by Monica Ross
Many years back I attended a retreat at Esalen on the beautiful coast of California in Big Sur. While living in San Diego, I had heard about how magical of a place Esalen was with it's course offerings on anything from the arts and creativity to leadership and society. Esalen was founded in 1962 as part of the human potential movement.
I was taking introductory massage classes at a massage school in San Diego at the time and one of the books for the course was a book called Bodymind. Bodymind was written in 1986 by Ken Dychtwald. As part of the book, Ken talks about his experiences at Esalen and the things that he had observed about people in general and how our body language gives clues into how we may be thinking about ourselves or where we may be physically storing emotional content.
Somatic experiencing, which came later in the 1970s with Peter Levine and his work, is a mode of therapy that emphasizes the importance of our bodies and the information stored within. Dychtwald and Levine were striking up similar conversations at the time about the need for attention to our physical presence.
Here is a link to Esalen or the Esalen Institute and a link to The Somatic Experiencing Institute website. Today you can find psychotherapists who have specific training in somatic experiencing, which can be a good mode of psychotherapy to use in working through trauma.
What brought me to Esalen at the time was a weekend workshop by a man named Paul Brenner. He and his wife Deborah were conducting it. Paul is a physician and holds a PhD in Counseling Psychology. He was one of the founders of the holistic medicine movement and hosted a series on PBS called "Healing through Communication."
I think I was in my late 20s or it may have been the year I turned 30. I was conscious of saving costs. Esalen offered the option to bring a sleeping bag and sleep on the floor of a meeting room during the retreat in order save money instead of staying in the cottages, so I opted for that.
They also offered a volunteer scholarship and I worked in the kitchen prepping for meals for retreat participants. There is an organic garden at the retreat which serves locally sourced and organic foods. I also folded laundry for retreat guests as part of the award.
But the name of the workshop that Paul and Deborah were conducting was called “Seeing Your Life Through New Eyes: Changing Yourself and Your Relationships.” The title of Paul’s book is also Seeing Your Life Through New Eyes: InSights to Freedom from Your Past. I was thinking of this workshop and the book because the topic of people skills came up in one of my sessions recently.
One of the things that I learned through the workshop was that often our greatest people skills come from the ways in which we were wounded as children. One of the concepts in Paul’s book and one of the things we learned in the workshop is that a lot of us receive both gifts from our caregivers and hurts. A gift might be that our mother was very nurturing and a hurt might be that she was also overly protective.
The child who grows up with a mother who is like that may later develop the people skill of allowing others their space or freedom having known the hurt of feeling tied down or constrained. In another example, a parent might be addicted to drugs or alcohol and as part of their addiction pass on the hurt of being neglectful.
The child growing up having experienced the neglect might turn around and be one of the most attentive people you would meet. He is the first to search for a pillow in the room if he sees a pregnant woman looking uncomfortable. I thought at the time that this doesn’t account for those who go on to display the same behaviors and symptoms as their parents—those children who witnessed domestic violence as a hurt child who instead of being the most non violent people go on to be violent themselves.
So, I combined this recently with another tool that I use in session—Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the key concepts in the book is that there is always a stimulus and a response to a stimulus. And we always have the freedom to choose our response to any given situation.
People tend to use their negative experiences growing up and turn these experiences into either reasons or excuses. So to go back to what I was saying earlier, for the child who came from a household where there was a caregiver who was highly addicted--that child has a choice. That child might grow up to either use their negative experiences in childhood as either the reason or excuse for their current behaviors.
If that child uses those negative experiences as an excuse to perpetuate the cycle of addiction, they too may fall into a life of addiction. On the other hand, if that child becomes resilient they might use those negative experiences as the reason for ending the cycle. Brenner’s subtitle to his book is “Insights to Freedom from Your Past.” In order to be free from our past we need first to acknowledge if our negative experiences growing up have become either the reason or excuse for our current behaviors.