Exploring Resonance Through Words And Touch
Nick Pole & Alice Whieldon: in conversation
SSJ ARTICLE WINTER 2018/9
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]
The key to what makes Shiatsu different from most science-based, as well as complementary medical systems, is that it is soul medicine.
The term ‘soul’ is western and can refer to different things in different theological systems; it is used to here to refer to the unchanging, original self. For most of us, our souls are obscured by the busyness and drama of mind and body which are, by definition, in a state of ill-health. The human condition is one in which we are identified with this noise of mind and body, but this is not who we really are. Who we really are is the unchanging bit.
In soul medicine, while we work with the stuff of mind and body because that is the material presented to us, we do not work for the primary benefit of mind and body. This is because, working on mind and body is not where real help lies. Real help, where change is fundamental, lies in addressing the soul to help steer its way back to consciousness and fulfilment. This is why Masunaga called Shiatsu, the ‘King of medicine’; because it deals with health at the core.The crucial point about Shiatsu and the philosophy that underpins it is that the practitioner does not do the work for the client; this would actually be impossible. You cannot cure the soul because there is no-thing to cure. Instead, the practitioner brings consciousness to bear on the person’s mind/body distortions so that the soul can engage and do the work through conscious choice. Only the true individual can actually choose to change. You could cut off a patient’s arm to solve a problem and that is a kind of change; but unless the person involved is really authoring, or authorising this change at the level of conscious understanding and choice, then the original problem will simply re-emerge in some other way.
The job of the soul doctor is to call to the soul, buried at various depths under layers of mind and body. As the original self comes to the fore so the distortions, or illnesses, become less relevant. Health issues will often resolve in this process, but even when they do not, the individual’s relationship with them changes.
When the soul is in charge then life has less drama. This is what Buddhists mean by non-attachment. When the soul is in the foreground, relationships improve because there is less mind-stuff and less unexpressed emotion (body) being brought into relationship and getting in the way of real contact. When relationships go better, life is more fulfilling. Fulfilment is health.
To practice soul medicine takes one thing: commitment to the truth of how it is, performed in relation to others. Practicing Shiatsu with this commitment is the thread that can hold apparently different styles together. Different styles of working with touch reflect the different characters of the practitioners engaged in this process. To that extent, what we do is different. But the guiding philosophy is clear; the intention to know Truth. As a group, were we to focus on this philosophical base, rather than on differences in techniques and styles, I suggest we would find greater confluence and community.
As soon as the work becomes focused on the mind/body distortion as something interesting in itself and something to change, then it stops being soul medicine. It starts to become about techniques and it narrows down. The distortion is interesting to the soul doctor only as a gateway to the original self.
Although we find in soul medicine that there is nothing to do, this is not doing nothing. It is the hardest discipline; of putting one’s own mind and emotion body aside time and again and again and again in relation to the other. A treatment is giving the other your attention through the medium of touch and being with them and setting aside your own mind/body. By doing this you also clarify your own mind/body distortion.
There is nothing otherworldly or mysterious about it. The mystery is our lostness. Soul medicine is about coming home. It is awakening to the full, mundane beauty and enoughness of the now of how it is.
Yet knowing this is one thing and practicing it is another. How do we learn to do this? There is no easy answer. However, we do know it is possible to perform soul medicine and also that it is possible to learn it. But both things are different for each person and learning has to be something undertaken as a personal service and surrender to Truth. It takes time and repetition and it usually helps to have a teacher who has been there before; at some point we all need help to face down the monster of our own minds and emotions or we will be beguiled by their whispers.
A teacher is not someone who necessarily teaches you, though it may help if they understand teaching and learning and have something to convey. A teacher is someone you choose to learn from and ideally someone who is committed to helping you and knows what help looks like. Once those things are in place, then it is about discipline and hard graft. And it is worth all of it, even for one brief glimpse of the diamond that is the soul shining through.
Alice Whieldon is the co-author of Sei-ki: Life in Resonance, the secret art of Shiatsu 2011, Kishi & Whieldon, Singing Dragon. Also author of: Mind Clearing: the key to mindfulness mastery 2016, Singing Dragon. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and currently Chair of the Shiatsu Society (UK). She has Seiki and Mind Clearing practices in London and Norwich and leads regular workshops in both. Her next UK workshop will take place in London, April 22/23 2017 at the BSS venue. See www.alicewhieldon.com for details.
In Shiatsu, diagnosis and treatment are the same. Diagnosis is treatment; treatment is the process of diagnosis. Masunaga and Kishi both stressed this point; it is the Japanese Shiatsu way and for Kishi this was the dynamic moment of Seiki Soho. But, it can be hard to achieve in practice.
Our modern, western language and ways of thinking tell us that we can separate diagnosis and treatment. The English language certainly does, other European languages may have nuances I know nothing about, but my guess is that they are essentially the same on this. In any case, language does not map onto reality piece by piece. The word ‘table’ has no actual relationship to the thing that is or is not a table; ‘me’ is the name I call myself, it is not who/what I am. The fact that we use two words, ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’, gives the impression that actual diagnosis and treatment can be separated and performed as distinct steps, but that impression is an incorrect reading of reality and, as a side-effect, misunderstands a basic tenet of Shiatsu, the thread of which we pick up in Seiki. The split runs deep in our psyches and undermines the hands-on work unless we work hard to stop it.
Language represents a shared way of interpreting the world. It gives meaning, so we can operate in apparently coherent and collaborative ways. But this coherence is the merest gossamer covering, hiding the unimaginably powerful dynamics of eternity. That thin web of meaning is fragile, and it reflects only a tiny fraction of what is true. A film in front of our eyes, it obscures and distorts.
The contract we have with each other as social beings operates within this distortion. It has its uses and enables some community and stability. But it is also a menace because it filters what we know of the world and reduces it; it is a substitute for reality that muffles us from the zing and colour of life; it gets in the way of real relating and is very hard to escape from. In the end it kills most of us. Kishi told me he had only ever known one person die from actual old age, most people die from some kind of suicide.
It takes a huge task of will, or the intervention of a cataclysmic event, to get away from the dualistic thinking that separates syo diagnosis into two steps. In separating, we miss the moment; the meeting with infinity that Shiatsu, certainly Seiki (Soho) offers. Since the work is all in the timing – ki do ma – that is everything.
Splitting diagnosis and treatment is a basic tenet of modern, western medicine and it can be life-saving in that context. Doctoring is about seeing what is wrong and then addressing the symptoms and, sometimes, the cause.
But the Shiatsu of Masunaga and the Seiki of Kishi might look like healing but were never meant to be medicine. We make them medical by interpreting the form through the filter of modern, western thinking. Masunaga’s Shiatsu, his king of medicine aimed to use dualism to get past dualism and Kishi’s contribution is that he achieved it with Seiki Soho. But working against this, all the time, like wading through a quagmire, is this model of medicine we are familiar with in concert with our language structure. They pull diagnosis and treatment apart and time and again, making it hard for us to really appreciate what the Japanese masters regarded as so basic it did not need to be said.
This appreciation of reality and language is not the sole preserve of the east. Western theology points to it repeatedly and philosophers, at least as far back as David Hume (1711-76) have told us that there is no such thing as cause and effect; it is a connection that takes place in our imagination, not in fact.
And you may, at this point be thinking, ‘but of course there’s cause and effect…I put the kettle on – it boils!’ Yes, of course you are right. This is how we operate in daily life. It is hard-wired into us and it has value. But that does not make it true except in a mundane way. It is not the only truth. Slow it all down….slowly……….slowly………………slowly and we see that something else is going on; or nothing. There are spaces; everything is just itself.
Diagnosis and treatment might have been separated at first in order to make teaching easier. It is relatively straightforward to explain something in linear terms. It has its place and, even with Shiatsu, step by step exercises can provide a framework that helps us start to feel and understand. But it is an elementary stage we must avoid getting stuck in.
The problem was given a boost, worldwide, by the spread of the printing press in the 16th century which was a stage in the externalisation of knowledge. I am not denouncing the book, but it had unintended consequences. Writing things down started out as a useful aide memoir for the learned and became a straightjacket that places more authority on the fixed word than on the experience. The Word is a vital part of our evolution, but we need to use the dynamic it sets up to develop and not stagnate.
This is an over simplification; the briefest of histories. In short, the separation game was already well established in the west when Shiatsu came along in Japan, just 40 years or so after that country, closed for over 200 years, opened its doors to the outside world and began consuming western ideas in hungry gulps, fearful of being left behind. Shiatsu is a 20th century take on touch therapy and, ironically, owes its popularity to language. It is because it was described in western physiological terms that it spread.
This was done in the 1940s during the American administration in an attempt to differentiate Shiatsu from massage and have it recognised under its own license. The researchers, including Namikoshi and Masunaga, found a way. They knew they had not nailed the essence of Shiatsu but some of them decided it was good enough for the moment; it served the purpose at hand. With plausible-sounding explanations, which are not exactly wrong but not exactly right, it was possible to roll out a training at Namikoshi’s Japan Shiatsu School. He knew that once it was explained in western terms, it could be monetarised. The cost was that the heart went out of it. Masunaga left to pursue his own way of explaining and working with Shiatsu and Kishi worked with him for ten years, then left with his own development of the Shiatsu tradition, Seiki.
When Kishi talked of Namikoshi’s touch, it is evident that this was a long way from what his school taught. It was in keeping with the inner arts of Japan which were not directly spoken; like Shinto, the heart of Japan, the shrine behind the outer, Buddhist temple and trappings. We know we cannot speak of this, only experience it, but those who seekand see will follow the little path behind the Buddha, into the hills, to the rocks and trees and dark, to the mirror and the kami…..
Kishi was astonished and impressed by the western ability to articulate the inner, we can’t do that, he told me, showing me a documentary about western classical music in which musicians spoke of their work, listen to that! A Japanese would never be able to explain that, we speak in metaphors, never exactly saying. We find this so impressive.
It is a real offering to the world: being able to explain. It comes at the centre from the opposite side of meaning to the quiet way of the Japanese. Both have their upsides and dangers. The hints and feather-touch require us to be quiet and practiced in listening for the still small voice in order to follow it. Bellowing, clumsy westerners are not always in a place to recognise the inner.
Conversely, the literal, the detailed, the explained can leave poetry behind as it fills in all the gaps; removing doubt. When the poetry is scared off by the heavy steps of utility, the heart of the thing we thought we had will die. And yet it is helpful to be able to say what we mean. It is part of how we become ourselves and learn. Understanding the differences and marrying the best in both is quite difficult.
Westerners recognised something in Shiatsu that they wanted. When they tried to study, few if any were permitted to enrol in Namikoshi’s official school. But Masunaga allowed some to join his postgraduate course; he had a separate stream for westerners. He thought them ill-equipped – not only had they no license, so could not work in the public clinic, but they lacked subtlety. He did not recognise the construct of meaning from which they operated and they, in turn, read his work through their filter and did not always catch the nuances.
In transferring what they observed and heard from Masunaga (and from Kishi, who taught many of those who came to see Masunaga in the late 1970s and early 1980s such as Ohashi and Suzaki) into western categories of thought, these students did a good job, considering. But it was and is a great deal harder to achieve than we think – both for the Japanese and for us. We can happily share a joke and a glass of beer, but the journeys and assumptions that brought us to that meeting point are often worlds apart. Arguably this is less and less the case as globalisation flattens out difference, but it was certainly still the case with Kishi up to 2012, when he died. If anything, I wonder if the difficulties increase as we become familiar with the outward appearances of each other’s cultures.
Or perhaps the original students and translators knew the difficulty of transferring it to a new culture but understood the practice well enough, so they could use unsatisfactory terms and still retain the essence of the practice. Or the western categories would not allow western students to understand Masunaga’s work as it was taught. Probably a mixture of these things. Shiatsu was translated, imperfectly but enough, perfectly but not in quantity; through touch and feeling which run deeper than words. But it has been disseminated in language that does not fit.
Seeing the client is both recognition and balm; recognition is treatment. We do not have to do more, but this is difficult: the seeing and the not-doing are both at odds with our inherited meaning complex. Seeing things as they truly are is why we are here. We must do it as though our lives depended upon it; because they do. We can be sleepwalkers through life or we can keep on cleaning our souls; shining, shining, shining, until the obviousness of how things actually are finally has more reality for us than the drama.
This means we must stop performing a diagnosis to then apply it in treatment. You can do this, but it limits the work. Syo diagnosis might not look that different from what you do now. The line between separating things into two and operating in the dynamic tension of a paradox is tiny, tiny and ENORMOUS. What will change is the idea of what is going on which will change the whole feel of the work and what is possible within it. Clients feel that difference and love it; practitioners come, in time, to new certainty and fulfilment.
The way to find this out in practice is by asking yourself, what am I doing? What is here? What do I feel? The answer, or maybe the diagnosis, does not matter. It is only important while you do not know. As soon as you identify what you feel, as soon as you are conscious of something, then it is meaningless, gone. By then you are on to the next question, what is this? What do I feel?…..
The practice is in bringing the diagnosis to the surface and letting it go, over and over. Not in finding it and treating it. What is it you think you are treating? Reality is perfect, always perfect, oblivious to our tinkering. When you ‘treat’ it, you miss it, you trap it, you name it and you give it meaning it does not have and keep yourself and your client imprisoned in the meaning game. Only by recognising and letting go; by finding a comfortable place with the paradox and by understanding that you cannot change reality do you start evolving again.
Syo diagnosis can only take place in the moment. As soon as you apply an idea/diagnosis to a person, then it has ceased. A person is so different from an idea that it impossible to describe in words. Syo diagnosis takes place now and now and now.
The job we have as practitioners is to keep looking; looking until we see things as they truly are. Our clients may not know it, but that is why they come to us: they want to be seen. Even if we do not entirely understand, we must set language-meaning aside in order to attempt to see our clients. Eventually insight and sense begin to reveal themselves. We cannot make this happen. It arrives in the clearing we make when stop filling the gaps up with stuff and refresh our vision.
Alice Whieldon MA PhD MRSS(T) SFHEA co-authored with Kishi Sei-ki: Life in Resonance, the Secret Art of Shiatsu 2011 Singing Dragon.
Welcome to the second interview in a series with female leaders, teachers and practitioners in the holistic therapeutic fields. These are women whose teaching has inspired me and I have been keen to learn more about their personal philosophy, experiences and the influences on their professional practice. I hope you enjoy hearing their story too! Let us know your thoughts, Nicole. For further articles by leading female practitioners visit:
Profile: Alice Whieldon, MA PhD SFHEA MRSS(T)
Alice has spent her life researching the keys to what helps in finding fulfilment and acting less from old traumas and patterns. In 1985 she came across Shiatsu and it was this work, along with the Enlightenment Intensives, that struck particularly strong chords for her. She has remained a student of both disciplines ever since.
In 1997, she also met Kishi Akinobu, internationally renowned Shiatsu master, however, in 1980, Kishi began to develop his work in a new direction called Seiki which is within the Shiatsu tradition and a development of that work. When Alice met Kishi she recognised the key she was looking for. When in 2008 Alice suggested they write a book together, Kishi was keen on the idea and Sei-ki: Life in Resonance, The Secret Art of Shiatsu was published in 2011. Kishi died in 2012 but Alice continues to work with Seiki.
She has also spent time training in and practicing Mind Clearing. Mind Clearing is based, like Seiki, on the principle that there is an essential person that is not the mind and not the body. In 2016 her book, Mind Clearing: the key to mindfulness mastery was published by Singing Dragon, London and Philadelphia.
Why did you choose to learn Shiatsu and Seiki, what brought you to the practice?
I was cooking at my father’s conference centre in 1985 when Cliff bought Pauline and Kiku there to teach a workshop. I was given a shiatsu treatment and recall never having felt so ‘touched’ before. It brought up a whole wave of emotion that, at 18, I hadn’t really known was there. And this with apparently so little. Pauline or Kiku, I forget which, told me that I had a very good hara. I had no idea what that meant but it stuck in my mind and the whole experience resulted in my determining to learn Shiatsu. It was in 1990 that I actually started my training and completed it with the Shiatsu College in 1994. But I never reconnected with that initial feeling of being touched until I met Kishi in 1997. As soon as he knelt down beside me I felt I had come home. In his touch and his presence, I recognised both that touch beyond the body as well as the openness and seeing of the mediation I had done. From that point on I worked with Kishi, until his death in 2012.
What does Seiki mean to you now, what purpose does it serve you as an individual?
It is my personal practice or discipline. Every time I work with someone it is new; an opportunity to invite understanding for myself and my client and recognise the real. It is my point of connection with others, the stone against which I form myself and the beauty of recognising others.
What is your philosophical approach to your practice – as a teacher and as a therapist? (i.e. what do you see the purpose of your healing practice in the life of the individual – why do it?)
For myself it is the above. For others I seek to recognise them and this is a moment of utter quiet and balm for both of us.
Who or what, has been the biggest influence on your path as a practitioner and why?
Kishi recognised what others are. It was a great relief to me to meet him as he understood what I understood about life. It is a great sadness that he is no longer around but he has left a powerful impression.
What significant lesson/s did one of your teachers teach you?
That surrender is the more important ‘discipline’ than discipline; that we can’t cure, only the client can do this; that shyness can be a form of arrogance; that setting aside ego, time and time again, is the only way.
With the insight you have now, what, if anything, do you wish you had known at the beginning of your journey?
Everything is in fact as it should be. But there is one thing – I wish I’d risked speaking more about my experience and not fearing so much what others might think of me.
What benefits or hindrances, if any, have you encountered as a female practitioner or noticed when teaching women?
Although there are lots of female teachers in Shiatsu, it remains male dominated. Women don’t generally get the support from partners and students that men automatically receive so it can be much harder to forge ahead as a teacher. It is harder to be recognised, unless perhaps one is working in the field of women’s health. Female students don’t put themselves forward as much as male students either.
What advice might you give to student practitioners training now?
Get the certificates if this smooths your path in life, but Seiki and Shiatsu are inner paths, so be prepared to be a student forever. Practice as you would a martial art, like Aikido. Find a teacher you want to learn from and steal everything you can from them mercilessly and without ego.
What is the next step or stage for you? What are you working on developing?
I’m seeing if it is possible and desirable to put together a Seiki training on a martial arts model which is layered rather than linear. I am also building a training and practice around Mind Clearing.
Any other reflections?
It’s a difficult path for me, but at least – and this is very important – it is interesting.
As body-based therapists, as creative people, we need to be uncompromising in our pursuit and propagation of the truth. We need to be asking ourselves some basic questions and we need to be unflinching in offering and debating answers. This is the way to our own health, the health of our clients and the health of Shiatsu.
One of these questions is simply: what do we think we’re doing? It is one we often assume we know the answer to but can rarely articulate. Indeed, I have met hostility from therapists on asking this question – I find this breathtaking. What business do we have being therapists if we are unable to approach the most basic questions about what we are setting out to do?
There are all kinds of answers that Shiatsu therapists offer, but: ‘I want to help/rescue people’ is the most common one in some form or another.
Well – you can’t help people, you can’t rescue people, you can’t make it better for people, you can’t cure them, you can’t heal them…. This is not possible and we need to understand this and know it in our hearts. You can’t change people and there is always an ulterior motive behind the desire to do so. This motive is not bad or wrong; it is simply about our own pain. I am not dismissing compassion here, but compassion is an attitude, an understanding, not a verb.
Yet health is our business. But real health is not about eating the right things and getting enough exercise and conforming to some idea of balance… this is all window dressing. Health is about becoming more ourselves in whatever twisted or serene form we are manifested in. This being the case, how can Shiatsu contribute to our health? Tricky. Yet not being able to help actually relieves us of a considerable burden and forces us to keep asking questions. Something clearly happens in Shiatsu sessions, so what is that ‘something’?
The therapy situation works in the following way: pain (in the sense of life condition perceived as problem) is blindness to how it really is. The pain condition is actually a very small thing, but, when right in front of our eyes, it appears to take up all space and we identify with it.
While no one can help us out of that condition, since it depends on our becoming conscious, what we can do is set up space in which we might recognise ourselves more and so come into a different relationship with our pain condition. In therapy, the therapist is that space, which means that the therapist must be internally spacious, a task previously left to priests – a sacred task – and no mean feat. A good therapist is a rare treasure and the space offered can be real balm to our troubled body-minds.
We need to achieve enough engaged distance from our pain condition to begin to see a wider context greater than what is, actually, an infinitesimal pain event in a universe of change. Sitting in meditation/reflection we can begin to see this.
But we are also communal and it is the reflection of ourselves in others, in particular, that helps us to become more ourselves. The therapy situation is a microcosm and an intensification of this natural process. That is why it works in any but the most fleeting sense.
Pain perceived as problem is turned in on itself, like an ingrown nail, and, when we are in the condition of pain (as we are in some way most of the time) we think that the pain takes up all or most space and that we are alone since we do not, in this state, differentiate self from world. But this is not true and if we can glimpse that this pain is only a dot in infinite space, then we can uncurl and begin to see the problem in a new light.
In the therapeutic space, the therapist takes up a consciously conscious position in relation to the other with their whole, disinterested, attention. This space is the only kind of ‘help’ that can be offered, and is an example of true compassion.
This does not mean that the therapist needs to be an enlightened being. It is
enough to choose to take up a position in relation to the other. By taking up this position one effectively says, “I am here and you are there and I am going to reflect your condition back to you”. This creates a conscious (on one side, which is all that is needed initially) subject-object situation. It intensifies, and makes manifest, the previously unrealised duality, the two of us.
Now, dualism has become a dirty word these days, everyone wants to talk about unity and the beauty of Oneness. But you can’t have unity without dualism, nor dualism without unity. They are one and the same, but we make a mistake in thereby assuming that all is unity. We, in our unconscious or semi-conscious states, can only begin by setting out to understand duality, which is the condition of human consciousness.
Otherwise it would be like being so fixed on studying the moon that we miss the fact that we see it through a telescope and so assume that the image we see is the real thing.
So, as human beings it is necessary to develop duality as a priority. As therapists this must be central to our understanding – it must drive us and commit us to rigorous self-examination.
Psychotherapy has known this for years. In that jargon, we must learn to recognise and withdraw our projections in order to become truly ourselves.
That most Shiatsu therapists have settled for less self-examination than even the most mediocre psychotherapist is unacceptable.
Asking about what we are doing is essential to developing both personally and professionally. Also, while I believe that even a flicker of understanding of the nature of the therapeutic space is enough to make a good-enough therapist (as this merest hint or sliver of a crack between watcher and watched is the beginning of space), the more internally spacious a person is, the more powerful the space they offer will be.
Duality needs to be developed because unless we are truly two (you and I), we cannot recognise one other. Unless we are truly two there can be no real relationship as there is no space between us and, as therapists, we will be fixed in a hierarchy and identity of doctor/patient. But in a relationship of two we are one and One (or three, the holy trinity of you, me and us). Yet, how do we achieve this?
The therapy situation artificially sets up this duality of you and I. The degree to which this artificial set-up collides with the reality of the duality, (i.e. the length of time and degree to which the therapist is present in that reality) dictates the powerfulness of the therapeutic space. But the mere set-up is also enough to magnify the process in the same way that cleaning a very dirty mirror just a little will nevertheless improve the reflection, though the reflection still be ever so murky. For in this situation, we choose to be subject and object, seer and seen, you and I. Here, I surrender to your gaze, to your touch. There, I see you, I touch you. So we are two and true dualism naturally unfolds into unity; one doesn’t have to try to achieve it.
As the therapist, my hand/gaze reflects your self-absorbed pain and offers your projections back to you. When we see ourselves in a mirror, we are contextualised, we become aware of our borders and so the space around us. The hand/gaze offers another viewpoint; we offer objectivity to unconscious solipsism. This is an offering of space to something that thinks it takes up all space. Like roots transferred to a larger pot, we can uncurl and recognise borders to our pain where we had thought the pain was infinite. As e.e.cummings writes so beautifully, “…open always petal by petal myself as spring opens/ (touchingly skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose”. As therapists, the best and the most we can do is be the condition of spring.
Thus we can begin to recognise ourselves. We can begin to recognise that we can have distance from our pain condition, that we are both watcher and watched. Gradually this extends to others and is helped by submitting to the therapeutic situation as patient or therapist (though there is a moral imperative on the therapist to do so consciously; this is the difference between patient and therapist). Thus, Shiatsu is a Practice or Way.
Finally, as two, we can begin to relate for perhaps the first time as “I” relating to “you” rather than me relating to my own projections in a false (because unconscious) unity of me and you. It is only when there are really two that there can be relationship and, thus, unity. Here, also, the loneliness of the unconscious condition is relieved. Where we had experienced ourselves as alone in the universe when ‘we’ were the whole of experience, now there is the possibility of relationship. So now we can be truly alone and together.
Touch therapy is particularly powerful as it also asserts the here and now of the embodied state. It concretises our experience of the world and reminds us of the physical borders between ‘me’ and world. So, while therapy is also other things such as comfort, relaxation and even medicine, central to it is the set up of you, me, us, the physical representation of dualism and the promotion of my conscious objectivity to your unconscious subjectivity with the aim of separation – which is true unity.
This is how and why therapy ‘works’, this is how and why Shiatsu ‘works’. This work is inherently radical and not for the faint-hearted. Shiatsu is not medicine and, while the language of medicine may perhaps serve us from time to time, it is a waste of time to think that this is what we are doing. There is no point in practicing unless one has at least some of this understanding; some understanding that goes beyond mere mechanics.
Mechanics are just scaffolding that might help us to appreciate a deeper reality, in which case they can be dispensed with. But this is left to chance unless teachers themselves understand the nature of therapy and, even if they don’t teach it explicitly, exude it powerfully.
Kishi by Alice Whieldon & Paul Lundberg
Paris, 1971, the ragged end of Cultural Revolution and a city raw from student protest; a backdrop of Vietnam spiralling to the inevitable crash. A tired young Japanese man emerges from the dark of Gare de L’Est after a long journey by sea and the Trans-Siberian through Russia. Clutching only a suitcase and a piece of paper with a name and address, with little English and no French, a half-completed degree in landscape architecture and the blessings of his Shiatsu masters, Namikoshi and Masunaga, to carry the torch of Shiatsu to Europe, 21 year old Kishi Akinobu (then Shinmei) takes a step into the dusty European bustle of the city of his dreams and marks the beginning of a cross-cultural love affair that would last over half a century.
On 23rd October 2012, age 63, Kishi died peacefully, at home in Maebashi, Japan, with his wife and long-time collaborator, Kyoko at his side.
It is hard to characterise Kishi. He was so much himself that he slipped through the categories that might have captured him. From the outside, his life was one of contrasts: the traditional tatami sitting room of his home next to a kitchen decorated with old Delft tiles; the Italian cashmere sweaters worn over traditional handmade hakama trousers; the Peugeot, driven fast round bends on the weekly trip to the Shinto shrine for spring water and to offer sake to the gods; sashimi and fine green tea one week, steak and chips in Aberdeen the next. The contradictions spun out, always and only, from a central clarity of purpose, discipline, practice. The touch of an angel informed by the humour of a shy man who cared too deeply about how things really are to mind what others thought for long.
Kishi began his Shiatsu training with his father aged 9, and formally in 1968 with Namikoshi, the great man having spotted the youngster at a taster class where Kishi was moonlighting from university. On entering the busy school he was immediately drawn, like everyone, to the charismatic and controversial Masunaga who taught a potent mix of philosophy and Shiatsu to packed classes. When the latter left shortly after to found the Iokai, a post-graduate college where he could further his own research unquestioned, his young acolyte tagged along.
Diligent application and obvious talent brought Kishi to the master’s attention and before long the two became a formidable team, Masunaga explaining his principles of Shiatsu and the disciple demonstrating, in classes and at conferences where Kishi, a handsome, snappily-dressed affront to solemnity, was encouraged to expound on the subject in front of the Shiatsu elite of Japan and Korea. For ten years the relationship was an important one for both of them. But the younger man finally reached a crisis in his own Way. Dedicated to mastering Shiatsu, he had worked himself to an impasse. Exhausted, he surrendered to the moment and turned his back on Shiatsu only to find it returning to him in a new form and with renewed vigour. Kishi was acknowledged by Masunaga as a master in his own right, and thus the two agreed to part company.
Calling his own approach, Seiki Soho, to honour his insight and individual approach, Kishi set out again for Europe on a mission to develop and disseminate his own Way as well as enjoy what he loved of the West, living for some years in Germany and Belgium. Right up until June 2012, when his health suddenly faltered, he developed and shared his vision in countless workshops. What grew up around him was a body of students, some from Shiatsu but still others from various walks of life, all of them appreciating, not just the transformative treatments, but recognising in Kishi’s few words and way of life, a devotion to authenticity and a ruthless compassion that touched the hearts of those who felt its gravity and wanted more.
Even when a car accident in 1983 threatened to consign him to a wheelchair, he continued his teaching in Europe, applying the practises he had developed to recover against all predictions. Marrying Kyoko in 1989 began a new and even more creative era and she increasingly travelled with him as his devoted accomplice, expanding his already extensive circuit and the demanding sequence of workshops that, though interspersed with respites in Japan, continued unabated until this summer.
As if not satisfied with this, Kishi (and later Kyoko too) also hosted an extraordinary series of extended residential workshops in Japan. Every three or four years he offered his Western students a unique opportunity to experience the many and varied manifestations of what he called Ki Culture, so linking Seiki with its roots in Shinto and the hara arts.
Kishi was sometimes a controversial figure in Shiatsu, not least for his occasionally critical words about what he saw practised in the West. In more recent years his appreciation for European practitioners led to a desire for greater unity and collaboration between the different styles, but his earlier reputation dogged the great master at times, his words still jarring for some. For others they were a wake-up call to examine their own lives and practice with greater rigour. Out of the thousands who met him over the years, many found in his touch a world-stopping moment of peace that, like a drop of calm in troubled waters, rippled out down the years to open a precious space. It was not necessarily comfortable, but it was always valuable.
Kishi will be missed, is missed, by all who loved him personally. But he is also a great loss to Shiatsu. Although he turned his back on schools and structure and lineage with brusque dismissal, the baton had been passed to him whether he always liked and acknowledged it or not; and more lately he did. Like his teachers before him, he was an original seeker and carried with him the knowledge, at a molecular level, of the warm, maternal hands of Namikoshi and restless genius of Masunaga, both men honoured in his own approach. That approach has proved difficult to pin down. It is difficult because he had a unique talent for capturing life movement in the present moment and offering back to each person, only themselves. How do you name that? It is a hard act to follow. But Kishi wanted nothing more than for those around him to find their own moment and Way, in whatever form that took, not least, he once said, because he was keen to have a decent conversation.