Linda Hartley – RSMT, Director of the Institute for Integrative Bodywork and Movement Therapy, an ISMETA Approved training program
We were three weeks into the lockdown here in the UK and perhaps like many I was beginning to settle in, after the initial shake-up and all the online messaging that we had collectively reached for in order to stay in touch. A book called to be read, written by my dear friend Liz McCormick and her colleague Nigel Wellings, both experienced transpersonal psychotherapists, teachers and authors. The title Nothing to Lose (Wellings and McCormick 2010) seemed a good message in this time that seems so full of loss.
McCormick’s chapter on ‘Descent and Death’, the endless cyclical journey to the underworld of loss, suffering and death in order that life might be renewed, was a timely reminder for me. I have embarked on and written about this journey myself, and had re-launched my book Servants of the Sacred Dream (Hartley 2001) just a few weeks before the lockdown began here in the UK. The core of the book speaks to individual processes of initiation which, like the shaman’s initiation, the mythical journey of the Goddess to the Underworld, and the immersion of the artist in creative process, show us how to be with suffering and loss with consciousness and compassion.
As I read, the pieces fell into place: we are now in a process of collective initiation. The whole of humanity has been thrown, or guided, or entered out of necessity into an underworld journey. It has dangers, involves loss and death, and promises rebirth into new ways of being. The question for us is: can we travel together with enough compassion, care for ourselves, each other, and the Earth, and enough conscious awareness, so that the potential fruits of this initiation can be fully reaped, eventually. So that we may emerge reborn into a world that is more sustainable, fair, compassionate and kind. The earth and humanity have experienced global catastrophes before – wars, pandemics, environmental upheavals – but never with the same connectivity and collective consciousness that we share today.
Holding this transpersonal perspective supports and resources me, as I navigate my personal way through the challenges, as well as the gifts of this time. Nature continues to offer her gifts – a beautiful spring with brilliant blue skies, warm sunlight, plants, birds and animals springing into life, as is the promise every year at this time. Many people are commenting on how they can hear the birds more clearly, how they notice the daily budding and blossoming of plants as they take their daily walk or run. Gratitude for all this beauty is needed, to balance the pain and the grief we are also feeling.
My personal anxiety is a sickening worry for my elderly mother who is living in a care home, where the first case of the virus amongst residents, and a potential case amongst the staff, have been reported (at the time of writing). There are so many people in dire situations – losing loved ones, fighting on the frontline for the lives of those loved ones, losing jobs and income, dealing with intolerable levels of stress, loneliness, and danger if the home situation they are locked into is not safe and nurturing. A collective initiatory journey that is global. Every single human being on the planet is or will be touched in some way by this, and as a humanity we will be transformed.
Our earlier passage through birth is a precursor for the initiatory journeys we will be called to make at different stages of our lives, and its imprint within us profoundly influences how we will respond to these later passages. Radical psychiatrist Stanislav Grof has given us a map of this journey, the Basic Perinatal Matric (BPM) (Grof 1985: 98). I have used this in both my personal life and my teaching to help understand the stages of initiation, and feel it could be equally useful to our collective understanding and holding of ourselves through this time of the Great Turning, as this predicted time has been named by Joanna Macy (Macy & Johnstone 2012: 5).
Despite our many personal sufferings and challenges in life, many of us in the ‘developed’ countries have undoubtedly been living through an age of unprecedented privilege, opportunity, and ease; compared to the lives of our parents or grandparents, who survived one and maybe two horrific world wars, those of us born after WW2 have not had to endure anything like this. Most have been able to increase material wealth and comfort; and some of us have had the extraordinary privileges of being able to study, learn, create and develop ourselves through the process that Jung called individuation (Jung 1976). In the fields of somatic practice, as well as psychotherapy, meditation, the creative arts, and many, many more, we have cultivated personal consciousness even as we have shared in some of the material comforts made available to us. This can be likened to Grof’s BPM1, the state of being held and nurtured in the womb, everything provided for our growth and wellbeing. But this state cannot continue forever – ‘business as usual’ is not a place we can return to. A fetus in the womb must be born into a new world at some point.
I am full of gratitude for the privileges I have had; and I know that with privilege comes responsibility. The age of demanding that individual rights are met without considering the balance of responsibility is now coming to an end. What we each do now, and going forward, will determine the future that all of us will live in. We are deeply interconnected, and this virus is showing the reality of this in the starkest of ways. We are entering the birth canal, the labour that will propel us into something new. It is unavoidable.
The Earth as well as the coronavirus (which I see as a messenger from the Earth, the initiator of this crisis) is showing us the way, if we will listen. As we stop, stay at home, empty out some of our busy-ness, we have a chance to rest and yield into this time of restricted movement. Listening to nature and to our own bodies can open us to the lessons that will guide us. In the second stage of the birth process, BPM2, the compressive forces of the early contractions as we enter the birth canal bring feelings of pain, suffocation, fear that there is no way out; we might feel betrayed as the first stage of largely benevolent goodwill and nurturance has now turned against us and is hurting us. We feel like a victim to forces far beyond our control, against which we have no power. It might feel as if we are not loved, that we are forsaken, alone, and helpless.
I am sure many people are experiencing some of these feelings right now. We have collectively entered the birth canal of this crisis and are being squeezed from all sides. What I have learnt from my experiences of working with this model in somatic re-birthing explorations is that we need to accept and yield into these forces (Hartley 2004). There will still be pain and suffering, but less than if we fight and struggle against what is happening. There is a greater Love that we are all held within, and this force of Love is helping us to evolve right now.
Sometimes, in my movement practice, I arrive in a place where I ‘see’ a layer of light encompassing the whole Earth – a radiant crown, a corona radiata (this is the name given to the layer of nutritional cells which surround the pre-embryo in its first days of coming into being (van der Wal 2020)) – and it feels as if countless beings or forces or energies have gathered to help and heal us, to midwife us through this time. Maybe the coronavirus brings the solution as well as the sickness; as psychologist Arnold Mindell writes, the healing is contained within the symptom (Mindell 1989: 25). If we can listen deeply to the symptoms of the virus we might find healing. For now, it is telling us to stop what we were doing before.
Ultimately our politicians don’t have the answers; they can only scratch the surface and hope to make things less bad. We need to look beyond and open to sources of help we can’t yet see. Like the infant stuck in the birth canal, we cannot see the midwife, nor even our mother, and can only trust in the process we must surrender to. American Buddhist teacher Cynthia Jurs (Jurs 2020) has re-named the virus the karuna-virus. Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion. Love and compassion are being offered and are also being called forth from us at this time.
We see both responses happening: so many people are reaching out to others, offering help and support to those with less resources than they have in many different ways – compassionate action abounds. And many more are encouraging us with wise, funny, inspiring, creative offerings to lift the spirit. On the other hand, there are communities, especially in the US right now, who are already rebelling, fighting against the lockdown, on the streets demanding their right of freedom. Once you are in the early stages of labour this is clearly the wrong demand, though it is an understandable wish.
The birthing infant who rebels against the constrictions of the birth won’t be able to access the joyful, life-affirming potential of the third stage of labour, BPM 3, when the infant begins to push and find his/her own power and agency. The potential at this stage is to work together with the contracting womb, to listen and find shared rhythm and purpose, as infant and mother yield and push in synchrony to birth the child.
We are not there yet in this great collective transition. When we arrive there, perhaps in a few months or more likely years, the question will be: can we work with what is, join with the greater forces acting upon us to create something new and beautiful? Or will the majority of us be rebelling against these forces, fighting one another, demanding individual rights over those of the collective? The promise of the fourth stage of the birth matrix, BPM 4, is of a joyful re-union between mother and child when the pain and fear of the birth process has been met, yielded into, accepted, and worked through together. The risk is that, instead, we experience the total loss of our known world in the womb as death and annihilation, and anxiety, trauma, and conflict result.
These days I feel more hope than I have felt for several years that we can come through this renewed and bettered. We are on an edge, in a liminal space, which is a place of much power and potential. We can choose which we way we go, but only through our collective actions, thoughts, and prayers.
Returning again and again to my Somatic and Authentic Movement practice, I find boundless resources, and this helps me through the difficult and painful moments. The inner listening also opens my awareness out to embrace the Earth and Nature, of which I am a part, which holds, nourishes and supports me, and also teaches me. Earth consciousness has awakened too; Gaia is our teacher now. If we can listen to Her messages we will find the way.
Grof, Stanislav, Beyond the Brain. SUNY Press, 1985
Hartley, Linda, Servants of the Sacred Dream. Elmdon Books 2001
Hartley, Linda, Somatic Psychology. Whurr/Wiley, 2004
Jung, C G, Psychological Typology. Bollingen Series XX. Collected Works 6. Princeton University Press, NJ. 1976
Jurs, Cynthia, https://earthtreasurevase.org/about-us/founder/ Accessed April 23, 2020
Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope. New World Library, Novato CA. 2012
Mindell, Arnold, River’s Way. New York, Penguin/Arkana. 1989
Wal, Jaap van der, https://www.embryo.nl/72-english-internationaal?sitelang=EN Online Webinar, April 22nd, 2020
Wellings, Nigel and Elizabeth Wilde McCormick, Nothing to Lose. Woodyard Publications, Suffolk. 2010
@ Linda Hartley. Norfolk, UK. April 2020