A reflection by Harris on the nature of the body as an indicator of the inner nature and a portal to spiritual experience…


Harris Smart writes…

How fortunate we are to be in Subud. Can we ever appreciate this gift enough? Can we ever be sufficiently grateful for this gift which has transformed our lives for the good?

And such a simple gift. You do not have to do anything. You do not have to study it, you do not have to make any effort. On the contrary, it is all about not making an effort. It is all about surrender.

But actually I prefer the word “relax”. I have decided that for me, the word “relax” is the most important word in Subud. Such a simple, unpretentious word.

Surrender is rather difficult concept to come to terms with. I once went around and asked six people what they understood to be the meaning of the word “surrender” and got six completely different replies.

But “relax!” We all know what that means. We’ll have some idea of it. We all have some experience of it. We all have some idea of how to go about doing it. We do not have to worry if it has being rightly or wrongly translated from the Indonesian like all those other words. This word exists in every language I am sure.

Relax! Sink into the warm bath of the latihan! No effort required

And as Bapak has often told us, the latihan begins in the body. It is not in the turmoil of the mind with all its grand ideas. It is in the simple, humble body that we must first become aware.

In our age, the body is the portal to the spiritual life. We don’t have to worry about the mind with all its big ideas and alluring images, just sink into the body. Become aware of what is happening in the body.

Isn’t that a marvellous thing? A new revelation. The body which was previously so much despised in religion, thought to be a source of temptation and an obstacle to the spiritual life, is now the gateway. Everything is integrated.

And we c an recognise also that Subud is part of a much wider movement of understanding. The attention to experience in the body which we find in Subud is also reflected in many other spiritual movements and psychotherapies which flourish today. This is the age of knowledge through the body, the much despised body.

Of course, the mind does not like it. The mind has been boss for so long that it does not like giving up its position to the humble body. The mind thinks it is so brilliant, it is not going to give up easily.

And so as we relax, and surrender, the mind is always trying to pull us back to the material world. Never mind! The more we do it, the better at it we become.

The following little story is an example of how body and soul are connected…


The Posture

I went to see an amateur production of Michael Gow’s play Away which is a comedy of manners about Australians on holiday. The production was enjoyable enough, but there was nothing really memorable about it except for a young actress playing a schoolgirl who is embarrassed.

She was so good at it. It stood out as the best thing in the play, the only real thing. Fortunately, she was required by the script to be frequently embarrassed, so we had many opportunities to enjoy her rendition of this emotion.

For instance, she would be talking to her boyfriend and her mother would come and say something crass and she would be intensely embarrassed.

Some of the elements with which she conveyed embarrassment were; a downcast glance; another glance with eyes rolled upwards in exasperation; a kind of sigh, a hopeless slump of her shoulders; her arms folded across her breasts; she stands on one foot with the other foot standing on top of it and her knee pointing in towards the other leg, her body twisting around this fulcrum.

There was a feeling of happy coincidence between the actress and the character. One felt the actress was easily embarrassed and she brought this quality to the play.

It shows up two interesting, almost opposite, meanings of the word “acting”. First, acting in the sense of pretending. Second, acting in the sense of doing, being. We use the word acting to mean these two entirely different, indeed opposite, things.

The Audition

Later, I met this actress and she asked me if I would help her with an audition piece she was preparing, a speech of Rosalind’s from As you Like It.

This is a great speech, emotionally rich and relentlessly logical. Shakespeare writes such a rich stew that it makes everyone else seem thin and weak. And no other playwright before or since has had the ability to create woman characters of such force, dignity and intelligence.

Anyway as soon as Libby began to deliver the speech she went into the same posture she had adopted in Away, arms folded across breasts, legs at a strange contorted angle, one foot standing on top of the other. Of course, this was an entirely inappropriate posture for Rosalind who is a powerful, direct, commanding character, never embarrassed.

It was clear that Libby was not using the posture but the posture was using her. Libby did not have freedom of choice about it. The posture (or the configuration of psychological forces behind it ) was controlling her (which is of course the nature of all bad habits, addictions and compulsions).

We all have a characteristic movement that is ours. If we think of our friends, there will be a stance, a movement, a way of walking that is unique, that is them. (Isn’t it extraordinary that of the billions of human beings all equipped with the same basic physical elements, two legs, two arms, two eyes etc. each of us can have an absolutely unique physical signature.)

For several years I studied psychodrama. One good trick you discover is that by adopting someone’s “signature” movement or pose – they way they walk, the way they hold their head, how straight or crooked is their spine – you can become that person. Adopt their posture and you know what it is to think and feel like them.

You understand for example how certain rigidities of posture make it impossible to feel. So the posture is adopted to eradicate the possibility of feeling. Often, of course, this is because, there is some emotion there, so painful or traumatic that the person cannot afford to feel it, and so cuts off all feeling. Because the feeling is so strong the person cannot allow themselves to feel. Becoming muscle-bound is another good way to eradicate feeling.

Psychology, Culture and the Body

Since the work of the psychologist Wilhelm Reich and all who have come after him we now understand very well how our psychological conditions are stored and figured in the body.

Characteristic postures and gestures define not only individuals but also whole cultures. A good way to experience this is to practice the folk dances of different cultures. You will find that every culture has a basic step that is their unique step. On top of that basic movement elaborate or complex patterns can be built, but the foundation is that single step, unique to that culture. When you do that step, you feel that culture. You feel like an Arab, or a Jew or a Croatian, and you realise that in some part of your mind you always knew that about Arabs, Jews or Croatians.

Of course you can buy books about body language, and cross-cultural differences are also well documented. However, I distrust any simplistic, blanket application of formulae (as one distrusts simplistic interpretations of dream symbols – such and such a dream symbol always means such and such). No, every individual case, personal or cultural, has to be interrogated to yield the full richness of its meaning.


Getting Back to Libby…

Anyway, getting back to Libby, postures of embarrassment were her fundamental physical signature. So we decided to interrogate Libby’s posture of embarrassment to try and understand why she did it and what it meant. I guess we were working the psychological landscape called Gestalt in which you question aspects of the person.

We began by identifying the basic posture and having her adopt it: it was standing with one foot on the other with leg turned inward, her body twisted around itself. It was shy, awkward, rather charming, girlish and virginal. There is a famous kitsch painting of a beautiful nude woman in this posture standing in an alpine lake at dawn. There is something very sexy about the pose in a vulnerable way. It is a posture of such intense modesty it is extremely sexual, calling attention to what it seeks to conceal by the intensity of the concealment

I asked her why she liked this posture.

She said it was comfortable. She said that with her body twisted like this she felt comfortable, protected.

But when I tried to adopt it, it was a struggle to keep my balance. It wasn’t comfortable at all.

I asked her why she folded her arms across her chest.

She said it was to protect her breasts. Interestingly she said that this was something her mother also did and they had once talked about it. So we see how sometimes these physical signatures are passed from generation to generation, perhaps genetically, perhaps learned.

I asked her to feel what the embarrassment posture actually did to her body.

Usually, the actual physical sensations engendered by the twisted pose were blocked out of consciousness, but when she directed her consciousness to actually feeling what it did to her body she realized it was painful. Her breasts felt crushed and her leg was twisted  It was not comfortable.

This reveals two meanings of the word “comfortable”. On the one hand she says it is “comfortable”, meaning it is psychologically comfortable, secure and protected.

But from the point of view of physical “comfort” it is not comfortable. It engenders pain, but this pain is usually blotted out of consciousness and not felt.

This is an example of how we can ask the body questions; interrogating movement, posture and gesture yields information.

Another thing which came up with this actress, was that her voice came from her head which meant not only that her voice was high-pitched and squeaky but that it had no power and also her delivery was too fast. We lowered the source of her voice to her solar plexus which made her voice deeper, slowed it down dramatically and made it more powerful.

“Mummy, this man made my back crooked”

We often ask ourselves why people go through life repeating the same mistakes over and over again and possibly we even note this tendency in ourselves.

Why does the woman who had an abusive, alcoholic father engage in a series of painful and unsuccessful relationships with abusive, alcoholic men? You would think she would want to avoid such situations, wouldn’t you?

People will say that it is precisely because of what happened in childhood that she wishes to recreate that situation. But this doesn’t answer the question. Why, why, why would we want to repeat a painful situation?

There is a story about a little girl whose spine was crooked. Her mother took her to the doctor to have her spine straightened. The doctor straightened it successfully but when the mother came to collect the little girl she ran to her mother saying, “Mummy, mummy, this man made my back crooked.”

This shows how we are comfortable with what is familiar and prefer it to what is unfamiliar even when what is familiar is extremely painful and bad for us. We accustom ourselves to one kind of discomfort for the comfort of what we are used to, and we resist at all costs the discomfort of change.