School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Issue: June 2012
So what has Movement Medicine got to do with peace making?

By Susannah

When I was in Tul Karem last year, a big hearted, curious and open Palestinian guy who is a social worker and a policeman asked me this, and the answers have been developing ever since. Since my last visit to Israel, there’s been another ‘down load’. Here it is!

1) Movement is a universal language. It is a sign language of the heart. It transcends our differences and helps us find the common humanity from which we can begin to look for a creative way forward together.

When we come together with people from the “other side” the level of mutual distrust can make creative dialogue impossible. Speaking often descends to a basic level of blame, accusation and defensiveness about whose “fault” it is.  Until there is some level of basic trust that we are willing and able to see each other, and that we care about each other’s well being as fellow human beings, even the best intentioned dialogue can easily collapse into a destructive reiteration of the status quo which re-confirms our starting positions. Sharing a movement space as a prelude or accompaniment to verbal dialogue may seem a strange and arbitrary thing to do for those not accustomed to this way of working. However, our experience suggests that it can be a useful tool to help create the conditions where positive dialogue and mutual understanding become possible.

2) Internal Freedom. To make peace we need to be grounded in “what is” and to be awake, courageous, connected with our integrity, our independent intelligence, our creative capacity to imagine and create new possibilities. For this we need internal freedom.  But when we have been in oppressive conditions, whether these conditions were in the past or are in the present, we often become our own censors, our own silencers. As if we have “swallowed the jailer”. We do not allow ourselves to go near an apparently dangerous thought/feeling or action. By oppressive conditions I mean conditions in which it was not safe to be or express ourselves: our experience, our perceptions, our feelings, our actions.

One way to approach this internal liberation is through movement, because it is live, direct, it goes straight to the visceral heart of the matter.  We reclaim the freedom of our own bodies, hearts, minds and bodies when we dance in Movement Medicine. This is often a quicker route than through talking, though of course truth speaking and deep listening is very important.

3) Empathy. To make peace I need to be able to empathise with you, the other. And how does this work? Recent scientific studies have found that the capacity to be aware of the physical sensations of your own body, called ‘interoception”                (‘interior perception’) increase both your own emotional intelligence about your self (i.e. knowing what you are feeling) AND your empathy with others. It has been found that psychopaths and sociopaths tend to have very low capacities for interoception. (1) So it seems that the capacity to harm others is linked to a deadening or numbing of the internal awareness of one’s own body, which deadens or numbs the possibility of empathy. So Movement Medicine, with its focus on both recovering internal listening and sensation, and on developing outer empathy and seeing of the other, in their full humanity, could be a tool in this process.  If we dance together we have a chance to feel each other’s co-humanity, strengthening our empathy so that we can deal with the conflicts and differences between us in a healthy way.

Empathy has been discovered to be a natural characteristic of us as humans and as mammals. (2). What are the factors that inhibit this natural tendency towards empathy? From the research I have done so far, they include:

a)    Having low “interoception”, not being able to feel one’s own body, inhibits the resonance with how someone else feels. . (1)

b)    Not being able (literally) to see the other. (2).

c)     De-humanisation or demonisation. The “pictures” of the other which allow us to think that the other is not really human, or not really the same as us, and which allow us to hurt the other, or ignore the other’s need, without feeling guilt or remorse. The process of dehumanisation is a well documented and almost universal prelude to genocide or mass cruelty of one group to another. . (2 and 4).

d)    The power of the “herd instinct”. If enough of “us” are doing something, however clearly wrong, mis-informed or irrational it is, there is a very strong tendency of humans to follow the apparent consensus. If one begins to challenge or question the apparent consensus, even on an interior level it can arouse uncomfortable feelings of guilt or disloyalty. This is very connected with, and re-enforces c).

So Movement Medicine can contribute to strengthening our empathy and human solidarity across borders by:

a)    Giving a methodology for growing our interoception

b)    Being a non-threatening context where people from different “sides” can   meet and literally see each other as humans.

c)     Through this develop some more real and personal “pictures” of the other.

d)    Develop the inner strength and autonomy to tolerate the difficult feelings which arise when one starts to stand up for a universal (rather than tribal) sense of conscience and identity as part of the whole human family. Also giving people a context to find other people awakening, (in many ways) from the ‘trance of separation” , so that they are not alone.

4) The peace movement. The peace movement is a movement! In order to make peace we need to be able to move from the fixed ground of what we think we know, who we think we are, who we think the ‘other’ is, what consensus reality defines as “the way it is” or “the way it has to be”. Literal movement awakens this capacity to move on other levels too, and to challenge our internalised pre-conceptions of “the way things are” and to open to other perspectives and possibilities.

5) Resolving Trauma. When we, as individuals or as a culture, have suffered great trauma, one way that the psyche (both individual and collective) responds to survive, is to create a fixed view of the world as not safe, a self identity as a victim, and a strategy of pre-emptive aggression which is experienced as absolutely necessary. This survival strategy “trauma loop” keeps us reactive rather than responsive, and tends to re-confirm its own reality through selective perception and the way that reactive action normally creates the very reaction in others which it fears, and thus re-confirm the beliefs which drive it in the first place. When trauma is held deeply in both the individual and the collective and where a whole edifice of society is unconsciously built on the foundations of our collectively agreed survival strategy there is a huge momentum in place which seems to confirm that “this is reality”. How to shift this? My experience, and that of many respected trauma workers such as Peter Levine, (3) is that unlocking the body is the key to releasing trauma. Once one comes into a free relationship with the sensation and freedom of one’s own moving body, once can come home to a new sense of safety, presence in the ‘now” and openness to new possibility.

6) Personal well being. Working for peace has all sorts of tensions. We are often accused by our own people. We may feel painful inner tension between different loyalties. It is not always easy to keep the source of hope and joy and creativity clear and fresh. When we dance we can simply release, let go, be cleansed and renewed, find our spirits refreshed, and re-connect with the deep love of life and our deepest purpose.

6. Equality On the dance floor we all are equal. This opens the space for real empathy and empowerment.

7. True and honest dialogue. Freed from words we become more free from our habitual roles and defense mechanism as “defenders” of our nations. We are who we are at the moment in "what is" with the humanity of ourselves and each other.

8. Experiential Learning. Movement helps us to actually experience the change we want to be, it helps us to make the transition from cognitive awareness into action, where the positive feedback loop of interaction with other dancers can support new channels of communication and real “see-ing” of those we may have seen as “other”.

That’s as far as I have got so far!

Love to all! This document will be translated into Arabic and Hebrew.

Susannah Darling Khan



1)     The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, Random House, 2007

2)     The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal.

3)     Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine, North Atlantic Books, 1997

4)     Nottingham holocaust museum.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.