If Rolfing’s taught me one thing, it’s that change, even against the odds, is possible. For some reason, that theme feels very resonant today.
Bodies heal; new possibilities for movement and expression become possible. Our habitual ways of doing things (walking like the clappers, to take a personal example) or our tendency to react in certain ways to outside events can remain places of resource without overpowering the other options we may have in a given situation. What do I mean? When I first met my partner, he told me that he never runs for public transport. Houston, I thought, we have a problem: I always run for buses and trains, and sometimes I run even when I’m not actually late, because it’s just such an ingrained habit to be always running, running, running through life, fearful of what may happen if an opportunity is missed, and vaguely enjoying the physical sensations of hard exercise: the wind through my hair; blood coursing through my veins, feet pounding the streets. When I found myself with six months to complete (i.e. actually write) my doctoral thesis in late 2015, I hesitated to commit myself to the inevitable writing frenzy that must ensue, because I knew how tiring that was going to be, but I also found myself thinking about this literally while running for trains and reflecting that this was my pattern, and I might as well embrace it, and that I ought to acknowledge that a modicum of brinkmanship makes me feel alive. Doing things at the last possible moment is an old friend of mine: it is sometimes a resource, but it is sometimes a bad habit that makes me less happy than I might otherwise be.
I use the word ‘happy’ here in a slightly unconventional sense: I don’t mean happy in the sense of ‘presently delighted’, or even in the sense of ‘feeling contented’: I mean happiness in the way that it is used by the Vipassana Institute when they teach their ten-day mindfulness meditation courses. The first time I sat a course, back in 2004, I found the repeated exhortation to ‘be happy’ banal at best: sure, let’s be happy rather than not, but being happy felt like a low bar on the path to enlightenment. Later on, I began to realise that ‘being happy’ meant learning to notice and reflect on my habits of mind and behaviour, and to recognise when I was making myself suffer unnecessarily by not listening to how I really felt – and crucially, how my body felt – in all sorts of situations. Eaten so much that my belly hurt, and feeling really terrible about it afterwards? Well, that was a way that I made myself unhappy. Failing to leave five minutes earlier when running for the train and putting undue stress on my joints? Another way that I made myself unhappy, albeit one which might sometimes be useful and one to which I was (and remain) slightly addicted. These were chiefly errors of commission.
But in other ways I am still learning to avoid the self-inflicted unhappiness of being overly ready to renounce hope in the face of setbacks and obstacles. I cautiously dare to disagree with the poet Emily Dickinson when she wrote that hope ‘never… asked a crumb.. of me’. To be something other than wishful thinking, hopefulness has to be a practice requiring committed efforts to turn hope into reality. Some of the fruits of hope are today being realised in the aftermath of yesterday’s UK general election, which has proved a remarkable demonstration of practical hope rather than ‘wishful thinking’, as young people have turned out in their thousands to vote for new political possibilities. As therapists, we have a professional commitment to hope: that things can change and improve, that injuries of various kinds can heal, that things can – sometimes (not always or only) – get better. Rolfers are trained to avoid making promises that we can’t keep, not to presume to know how to ‘fix’ people (some clients find this approach endlessly baffling, and assume that the most confident and capable therapist must be the one who makes the boldest claims), but to work from a personal experience and training experience of seeing that time and touch and gravity can and do bring about positive and lasting changes in most bodies.
One of Ida Rolf’s favourite sayings was that ‘wherever you think the problem is, it ain’t’, which was her way of saying that the site of pain and discomfort may be a symptom rather than the source of the problem. The holistic conception of the body is not fanciful: everything really is connected – whether via the 3D fascial web that transmits and modulates strain, or by habitual ways of moving that over- or under-use certain parts of the body, or through patterns of the nervous system and personality (is this person always running on adrenaline, always doing too much, or does everything feel like too much effort?). So, too, in the body politic, where outbreaks of political disruption are the symptom of long-standing problems that can feel like they are set in stone. I am heartened by the quote by the biologist Bertalanffy, who suggested that structures are better described as ‘slow processes of long duration’, and therefore: something that can change. Committing to observing and challenging political shibboleths is a part of a practice of hope that things can also get better.