Updated: May 14
In a blur, the cheetah lunges ... at the moment of contact ... the young impala falls to the ground. Yet it may be uninjured. The stone-still animal is not pretending to be dead. It has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent ... There is a possibility that the cheetah may decide to drag its ‘dead’ prey to a place safe from other predators ... During this time, the impala could awaken from its frozen state and make a hasty escape in an unguarded moment. When it is out of danger, the animal will literally shake off the residual effects of the immobility response and gain full control of its body. It will then return to its normal life as if nothing had happened. ☥ ☥ Dr. Peter Levine ☥
When I lived in New Mexico, I used to take a long but beautiful desert drive through the mountains up to Durango, Colorado. One of my accounts was Ft. Lewis College which literally sits at the top of a mountain, so I loved driving there and walking the hills. My work in the Southwest came with a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, everyone knew and remembered me because I was the “Black” manager of my territory. On the other hand, Black ☥ Immigrant People made up only about 3% of the population and Durango was probably at about .5% Black ☥ Immigrant. Indigenous People make up about 7% of the population. To feel safe traveling alone as a Black woman, I had to quickly scope out the land and figure out which rest stops, gas stations, hotels, restaurants, etc. were safe and kind to Black ☥ Indigenous ☥ Immigrant People. I learned many life lessons as a traveling Black woman.
Durango is such a quaint town with fun boutique hotels, curio shops, fancy restaurants and was, for the most part, friendly. It is a scenic drive and the roads are relatively manageable. However, just when I’m coming into town, I have to drive down a steep hill and around a few narrow sharp turns. The turns are a little intimidating because there aren’t many rails to stop me from running off the road and down a precipitous hill.
During one of my winter drives, I had a feeling come over me just as I was navigating those sharp turns. Then I felt a sort of an inaudible voice in my head that said “SLOW DOWN.” I immediately took my foot off the gas and began to slow down. Suddenly, and seemingly from nowhere, a huge mule deer jumped down the hill and onto the street right in front of my car. I stopped just in time. It was an amazing experience because for a few moments the deer just stopped and looked at me. We gazed into each other eyes. Then, the deer took off, disappearing almost as quickly as it appeared. I was completely stunned. Mule deers are huge and this one had massive antlers. Had I hit that deer, I wouldn’t be here to write this post. When I pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, I just sat in the car for a while. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I waited until the shaking stopped and then enjoyed the rest of my trip. I don’t remember mentioning the event to anyone.
A few years later, l was introduced to the work of Dr. Peter Levine, who is both a Biophysicist and Psychologist. For the past 50 years, he has devoted his work to the development of “Somatic Experiencing®, a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to healing trauma.” His work has proven the effectiveness of an essential component of healing that has been an inseparable part of holistic health for thousands of years: movement. We often think of movement as something that we enjoy or as an exercise that we have to do to stay in shape. However, movement is so embedded within a culture's wisdom traditions that its healing power is hidden in plain sight. Unfortunately, colonization forces Indigenous cultures to confirm to the colonizer's societal norms by abandoning healing movements that they consider to be "uncivilized."
The Innate Wisdom Of The Impala
Let's consider the innate wisdom of the impala who entered into an altered state of consciousness at the moment of contact with the predator. Most researchers agree that an inebriated person sustains less injuries and is more likely to survive a car crash because the intoxicant slows down their reaction time and they do not anticipate or brace for the impact. However, a drunk person's actions can create and perpetuate lasting harm for others that often includes fatalities and chronic injuries. What if humans could train themselves to relax at the moment of contact with pain or impending danger?
I have personally experienced the miracle of the relaxed response. I sometimes think of the young Indigenous teen who helped me and wonder how he tells the story. I was shopping at the mall and entered one of those cool gadget stores. I'm not sure how it happened exactly, but I started choking on a beverage that I was drinking. It is essential that everyone knows what to do when they see a person choking. The easy way to remember whether to intervene is to calm down, stay silent, observe and listen for breath. If the person can cough, watch them carefully and refrain from talking unless communicating what you will do to help. If a person tries to talk while choking, it could cause them to gag. Observation will let us know the best course of action. However, if the person is gagging, immediate intervention is necessary. I was in the latter category. Time seemed to slow down for me as I quickly scanned the room and saw that there were no chairs available for me to perform abdominal thrusts on myself. I made my way to the terrified teen employees. The Indigenous teen was closest to me so I made eye contact with him while pounding on my abdomen, turned around and backed into him. He was truly frightened, but he put his arms around my fists and together we performed the abdominal thrusts. With his assistance, the blockage cleared, and I was able to breathe again.
When it was over, the Black teen still wanted to call 911, but I explained to him that with that type of choking, I would have been dead by the time they showed up. I told them that I was a health practitioner and was fine. I looked into the eyes of the Indigenous teen and said "thank you for saving my life." He was absolutely stunned and couldn't respond. I shocked everyone in the store because I just shook it off and walked out of the store as calmly as I walked in. That experience taught me that we can learn how to calm ourselves so that we can respond with a heightened sense of awareness in the midst of danger. Here's what happens when we don't calm down:
☥ We panic and often take actions that make the situation worse.
☥ We get flustered or freeze because we don't know what to do.
☥ We tense up our muscles, setting us up for injury.
Here's what can happen when we enter into a relaxed state:
☥ We breathe slowly ☥ deeply and pause so that we can recognize and act upon the correct
response coming from our innate wisdom.
☥ We enter into the "zone" where time appears to slow down enough for us to become in tune
with our environment, and the actions that we take are swift, correct and precise.
☥ We prevent a situation from escalating or eliminate the threat altogether.
Because the impala is one with nature, it needed no training to connect with its innate wisdom. However, humans continue to move further and further away from connection with the truest part ourselves. We tend to use science to disconnect from and compete with nature instead of using it to help us understand and collaborate with it. Healing movement enables us to synchronize body, mind, emotions and spirit. It is a use-it-or-lose-it game. In the same way that a musician must continue to practice playing their instrument, healing movement needs to be an essential part of our way of life.
During a consultation with one of my clients, I explained the process of healing:
This client was in a very painful traumatic cycle of depression that he couldn’t seem to break. He was on medication that made him feel sick and numbed his emotions. This kept him from feeling sad, but he also couldn’t experience deep joy and he couldn’t cry happy or sad tears. If he tried to get off the meds, he suffered from suicidal tendencies. By the time he came to see me, he had been on this merry-go-round of suffering for 10 years and was desperate to get off the meds. As I am a Doctor of Natural Medicine, medication is beyond my scope of practice, so I insisted that he work with his medical doctor to transition off the drugs. My work with him focused on helping him to become strong enough to no longer need medication.
There is a healing process from Ayurveda called Pancha Karma which means “five actions.” Simply put, the practitioner would meet with a client, and based on what is learned, the practitioner would choose five specific actions (using nutrition, herbs, processing emotions and movement) to activate the body’s self-healing mechanisms. I used this process to help him disrupt his cycle of suffering. We started with a series of consultations that taught him how to him process his emotions and helped me drill down to the root cause behind the depression. I gave him several Ayurvedic massage sessions and detailed instructions on how make kichadi at home which he was to eat for a month with fresh herbs. After about three weeks of consultations, massage and kichadi, it was time to introduce him to healing movement that he could do on his own. Based on what I learned during our sessions, I chose to teach him a Qigong form that was simple enough for him to practice at home after some basic instruction. Before we started the practice, I asked him a question that puzzled him.