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  • Stefanie Cohen

Language, Wildness and Being a Body

For someone who has spent more than the past three decades engaged and enthralled with bodies, and with the silent guidance and revelations that emerge from them, it occasionally surprises me how utterly devoted I am to finding just… the right… words.  

While I’m more than aware of their deficiencies — how words are actually the very least of the ways in which we humans actually communicate with one another —  I delight in the attempts at a precision of language.  

Many times, I pause when speaking with someone, my head cocked slightly to one side; my eyes turned upward as though to find the words written up in the air.  Invariably, others interpret this gesture as a kind of self censorship — as though I’m trying to break some news gently or to avoid hurting their feelings with what I have to say.  But to me, it simply has to do with a desire to communicate with clarity and specificity.  

Or at the very least, to approximate it.

To be clear, not everyone finds this quest for the most choice words charming.  Just ask my partner or kids who distinctly (and rightfully) do not enjoy when I correct them or when I get in the weeds to come up with the just right term for that shade of bluish-purple…. Lavender? Lilac? Periwinkle… ? However, as I have recently begun to learn more of my ancestral inheritances as a Jewish person (and with a degree, therefore, of somewhat relieved validation), I grow to understand that my deliberation and precision of words is no accident.  I come by this esteem for language naturally — as though etched deeply in the far recesses of my bones.

In the Path of Blessing by Rabbi Marcia Prager, a joyous, elegant book that serves as a meditation on each of the first six words of Jewish blessings, she shares that Hebrew is a sacred language —  “a ‘depth’ language” and that “There are even implications in Hebrew words that do not necessarily operate on a conscious level.”  This tradition dictates a care and reverence for how we choose to speak things into their existence; an acknowledgement that words, once uttered, cannot be retrieved.

In the discipline of Authentic Movement — a contemplative, somatic (body-oriented) practice founded in the 1950’s/60’s and which I’ve facilitated for over 20 years — we take a particular care in how we speak to the experiences we have.  And, to my immense satisfaction, true to my own nature, I’m a bit of a stickler about this.  In my groups and workshops I hold firmly and vehemently even to the choices of language that describe our reflections themselves.  “Responses,” I insist, versus “feedback”.

In this practice, we explore a form both deceptively simple and deeply radical.  As “movers” we yield to our bodies to move us.  With eyes closed, so as to amplify our sensations and an experience of our bodies from the inside out, we listen for and surrender to impulses toward movement, stillness, silence and sounds of any kind.  As in a movement meditation, as we allow these impulses to unfold, we make note of associations  — of images, memories, feelings — and we may later find ourselves making connections in other parts of our lives; creative, psychological, interpersonal, & spiritual.

As movers we practice “simply” lending ourselves to this vessel in which we permit whatever it is that wants to move through us at that moment, to do so free of the imposition of choreography, utilitarian movement, intention, or agenda.

We practice suspending interpretation.   We may or may not sense an awareness of the meanings or connections in the movement. 

We practice…being bodies.  And we do so in the presence of others who serve as compassionate witnesses.  

As witnesses — roles we trade off and on with one another — we bring our attention to the eyes-closed movers.  We hold a sense of the conscious space of the room, where the movers get to hold down the “unconscious” one.  We note for ourselves the images, feelings, thoughts and the sensations we experience in our own bodies as we hold the movers in our gaze.  This gaze contains and envelops versus analyzes; it receives rather than assesses; and it expands to hold the possibility of all of the facets of the movers, without, importantly, purporting to “understand” or to know their experience at all.

Reasonably, this can be challenging, as we humans are meaning-makers.  Our survival as organisms depends upon the rapid, largely intuitive capacity to distinguish between dangerous and safe, poison from nourishment, “good” from “bad”.  In order to navigate our environments and engage with others, some parts of us, even anciently buried, must discern for ourselves the rightness or wrongness of a given situation or image.  Not “understanding”, therefore, can feel both deeply uncomfortable and incredibly liberating.

When the movement sessions have completed, and movers and witnesses have had opportunities to reflect for themselves in their journals or with art materials, we come together to share.  The movers always speak first, as to “what happened”; as the true authorities, the sole definers of their own experiences.  Then, if the movers wish to hear them, witnesses may offer their responses.  We share our images, feelings and associations in a way that takes full ownership of our projections onto the movement; our collaboration in the process of seeing.  “When I saw you moving in the corner, arms above your head,” we might say, “I saw you as a vine, growing up a brick wall”.  Or “when I saw you lying down, curled on your side, the image I had… the feeling I experienced… the story I made up…. was _______”.  And so on.

I’m quite firm in dissuading the use of a short hand term that defines a gesture by something else, instead of actually describing it.  For example: our most ancient maternal ancestors, walking throughout the lushness of the lands now known as southern Africa, must have needed to pause from time to time, did they not?  They must have needed to curl forward, crease their knees, extend their spines and rest their foreheads on the ground.  A gesture of rest?  Of reverence?  Of surrender?  A recognition, perhaps, of interconnectedness with Earth…?  With all due respect to ancient traditions that articulate this accumulation of limbs and spine in relation to the ground, our bodies have known the posture known as “child’s pose” well before our attempts to define it or before its Sanskrit name ever existed.

As witnesses, sensitive to the intimacy in having been permitted to watch our movers in their unfolding process, it is indeed, again, “responses” that we offer, versus “feedback”.  This distinction lies between sharing what “I experienced…” vs. authoritatively telling you who or what “you were”.  “Feedback”, to me, connotes an atonal hiss; a way in which you have kind of bounced off of me.  It most always accompanies the request of an evaluation: “How are we doing?” the corporations entreat us daily, “We’d love to hear your feedback!”  

“Response”, on the other hand, connotes to me how it is I have allowed myself to be affected and changed by you. When I merely label your movement and body or indeed evaluate or categorize your movement in any way, I inadvertently hold you at arms length.  When I take the time to discern and acknowledge how I have been so profoundly moved, my language, like my gaze, draws you closer to me versus objectifying you. This speaks to me of an alchemical process — the ways in which your presence, your body, your movement, has blended with my own history and imagination to produce a magical something else.

Above all, as enticing and delicious as words can be — and I’m aware of having consumed more than my fair share on this page alone — bodies have their multiple voices.  They sing at frequencies that verbal languages can only strain to approximate.  Our bodies, met and accompanied by compassionate curiosity, deserve to exist in their un-categorizable, and un-colonizable wildness.

This post appeared in A Bright DrewTopian Future blog on 4/19/24

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