Recently, I had a chance to experience what it means to be fully alive in a way that most of us have long forgotten. This happened during a five-day facilitator training workshop with Philip Shepherd.* A deep dive into his pattern-dissolving exercises triggered cascading insights that reconnected me with a self that had been long-buried.
The transformation I experienced was at a non-verbal level, so it is difficult to convey the experience with words. It was simply paradigm shifting. As the week progressed, I came to realize that each day was bringing so many changes that I would emerge a different person from the Andrei who entered the program.
This is what I learned . . .
We are accretions of layers and layers of habitual patterns and “head-dominant” thinking which act as barriers to our connecting with life around us. As a result we feel isolated and lonely, perpetually in a state of unease and anxiety, where we see ourselves as pitted in a battle of “me” against the world.
Seeing life as a continuously changing process is synonymous with flow. Because the head creates abstract ideas and thoughts, we cannot THINK ourselves into experiencing life in its wholeness. Repressing sensations in the body blocks flow. Learning to experience life directly through the wisdom and physicality of our bodies opens us to experiencing the flow of life around us. This is often called “being in the present moment.”
People often say that they can’t find a way of “being present.” Philip’s explanation is that habitual patterns continually prevent our body from surrendering to the flow of the presence of life. If we are able to dissolve those patterns, it then becomes possible to start experiencing what life – what being a human being (as a noun-verb) – truly feels like. Spoiler: once you have this experience, there is no way back – but the experience is worth the effort – and discomfort and vulnerability – of shedding old perceptions and ways of doing things.
To illustrate how memories are retained in our bodies, Philip led us in an exercise that involved getting grounded through specific core-focused breathing exercises. When we then moved a body part, members of our group reported finding that this dislodged a childhood memory. Moving other parts of the body resuscitated other childhood memories. We then reflected on how those buried memories have affected us in our daily lives. Throughout the week, many more inner patterns were revealed through other exercises, and consciousness of those patterns gave us a chance to work with them.
Philip began this work in his teens, when he had an intuition that something was fundamentally wrong with the way adults were experiencing the world. Since then, he has been on an extraordinary journey to understand how we have become trapped in learned patterns. Over time, he has created a pragmatic system of training which allows us, slowly and gently, to dissolve those layers of habitual patterns and re-connect with the original “aliveness” of our body and its multivalent gifts and sensitivities.
How this integrates with New Element Training
At New Element Training we have started to explore how Philip’s approach to dissolving ingrained patterns could be effectively integrated with NET’s training protocol. As most of you know, we already emphasize the “mindfulness” aspects of our practice, which allow us to pay attention to keeping perfect form throughout the workout and to give each exercise our undivided attention. In order to push ourselves hard enough to attain the “momentary muscular failure” (MMF) necessary to force our bodies to create new muscle tissue, we have to learn to accept the often uncomfortable sensations and to adopt an attitude of non-judgement. Allyson Woodrooffe, Philip’s wife and a facilitator of his training, shared this quote by the artist Alberto Giacometti with me the other day:
"Failure is the only way of getting at least somewhere near the truth.”
Over time as our bodies are transformed by this disciplined tandem practice of mind and body, we gain enough experience to understand that the period of strongest sensations (mental and physical) is where the change we are seeking happens. We also learn that our bodies are much stronger and more capable than our minds think they are!
My conviction after spending a week with Philip is that aspects of his training system are very compatible with the NET approach and would enhance our efforts to transform our physical selves while affecting us on a deep existential level – how we relate to life itself. We will be exploring this integrative system in the upcoming months and would be happy to include you in this exploratory process; let us know if you are interested. I find that it just feels better when the two systems are combined, and that it completely shifts my workout experience. I can push past mental limitations, trust the body and tap into the powerful forces of “fight or flight,” where extraordinary feats of strength are possible.
The Morning After . . .
On the morning after the workshop, I was listening to the radio on the drive in to work when suddenly a song caught my attention. Somehow, I was connecting very intensely with the emotions the singer was conveying, and this connection was not a result of the words that were being sung but rather was happening at a non-verbal level. I had a strong impression that I could feel what the singer was feeling, that my being felt her being, to the extent that it brought tears to my eyes, joyful tears . . . not a normal experience for me, as I have been formed in a society where men do not cry. I knew then that something had shifted during Philip’s workshop, reawakening some of the sensitivities I had as a child and showing me what it feels like to be truly aware and responsive to the life around me and in me.
P.S. New Element Training has a few copies of Philip’s book, Radical Wholeness, for those who are interested. We will also try to book another weekend workshop with him sometime this fall.
* The five-day facilitator training workshop I took with Philip Shepherd is part of a yearlong program. I had previously attended a couple of his weekend workshops.