Experiences of Stillness in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy: Cultivated or Conferred ?

Well, this is surely my most self-indulgent post to date. Please bear with me, as I hope that relating my own experiences will effectively illustrate an important point about stillness …

As a child, I was fortunate to grow up near a stretch of unspoiled wilderness that bordered the suburb where my family lived.  I could walk out of my back door directly into nature and pass through native grasslands and old growth forests, encountering few signs of civilization as I made my way to the Trinity River, the most substantial waterway in north Texas. I spent many afternoons there after school, either by myself or with friends. On weekends and summer break I often enjoyed entire days exploring in the woods. Some of my earliest and most powerful encounters with natural stillness occurred in that stretch of wilderness. It was there that I first discovered the value of sitting still.

Whereas internally cultivated stillness brings comfort to our self identity, conferred stillness brings transformation.

It is indeed rare that a child sits still, but after a long bike ride through wooded trails or an afternoon of climbing trees, I would eventually have to stop and catch my breath. At these times of rest another world would sometimes appear as I lay motionless, absorbing the wholeness of nature and its movement patterns through a soft field of vision. With amazement I would listen to the subtle sounds of the wind as it brushed through branches full of millions of leaves. I could hear the nuanced calls of distant birds, or watch the swaying of oak and elm trees as they gently accepted the will of the wind, always coming back to a state of erect ease. At times the natural motion around me would cease and the air would crystallize, presenting a pause in time where the richness of creation would ignite in my awareness as all of my senses swelled with aliveness. Life itself seemed to become suspended in a joyful effervescent stillness. Those pauses in time were full of wonder, rest, revelation, and deep nourishment for the soul. In those moments I saw that life can be … well, more beautiful than I ever knew possible.

What a gift for a child to witness and feel the intense vibratory dance of creation amidst the grasses, trees, animals, and unspoiled atmosphere! Those rapturous moments of stillness in nature left a deep impression on me and planted within my soul an ongoing fascination with the effects of nature on human sensory awareness. Given this history, I guess it just makes sense that craniosacral therapy became a professional path for me. Especially with biodynamic craniosacral work, I saw tremendous opportunity to deepen into stillness and share its possibilities with others in a meaningful way.

We talk a lot about stillness in craniosacral classes. It has many faces and plays different roles in the therapeutic setting. I would like to elaborate somewhat on the experience of stillness as it pertains to biodynamics by delineating two broad categories, which I am simply calling “cultivated stillness” and “conferred stillness.”

Cultivated Stillness

I have found that my affinity for stillness has served me well overall, but it also created some problems as I learned how to more effectively relate to it therapeutically. I have used the phrase “stillness nazi” in other posts to describe my attitude early on in this work. In an effort to recapture some of the rapturous moments in my life, I became quite disciplined at cultivating stillness in my body and mind through meditation and yogic practice. For me, it was all about stillness. I began rejecting the outside world with all of its noise and wasted movement. I even rejected the movement my clients brought to my office, refusing to engage it or move with it. I became quite insistent that stillness would rule the day in my office, and I subtly began forcing stillness into the therapeutic dyad in a fairly ungracious way. This is obviously not good for clinical work (or one’s relationships in general.) I alienated many clients during this learning period I went through as a younger man.

What I failed to understand in the earlier years is that the stillness I had cultivated in my senses had elements of an artificial construct. It was my stillness. It was where I was comfortable, but it often had little or nothing to do with the needs of the client’s system in the moment. I am revisiting this story because I continue to see a similar tendency in some students who recognize the deep value of stillness and want to bring it into the treatment room for the benefit of the client. They mean well with this intention, as I did, but we all need to be careful that we are handling stillness in a skillful manner.

Internal stillness is good. We should cultivate it! But if that cultivation results in inflexibility and stagnation, then a dangerous sort of opacity can move into our perception. When our stillness is overly structured, we often cannot see the deeper nature of what the client needs to embody in their emerging motion patterns. We end up missing or dishonoring the intention of the inherent treatment plan. Our internal self-centered floor of stillness can be very deceptive. As long as we know it is there, however, we can work with it.

For a newer practitioner, the cultivation of stillness in a therapeutic interaction sometimes requires great effort. This effort can itself become a distraction and generate irregular fulcrums in one’s own system, not to mention the client’s system. If we find ourselves fighting the motion present in ourselves or our client, then a recalibration is needed, a loosening of the reins, and perhaps a larger perspective. At times we really need to “have some faith” and trust that maybe we can handle more motion than we previously thought. This may include opening up to new planes and directions of movement that feel foreign to us or don’t fit the descriptions pointed out to us by teachers or text books. The client’s innate biological wisdom often does not adhere to the map we may have in our heads. It may need to express its patterns of experience in ways that stretch our understanding. This is good. Why hold their system to a tight frame when it may be willing to show us something of great significance or deliver us to a spatial point of transformative power? Primary respiration is an incredibly flexible and deep field of intelligent movement. Finding a way to ground ourselves within its unfolding patterns is essential, but it behooves us to notice when and where we are resistant to the freedom it increasingly presents us.

As practitioners, we should be aware that we hold within us a ground of stillness that is largely artificial. It is a construct of our beliefs and experiences. It is our comfort zone. It is the leverage point of our will. But in truth, it can be a form of stagnation. A big breakthrough came for me when I realized that I was using my cultivated stillness as a platform for all other experience. For years I anchored my will into a place of stillness that I believed had great power. I tethered my sensory awareness there as well. Much of the time it served me well, despite its inherent limitations. But eventually (and thankfully) life uprooted me one day and swept me into the tide and I realized that I could be moved by primary respiration and participate in its action rather than watch it through a window like a voyeur. It is a very different experience. Some students get this lesson early on, but many others need to stabilize themselves in constructed stillness while they get to know the world of primary respiration. That is okay. You can’t push the process of accepting the spatial flow of life, but you can be open to it. Openness helps, as does patience.

Conferred Stillness

The other kind of stillness I have been considering lately I have been calling “conferred stillness.” To confer means to “bestow” or “invest with.” So conferred stillness can be seen as stillness that is bestowed upon us from an external source. This is the stillness of true stillpoints, the stillness that shifts our internal world, delivering us to significantly new sensory places of wonder and discovery. Whereas internally cultivated stillness brings comfort to our self identity, conferred stillness brings transformation. It permeates into the physical and sensory construct of self and restructures our tissues and minds at a fundamental level. It dissolves our internal stillness and unfolds within the self an experience of greater spatial depth, essentially recalibrating our senses to greater truth. It really is a gift of grace. Conferred stillness cuts a hole in the fabric of nature, allowing the more refined spiritual qualities of human consciousness to move to the forefront of our lives. We may encounter states of bliss and rapture when transformed, or we may face fear and terror. But when we experience the sensory effects of conferred stillness we are usually left with a feeling of gratitude in our hearts … gratitude for being shown more of life.

As practitioners, we try to stay open to the encounter of conferred stillness, but we can’t directly will it. We have to yield to the possibility of its emergence and follow the trail that primary respiration lays out for us. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the path to more exalted states of stillness opens through the world of motion!. Only when we yield the internal stillness with which we are familiar and submit to being carried outside of what we have known can new vistas appear. When it is time, well, perhaps we will be given an experience of “dynamic stillness.” In the clinic, this state may appear spontaneously and without effort, as it did for me as a child in the wilderness. We can, however, help our chances of receiving it by extending an invitation in the form of continual delicate responsiveness to primary respiration and voluntary yielding of the will.

My point here is not to revisit the map adeptly laid out by previous teachers, but to accentuate that the most powerful and dynamic states of stillness are delivered to us from an external source. I think that we sometimes lose sight of that in the midst of the many complications of clinical work and personal skill development.

Connecting the Two Worlds

It is useful and essential to develop some discipline around perception of tidal movement and naming of phenomena. For many of us, there is definitely “work” to be done as we come to understand how primary respiration infuses space and dictates the metabolics and motions of life. But we need to balance disciplined and focused work with the practice of yielding to diffuse states and the slow pacing of primary respiration. Ideally we should know where we are, but not be trapped there. This is a personal journey for learners as they negotiate how to coexist with their internal stillness and its embedded inertial fulcrums of suffering while safely and effectively exploring the external ocean and its many freedoms. Simple practices of grounding and orienting to natural and spiritual fulcrums helps establish a base to work from, but ultimately it is simultaneous transparency to movement that delivers events of authentic change. The student must learn how to split the awareness while retaining wholeness of spirit.

I should interject a gentle warning here about learning to diffuse one’s awareness and “let go.” Yielding the will and awareness is not the same as “spacing out.” This is a common mistake that I see in students of all skill levels. Mainly this occurs because we are tired! It takes a lot of vitality to consciously sit with the forces of primary respiration. If we are overextended in our lives, when we encounter the restorative forces of the tidal body, it will sweep us up into various states of sleep or unconsciousness in an attempt to deliver first aid to the nervous system. When we skillfully yield the will as a practitioner, however, we are aware we are doing it. We can track the journey that occurs with a gentle curiosity. We stay awake and witness. The practitioner that is spacing out is not awake. They are caught in a state of fantasy or unconsciousness. When we yield the awareness, we let go of grasping, but we do not float into the ether.

I am not attempting to rewrite the book on stillness here, but perhaps just simplify things for beginners by pointing out two general kinds of stillness: internal (cultivated) and external (conferred). Let’s not mistake our essential and useful internal stillness for the greater stillness that surrounds us. Let’s extend our understanding and learn how to better access the powerful resources that lie outside of the self. Primary respiration will lead the way to states of increasingly potent stillness … surprisingly, through motion!