Pitfalls on the Craniosacral Path

Today’s blog post will be a transcript from Episode 17 of The Craniosacral Podcast.

In this episode I answer a listener question about pitfalls to look out for on the professional path of craniosacral therapy. I elaborate on three of the larger challenges I have noticed: zealotry, disillusionment, and stagnation.

I’ll start with the listener’s question, and then get into the answer. Enjoy!

“Hi Ryan. Thank you so much for the podcast. I’ve really been enjoying it and learning a lot from the different guests you bring on. I am hoping you will take some time to discuss the potential pitfalls we face while getting established in the field of craniosacral therapy. Some of my teachers have mentioned that at times they went off on tangents or entered periods of difficulty with their practice. They have shared with me some insights about it, but I’m wondering what you think. What do you think I should look out for or be aware of when I am building a long-term career in CST?

Thank you, and please keep up the good work, Matthew”

Wow, Matthew. That’s a great question. I wish I would have considered that question when I was getting started in the work, but I had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way because I’ve been pretty stubborn in a lot of ways in my career. So I think I’m pretty qualified to talk on the topic because not recognizing pitfalls has really cost me over the years. And even worse, it has cost my clients when I failed to show up for them in a meaningful way due to my blind spots.

There are so many things to consider when you look at the span of a career in this work. The permutations are endless as to what topics I could talk about, but I’ve been considering this since I got your email and I’ve honed in on three major pitfalls that I believe we should be aware of in this work when viewed over the course of a career, from the “30,000-foot view,” as they say. These will be some of the more prevalent issues that I have seen and or experienced myself.

I’ll start with one of the first pitfalls we risk falling into when we set upon this path, and that’s zealotry. Zealotry. So, what’s zealotry and what’s a zealot? Well, I looked it up on the interwebs just to make sure I am using the word correctly and I found two definitions that together kinda paint a picture that I think will be helpful for us: The first definition for zealot that popped up on google was “a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.” The other definition I want to blend in here is from the Cambridge Dictionary and it says a zealot is: “ a person who has very strong opinions about something, and tries to make other people have them too.”

For many of us, when we first discovered cranial work, or maybe a particular style of cranial work that really spoke to us, we were deeply affected. Our whole lives may have been changed as a result of the new perspective on manual work. We may have experienced the healing of a serious physical or emotional disease, or we may have had a sort of conversion experience as a result of a very strong sensational episode that significantly changed the way we view our lives, the world, or our place in the world. We may feel like we have finally found a home in the wilderness, a place we can call our own, that has the potential to fulfill our every need. It is not that unusual to hear people who get serious about this work relating similar stories of tremendous transformation when they began interfacing with cranial work. For some new students, there arises a great sense of relief and purpose in their life because they finally feel like the world is taking on a manageable meaning, or perhaps it is opening into an inspiring void. It can go either way, really. But the point is that we may feel like we have found something very special. And I believe we do find something special when we find this work. The joy, the love, the enthusiasm, the conviction, and the hope that arise for some of us when we find cranial work is truly spectacular and it can be really beautiful to watch this energy move into a person’s life. It is serious fuel, and it can carry us a long way, both personally and professionally.

But there is a shadow side to this spiritual and sensory ignition and blossoming of faith in the work. And that shadow is zealotry … a kind of fanaticism, which can run all along a spectrum from mild to severe for some practitioners . The craniosacral zealot can simply be a convert to the field of cranial work in general, or perhaps has a fierce loyalty to a particular style or teacher, unable to see potential shortcomings of said approach or teacher. Now, please don’t get me wrong here. Don’t misunderstand me. I think the enthusiasm that enters the new student’s life can be really magical and very positive. And I also have experienced that the relationships that form between students and teachers in this field are really special. They can be really beautiful, and result in a healthy growth into higher orders of functioning in our work and our life. But the zealot demonstrates an imbalance in that they are uncompromising and to varying degrees not willing or even able to recognize the potential limitations of the path they are on. They feel like they have found the “one thing” that will deliver them to mastery of the healing arts, or they have found the “true path” in the work. Or they have found the best teacher on the planet- the only one who gets it all right.

These beliefs have a seed of health in them, but almost always erode into a less idealistic reality as time passes. For example, I occasionally see this in the modern biodynamic community. Let’s say a relatively new student, maybe half-way through his foundation training, is absolutely convinced that biodynamics is the one true way to practice cranial work or maybe any healing art, for that matter. His teacher may have convinced him of such through steady logic, and his relatively few experiences at the table have consistently confirmed the potent validity of biodynamic work. He may begin to view other approaches, say like Upledger Institute, the Milne Institute, or even some approaches to Osteopathy, as inferior because they have an underlying theoretical architecture that he rejects. Or perhaps they don’t fit his criterion for what he envisions as the perfect training. This guy is the one who “poo-poos” other schools, feeling quite proud that he has found the real path. He constantly extols the virtues of his particular teacher’s approach, unable to really objectively consider the merits of another approach because he rejects the premise of the other schools outright. Additionally, he refuses to get his hands dirty and actually try elements of their application. Meanwhile, he may have less than 40 actual treatments under his belt. And many of these were administered in the increased potency of the group field of a classroom, which gives him a decided advantage as far as favorable outcomes go. I hope you’re getting the picture I’m painting here. In this case, the zealot doesn’t yet know that he doesn’t know. He is dogmatic, worshipping at a temple of abstract ideology or a charismatic teacher, perhaps at the expense of accurate perception of what is happening with his clients.

The conviction that he is on the right path is good, but it is incomplete at this point. The absolute conviction of the new zealot and the steady confidence of the accomplished master may appear similar, but they have a very different quality to them. One is born of blind idealism, while the other has been tempered and humbled over thousands of hours of exploration into the nature of the mechanism we work with. The master may appear uncompromising in some regards, but ultimately he knows his limitations and will concede when he sees clues that he needs to exhibit flexibility in order to better serve the client.

The zealot builds walls with his words, and creates negative karma that circulates in our community. Healthy inquiry and dialogue suffers or becomes impossible because there is not a respectful exchange of ideas between us. The zealot not only causes problems for our field as a whole, but for himself also. He plants thorns with his staunch enthusiasm … thorns that eventually mature and pierce him as he walks the professional path.

So, belief and confidence in our teachers and our approach is a good thing. But we need to “stay grounded” as they say, and stay respectful, and always be on the lookout for possible gaps in our approach – the areas that need improvement. Having a mentor or two, maybe with slightly different perspectives can be helpful to keep us oriented and avoid absolutism in our beliefs about how the work should be practiced. By all means, we should stick to our guns as to what feels right for us, and question what doesn’t. But the beginner should realize that there is much to learn over the coming years, and you might be surprised how your viewpoint changes over time.

Chronologically, I think one of the more prevalent pitfalls that some practitioners face next in their journey with the work is disillusionment. Disillusionment. The quick Google definition I found for disillusionment is “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” People who go into this work often fall in love with its application, the sensory experience, the lifestyle, the people, and so on. This enthusiasm fuels them well for a while, but if they take the leap into serious clinical practice and stick with it, they might go through a challenging period or periods when they find they find their clinical efficacy is not what they expected it would be. They might not be getting fireworks in the treatment room. They might not be getting much of anything in the treatment room for stretches. Their practice may go through periods of feeling lifeless or frustrating, and they may become disappointed in the whole venture. This goes for any approach to the work.

Now I’m not saying this is a required experience for everyone! I’m not trying to be a downer here. Many people sail quite smoothly and robustly through their entire career, and I hope that you, Matthew, are one of them. But it does not come easily for everyone. One of the new developments for me since I started doing the podcast is that I have been called upon as a consultant by a handful of listeners. They have requested to pay me for my time to talk with them on the phone about some of their challenges with the work. Many of these calls have been with practitioners who have a few years under their belts and are dealing with increasing amounts of confusion or a general lack of confidence. Clinical work may have humbled them as they learn that things don’t always follow the neat map laid out in their training. Or they might be wrestling with competing theories espoused by various teachers, not sure what to do. Some of them have lost their faith in their ability to effectively do the work in a clinical setting when the stakes are high.

There is a sense of a lack of forward momentum with some of these struggling therapists. Their frustration and subsequent second-guessing has become pathological to an extent, and they may begin to take that frustration out on others. One of the most common targets of the disillusioned practitioner is their teacher. They may feel somewhat betrayed, or that they were sold a bill of goods that they could make a career out of this work. They may state that they feel inadequately trained to deal with some of the situations they face on the table. They often finally start to own some of the negative opinions about their teacher they would not allow themselves to recognize while in the honeymoon phase of their training. So, yes, the honeymoon is over for these folks. They are kinda standing in a mess trying to figure out what to do with it, how to get their own legs, how to move into a more adult-like phase of autonomy with their work.

This is the threshold that often makes or breaks a craniosacral therapist. Some bail on the dream at this point and revert back to grosser forms of bodywork where results are more easily guaranteed, wondering if they could have really made it as a craniosacral therapist. Some just leave the field all together. But some claw their way through it, stay focused, keep working and studying, get creative, and figure out a way to dig out their deeper gifts. They search until they find their own voice and learn how to sing with it in the cranial realm.

I think there are several factors that contribute to the entry into disillusionment. One is isolation. After a student finishes a foundation training or first sequence of classes in their chosen school, they may start to wither from a lack of contact with peers. Many of them are in the process of figuring out how to run a practice. They might have the burden of rent for their office while they try to get a steady flow of clients. This may take years for some. When money is tight for these emerging practitioners, they may not feel they can afford quality trainings, so they forego them and lose out on the burst of energy, insight, and enthusiasm that these trainings often provide. Some practitioners may go a couple of years without getting in the classroom as a student. As a result they wither a bit inside and may become stuck in routines with their work rather than staying spontaneous with a constant flow of new ideas and sensory experiences. A problem related to this is not getting cranial treatments for themselves. It is so helpful for us to get regular work from different practitioners. Not only do we keep our systems free by doing so, we stay tapped into the experience of being a client and also may pick up some new handholds or verbal skills by getting on the table ourselves.

It is important to stay positive if you find yourself dealing with symptoms of disillusionment. Get in touch with established practitioners who are doing well, and share your heart with them. Ask for their advice about treatment tactics, running a practice, and staying balanced. Also, It is helpful to accept that you have not set upon a particularly easy path. It is definitely a rewarding path, but it takes continual focus and at times a lot of work to build the practice of your dreams. Be patient and take a long-term view of the whole experience, and you will be rewarded.

The third pitfall that I think it is worth considering I’m simply calling stagnation. Stagnation. Everybody knows what this means. This can be seen in practitioners that have a significant amount of experience, may have built a successful practice, and are considered accomplished by their peers. This phenomenon might be seen as a professional “plateau,” where their clinical results might be consistently effective, but they are losing their enthusiasm and love for the work. Stagnation in this sense is different than disillusionment in that these practitioners have confidence in the work and have found their own voice. They are just getting bored. They may be kind of apathetic or even cynical about their practice at times. They’ve figured out how to make it work for their professional life, but “the thrill is gone,” as they say. They may not be interested in taking any classes because they’ve already studied most of what interests them, and may have a feeling like they’ve seen it all.

I think this is normal for any field of endeavor. When you do anything for 20 or 30 years, you are most likely going to pass through periods of boredom. I’ve seen colleagues approach this challenge in different ways. For some it may mean studying a totally different form of therapy for a while to crack open their habits and force them to experience the body in a different way, to open up new parts of their sensorium. Others approach it by improving other areas of their life outside of work by taking up painting or weightlifting or dance lessons, or whatever. By stimulating our life as a whole, we might begin to find a new spontaneity in everything that we do. We might gain new perspectives into embodiment by stretching ourselves in new directions and engaging our nervous systems in new ways. And like I said earlier, getting different forms of bodywork or therapy for ourselves might help with stagnation as well.

The best practitioners that I have met never seem to “arrive” at success in the work. While they may have attained a recognizable level of mastery, they are constantly stretching themselves and staying fresh … asking new questions … searching the horizon for the next new unfoldment of our understanding of the work. In a sense, we need to constantly stay young in our exploration and experience of cranial work. When we feel a period of stagnation coming on or find ourselves in the middle of one, the best approach is often to do something bold to stir things up, to challenge ourselves in a way that opens up a new avenue for growth. Then step into it and see what happens. See what you learn.

I think we can hold stagnation at bay by staying connected with our professional field in general, and especially staying in touch with colleagues that we find stimulating. Adopting a life-long policy of continual learning and continually challenging ourselves can keep us on a healthy path as well.

So zealotry, disillusionment, and stagnation – I’d say these are a few pitfalls to look out for on your journey with the work. I sincerely hope you can avoid these, Matthew, by keeping an eye out for the signs that you may be brushing against their borders.

Thank you for your question. It’s a really good one. And I’ve really tightened up my own ship just considering how to answer it.

So, my dear listeners, where are you right now? Are there elements of any of these pitfalls in your practice? If so, how can you take action now to correct your course, find better balance, and settle more firmly into the joy of the process of growth that our work provides?

ryan-hallford-craniosacral-therapistRyan Hallford is a craniosacral therapist and educator. He offers certification programs in basic and advanced cranial work through the Craniosacral Resource Center in Southlake, TX. www.cranioschool.com