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Bridging worlds: what defines my work

When I support people on their path to personal freedom, my different backgrounds come together in a unique way. Read here what that looks like in practice ...

As I describe elsewhere on my website, in my work I bring together what is otherwise often – sometimes irreconcilably – opposed: spirituality and science, shamanism and psychology, breathwork and research. In this post I share with you what this means in practice.

„Woo woo instead of science, feeling instead of reason? Far from it...”

When I began my shamanic training and started looking into alternative ways of healing, it looked at first as if I would take a completely different path than before. Woo woo instead of science, emotions instead of understanding – at least that's how some of my former colleagues from academia saw it. I, too, was somewhat nervous at the beginning. It seemed very daring to "throw out the window" all the effort and hard work I had put into my academic training and into obtaining a PhD.

I was, however, to notice soon that the opposite was the case: my experience as a researcher and social scientist provides an invaluable foundation for my job as a transformation guide. Indeed, combining the experience and value from both paths, the academic and the shamanic, has given rise to central principles of my work: bringing together heart and mind, body and spirit; understanding trauma and the role of body practices and mindfulness for healing and development; the importance of empathic conversation and the role of the facilitator.

Bringing heart and mind, body and spirit together

As an academic I experienced myself what life is like when everything revolves around the mind. A focus on reason and thinking, while simultaneously discarding the relevance of feelings, intuition, and body knowledge, is indeed a characteristic of our society as a whole. But I had the impression that in the scientific milieu or when you define yourself as a scientist, this is increased even more. Sure, I was exercising regularly and doing yoga – but overall my body was primarily a means of transport for my head. My decisions were (supposedly) based exclusively on rational considerations; my body often attracted my attention only when it was not willing to cooperate. It made itself felt through frequent colds, headaches, and fatigue. Often enough I experienced it as my antagonist were it slowed down my productivity. Interestingly, this being cut off from the body and its sensations, noticing your body only when it resists, is one of many symptoms of trauma. For me, in some regards the academic habitus reinforced constricting behavioral patterns, which had already been established before. I even wonder if people who grew up disconnected from their body and feelings are more likely to become academics or move into other mind-focused professions. (It certainly is in line with the observations and hypotheses on the development of personality in childhood that Alice Miller made in her groundbreaking book "The Drama of the Gifted Child" .)

"Reconnecting with my body also meant learning to recognize my own energetic and emotional limits and to take them seriously."

One of the first things I learned on my shamanic path was to relate to my body differently. I was encouraged to reconnect with it, feel more, and bring more awareness to my physical sensations and presence. I learned to perceive more finely and to understand the body's ability to be a compass. This included reconnecting with my "gut feelings," or intuition, and using them to make decisions. It also meant learning to recognize my own energetic and emotional limits and to take them seriously, instead of constantly overdoing it and exhausting myself (... burnout anyone?). Especially in participating in breathwork, I was able to experience how comfortable I can feel in my body, how much it can become my home where I feel safe.

The body and your gut feelings as a compass

In my shamanic work with clients my own body serves as a fine-tuned instrument. In all work with clients, my nervous system provides resources for the other person to become more grounded (or move to a "ventral vagal" state, if you prefer the scientific term). The fact that I can look back on my own journey of reconnecting with my body makes it much easier for me to help others identify their disconnect and find their way back home.

At the same time, my own experience and my study of trauma have taught me how often our body, our nervous system and our unconscious (who are closely connected) actually run the show – without us being aware of it. In that sense, our conscious mind – the part of us that likes to think of itself in control – is a tiny rider sitting on a huge elephant. Unfortunately in most of us, that rider has not yet learned how to understand and guide the elephant, i.e. the subconscious and body, including the nervous system. Sounds like a recipe for disaster? It is.

Our conscious mind is a tiny rider, sitting on a huge elephant

I took the image of the elephant from Jonathan Haidt's book "The Happiness Hypothesis". Haidt explains very clearly and inspiringly what actually goes wrong in our relationship between mind and body, conscious mind and unconscious mind.

His metaphor of rider and elephant also highlights that the conscious, thinking mind is of tremendous importance. Unlike some people on the shamanic or spiritual path, I think highly of reason, science, and logical thinking. In my understanding our challenge and way forward is to know and appreciate both, heart and mind, body and spirit, emotion and reason. Understanding how they each operate and interact, and attributing them the right place in your system's functioning will increase your freedom and well-being, not suppressing or neglecting either of them.

Hence it is of great importance to me to meet the people I work with on both the emotional and cognitive level. Drawing on my own experience and science's most recent findings, I support my clients in coming more into feeling and refining their body awareness, while also helping them to intellectually understand what is happening and why it is helpful. One area where it is particularly useful for clients to have an emotional, physical experience and simultaneously obtain an intellectual understanding of the underlying psychological, neurological, and emotional mechanisms, is shock trauma and developmental trauma.

Understanding trauma and trauma healing

Whoever works with people on their personal development, growth, or healing should be aware of and have a basic understanding of trauma. (I would consider this to apply also to teachers, medical doctors, and especially all psychologists. Unfortunately it is far too seldom the case. Hard to believe, but true).

At the same time, trauma is an extremely wide field, located at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Neuroscience, psychology, and social sciences are all relevant to understand trauma as a collective and individual phenomenon. Important and innovative contributions for healing trauma often come from or are inspired by the therapeutic practice of psychotherapists, bodyworkers, medical doctors, coaches and people who work with alternative healing methods. This leads to a veritable hotchpotch of approaches, hypotheses, and methods. My academic training helps me immensely to sift through this large amount of information, to understand and evaluate it, to integrate it into my own thinking and acting, and to share it with my clients where appropriate.

"Trauma research and healing is a vast field and my academic training helps me tremendously to digest and apply the information."

Also in shamanism, trauma is often at the center of healing work, even if it might be called differently. My training as a Clarity Breathworker was trauma-sensitive, too, as one of my instructors is also a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. I greatly appreciate the work of Peter Levine, who developed Somatic Experiencing. His concepts and methods of trauma healing (e.g., pendulation, titration) have been widely used beyond Somatic Experiencing in trauma work and various therapeutic modalities such as Breathwork. I have explored Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory and therapeutic approaches that take it into account. Trough self-study and online courses, I familiarised myself with the work of Bonnie Badenoch, Bessel Van der Kolk, Deb Dana, Dan Siegel, Janine Fisher and Melanie Buettner, amongst others. Since spring 2021 I have been an active member of the Trauma Working Group of the German Breathing Association.

For my personal healing of trauma, courses, texts, and interviews by Gabor Maté, Ilan Stephani, and Dami Charf were essential. Since the beginning of 2021, I have been working with a therapist who is trained in Somatic Experiencing, Compassionate Inquiry and Gestaltherapy, complementing these approaches with mindfulness and Buddhist wisdom. Since September 2021 I am in training in the professional program "Compassionate Inquiry" of Dr. Gabor Maté. I am ver grateful for his opportunity to expand my abilities to accompany people in their processes.

Returning to the essence of Mindfulness

A clearly discernible trend in trauma research is the emphasis on body practices and mindfulness ( (e.g. in the work of Bessel van der Kolk, Levin, Maté), which have been central to human health and development in the wisdom traditions of Asia and Latin America. There is a growing body of scientific evidence proving that meditation, mindfulness, and breathing techniques have a positive impact on our mental and physical health. At the same time, especially when it comes to yoga and meditation, ancient practices have often been moulded to fit contemporary logics, values, and habits without maintaining their essence. These adaptations can strip the practices of their ability to calm the nervous system, strengthen the internal observer, make you feel at home in your body, and help you change perspective. Thanks to my training as a social scientist and empirical researcher, and my critical, independent mind, I am able to carefully compare different approaches and examine what actually helps and what is merely a fad. This is a constant process of being open to new things, experimenting, testing, and adapting (for all social science nerds: it's an "abductive" process, so to speak). In doing so, I usually start with myself: every new tool and technique I test first in self-experience before sharing it with my clients.

Quality of the relationship and conversation

While tools and techniques, information and methods are important, the quality of relationships has a very special place in my work. This too has a biological and scientifically proven basis: thanks to Stephen Porges' polyvagal theory and the field of interpersonal neurobiology, we know how human nervous systems co-regulate in the interaction situation. I.e. my nervous system and the client's nervous system are interlocking and influencing each other, in this sense we become one system when we are in conversation. This means if I am able to regulate myself well, to be centered and grounded, it creates good conditions for my clients to come to rest. It is important that I am able to resonate emotionally without losing my composure. Interestingly enough, I had been cultivating this ability in my role as an empirical researchers.

"I felt very privileged that my research allowed me to connect with other humans in this way, and honoured that they would entrust me with their narrative."

Between 2011 and 2016, I conducted narrative and biographical interviews in different cultural contexts. In these interviews, people whom I hardly knew or met for the first time, opened a door to their hearts and lives to me. Quite a few shared very difficult experiences with me, some spoke of traumatic events about which they had not opened up in a long time or ever before. My role was to be an empathetic, curious, and calm listener, giving them space for their story to unfold. I felt very privileged that my research allowed me to connect with other humans in this way, and honoured that they would entrust me with their narrative. Already then I was able to observe how much can be moved just by having the opportunity to speak while having a compassionate listener's full attention, free of judgement.

Also now, in the transformative work I do with my clients, this "holding of space" is central. We know today that it is generally an important component of successful therapy encounters. Also beyond the concrete session I offer my clients a reliable and committed working relationship in which we meet as equals, and boundaries are mutually recognised and respected. In particular for people whose (early) relationships have been defined by a lack of attention and attunement, and a blurring of boundaries, our interaction can be an important stepping stone to having different experiences.

Empowerment and freedom

Meeting as equals is important to me. I am well aware that, just like my clients, I am in need of continuous learning and growing. Working with others constantly points out to me where I still get triggered, where I feel incomplete, and where my next challenges for growth and healing lie. In particular my training in Compassionate Inquiry helps me to embody this knowing that we are all still evolving, and to meet my own triggers with curiosity and compassion and take responsibility for them.

It is also important to me to empower people to recognize the extent to which they themselves create their lives. Achieving freedom from old patterns and beliefs is one of the primary goals in my guidance, and I impart knowledge and practical techniques on how to advance this process in everyday life. Thanks to my analytical skills, my thinking trained in creative problem solving as well as my psychological knowledge, I am able to show my clients existing patterns during our conversation and help them to understand themselves differently, as well as to discover new aspects in their situation and behavior. Hence I can regularly observe how already our conversation moves a lot within my clients on the cognitive and emotional level, which is then "picked up" and rounded off with the body-oriented methods.

So, central aspects of my transformation work draw on my experience in both the academic and spiritual world: balancing heart and mind, entering into a supportive relationship, working in a trauma-informed, mindful, body-based, and experiential way.

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