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Healing Gestures of the Soul

Judith S. Schmidt PhD
Reprinted with permission of the author

“…all real living is meeting” – Martin Buber (1)

In moments of real and creative living, in which therapist and client meet, there is a felt sense of “so much depends on this moment.” A client may be alive with anger, with tears, with laughter, with silence. The moment may not be peaceful but, as Stanley Keleman, founder of Formative Psychology, said in one of his talks, it will be peaceable because what is sitting in the heart feels real and true, alive even if very painful. In such meetings, client and therapist may be lit with a touch of wholeness, of healing, and even holiness. This moment of meeting will never be repeated. Like this moment’s breath, the next breath will never be the same as the last. So much depends on this breath. So much depends on the practice of presence in each I-Thou moment.

Why does so much depend upon this moment? Because this moment, the Buddhists tell us, is fleeting. Because so much depends upon this moment which is alive for just this moment, waiting to shine forth.

What so much depends upon is the act of giving our presence to the radiant aliveness of this fleeting now, to meeting this moment as it opens and as we open to it, as it finds a place within us, calling forth our response.

So much depends upon

a red wheel-barrow

glazed with rain water

besides the white chickens (2)

The first line of the William Carlos Williams’ poem whispers in my ear like a Zen koan – a story or question used to provoke a student’s great doubt, William’s line prompts my own doubt and searching. I wonder: why does so much depend upon a red wheel-barrow, with rain-water, beside the white chickens?

I enter the landscape of this poem/koan as if it were a dream told by a client.

Here is what the client might say as she reports her dream: “I’m standing there, outside a barn.”

I, the therapist, am moved to open the world of the image: “What do you see, what do you hear, what do you feel and sense?”

The dreamer responds: “It is hushed, the beginning of day, no one stirs. Just the red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens.”

Listening receptively, I breathe my way into the dream’s space and time, breathe into this moment, red with life made to shine with the sweet rainwater that has fallen on the wagon.

Like a child, with beginner’s mind, I wonder: “And the chickens?”

“There are the white chickens, their heads are bobbing up and down.”

I see them. I am there with the dreamer. We are there together in this unique world that has spontaneously opened from deep within the dreamer. We are in real living, in dialogue with one another and with dreamtime. Poets and dreamers capture moments of time in a cameo of images, their presence innately embodied in the I-Thou encounter.

Martin Buber, Jewish humanist philosopher, talks about the difference between the I-Thou and the I-It. In an I-It relationship, I look upon the other as an object, as if under a microscope, to be acted upon by my techniques. A ‘Thou”, on the other hand, is seen as wholly other, an unfolding mystery to be met and discovered in the wide-open field of the meeting moment. (4)

Writing just after WWI, Williams says, “So much depends upon the red wheel barrow and the glistening rain and the white chickens.” I hear him telling us that everything and everyone has a face waiting to receive our face, our presence. In this way, we are humanized to all being in a world woven as a web of interconnection.

Here is what Donald Winnicott, the British pediatrician and psychiatrist tells us: What the infant finds of himself in the mirror of his mother’s face tells him who he is. (3) Is he good and is there goodness in the world? With our presence, we give the energetic resonance of our face to our clients and, finding themselves held in our seeing, they find ground for new possibilities within. Together, we sit in an emergent field, waiting to witness whatever of the real arises between and within us.

A Therapeutic Encounter

In a healing encounter, we are challenged to be what the phenomenological philosopher Martin Heiddegar calls “Shepherds of Being”. (5) Winnicott tells us that he says a lot, listens little, is even very smart, only when he is tired. (6) Indeed, for the therapist, the Practice of Presence for Being’s unfolding is an austere spiritual practice of not knowing, of ‘beginner’s mind’. (7)

Let me share with you one such encounter

Meg is a writer. Five years ago, her husband died of a sudden heart attack while they were jogging in Central Park. He turned around to smile at her and then dropped dead. That moment reverberates in her as “lightening striking my life”.

Meg enters the office, her face pale, her breathing labored, head and shoulders tight and bent. White we sit together in silence, I breathe quietly, feeling my way toward her wheezing breath. Meg tells me that she is having severe asthma after a respiratory infection and that it is difficult to write. She is writing a memoir about the traumatic loss of her husband.

I suggest that we sit long enough to let her lungs know we feel them and sense what is happening for them. “What do you see and sense when you are with your lungs?”

“My lungs are like dry spaces on some prairie, endlessly empty, silent. Every once in a while, you can hear a lone wolf cry.”

“Can your lungs feel us? Do they know we are feeling their emptiness, their grief, their wolf cries?”

She bends her head, listens, and nods, ‘yes’.

So much depends on this moment, on the arising of this image of the prairie, on our being together with it all, on Meg’s sense of being held by me, on the spacious possibilities of imagination opening to her attention and to my attuned questions.

As Meg and I sit together with life struggling in her lungs, I let her know that I can hear the cry of the lone wolf in the rasp of her breath. Meg begins to weep.

“Stay with the tears, be with them, see where they are coming from.”

“My lungs are grief rooms filled with so many silent black tears.”

Meg’s tears begin to flow softly, releasing congealed grief and still more grief. She takes a first deep sign. She looks at me and finds herself in my face. Her breath is less effortful, although not yet in her belly. So much depends upon this moment of meeting. Meg’s breathing depends upon it. It is not peaceful but is peaceable.

So much depends upon our presence to the smallest sacred moments of emerging life to the single tear now in the corner of Meg’s eye, to the slight shadow of sadness on her mouth, to her hand reaching out into space. I call her attention to her extended hand which seems to have a life of its own and which she does not seem aware of.

“Meg, what is your hand doing?”

She slowly looks at her hand gesturing, “It seems to be reaching into the void, asking ‘How is this possible!'”

“Who is making this gesture?”

After some time, “A dark dazed woman inside of me; her hand reaches that way forever.”

We sit together with this gesture that has risen out of a deep grief place frozen and shut off from knowing, from speech, waiting to be witnessed. We sit with the paradox of her impossible loss and with the life moving through her hand to express what is unimaginable.

What helps in the quiet space in which Meg can face her inner life in the presence of an outer and inner witness. What also helps Meg is the presence of the images that arise as spontaneous gestures from beneath her consciousness. With these holding images, Meg knows that there is more inside than just a disorganizing shortness of breath. Her images offer themselves to her as containers of meaning to carry the unformulated bits and pieces of traumatic grief. The images speak the frozen tears stored in her lungs.

These are not pretty images but they are in some way beautiful because of their truth and poignant portrayal of Meg’s psychosomatic state. The images bring her unthinkable and as yet unspeakable experience into some imaginable form that can be reflected upon. Stephen Porges PhD, who proposed the Polyvagal Theory, tells us that asthma is the outcome of dorsal vagal shut down by way of the parasympathetic nervous system in an attempt to survive overwhelming feelings. (8) Meg’s writing about the sudden loss of her husband has reactivated her traumatic grief; her asthma speaks the too-muchness of her experience. Both our sitting together and the images that arise give Meg a felt sense of cohering ground and offer soothing to her feeling endangered from within.

We sit together with this gesture that has risen out of a deep grief place frozen and shut off from knowing, from speech, waiting to be witnessed. We sit with the paradox of her impossible loss and with the life moving through her hand to express what is unimaginable.

I ask Meg to be with her lungs, to hear from them what they need in this moment. I convey my trust that her lungs, these grief rooms, carry the somatic wisdom to know what healing wants to emerge.

Meg lies down on the couch, places the blanket over her. I ask her, “Where shall I place my hands?” My hands rest gently over her chest, rising and falling with her breathing. Her eyes are closed. It is very quiet, except for the sound of Meg’s breathing and of mine in resonance with hers. In the space where my hands meet Meg’s chest, there is a felt sense of the melding of hand and chest into healing vibration.

Meg’s breathing slowly becomes quiet and rhythmic; the wheezing is faint. My hands are on her belly, which is rising and falling evenly. The atmosphere is both peaceful and peaceable.

After some time, Meg opens her eyes. Where there was pallor, there is now color in her face and a small smile on her mouth. Slowly, she looks around, gazes at me, then closes her eyes again and tells me, “I am on the Greek Island, in a white-washed house. The windows are open, the sunlight gently streaming in. It is utterly quiet. Not a frightening quiet. A sacred quiet.”

“Where is the house? What is it like?”

“The house is at the ocean. The ocean is a deep swaying breathing calm. There is a writing table there.”

“Be there, Meg. Breathe with the ocean, the calm, the stillness.”

Her belly begins to breathe with ease, her whole front rising and falling in rhythmic waves.

“The house says to me, ‘Come in Meg, come into me and write.'” Another long pause and then, “I am that house. I am quiet and filled with light.”

“Be still for as long as you need to. Be there Meg. Allow all that is happening here to move through. Let the energies of this place move through your every cell. Let your lungs breathe in the clear quiet air of this white washed house, warmed by the sunlight, moving in and out with the calm breathing ocean.”

All that is happening now on the couch is taking place in what the Jungian Ann Ulanov calls liminal space, (9) a space of pause between what is known and what is not yet known out of which new life may arise. It is important for me to sit quietly, to be witness to this space so that Meg feels safely supported as she moves deep within to receive the healing as it enters from beyond her trauma body.

Healing flows into the quiet of liminal space, the healing of the warming sun, of the breathing ocean, the healing silence of the white washed house in Greece, carrying Meg far from the empty prairie. Over and over again, I come to see how every image carries powerful transformative energies. When therapist and client are present for the images that open from within, when we hold space for them to circulate and flow through the breath and body, the image releases its powerful healing vibrations into the senses, the body and the breath calms and rebalances the autonomic nervous system and lays down new possibilities in the neural pathways of the brain.

As the therapist sensitively feels her way into the world of the image, an energetic dialogue emerges between therapist and client. Right-brain to right-brain presence opens imaginal space and releases its healing potentials. The voice of the therapist attunes to that of the journeyer, much in the way that a mother’s voice attunes to her child, or a lover to a beloved. In this right-to-right brain dialogue, the music of the words is as important as the words themselves. The right brain receives the music of contact more than the words and receives the image as a somatically sensed wholeness. At a certain point all words cease and a long period of silence opens. The client is now entering her own deep world of imagination. And so is the therapist. We have reached the threshold into the mystery of Being, where everything is possible.

This is the same space out of which the images of the prairie and the grief rooms arose. Staying present to these initial disturbing images makes space for their mournful energies to move and release the healing of the white washed house, which is also Meg’s breathing body. This image touches Meg with a sense of wholeness, providing a new ground of self-regulating space for Meg to actively take refuge in, always there for her to come to.

Whenever I am witness to this open and spacious quiet, waiting for what of wholeness will pour into it, I experience a sense of wonder. The client’s eyes may close in reverie, she may look out the window into a far distance for a long while, she may appear to doze with eyelids fluttering in REM movements, the deepest part of sleep where dreams occur. Everything is hushed, pulsating with potential. We have moved beyond ego, beyond knowing, and beyond doing.

We are at the threshold of Mystery that opens to all time and all space, where everything is possible. Winnicott called this the ‘incommunicado self’, (7) known to no one, not even ourselves. The Kabbalists – Jewish mystics – call this space “Ayin”, the silent womb out of which all of life flows, if only body and soul become still to receive. These images are sparks of life force flowing through us with new life with which to create our existence.

Jung tells us that the psyche and soma carry within them a self-balancing wisdom. (8) We see this happen for Meg as the energies of the images once released follow their own course and move her to psychic balance and open her breathing. It is my task as therapist to shepherd this process by lending my presence, by knowing when to hold space in silence and when to ask the questions that open the journey into imagination, staying closely attuned to the healing that wants to vibrate out of the movement of the images. And when what wants to come comes, I find myself lifting my hands, whispering “thank you” to that invisible realm from which the healing images of wholeness flow as gestures of the soul.

This article originally appeared in Somatic Psychotherapy Today: The USABP Magazine V.2, N.12, September 12th 2012.

Special thanks to Nancy Eichhorn for her wonderful collaboration in editing this paper.


1, Buber, M. (1923). I and Thou. London: Hoblan

2. Williams, W.C. (1962). Spring and All. New York: New Directions.

3. Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

4. Buber, M. (1923). I and Thou. London: Hoblan

5. Heiddeger, M. (1977). Letter on Humanism in Basic Writings. NY: Harper Collins.

6. Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

7. Suzuki R. (2008). Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. New York: J. Weatherhill

8. Porges, S. (2011) Polyvagal Theory. New York: W.W. Norton.

9. Ulanov, A (2001). Finding Space. Louiseville KY: Westminster Wm Knox Press.

10. Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

11. Jung, C. (1964). Structures and Dynamics of the Psyche. CW8. NJ: Princeton. University Press.