I chant to a monkey.
No really, I do. I chant to a monkey.
There was a time in my life where I never would have put this out there in public, especially as a young professional afraid of being labeled as too fringe or hippy-dippy. The time is now to out myself: Every night for the last year I’ve chanted a 16th century hymn from the Hindu tradition called The Hanuman Chalisa. As a monkey, Hanuman is seen as a bridge between the wisdom of the animal world and the human world. As a symbol for breath, he is the bridge that unifies feminine energy and masculine consciousness. Many devotees of Lord Hanuman engage in this chant as a daily practice; it would be similar to those with great devotions to St. Francis singing any version of a Prayer of St. Francis hymn daily. And I’ve been known to sing to him too. Plus, I pray an Our Father and Hail Mary every morning—in Croatian (my family’s ancestral language)—do Japa meditation (prayer beads), practice yoga in various ways, read from my 12-step meditation books and pray some of those prayers. Those are just my daily practices! On any given week I may also consult with my Ayurvedic clinician, see my expressive arts therapist and spiritual director over Skype, or saunter up to Buffalo for some of my own EMDR therapy. And then there’s the penchant I have for receiving bodywork and energy work…shall I go on?
There is a very important reason why I am going here, letting the weirdness of my daily and other regular practices shine out so directly. These practices help me to stay mentally healthy, especially in being able to navigate the judgment and cruelty of the world at large. In the last several years, and with increasing frequency lately, many friends, students, and folks I mentor have shared with me their concerns about being perceived as too weird. Whether it’s a feeling of self-consciousness about their cleaning regimens, their spiritual practices, or having ways of seeing the world that may clash with the mainstream, people can viciously judge themselves based on the fear of how others will respond. In a recent conversation about weirdness and perception, I blurted out the “I chant to a monkey” response. I’ve found this phrase to be such an empowering anthem that I now use it when clients, students and folks I train come to me with a hesitancy to share, fearing how I will perceive them.
“I chant to a monkey… try me.”
For many of us who have survived the trenches of academia or currently hold a professional license as a clinician, the fear of being persecuted for our weirdness or differentness has merit. I and many others in the Dancing Mindfulness community could fill a whole book of horror stories documenting how professors and other colleagues have treated us for taking an interest in Eastern meditation, embodied practices, and anything that is outside of the talk therapy, medical model norm. In essence, we are the weird ones for going back and reclaiming the merits of ancient healing systems and endeavoring to make them work for modern clients, students, and practitioners. Not creative, not integrative…weird.
The professional standards committee of my state’s licensure board has challenged me as an educator three times for offering programs in the area of dance, mindfulness, expressive arts therapy, and yoga. Of course, I’ve been able to support their merit, with literature, of offering such programs for clinicians who will pass the valuable learning on to clients who are desperately needing more than what the field has been giving them. Yet every time I presented before the committees, I have had to address the issues coming up for me about them labeling me as too weird or flaky. Like many of us, my wounding around weird goes back to family of origin baggage and getting bullied by peers in elementary school for being the oddball. Of course, the board challenges made me angry and even sad at first.
Then I learned to embrace the challenge to calmly show them that there is another way to exist as a professional in our field. This involved a great deal of time and effort cleaning out and healing my old stuff and drawing inspiration from the monkey I chant to, Hanuman—be a bridge. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, especially with others who get your weirdness. If someone you work with or interact with in life needs to see an example of weird as healthy and functional, show it. Yet when working with the mainstream of any given field, a good deal of translation may be required. This is always possible when you are not ashamed of who you really are and know how your weirdness (and all the oddities and rituals that may come with it) helps you live and hopefully even thrive in this world.
In working with my latest expressive arts student to have the weirdness conversation with me, some wisdom from the Croatian language struck me like a bolt of lightning. The Croatian word for weird or strange (čudan) and the Croatian word for miracle (čudo) come from the same root. Both imply something supernatural or out of the ordinary. Yet we can think of a miracle as being a gift and weirdness as being a curse. What if we started to view them as one in the same? Would more of us feel comfortable coming out as weird, or more widely acknowledge that we all do some pretty weird things? Can I learn to embrace my weirdness for what it is—a miraculous gift that helps me to see the world in a way that we need in order to smash existing paradigms and bring about some deep healing?
Whenever someone I mentor professionally expresses fear about being perceived as too weird, I take pride in telling them that they are not alone and that there are others of us who feel similarly. One time I referred to the Dancing Mindfulness community as the island of misfit therapists, and that’s a descriptor I use proudly to this day. Connect with the other weirdos out there and before long you may even learn to see yourself as a trailblazer who is in an amazing position to liberate others from the confines of judgment and condemnation in which they find themselves. If you can be proud of your weirdness as a professional of any kind, imagine how inspirational you can be to the people you serve. If more of us learned to embrace the weirdness that we are in our daily lives, regardless of what we do or where we live, that would truly be miraculous, and it will take such a miracle to heal the world.
I chant to a monkey… what of it?
Gut feelings and intuition run my life. Always have and always will. I can’t ignore them because they are loud fuckers and do not like being ignored. Either the gut feelings grow louder to the point I cave in with a defiant, “FIIIIIIIINE!” Or tossed an, “I told you so,” when proven correct. My life would go a hell of a lot more smoothly if I didn’t argue with it so much. Gladly, I did not argue with it when I found Dancing Mindfulness.
How did I stumble upon it? I had an undergraduate professor who always spoke about mindfulness practices and how healing they were. She was big on walking meditation. This piqued my interest because walking and listening to music is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. During the cluster of my life, it remained the only escape I had at the time. Curiosity eventually won me over and I began Googling the benefits of walking meditation.
During this Google escapade, I stumbled upon Dancing Mindfulness. Initially I was put off. Body’s natural healing properties? Fuck no! The sheer mention of body sparked distaste in my mouth. Did I enjoy dancing? Hell yeah. I went clubbing all the time just to dance. It was my escape. Who wants to be in their body? Not me apparently. Turns out, you cannot escape your body. Something about being human and what not.
Although I had that reaction, my gut was loud and clear. This was something I had to do. This was something I had to get trained in. It was so clear and distinct that I couldn’t argue with it. However, I did not seek out Dancing Mindfulness until I was in graduate school. So it was a curiosity that had time to brew. Eventually I saw there was a holiday class in December. At this point in time, I never made plans to do anything for myself. It was always for others. It was nothing short of a miracle that I allowed myself to attend the class. However, this warm, fuzzy thread of intuition tugged me along.
Driving to the class, I felt sick with anxiety. My flight response was in full gear; however, I am quite stubborn and made myself get out of my car. I felt small walking into the building. I felt small walking up the steps. Into the building. Passing people. I watched the floor as I walked and found myself at the correct room. Before walking into the room, my surroundings were a complete and utter blur. It was like I couldn’t look up, otherwise the realization of attending the class would sink in and I’d take off. When I stepped into the room, my surroundings sunk into high definition. The sun was pouring in from the windows and viney plants were basking in its rays. People were coming and going from the room and I stood there trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. At this point, the warm, fuzzy thread was the only thing keeping me there and telling me I belonged. My gut feeling and I argued about the whole this-is-where-you-belong. Long story short, the gut feeling won and I stayed.
The warm, fuzzy thread is also what had me jumping in feet first and engaging in a conversation with Jamie (Pragya) about being a facilitator. I must have come across as a nut, because I had never engaged in Dancing Mindfulness and said I wanted to be a facilitator.
“Have you ever attended a class?”
Now I did partake in the class. It was the first time in my life I was safely in my body. This just made the warm, fuzzy thread of intuition a certainty. I will always credit Dancing Mindfulness for my jump start on healing and kicking me out of freeze/dissociation mode. Always. I will always credit the incredible tribe that comes with Dancing Mindfulness as being my main supporters in learning how to connect with people safely. That healthy connections exist. Always. It started with intuition, which lead me to the class, which lead me to Pragya who immediately introduced me to Ramona as my trainer.
Ramona and I agreed on doing individual training, because I couldn’t fathom myself around a group of people. I couldn’t fathom myself getting close to anyone and being vulnerable. Not that I told her any of that or that I felt guilty making any time for things that interested me. I had work. I had class. I had a partner to keep happy. I had a house to clean. I had pets to care for. I had all these reasons to negate going to a Dancing Mindfulness weekend training. Honestly, I probably would not have survived the group training at that point, because I wasn’t ready. At that moment, I needed that one-point person that I could keep coming back to over a period of time rather than a weekend. Honestly, I probably would have disappeared. So, Ramona and I worked together over the course of a couple months. I do not regret not taking the group training because it was not what I needed and not part of my path at that time. It turns out, that time spent with Ramona turned into a beautiful friendship and she has been an integral person in my life and someone I view as family. I don’t think my walls would have fallen if I approached training or Dancing Mindfulness in any other way.
Dancing Mindfulness has become my tribe and I’ve met so many wonderful people through it. It has been a catalyst for so many wonderful changes in my life both personally and professionally. I don’t know where I’d be without it. It’s been the base point where I have found EMDR therapy, Expressive Arts, my family, my friends, and healing. All of these things have led me to connecting with my body, the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship, connecting with people, finding my voice, learning to have fun. That my body, me, should not take the brunt of my learned shame. It’s amazing how providing the space to move and really listen can have such a profound impact.
Each retreat and each class, Dancing Mindfulness helps me learn something new about myself, about the world. It helps me connect more with my body and heal. What I learn about myself and how it works, I turn around and share with others with the upmost excitement. I don’t know how else to describe Dancing Mindfulness’s impact on me besides, life changing.
And to think it all started with a gut feeling.
Marnie Cram LPC, LCDC III (pronouns They, Them, Theirs) is a Dancing Mindfulness Facilitator, EMDR Therapist, in the Expressive Arts Therapy certification program, artist, and life-long learner. They received their MSEd in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Youngstown State University and is currently the Outpatient Program Supervisor at Valor Recovery Centers. Marnie is also a Reiki lvl 2.
Originally published on the Dancing Mindfulness Expressive Arts Therapy Blog, 5/4/2017
If you’ve followed Dancing Mindfulness and other projects connected to my Institute for Creative Mindfulness work, you’ve likely encountered the hashtag #redefinetherapy. What started as a book chapter and a hashtag is quickly turning into a movement that you may feel the call to embrace. I owe credit to Emily Wichland, the editor of my 2015 book Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing & Transformation for articulating the challenge to redefine therapy. In my first draft of Dancing Mindfulness, I structured the closing chapter around my experience of feeling more excited by practices that are happening outside of the bounds of conventional psychotherapy. To excerpt:
Formal psychotherapy has played a great role in my healing process and I respect the practice of counseling and therapy. Additionally, I am proud of what I’ve been able to achieve as a counselor in helping others. However, the overall direction of where my field is going does not excite me as much as the healing wonders I witness when people organically connect with their own creativity. I see many gifted professionals in psychotherapy stifled in their creativity and intuition by the rigid institutions that they work for or the insurance companies they fear, imposing unrealistic medical standards of care on their work. In sum, there is only so much that traditional therapy can do for people in the modern era because of the flaws in our healthcare system. What really excites me is what’s happening in healing communities across the globe. When I see people realize that healing and wellness are not synonymous with the broken systems that so many turn to in order to heal, my heart and soul smile.
When Emily returned the chapter edits to me, she suggested that I title the chapter Redefining Therapy. When I read this, my heart leaped into my stomach and then back again. I was excited—my immediate response was “Yes!” This notion of redefining therapy is what I see so many of our clinicians drawn to the Dancing Mindfulness community practicing in their lives. However, part of that visceral response also included a sense of terror. I asked myself, “Can I really be so bold, especially when many people in my field already resent those like me, challenging the value and the relevance of traditional psychotherapy taught in halls of academia?” By mindfully embracing these remnants of fear, I eventually arrived at the conclusion that naming the final chapter Redefining Therapy was an act of brilliance. The phrase represents everything that my work is about; it represents the sense of excitement I see percolate from the beautiful individuals I train when they are given permission to practice their healing arts outside of a rigid box.
As part of promoting the book’s release, Holly Speenburgh, a member of our Dancing Mindfulness community who was helping me with marketing at the time, began using the hashtag #redefinetherapy. For people in our community, it came to represent a way of doing things that might make your university counseling professors’ heads spin with frustration. Yet for us, it signifies the call for therapists to be inspired by what is happening outside of the literal boxes of our clinical offices and to bring some of this inspiration into how we teach our clients to heal. Redefine therapy also challenges potential consumers of mental health services to consider that conventional psychotherapy or psychiatry may not signal the only hope for treatment and recovery. Perhaps yoga or dance or raising your animals have cultivated a greater sense of safety in your own body than engaging in therapy ever has. Maybe martial arts or fly-fishing or backpacking through Europe or becoming an advocate in your community for change have helped you to experience a greater sense of empowerment than you have ever known. Like with many people I know both personally and professionally, it’s very likely that a combination of factors—which may or may not include psychotherapy—have led to your recovery and renewal.
While it may seem like common sense to embrace this all of the above approach to healing, please understand that I still encounter a great deal of resistance from other therapists and academics about embracing the wide range of human experience as potential outlets for transformation. Maybe these colleagues are afraid that highlighting the importance of other healing practices and communities of connection will delegitimize what we do as therapists and make our work seem less relevant. Perhaps the resistance is born of a good old fashioned fear of what we do not understand. Another possibility is a fear of deeply engaging the body and its power as a vehicle for change, deferring instead to the familiarity of the talking cure in therapy. While I am not opposed to talking or verbal methods in the overall healing process, I’ve seen too many people use words only to avoid and to deflect. In many of these situations, deeper healing must take place in our emotional and somatic brains that words cannot directly reach. The journey into our emotional and bodily selves is difficult in our culture where we are constantly bombarded with messages that feelings cannot be trusted and feeling them makes us weak. The media and many of the tastemakers in our society shame us for having bodies that do not meet some perfect standard of what bodies should be. Additionally, the impact of religious messaging and shame-based interpretations of religious teachings leave many to doubt the wisdom inherent in their bodies.
The time is now to speak up about what has helped you to reach your desires in healing and recovery. It’s 2017 and I am still fighting licensing boards and continuing education standards committees in certain states about the relevance of yoga, mindfulness, and expressive arts in the practice of professional therapy. A limitation for what works in healing and recovery still permeates many of the institutions that shape research, policy, and clinical practice guidelines. Moreover, the age-old axiom this is the way we’ve always done it, often invoked to honor tradition in many clinical and academic settings, seems to be hampering progress in an era where we need fresh solutions. Addiction is killing us in epic proportions, old trauma scripts are being triggered by current events and the state of the world, and people are feeling a greater sense of despair as we begin to wake up from our comas of oppression and realize that who we are matters. Showing up for life is hard work. As therapists, are we using all possible strategies for helping clients to embrace the challenge? As potential consumers of mental health and recovery services, what problems might we have with conventional psychotherapy and what have we discovered that may work better instead?
My challenge is that we begin having these conversations with greater vigor. What does redefining therapy mean to you? What has really helped you to embrace healing and recovery, either inside or outside of traditional structures of psychotherapy and treatment? Maybe it’s been one primary practice, maybe it’s been an all-of-the-above approach. My vision long term is to use this blog to hold space for people to share about what redefining therapy means to them and how they have put a wide array of healing practices into their lives. If it’s psychotherapy, I want to hear about what worked in it for you. If it’s Muay Thai kickboxing or aerial yoga or climbing mountains or volunteering at the soup kitchen or becoming a minister in the Church of the Dude, I want to hear about that, too. Feel free to submit your reflections and stories to me and I will be happy to publish them with your permission. Long term, my goal is to be able to publish an entire book called Redefining Therapy where we are not afraid to speak about what has truly worked for us and to continue to shatter the paradigm for what brings about change, healing, and recovery.
Photography by Natalie Mancino Grilli, June 2015, as part of the Body Diversity Aerial Yoga Project
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.