Seekers come to Holotropic Breathwork, to therapy, to meditation, to a thousand other healing modalities, and it is somewhat easily apparent that healing calls for a certain level of self-love – a generosity towards oneself that will become the foundation of the process of healing all wounds. The prevailing idea is that ‘charity begins at home’ – according to psychologists, we must first learn to be generous with ourselves and then this generosity will spill out towards others. I don’t think this is true. It doesn’t work to begin with the most difficult task. It puts one off, disappoints, robs one of optimism. To love oneself is not the first task, it is (could be) the final one. I suspect that many people listen wide-eyed to their therapists who tell them that they will become better partners, parents, lovers, friends if only they can learn to love themselves first. They leave the therapists’ offices and go back into the world only to find that it is very, very difficult to love oneself – and then how can they ever get to the point when they can be loved by or love others? In fact, I doubt that one can learn to love at all while sitting on a therapist’s couch.
I’ve been using the words love and generosity interchangeably. I mean them to be interchangeable. Scott Peck’s definition of love as the extension of oneself for the good of the other is what I mean by generosity as well. It begins in the heart or mind, but it takes all of heart and mind. It’s true that often I am open-hearted with some reservations in the mind – the chatter goes against the open-heartedness. But then the act of moving past the chatter is very much the decision of the mind. There’s one more step – the will to act – for thought and feeling are incomplete without some action – understanding that sitting still and doing nothing is one (powerful) form of action. So, how does one learn generosity of feeling, thought and action?
In the Holotropic Breathwork model, breathers often first notice that a facilitator is generous with her time. “You must have other things to do,” the breather says. “You don’t need to spend so much time with me.” We stay and stay, and slowly it sinks in that the breather can take what is on offer – as much time as he wants. It is a powerful gift, given freely. The breather experiences it as unusual generosity.
Facilitators are generous with their bodies – unusually so. Snot, vomit, sweat, and sometimes other bodily excretions, are taken in stride. There’s little defense against the harm that the breather’s body can cause the facilitator’s. Then there’s the bodywork, during which the facilitator is willing to use any muscle, body-part, position, every ounce of strength, to facilitate the breather’s completion of the process. No matter the state of the breather, this is registering as a generous offering to him, and he accepts it. And finally there is the deep holding that is offered to the breather. The facilitator holds the breather for as much time as the breather needs to be held; crying, struggling, or quiet, it is a profoundly important offering that, when the breather completely opens to it, can actually transform the deepest parts of the breather’s psyche.
Facilitators, when they have done enough work on themselves, are generous in their willingness to hold a breather’s projections. Positive or negative, these projections have the potential to unsettle and trigger the one projected on, and the willingness to take that chance, to sit still while knowing the risk, is a tremendous act of giving. Sometimes breathers recognize this offering; most often they don’t, even when it is pointed out to them; which makes it all the more an act of generosity. This might be the most difficult task a facilitator has, to work with the projections of a breather. The willingness to do that with an open heart is an act of love, even if the facilitator is not always completely able to get out of the way of the projection.
There are a hundred other ways in which facilitators are generous to breathers, and very often breathers feel this love – consciously or not – and it opens their hearts. This heart-opening is perhaps the most important step in the healing process. It is the breather’s first inkling of what it feels like to love himself. The more conscious the breather is of what he is receiving from the facilitator, the more effective the healing, because the breather begins to co-facilitate his healing until he does not need the facilitator any more. In other words, he learns to love himself as he has been loved by the facilitator. He learns to be generous to himself and, suddenly, all things are possible. So, one way we learn to love ourselves is by opening ourselves to the love we get from others.
If you’ve come this far with me, I ask you to come a little further, because I am approaching a bend in the river – the reason I want to write this.
While all this Holotropic Breathwork is taking place, the facilitator’s healing is very much in process. The Inner Healer watches, sets up, and moves not only for the breather but for the facilitator as well. For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so he loves also the bow that is stable. (Kahlil Gibran). Our own wounds go deep and we are still in need of that love, despite the years of work we have done on ourselves.
I believe that the second stage on this journey towards love is when we begin to love others. After we have been breathers on the mat for a while, we choose to go into the training. During the training, we are still in the process I wrote about earlier – the process of learning to accept the generosity of others. We begin to watch those who are modeling generosity on a somewhat grand scale. Why is it harder to work a week-long module than it is to walk through fire and climb a mountain (or to walk though fire on a mountain)? Because the module calls forth every ounce of generosity you can offer up and then asks for more. The facilitators at the modules model an intense level of giving, and breathers watch and learn. So the training to be a facilitator consists of watching facilitators be generous of themselves. From them, we learn to give.
We become certified Holotropic Breathwork facilitators and we run workshops and we begin this process of giving to others. We give and we give – sometimes only as much as we can and sometimes more. We are sometimes good at it, and sometimes we close up and feel crappy. But the practice is clear and pretty single-minded. If you want to continue offering workshops, you will need to learn how to give more of yourself to others. Your time for phone calls, strength to carry equipment, patience for endless emails, endurance when your back hurts like the devil listening to shared stories while all you want to do is go home to bed. This in addition to everything already listed earlier. And then some more.
What happened to me is that all this giving slowly began to turn inward as well. Gradually, I began to realize that the spirit of generosity I was extending towards others included me, and the circle of safety and protection I offered others encompassed me. And I began to realize what people had been trying to teach me – that this generosity is not mine to give; if I am willing, it simply flows through me with little effort on my part. Now, when breathers start to relax into this net of love, so do I. It has been a rather unexpected turn of events. Further, anything I can give to others I can give to myself, after all. So when I do my own work in holotropic states, I can offer myself my facilitation skills – my gentleness and generosity. And as I move into that space, the work has offered me its final secret that is not a secret at all: there is nothing else but this love, this open hearted, open minded, open handed generosity. We breathe it, eat it, drink it, taste its incredible savory-sweetness. And all we can do in this human life is learn to live it. With every breath and every thought and every flick of the finger.
My point is that we learn to love ourselves by recognizing and accepting the love that comes our way from others and by loving others. We learn to be kind and generous and forgiving to ourselves by being kind and generous and forgiving towards others. Not by reading Buddhist manuals or by singing in Church or by talking in a therapist’s office. The ultimate goal might be – might be – self-love, but we will achieve it only by practicing other-love.