longer seeking to escape the deep reservoirs of grief that live alongside my immense love and passion for this beautiful planet, I have discovered that the light to the shadow of suffering is ecstatic embodiment, in the present, with all the flaws, frailties and bejewelled fragilities of what it is to be fully human.
This last year my husband and I have been organising a series of fundraising land art and dance events to raise money for The Pachamama Alliance in Ecuador in their endeavours to protect and preserve both the rainforest and the traditional way of life of those who have lived there for many, many generations. This has been done under the umbrella of the annual 72 hour Long Dance organized by the School of Movement Medicine. My third long dance, this was also my most peaceful, as I had the great good fortune to experience an extended state of grace, as my mind quietened and my heart opened ever wider. I also realized that really even after 23 years of conscious dance practice I am but a beginner in my quest to be embodied. Who knows what might be possible with another 23 years practice.
Ali Young is both a published poet and academic, with book chapters in collections on
embodiment published by
Routledge, as well as a
variety of academic papers.