Clear language and clean relating are a passion for me, and they are rare in a world in which the layers of assumptions are often so thick that words, vocal inflections, and actions are rarely simply themselves. The clouds of our personal and collective histories can obscure direct communication, making it difficult to develop trust and a common language. A movement-based practice has profoundly influenced, aided, and inspired me in the realm of language and relating. The practice is called Authentic Movement, and it was created in the 1950’s by dancer Mary Starks Whitehouse, who helped found the field of dance therapy. Many dedicated teachers and practitioners have continued to further evolve and articulate this work, most notably dance therapist Janet Adler and Jungian Analyst/Dance Therapist Joan Chodorow. Both women lived for many years in Northern California, where Joan still practices; Janet now lives in British Columbia. Today, men and women in many professions all over the world practice Authentic Movement; though there are variations, at the root is a simple yet profound form.
The Form One or more persons fulfill the roles of witness and mover. These roles usually interchange within a session, except in a therapeutic context: in that case the client is the mover and the therapist/analyst is the witness. With a bell, gong, or similar sound-maker, the witness marks the agreed-upon beginning and end of a movement period. The witness sits at the periphery of the space; if there is a group of witnesses, they form a circle. The witness observes the mover, attending with all of her* faculties rather than solely with an analytical eye. She also pays attention to her own sensations, images, thoughts, feelings, and fantasies. In maintaining both inner and outer awareness, she is in fact witnessing both the mover and herself. The mover places himself in a part of the space to which he feels drawn, within view of the witness(es), and closes his eyes. His practice is to follow his internal impulses as they lead him into movement, sound, and stillness. In a group, if his movements become large, fast, or sharp, he either blinks rapidly or slightly opens his eyes, creating enough spatial awareness to protect himself and the other movers. Once his movements become more contained, he again closes his eyes. For the mover, anything may happen: she may lie on the floor, do acrobatics, howl or sing, approach or ignore the witness, and so on. From inside, her movements may feel anywhere from mundane to transcendent, and she may feel more or less directive or led. I experience this kind of moving as a very direct language in which any or all of my body’s cells might speak, using infinite dialects, inflections, and tonalities. Both roles in Authentic Movement are, for me, a form of active meditation in which I practice dropping preconceptions and ideas, opening instead to a flow of bodymind intelligence to which I offer my presence. That intelligence leads me in an embodied and sometimes blissfully thought-less receiving and expressing (or as a witness, acknowledging) of whatever emerges, moment by moment. Over time, the roles can blend and the distinctions between them blur: the role of witness can feel as satisfying a “movement” as that of mover, and a mover often develops a more compassionately neutral inner witness. After the movement sequence, usually the mover and witness sit together and speak about their experiences, from the very personal to the collective or transpersonal. In many Authentic Movement circles, the movers speak first, and if they express a strong desire to hear – or not – from the witnesses, that desire is respected. In others, the sharing of the witnesses and movers interweaves in a kind of storytelling form. This verbal component, especially the witness’ way of speaking, is very unusual in a movement practice and can be quite powerful. This is the basic form; within it are many variations, especially as regards the verbal component.
Speaking as a Witness The witness will usually refer (in some groups with permission) to specific actions of the mover or, if she is speaking about the larger collective, to events she saw or heard in the movement sequence. This provides everyone with a time/space referent. Then she shares her responses (sensations, feelings, imaginings, memories…) to the actions she perceived, making a distinction between the two. For instance, the witness might mention a physical event, such as, “I saw you cover your eyes with your hands,” and then describe a response: “I suddenly felt sad,” or “I imagined you were sad,” or even “my story was that you were unhappy,” (thus acknowledging the response as his own) or “I saw an Indian mystic saying her prayers,” (same) or “I remembered a gesture of my grandmother,” or “my chest felt tight at that moment.” In speaking, the witness’ intention is to find language through which she “owns” as much as possible her own physical sensations and perceptions, rather than making and expressing assumptions about the mover’s experience. The latter is what some Authentic Movers refer to as “projection,” a word borrowed from the psychoanalytic field, meaning “the attribution of one’s own attitudes, feelings, or suppositions to others.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.) “I imagined you were sad”, “I saw an Indian mystic”, and “my story was that you were unhappy” could be considered owned projections, as they tread the fine line – but still create a space – between perception and response. “You were sad” or “you became an Indian mystic” do not leave such space. The witness also seeks to be true to and speak clearly about her different forms of response: “I felt,” “I imagined,” “I remembered,” etc. When she says “I sensed” or “I felt,” she aims to speak truly about her own physical sensations and physical/emotional feelings, not her perceptions about the other – as in the common “I sense/feel that you…,” a form of projection that can take communication into really murky waters. If the mover appears to the witness elated or desperate or bored, the witness does not assume that his perception matches the mover’s experience. He makes a distinction between what he perceives and the meaning he makes of that perception. The witness naturally tends toward “I statements” as he speaks. This use of language is worlds away from and more physically rooted than the way most of us habitually speak. It is quite challenging to use the English language and refrain from projecting – I know from experience! We want to compliment someone, so we say, “you look so great,” or “you are so wonderful,” or “you make me feel so fabulous,” even though we mean to be talking about our own experience, not the other’s. We want to give empathy, and we say, “I feel that you are tired,” when in fact that is not a feeling. More inflammatory ordinary projections include, “I feel that you don’t love me” or “I sense you are not paying attention.” These are all projections, not “I statements.” One person’s responses to her perceptions, including a lifetime of culturally and personally-influenced interpretations, are stated as fact and overlaid on another’s experience. Often such statements are many layers away from the initial perception, and the focus is on “you.” A blatant example is, “don’t be sad/angry/sorry…,” which usually means “don’t feel that because I’m too uncomfortable when you do.” Most of us are constantly making assumptions and interpretations about others, partly because we’ve been trained to do so and perhaps also because we are natural storytellers making meaning for ourselves. In Authentic Movement the aim is to identify and name these stories or interpretations, not suppress them. Once named, stories can be a rich source of creative inspiration and/or exploration for the witness. He can learn about his own meaning-making and psychic/emotional life: “ I realize that this gesture implies sadness for me,” or “that was my sadness that I imagined was hers.” He can also unearth unconscious habits of language: “Oh, I just projected again!” The mover may or may not find the witness’ stories insightful, and she may or may not use these and the witness’ other responses to refine her own experience. The mover may contemplate, “Hmmm, sad? No,” or “Was my chest tight then? I realize it was.” As interpretations are acknowledged, the space between them and the original events, like the physical distinction between mover and witness, is more sharply defined.
I feel this space as a sacred emptiness, a tangible place of breath and light, a relief.
Untangling the Threads Within the “laboratory” of Authentic Movement, this exploration, examination, and refinement of language is experimental and evolving. Untangling the threads of habit demands a rigorous attending that can sometimes feel like repressive censorship. I find it important to remember that the aim here is to clarify both experience and language, to practice using words with care rather than suppress or superimpose one more form upon ourselves. Language and experience shape each other, and words are the external expression of how we are perceiving. When we use language filled with assumptions, we both express and perpetuate an underlying muddling of me/mine, you/yours, and the space in between. Interpreting or overlaying our stories on others’ experience (“You’re tired because…” or “Don’t feel that”) is perhaps the verbal/psychic equivalent of tossing our garbage on someone else’s porch. The latter is generally considered a violation of personal space. Yet this verbal form of invasion is socially sanctioned, rarely acknowledged, generally operates beyond individual and collective awareness, and can lead to much grosser levels of violation. It can be enlightening and sometimes shocking to notice in our own conversations and in the written, spoken, or sung word of the media how often “garbage-tossing” language is used. While I don’t know the origins of our presumptuous, you-oriented use of language, I think our verbal habits have been reinforced for centuries by religious, scientific, business, and social structures, including:
Several thousand years of disempowering religious practices in which religious leaders influenced or governed every aspect of life and death. The repression and negation of the sensual, of feelings, of expression. A science in which the observer manipulated the observed supposedly without being affected; the universe was full of fixed objects; truth was objective.
Military dehumanization. Slavery. A couple of hundred years of mechanization and ensuing disempowerment.
The development of Western medicine and the many other professions for which that has served as a model. People in these professions are expected and often expect themselves to have answers, and they find that their assumptions or story-making are not only sanctioned but encouraged.
The constant bombardment of “you need it” advertising. “You make me feel” music and a similar unclarity in films, TV shows, etc.
We’ve had a lot of training to think and talk the way we do. All of these elements have led us away from our own experience and from acknowledging our experience as only that. Letting go of our messy language habits takes commitment and a pretty major ego rearrangement, a shift of identity. In doing so, we can call upon the support of both new physics and some ancient spiritual traditions, both of which speak to us of an ever-changing, fluid world in which observer and observed have their unique identities and yet are constantly affecting each other. It is in this fluid world that we can, if we will, let our stories and interpretations float, neither right nor wrong. We can return again and again to physically-rooted experience as our source of language. Being able to access and act on that experience (what am I feeling… sensing… assuming?) is for most of us a matter of continuing education, even as we gradually discard our old verbal and psychic habits. To return to an earlier metaphor, language/psyche clean-up is perhaps like learning to sort, recycle, and compost our garbage. And just as most substance arises from and returns to Earth, thought and language bubble from and land back in our bodies. For that reason, the rooting of language exploration in physical experience is, I believe, essential. “Authentic Movement” is the name of one of many forms that exist for the investigation of language. I find it one of the most whole and balanced forms because it incorporates body, movement, voice, silence, language, presence, and witness, with much care and attentiveness to the human beings involved in this practice. For me the names of our forms for exploration matter little, but the physical element, the care, and a willingness to keep attending and questioning are essential. This is my passion, and I would be thrilled if you would join me in it. * In this article, I alternate the she/he pronouns as part of an ongoing exploration and refining of language, that it may more accurately reflect experience.