Exploring Resonance Through Words And Touch

Nick Pole & Alice Whieldon: in conversation

One’s life is conducted by one’s spirit…a treatment has to move the spirit to restore wellbeing…In creating a quiet space through a quiet mind and body, illumination comes…The spirit moves because the environment of the space encourages it to be moved….Well-rooted presence and virtue of the practitioner are key to this environment.  Close windows and shut doors to create a space that is calm and quiet enough for concentration, so you can promote a relationship of unity between your spirit and the patient.
[Ling Shu (1,8,9) and Su Wen (27)]NICK: Traditionally in Japan, shiatsu hardly involved words at all. That’s one thing about it we in the west may also value – a way through touch to a quieter mind. But many clients also want some words; they want a way to make sense of the experience of shiatsu, they want some assessment of the state their in, and they want to know where they’re going. We both have our own ways of working with words and with touch, but can we start with the story of how you realised very young that they were both going to be an important part of your life?

ALICE: Yes, I have my father to thank for this.  He went to California in the 1970s and met the stars of what was then called the human potentialmovement at the Esalen Institute.  His idea was to set up something similar in the UK, without the surf and sunshine, sadly.  So, when he returned, he bought a crumbling old house on the edge of Dartmoor. By the time I joined him in 1985, Grimstone Manor was a centre for workshops such as meditation, yoga, tai chi and psychotherapy. 

I spent my gap year there, and subsequent summers, cooking for groups and participating in the ones that interested me. It was an extraordinary time.  I met people like Ram Das, Gabrielle Roth and many more.  Since I had never heard of any of them, it never occurred to me to be nervous about meeting them.

Within weeks of my arrival we hosted a meditation workshop called the Enlightenment Intensive. My father, always competitive, dared me to join him on it, and I agreed. It is a powerful mix of Zen sesshin and modern communication techniques.  Thanks to that, I realised that I had a choice between doing what most 18-year-olds have to do – make up some kind of personality – which I thought, meant something like becoming a character in a Jane Austen novel, or taking the different, but more interesting path to find a more authentic sense of ‘me’.

Not long after, Pauline Sasaki came to Grimstone and gave me my first shiatsu treatment when the staff were offered sessions. I knew nothing about it but I felt ‘touched’ in a way I had never known before, deeply, fully, personally and yet respectfully.  I didn’t understand what had happened but vowed to myself that I would learn Shiatsu.  Five years later I embarked on the journey that, after graduating in shiatsu, took me eventually to studying Sei-ki with Kishi and then collaborating with him as co-author of the book Sei-ki: Life in Resonance.  In Kishi’s work I recognised exactly what I had been looking for: something that combined the same thread of understanding I had experienced on the Enlightenment Intensive with the compassionate but unfluffy connection I had found so moving in that first Shiatsu with Pauline.

NICK: You also work with and have written a book about Mind Clearing. What’s the relationship for you between Sei-ki, which, at least when I studied with Kishi, involves no words, and Mind Clearing, which is a talking therapy. 

ALICE: Yes, Mind Clearing is a counselling-style of talking work that uses formal questions repetitively, to unpack ideas that jam up the mind and keep us stuck. The task is not only to encourage the client to express what they have not being saying in life, but to express it resonantly.  And this is the interesting part.  We can say the words about a traumatic event, for example, but unless they resonate with the emotions that are held in the body, there will not be much change.  It is true that saying the words alone might be a huge step at first, but to deal with trauma at a cellular level, the words must resonate with the actual event, with the full body impact of it.  I would also like to note a couple of things, here.  First, Kishi saw the importance of vocal expression too, though this was not usually an aspect of his presentations and, second, his Sei-ki sessions at home in Japan included talking and he would take notes.  The demonstrations he did in workshops were to help people understand the work, but they were not the whole picture.

NICK: And you practice Sei-ki and Mind Clearing as separate disciplines, not combining them in one session?

ALICE: Yes, but whether I’m working with words or touch, the work has a similar feeling.  The individual is there, in front of me, wrapped in an armour of ideas and emotions, distorted to one degree or another. So, my job is to find a way to resonate with that person’s distortion, to ‘touch’ it, to bring consciousness to it.

NICK: Listening to you in workshops over the past couple of years, I’ve been struck by your insistence on the philosophy behind what you do – on this question of ‘What is a person?’ I guess, over the years, I’ve been more focussed on the ‘how’ than the ‘why’; on the way to work rather than what the work actually is, since from a Clean Language approach, that’s up to the client to discover for themself.

ALICE: In Sei-ki it seems to me that asking oneself what ‘the person’ actually is, is a vital first step.  But in watching you work I can see that Clean Language really seems to touch people.  What is it about Clean Language for you that makes it fit so well with shiatsu?

NICK: I went to Kishi’s workshops when he was teaching in the UK in the mid-90’s, and soon after that I heard about Clean Language and got really interested in how these very simple ‘Clean’ questions helped people to explore the inner resonance of the words they themselves had just spoken. With great simplicity, and without appearing to do anything except repeat the participant’s words in the form of another question, the facilitator helped people make what seemed like profound shifts in their relation to behaviour, beliefs and sense of self. There was a practical and a philosophical attraction for me in this. In a practical sense, it was just so simple – with a handful of very open questions you invite the client to listen to what they just said and explore the deeper resonances that those words unlock, both metaphorically and somatically. In that way it seemed like the perfect introduction to a shiatsu session. And in a philosophical sense, unlike almost every other form of therapeutic dialogue I’d heard of, this Clean approach had no agenda, no framework, no diagnostic system of its own to impose upon the client. That simplicity resonated for me with the Sei-Ki that I had experienced in Kishi’s workshops. Part of that resonance seemed to be in the way he would just sit and listen before he started a treatment- a kind of embodiment of pure Zen presence – a bottomless emptiness, just listening. Of course, Kishi was a hugely charismatic guy, and often very much the alpha male, but that all seemed to disappear down this rabbit hole of Emptiness, or Mushin, or Beginner’s Mind, whatever you want to call it. And for David Grove, the originator of Clean Language, a New Zealander with – perhaps it’s significant – a mixed Maori and European heritage, that ability to almost disappear as the facilitator was also an essential part of the act. In fact he once said that his aim was for ‘the ‘I’ of the therapist to disappear’.

ALICE: I agree. When we impose ourselves on our clients, however subtly, they experience us.  What we really want is that they should experience themselves more clearly.  This is the shift in understanding that we are looking for in Sei-ki and in Clean Language.

NICK: So when I started using this in shiatsu, two things that had been very separate for me started to come together. At a personal level, it was about bringing my love of language (which I had got from my dad, whose only real way of playing with us as children was through stories, poetry, word-games and Shakespeare) together with something that neither of my parents, or their parents, had ever seemed to know much about: the ability to connect through touch. At a deeper level, it seemed to be about realizing that those two great Buddhist imperatives of Compassion and Emptiness, neither of which I had ever felt much good at, were two ends of a cosmic spectrum, which as shiatsu practitioners we experience, on the one hand, as wanting to help someone, and on the other as not wanting to invade their space or impose our agenda on them: a paradox summed up – and solved – in T.S.Eliot’s wonderful lines from ‘Ash Wednesday’:

‘Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still.’

As shiatsu people, it can be very hard for us to access that intention of ‘not caring’, until we find our own unique and personal way of ‘sitting still’. Yet in great samurai movies, (and Kishi had a samurai family lineage), and also watching Aikido masters on YouTube, you can see pure emptiness in action. Watching Kishi ‘sit still’ before he started a Sei-Ki treatment, I was very drawn to this part of the process, as if the compassion that proceeds from honest, authentic touch emerges from a place of stillness in which the ‘I’ of the practitioner has at least for a few seconds completely disappeared. Otherwise my ego can easily get involved and then there’s something in it for me – I’m a good person because I can ‘do’ compassion.

ALICE: Yes, for Kishi compassion like that was central to Sei-ki.  It comes from a determination to recognise things as they actually are.  There is a moment when all one can say is something like, ‘Ah, I see how it is (for you)’.  This is so small and so vast.  And the vanishing ‘self’ isn’t something you can really aim to do, I suspect.  It is more that sincere practice has the effect of erasing ego.  I’m not even sure it is an end in itself.  It is a by-product of wanting to see things as they are.  So, while Sei-ki, and Clean Language both appear to be an opening or no-thing rather than a something, this is not the case. Actually, they’re both strong disciplines of research and recognition through which, like a still pool, something can be seen. Together they offer a way to demonstrate the power of minimal form.  The simplicity of what we both do is like the blank wall of a gallery.  You don’t really notice the wall, but without it you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the paintings. 

NICK: Which brings us to the whole idea of shiatsu as a kind of performing art, in the traditional Japanese sense that you couldn’t just be a martial artist, or a calligrapher or a musician – the whole point was that each art is simply a way to cultivate beginner’s mind, and with beginner’s mind you can practice any art. You’ve said that in Mind Clearing the point is not just for the client to speak their truth but for those words to resonate, literally, in an embodied way. In western voice training, the words have to resonate from the actor’s body to the audience, and what is resonating is the meeting between the actor’s embodied voice and the playwright’s written words. For the musician it’s the same. It’s interesting to me that three of the shiatsu teachers who have most influenced me – Mike Rose, Cliff Andrews and Bill Palmer – are all musicians. The musician’s job is to let the composer’s work resonate for the audience. I like that as a metaphor for shiatsu…we are performing artists, helping the client to resonate with the creative potential inside them – they are their own audience, in a way.

And for me that’s also the point of Clean Language. People are often amazed to discover what’s going on inside them – translating symptoms and emotions into a genuine conversation with their own body and finding metaphors appearing and unfolding in a way that allows the cognitive mind to make some sense of it all. That’s one reason why I love integrating language and shiatsu in one session. You can actually realize there is genius inside you – I don’t mean genius in a Mozart way – but something amazing and original and possibly life-changing that you can connect with and listen to and recognize as being your own. When there are no words involved, it’s very easy for the verbal left-brain to dismiss shiatsu as a purely somatic experience. But when we ask Clean questions we invite the left brain, which has the words, and the right brain, which is far more body-oriented, to listen to each other, to do their best to communicate in their very different ways; then you begin to get a sense of what you’re talking about – what a person really is.

ALICE: And that’s been my question since that first Enlightenment intensive that my father challenged me to in 1985. I started my Shiatsu training at the same time as I started my PhD in feminist philosophy and spirituality. Being a good student, I tried to find connections between them.  The theory I was looking at was a project of speaking the body.  The feminist thinkers who interested me (such as Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous) suggested that the feminine, associated as it is with the body, must find a new language, the language of the body. Like them, I was conscious there was little point in investigating these issues unless we were doing something practical to bring it into being.  For my part this was connected to Shiatsu.  My doctorate, completed in 1995, was essentially about what a person was, but I never got really clear on ‘speaking the body’. That is finally coming into being for me in the work that I do in Mind Clearing and in writing and speaking about Sei-ki.  What I want is to bring this work out of the shadows and have it acknowledged for the powerful soul medicine that it is.  For that, we need a healthy marriage with language.  And that is my job.

NICK: I couldn’t put it better! I’d just add that in order to do that we need to be open to working in much more inter-disciplinary ways than either the academic world or the complementary health field have been used to. Clean Language is built for that because it helps people to see their own unconscious professional prejudices in a clearer light and offers tools for people to collaborate between disciplines. So it seems very right, and very exciting, to be exploring Sei-ki and Clean Language in this collaborative way, especially since – in the end – collaborating with our clients in their process is what it’s all about.

Alice Whieldon and Nick Pole will be co-teaching their first course on Sei-ki and Clean Language in London from 29th-31st March 2019. For details contact [email protected]