Recently I sat down with Muir Ferdun, LAc, to talk about nonlinearity in the healing process–how the body is not bound by the linear narrative of the mind. We talked about this in the context of her deep healing work with children and families. Here is what she has to say.
Sarah: Talk to me about linear and nonlinear progress in healing?
Muir: We talk a lot about the progression of illness. We learn that there is a sequence to how people get sick and how they get well. First you have one thing happen, then it leads to another thing happening. And if you take care of it, it gets better. And if you don’t take care of it, and things keep progressing, then there’s a movement towards disease or towards death. There’s an implication of linearity, and sometimes it’s true. But thinking this way becomes a trap, because it’s not as true as we’d like to make it. We’d like to make it be universally true. But in some senses, that sort of progressive, time-based thing is not really the way the body works.
In the work I’m doing now, we sort of take a step sideways–honoring the truth that the old ankle injury from high school soccer caused you to walk a little crooked. Your hips got a little crooked, and you got one glut muscle that was tighter than the other, and then in midlife when you were really sedentary in your job, you suddenly blew out your back. There is a progression from the lower limb to the core. And that’s the linearity. Over time, this got worse, or led into that, or lay a foundation so something else was possible. We honor that.
But then we need to take a step to the side and say, Yes, we can address the pattern as we understand it, but we can also do this completely other thing that doesn’t have to do with time and space and directionality in the same way–because the body doesn’t measure time in the way that the brain does.
In the body, everything is happening simultaneously, in the current moment. Even though we talk about a sequence of events, when we connect with the tissues of the body we can change the whole pattern. Because the body doesn’t know that the brain is thinking of it as being linear.
This is what we call the “tensegrity model of the body”, which is to say that the body is not a set of blocks stacked on each other. It’s more like a bunch of soap bubbles stuck together. It’s a crystalline structure rather than a mechanical structure, in which everything is in relationship to everything else at all times. If you have a pile of soap bubbles and you push on one side, the whole thing moves. And that’s really what the tissues in the body do. They’re always in this subtle reactive and responsive state. Every tissue in the body responds to any input to any other tissue in the body. They’re all paying attention at the same time. And when you can be really skilled in the information that you provide to the one particular piece that you’re touching, that skillful and intelligent information can and does affect every other tissue in the body.
In CranioSacral therapy, this is one of the basic concepts we organize our work around. Providing really focused inputs to the system that can shift things globally.
In Japanese Acupuncture, we call this concept Root and Branch treatment. We can approach the symptom area, the branch, or take a whole-systems approach, the root.
In Homeopathy, we talk about the same thing using different terms. Are we going to treat the Constitution? Are we going to treat the Miasm? These are whole-system ways of describing a person. Or are we going to treat the symptom? So we have certain remedies we use for insomnia or fever, the symptom the client is working with today. We can pay attention to that, and it helps the client, because they do need to sleep. That’s important. And, we also need to be attending to their holism with a different remedy or treatment.
The problem with our language is that it is very dualistic. It creates linearity. It creates hierarchy all the time just by the nature of speech being a product of the brain. The brain likes to do that. So, we have this concept of holism within natural medicine. We have to keep talking about it from every angle, because every time we talk about it we use a dualistic system to talk about something that’s non-dual.
A client of mine has had two big falls in the last year. She had a chronic illness before that. And, as she thinks about getting healthy, she thinks about walking backwards. First of all, I have to fix what happened in this second trauma. Then after that I can start to fix what happened in the first fall. Then after that I can start to fix what happened in this chronic illness. And then after that I can be healthy. Her concept of health has this narrative. I feel the way I do because of these major things that have happened over the last several years. Now I have to move backwards through them in order to heal.
There’s a level on which that’s absolutely true. And there’s a level on which that’s absolutely not true. Both of those opposites can co-exist. This is the dual and the non-dual. The body breaks down sometimes in a linear fashion. And we can think about healing as reversing that pattern. And at the same time, we don’t have to fix every single thing that happened over the last four – or forty – years before you can be a healthy person. We don’t have to go down the grocery list and then go back up the grocery list and make sure we’ve bought everything. There is a possibility for healing to occur more globally than that implies.
You know this when you work with clients. They will ask, Did you put in a point for my left shoulder pain? Did you put one in for my earache? They want you to put a needle in for each thing that’s wrong with them. And you nod and say yes. Because you did put in a point for their earache. The points you selected are treating them, which includes their earache.
So there is a truth to the linearity of how the body breaks down and how it heals. And there is a truth to its opposite: the body doesn’t recognize temporality, everything is connected at all times.
And here’s the cool thing: it means the body is completely available for shifting it all absolutely right now. When that actually happens we call it a miracle. But it also happens in little ways as our patients say, Yeah, I think I’m a little better this week. And then you start to ask them about symptoms they had six months ago and they say, Oh, yeah, that never happens anymore. I didn’t even notice it going away. If the person gets better their symptoms get better. And that’s so much easier to do than to resolve the symptoms one by one in reverse order to which they happened.
Sarah: What about your work with children? Is it easier with kids because their narrative about what happened to them isn’t so solid?
Muir: Yes, kids are more grounded in their present experience. They don’t know that things are supposed to happen in a certain way. So they’re definitely more available. It’s like, Oh, okay! This is what’s true now. Great!
The other thing I want to bring up in relationship to working with kids is that they don’t yet know that healing is supposed to be hard. We adults can slip into a “No pain, no gain” mentality. I had a client come in last week and I did some non-insertive acupuncture. He questioned, how do I know it’s working when it didn’t hurt. People have a not very conscious idea that it’s a better treatment if it hurts while they receive it. Oh I got this great massage. It hurt so bad! Okay, I can totally respect that some people love deep massage. But you could say, Well what if it didn’t hurt? Would it have not been a good massage? Did it have to hurt for it to be good? Do we have to give the body that much signaling in order for it to make a change? And how attached are we to the suffering aspect of healing? What if healing could happen without any suffering? It kind of relates to this whole linearity concept–having to work through each of these traumas all the way back to where you were a kid. Why do you have to suffer to get better? What if healing could just be easy and fun? A natural thing our body does?
To me that feeds into the work with kids. It supposed to be fun. If it’s that hard, we should probably help it be more fun. Because it’s not supposed to be that hard. Parenting is hard. But it shouldn’t be that hard. It shouldn’t be drudgery. It should be good hard work like going to the gym. Not good hard work like shoveling concrete.
Sarah: So how do you know where to start working with a kiddo?
Muir: The question really is, how do you start working with a family. Because, just as no adult is a singularity, no child–even more profoundly–is a singularity. The child is never just the child floating around in space. The child is always an intimate, connected part of a system. So, it’s about understanding where in the system things aren’t working–the system being the family, including grandparents, teachers, the school, that grouping of people around the child. I’m not saying I’m going to go give a treatment to the kid’s teacher. We may have nothing at all we can do about the teacher. But where’s the friction being created? If you can learn that, you can learn what can possibly shift so that the whole thing starts to move more smoothly again.
A lot of times, with behavioral stuff with kids, you’re finding out the kid is this way at home and that way at daycare, or they’re this way with their mom but they’re another way with their dad. It’s rare that the child is in the same emotional relationship with everyone in their family. It’s more common that there are struggles at different times with different individuals in the family. Maybe it’s with the sister right now. And next week it’s with the cousin. Next week it’s with the grandma. So it shifts around. The whole family structure is like that soap bubble, and it shifts. The child is trying to figure out how to have relationships with all these different people, and depending on what’s going on within themselves, they’re pushing back–more or less–against some of these different parts of the structure at different times.
If a kid is fighting with his mom, what can shift in the mom-kid dynamic? We might need to make sure she’s getting nourished so that she can engage with him in the most productive way. And then we need to figure out what is exactly going on between those two that the child is expressing that stressor in that particular location. We know a lot from developmental theory about what kids are trying to do when they instigate conflict. Maybe it’s not about a particular family member but about a particular situation that happens during the day. So it’s about really examining that pretty deeply and then figuring out what needs to change for this to go a little better. For this to be more fun. For there to be less friction. And then, supporting the child, supporting the family in achieving that. Sometimes it’s brainstorming solutions. Sometimes getting out the door for school in the morning is the tough thing. So we discuss age appropriate ways of dealing with the mechanics of that situation. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. Let’s talk about what goes on now and what comes next.
And sometimes it’s a matter of helping to take some of the tension out of that child’s being so that it feels good to make things easier in the family–rather that it feeling good to make things more difficult in the family. Because sometimes for kids it feels good to make things more difficult. It depends on the way you feel you can affect the world–if you have a need for autonomy, for control. What are the needs this child has and how can we help him to manifest most fully?
What we’re supporting in child development is coming into manifestation–learning to inhabit the body, first of all. I always joke that, when the baby’s born, they really only need to figure out a couple of things. They need to figure out this breathing thing. If they don’t get that down in the first minute after they come out of the womb, they’re not really in my office about it. They’re in the NICU. So they’ve got to figure that out. Then in the first few hours, they’ve got to figure out how to eat and how to poop. In the first few days, they have to figure out how to wake up and go to sleep. And then basically they’re finessing those three things for the next three months. So, most often, with babies, it’s helping them get better at those three life skills, and then supporting the parent–who is meanwhile going crazy if they’re not doing those things very well, because their whole job is to help the baby figure out how to do those things. And, of course, the parents and the medical system get very excited if the baby isn’t gaining weight.
Sarah: And parents are often sleep deprived.
Muir: And parents are often sleep deprived, so they aren’t thinking straight. They have this job of nourishing this small creature who may or may not know how to accept the nourishment being provided. And the next developmental stages continue to involve more and more skill building, more and more getting systems online. Okay, respiratory system: we’ve got this breathing thing figured out. Okay, digestive system: we’ve got this eating and pooping thing figured out. More is going to be demanded later of that digestive system. But we’ve got the eating and pooping thing started, all right. Nervous system: can I come to alert? Can I come to relaxation and eventually sleep? A brand new baby is sort-of awake or sort-of asleep, but even when they’re awake they’re not that awake, it begins as fairly undifferentiated. Later, sleep and awake become quite different, and you get these quiet alert states and your baby smiles at you. They’re developing a vocabulary of the stages of the nervous system. And they need to continue to do that. Otherwise you’ve got a different kind of problem. Then they have to start figuring out what to do with the limbs. The hands have to find each other. The legs have to move. They have to learn to hold their head up and then to turn their head. They’ve got to learn to switch on each system and then refine its operation. This is what they’re doing for the first seven years.
Our job as the adults that are around them is to help them do that. If they get stuck and are having trouble with any of that, give them a little more information or a little support in figuring out what that thing is. We have a lot of tools to help them refine their skills. It’s different than coming from a model of something’s wrong. Like, oh there’s this disease diagnosis. That happens too, and I love working with kids with diagnoses and helping them to map what their path is. Because there’s the chart that says developmentally this is what is going to happen, but then there’s your personal chart that says you’re over here. How can we map you towards getting the systems online and refining their operations for whatever that means within the capacities that you have, short, medium, and long term?
Sarah: Can you tell me about your work with kids with diagnoses?
Muir: I’ve worked with kids with a lot of different things going on in their nervous systems. We have names for them, autism, ADHD, Cerebral Palsy. Kids with nervous system issues, digestive system issues, muscular system issues.
I’ve been working for the last three years on a research project to treat autism using a form of qigong tapping massage that is parent-led. The therapist supports the parents in learning and practicing this daily massage form. It takes about 15 minutes and is usually done at bedtime. We’ve been working on this study, trying to find how this particular very simple but organized kind of contact between parent and child can assist the child with autism in taking all the potential that’s inside the brain, it’s locked up in there and not available for the limbs or for communication or expression to the rest of us in the ways that we’re used to receiving communication and expression.
As you work with autistic kids, it’s very clear that they’re not dumb. There’s incredible intelligence. But sometimes it feels like someone took the keyboard or the monitor away from your computer. The input and output devices are not functioning in a way that many of the rest of us can interpret and understand, which is hard. It’s really hard. It’s hard for the parents. It’s ultimately hard for the individual to exist in our dominant paradigm. We’d really like these kids to learn to talk a little bit, so that they can ask for what they need. So, can we use this very simple tapping down the front of the body, down the back of the body, down the arms and the legs to help bring the awareness that’s inside the skull into the rest of the body? Can we wake up the sense organs? Can we wake up the ears? Can we wake up the mouth, and the throat, and the smelling? Can we wake up the skin?
One of the things with autism is, sometimes these kids don’t notice when they’re injured. They don’t notice when they’ve pooped their pants. If you don’t notice when you’ve pooped your pants, it’s really hard to potty train. If you don’t notice that you’re injured, and that it feels bad, why would you seek comfort when you skin your knee? It’s because you don’t even really notice that you’ve skinned your knee. So, you’re not encouraged to create those reciprocal arrangements to come back to your parent for comfort, because you don’t even really notice that you need comfort. You’re not even aware of what it feels like to be in a body in the way that we’re accustomed to.
We see a lot of stimming behaviors–the classic hand flapping and head banging behaviors. We see toe walking, which are all indications that the sensory inputs and outputs, the way that this body is communicating sensation to and from the brain, is happening either in a really dialed up way or a really dialed down way. The head banging thing is like– you could imagine if you were floating in outer space and getting no sensory information back from your skin, how good it would feel to get any kind of sensation back from your skin. If you’re getting very little sensation back from your skin, you’re going to probably hit something really hard just to feel something. So, if we can wake up and begin to normalize those pathways, then the behavior just goes away. You don’t have to train the behavior away. It just goes away. There’s no need for it anymore.
If we can wake up that human connection, that heart to heart connectivity, then there’s an impetus for speech. I talk to you because I want to feel connected to you. I want to explain myself. I have this urge to tell you who I am, and what I’m about and the things that are meaningful to me. And if I didn’t have this urge for connection, there wouldn’t really be any point in figuring the whole talking thing out.
So we’ve been playing with this for the last three years. We’re just finishing up the study now, and it’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool to watch kids move into that desire for connection and to strive for that, and to strive for the words. To watch kids become potty trained when it was never possible before. To watch kids move out of their world and into connection. And to watch the parents too. I mean that’s all you want for your kid is for them to be happy and to be able to come out of themselves enough so that you can say, Oh yeah, you’re in a good place. Things are good for you.
I’ve worked a lot with kids who have autism, teaching the parents this massage, and empowering them to touch their child in a way that’s meaningful to the child, that makes a difference for the child. Because that’s another problem for parents of children with autism: your child is not appreciating touch in the way that most of our kids do. So we teach the parents a way of working with their child and touching their child in a way that that’s therapeutic.
I’ve worked a lot too with kids of ADD, kids with cerebral palsy. Kids who don’t have the traditional nervous system makeup that everybody else has. Now here’s the truth in that sentence, there is no “everybody else”. There is no normal nervous system person. No one has the baby that’s the 50th percentile baby. Nobody has that baby. It does not exist. I have never met that baby. Right? So we have this idea of normative behavior of the nervous system, and have these charts. You know, your kid is at this percentile for height and weight. And, they’re supposed to learn to crawl at this time, and then they’re going to learn to read at that time.
So there’s one level where some kids have a nervous system that’s not working for them. And then there’s another level where they have a nervous system that’s not working for the larger bubble or community. So, they’re really struggling in school. When kids start to struggle a certain amount in school then they start to make up stories about themselves. And then you’ve got two problems. Number one: their brain isn’t working in the way other people say it should be. Number two: now they’ve decided what that means about them as a human being–that they’re stupid, or they’re lazy, or they’re not good at math. So kids, when they run into conflict with the school system, they start making up stories about who they are and what’s possible for them in the universe. And most of these stories involve a lot of dead-end roads. And I’d like to delay that for them as far as possible. I’d like that to be as far in their future as possible that they get to a place where they decide, I can’t do this. I can’t be that when I grow up. I know so many adults that are trying to revise a limiting view of themselves that was established in early childhood, and so I’d like to help our kids growing up now to hold the most expansive view of possibilities for themselves, based in both linear and non-linear understandings of the human mind and body and its capacities for growth and change. Yes, there will come a day when they realize that they aren’t going to be an Olympic athlete, or a mathematician, but let’s help them keep possibilities open a little longer.
Sarah: How do you balance work life and parenting?
Muir: So, I used to teach yoga. And when you teach balancing poses in yoga, the first thing you want to remind people is that balance is not a destination, it’s a process. It’s an endless cycle of centering and re-centering. You never get “there” because there is no “there.” You’re constantly adjusting, and finding the combination of firmness and fluidity that allows you to bend, not break, like the willow tree. For me, doing one thing at a time helps, which is a certain type of mindfulness practice. I avoid multi-tasking whenever possible, it mostly doesn’t save time so much as increases my overthinking and spinning my wheels. Oh, OK, I will pack lunches while I’m cooking breakfast, but I try not to return phone calls at the same time.
And for me it helps to have time each day to reflect on what’s happening inside my head. There’s a process called “SIFT” that invites you to sift through the contents of the mind, noticing all the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts. This self-awareness helps keep me on track, to be sure that I’m prioritizing the things that are actually important to me. Yeah, as a mom, I often do this in tiny tucked-away moments, like just before I get out of the car to pick my daughter up, but I try to do it a few times each day.