How Sanzen Shaped My Way of Doing Bodywork

 

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“If we open ourselves completely, consciously or unconsciously, we are ready to listen to the voiceless voice of the universe.”

– Dainin Katagiri

Recently someone asked me what my practice looks like now that I am not doing koan work intensively in the monastery.  This post is a bit of a response to that question.

My current healing work has been shaped by my experience doing intense Zen Training in Japan. In this post, I will attempt to describe how these two practices feel very similar to me, and how my current vocation is a venue for me to deepen and mature my practice.

In traditional Rinzai Zen, one sees the Zen master individually for sanzen a couple of times a day.  In this interview, the Roshi (Zen Master) guides the student to open up their minds, heart, belly.  There is a particular type of interacting involved in this extremely ritualized encounter, and that way of connecting and interacting has shaped my entire life. The internal alchemy involved in this process is what I bring to my clients.

In sanzen, the student brings her state of mind to the teacher.  The teacher can feel this state of mind, and responds to this in a way that molds the student to open up where she is stuck.  It is awe-inspiring to have a Roshi read your thoughts, and at first it is overwhelming to have someone’s physical presence encapsulating you.  There is no escape in sanzen. It is as if you are pinned down, completely seen.

The student, over time, gradually learns to meet the Roshi’s state of mind, and with her own energetic presence and fullness, begins to interact with the Roshi’s state of mind little by little.  It is as if two bodies of water meet, and gradually they become one.  With this meeting, a subtle type of interacting develops.  Where once the Roshi was in charge and overwhelming, the student begins to seep into the Roshi’s consciousness, and can begin to know the Roshi’s mind.  Connect with it, become it.

And in this new type of interacting, insights begin to emerge spontaneously.  It is as if a new current of consciousness has awoken, or been discovered, and in this current the student begins to feel and experience everything more intimately.  She can begin to sense what others are going to do, tap into healing, influence others, penetrate into the source of things more deeply.  Walking in the forest, her consciousness can become the trees, the forest, the insects, and know them somehow.  This is not mental or exceptional, but very natural.

Further, a light or power begins to emanate out of this new way of interacting with life.  From an ever-expanding source, it fills the student’s body and extends to everything around it. The interaction is both the medium for connecting with others, and the energy which gives it power.  This all sounds fantastic, but it is very normal.

Coming back from Japan, I had these raw skills which needed to be used and polished.  It was like a gear which needed to be engaged, to be expressed.  These skills needed maturing, integrating. It’s a long process.

Like a foreigner just arrived who could not speak the language, I tried to explain this type of relating by talking, but somehow this felt false, like I was drifting away from the source. After talking about spirituality too much, I often feel like I’ve misrepresented it.  Feel like I need an oil change.  Eventually, after a few years, I realized that a great way to cleanly communicate was through simple touch. This was not an intellectual detour, but something direct, something honest.

Why this need to communicate, to connect and relate with others? The great Butoh dancer, Kazuo Ohno perhaps said it best:

“Ultimately, aren’t we here to link hearts?”

Helping people with healing fit me very well, as my Zen training was very body focused, and I went to Japan partly to learn to heal from the inside out.

After looking at several modalities, I studied Structural Integration, Craniosacral Therapy, and SourcePoint® Therapy.  These wonderful practices gave me tools and permission to begin to interact with clients in a one to one meeting, and explore connection, healing, and consciousness with them.

I use these techniques and ways of looking at the body for helping with sciatica or headaches, posture, digestive issues or shoulder pain, etc, but at the same time,  all of my work is informed by this background in internal work in Japan, this way of interacting.  Now, instead of the Roshi’s mind, I am connecting with my client’s mind, heart, belly.  Instead of a koan which I must dive into until it reveals itself, it is the client’s system with which I am in dialogue.  This allows me to, like a tuning fork, share and mutually explore a different type of interacting with the client.  As this dormant part of the client wakes up, she begins to naturally connect with it, herself, healing, life.  Sharing it is my artistic expression and my own healing process as well.

Mostly, I just put my hands on the client at a certain point in the session, cut any ideas, listen, and allow something huge to move through me, and it does the work.  I don’t understand this mentally, but exactly like Zen training, slowly I learn to trust it more and more.  It is like a curiosity begins to bloom, and something begins to emerge and unfold from that, just as it does in zazen.

It is my belief, supported by thousands of hours on a meditation cushion, that if we listen to the body, it will reveal how to heal, reveal how it needs to open up.  I work in a space of relating and interacting with my clients in a non-linear way.  It’s fascinating to be along for the ride.  It’s the same intelligence I used to interact with the Roshi.

As Shodo Harada Roshi said:

“Our bodies already know how to birth true wisdom.”

With some clients, working this way is very easy.  They are open to spend time in this space and understand its value.  They see the intelligence involved in listening to the present moment in the body, and how it can allow the body to reveal an unexpected way to heal.  Within a couple of sessions, they are eager to work in this sensitive, quiet way.  They describe this type of work as abundant presence, or going into a liminal healing space, or they don’t know what to make of it, but it is somehow fascinating, helpful, holistic.  Using gentle listening or firm pressure, depending on what the client needs, their whole body and mind is affected in an unexpected profound way.  Old trauma spontaneously vanishes, or emotional baggage brightens.  Their breathing opens or their knee unwinds.

For many new clients, working in this space has nowhere to land at first, and we just spend a few minutes in this space.  Gradually, as the clients settle in and trusts the work, we tend to spend more time allowing something deeper to move through us.  Instead of me putting my ideas onto the body, I allow it to unfold from within. This mysterious power moving through us is the same current I realized in Japan, and it is the main healing force of the session.  We are communicating with it, it is guiding us, it is the source and the technique, the how and the what.  I am used by it and I use it.  It guides me and I wield it. I believe the healing which occurs from this type of communicating is the most deep and integrative, as healing and unifying are the same thing.

This is a language I learned twenty years ago, but it is ever present.  Exploring this type of interacting fascinates me. Offering myself to help others is very satisfying.  So I’ve translated koan work to healing work.  I’m still a student.  It is all extremely humbling.  But it’s my laboratory, my dance studio, my sanzen room.

Thanks for reading!  Please share this with someone it might help!

 

Special Thanks to the great Shodo Harada Roshi for sharing so much with me, as well as Karen Bolesky at the Soma Institute, Bob Schrei of SourcePoint Therapy, and Michael Maskornick and Jon Martine, both incredible Rolfers and teachers.

 

 

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